The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Peasants' War
PEASANTS' WAR, a revolutionary movement in southern and central Germany, which accompanied the reformation of Luther and Zwingli. It was preceded by many isolated insurrections. In 1476 Hans Böheim, called “Johnny the Piper,” proclaimed himself the recipient of revelations from the mother of God, teaching that there should be hereafter no rulers whatever; 34,000 peasants gathered around him, and their sovereign, the bishop of Würzburg, had to resort to treachery to subdue them. In 1492 the “bread and cheese boys,” during a famine, captured and held for some time the towns of Alkmaar, Hoorn, and Haarlem in Holland. Immediately afterward there was a rising of the yeomen of West Friesland, to reassert their ancient liberties. While these insurrections in the Netherlands were put down without much bloodshed, great severity was used when a secret league of peasants and burghers was formed in southern Germany under the name of the Bundschuh (league of the brogue). It appeared first in 1493 at Schlettstadt in Alsace, in 1502 at Bruchsal, in 1512 at Freiburg, and most powerfully in 1513 in Würtemberg, where it took the name of “the poor Conrad.” In Würtemberg 14 articles were agreed upon, similar to the 12 articles adopted by the peasants in 1525. Duke Ulric quelled this insurrection by treacherous promises and wholesale executions. The peasants of Hungary in 1514, having been called to arms against the Turks, were formed into an army by George Dózsa, who carried on a war of extermination against the nobles, destroyed numerous castles, and proclaimed Hungary a republic. After many victories, he was cruelly put to death by John Zápolya, the waywode of Transylvania, and 60,000 peasants perished by the war and the executions which followed. The peasants in Carinthia rose in 1515, and were subdued with great slaughter in 1516. — Up to 1525 nine tenths of the inhabitants of southern and central Germany were not allowed by their rulers to hear the doctrines of the reformation preached; but they understood that at least the power of princely bishops and abbots was contrary to the gospel. They were also encouraged by travelling preachers, who proclaimed a new era of religious, political, and social freedom. To the agitation thus caused were added the systematic and persistent plottings of the exiles who had been forced to leave their homes on the outbreak of the Bundschuh, and of the emissaries of Duke Ulric, who, after subduing the peasants, had attacked the free city of Reutlingen, and for this offence had in 1520 been expelled from his duchy by the Swabian league. In a similar position were the Franconian nobles, who in 1522, under Franz von Sickingen, had risen against the princes and bishops, but had been vanquished and fled the country. In June, 1524, the peasants on the banks of the Wutach, in S. W. Germany, rose against the landgrave of Stühlingen. The citizens of Waldshut, animated by their popular preacher Balthasar Hubmaier, made common cause with them, organizing an “evangelical brotherhood” which was to spread all over Germany. The peasants of Hauenstein, the Klettgau, and the Hegau soon joined them. Negotiations between the insurgents and their counts, acting through George of Waldburg, for a time delayed the insurrection; but it spread about the end of 1524 all over Swabia. In the first months of 1525 the Swabian insurgents proclaimed the following 12 articles: 1, every church shall have the right to choose its own minister, who is to proclaim the pure gospel only, and can be deposed if he shows himself unworthy of his office; 2, the proceeds of the tithing shall be applied to the support of the poor and to municipal purposes, a reasonable salary only being appropriated therefrom to the minister; 3, servitude shall be abolished; 4, the exclusive privileges of princes and nobles in regard to hunting and fishing shall be abolished; 5, woodlands unjustly appropriated by the clergy and nobility shall be returned to the village corporations; 6 to 8, the socage service shall be fixed by law, the ground rent reduced, and the feudal tenure regulated; 9, justice shall be administered fairly and firmly according to plain written laws; 10, all fields and pasture grounds arbitrarily taken from the village corporations by the clergy and nobility shall be returned to them; 11, the right of heriot shall be abolished; 12, any of the preceding articles shall be null and void whenever they shall be proved not to be in accordance with the Scriptures. Most of these articles claimed only the restoration of rights formerly possessed by the peasants. The first, second, third, and eleventh contained demands which were new, yet in accordance with the times. Wherever the insurrection spread these 12 articles were proclaimed, sometimes with modifications to make them more acceptable to the nobility. Early in April, 1525, a small part of the peasant army was routed by George of Waldburg near Leipheim on the Danube. Waldburg, the general of the Swabian league, a powerful combination of princes, nobles, and free cities, found he needed time to collect larger forces, and therefore began new negotiations. In the mean time the insurrection gathered strength, spreading southward to Tyrol, Salzburg, and some parts of the archduchy of Austria, and northward over all Franconia. It extended even to Thuringia, where Münzer became its chief leader (see Münzer), and to Hesse and the region on the middle Rhine. Numerous cities and towns made common cause with the peasants, in Franconia many nobles did the same, and the entire nobility would have joined them had they accepted the shrewd proposition of Hippler, the chief emissary of Duke Ulric, to indemnify the nobles for their losses by secularizing and dividing among them the possessions of the ecclesiastical princes. Nor did the peasants enlist, as Hippler advised them, several thousand lansquenets, who offered their services. They followed his advice only in choosing the renowned knight Götz von Berlichingen for their general. Hippler busied himself also in getting together a congress of the insurgents, which met at Heilbronn, May 8, and framed a scheme for a new constitution of the German empire; the emperor was to be the only sovereign, and all princes were to be his subjects. Hippler, Weigand, and others were moderate men; but their plans were frequently thwarted by a more radical party, who burned castles and cloisters, and committed still greater atrocities. The principal of these was the massacre of Count Helfenstein with some 20 nobles captured on April 16 at the storming of Weinsberg near Heilbronn; in spite of their entreaties they had to run the gauntlet and were stabbed. Helfenstein while treating with the peasants had continued hostilities. Only one tenth of the Franconian peasants, under command of Rohrbach, had perpetrated the massacre, yet it was charged to the whole body. It terrified the weaker princes and cities menaced by the peasants, and induced them to submit at once; but at the same time it aroused the anger and revenge of Count Waldburg, and caused Luther, who up to this time had held a neutral position, to publish his pamphlet “Against the Rapacious, Murderous Peasants,” in which he called on the princes to kill them like mad dogs, and declared that none could die in a way more pleasing to God than fighting against such miscreants. Count Waldburg adopted the ancient policy of dividing the enemy. With the peasant army of southern Swabia, the men who had begun the war, he concluded a treaty at Weingarten, April 17, by which they submitted the question of their wrongs to arbiters and then went home. On May 12, at Böblingen in Würtemberg, Waldburg suddenly attacked and completely routed the peasants of the Black Forest and others; each of the two armies numbered about 15,000 men. On May 15 the peasants of Thuringia, under Münzer, were routed at Frankenhausen, and on May 17 those of Lorraine by Duke Anton near Zabern. These last fought gallantly, and were conquered mainly through treachery. Waldburg now marched against the peasant armies of Franconia; one of them under Metzler was routed at Königshofen, June 2; another near Würzburg, June 4. The leader of the latter, Florian Geyer, and his 600 men, called the black cohort, neither gave nor asked quarter, and all were slain. Geyer, who wanted all castles destroyed, had refused favorable terms to the garrison of the Frauenberg, the citadel above the city of Würzburg, and had besieged it for weeks, instead of marching through the country and spreading the insurrection, as Berlichingen advised. But he showed himself true-hearted to the last, while Berlichingen left the peasants at the end of May, under pretence that his time of enlistment in their cause, one month, had expired. On June 8 Waldburg and the princes triumphantly marched into Würzburg, and witnessed the execution of the most prominent citizens, who with the leaders of the peasants, about 80 in all, were publicly beheaded. At many other places also cruel vengeance was taken; Rohrbach was burned at a slow fire. In southeastern Swabia 30,000 peasants of the Allgau still held out against Waldburg, but succumbed July 22, through the strategy of Georg von Frundsberg and the treachery of bribed leaders. With the last peasant army, that of Salzburg, the duke of Bavaria concluded a treaty on terms favorable to the peasants, Aug. 30; but their sovereign, the bishop of Salzburg, failed to fulfil its conditions. Wholesale executions took place after the war. The chief cause of the failure of the movement was lack of unity of action. The peasants did not sufficiently trust and obey their leaders, many of whom were honest and able, while they trusted the princes too much. The burdens of which the peasants had complained were in many cases greatly increased. They lost permanently the right to bear arms, to hold public meetings, and to take part in the election of their officers. The German empire lost its balance of power, which up to that time had been maintained; the peasants, with the cities and the lower nobility, counterbalancing the power of the princes, and strengthening the hands of the emperor. Now the princes reigned supreme, and the power of the emperor was merely nominal. German Protestantism never regained the opportunity lost at this time. The peasants of all Swabia and Franconia, when they rose for liberty, declared themselves in favor of the reformation. When defeated, by far the greater part of them were compelled to return to the Roman Catholic church, and to remain with their posterity in its communion. — See Zimmermann, Allgemeine Geschichte des grossen Bauernkriegs (3 vols., Stuttgart, 1841-'3), and Förg, Deutschland in der Revolutionsperiode 1522-'5 (Freiburg, 1851).