The Peasants' War (Deutscher Bauernkrieg in German, literally the German Peasants' War) was a popular revolt that took place in Europe during 1524–1525. It consisted, like the preceding Bundschuh movement and the Hussite Wars, of a series of both economic and religious revolts in which peasants, townsfolk and nobles all participated.
At its height in the spring and summer of 1525, the conflict, which occurred mostly in the southern, western and central areas of what is now modern Germany plus areas in neighbouring Alsace and modern Switzerland and Austria, involved an estimated 300,000 peasant rebels: contemporary estimates put the dead at 100,000. It was Europe's largest and most widespread popular uprising prior to the French Revolution of 1789.
The Peasant War of 1524–1525 began as a petition made to the Holy Roman Emperor on behalf of some German peasants in 1524. The petition was called Twelve Articles which sought relief from some of the particular oppressions that the German peasants were facing. The petition began as a religious sounding document. Indeed, the first "article" called for church congregations to have the right to appoint and/or remove their own ministers. The main articles of the petition dealt with the economic hardships faced by the peasants. The remaining articles of the Twelve Articles petitioned the Holy Roman Emperor to abolish the "cattle tithes," and the death tax; and to preserve of all "common fields, forests and waters" for use by the peasants, rather than allowing these lands to fall into private hands. The petition also requested that the peasantry be allowed to hunt on the common lands and fish in the common waters. One article called for the abolition of serfdom and establishment of a system of leasing of the land under stipulated conditions.
Despite the fact that the petition made no attack on the government, the Emperor ignored the Twelve Articles. Revolt broke out in Swabia in late 1524 and soon spread throughout southern and central Germany.
Historians disagree on the nature of the revolt and its causes, whether it grew out of the emerging religious controversy centered on Martin Luther; whether a wealthy tier of peasants saw their own wealth and rights slipping away, and sought to re-inscribe them in the legal, social and religious fabric of society; whether it was peasant resistance to the emergence of a modernizing, centralizing political state. Perhaps the best way to view the Great Peasant War of 1524–1525 is to regard the revolt as a struggle that began as an upheaval immersed in the rhetoric of Luther's Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church but which really was impelled far beyond the narrow religious confines by the underlying economic tensions of the time. Peasant Uprisings had been occurring all over Europe and especially in southern Germany for many years before the Reformation. The Swabian League had been formed by a number of cities, principalities and noble estates in southeastern Germany in 1331 then disbanded, formed again in 1376, disbanded and formed again in 1488, specifically for the reason of defeating peasant revolts.
A prime example of this underlying economic tension driving the Great Peasant War is Thomas Mntzer. Although Mntzer was a religious leader from Luther's own home the Kingdom of Wrrtemberg, Mntzer was less worried about religious questions than he was in social position of the people.
Furthermore, Mntzer's concentration on the secular rather than the religious led him to become the main leader of the peasantry of Saxony in the Great Peasant War. Mntzer's rhetoric became more secular as the Peasant War intensified. Indeed as just as the Thirty Years War which occurred nearly a century later (1618–1648) also began as a supposed religious war and soon degenerated into a secular feud between contending secular groups in Europe, so too did the Great Peasant War of 1525 lose all pretext of a religious struggle as the War progressed.
Depending on the historians' own perspective, the war could be interpreted, as Friedrich Engels does, as a case in which an emerging bourgeoisie (the urban class) failed to assert a sense of its own autonomy in the face of princely power, and left the rural classes to their fate.
Sixteenth-century parts of Germany were associated with the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire was a decentralized entity in which the Holy Roman Emperor himself had little authority outside of his own dynastic lands, which covered only a small fraction of the whole. At the time of the Great Peasant War of 1525, Charles V, King of Spain and father of the future King of Spain, Phillip II, was the Holy Roman Emperor, having been elected emperor just six years previously in 1519. Major events of the Reformation including the Great Peasant War are portrayed in the 2003 movie, Luther starring Joseph Fiennes. Also pictured in the movie is a young Charles V.
There were hundreds of largely independent secular and ecclesiastical territories in the empire, most of which were ruled by a noble dynasty (though several dozen were city states). One of these secular states was the province of Saxony. During the period of time of the Great Peasant War, Saxony itself was divided into a portion called Electoral Saxony and a portion called Ducal Saxony. Since 1486, the Elector of Saxony was Frederick III or Frederick the Wise. Frederick III was one of the "most Catholic" of the German princes. Frederick was devoted to his collection of religious relics, which he had spent a lifetime collecting. By the time of Luther's Ninety-five theses, Frederick's collection of relics had reached a total of 5,005 individual relics. Frederick hoped that his home town of Wittenberg would become the "Rome" of Germany. Indeed, Frederick had built the famous university at Wittenberg where Luther taught his new view of religion. He authorized the selling of indulgences to raise money for the university. Accordingly, Frederick was not the first person anyone would expect to become the "protector" of Martin Luther, (in light of Luther's sermons and writings against both the collecting of relics and against indugences). Nonetheless, Frederick III did become the protector of Martin Luther by insisting that any "trial" of Luther for "heresy" be held in Saxony rather than in Rome before the Inquisition.
Many rulers of the various states of Germany were autocratic rulers. However, these rulers often were barely recognized any other authority within their territories. Princes had the right to levy taxes and borrow money as they saw fit. The growing costs of administration and military upkeep impelled the princes to keep raising their subjects' cost of living. Indeed, this was the economic position of Frederick III of Saxony. As noted above, Frederick III sold indugences to support the administration of Saxony.
In this role, Frederick III of Saxony was representative of other princes in Germany. Just as Frederick III supported the break with Rome, the class of princes, as a whole, tended to support the patriotic/national issue of a break with the Church in Rome with the patriotic/national slogan of "German money for a German church." Any German church that might be established would be under the control of the princes within their own realm. Under their control the German church would not be able to tax the princes the way the Roman church did. The princes could only gain, economically, by breaking away from Rome.
The princes were also centralizers in the towns and the estates. Accordingly, the princes tended to gain economically from the ruination of the lesser nobility by acquiring their estates. This is what happened in the Knights' Revolt which occurred from 1522 through 1523 in the Rhineland. The Knights' Revolt, which is mentioned in more depth below, was "suppressed by both Catholic and Lutheran princes who were satisfied to cooperate against a common danger."
To the degree that other classes, like the burghers, might gain from the centralization of the economy and the elimination of local territorial controls on manufacture and trade imposed by the lesser nobles, one could expect that the princes, as a class, might unite with the burghers on the issue of centralization of the economy.
The lesser nobility and the clergy paid no taxes and often supported their local prince. Many towns had privileges that exempted them from paying taxes, so that the bulk of the burden of taxation fell on the peasants. Princes often attempted to force their freer peasants into serfdom through increasing taxes and the introduction of Roman Civil law. Roman civil law was advantageous to those princes who sought to consolidate their power, because it brought all land into their personal ownership and eliminated the feudal concept of the land as a trust between lord and peasant that conferred rights as well as obligations on the latter. By maintaining the remnants of the ancient law which legitimized their own rule, they not only elevated their wealth and position in the empire through the confiscation of all property and revenues, but increased their dominion over their peasant subjects. Under this ancient law, the peasants had little recourse beyond passive resistance. Even so, the prince now had absolute control over all his serfs and their possessions. Uprisings generally remained isolated, unsupported and easily put down until Thomas Mntzer and similar radicals began to reject the legitimizing factors of ancient law and invoked the concept of "Godly Law" as a vehicle for rousing the people.
The evolving military technology of the late medieval period began to render the lesser nobility of knights obsolete. The introduction of military science and the growing importance of gunpowder and infantry lessened the importance of their role as heavy cavalry, as well as reducing the strategic importance of their castles. Their luxurious lifestyle drained what little income they had as prices kept rising. They exercised their ancient rights in order to wring what income they could from their territories. In the north of Germany many of the lesser nobbles had already been subordinated to powerful secular and ecclesiastical lords. Thus, the lesser nobility's latitude to exercise absolute power over their serfs was more restricted in northern Germany. However, in the south of Germany the powers of the lesser nobility was more completely preserved. Accordingly, the harshness of the oppression of the peasantry by the lesser nobles was the immediate case of the Peasant Uprising and the fact that this oppression by the lesser nobles was worse in the south than in the north was the reason that the Peasant War of 1524–1525 broke out in the south-Swabia. The knights became embittered as they grew progressively impoverished and fell increasingly under the jurisdiction of the princes. Thus these two classes were in constant conflict. The knights also considered the clergy to be an arrogant and superfluous estate, while envying the privileges and wealth that the church statutes secured. In addition, the knights, who were often in debt to the towns, were constantly in conflict with the town patricians. Consequently, at odds with all other social classes in Germany, the lesser nobility was the most reactionary class in Germany at this time and, thus, would tend to be implacably opposed to any social change at all.
During the Knight's Revolt. The "knights," the lesser land holders of Rhineland in western Germany rose up in rebellion in 1522 through 1523. The rhetoric of the Knight's War was religious in nature and several leaders expressed Luther's ideas on the split with Rome and the new German Church. However, the Knight's Revolt was not a religious rebellion. The revolt was reactionary in nature and sought to preserve the old feudal order. The knights rose up as an expression of medieval feudalism, their source of income, against the new money order, which was squeezing them out of existence.
During the Knight's Revolt, the lesser nobility stood by themselves. As the religious rhetoric of the revolt indicates, even the lesser nobility was willing to join in with the support of the patriotic/national issue of the break with Catholic Church in Rome. A German church would be supported by the lesser nobility because any German church, might tax the lesser nobles less the Roman Church was currently doing. Accordingly, the lesser nobility might, as a class, gain economically by lower taxes on them and, thus, the lesser nobility might stand with other classes on the single issue of the break with the Catholic Church in Rome.
The clergy in 1525 were the intellectuals of their time. They not only read and wrote, but in the Middle Ages any books that were produced were transcribed or copied by the clergy. Like the intellectuals of later times some of the intellectuals were supported by the rich and could be expected to support the causes of the rich. Other intellectuals were not supported by the rich, yet could support themselves by appealing to the masses. These intellectuals could support progressive forces of the society.
In 1525, the clergy as a whole, was feeing the influence of historic change acutely. The clergy or prelate class, was losing its place as the intellectual authority over all matters within the state. The progress of printing (especially of the Bible) and the expansion of commerce, as well as the spread of renaissance humanism raised literacy rates throughout the Empire. The Catholic monopoly on higher education was accordingly also reduced. Over time, Catholic institutions had slipped into corruption. Clerical ignorance and the abuses of simony and pluralism (holding several offices at once) were rampant. Some bishops, archbishops, abbots and priors were as ruthless in exploiting their subjects as the regional princes. In addition to the sale of indulgences, they set up prayer houses and directly taxed the people. Increased indignation over Church corruption had led the monk Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, as well as impelling other reformers to radically rethink Church doctrine and organization. Some clergy followed Luther in his break with the Roman Church and others did not. Those that did not tended to be the clergy that were well positioned in the Roman Church. This was the aristocratic clergy. The aristocratic clergy would only lose by a break with the Roman Church. Thus the aristocratic Church could be expected to oppose all change including any break with the Roman Church. This placed the aristocratic clergy in an extremely isolated position in regard to the rest of the social classes on this significant patriotic/national issue.
The part of the clergy that followed Luther was the poorer clergy-rural and urban itinerant preachers. This part of the clergy was not so well positioned in the Church. Thus, they might gain, economically, by a break with Rome. Therefore, the poorer clergy could be expected to support the great patriotic/national issue of the break with Rome. Luther's ideas on the new German church had some "populizing" ideas about the practice of religion. The Bible would be written in the language of the people and would be available for the people-the literate ones-to read the Bible for themselves and gain inspiration directly. Indugences, forgiveness of sins based on payments made to the church, were no longer to be sold to the people. Owning, collecting or praying to holy relics were no longer a road to salvation. Salvation and the forgiveness of sins came about only through a direct communion with God and God's own grace.
Some of the poorer clergy, sought to extend these popularizing and equalizing ideas of Lutheranism to the society at large. Ideally equality would be extended to all people in society. Some members of the poorer clergy supported the demands of the peasntry and the "Twelve Articles" as a start towards this goal of equality for all. Thomas Muntzer was the most famous proponent of this ideal. During the Peasant War of 1524–1525, Muntzer traveled from province to province offering leadership and encouragement to the peasants in revolt. Indeed, some historians have held that the may not have been a revolt in Saxony without the preaching of Thomas Muntzer.
Luther took a middle course in the Peasant's War. He, of course supported the break with Rome. By doing so he alienated only the aristocratic clergy, all other classes tended to support him. He also tended to support the centralization of the economy. This position alienated only the lesser nobles, but shored up his position with the burghers. Luther, however, did not support any further extension of the popularizing and equalizing facets of his religious ideas to the society at large. He took every opportunity to attack the ideas of Thomas Muntzer. Luther was afraid that the princes, burghers, and the class of town patricians would all fall away from support of the new German church if he, Luther, attempted to follow Muntzer and support the peasantry. Luther was very afraid of alienating this classes of German society. Accordingly, Luther even declared against the moderate demands of the peasantry embodied in the 12 Articles of the Black Forest. Luther's article entitled Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants which appeared in May of 1525. of alienating these other classes.
As the guilds grew and urban populations rose, the town patricians faced increasing opposition. The patricians consisted of wealthy families that sat alone in the town councils and held all the administrative offices. Like the princes, they could seek to secure revenues from their peasants by any possible means. Arbitrary road, bridge and gate tolls could be instituted at will. They gradually revoked the common lands and made it illegal for a farmer to fish or log wood in what was once land held in common. Guild taxes were exacted. All revenues collected were not subject to formal administration, and civic accounts were neglected. Thus embezzlement and fraud were commonly practiced and the patrician class, bound by family ties, became ever richer and more exploitative.
The town patricians were increasingly criticized by the growing brgher class, which consisted of well-to-do middle-class citizens who often held administrative guild positions or worked as merchants. To the brghers, their own growing wealth was reason enough to claim the right to control civic administration. They openly demanded a town assembly made up of both patricians and burghers, or at least a restriction of simony and the allocation of several seats to brghers. The brghers also opposed the clergy, who they felt had overstepped their bounds and failed to uphold their religious duties. They demanded an end to the clergy–s special privileges, such as their exemption from taxation, as well as a reduction in their number. The brgher-master (guild master, or artisan) now owned both the workshop and its tools, which he allowed his apprentices to use, and provided the materials that his workers needed to make their products. In exchange, they received payments whose size the brgher determined after taking into account how long their labour had taken, as well as the quality of their workmanship and the quantity of products produced. Journeymen lost the opportunity to rise in the ranks of the guild and were thereby deprived of their civic rights. Frederick Engels wrote a long two-part article on the Peasant war of 1524–1525 entitled The Peasant War in Germany As noted below, writing this article in 1850, Engels intended the article as a direct analogy on the revolution of 1848. In this regard, Engels stated in the article that the burghers in Germany during the Peasant War were, as a class, "the forerunners of our present day liberals."
The plebeians comprised the new class of urban workers, journeymen and vagabonds. Ruined petty burghers also joined their ranks. Although technically potential burghers, the journeymen were barred from higher positions by the wealthy families that ran the guilds. Thus their –temporary– position devoid of civic rights tended to become permanent. The plebeians did not have property like ruined burghers or peasants. They were landless, rightless citizens, and a symptom of the decay of feudal society. It was in Thuringia that the revolution which centered around Mntzer would give the plebeian working class the greatest expression. They demanded complete social equality as they began to believe, with Mntzer's encouragement, that the evolution of their society should be driven by themselves from below, not from above. The authorities hastened to put down such explosive aspirations, which posed the greatest threat to their traditional authority.
The lowest stratum of society continued to be occupied by peasants, who were heavily taxed. In the early 16th century, no peasant could hunt, fish or chop wood freely, as the lords had recently taken these common lands for their own purposes. The lord had the right to use his peasant–s land as he wished; the peasant could do nothing but watch as his crops were destroyed by wild game and by nobles galloping across his fields in the course of their chivalric hunts. When a peasant wished to marry, he needed not only the lord's permission, but to pay a tax. When the peasant died, the lord was entitled to his best cattle, his best garments and his best tools. The justice system, operated by the clergy or wealthy burgher and patrician jurists, gave the peasant no redress. Generations of traditional servitude and the autonomous nature of the provinces limited peasant insurrections to local areas. The peasant–s only hope was the unification of aspirations across provincial lines. Mntzer was to recognize that the recently diluted class structures provided the lower stratum of society with a greater claim to legitimacy in their revolt, as well as more scope for political and socio-economic gains.
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The emergence of the newer classes and their respective interests began to soften the structure of authority of the old feudal system. Increased international trade and industry not only put the princes in conflict with the interests of the growing merchant capitalist class, but also broadened the base of lower-class interests (the peasants plus the new urban workers). The interposition of the burghers and the necessary plebeian class weakened feudal authority, as both these classes opposed the top of the hierarchy while also being in natural opposition to each other. The emergence of the plebeian class strengthened lower-class interests in several ways. Instead of the peasantry being the only oppressed and traditionally servile estate, the plebeians added a new dimension that shared similar class interests, but did so without a history of outright oppression.
Opposition to the privileges of the Catholic clergy was rising among several classes in the new late-medieval hierarchy, including the peasantry. Many burghers and nobles also despised the perceived laziness and looseness of clerical life. As members of the more privileged classes by virtue of entrepreneurship and tradition respectively, they felt that the clergy was reaping benefits (such as tax exemption and ecclesiastical tithes) to which they were not entitled. When the situation suited, even princes would abandon Catholicism in order to gain political and financial independence and increase their power within their territories.
After thousands of articles of complaints were compiled and presented by the lower classes in numerous towns and villages to no avail, the revolt broke out. The parties split into three distinct groups. The Catholic camp consisted of the clergy plus those patricians and princes who resisted any opposition to the Catholic-centred social order. The moderate reforming party consisted mainly of burghers and princes. The burghers saw an opportunity to gain power in the urban councils, as Luther–s proposed reformed church would be highly centralized within the towns, as well as condemning the nepotistic practices by which the patricians held a firm grip on the bureaucracy. Similarly, the princes stood to gain additional autonomy not only from the Catholic emperor Charles V, but from the demands of the Catholic Church in Rome. Plebeians, peasants and those sympathetic to their cause made up the third camp, which was led by preachers like Thomas Mntzer. This camp wished to break the shackles of late medieval society and forge a new one in the name of God.
Germany's peasants and plebeians compiled lists of articles outlining their complaints. The famous 12 Articles of the Black Forest were ultimately adopted as the definitive set of grievances. The articles' statement of social, political and economic grievances in the increasingly popular Protestant movement unified the population in the massive uprising that broke out first in Lower Swabia in 1524, then quickly spread to other parts of Germany.
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The peasant movement ultimately failed, with cities and nobles making separate peaces with the princely armies that restored the old order in a frequently still-harsher incarnation under the nominal overlordship of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, represented in German affairs by his younger brother Ferdinand.
The religious dissident Martin Luther, already condemned as a heretic by the 1521 Edict of Worms and accused at the time of fomenting the strife, rejected the demands of the rebels and upheld the right of Germany's rulers to suppress the uprisings. Luther based his attitude on the peasant rebellion on St. Paul's doctrine of Divine Right of Kings in his epistle to the Romans 13:1-7, which says that all authorities are appointed by God, and should not be resisted. His former follower Thomas Mntzer, on the other hand, came to the fore as a radical agitator in Thuringia.
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On December 27, 1521, three Zwickau prophets, both influenced by and influencing Thomas Mntzer, appeared in Wittenberg from Zwickau: Thomas Dreschel, Nicolas Storch and Mark Thomas Stbner. Luther's reform was not radical enough for them. Like the Roman Catholic Church, Luther practiced infant baptism, which the Anabaptists considered to be "neither scriptural nor primitive, nor fulfilling the chief conditions of admission into a visible brotherhood of saints, to wit, repentance, faith, spiritual illumination and free surrender of self to Christ."
The reformist theologian and associate of Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, who was powerless against the enthusiasts with whom his co-reformer Andreas Karlstadt sympathized, appealed to Luther, who was still hiding in the Wartburg. Luther was cautious in not condemning the new doctrine out of hand, but advised Melanchthon to treat its supporters gently and to test their spirits, in case they should be of God. There was confusion in Wittenberg, whose schools and university had sided with the "prophets" and were closed. From this arises the allegation that the Anabaptists were enemies of learning, which is contradicted by the fact that two of them, Haetzer and Denck, produced and printed the first German translation of the Hebrew prophets in 1527. The first leaders of the movement in Zrich–Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, Balthasar Hubmaier–were learned in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.
On March 6, 1522, Luther returned to Wittenberg, where he interviewed the prophets, scorned their "spirits", banished them from the city, and had their adherents ejected from Zwickau and Erfurt. Denied access to the churches, the latter preached and celebrated the sacrament in private houses. Having been driven from the cities, they swarmed across the countryside. Compelled to leave Zwickau, Mntzer visited Bohemia, lived for two years at Alltstedt in Thuringia, and in 1524 spent some time in Switzerland. During this period he proclaimed his revolutionary religious and political doctrines with increasing vehemence, and, so far as the lower orders were concerned, with growing success.
The Peasants' War began chiefly as a revolt against feudal oppression, but under the leadership of Mntzer it became a war against all constituted authorities in a forcible attempt to establish Mntzer's ideal of a Christian commonwealth based on absolute equality and the community of goods. The total defeat of the rebels at Frankenhausen (May 15, 1525), followed by the execution of Mntzer and several other leaders, proved to be a merely temporary check on the Anabaptist movement. Scattered throughout Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands were zealous propagandists whose teachings many were prepared to follow as soon as another leader emerged.
One branch of the Anabaptists became known as Mennonites. While in Germany in the sixteenth century, a split in the Mennonite community over an issue of religious dogma. The conservatives in this split followed Jakob Ammann. These conservative Mennonites moved from Germany to Switzerland to seek freedom from oppression. There they attracted other Swiss and Alsatian Anabaptists. The congregation came to be called Amish after their leader. Later the Amish moved to Holland where they settled as a prelude to moving on to America. In the early eighteen century the Amish moved to the State of Pennsylvania, settling near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where they came to called the Pennsylvania Dutch. since that time the Amish have spread from other colonies across the United States-in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and other areas. In the year, 2000, it was estimated that there were a little over 168,000 Amish in the United States of America. By 2008 it was estimated that the population of Amish had grown to 227,000.
As a result of the Peasant War of 1524–1525, the nobility of Germany was subjugated to the princes in most of the states, provinces and estates in Germany. Feudalism in those German states where it still existed was destroyed. This accelerated the ruination of the lesser nobility or knights, whose income was based totally on the feudal system. In the place of feudalism arose a new economic order based on trade, money and development of the home market.
Frederick Engels wrote in his two-part article in 1850 called The Peasant War in Germany in 1850 more than 300 years after the Peasant War of 1524–1525. Published in two parts in separate issues of Neue Rheinische Zeitung the article was intended to serve as an easily understood analogy between the events of 1524–1525 and the events of the Revolution of 1848. Stating specifically in 1850 in the Introduction to The Peasant War in Germany: "Three centuries have passed and many a thing has changed; still the Peasant War is not so impossibly far removed from our present struggle, and the opponents who have to be fought are essentially the same. We shall see the classes and fractions of classes which everywhere betrayed 1848 and 1849 in the role of traitors, though on a lower level of development, already in 1525."
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