Ancient history

The Peasants' War

At the height of the revolt, up to 300,000 peasants would have been involved. In Württemberg, for example, about 70% of the men capable of bearing arms joined the rebellion, which ignited from Alsace in the west to Salzburg in the east, through the Tyrol, and from the Swiss Alps in the south to heart of Thuringia in the north. As many as 100,000 people may have lost their lives before peace was restored, and the trauma of the Peasants' War would leave a deep mark both in the course of the Reformation and in the subsequent history of the Germanic territories.

The Peasants' War was not a single event, but a series of local and regional upheavals which, with the exception of the final upheavals in the Habsburg territory of Tyrol, they were mainly concentrated, rather than in the great fiefdoms of the princes, in the fragmented areas under the authority of petty lords or in the ecclesiastical domains.

In some areas they joined the neighboring peasants of the cities, in others it was the miners who increased their ranks, and what ultimately gave coherence and unity to these uprisings was the formulation of discontent that had provoked them in a series of articles with which both peasants and non-peasants from different regions could identify. These articles, in turn, inspired, in a way, various visions of a better future in which all wrongs would be righted and the world placed under divine Law.

Even so, the movement was short-lived. If in the spring of 1525 the authorities in many of these areas were so intimidated by the peasant forces that they showed a willingness to negotiate, a few months later the armies of the rebels collapsed under the onslaught of the superior forces of the princes.

The roots of the Peasants' War

The various quarrels that broke out in 1525 had deep causes. Peasants' resentment at the increased pressure exerted by their lords had been growing since the end of the fifteenth century. Many had been demanding increasingly onerous payments in kind or a greater number of corveas , which had allowed them to take advantage of rising food prices and market opportunities, and others were imposing stricter controls to consolidate their dominance over the territory, transforming loose groupings of lordships into homogeneous regions over which to exercise their power. authority as princes. Among the most rapacious lords, and those who frequently provoked the most complaints, were the ecclesiastical landowners , from abbots of monasteries to the different prince-bishops. City dwellers and miners, for their part, resented rising prices.

Peasants and miners were not entirely powerless against these forces as they developedcommunal structures in the towns or “groups” in the mines in order to safeguard common rights, negotiate grievances with landowners, or engage in strikes to secure reasonable wages. But they faced relentless pressure, and their growing frustration turned to violence. From the 1470s peasant rebellions intensified in the Swiss cantons. In Alsace and southern Germany, sporadic and localized uprisings began to become more frequent from the 1490s, when the peasants adopted the Bundschuh (farmers' lace-up shoes) as a symbol and they began to speak not of restoring the "benevolent law of old" but of instituting the "divine law", which would correct the injustices committed by the lords.

These various discontents reached their boiling point in the early 1520s. The transition from Maximilian I to Charles V in 1519 it was accompanied by a general feeling of agitation and expected change, and the expectation that something would soon happen began to center around the year 1524. Astrologers had been predicting since 1499 that a great deluge would engulf the world in February of that year, when all the planets would be aligned under the sign of Pisces, but as the transcendental moment approached they modified their prediction, since a flood would violate the promise that God had made to Noah, although they remained convinced that a great disaster would take place. In 1523, no less than 50 publications were devoted to predicting the nature of this cataclysm, some of which, in fact, predicted a general revolt of the peasantry – later some rebels in Alsace would justify their conduct by declaring that they were simply acting according to the will of God, written in the stars–.

Religion exacerbated the uncertainty and restlessness that many claimed to read in the stars. By 1523 the evangelical preaching movement had spread throughout the Empire and, despite the hostility of many sovereigns, his new teachings spread inexorably, first in the urban centers and then in the villages, although it is difficult to determine how his message was understood. On the one hand, the complexities of Theology must have been inscrutable to the “common man” and, on the other hand, some of the key terms and demands found an echo in the experiences of village life. The priesthood of all believers, the centrality of the Christian community, and the need to live a Christian existence under Christian law were precepts that the vulgar could apply to their own lives, though often with a literalness that religious reformers had not anticipated. .

Both Martin Luther as Ulrich Zwingli , the Zürich pastor whose theological views held sway in southern Germany, inspired the rebels. Although Luther would later condemn the peasant rebellion, his earlier defense of communal election of pastors played a key role in justifying many communes' demand for control over their churches and clergy. In the same way, his criticism of the old Church reinforced the anticlericalism of those who refused to pay the tithe and who rose up against the ecclesiastical lords and, on the other hand, the criticism of ecclesiastical authority, both doctrinal and seigneurial, easily led to criticism of all authority. Zwingli also did not approve of the rebellion, but his teaching that the Gospel should be the measuring stick for the reform of politics and society provided a framework for the formulation of virtually any list of claims.

Light the fuse

The uprising began as a series of localized protests in southwestern Germany and Switzerland. It seems that in 1523 the evangelical preaching gave rise to the rejection of the payment of the tithe in the dioceses of Bamberg and Speyer. New tithe strikes spread throughout southern Germany in 1524, some accompanied by refusal to pay even the ordinary feudal charges , others that demanded the right of the community to choose its pastor. At the end of May the inhabitants of Forchheim, near Nuremberg, revolted against their alleged exploitation at the hands of the Bishop of Bamberg. Their demands included not only freedom of hunting and fishing, but also the abolition of a special tax levied for the consecration of new bishops (which between 1501-1522 they had had to pay four times), the restriction of the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts in civil matters and the reduction of the tithe.

The turmoil that broke out in the Swiss canton of Thurgau in July 1524 was more directly related to evangelical questions and, arising from the masses attending Zwingli's sermons, culminated in July with the destruction of the charterhouse of Ittingen. Local authorities continued to worry about sporadic outbreaks of social unrest in the following months, and their anxiety increased when communities in the southern Black Forest were also disrupted by peasant protests, from late May near Staufen , among the Hauenstein peasants of the abbot of St. Blasien and at the end of June in the county of Stühlingen.

In Stühlingen the peasants were formally organized into troops or “groups” (Haufen) , with his flag, elected sergeants and a former mercenary, Hans Müller de Bulgenbach, as commander. Soon the peasants of many of these fragmented territories were in rebellion, or at least in dispute with their lords to such an extent that the general disorder seemed so great that the authorities did not dare to intervene, especially in view of the fact that a vital part of the resources of the Habsburgs were engaged in the war against the French in Italy. By the end of the year, however, once the peasants had more or less achieved their goals, the situation had returned to calm almost everywhere.

The events in Stühlingen and the Forest region Black were short-lived and although they presaged violence, acts such as the looting of the monastery of St. Trudpert, south of Freiburg, in December 1524, were the exception. The fundamental protests were against the feudal regime, in which the restoration of the "old laws" that had been usurped by the lords was demanded. But in November and December the peasants began to justify their grievances with references to the Gospel, which was to become the hallmark of the new series of uprisings that was to take place in neighboring Swabia.

The epicenter was in Upper Swabia , a region dotted with prominent monastic foundations and with a long tradition of conflict between lords and peasants. The first signs of unrest, at Baltringen in December 1524, precipitated the formation of peasant forces in the surrounding regions, and by February more than 40,000 men had been mobilized. Unlike the Black Forest groups of the previous year, these groupings aspired to a more solid type of union. Those based on the lands of the abbot of Kempten were the first to settle into a “Christian union ” dedicated to the pursuit of justice in accordance with the divine law that emanated from the Bible. The union of the three leading Swabian troops soon followed, and in early March 1525 fifty of their representatives met in Memmingen to agree on a common constitution and programme.

The choice of Memmingen was deliberate because, at the end of 1524 and after a bitter confrontation with the Bishop of Augsburg over the introduction of the new preaching, the city had embraced the reformation almost completely. Confident that the magistrates would favor his cause, the leader of the Baltringen peasants entered the town and enlisted his help in listing his demands, resulting in the Twelve Articles , which were soon published. In two months it would reach 25 editions and a total of perhaps 25,000 printed copies, its impact was immense.

The radicalization of the conflict

The Twelve Articles manifestly associated the peasants' complaints with the evangelical cause. They began by declaring the right of every community to elect and dismiss its own pastor, and by limiting the tithe for the maintenance of the clergy to a tax on grain or similar crops. Furthermore, since Christ's sacrifice had made all men free, serfdom was to be abolished and, at the same time, peasants were to obediently submit to legitimate authority. Everyone should have the right to hunt, fish and collect wood in communal forests. The corveas were to be moderated in accordance with the Word of God, with the custom and legal terms that had originally founded the obligation, as well as with the value of the land held by the peasant. Customary law was to oblige courts to limit punishments, which had allegedly become arbitrary and severe due to the application of new legal codes (eg Roman Law). The communal lands and meadows that had been alienated were to be returned to their communities. Death duties and taxes should be abolished, they demanded, as it placed a burden on heirs that often led to the expropriation of their land. And, finally, the document declared that if any article was shown to be contrary to the Word of God it could be withdrawn, just as others could be added if new points emanated from the Gospel.

The peasants declared that they had no desire to resort to violence, since the Gospel preached peace, love, unity and patience, but their demands took on an absolute character when they insisted that rural life should be regulated according to the Word of God. The persistence in the abolition of serfdom implied, in fact, the abolition of all local authority, since in the regions of extreme territorial fragmentation this link had become one of the main manorial and government instruments.

The Twelve Articles gave impetus to the peasant alliance and intimidated the opposition. Although the army formed by the princes of the area and commanded by Georg Truchsess von Waldburg he made some initial progress, was unable to be victorious, and so on April 17, 1525, Easter Monday, Truchsess was forced to agree to the Treaty of Weingarten. Peasants were offered a court to rule on their claims, while they agreed to disband and renew their oaths of vassalage to their lords. While most of the Lake Constance peasants complied with the terms of the treaty, other groups decided to hold their own. It was not long before discontent flared up again in the west, in the Black Forest region, in Alsace, in Württemberg and in the Rheingau, and soon after the first outburst of violence took place in the north, in Franconia, and finally in Thuringia. The fiercest uprisings in Franconia, which caught fire just as the Treaty of Weingarten had brought peace to Upper Swabia, they soon became the epicenter of discontent. The peasants of Upper Swabia had reached a peaceful agreement with their lords, so the Franconians declared war on them. When the Odenwald-Neckartal troop captured the Weinsberg fortress on April 16, they immediately massacred his custodian, Count Ludwig von Helfenstein, and his noble companions.

For a moment the Franconian movement seemed on the verge of achieving sweeping political reforms. Led by the renegade nobleman Götz von Berlichingen , the peasants managed to win some support from the cities and the lower nobility, so the Elector of Mainz, the Archchancellor of the Holy Roman Empire, consented to the union of the peasants and accepted the Twelve Articles. New uprisings in Frankfurt, Bamberg and Würzburg, and to the north in Thuringia, as well as in the Swiss cantons to the south, seemed to demonstrate the continuing dynamism of the movement. At the same time plans arose for the formation of a kind of peasant parliament and a general "reform" of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Thuringian uprising was the most radical and soon, although its underlying demands were the same as those of the other peasants, it assumed a millenarian character. From mid-April a wave of violence against castles and monasteries hit the region. The plans of the extremist preachers Heinrich Pfeiffer and Thomas Müntzer gave this relatively incipient rural movement a new dimension.

In February and March they campaigned against the municipal council of Mühlhausen, which they replaced with an “Eternal Council ” favorable to their own religious program, after which they prepared to continue their crusade outside the city. Müntzer, in particular, was determined not to repeat the mistakes made elsewhere, and in his appeal to the people of Allstedt at the end of April he urged them to assemble for the final fight. All tempting treatises and false advice were to be avoided, and God was not to be spoken of as long as the tyrants continued to rule. The new alliance must rise up and destroy them.

However, the balance began to tip against the rebels. If at the beginning of April Luther had sympathized with them and criticized the arrogance of the princes, at the beginning of May he condemned the murders and pillages of the peasants. The authorities also acted forcefully. On May 12 Georg Truchsess von Waldburg defeated the Württemberg peasants at Böblingen, ten days later the Duke of Lorraine crushed the Alsatian rebels at Saverne, and on May 15 Philip of Hesse and the Duke of Saxony joined forces to defeat Müntzer and the Thuringian peasants in Frankenhausen. More than 5,000 peasants were massacred and 600 were taken prisoner. Müntzer was captured after the battle, handed over to the Count of Mansfeld, tortured, and finally beheaded on May 27 in Mühlhausen.

By mid-July the order had been more or less restored throughout the Holy Roman Empire, but the last embers of the insurgency would still burn in Habsburg lands. After seizing Tyrol in May 1525 under the leadership of Michael Gaismair, secretary and tax collector to the Bishop of Bressanone, the mutiny spread south to Trento and north to Innsbruck and developed a program of 96 claims. However, when the coalition of malcontents expanded to include rural and urban miners, day laborers, and landed peasants in its ranks, the movement soon began to founder as a result of its own internal contradictions . The publication of a “Territorial Constitution for the County of Tyrol” , addressing popular grievances, undermined its foundations, and Gaismair's attempt to incite a second Tyrolean revolution in the spring of 1526 failed when, despite all his efforts, contemporary uprisings in Tyrol, Salzburg, Bressanone, Trento, Grisonia and Chur did not converge in an Alpine revolution. The German, Austrian and Swiss revolts never transcended their local roots.

The fruits of defeat

The scale and extent of the turmoil that swept through the central and southern areas of the Empire between 1524 and 1526 took all authorities by surprise and for a time the rebellions were so overwhelming that all resistance seemed futile. However, once nerves calmed and resources could be concentrated, peasants were crushed in every theater of operations.

The consequences for the Reformation were profound. Luther recognized that he needed the support and protection of the princes, which would result in the territorial system of the German Lutheran Church . In 1526 the Imperial Diet discussed measures to criminalize all peasant resistance, but also discussed the need for reforms and enacted measures designed to improve the lot of the peasants. The rebels were totally defeated, but they achieved much in return as the fear of a new uprising ensured greater consideration of the German sovereigns for their subjects, which would be one of the characteristic features of the history of the Holy Roman Empire until its dissolution. in 1806.


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This article was published in Desperta Ferro Modern History No. 13 as a preview of the next issue, Desperta Ferro Modern History No. 14:Charles V and the Schmalkaldic League.