German Peasants War (1524 – 1525): Uprising of the Poor

Agrarian and Urban Poor Waged Class Warfare Against Their Rulers

Thomas Muntzer German Peasants War
Thomas Muntzer, pastor and rebel leader during the German Peasants War of 1524 - 1525. 1488 - 27 May 1525. Culture Club / Getty Images

The German Peasants War was the rebellion of agrarian peasants in the southern and central parts of German-speaking central Europe against the rulers of their cities and provinces. Urban poor joined in the rebellion as it spread to cities.

Context

In Europe in the mid-16th century, German-speaking parts of central Europe were loosely organized under the Holy Roman Empire (which, as has often been said, was not holy, Roman, nor really an empire).

Aristocrats ruled small city-states or provinces, subject to loose control by Charles V of Spain, then the Holy Roman Emperor, and by the Roman Catholic Church, which taxed the local princes. The feudal system was ending, where there was an assumed mutual trust and mirrored obligations and responsibilities between peasants and the princes, as princes sought to increase their power over the peasants and to consolidate ownership of land. The institution of Roman law rather than medieval feudal law meant that the peasants lost some of their standing and power.

Reformation preaching, changing economic conditions, and a history of revolts against authority also likely played a part in the rebellion’s initiation.

The rebels were not rising against the Holy Roman Empire, which had little to do with their lives in any case, but against the Roman Catholic Church and more local nobles, princes, and rulers.

The Revolt

The first revolt as at Stühlingen, and then it spread. As the rebellion began and spread, the rebels rarely attacked violently except to capture supplies and cannons. Large scale battles began after April, 1525.  The princes had hired mercenaries and built up their armies, and then turned to crush the peasants, who were untrained and poorly armed in comparison.

Twelve Articles of Memmingen

A list of demands of the peasants was in circulation by 1525. Some related to the church: more power of congregation members to select their own pastors, changes in tithing. Other demands were secular: stopping land enclosure which cut off access to fish and game and other products of the woods and rivers, ending serfdom, reform in the justice system.

Frankenhausen

The peasants were crushed in a battle at Frankenhausen, fought May 15, 1525. More than 5,000 peasants were killed, and the leaders captured and executed.

Key Figures

Martin Luther, whose ideas inspired some of the princes in German-speaking Europe to break with the Roman Catholic Church, opposed the peasant rebellion. He preached peaceful action by the peasants in his An Exhortation of Peace in Response to the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants. He taught that peasants had a responsibility to farm the land and rulers had the responsibility to keep the peace. Just at the end as the peasants were losing, Luther published his Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. In this, he encouraged violent and quick reaction on the part of the ruling classes. After the war was over and the peasants defeated, he then criticized the violence by the rulers and the continued suppression of peasants.

 

Thomas Müntzer or Münzer, another Reformation minister in Germany, supported the peasants, by the early part of 1525 had definitely joined the rebels, and may have consulted with some of their leaders to shape their demands. His vision of a church and the world used images of a small “elect” battling a greater evil to bring good into the world. After the end of the revolt, Luther and other Reformers held up Müntzer as an example of taking the Reformation too far.

Among the leaders who defeated Müntzer’s forces at Frankenhausen  were Philip of Hesse, John of Saxony, and Henry and George of Saxony.

Resolution

As many as 300,000 people took part in the rebellion, and some 100,000 were killed. The peasants won almost none of their demands. The rulers, interpreting the war as reason for repression, instituted laws that were more repressive than before, and often decided to repress more unconventional forms of religious change, too, thus slowing the progress of the Protestant Reformation.