While the date for the Peasants revolt was 1525 it could be said that for well over a hundred years the German peasantry had been in a state of rebellion. Many of the earlier revolts were caused according to Elton attempts “by various landlords to re-impose feudal rights that had fallen into disuse”. In the aftermath of the Black Death, with a substantially lessened population, some peasants and serfs were enjoying both higher wages and better conditions but for the majority it was a time of growing misery.
On a broader point changes in the economy which had resulted from the move from a natural or feudal to money economy had a more profound effect from 1476 it brought about a series of local uprisings and peasant riots across Germany and all over Europe. These were however soon suppressed.
The rise in world trade created a new class of merchants i.e. the development of a new middle class, which amassed vast fortunes, travelled widely and opened new markets. In other words the arrival of capitalism in early form. With the development of money everything became a commodity including people. This change became the driving force for revolutionary changes in the 14th 15th and 16th century.
This was the transition period between feudalism and capitalism. Much of industry was still in the towns; many guild people had never left the confines of their village or town. The opposition between buyer and seller soon became opposition between nations. The merchants opposed the universality of the medieval church. Traders brought together the loosely knit medieval states into smaller entities. Christianity was divided into sharply distinct nations.
It was only when the reformation came into being which had reached large parts of the Germany did the Peasants Revolt take place all over the empire. Revolt was feared and hated not only by the German princes and knights but also the leaders of the reformation itself. The movement of peasants was an entirely progressive nature. The twelve articles of Memmingen issued by the peasants were of a democratic character although were couched in the language of religion.
It should be bore in mind that Germany at the time was at the beginning of the transformation from a feudal economy to a capitalist economy and that many of the more profound revolts and rebellions would take place within an “ecclesiastical shell of which inside the more profound growing political and class differences amongst the different sections of the Ruling elites were to be fought out”.
The 12 articles conformed to most of the ideas being put forward by the new rising class of the day the bourgeoisie. What the German peasants wanted in 1525 was achieved by the French in 1789.
Their demands were for “electing and recall of the clergy by the congregation, the abolition of serfdom and noble hunting and fishing rights, the limitation of excessive labor services and taxes, the restitution of the woods and pastures taken from individuals or communities, and the removal of arbitrary justice and administration”.
At first the peasants were able to keep their revolt mainly low key and peaceful and while it remained so it won support from the leaders of the Reformation. When the peasants did rise up it caused considerable surprise amongst the princes. On April 16th Luther put forward that there should be a settlement based on the 12 articles. He said ‘Not the peasants, but God himself was in revolt against the bloodthirsty tyranny of the princes’.
It has been said by some historians like James M Stayer that “In general the movement of 1525 used the language of the reformation”. While the Reformation allowed the conditions for the rebellion to take place it would wrong to assume as Stayer does that the revolution was inspired by the religious politics of the reformation. If it was the case that “Luther’s overwhelming personality made the reformation” then his involvement would have undoubtedly changed the course of the revolt and more favourable outcome may have been achieved.
The princess once they saw what was happening moved to cruelly drown the revolt in blood. They were spurred on by Luther himself who gave them his blessing in the form of his pamphlet published on May 6 entitled Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of peasants, In it Luther calls on the princess “Therefore dear lords, here is a place where you can release, rescue, help, have mercy on these poor people (whom the peasants have compelled to join them). Stab, smite, and slay, whomever you can. If you die in doing it, wellf or you, a more blessed death can never be yours”. However the princes both catholic and Protestant needed no encouragement.
The Power of the clergy began to be severely undermined by the development of the printing press and the translation of the bible into German. Based on medieval feudal ideology the development of commerce and the rising of a new capitalist class threatened its position not only in terms of education. Intellectual positions were taken from it, mostly becoming lazy and ignorant. There was an intimate relationship between the higher clergy and the princes in some cases it became virtually indistinguishable?
The real leader of this revolt was Thomas Munzer who was the embodiment of all that was courageous in the uprising. He was a secular priest who called for social equality and called for the killing of all those who opposed change.
In Mulhausen, which was free town he set up a commune, which lasted two months. He and his army of peasants were defeated in a battle with well-armed soldiers with large volumes of Guns.
This would be the story all over the empire, it has been said that the revolt failed because the demands put forward by the peasants were out of date, on the contrary, I believe they were far ahead of their time, it was because the national conditions upon which they rested were missing at the time, i.e. a German nation.
The revolt had support from a few towns, and some workers such as miners gave support to the rebellion, but the urban centers were still too far underdeveloped to lend the support needed to defeat the knights and princes.
Also in general the movement was beset by its own internal disputes and problems. In general battles remained local and provincial in their character, many peasants refused to come to the aid of their brothers fighting in other parts of the districts. Most of the peasants were killed in individual battles which militarily suited the prince’s down to a tee.
The princes utilized trickery and outright deception against the peasantry, which through years of serfdom had grown accustomed to trusting their masters. On many occasions the rulers made promises to the and when the peasants laid down their arms they were slaughtered by the princess armies. It has been said upwards of 100,000 peasants were killed.
When the rebellion was over it would be fair to say that apart from escaping with their lives much had not changed. Although they lost some of their self-government in many respects they had been so poor at the start of the war that after it their position had not actually been made worse. Many richer middling sort peasants had been ruined. For the Princes the war was a bonanza, it had allowed them to seize vast tracks of the clergy’s land and they levied huge fines on the towns which had supported the uprising.
This persecution did not just stop at the general peasantry, the Anabaptists which took their name from the fact that they opposed the baptism the church carried out on new born children were treated no less harshly and were virtually exterminated as a movement, the Anabaptists although sharing Thomas Munzer “ communistic views” were nonviolent and pacifists in outlook.
While the Anabaptists were considered a religious oddity and have been examined by the Princes to be a dangerous enemy and in some quarters were considered revolutionaries. They were driven out of most parts of Germany and were finally pushed to Holland. To survive the movement took up arms. In the old town of Munster the flow albeit for a short while had done what the peasants revolt had failed to do in setting up and controlling a whole city. It had however taken the whole of the German Empire to drown it in blood.
While the peasants revolt took place at the time of the Reformation its political inspiration was more of a democratic and in an embryonic form communistic in nature rather than religious inspiration, “nevertheless the war had a profound social consequence, an essential characteristic of late medieval Germany disappeared overnight when the rural commons and urban poor suddenly ceased to have any further power to influence.
In the merchant-dominated areas had the beginning of the nation-state. National language began to replace Latin of the churches. The power of gold and money began to change economic relations, even agriculture produce became commodities. The Knights and general aristocracy felt threatened by these developments.
The church was deeply affected by these changes and had to adapt. Agricultural lands were developed to make profits. To increase its wealth it seized common lands and attacks the peasants. Peasantry began to hate the church. The new mode of economic developments had no need for the clergy as it began to develop its own science and education. Monasteries increasingly became obsolete and served no function. Priests became more lazy and baseness and vice became commonplace.
Churches power to raise money came under threat. The steady lust for money led to indulgences such as the remission of sins became increasingly harmless. Churches were becoming nothing more than ruthless money making machines. Pope became remote and church authority was being steadily undermined.
Much of the current historiography sees the Reformation, which sought a complete break with Rome in spiritual terms, form a new rising class of a more secular outlook, trying to create new ways of art, language even religion to reflect its new thought and new society.
In Germany, all classes had suffered under papal exploitation, growing frustration that the church was exporting germane wealth to Rome. While German towns were already great centers of trade and German miners were
Amongst the most productive, Germany was still vastly underdeveloped. A modern monarchy could not develop in the country ruled by different princes and knights. When a new development of production began to emerge, it highlighted the decay of feudal relations under the Knights.
Germany was nation whereby all classes were at each other throats. The peasantry had much the worse position, immense hardship and poverty. When Luther nailed his thesis against indulgences to the castle church on October 31 1517 signalled the outbreak of a revolt that had been simmering for decades. Luther’s argument was in reality quite tame compared to the letters composed by the Humanists whose tracts were often sharp and could not be understood by the masses, Luther did.
While in normal times Luther’s criticisms would have been largely ignored at this time they were like a lighted match thrown into a tinder box.