The Peasants' War 1524-1525

In late medieval Germany, the law regarding inheritance varied from region to region. While in Northern Germany and Bavaria, a farm was transferred from generation to generation undivided (i.e. only one son, often the eldest, could inherit it), in the Palatinate, in Wsabia, Franconia and Thuringia the deceased father's land and property was equally divided among his sons. The result after generations of partitioning was that many farms in Germany's southwest were too small to feed a family.
Most farmers were unfree, born on someone else's property, the owner being a nobleman or a monastery (THE DEAD HAND). The farmers had to work the fields of their lords before they were free to work on their own plots. This was critical, when, in the time of harvest, bad weather was approaching; the farmer's own crop might face destruction while he was harvesting his lord's crop.
Similarly, in many cities the GUILDS, lead by the master craftsmen, protested against the CITY COUNCIL, claiming that it would mismanage the city's tax revenue, to which the craftsmen contributed considerably. The guild's demand was that they were granted representation in the council which hitherto was monopolized by the PATRICIANS.
Early in the 16th century, the situation in many regions and cities had become explosive. In 1509 the BURGHERS of the city of Erfurt rebelled, in 1511-1513 many cities all over Germany experienced civil unrest, and in some cities the guilds were given representation in the council, with limited powers. In 1510, an anonymous treatise, attibuted to the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine was published, containing a list of numerous contemporary complaints. In 1513 the Swiss peasants rebelled against the rule of the cities; in Breisgau the farmers formed an organization called BUNDSCHUH and rebelled against the lower nobility; in 1514 a new organization, the "ARMER KONRAD" (poor Conrad) is formed with the same objectives.
When the peasants took up their arms in 1524/25, things were different. For the first time, this was not just a local rebellion. Although the peasants were poorly armed, missed a stringent organization and experienced leadership, they posed a serious challenge.
At first the peasants wanted to bring their grievances out in the open and negotiate; their plan was not a revolt. Only when the Swabian nobility, after having negotiated to distract the peasants, betrayed their trust by attacking them, did the movement become radical.

The beginning REFORMATION compared the political reality of the early 16th century with what was written in the bible. So did he peasants, asking : When Adam wove and Eve spun, where was then the nobleman ?. Martin Luther, asked for his opinion in the case, clearly spoke against the peasants, condemning their rebellion. (He himself had depended on the protection provided to him by the Duke of Saxony).
The peasants were badly armed and totally inexperienced. They assembled in HORDES (Ger.: Haufen) and forced local knights, such as GOETZ VON BERLICHINGEN, to lead them. Initially they were able to inflict damage by burning down a few castles, but they were no match for disciplined armies of noble cavallery. The hordes were dispersed, the ringleaders, such as FLORIAN GEYER and radical priest THOMAS MUENTZER, publicly executed. The peasants' war was over in 1525.
The idea of a systematical political reform lived on, having MICHAEL GAISMAYER contemplate with the idea of a PEASANT'S REPUBLIC in TYROL (1526). In 1534, radical ANABAPTISTS, many of them Dutch immigrants, took control of the city of MUENSTER in Westphalia. They declared doomsday to be near, introduced a 'biblical order' according to which all property was common property (that included the women). The bishop of Muenster had fled, as well as many burghers who had not converted to Anabaptism. The bishop collected an army, laid siege to the city and took it after a year.

The legacy of the years of unrest were that aristocracy, both catholic and protestant clergy as well as city councilmen, protestant and catholic, were confirmed in their belief that it was unpractical to let the peasants/guilds have a share in government or in determining their religious creed. In most cities, the guilds were excluded again from representation in the council, and, with a few exceptions, peasants were not represented in territorial estates. When protestant and catholic princes in 1555 at Augsburg agreed on the principle cuius regio, eius religio (whose territory it is, his denomination (the people) shall have), their idea was to forestall another Anabaptist Muenster.
Nobility treated the peasants' war as a warning. From then on, peasants were treated with more caution; nobody was interested in a repetition.

Ed Weick, German Peasants War
The German Peasants War, from Our History, leftist view
DOCUMENTS The Twelve Aticles of the German Peasants, from Our History, click here for the German original text;
Thomar Muenzer : Fuerstenpredigt, Ausgedrueckte Entbloessung des falschen Glaubens, Hochverursachte Schutzrede (answer on M. Luther), Sendebrief zur Bekehrunge Bruders Ernstes zu Hekdrungen, An die Allstedter, Manifest an die Mansfeldischen Berggesellschaften
Mathis Nithard and 8 of his followers were expelled from the city of Basel, after having sworn never to set foot in the city again, April 26 1526, posted by Philippe Nithard, site in French; doc available as facsimile, printed text in 16th century German, in modern French translation

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on November 12th 2004

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