German Peasants War, 1524-1525

A.) Prehistory

Over the final decades of the 15th and the early decades of the 16th century, the costs for administrating the early medieval state had been rising, in a considerable part due to a transition in warfare that forced rulers/estates to rely on costly artillery and mercenaries instead of (unpaid) knights. The cannon technology again made improvements in the fortifications of castles and city walls necessary. The partitioning of territories among the sons of a ruler resulted in the creation of new political centers (residences), another source of state expense.
The estates of states burdened with a huge debt dealt with the problem by approving extraordinary taxation, usually in the form of indirect taxes, such as tampering with the weights in Württemberg 1514. The bulk of the burden fell on the cities' burghers and on the peasants, the latter not being politically represented in the estates of most territories. The peasants realized the steady increase in taxation, direct and indirect, and occasionally broke our in rebellion (Bundschuh, Armer Konrad (Württemberg 1514), Hungarian Peasants Revolt 1514. These rebellions were mostly regional, poorly organizaed, lacked leadership, the peasants, poorly armed, were easily defeated once a force of knights had been assembled.
Resentment against an overburdening of the peasants by the feudal lords was widespread; the peasants believed their complaints to be just. In this situation, the publication of Martin Luther's German translation of the New Testament (1522) and Old Testament (1523) exacerbated the tension. While most peasants could not read, there were those who could. Martin Luther examined the bible for reference to the sacraments and rejected most of the Catholic sacraments, as well as the practice of celibacy and the institution of monasteries. Peasants examined the bible for reference to the feudal system - When Adam dug and Eve spun, where was then the nobleman ?.

B.) The War

The German Peasants' Revolt actually consists of a number of simultaneous respectively near-simultaneous regional revolts, in the Alsace, in Swabia, in the Pfalz (Lower Palatinate), in Franconia, in Thuringia, in Tyrol, in Salzburg, Inner Austria and in Graubünden (Grisons), the latter omitted in most publications on the German Peasants' War, for the simple reason - the peasants won, and centuries later, their state was integrated into Switzerland.
The revolt began by local peasants refusing to pay a particular tax/due and swearing an oath binding themselves to the common cause. In many cases, a list of grievances was compiled, such as the Schaffhausen Articles. The peasants took up arms (often no more than a pitchfork) and formed hordes. Well aware of the fact that they lacked military experience, they looked for knights to lead them, such as Götz von Berlichingen (who was pressured into leading them); In Thuringia, Anabaptist preacher Thomas Müntzer had a great influence on the horde. They attacked castles, burning down a number of them, and exercised pressure on cities to support their cause.
In the initial phase, knights and territorial lords were at a loss, overwhelmed by the scope of the revolt, which, initiated locally, spread quickly. However, there were castles and cities holding out, regions where the peasants did not join in. Martin Luther spoke out against the "murderous peasants". Noble lords organized an armed force, and, in the Alsace, the Pfalz, Swabia, Franconia, Thuringia, militarily defeated the peasant hordes; the outcome of the struggle here was never in question. In the Alpine regions (Salzburg, Tyrol, Graubünden) the military outcome was less predictable, as the terrain greatly restricted the use of cavalry, the peasants by blocking passes or by ambushing invading troops had a chance. Also, in the Alpine regions there were less castles. As a consequence, the suppression of the peasants' revolt in Tyrol took longer (until 1526); in Graubünden, the peasants prevailed.
After the defeat of the peasants, the rebel leaders were executed. The overall number of victims in the German Peasants War is estimated at 70,000 to 75,000.

C.) The Character of the War

As already stated above, the German Peasants War is rather a number of regional, more or less simultaneous regional rebellions, the regional revolts having similar causes, forms of organization, demands, weaknesses. Except for multilingual Graubünden, the German Peasants' War was a German affair, i.e. the participating peasants spoke German. On the other hand, the revolt was contained to southern Germany and two regions of central Germany - the Pfalz and Thuringia. Still, in a politically fragmented Germany, the Peasants' War of 1525 was the largest ever, directed not against individual territorial lords, but, in her core, against feudalism in general, and in her radicality supported by a number of radical reformers.
The German Peasants' War, in most regions, is subdivided in three phases, an initial phase in which peasants took up arms, formed hordes, issued legitimate complaints against tax burden, unjust treatment, as well as, in a number of cases, the demand for free preaching and the right of parishioners to elect their pastor; the peasant rebels were, for the moment, appeased when the territorial lord promised to convene an assembly where their demands would be addressed. In a second phase, the rebellion radicalized, questioning social hierarchy and political order, and the rebellion turned into a full-scale war. In a third phase, the rebellion was suppressed by a feudal army, the rebels denied mercy, the rebel leaders executed.

D.) The Legacy

The German Peasants' War helped to strengthen the close relation between the Lutheran Church and Lutheran princes, as Martin Luther openly sided with the authorities against the peasants, while the authorities granted him a free hand in the implementation of the Reformation. Persecution of radical reformers (Anabaptists) intensified, far beyond the regions affected by the revolt. The peasants remained unrepresented in the various territorial estates. On the other hand, the authorities were more careful when it came to imposing new taxation, in order not to provoke a repetition of the German Peasants War.

Note : the regional revolts are discussed on separate pages. Here only sources on the German Peasants War in general are listed.

Ed Weick, German Peasants' War
Friedrich Engels, The German Peasants' War, from Our History, leftist view
The German Peasants' Revolt, by Christopher Handisides
Peasants' War, from Wikipedia
Lee R. Sullivan, The Hanging of Judas : Medieval Iconography and the German Peasants' War, from Essays in Medieval Studies
War of the Peasants, from Catholic Encyclopedia
Florian Welle, Die Körpermassaker im deutschen Bauernkrieg von 1525, in German
A.F. Pollard, Social Revolution and Catholic Reaction in Germany, posted by MATEO
REFERENCE Mark Greengrass, The Longman Companion to the European Reformation c.1500-1618, Harlow (Essex): Longman 1998, pp.75-81, KMLA Lib.Sign. 274.06 GB 121
Armies of the German Peasants' War 1524-1526, from Osprey men-at-arms

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on February 24th 2004, last revised on November 17th 2004

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