Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/War of the Peasants (1524-25)
A revolt of the peasants of southern and central Germany, the causes of which are disputed as a result of religious and political prejudice. At present the opinion prevails that the revolt was brought about mainly by economic distress. The conditions which must here be taken into consideration are the following. Up to the end of the fourteenth century the peasants enjoyed a relatively advantageous position, even though they did not own their land in fee simple, but held it at a rental, either hereditary or fixed for certain periods. Conditions, however, grew worse. The increase of population due to prosperity coincided in point of time with the development of the economic use of money and its injurious influences. The city overshadowed the country, and at times even exerted dominion over the country districts. International economic conditions also were detrimental to the peasant class. Large quantities of precious metals were drawn from the mines of Peru, Mexico, and Germany, so that the value of money sank about fifty per cent, while prices rose; thus in Thuringia the price of wool was doubled, and the price of merchandise was increased fivefold. On the other hand leases were not reduced or wages raised, but the lords of the land sought to make up their losses by unusually heavy taxation. They extended their authority, increased the services and burdens of the serfs, sought to annul the rights of the market associations, and to do away with the peasants' hereditary lease of their farms, only granting the use of woodland, water, and pasture on condition of heavy rents. Roman law favoured these exactions. Moreover, the military needs and the growing costs of the local governments led to an increase of the taxes. This caused great bitterness of feeling, especially in Würtemberg and Bavaria. To the burdens imposed by the landlord and the territorial sovereign were added imperial taxes, regardless of the economic condition of the poorer classes. The position of the peasants was at its worst in the very small German states, where the landlord was also the sovereign and desired to live like a prince.
Not only peasants but also cities and nobles took part in the great uprising that is known as the War of the Peasants. Of the cities only the smaller were economically connected with the peasants. Large cities, like Frankfort, Würzburg, and Mainz, joined the uprising; but economic conditions do not fully explain their action. It must be assumed, therefore, that external reasons induced the nobility and the cities to combine temporarily with the peasants in the great uprising and that the causes of discontent, which were numerous, varied in the different States. From the end of the fifteenth century great movements for political reform had been in progress, but on account of the selfish policy of the territorial princes all attempts to strengthen the central power had failed, and the Nuremberg Diet of 1524 had completely paralyzed the imperial administration. Part of the rebels desired to reform the empire. Political disorders were intensified by religious. For eight years Luther's attitude had disquieted the people and shaken their religious convictions to their foundations. His declamations about Christian liberty, even if meant in a different sense, increased the ferment. The opponents of the new doctrine regarded Luther, and in part still regard him, as the real instigator of the revolt; the rebels themselves appealed to him in the conviction that they were only carrying out his teachings. It is not surprising that the outbreak took place just at the end of the year 1524. The hope of a national settlement of ecclesiastical reform had come to nought, and the emperor had countermanded the national council, which had been called to meet at Speyer, 1 Sept., 1524. The failure of the efforts for political and ecclesiastical reform must also be included among the causes of the outbreak. Before it is possible to pass a final judgment upon the causes, there must be a wider and more thorough investigation of the religious and intellectual life of the German people before the Reformation.
During the years 1492-1500 there had been sporadic outbreaks in Algäu, Alsace, and in the Diocese of Speyer, but they had been betrayed and suppressed. The revolt of "poor Conrad" against the extortionate taxation of Duke Ulrich of Würtemberg, and the confederation of the Wendic peasants in Carinthia, Carniola, and Styria had also been crushed by the rulers and nobility of these states. The great uprising of the peasants in the second decade of the sixteenth century began in the southern part of the Black Forest. The revolt was under the daring and clear-sighted guidance of Hans Müller of Bulgenbach and, as the rebellion spread over Swabia, Franconia, and Alsace, the power of the rebels steadily grew. They stirred up the people to disorder by means of promises contained in the so-called "Twelve Articles", of which the author is uncertain. They have been ascribed to Pastor Schappler of Memmingen, to Sebastian Lotzer, and to the Pastor of Waldshut, Balthasar Hubmaier, who was under the influence of Münzer. Their demands were economic, social, and religious. The rate of interest, compulsory service to the lord of the manor, and legal penalties they wished mitigated. Other articles demanded the restoration of old German economic conditions, such as the unions of the old marches and the free right of pasturage, fishing, and hunting. Social reform was to culminate in the abolition of serfdom, because Christ made all men free, but obedience to the authorities appointed by God was to be maintained. As regards religion they demanded the right to choose their pastors and to guarantee that the clergy should preach the pure and true Gospel. Thus the moderate element that had a share in preparing these articles had no thought of a radical overthrow of all existing conditions. But in this ease, as in all great popular upheavals, the moderation expressed in theory was not carried out.
The mobs that were commanded by the tavern-keeper George Metzler, by Florian Geyer, Wendel Hipler, Jäcklein Rohrbach, and even by the knight, Götz von Berlichingen, often indulged in an unbridled lust of murder and destruction. The best known of these outrages is the horrible murder of Count von Helfenstein on 16 April, 1525. Early in May, 1525, the peasants were everywhere victorious over the nobility. The Bishops of Bamberg and Speyer, the Abbots of Hersfeld and Fulda, the Elector of the Palatinate, and others made concessions of all kinds to their demands. The revolt, however, was at its height and its leaders thought themselves able to carry out their political aims. Several cities joined the uprising, which was to be under the direction of a vigorous and well-organized board of peasants; at Heilbronn a common chancery was to be established for all the rebel bands; the great majority of the rebels under arms were to go home and only a select body was to keep the field. The peasants sought to overthrow their real political opponents, the territorial princes. They planned to reorganize the entire constitution of the empire, a scheme that had been repeatedly discussed since the fourteenth century. The object of their plans of reform was to strengthen the empire and to weaken the power of the territorial princes. The property of the Church was to be secularized and then used to compensate the feudal lords for the abolition of the feudal burdens. The reforms were then to be carried out under the authority of the empire, such as uniformity of weights and coinage, suppression of custom-duty, restoration of the German law in the courts, etc.
The petty sovereigns now combined and Luther encouraged their intention to crush the rebellion. In April he had advocated peace and had distinguished between justifiable and unjustifiable demands. He now took a different view of the matter. The fanatical mobs directed by Thomas Münzer and Heinrich Pfeifer were spreading destruction in Thuringia by fire and sword, and had destroyed the monasteries of the Harz district and the Thuringian Forest (Michaelstein, Ilsenburg, Walkenried, Kelbra, Donndorf, Rossleben, Memleben, and Reinhardsbrunn). Luther now foresaw the overthrow of State and Church, property and family. Accordingly on 6 May he violently and passionately urged the princes to smite the "murdering and robbing band of the peasants". The hordes commanded by Münser were defeated on 15 May, 1525, near Frankenhausen by the confederated princes of Saxony, Brunswick, Hesse, and Mansfeld. The prophet Münzer was executed. At about the same time the uprising in southern Germany was subdued. In Alsace the peasants were conquered on 17 May by the united forces of Duke Anton of Lorraine and the Governor of Mörsperg; in Würtemberg they were overthrown near Sindelfingen by the commander of the forces of the Swabian League. The mobs of Odenwald and Rothenburg were utterly crushed on 2 and 4 June; and on 7 June Würzburg had to surrender. The overthrow of the peasants on the upper and middle Rhine required more time. The revolt had taken a more orderly course in Upper Swabia, the Black Forest, and in Switzerland. The north-west and the east were entirely free from the insurrection, for at that time the position of the peasants there was more favourable. Formerly it was thought that after this uprising the condition of the peasants became worse than before, but this view is incorrect. At first, it is true, the severity of martial law had absolute sway; thus, there were 60 executions in Würzburg, and 211 in the whole of Franconia. But the period of terror had also been a lesson to the victors. The condition of the peasants did not grow essentially worse, though it did not greatly improve. Only in a few exceptional cases were reforms introduced, as in Baden and the Tyrol.
ZIMMERMANN, Geschichte des Bauernkrieges (Stuttgart, 1845); BAX, The Peasants' War in Germany (London, 1899); JANSSEN, Geschichte des deutschen Volkes (17th and 18th ed. Freiburg, 1897); STOLZE, Der deutsche Bauernkrieg (Halle, 1908); SOMMERLAD, Bauernkrieg in Handwörterbuch der Staatswissenschaften, II (3rd ed. Jena, 1909), 653-62; WOLFF, Der deutsche Bauernkrieg in Deutsche Geschichtsblätter, XI (Gotha, 1909), 61-72.