The New International Encyclopædia/Peasant War
PEASANT WAR (OF. paissant, Fr. paysan, from OF. pais, pays, Fr. pays, country, from Lat. pagus, district, province, from pangere, to fix, to fasten; connected with pax, peace, Gk. πηγνύναι, pēgnynai, to fasten; and perhaps with Goth., OHG. fahan, AS. fon, Ger. fangen, to seize, take). The name given to the insurrection of the peasantry in Central and South Germany in the year 1524-25. With the decline of the feudal system the lot of the peasantry throughout Germany had greatly deteriorated. They were still subject to the oppressive exactions of their feudal masters, but the ancient service of protection from master to man had gradually disappeared. The example of Switzerland encouraged the German peasants to hope that the yoke of the nobility might be thrown off, and after 1475 there were risings here and there among the peasants of South Germany. A peasant league, called from its cognizance, a peasant's clog, the Bundschuh, rose in the Rhine countries in 1502, and another, called the ‘League of Poor Conrad,’ was organized in Württemberg in 1514; but both were put down. The great insurrection finally broke out in Swabia in June, 1524. Many of the secular nobility at first regarded the insurrection with some measure of complacency, because it was directed primarily against the ecclesiastical lords. An irregular warfare ensued, attended by the most revolting cruelty on both sides. In spite of the disadvantage under which the ignorant and poorly organized peasants labored, the insurrection spread through Alsace and the Palatinate, Franconia, Bavaria, Tyrol and Carinthia. The rising of the peasants was accompanied by insurrections among the lower classes in many cities. The movement in many parts took on a religious character, and was merged with the agitation of the Anabaptists (q.v.), Thomas Münzer (q.v.) becoming one of the principal leaders of the peasantry. The demands of the peasants were set forth in a manifesto issued about Easter, 1525, by the insurgents of Swabia, known as the Twelve Articles. These embraoed the free election of their parish clergy; the appropriation of the tithes of grain, after competent maintenance of the parish clergy, to the support of the poor and to purposes of general utility; the abolition of serfdom, and of the exclusive hunting and fishing rights of the nobles; the restoration to the community of forests, fields, and meadows, which the secular and ecclesiastical lords had appropriated to themselves; release from arbitrary augmentation and multiplication of services, duties, and rents; the equal administration of justice; and the abolition of some of the most odious exactions of the clergy. The conduct of the insurgents was not, however, in accordance with the moderation of their demands. Their many separate bands destroyed convents and castles, murdered, pillaged, and were guilty of the greatest excesses, partly in revenge for the cruelties practiced against them. A number of princes and knights were forced to make common cause with them and even to join their ranks, the most noted of these being Götz von Berlichingen (q.v.). Luther denounced the excesses of the peasants, and called upon the princes of Germany to stamp out the insurrection. The peasant army in Central Germany, under the command of Münzer, was overwhelmed at Frankenhausen, on May 15, 1525, by the Landgrave Philip the Magnanimous of Hesse, at the head of the forces of Hesse, Saxony, and Brunswick. By June disorderly bands in South Germany had been mostly annihilated or dispersed. The peasants, after they had been subjugated, were everywhere treated with terrible cruelty. Multitudes were hanged in the streets, and many were put to death with the greatest tortures. Weinsberg, Rothenburg, Würzburg, and other towns which had joined them suffered the vengeance of the victors, and torrents of blood were shed. It is supposed that more than 100,000 persons lost their lives in the Peasant War. Flourishing and populous districts were desolated. The lot of the defeated insurgents became harder than ever, and many burdens of the peasantry originated at this period. Consult: Fries, Geschichte des Bauernkriegs in Ostfranken (Würzburg, 1884); Cornelius, Studien zur Geschichte des Bauernkrieg (Munich, 1862); Schreiber, Der deutsche Bauernkrieg (1864); Zimmermann, Allgemeine Geschichte des grossen Bauernkriegs (new ed., Stuttgart, 1891); Baumann, Die zwölf Artikel (Kempten, 1896); Janssen, Geschichte des deutschen Volks seit dem Mittelalter (Freiburg, 1877-94).