Peasants' War

From Academic Kids

expanding insurgences
expanding insurgences

The Peasants' War (in German, der Deutsche Bauernkrieg) was a popular revolt in Europe, specifically in the Holy Roman Empire between 1524-1526 and consisted, like the preceding Bundschuh movement and the Hussite Wars, of a mass of economic as well as religious revolts by peasants, townsfolk and nobles. The movement possessed no common programme.

The conflict, which took place mostly in southern, western and central areas of modern Germany but also affected areas in neighbouring modern Switzerland and Austria, involved at its height in the spring and summer of 1525 an estimated 300,000 peasant insurgents: contemporary estimates put the dead at 100,000.


Causes of the war

The war was in part an expression of the religious upheaval known as the Reformation, during which critics of the privileges and alleged corruption of the Roman Catholic Church challenged the prevailing religious and political order.

However, it also reflected deep-seated social discontents. To understand the causes of the peasant war one must examine the changing structure of social classes in Germany and their relationship to one another. These classes were the princes, the lesser nobles, the prelates, the patricians, the burghers, the plebians and the peasants.

Social classes in 16th century Holy German Empire

The Princes

The princes served as the main centralizers of their territory. They were nearly autocratic in their reign and barely recognized any authority that the estates attempted to assert. The princes had the right to levy taxes and borrow money as they needed it. The growing costs of administration and military upkeep forced the princes to continually raise the cost of living for their subjects. The lesser nobility and the clergy paid no taxes and were often in support of the prince. Many towns had privileges that protected them from taxes and so the bulk of the burden fell on the peasants. Princes often attempted to force into serfdom freer peasants through heavier and more crippling taxation as well as the introduction of Roman Civil law. Roman Civil law was more conducive to their drive for power in that it reduced all lands to their private ownership and wiped out the feudal concept of the land as a trust between lord and peasant involving rights as well as obligations. In maintaining the remnants of the ancient law which gave the princes their force of legitimacy, they not only heightened their wealth and position within the empire (through the confiscation of all property and revenues) but also their dominion over the peasant subjects. Under this ancient law, the peasants could do little more than passively resist. Even then, the prince now had absolute control over all his serfs and their possessions and could punish them as he saw fit. The putting out of eyes and the chopping off of fingers were not uncommon practices. Until Thomas Müntzer and other radicals like him would reject the legitimizing factors of ancient law and employ Godly Law as a means to rouse the people, uprisings would remain isolated, unsupported and easily put down.

Lesser Nobility

The progress of late medieval industry was enough to render the lesser nobility of knights obsolete. The introduction of military science and the growing importance of gunpowder and infantry diminished their role as heavy cavalry while reducing the strategic importance of their castles. Their luxurious lifestyle drained what little income they had as prices continued to rise. They exercised their ancient right of plundering the countryside through highway robbery, extortion, and ransoming in order to wring what profits they could out of their territories. The knights became embittered from being progressively impoverished and increasingly under the jurisdiction of the princes. Thus the two classes were in constant conflict. They also regarded the clergy as an arrogant and superfluous estate. The knights envied their privileges and masses of wealth secured by church statutes. In addition, the knights and the town patricians were incessantly quarreling. They were often in debt to the town. The knight “plundered their territory, robbed their merchants and held prisoners in his tower for ransom.”

The Clergy

The clergy or prelate class was to lose its place as the intellectual authority over all matters within the state. The progress of printing and extended commerce as well as the spread of renaissance humanism raised literacy rates throughout the empire. Thus the Catholic monopoly on higher education was also reduced. The passage of time had seen regional catholic institutions slip into mass corruption. The well known trespasses of simony, pluralism and clerical ignorance were rampant. The bishops, archbishops, abbots and priors exploited their subjects as ruthlessly as the regional princes did. The catholic institution employed the ostensible authority of religion as their main device to extort their riches from the people. In addition to the sale of indulgences, they fabricated miracles, set up prayer houses and directly taxed the people. Increased indignation over church corruption would eventually lead Martin Luther to post his 95 theses on the doors of the Wittenburg church and impel other reformers to radically rethink church doctrine and organization.

The Patricians

As guilds grew and urban populations rose, the town patricians were confronted with increasing opposition. The patricians were wealthy families who sat alone in the town councils and held all administrative offices. Thus they made all administrative decisions and used finances as they pleased. Similar to the power of the princes, they could gain revenues from their peasants in any way possible. 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 to log in what was once land held by all. Guild taxes were exacted. All revenues collected were not formally administered and accounts in town books were neglected. Thus embezzlement and fraud were commonly practiced and the patrician class, bound by family ties, became continually richer and ever more exploitative.

The Burghers

The town patricians became progressively more criticized by the growing burgher class. The burgher class was made up of well to do middle class citizens who often held administrative positions in guilds or worked as merchants themselves. To the burghers, their growing wealth was reason enough for their claim to the right of control over town administration. They openly demanded a town assembly made of patricians and burghers or at least a restriction of simony with several seats going to burghers. The burghers also opposed the clergy who it felt has overstepped its bounds and failed to uphold its religious duties. The opulence and laziness of the clergy aroused ill will within the burgher class. They demanded an end to the clergy’s special privileges such as freedom from taxation and a reduction in their number. The burghers altered the guilds from a system of artisan and journeyman apprentice to that of capitalist management and proletariat. The burgher “master artisan” owned his workshop and its tools. He allowed the apprentice use of the shop and tools as well as providing the materials needed in order to complete the product in exchange for pay according to a synthesis of the length of labor as well as quality and quantity of the product. Journeymen no longer had the opportunity to raise in the guild ranks and were thus held in a position deprived of civic rights.

The Plebians

The plebians were the new class of urban workers, journeymen, and vagabonds. Ruined petty burghers also joined their ranks. Urban workers and journeymen resembled the modern working class which necessarily takes shape in any capitalist system. The journeymen, although technically potential burghers, were barred from higher positions by the wealthy capitalist families that ran them. Thus their position as “temporarily” outside the bounds of civic rights become much more of a permanent installment of early modern industrial production. The plebians did not even have property that ruined burghers or peasants held. They were landless, rightless citizens and a testament to the decay of feudal society. It was in Thuringia that the revolution centered around Müntzer would give the plebian working faction the greatest expression. Their demands were of complete social equality as they began to recognize, with the aid of Müntzer, that their bourgeoning society was driven by them and from below and not the other way around. The existing hierarchical authorities of the time were quickest to put down such explosive ideals, which did after all pose the greatest threat to their traditional authority.

The Peasants

The lowest strata of society remained the peasant. The peasant supported all other estates of society not only through direct taxation but in the production of agriculture and the keeping of livestock. The peasant was the property of whomever he was a subject. Be it bishop, prince, a town or a noble, the peasant and all things associated with him were subject to any whim whatsoever; the lord could take the peasant's horse and ride it as he pleased (or the peasant's wife if he so desired). Countless taxes were exacted on the peasant, forcing more and more of his time to be spent working on his lord’s estate. Most of what he produced was taken in the form of a tithe or some other tax. The peasant could not hunt, fish or chop wood freely in the early 16th century as the lords had recently taken these commonly held lands for their own purposes. The lord had rights to use the peasant’s land as he wished; often the peasant could do nothing but watch idly by as his crops were destroyed by wild game and nobles on the chivalric hunt. When a peasant wished to marry, he required the lord's permission as well as having to pay a tax. When the peasant died, the lord was entitled to his best cattle, his best garment and his best tool. The justice system, staffed by the clergy or wealthy burgher and patrician jurists, would not provide the peasant any solace; the upper classes survived by exploiting the peasant and plebian classes and saw the danger in offering them any sort of equality or real justice. Generations of submission to servitude and the autonomous nature of the provinces limited peasant insurrections to local areas. The peasant’s only hope was a unification of ideals across provincial lines. Müntzer was to recognize that the more recently diluted class structures provided the lower stratum of society with greater force of legitimacy in their revolt as well as more room for political and socio-economic gains.

Class Struggle and Reformation

The newer classes and their respective interests were enough to soften the authority of the old feudal system. Increased international trade and industry not only confronted the princes with the growing interests of the merchant capitalist class but widened the base of lower class interests (the peasants and now the urban workers) as well. The interposition of the burgher and the necessary plebian class weakened feudal authority as both classes opposed the top while naturally opposing each other. The introduction of the plebian class strengthened lower class interests in several ways. Instead of the peasantry being the sole oppressed and traditionally servile estate, the plebians added a new dimension which represented similar class interests without a history of outright oppression.

Similarly, the dilution of the class struggle brought fiercer opposition to the Catholic institution. Whether it was sincere or not, the Catholic Church came under heavy fire from every one of the classes within the new hierarchy of the late medieval age. Once made aware of it, the lower classes (plebian and peasant alike) could no longer stand the outright exploitation they had suffered from the upper classes; the clergy, being among the most guilty. The burghers and nobles despised the laziness and looseness of clerical life. Being of the “more privileged classes” by entrepreneurship and tradition respectively (and both by exploitation), they felt that the clergy was reaping benefits (such as those from tax exemption and ecclesiastical tithes) to which they had no right. When the situation was propitious even the prince would abandon Catholicism in favor of political and financial independence and increased power within their territory.

After thousands of articles of complaints were compiled and presented by the lower classes in numerous towns and villages to no avail, the revolution broke. The parties split into three distinct groups with inexorable ties to the class structure. The catholic camp consisting naturally of the clergy, patricians and sincere princes who opposed all opposition to the order of Catholicism. The moderate reforming party consisted mainly of the burghers and princes. Burghers saw an opportunity to gain power in the urban councils as Luther’s proposed reformed church would be highly centralized within the towns and condemned the common patrician practice of nepotism by which they held a firm grip on the bureaucracy. Similarly, the princes could gain further autonomy not only from the Catholic emperor Charles V but also from the burdensome needs of the Catholic Church in Rome. The plebians, peasants and all those sympathetic to their cause made up the third revolutionary camp led by preachers such as Muntzer. This camp desired to break the shackles of late medieval society and forge a new one entirely in the name of god.

Peasants and plebians all over Germany compiled countless lists of articles outlining their complaints. The famous 12 articles of the Black Forest peasants were ultimately adopted as the definitive set of grievances. The articles' eloquent statement of social, political and economic grievances in the increasingly popular Protestant thread unified the populous in the massive uprising which initially broke out in Lower Swabia in 1524. The uprising quickly spread to other areas of Germany.

Final failure

The peasant movement ultimately failed as cities and nobles made their own peace with the princely armies which restored the old order in often still harsher form 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 insurgents and upheld the right of Germany's rulers to suppress the uprisings, but his former follower Thomas Müntzer came to the fore as a radical agitator in Thuringia.

Zwickau prophets and the Peasants' War

On December 27, 1521, three "prophets", influenced by and in turn influencing pat mesch, appeared in Wittenberg from Zwickau: Thomas Dreschel, Nicolas Storch and Mark Thomas Stübner. Luther's reform was not thorough 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."

Reformist theologian and Luther associate Philipp Melanchthon, powerless against the enthusiasts with whom his co-reformer Andreas Karlstadt sympathized, appealed to Luther, still concealed in the Wartburg. Luther was cautious not to condemn the new doctrine off-hand, but advised Melanchthon to treat them gently and to prove their spirits, lest they be of God. There was confusion in Wittenberg, where schools and university sided with the "prophets" and were closed. Hence the charge that Anabaptists were enemies of learning, which is sufficiently rebutted by the fact that the first German translation of the Hebrew prophets was made and printed by two of them, Hetzer and Denck, in 1527. The first leaders of the movement in ZürichConrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, Balthasar Hubmaier—were men learned in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.

On the 6th of March Luther returned, interviewed the prophets, scorned their "spirits", forbade them 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. Driven from the cities they swarmed over the countryside. Compelled to leave Zwickau, Müntzer visited Bohemia, resided two years at Alltstedt in Thuringia, and in 1524 spent some time in Switzerland. During this period he proclaimed his revolutionary doctrines in religion and politics with growing vehemence, and, so far as the lower orders were concerned, with growing success.

In its origin a revolt against feudal oppression, it became, under the leadership of Müntzer, a war against all constituted authorities, and an attempt to establish by force his ideal Christian commonwealth, with absolute equality and the community of goods. The total defeat of the insurgents at Frankenhausen (May 15, 1525), followed as it was by the execution of Müntzer and several other leaders, proved only a temporary check to the Anabaptist movement. Here and there throughout Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands there were zealous propagandists, through whose teaching many were prepared to follow as soon as another leader should arise.

Adapted from the German Wikipedia article (

In literature

Peasants' War is depicted in Bauernkrieg it:Guerra dei contadini no:Den tyske bondekrigen pl:Wojna Chłopska w Niemczech pt:Guerra dos Camponeses zh:德国农民战争


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