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The Great Peasants’ War in Germany of 1525: a Little Known Story

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Please note that this copy comes from back up files saved from 5 1/4 inch floppies. I found out that over 40 pages were missing and other sections as well. It took me way too long to finish editing it. Peter Krey



September 20, 1991 by Peter D. S. Krey

What was the German Peasants’ War of 1525 but an abortive revolution, even if they did not yet have this word in their vocabulary or actually use it in this sense? What a thing to make a nobleman walk on his feet, while the peasant climbed the mount and rode on the nobleman’s high horse! What was it when the notorious peasants could load Margarethe von Helfenstein, the natural daughter of Emperor Maximilian, on a manure wagon in Weinsberg, and pack her and her child off to Heilsbronn? Less harmless was this insult to her noble estate than the fact that despite her pleading for her husband’s life, Duke Helfenstein, along with seventeen other noblemen and knights, was still forced to run a gauntlet of peasants before her eyes, witnessing this cruel sport with her two year old son.  (By and large the peasants had not been bloodthirsty, but Duke Helfenstein had just carried out a murderous march against the peasants on his way from Stuttgart to Weinsberg.)[2] Abortive as the revolution was, for a small space in time, from 1524 to 1525, and longer in Tyrol, the peasants hunted and fished as equals to the ruling nobility.

Because the story of the German Peasants’ War from 1524-1526 is a little known story, this chapter will briefly describe what happened in the various arenas in which it took place and then begin a preliminary interpretation of the relationship of the Reformation and Martin Luther (1483-1546) to it. Today our description of what happened unfolds as a premature social and political revolution. (Note that the word, “revolution,” however, began taking on the meaning of “taking one step farther in history” during the Enlightenment.) The substance of the precise relation of the Peasants’ War to the religious upheaval of the day, which we call the Reformation today, remains a controversy for later chapters of this investigation to explore.

Although a revolution, the demands of the Great Peasants’ War by the peasants were first moderate enough.  More extreme revolutionary ideas came about later and tended to derive more from the city folk or burghers and radical preachers. The streams of the landless and poor from the wretched suburbs were swept along in the current. The poorer folk and the craftsmen of the cities also rose up against the patrician city elites who controlled the city councils. Thus the unrest was not only rural, but also widespread in the towns and cities.

From rivulets of peasants in the Black Forest in June of 1524, the peasant uprising surged into rivers when the “common man” or the towns people joined them. It swelled into a torrential stream in the Fall and Winter of 1524-1525, flash-flooding whole regions of the country in the Spring: Upper Swabia, Franconia, Austria, Northern Switzerland, Thuringia, and later Tyrol.  In some places like Franconia, nobility also joined the peasants, or were compelled to join, and then criminal elements were also carried along in the torrent, bringing with them the forces of destruction, pillage and disorder.

The “common man” as he was called in the time, is certainly part of this revolution, but it seemed the basic initiative was taken by the peasants, who were feeling the dignity of their estate. They even made the nobility honorary peasants: When the peasants had won the day in Württemberg, they forced Bamberg and Würzburg to join their cause. Following their command, the Dukes Albrecht and George von Hohenlohe surrendered their canon to the peasants and accepted their “Twelve Articles.” “Brother George and Brother Albrecht,” a peasant addressed them, “You are now no longer Lords, but peasants.”[3]

This uprising of the “common man” (the term that Peter Blickle’s prefers) threatened to inundate all of Germany. Geographically charted, it began in  Southern Germany or Upper (i.e., southern) Swabia, near the boarders of the Swiss cantons, and it spread into northern Swabia and into Württemberg. It went east as far as the city of Memmingen, but did not cross over into Bavaria. By the spring of 1525 it had gone northward into Franconia, Hessen, and Thuringia. It swept westward into Lorraine and over into Alsace. Southeast of Swabia it moved into Salzburg and Austria, and due south into Tyrol. At one point, all of southern and central Germany was in the hands of the peasants, except for Bavaria, in the south (interestingly enough),[4] and the six Forest Cantons of central Switzerland; and of course, North and East Germany were spared the revolution. But here the cities, too, became restless and one isolated uprising in Samland of Eastern Prussia is also reported. Perhaps the speedy overthrow of Thomas Müntzer in Thuringia prevented the revolution from spreading further northward.

Southern Germany, or more precisely, Upper Swabia, had a long pre-history of peasant revolts. Württemberg was also not without an earlier uprising. What follows is a list which is not exhaustive, but a mere sampling of all the unrest: In Swabia the Piper of Nicklashausen, Hans Böheim, whose religious-social revolt took place in 1476, caused fear among the feudal lords and rulers. The Hegau peasants revolted in 1460. The “Bundschuh” or (Union Boot) conspiracies were rampant starting in 1493.  The Bundschuh, the Union Boot, the laced boot of the peasants on a banner, was the symbol for these dreaded peasant revolts.  One Bundschuh took place in Schlettstadt in 1496, another in Untergrombach in 1502, and in Breisgau in 1513. The two latter conspiracies were led by Joss Fritz, a young peasant from Untergrombach, who cleverly eluded the authorities. He emerged again in Upper Swabia in 1524 in the first stages of the great uprising, only to disappear without a trace. In the abbey of Kempten, the peasants revolted in 1490 and in the abbey of Ochsenhausen, they revolted in 1502. The “Poor Conrad” uprising in Württemberg was crushed brutally by Duke Ulrich in 1514, and the battle cry of the Steier peasants of 1515 was “Stara prauda”, or “the old law.”  Another Bundschuh took place along the upper Rhine in 1517. To understand the motives a word said by a peasant to an abbot will suffice:

“What we all win, if we pull off a Bundschuh, we will find out by luck. At least, however, we have to be free, like the Swiss, and rule alongside others in spiritual things, like the Hussites.”[5]

This peasant gives more insight on what produced this list of uprisings, which are comparable with union and worker strikes of today.

Although obviously southern or Upper Germany  had this long and chronic peasant unrest, Middle Germany did not. Therefore social and political factors play a larger role in the former, while religious factors play a larger role in the latter. Discounting all social and political factors, the Catholic opponents of Martin Luther blamed the whole Peasants’ War on him. According to the old believers or  Catholics, his stand against the pope before the emperor in the Diet of Worms in 1521, his attack against the spiritual estate, his  sharp tongue that sometimes lashed the authorities with unbridled anger, delighted the lower estates and brought an attack on the civil order along with it.[6]

Nevertheless in 1522 Luther wrote his “Sincere Warning  By Martin Luther To All Christians To Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion.” Returning from the protection of the Wartburg, he squelched the Wittenberg Disturbances of 1521-1522, and would not join Franz von Sickingen’s Rebellion of the Knights in 1522-1523, in spite of Ulrich von Hutton’s fervent requests. Although Luther wished to divert his followers from confronting the civil order, many of his followers disagreed with him, as did Zwingli from Zürich, who was very influential in Upper Swabia where the revolution first began.[7] These theologians represented a different reformation from Luther’s by their unwillingness to separate the religious from the political and social factors. The Catholic reaction, however, did not make a distinction, and in Upper Swabia, theologians under Zwingli’s influence often lost sight of these distinctions as well.[8]

The image of the peasant took on a peculiar quality that was somewhat larger than life in those days. In the literature he was depicted as the rebellious peasant, “Karsthans,”[9] who refused to pay tithes and deliver services to his liege Lords. On the other hand, some saw in this image of the peasant a savior. Because of his innocent oppression, they considered him to be the only one truly worthy to defend the gospel. Romantically conceived, – when it came to the inevitable Catholic reaction against the new religious movement, which only the military entanglements of the pope and emperor seemed to be delaying,  he would protect the spreading new belief with hoe and flail. Luther certainly did not see the peasants or even the “common man” as saviors, but he also saw them as larger than life.  According to him, they would turn the wrath of God loose upon the princes and prelates for not accepting his gospel. The peasants sensed their historic mission, and a power was unleashed that was uncontrollable. The coming tragedy proved unpreventable.

Stühlingen, located in the southern Black Forest in Upper Swabia, only a short distance from Zürich, is the place where the uprising began in the late summer harvest season of 1524. A summer hail storm had destroyed much of the crop, and tensions ran high as peasants tried to save as much of the harvest as possible. But the insensitivity of the Countess von Lupfen was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. She had the peculiar custom of winding yarn onto snail shells, and she wanted the peasants to interrupt their harvesting and gather them for her on the shore to resupply her need. The angry peasants refused to obey and began to gather and congregate together in demonstration and protest. In doing so they were stepping over a dangerous line drawn by the nobility by breaking the laws against peasant conspiracies. But they were determined to take their case to higher authorities.

But the incident with the countess was only in the foreground and represented a great number of peasant grievances. They complained of the enclosure of the forests, alienation of the common meadows, and the denial of the right to fish. They were compelled, they said, to do much field work for their Lord, assist at hunts, and draw ponds and streams for fish without regard to their needs. The Lord’s streams were diverted across their fields, while water necessary for their irrigation and for turning their mills was cut off. Their crops were ruined by huntsmen trampling them down. They accused their Lord of abusing his jurisdiction, of inflicting intolerable punishments, and of appropriating stolen goods. They felt that justice could no longer be expected from his hands, and they could not support their wives and children in the face of all his exactions.[10]

Sixty-two articles listed their local grievances, and interestingly enough, they made no mention of the Reformation, i.e., Luther and the Gospel, or any religious issues of the time.[11] These were purely social, economic and political issues. The peasant wanted to have justice and wished to demonstrate, to underscore how seriously they felt about it. For protection they began to organize. They chose the former Landsknecht, or peasant mercenary, Hans Müller of Bulgenbach, as their captain. He was a good organizer, eloquent speaker, and experienced soldier, and riding from village to village in a brightly decorated cart, with a large feather in his cap, he was like the peasant emperor.

Soon contact with the new religious movement would take place, however. In late August of that year Hans Müller led his peasant band to the city of Waldshut, which is located only a short distance from Stühlingen, to a church dedication, (August 24, 1524)[12] where the controversial Dr. Balthasar Hubmaier was pastor. The whole area was suffering a savage persecution of the new believers at the hand of the Austrian authorities. The persecution did not differentiate between the most moderate and harmless pastors and the most radical and revolutionary ones. It was hard to tell whom the Catholic authorities hated more, the Lutherans or the revolting peasants, whom they held to be Lutherans as well. Waldshut, too, was under the jurisdiction of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, who commanded that Hubmaier be extricated to the authorities for introducing the Reformation into that city. Hubmeier was trying to make Waldshut another Zürich and represented the expansion of Zwingli’s reformation.[13] Waldshut was in extreme danger because it refused to obey the Archduke, but decided to protect its pastor. The peasants under Hans Müller and the burghers of Waldshut covenanted together for mutual protection.

Dr. Hubmaier was part of a radical circle of theologians around Ulrich Zwingli, (Grebel, Manz and Blaurock) many of whom were soon to become Anabaptists in late January or early February, 1525. At this point in time many Anabaptists were still quite militantly revolutionary. Hubmeier taught and preached that the authorities had disqualified themselves from ruling. Because they attacked the Gospel and tried to prevent its preaching they had forfeited their right to govern. Henceforth the peasants need no longer carry out their duties for their Lords. The Lord God alone should be honored. And the peasants agreed that they wanted no other Lord than the Lord God Almighty. Hubmaier took a radical stance and the peasants and townspeople “gave great weight to what he said, because they held him to be a good Lutheran, praising the fact that he came to them by a special dispensation and calling from God the Almighty.”[14]

While the new religious movement from Zürich, which confused ecclesiastical power with temporal power[15] played a role in Waldshut; the abuse of ecclesiastical power played a large role in such places like Kempten, Upper Swabia. The ecclesiastical Lords of Kempten were often more unjust and oppressive to the serfs in their holdings than the secular ones. That they were religious added special pain and increased the resentment of the serfs in face of the social injustices. Nowhere were the complaints of the peasants more justified than those belonging to the Abbots of the monastery of Kempten. The serfs had already revolted in 1492, and unrest had sprung up again in 1523, when they refused to swear homage to the new Abbot, Sebastian von Breitenstein, unless he would redress their many grievances. Every means, just and unjust, secular and ecclesiastical, was being used to press the peasants back into feudal serfdom, peasants who had long ago won more freedom. Sometimes excommunication was used unabashedly for punishing non-payment of debt to the abbot, their lord. The peasant courts were suppressed and protection money paid by the serfs was increased twenty-fold. The money was used by the Abby for building projects and travel. When negotiations failed and the peasants refused obedience, von Breitenstein threatened he would have to get the cruel commander, Georg von Frundsberg, to teach them obedience. The peasants decided to protect themselves and use force to repel force. They gathered together at Luibas near the courthouse of Kempten and elected Jörg Schmid, otherwise known as, Knopf, to be their leader. They had no more use for their old Lords, and wished to be their own Lords. And they beheld peasants all round them doing the same.

The uprisings in Stühlingen, Kempten, and all around Lake Constance were no different than all the other uprisings of the peasants in the past, with the exception of the fact that they were not being brutally crushed as had always happened before. The Swabian League, the great alliance of South Germany, had first organized its army to defend against any attack by Swiss mercenaries. Now it was also used against peasant revolts. Swiss freedom represented a constant threat to the feudal lords of the peasants near the Swiss Cantons. Switzerland and Germany were not different countries in those days. But the Swabian League could only muster a force of 2,000 Landsknechte against the peasants. (Landsknechte were farmhands who had become soldiers.) All available mercenaries were being sent by Archduke Ferdinand of Austria to help his brother, Emperor Charles V, in his up-coming battle in Pavia (northern Italy) with Francis I, the king of France. And those that were not in Italy, were hired by Duke Ulrich in Hohentwiel in Hegau, who had mustered 10,000 Swiss mercenaries, to take back the Württemberg that he had lost to Austria. Thus in this center of peasant unrest, Duke Ulrich was leading a military campaign to Stuttgart and the great Battle of Pavia was about to take place. Swiss freedom would win great influence and expand should the Hapsburg emperor be defeated.

Given this respite from repression and the revolutionary climate of the day, the peasant uprising grew with amazing speed and spread from one region to another. There was no need for secret conspiracies like those of the earlier Bundschuh. The peasants began to rise up en masse in what they now considered to be their right by divine law.  Because of the religious element introduced by Hubmaier and another pastor, Christoph Schappeler of Memmingen, they were going to defend the Gospel and its right to be preached “without human additive.” The latter formulation described for them the old believers’ Gospel.  (For example, in their reading of Luther’s recently published New Testament, there was no mention of monasteries!)  First the peasants of Klettgau and Hegau joined the Stühlingers. Then all of those around Lake Constance, with those of Allgäu and Thurgau as well, came together and mustered themselves into army-assemblies (Haufen in German) and swore oaths of allegiance to each other for mutual protection in face of the possible attack.

With such a demonstration of power in the rising peasants, Hans Müller realized that merely overthrowing Count Siegmund von Lupfen was no longer worthy of his consideration. He now wanted to organize the peasants throughout all of Germany and overthrow all the rulers. Thomas Müntzer was also campaigning in the area at the time, preaching in Klettgau and Hegau that the New Israel of God was at hand. He also expanded Müllers vision and aspirations, preached for the rebellious peasants, and met with Hubmaier as well. He spent eight weeks there in the Fall of 1524, and perhaps a good deal of the Winter also. He is best characterized as a fanatical preacher and not as a peasant leader[16] – although upon his return to Thuringia in February of 1525, he would win great control over the common people there.

Duke Ulrich of Württenberg added a great deal to the turmoil in this region seething with peansant unrest. He had been driven out of his duchy in 1519 by the knights von Sickingen and von Hutton after falling out of favor with the emperor.  From his fortress, Hohentwiel in Hegau, he was looking for a chance to retake Württemberg and had assembled an army of 10,000 Swiss mercenaries to accomplish this conquest. He had been agitating peasants for some time in order to carry out his plans and now the same duke who had crushed the Poor Conrad rebellion so brutally several years before, was posing as “Utz the Peasant.”  The harsh rule of Austria over Württemberg in his absence, he hoped, had made the peasants forget his character.

Now Duke Ulrich invaded Württemberg taking Ballingen, Herrenberg, and Sindelfingen in a successful campaign which brought him to the outskirts of Stuttgart.  He began the siege of that important city on the ninth of March, 1525.[17]

The Swabian League could not deal with the Peasant army-assemblies, while Duke Ulrich was in the field. Duke Ulrich and the Swiss mercenaries represented a very powerful threat to the Swabian League. The league now began to fulfill its original purpose: to stand guard against the forces of the Swiss Cantons and the temptation by the peasants to revolt for the Swiss freedom that they coveted. Peasants yearned to overturn regressive and feudal conditions in Swabia.  The Swabian League had difficulty, however, mustering sufficient numbers of soldiers. Realistically speaking, Duke Ulrich certainly did not represent Swiss freedom, but with him in the field, the peasants bid for freedom could not be crushed.

The real power behind the Swabian League was the Chancelor of Bavaria, Leonhard von Eck, who hated everything new, and most especially the new evangelical heretics, called the Lutherans. As far as he was concerned, these were nothing but traitors, and he saw the peasant uprising as nothing but an outgrowth of this unchecked heresy. He would not let any moderate who proposed negotiations with the peasants stand in the council, and ordered the Swabian League to punish the rebellious peasants by a general blood-letting. Negotiations, like those with the Stühlingers at Stockach, were used merely to gain time to muster sufficient forces to crush the peasants brutally as had always been the custom. While the Swabian League marched toward Stuttgart and Duke Ulrich, they attacked and massacred small unsuspecting bands of Hegau peasants, which they met along the way. During this time, however, they acted as though their negotiations were done in good faith.

While negotiations and treaties looked possible, the moderate peasant leaders held command of the Peasant army-assemblies. But when it slowly became obvious that the Swabian League wanted to force a military solution as the only option, the peasants turned to more militant leaders ready to do battle. The revolting peasants now used much more pressure on their fellow peasants to join them. If a peasant refused, they pounded a stake into the ground before his cottage door placing him into a ban and making him a public enemy for the other peasants, who henceforth would have nothing more to do with such a peasant.[1View Post8]

Perhaps the peasants began to take to heart what the mayor of Ulm said to them over the negotiation table:

“With you peasants it’s like the frogs in the spring. At this time of the year they all come together and cry: `rivit, rivit’. Then the stork comes and swallows them. In the same way you cry: `Law! Law!’ Then the Lords will come and strike you dead.”[19]

It was difficult for the peasants to accept the fact that the Lords did not take negotiations with them seriously.

But early in February spontaneous revolts were taking place in many localities. Dietrich Hurlewagen of Lindau leading the Allgäu Army of Peasants, rose up against the Bishop of Augsburg. Their center of command was in Baltringen and the peasants from the monastic holdings of the Abbots of Kempten and Ochsenhausen and even peasants from beyond the Alps joined this campaign. All the peasants of the area around Lake Constance joined them and no church bells could be sounded for services, because this would make all the peasants rush to their center ready to depart for battle. These peasants were led by Eitelhans of Thüringia, whose followers celebrated him “as a good captain of the Lord, who kept a faithful hand over them.”[20]

Many other local campaigns could be described, but this one is an example for the powerful spontaneity that obtained in these early months of 1525.

It became necessary for the peasant assembly-armies to organize themselves better.  But in the Fall of 1524, Hans Müller had not yet succeeded in organizing three of them (assemby-armies were called Haufen in German) into the Christian Union, although it is sometimes claimed that he did and he is given the credit for it.  It was Christoph Schappeler, however, with the “religious” assistance of Zürich that brought them together in Memmingen during February and March of 1525. The Baltringen Peasant army-assembly chose the moderate, Ulrich Schmid of Sulmingen, as its captain. Ulrich Schmid was a convinced Lutheran artisan, who joined the peasants because he believed in their cause. It took some persuasion before he agreed to lead the Baltringen army-assembly of Peasants:

“He wanted to have it openly expressed for all to know that it was not for his own person and for the sake of his own grievances, that in any way he wanted to raise complaints with his Lords. He was a good craftsman, and could make a good living for his wife and children….He wanted it understood that he was acting as a mediator and negotiator in their behalf and that of the Lords, and it should not be perceived differently.”[21]

He persuaded Sebastian Lotzer[22] to become the scribe of the assembly. At one point 30,000 peasants gathered together under him.  He was very influential around the time of the Memmingen gathering of delegates.

Of interest is Schmid’s moderate approach and the fact that he was Lutheran.  His rationale for leading the peasants was two-fold, material and spiritual: the latter in that the people were being robbed of the preaching of the Word of God, which placed their souls in extreme danger, and the former, in that the taxation and burdens upon the peasants were too severe and cruel so that they were no longer able to bear it.[23] Ulrich Schmid was moderate in that he did not at all intend to use force. The arms the peasants bore were only for self-defense in case the Lords placed a bad interpretation upon their demonstration and suddenly turned on them to slay them. The Lords came to him and offered him litigation in court. Schmid refused because he yearned for divine justice that would inform each estate what it must or must not do. The Lords responded with ridicule:

“Dear Ulrich, you ask for Godly justice. Tell us. Who will pronounce such justice? God will not hurry down from heaven in order to schedule a legal convention for us.”[24]

According to Ulrich, he did not yet have judges or the jurisprudence, but three weeks of prayer should be scheduled and every church yard and priest questioned concerning this issue.

When the Baltringen peasants sent delegates to the city of Memmingen, along with those of the Lake Peasant and Allgäu Peasant Army- Assemblies, a gathering of peasants into a parliament took place on March 5.  The “Christian Association” or “Christian Union” of Peasant Army-Assemblies was formed the next day and Wendel Hipler was chosen to be the Peasant Chancellor.

At this time, Zürich prevailed upon the peasants to rally their cause in behalf of the Gospel.[25] (From Luther’s perspective, such a stance is a cloak that Von Sickingen had also used to cover the self interests of his military rebellion. According to Luther’s theology, the Gospel is antithetical to armed force and should not be used in that way for material and political ends. Coercion contradicted the Gospel, which could be furthered only by a spiritual movement.) The Zürich city council where Zwingli had great influence, now exhorted the peasants to adopt the Word of God for their banner. The peasants of Baltringen asserted that they wanted no disturbances but only that their grievances be redressed according to godly justice (as already shown by Ulrich Schmid). And the Allgäu peasants, where the peasant, Häberlin, had preached and baptized, now decided to call themselves a “Godly Union.”[26] The Lake Peasants, who had some contingents of von Sickingens army among them, wanted nothing to do with religious moderation, but wanted to attack the Lords and the cities.

Memmingen was a city friendly to the cause of the peasants. Here Zwingli’s friend, the Pastor Christoph Schappeler, and his colleague, the journeyman furrier, Sebastian Lotzer, had been preaching about the plight of the peasants and the poor common man, and they had been active in the spirit of the new teachings for several years.  In March, 1525, the “Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants” appeared in the Memmingen parliament. They were penned by Sebastion Lotzer between February 28 – March 1, 1525, the official scribe of the Baltringen peasants,[27] but Schappeler was their inspiration, and even Hubmaier probably had a hand in them. Throughout the uprising, the peasants supplied the physical force and their hardships supplied the real motive, but the intellectual inspiriation came from the radical element in the towns.[28] Schappeler under Zwingli’s influence, now gave a religious aspect to the revolt based on ideas of fraternal love and Christian liberty drawn from the Gospel.

With the use of the printing press, the Twelve Articles were read all over Germany within weeks of their acceptance in Memmingen. They were accepted on March 7, 1525.  Soon thereafter, the organized peasants of Swabia, Franconia, Thuringia, and Alsace had accepted them as their platform. Never has a manifesto been so enduring and effective in German history as this one. At first glance the articles seem rather moderate, but they actually call for radical reform.

For example, the peasants wanted the right to call or retire their own pastors. Pastors were often the only leaders and intellectuals close enough to the peasants to represent them. They demanded the right to hunt and fish, which was the sole right of the nobility at the time. Therefore this was a demand for equality between the estates. They held that the small tithe was not Biblical and should not be paid and the regular tithe should be redistributed for the payment of the pastor and relief of the poor:

“And thirdly it has been the custom that we have been held as feudal serfs, which is pitiful in view of the fact that Christ has redeemed and purchased us all by shedding for us his precious blood. Therefore the Scriptures teach that we are free, and so we also want to be.”[29]

With that they demanded the abolition of the feudal system. Therefore they dislodged the established secular order by the concept of divine law on the basis of the Word of God. This sampling of the articles shows that although they appear to be moderate enough, they are very radical indeed, hoping to introduce far reaching change.

On March 10 the attempt to renegotiate with the Swabian League or other higher authorities was proposed by the Christian Association of Peasants in Memmingen. Here Martin Luther was also chosen to be one of the arbitrators or interpreters of the divine law for the peasants, along with Archduke Ferdinand, Frederick the Wise, and Melanchthon or Bugenhagen.[30] This reference to Luther was important because it made him respond to the Swabian peasantry with his “Admonition for Peace on the Twelve Articles of the Peasants of Swabia.” He wrote this pamphlet between April 17th and 20th) on his campaign to calm the peasant uprisings in Thuringia between April 21 and May 6, 1525.[31] (Luther and his colleagues left for Eisleben after the Wittenberg Easter services on April 16th to organize a Christian Latin School. [32] Endnote: See my dissertation, page 97.)

The Twelve Articles and many other variations of them were revised and expanded to meet local conditions. By their influence a phase of the uprising began that sought to resolve the conflict by means of negotiation and treaties.  Many of the Lords were amenable to this resolution and in many places the conflict was reconciled through such articles. The Area of Renchen is a case in point and the Bishop of Salzburg, Matthew Lang, is another example of a successfully negotiated treaty. In Rheingau, the knight, Friedrich von Greiffenklau, led a coalition of peasants and burghers to a successful treaty. Archduke Ferdinand, who was designated to represent Charles V, was not able to see beyond his own troubles in Austria, and the Council of Regency was paralyzed and powerless. Only the territorial Lords and the Swabian League wielded real power, which did not bode well for negotiations and reconciliation.

Two problems developed: first of all, much of the negotiation by the Swabian League, the Dukes, Counts and Bishops took place in bad faith. They merely tried to gain time until more soldiers and mercenaries could be recruited. That they were all absorbed in the battle of Pavia was only one side of the difficulty of their recruitment. Another was that the Landsknechte did not wish to fight their own people.  Secondly, Leonhard von Eck, the most powerful actor on the scene of the time, demanded the bloody suppression of the revolt as the only option. All treaties successfully negotiated had to be rescinded, despite protest on both sides, even if that might be the Bishop or the Archduke. Against the will of even his superiors, Leonhard von Eck and the Swabian League ignored the treaties and put the peasant leaders to the edge of the sword.

When the Swabian League under its commander, George III Truchsess von Waldburg, a very experienced and brutal general, comparable to George von Frundsberg, arrived at Stuttgart, he arrayed his forces before those of Duke Ulrich of Württemberg.  Suddenly, in all haste the Swiss mercenaries, who were with Duke Ulrich, were recalled to their Cantons. Word had just come to them that on February 24 Emperor Charles V had defeated the French King at Pavia, and the Swiss might need all their soldiers for their own defense upon the Emperor’s return. This state of affairs left Duke Ulrich with no alternative but to make an ignominious retreat South. With the Duchy of Württemberg safely in the hands of the Austrian Hapsburgs once again, Truchsess with all his Landsknechte and with the undivided forces of the Swabian League, was free to march against the peasants.

With the advancing threat of the Swabian League, the peasants began to confront their ambiguity and confusion. They were torn between their posturing merely for self-defense and a military posture that entailed threat. The moderate non-violent leaders hoped to interpret their whole uprising as demonstrations to back up their negotiations for a peaceful settlement with merely a show of strength. Wendel Hipler and Ulrich Schmid of Sulmingen are examples of this type.  But right from the first the peasants had also massed in an obviously military manner. Formerly they had been called together again and again by a Lord for a feud or some other petty war. Now they had had the audacity of calling themselves together for their own cause.

Indecision about non-violent demonstration and force of arms was not the only problem, confusion was also among them because they were supposedly responding to their historic mission to defend the Gospel by providing a new political order that did not persecute its preaching. This religious overlay came about through Schappeler, Lotzer, and Hubmaier, who were influenced by Zwingli and the city Council of Zürich. The Peasant Army from the north shore of Lake Constance wanted a more political attack,[33] but the Allgäu and Baltringen Peasant Armies gave the gospel agenda more support. That they formed a “Christian Union” mindful of their religious mission must have jarred with the fact that they would have to kill and destroy or be killed. The advancing Swabian League, however, gave them little choice.  The peasants had to turn to new leaders ready to use force of arms for their protection. Ulrich Schmid was replaced by Walter Bach, a veteran of the Landsknecht army of Georg von Frundsberg. When Bach[34] showed too much willingness to negotiate, he was in turn replaced by Paulen Probst. These military hardliners started destroying castles and pillaging monasteries. On March 26, the Castle of Schemmerberg was the first to go up in flames.[35]

Sympathy for the peasant cause diminished: “There is no sharper sword, but when a peasant becomes a Lord!” said a monk whose monastery was devastated by the peasants. A great many castles and monasteries were destroyed in the course of the insurrection, especially by such violent characters as Jörg Schmid, alias, Knopf of Luibas with the Kempten peasants, who were part of the Allgäu band; and Jäcklein Rohrbach, an enraged leader of the large band of peasants from the Neckar Valley.  Criminal elements joined Rohrbach, of Weinsberg notoriety. When Matern Feuerbacher and other moderate peasant leaders rejected him, he continued in a strategically useless campaign of pillage and destruction.

Georg Truchsess von Waldburg headed south into Swabia from Württemberg, a general, whose own peasants were in full revolt and had burned down his own ancestral castle. His army grew stronger by the day with new Landsknechte returning from Pavia. The first peasant army he met were in Leipheim, somewhat northeast of Ulm on April 4, 1525.

Here on the Danube, the peasants had risen up under Ulrich Schoen and the priest of Leipheim, named Jacob Wehe. Their forces had attacked and taken Leipheim, Weissenkorn, and stormed the castle of Roggenburg. In this same vicinity Dietrich Hurlewagen led the peasants in the campaign against the Bishop of Augsburg, and Eitelhans of Thuringia commanded the peasants of Allgäu covenanted with the Kempten serfs. All of the peasants from around Lake Constance and even from behind the Alps had come together here at the end of February. But now on April 4th, Truchsess caught one portion of the peasant army by surprise.

Truchsess had trouble with his Landsknechte. Most of them mutinied and refused to fight the peasants who were their own brothers and kinsmen. Besides, they murmured, weren’t the peasants entering the battlefield for “divine justice and God’s Word, for Godly and natural law”?  Truchsess made a bid for the higher moral ground in a speech that tried to overcome their unwillingness to fight:

“We want to confront the peasants and take the field against them, because they are against the law, and they misuse the divine Gospel as a pretext, in order to convince you to go over to their side.  The (Landsknechte) would never see the day that they go to battle against Law and the Word of God. That is guaranteed by the sincerity of the Emperor and the rulers. The peasants claim to be Evangelical, but unjustly so, because they are revolting against the whole law….Not alone (against) the worldly law, but also the Holy Gospel, and they can not with their rampaging, unChristian action with any truth call themselves Evangelical.”[36]

Those troops, about two thousand regulars, who had just come back from Pavia, were willing to fight for their wages. With them Truchsess engaged 4,000 peasants of Baltringen and upper Allgäu composing the Leipheim Peasant Army, which had chosen an advantageous battlefield. They had placed a marsh between themselves and the League, which made it impossible for the Knights, the cavalry, to fight effectively. But whether it was great cowardice or an inability to fight, or possibly, because of religious confusion, it is hard to ascertain: the peasants fled almost immediately toward the city.  Truchsess ordered the gates closed.  He then cut them off, killing many. They fled back into the swords and spears of the main force – others dove into the waters of the Danube and “drowned like pigs.” Those who made it to the other side were killed by Hessians. All 4,000 peasants were killed or drowned.

Later in the town, the Landsknechte rounded up the peasant leaders with the evangelical pastor of Leipheim among them, whom they executed outside the city walls. This pastor, a priest named Hans Jacob Wehe had led 250 burghers out of the city to join the peasants under Ulrich Schoen and he had become influential over the whole Leipheim Peasant Army. Another Pastor of Günzburg was also among the eight peasant leaders who were to be executed. Jacob Wehe died a very Christian death, seemingly, that of a martyr. He comforted and strengthened all the peasant leaders about to be beheaded, until he himself was executed. His pastoral care of the others, who were also doomed, amazed the soldiers of the Swabian League. The other pastor of Günzburg and an old man, could not be executed in time before the darkness set in and thus were spared.

Before Pastor Wehe died, Truchsess encountered him:

“Had you preached the Word of God, the way you are supposed to, and preached peace, then you would not now be in distress and you would be secure before me.”

“Gracious Lord, you do me wrong.” the Pastor answered. “I never preached insurrection, but the Word of God.”

“I have experienced you differently. If you were an evangelical man, you would not have helped the people take away what is not theirs. Now commit your cause to God!” said Truchsess.

The Pastor said a prayer thanking God that he was dying for the sake of God’s Word, and that God was taking him out of this vale of tears and sorrows – not because of the Word of God, but because of the insurrection. “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing – (forgive them) not for the sake of my righteousness, but for their unknowing.” After another prayer, he was beheaded.[37]

This first battle was a harbinger of things to come, for the most part. And if rightly described, it needs to be called the first of many massacres of the peasants. They certainly presented themselves as an army. But when it came for them to fight, they were veritable sheep for the slaughter. [38]

With this victory of the Swabian League, the Baltringen Army dropped out of the Christian Union. That reason could perhaps explain why the Allgäu and Lake Armies refused to march to their aid and rescue then in the following battle. The peasant army under Jacob Wehe and Ulrich Schoen had been the Leibheim Peasant Band, although other peasant contingents were among them as well.

Truchsess continued his rapid southern campaign into Upper Swabia looking for the Allgäu, Hegau, Baltringen and Lake Armies. On April 10, he came upon the Lower-Allgäu Peasant Army, 7,000 strong, with Pastor Florien Greisel in command. The peasants liked to appoint pastors to these positions, not because they were good soldiers; but with it they hoped for the protection of God. In his own territory, Truchsess defeated the Allgäu army driving them toward Wurzach, where he then defeated the Baltringen army on April 13th. Six peasant bands had converged in the area and contingents of the Lower Allgäu and Baltringen armies together with others were among the 7,000 peasants decimated in this southern campaign of the Swabian League. Meanwhile Knopf (Jörg Schmid) was leading the Upper Allgäu Army trying unsuccessfully to lay seige to several of Truchsess’ own castles, as well as leading a pillage campaign. The remainder of the Allgäu Peasant Army and Lake Army gathered together at Gaisbeuren near the monastery of Weingarten. The Swabian League had a force of about 7,000, while the peasants had about 12,000. But the peasants’ number was increasing every day. The Lake Peasant Army was composed of hardened mercenaries, who were well armed: every third man among them had real weapons (a telling remark about lack of armaments among many of the peasants). Truchsess had such a disadvantageous strategic position, he decided to make concessions and negotiate with the peasants offering them rather favorable terms.

The outcome was the famous Weingarten Treaty of Aril 22, which Luther also published in full (in early May) with a preface and epilogue, so significant an event he felt it to be. He commended it to all as a good way to bring a resolution to the uprising. But what effect could he have on Leonhard von Eck, who considered Luther an arch heretic anyway. The irony of the situation, however, lay in the fact that the best peasant army agreed not to fight, while the other poorly armed and inexperienced armies were getting cut down one by one. And after Truchsess had completed his campaign in Franconia, he returned to the Weingarten area and defeated these forces anyway. Luther took the treaty seriously and was not being cynical, but ardently hoping for reconciliation. Thomas Müntzer, on the other hand, saw through the deceptive strategy of false treaties devised by the rulers for military advantage, and hoped the peasants would not fall for them. Müntzer should have been opposite the Swabian League and these moderate peasants should have faced Frederick the Wise. But it would have all come to a bad end anyway.

The inability for the peasants to fight with resolution was a real disadvantage that the Swabian League knew how to exploit to its uttermost advantage. Perhaps the peasants could not make up their mind whether to fight or to demonstrate in the image of those commissioned to defend the Gospel. It may well be that if every third man was well armed in the Lake Peasant Army, most of the peasants may well have fought with scythes and pitchforks against well armed Landsknechte. This Weingarten Treaty could really be said to have been the greatest defeat for the peasants, who, however, could not see that after the other peasant armies were defeated one by one, thereafter they would also have their turn to be massacred.

Back before the monastery at Weingarten, the two armies had a cease fire over Easter Sunday, April 16th, so that the soldiers could pray and worship. Most of the peasants were evangelical, while the Truchsess Army was composed of Roman Catholic and Evangelical Landsknechte. The patrician Dietrich Hurlewagen and the nobleman, Hans Jacob Humpis von Senftenau, negotiated the treaty for the peasants.

Truchsess had not dared risk his army against the Hegau (the Black Forest) and Lake Peasants. They had reinforcements coming in from every side, and he had no back up at all. And truthfully, the treaty freed him up to respond for all the desparate calls for help in the Württemberg, the Odenwald, and Franconian uprisings. Because, while the cease fire and negotiations took place in Weingarten, Rohrbach with the Neckar-Odenwald Peasant Army was taking Weinsberg and revenging the peasants, precisely on Easter Sunday and Monday. Truchsess started quick- marching his troops north.

The Peasants Take Control over Franconia

Each arena of the uprising had its own color and characteristics. In Swabia the uprising was basically social in nature. The peasants opposed the nobility’s privatizing their commons and wanted to resurrect the ancient German communal society. They were also more exclusive, wanting only peasants in their movement. In Franconia, the uprising took a further step, trying to give the peasants a political voice to buttress what had been socially achieved. Here the peasants were very inclusive, even of the burghers and the nobility. While the definitive document of Swabia, therefore, was a social one, “The Twelve Articles,” that of the Franconian movement was political one, a new draft of the constitution of the empire. It was written by a pension official, Friedrich Weigandt. He sent it to his friend, the peasant chancellor, Wendel Hipler, who called the Peasant Parliament together in Heilbronn in early May, 1525, in order to start the political reformation that would give a place to the peasant in the political process. With that he hoped to secure the freedom the peasants had so far achieved.

And the peasants had achieved very much in Franconia. No one was able to stand against them. They had come into complete control of the whole area up to the boarders of Swabia by mid- April. Here they had indeed won the day, or so it seemed.

For example, in the free imperial city of Rothenburg on the River Tauber, the burghers were in full revolt. They were led by a certain craftsmen, Stephan von Menzingen. Together the townspeople overthrew the patrician council of the city and opened their gates to the peasants. The burghers and peasants united on April 5, 1525. Carlstadt, Luther’s adversary, was active in this city, after having left first Wittenberg and then Orlamunde. Carlstadt dressed like a peasant, and in every way had been trying to show solidarity with them in his ministry.

Luther’s colleague, Carlstadt had left Wittenberg angrily, because Luther had stopped the fast reforms and image breaking he initiated. After leaving Wittenberg, Carlstadt left a short controversial ministry in Orlamunde. He had disciples, who already had prepared his way in Franconia. Diepold Beringer, for example, the so-called peasant of Wöhrd, went from this city to Nuremberg, to Kitzingen, and then to Rothenburg. Carlstadt had Martin Reinhard, the Jenenfer pastor, in Nuremberg, as well as Franz Kolb in Wertheim.[39]Carlstadt and his disciples had meetings in the house of Phillip Tuscherer. But no direct connections can be found between Stephan von Menzingen and Carlstadt, although Carlstadt may have had a connection with Duke Ulrich of Württemberg.[40]

Carlstadt proceeded with the breaking of images as he had in the Wittenberg disturbances of 1521-1522. He wished to see the whole of life drenched in the Gospel; indeed, all of life’s arrangements should be aligned with it. He could not condone a sense of moderation and gradual change. He felt that it was no time to sympathize with the weak. He dressed in the garb of peasants to show his solidarity with them. His instructions were simple:

“Where Christians rule, they should recognize no authority; but they should freely let loose and destroy what is against God, even without sermons. Such offenses are many, namely, the mass, images, the flesh of idols that the parsons now eat….”[41]

The militia of Rothenburg had been the first group to rise up and they became the nucleus of the Tauber Peasant Army, whose slogan was agreed upon April 5, 1525: “What the Gospel establishes is to be established and what the Gospel destroys is to be destroyed.”[42]

Bildhausen, which lay north of Würzburg, became the center where all the peasants gathered and organized themselves. The Odenwald and Neckar Peasants came together on the Lenten Sunday of Laetare, March 26, 1525. They chose the inn keeper, Georg Metzler, as their leader.  All the local militia were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of peasants. The two cities, Bamberg and Würzburg, which were the seats of the Franconian bishops, joined the movement freely. (Indeed, they had no alternative.) And they made their artillery and munitions available to the peasants. Here the Dukes Albrecht and Georg Hohenlohe had to surrender themselves to the peasants and were declared “honorary peasants” to their dismay.  An uncompleted tally counts 162 castles and 48 monasteries conquered and destroyed in Franconia alone. In the pillage and destruction, the peasants respected the lives of the Lords, for the most part.

Weinsberg was, of course, the exception and it was used to great effect as propaganda against the peasants. Perhaps it can be explained, if not excused, in that some of the serfs were filled with a bitter rage over their lot. Jäcklein Rohrbach, who instigated the atrocity, was such a one and was little better than a criminal. He also had a rather shady consort, Margaret Renner, called, “Black Margaret,” who seemed to have him under her control. Both hailed from Böckingen and were filled by the hate that abject serfs were wont to have for those of higher estates.

Rohrbach commanded the Neckar Valley Peasant Army which committed the atrocity. He had built up his army to 1,500 men strong, and joined Georg Metzler’s Odenwald Army, which numbered 6,500 peasants. Rohrbach accepted Metzler as his commander. But he was in charge of the siege of  Weinsberg, the first big victory for the peasants. They overwhelmed the city’s small but famous garrison. Duke Helfenstein had only a small number of knights to help protect the city, but he displayed the bravery or brazen attitude here as he had shown by distinguishing himself in the battle of Stuttgart against Duke Ulrich.

Perhaps brazen, because, before all the Neckar Peasants arrived, Helfenstein made a foray against them stabbing and slaying quite a number of peasants, and then returned to the city to encourage the burghers to fight. Here before they could withdraw to their fortress, the peasants came upon them in the city. This massacre of peasants perpetrated by von Helfenstein himself, might have enraged the peasants or, otherwise, hearing about the one that Truchsess perpetrated on them in Wurzach may have. In any case, the peasants sought revenge. The burghers opened the gates to them and the peasants started stabbing the nobles and knights. One Dietrich von Weiler ran up a tower pleading for his life, but they shot him and threw him from the tower. The killing only stopped when Metzler arrived. This revenge had taken place on Easter Sunday.

The next morning without Metzler’s knowledge or orders, although Metzler had placed Rohrbach in charge of the prisoners, Rohrbach took twenty-four knights and squires, and ran them through a gauntlet of spears, Duke Ludwig von Helfenstein among them. This gruesome sport was designed to make them have as slow and painful a death as possible. Despite the pleas of Emperor Maximillians daughter and Helfenstein’s promise to pay them a ton of gold, they made him run the gauntlet.

In many ways the tide of sympathy turned against the peasants after the Weinsberg atrocity, because this action was very hard to combine with the image of the peasants as the saviors and defenders of the pure gospel. The opponents of the peasants also used it to great advantage in the propaganda campaign against them. Even the peasants themselves rejected Rohrbach. Matern Feuerbacher, who had become the commanding general of the combined Württemberg Peasant Armies would have nothing more to do with him and with all those involved in the incident.

The immediate effect of the brutality at Weinsberg, however, because of the terror it spread, was the subjugation of all the Odenwald nobility up to the boarders of Swabia. All of the nobility now accepted the law of the peasants. So terrorized were they that scores of nobles joined the Evangelical Brotherhoods of the Peasants, surrendered their artillery and munitions. Count William von Henneberg, whose great strength was to protect the Bishop of Würzburg, also surrendered, as did the abbots of Fulda and Herfeld. The Bishops of Bamberg and Speier, and a high official under the Bishop of Würzburg himself, and the Margrave Casimir as well, were compelled to accept Hipler’s modified Twelve Articles or make similar concessions.

The struggle between the hardline peasants and moderates continued. Wendel Hipler was a moderate, and he sought a political compromise in modifying the Twelve Articles and offering the ecclesial wealth to the rulers. Matern Feuerbacher, a respectable innkeeper, also sided with the moderates.

At this time, Hipler recruited the knight, Götz von Berlichen, to lead the powerful Odenwald forces beside Georg Metzler. Von Berlichen made famous by Göthe’s play, “Götz of the Iron Fist” (He had lost one hand), played a rather negative role for the peasants. He probably joined them to lead them away from his castle and then quietly deserted them in a critical juncture. Another nobleman, Florien Geyer, a knight of the von Sickingen variety from Ingolstadt, emerged in the Tauber army at this time as well. He in turn was also made into a folk hero, but this time by a Hauptmann play. Although he espoused the cause of the peasants and even joined them freely, both he himself and his romantic Black Regiment played a negligible role in the crucial battles. Because the peasants had an undying mistrust of all the knights, he was used mostly for peasant negotiations. Florien Geyer was in Rothenburg when the peasants failed in their siege of the Frauenburg, the Marien Fortress. After Truchsess arrived on the scene of the Würzburg seige, the peasant cause was lost. When Florien Geyer returned, he and the Black Regiment tried to fight their way through to the north, but he was murdered by his own cousin, William von Grumbach on June 9, 1525.

In Franconia, not only nobility began to fill the ranks of the peasant leadership, but also some rather shadey characters, like a certain Hans Bermeter, alias, Linck. He is important to consider, much like Rohrbach and Black Margaret, to show that the Hiplers, Ullrich Schmids, and Matern Feuerbachers were not the only leadership in this uprising. Linck was much like a con man, gang leader. Exploiting anti-clericalism, he and his men plundered the houses of clergy of their wine and provisions. He forged letters from the council of the city of Würzburg to the peasant leaders offering to unite the city’s burghers with the cause of the peasants. This brought peasant embassaries to the gates of the city with quite an interesting exchange, with words to this effect:

“Would they [the people of the city] please give them to understand if they would be their Christian Brothers and help them to erect the Gospel, and also whether they would have safe entry and passage among them. To that they should answer yes or no. If yes, it would be good; if no, they would report back and take counsel concerning their further actions.”

To the people standing by: “Take care, if you refuse to join us, we’ll tear up all your vineyards before morning….”[43]

In desperation the mayor like a madman, agreed to “abide in the Gospel and help them erect it.” The council decided to send three delegates to the peasants to see if any of their doing was against the Gospel – and if so, to come back and report it to the council.[44] The use of religious language here is very cynical and empty, cloaking threats on the one side, and mindless fear on the other.

The city therefore opened its gates to the peasants on May 8th.  But the siege of the fortress in Würzburg thereafter was a crucial mistake on the part of the peasants, because it bottled them up in a futile exercise, while they needed to think of massing together and organizing a defense against the advancing Truchsess. Perhaps they decided on this course of action, because this fortress was the last stronghold in Franconia, and in falling, it would secure for them victory in the war. The siege was not of the city, which had opened its gates, but of its Marien Fortress, the “Frauenburg,” as it is called in German. The Bishop of Würzburg, himself, who was simultaneously also the Duke of Franconia, had fled into this almost impregnable castle.

What else could the Bishop do? Archduke Ferdinand was defending himself against his own peasants. The Duke von Henneberg could not come to his aid, because he had already surrendered to the peasants. The words of Florien Geyer were true: “No nobleman could come to the aid of another, because the peasants were doing their jig in front of each one of their castles.”[45]And therefore the Würzburgers offered moderate conditions to the peasants in terms of their willingness to surrender the castle. The peasants, as well as Florien Geyer, and against the advice of Götz von Berlichen, wished to see the castle destroyed in a siege. Perhaps they longed to erase it, seeing it only as the terrible symbol of their oppression by the nobility.

It was an undisciplined, misguided and futile siege. Rothenburg had just officially gone over to the peasants, and Florien Geyer may have been negotiating there on May 14th for that reason. In any case, many of the most able peasant commanders were not present when the siege took place. Some of the peasants believed in radical equality, by which they meant that they were also equal to their commanders. Götz von Berlichen just watched the siege from a forest clearing. He may have betrayed the peasants, because someone neglected to give artillery cover to the peasants while they stormed the walls, and they thus experienced heavy losses. The battle ended in a disastrous defeat. The peasant obsession of taking the fortress remained, even while their power to take it continued to diminish. They did not realize how little time they had, because their doom inflicted by the Swabian League and its commander, Truchsess drew nearer.

Wendel Hipler called another meeting of the peasant delegates together known as the Heilbronn Peasant Parliament. The first meeting was the one in Memmingen where the Twelve Articles were ratified and promulgated by the peasants.  Now the plan was to organize a new political and social order that included the peasants, their interests, and concerns. But although the concept “reformation” is used in this new draft of the constitution many times, it is understood in the sense of a reformation of the empire, and very mindful of social reforms as well, necessary for the betterment of the peasants and the common people. Sometimes Weigandt speaks of the “divine reformation” or under what strategy the “actualized reformation” could be won.[46]

This is a far-sighted document, which forbad clergy from being Lords, and also wisely abolished ecclesial intervention in the matters of state. It goes almost as far as the demands of the Alsatian peasants, in asking not only for the election of pastors, but also for that of other officials. And a peoples’ Emperor is envisioned as a minister of the common people, who are conceived as subjects endowed with sovereign authority, upon which that of the emperor is founded. Peasants preferred a popular despotism to feudal anarchy. The patchwork of petty feudal holdings and the multiple loyalties and artificial and narrow boundaries dominated by petty absolute Lords, gave the peasants unending frustration. The new draft of the constitution also tried to unify the legal and economic systems of the empire, and politically it tried to block the increasingly divisive territorial powers through greater centralism under a Volk’s Emperor.

When Weigandt sent this draft of the constitution to Hipler, he felt that since Würzburg had surrendered, it would only be a matter of time before the fortress, Marienburg, would also surrender. But he did not comprehend how much real military power, far surpassing that of the peasants, would be required to enact such a constitution. A slight weakness about all the plans with the people’s Emperor lay in the fact that the reigning Emperor Charles V was the last one interested in any notion of representing the peasants and common people. On the contrary, the Emperor later thanked Truchsess for his role in defeating the peasants. So the plans of Weigandt, the pension official from Mainz, and Hipler, the peasant chancellor, needed to await later German history for implementation. The vision of a political reformation did not go under with the defeat of the peasants. These ideas belonged to the future.

But in all this, Weigandt and Hipler did not even have a chance to propose the new constitution before the assembled delegates of the peasants. News came to them of the defeat of the peasant armies in Böblingen on May 12th, and all the delegates had to hurry away, because their seemingly sovereign position suddenly became insecure once again. Truchsess was a very experienced general and he fought the peasants in Böplingen on his way up to Würzburg.

In the Battle of Böblingen, the peasants fought somewhat more valiantly, at least in giving each other mutual support and taking strategic positions. When the Black Forest Peasant and the Hegau Peasant armies noticed that the Württemberg Peasants were going to be attacked, they joined their forces into a 20,000 man army. They had a position where the League’s cannonade could not be effective, and Truchsess had to reposition in order to gain a better shot at them. When the Swabian Forces moved, so did the peasants, and to a strategic hill beside the city, precisely as Truchsess feared they would, where they could cover and control a narrow bridge. But the people of the city came to Truchsess and offered to open the gates to him, if he would spare them. This he agreed to do, because the force of the peasants was too ominous. But when seventy of his troops arrived at the gate, the peasants were already too close, and the burghers changed their mind and refused to open. Truchsess made a personal intervention and let the gate-keepers know that if he won, every man, woman and child would be massacred and the city burned to the ground unless they kept their promise to open the gates. Thus terrorized, they opened them to his forces. Then Truchsess’ artillery fired on the peasants from three sides.

The battle lasted four hours. This time it was not a matter of minutes before the peasant army caved in and fled.  But much of the time was really involved in maneuvering into strategic positions. When Truchsess’ cannonade began, the peasants again actually held out only a matter of minutes. The main force took to flight even before the vanguard did. And 8,000 peasants were smitten, stabbed and slain. Truchsess did not plan to attack until more of his forces arrived, but seeing the panic the guns caused among the peasants, he decided on an immediate attack. The Swabian League was not very self confident going into this battle, but the reaction of the peasants made it easy for them to route them decisively.

Böblingen was a devastating loss for the peasants. If all of Truchsess troops had been there, almost all the 20,000 peasant forces would have been massacred, according to Truchsess’ chronicler.

The Swabian League and later the Ducal forces hardly sustained any losses, while the peasants were massacred by the thousands in every battle. This is a quandary of the history of the war. Despite overwhelming numbers, the peasants lacked courage and a resolute desire to fight. Most of the peasants had never experienced battle, lacked weaponry, and they were up against battle-hardened mercenaries. In military history, the Peasants’ War marked the introduction of large scale artillery fire and it was turned on terrified peasants, many of whom were unarmed. Even the armaments the peasants had at their disposal, including their artillery, may have been very inferior to that of the opposite side. Perhaps they were also deeply convinced of their inferior status, for all their revolt against it, and were awaiting inevitable punishment for having “acted out.” They were easily deceived and not at all as capable of the brutality of the Lords, in a time when brutality seemed to have the last word. Perhaps they wanted to be “Christian,” and could not kill the opposing Landsknechte. There was also a short sightedness and lack of self discipline engrained in the peasants, who were very mesmerized by monastic and royal wealth, which they looted and pillaged from the monasteries and castles. They basked in this immediate glory and failed to take the long view and prepare for the real battles that winning against experienced soldiers would require.

The Peasants in Alsace

In Alsace the new evangelical faith had already been introduced in 1520 and for five years it was fermenting among the people of the whole area. The Alsatian peasants rose up as well in the Spring of 1525, actually right during Easter week. Three peasant army-assemblies organized around Strasbourg. They plundered the monasteries and compelled the little cities and the nobility to join them. Saverne, the seat of an Alsatian bishop, also opened its gates to the peasants. This region was largely a possession of the Hapsburgs, but Archduke Ferdinand had his hands full with the uprisings in Stiermark and Tyrol, and could not think of sending help to distant Alsace. The Bishop of Strasbourg administered his foundational church establishment from Mainz and was forced to negotiate a treaty. The powerful city of Strasbourg maintained a strict policy of neutrality.

“Up, up against the peasants!” called a councilman of the city of Reichenweihe. And the response was representative for all of Alsace: “I have no powder or ball with which to shoot the peasants.” said one guard. “I have no hellebarde that could smash a peasant.” said the next. “I have no spear that could stab a peasant.” said the third.[47]

Where no real opposition formed in Alsace and the peasants carried the whole region by storm, their scourge suddenly reared up its head from outside of Alsace, indeed, outside of Germany, from France. Duke Anton of Lorraine invaded Alsace in a crusade, a holy war, against the peasants. These were nothing but Lutheran heretics for him and he wanted to force them back into the fold of the one true church. He wanted none of their influence to invade his native France, “the Land of God.”

Erasmus Gerber had become the leader of the Alsatian peasant armies. His pitiful pleas for help against this unanticipated invader, this cruel tyrant, went out to Strasbourg, but that city remained neutral and did nothing to prevent the great slaughter.

Duke Anton first began his siege of Saverne on May 16. The battle began with a thunderous exchange of canon fire. One of the Duke’s captains, Claudius of Lorraine, the Duke of Guise, spotted a strong and well armed troop of peasants advancing to aid the people of Saverne near Lupfstein, a village about 9 kilometers east of Saverne. The Duke of Guise took a portion of Duke Anton’s best troops along with the artillery and smashed their defenses so that the peasants had to retreat behind the city walls of Lupfstein. It took many attacks before the French forces broke through and began fighting among the peasants. When many of them took refuge in a church, they set it on fire, giving what they declared an appropriate end for these “Lutheran heretics with their hardened hearts.” Then they set fire to the whole city, and five to six thousand peasants lost their lives, many of them burning in the flames.

In Saverne negotiations were transpiring between Duke Anton and Erasmus Gerber and the city council. They agreed that the city would surrender to the Duke unconditionally, but that the peasants were to be given safe conduct to leave the city and they were to return to their homes, promising to pay Martin Luther and his cohorts no further mind, because this constituted a crime against his majesty and would certainly bring them into disfavor once more.

While the column of peasants, however, was passing unarmed through the army of Duke Anton, on a hill outside the walls known as Martyrberg (Montmartre), they shouted: “Long live the excellent Luther!” (“Es lebe der treffliche Luther!” in German.) The Landsknechte of Lorraine turned on the peasants slaughtering them until they were driven back within the walls. Then they forced their way into the city that they had agreed they would not harm, and began an orgy of uninhibited bloodletting so that almost 20,000 peasants along with townspeople were slaughtered. Perhaps because Duke Anton’s campaign was a “holy” crusade of the old believers against Lutherans, it became such a gruesome massacre. Duke Anton’s chronicler presents these atrocities with a very pious veneer. When the massacre began on the Martyrberg, he declared that a voice from heaven said: “It is permitted.”[48]

This religious language used by the chronicler, the French knight, Nicolas Vollcyr, who wrote his account of the campaign in Paris in 1526, is quite spurious. It is a thin pious veneer over a blood bath, an unspeakable atrocity. 1,800 French, Dutch, and Italian Landsknechte could not be stopped from perpetrating an orgiastic slaughter, along with the pillaging, looting, and raping of a city, a city that had been promised protection and safety. A few rich folk were able to buy their lives. Most of the townspeople and all of the peasants were massacred. Other peasant leaders along with Erasmus Gerber, whose cries for help to the city of Strasbourg fell on deaf ears, were discovered hanging by their necks from the trees outside the city walls the next day.

Duke Anton marched south to continue his carnage, meeting an 8,000 man peasant army, immediately engaging in the third battle of this Alsatian war. It took place in Kestenholz, in Schwerweiler, right on the boarder of Upper and Lower Alsace. This city and area is in the proximity of Slettstadt where a Bundschuh had been fought in 1493. But now the peasants were bent on revenge for the Saverne massacre.

Duke Anton realized that the peasants were growing in number and resolution, and therefore decided to attack immediately on the afternoon of his arrival (May 20). Although the peasants were defeated, and an additional 4,000 lost their lives, a good number of Duke Anton’s army was also killed, including a Lord von Isenburg, the general commander of the cavalry, a Welsh nobleman, and about 500 Dutch Landsknechte.

Notwithstanding this military improvement, the back of the peasant revolt in Alsace was broken.  Duke Anton made a speedy march back to Lorraine to lick his wounds. He was suddenly deaf to the other requests from Sundgau that he also come there and punish the peasants.

One more word about casualties: The disparity of the estimates of the number of peasants killed in Alsace makes real accuracy difficult. Some record as few as 7,000 peasants killed in all three battles, whereas others report the number at 38,000.[49] The most widely accepted number of peasants who lost their lives in the Alsatian region is 25,000. On the other hand, it seems that many more losses were inflicted on the Ducal forces in Alsace than in the battles of Swabia, Franconia and Thuringia for instance.

Thomas Müntzer and the Uprising in Thuringia

While the social factors predominated in Upper Swabia and the political factors in Franconia, it was the religious factors that predominated in Thuringia. Perhaps it can be said that the closer the uprisings were to Wittenberg, the more religious they were in character. For example, the Wittenberg Disturbances of 1521 – 1522 were, of course, completely religious and the scenario above fits this picture. The Wittenberg Disturbances took place during Luther’s absence from the university. They were initiated by his colleague, Carlstadt, and his associate, Gabriel Zwilling, an Augustinian monk.  Here the peasants did not begin the disturbance, but the religious leaders themselves. Thinking Luther dead, they were carrying out what they thought were his teachings. Had Luther not come out of hiding against the wishes of the Elector Frederick the Wise and squelched this disturbance, the great uprising may have begun three years earlier.

Von Sickingen’s Knights’ Revolt that came between the Wittenberg Disturbances and the Peasants’ War does not fit this picture. It is a more complicated case needing special explanation. [50]

At first the revolt of the peasants in Stühlingen fits the picture, because it began as a completely social movement and the peasants made no mention of religious concerns in their 62 articles. But then it does not fit after the peasants meet with Hubmeier in Waldshut and listen to Schappeler in Memmingen, because then they also represent a religious movement, albeit, that of Zwingli and not Luther’s. Newer studies also indicate that the Anabaptists played a role in the peasant upheaval, because many Anabaptists were quite militant and revolutionary.[51]

The composition and concern of those participating in the uprising was also different for the different arenas of the revolt. In Upper Swabia it remained an exclusively peasant movement with the social agenda characterized best by the Twelve Articles. The Franconian peasants allowed some nobility to join their campaign, even if the mistrust ran very high. And for this region the political agenda to reform the empire was attempted and the Heilbronner Peasant Parliament and Friedrich Weigandt’s draft of the new constitution of the empire originated here. In Thuringia, it was more an uprising of the common people, than peasants, because much of the following of the radicals came from the landless poor in the wretched suburbs of Mühlhausen and other cities. These landless poor had been peasants, but the right of primogeniture or ultimogeniture, kept the farms large enough to provide for a family, but crowded many of the farmer children out of having a means for a livelihood. But if the farms were split up among all the children for inheritance, then they became too small to provide for all, and a general impoverishment still followed. In Thuringia, Mühlhausen, for example, had 19 suburbs of wretchedly poor, who had no land and were shut out of the city.

When Thomas Müntzer preached in Allstedt, located in the Pfaltz of Saxony, thousands of common people came to hear his sermons. He attacked Luther as “Brother Gentle-flesh” (Sanftleben), “that spiritless, soft-living flesh at Wittenberg”[52] and charged that his reformation was misguided and misdirected. It was for the spirit-filled, the chosen and elected of God to introduce the real reformation. The common people flocked together to hear him preach against the tyrants who withheld the true faith from them and should be “strangled like dogs.” Their power had to be given to the common people. The unGodly who opposed this new order did not deserve to live. Müntzer wanted to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. He was an early proponent of a theology of revolution. There is abundant evidence that the religious factors predominated in this theatre of the conflict.

Much then of the story of the Thuringian uprising revolves around Thomas Müntzer. An apostate monk named Heinrich Pfeiffer, alias Schwertfeger, however, was also deeply involved. He worked in Mühlhausen, agitating for reforms there before Müntzer even arrived in that city. His views were much more narrow than those of Müntzer. He was satisfied to organize the guilds and give them real power and representation, where Müntzer had the establishment of a theocracy in mind.

Müntzer was a chiliastic, radical and today we would say, charismatic theologian who longed to establish the new Israel in Germany. He felt that the common people would not be free to worship God while the rulers they feared still existed. Therefore he taught the annihilation of the unGodly, especially the rulers, who had forfeited their chance to fight alongside him. Having traveled to Bohemia, he became influenced by the Hussites, especially those of the violent Taborite variety. The cities of Allstedt and Mühlhausen are situated very near the border of Bohemia. Müntzer wanted a final liberation of the common people from the “bigwigs”. And he believed in sharing all things in common. Because he organized and agitated, it is no surprise that he was expelled from one city after another: from Zwickau, from Allstedt, from Halle and from Mühlhausen. Not even in Bohemia were they comfortable with him. As a matter of fact in Prague, after posting some theses imitating Martin Luther, and wanting to be the Martin Luther of Bohemia, he was placed under house arrest and then exiled from that city as well.[53]

There was also not a little friction between Müntzer and Pfeiffer, the other leader of the revolt in Thuringia. In the Battle of Frankenhausen, Pfeiffer did not come to Müntzer’s aid from nearby Mühlhausen. Pfeiffer must have been a very persuasive leader. He entered this free imperial city when the common people and the guilds were in revolt against the patricians, who held the control of the council. The patricians conceded their power to the dissatisfied, common people in the spring of 1523. But one of the conditions for accepting the political and legal demands was the expulsion of Pfeiffer from the city.

Müntzer could well be called an itinerant preacher, because nowhere would the authorities abide him. He had associated with the radical charismatic Zwickau prophets, Nicholas Storch and Marcus Stübner: the latter was really Müntzer’s disciple. He had appropriated the Taborite teachings and even some Hussite military strategy, e.g. the circle of wagons used in defense in the battle of Frankenhausen.

While in Allstedt, Müntzer had gained a great following. There he became more and more adversarial to Luther and despite Luther’s invitation, he would not go to Wittenberg to debate his views with him. After he organized a five hundred man conspiracy and it was discovered, Allstedt became too dangerous a place for him. In July 1524, Duke John and George expelled him from that city.

Müntzer then turned up in Mühlhausen about August 10, 1524[54] where Pfeiffer had already returned. After several weeks of constant unrest, on September 27, 1524, both leaders were expelled from that city again.[55] First they both went to Nuremburg together. Thomas Müntzer wrote his last tract against Luther and Heinrich Pfeiffer tried to organize a revolt, meeting intense resistance, however. The city council recommended Pfeiffer’s expulsion for continuing to propagate the “enthusiasm” of Thomas Müntzer. Müntzer left for Switzerland in November.[56] (Their exact itineraries, there after became too hard to follow.) Müntzer met with the peasants of Basel, visiting Oecolampadius, the reformer of that city.[57] In Zürich the radical Swiss Brethren under Conrad Grebel criticized Müntzer for his violence. They could not agree with him because  “True and faithful Christians are like sheep among the wolves, sacrificial lambs who must be baptized by fear, misery, persecution, suffering, and dying.”[58]

Both Müntzer and Pfeiffer then go to southern Germany where the unrest of the peasants was the most pronounced. Müntzer went to the Black Forest, to Griesen, which is just south of Stühlingen and beside Waldshut. He proceeds to do a campaign through Klettgau, Allgäu and Hegau, preaching to the rebellious peasants. In this September tour he most probably met with and influenced Hans Müller of Bulgenbach and there is a record of his meeting with Balthasar Hubmeier.[59]

It would be quite interesting comparing Martin Luther’s preaching campaign with that of Müntzer. Luther swept through Thuringia from April 21 to May 6th, 1525 where he tried to calm the peasants and squelch the disturbances the way he had done for the ones at Wittenberg. Müntzer’s campaign was of course designed to enflame the peasants farther with chiliastic aspirations, offering the hope that the peasants might usher in the Israel of God. Luther and Müntzer had certainly become diametrically opposed to one another. Here in the Black Forest and upper Swabian regions Thomas Müntzer must have added to the furor that sometimes saw 30,000 peasants band together at a time without fear of the authorities, in a region that raised six peasant army-assemblies. Perhaps these numbers can only be understood from the fact that not only was Müntzer spiritualist and charismatic, but the peasants must have been as well.

Imagine Luther preaching to stop this insanity, preaching to pour water onto the fire! He had little success. On May 7th the electoral commissioner, Hans Zeiss reported to the Elector (not knowing that he had already died on May 5th) that rebel peasant bands had plundered thirty monasteries, that about 15,000 peasants had gathered in or near Mühlhausen, and that some nobles had joined them.[60] Such “campaigns” of pillage were going on concurrently with Luther’s quixotic one. Luther could even have been overtaken by Müntzer himself, but Luther only came as close as Erfurt.

Even before this campaign, Luther had gone into the troubled areas of Thuringia again and again. Some furor must have been afoot when it is estimated that 60,000 peasants of Thuringia were up in revolt.[61] Luther warned the people of the danger they courted with their rebellion. After Müntzer’s inflammatory letter to the minors of Mansfeld, spreading fire and sword where Luther’s own parents were living, that Luther started his last campaign to attempt to bring the peasants to reason. He made a preaching tour through the area of Eisleben, west to Stolberg on April 21, 1525. In Nordhausen his words were drowned out by church bells rung by Müntzer’s follower. Luther barely escaped with his life in Orlamunde, where Carlstadt had ministered. Luther was in Erfurt on April 28th and then headed north through the fertile valley of the Golden Aue. He was in Wallhausen on May 1st, then traveled southward again, preaching in Weimar on May 3rd.[62]

In this city his tour was cut short by the call of his elector, Frederick the Wise, from his deathbed, wishing to receive communion from the hands of Luther in both kinds. Never before had the Elector granted Luther an audience and Luther did not make it to the bedside of the dying ruler in time. Luther made it back to Wittenberg on the evening of May 6th [63] and the Elector had died the day before, on May 5th 1525. In returning, Luther, the leader of the new evangelical movement, now saw that his worst fears had become realized, because his leadership went to that “murderous prophet,” his antagonist, Thomas Müntzer. On Luther’s return journey or shortly thereafter, he penned his furious pamphlet against the “murderous hordes of peasants,” which included the notorious words, “smite, stab, and slay!”

Back in February, 1525, Müntzer had returned to Mühlhausen, where Pfeiffer had already returned and been working since December, 1524. The unrest in this important city of the day had not ceased in their absence. They began to plunder monasteries. On March 17, 1525, they overthrew the city council, and in its place they established an “eternal council” in what was envisioned as a communist theocracy.

The revolt spilled out of Mühlhausen spreading quickly to the peasants of northwestern Thuringia and the Eichsfeld. When some of the copper minors of Mansfeld demonstrated their dissatisfaction, Müntzer, whose agenda was to purge the ungodly, wrote them a manifesto filled with powerful and fiery language exhorting them to revolt. The following are some excerpts:

“Fight the battle of the Lord! It is high time….Have no mercy – as with Moses (God ordered a holy war) – at them, at them, while the fire is hot. Do not let the blood on your swords get cold! Forge [your swords] clinkety-clank on the anvil of Nimrod and throw his tower to the ground…..It is not possible, while they are alive for you to lose your human fear of them. One can tell you nothing of God while they still rule over you! At them, at them, at them, while it is still day, God goes before you, so follow! Signed: Thomas Müntzer, Servant of God against the Godless”[64]

Heinrich Pfeiffer joined Müntzer and the Eichfeld peasants on a violent campaign of pillage. Castles and monasteries went up in flames.

Duderstadt, Heilgenstadt, Frankenhausen, Langensalza as well as Erfurt joined the peasants. The cities were forced to open their gates to the peasants, and John the Steadfast and the Counts of Mansfeld and Hohenstein had to negotiate terms with the peasants, because they had no standing army.[65]

All the peasants of north-west Thuringia began to congregate at Frankenhausen. Müntzer went to join them with 300 men. Pfeiffer would not join him, but remained in Mühlhausen with the majority of the peasants as well as 300 of the “elect.” Perhaps he had difficulty with Müntzer’s visionary idealism, his wanting the kingdom of heaven on earth.  Müntzer was teaching a total overthrow of the political and ecclesiastical relations of the time. His theocracy was to be based on a transparent, translucent, democracy as innocent as in paradise.[66] For the people to be free, God alone had to be Lord over them.

The Dukes of this area now mobilized to crush the revolt. Philipp, the Landgrave of Hessen, who was interested in being a new believer, approached Frankenhausen from the West. He had just crushed the rebellion in Fulda. The strict old believer, Duke George of Saxony, Philipp’s Father-in-law, was coming from the East, and the Duke Henry of Brunswick, from the North. They arrayed themselves outside of Frankenhausen before the barricade of wagons (the Hussite type of defense) the peasants had placed on the Hausberg (House-Hill) before the city.[67] The dukes first negotiated with the peasants demanding that they deliver Thomas Müntzer into their hands and then surrender unconditionally. The peasants were not at all happy about the coming battle. They must have noticed with dismay that they had cannons, but Müntzer had failed to secure the gunpowder for them. Müntzer had no military experience, but became the sole authority, like a prophet, as it were, and he preached as if the whole coming battle depended upon his superior command of the language. He stood under a flag depicting a rainbow, and when some Mansfelder servants claimed they had been unjustly treated by Duke Ernest, he immediately sat down and penned a letter addressing him:

“Brother Ernst, I, Thomas Müntzer, former Parson at Allstedt, warn you for God’s sake to void your tyrannical rampaging. You have begun to martyr and destroy Christians. Tell us, you miserable, indigent sack of worms, who made you ruler over us?…..eternal offense will fall on your neck, and you’ll be the devil’s martyr…!”[68]

And with that four subjects of the Duke of Mansfeld, who had been captured by the Frankenhausen troop, one of whom was the priest, Stefan Hartenstein, were beheaded before the assembly.[69] Müntzer justified the execution on the grounds of divine law.[70]

Müntzer succeeded in winding the peasants into his spell, after constant preaching. They need have no fear of the rulers. He would be able to catch the cannon balls in the arms of his robes, and they would harm no one. When a halo appeared around the sun that Hans Hut[71] described as a rainbow, all took it as a sign from God for the verity of his prophet, Müntzer, who asserted that it foretold their victory. Singing, “Come Holy Ghost, God and Lord,” a Hymn Luther had just written the year before, 6,000 peasants marched to the barricade of wagons on the Hausberg.

Then the battle, which was no battle, but a veritable slaughter, began. Philipp of Hesse did not have many men, but he had a large and experienced artillery. Its first round fell short of the mark, but then it became devastatingly accurate. The peasants also had nothing to counter the great strength of the Brunswick cavalry attacking them. A wild panic set in. The prophet with the long flowing robes, who was supposed to catch the canon shot in his sleeves, was gone. The peasants were sheep for the slaughter. As many as 5,000 were killed by means of stabbing and decapitation before the dukes halted the slaughter. Only six Landsknechte on the dukes’ side lost their lives.

Müntzer was found hiding in a bed, in a house beside the city gates, posing as a sick man. After his identity was discovered, by the sack of letters slung over his bed, he was taken to Duke George, where they sat him on a bench and questioned him: the Duke next to him asked how he could have beheaded four men on Saturday? It was the divine law and not he who had done it. He answered. And Duke Henry of Brunswick joined the interrogation debating with Müntzer, who based his arguments more on the Old Testament, while the Duke based his more on the New. In any case Müntzer was tortured, and collapsing completely under this brutality, seemingly recanted of all before being beheaded on May 27, 1525. Philipp of Hesse, however, related later that he had admitted errors, but no more.[72]

Upon the advance of the ducal forces on Mühlhausen, Heinrich Pfeiffer, alias Schwertfeger, escaped with 300 of the “league of the elect,” but was then captured on May 21, after a brave fight outside of Eisenach. On May 27, 1525, alongside Müntzer, Pfeiffer was also beheaded with over 50 other peasant leaders. Müntzer and Pfeiffer’s heads were impaled on posts on either side of the city gate of Mühlhausen to warn all those still left alive in that city. Mühlhausen lost its free imperial status as a city, becoming a fief of the dukes and had to pay heavy reparations for decades. The dukes continued their campaigns of revenge upon the towns and villages from which the rebellious peasants had risen up. The punishment was relentless and cruel and quite irrational until the nobility realized that they needed the peasants or they would have no bread.

The Peasant War in Austrian Territory and Michael Gaismair in Tyrol

Before getting back to the continued fighting and the final stages of the war in Franconia and Swabia, where other ducal forces now joined George Truchsess von Waldburg, who commanded the Swabian League against the peasants, we need to turn very briefly to the other Austrian territories and to the far South. The upheaval was taking place in Salzburg, in the Hapsburg holdings of Kärnten, and in Styria. In Tyrol the outbreak of the hostilities came somewhat later, starting only in the summer of 1525 and getting crushed in July of 1526. The clever and tenacious leadership of Michael Gaismair gave this rebellion a somewhat longer life.

Interestingly enough, the major battles by the peasants were mostly lost around mid May. The Battle of Böplingen, which disrupted the Heilbronner Peasant Parliament on May 12, the failure of the storming of the Frauenberg on May 15, the Battle of Frankenhausen on May 15, and the carnage at Saverne on May 17. The Thousand Year reign of Müntzer lasted but 59 days. The earlier victories of the peasants were short-lived. But farther south the peasants held out for a whole year longer than their fellow peasants to the North.

In what is now present day Austria, the peasant revolt brought together peasants, townsmen, and miners. The revolt was indirectly abetted because the Dukes of Bavaria coveted Salzburg, which belonged to Archbishop Matthew Lang. But then Archduke Ferdinand also had his designs on the archbishop’s holdings, aiding the peasant revolt in the hope he and the Bavarian Dukes could divide his ecclesiastic dominion amongst themselves.[73] The peasants and miners rose up against the Archbishop and took the city of Salzburg in June 1525. This strike by the peasants was prompted partly by the Archbishop persecution of the Lutherans and partly by their desire for a new territorial constitution.[74]

From Salzburg the revolution spread over the mountain into the lands of the eastern Alps. Here in Styria, the Governor, Siegmund von Dietrichstein, gathered a force of Knights and mercenaries, and was soundly defeated and even captured by the peasant leader, Michael Gruber, and the peasant forces in the Enns valley. This was the greatest victory of the entire war for the peasants and it took place near Schladming on June 3, 1525, where Gruber took Dietrichstein by surprise. But the peasants failed to exploit their victory.

In Tyrol Michael Gaismair, a former official of the Hapsburg court became the recognized leader of the peasant revolt. He hailed from a family of peasants and miners from the city of Sterzing, and was elected to be the commander of the peasant army in Bressanone on May 13, 1525.[75] He had a close relationship with Zwingli in Zurich, having to seek refuge there, after a military defeat. He was also promised aid from Francis I and other enemies of the Hapsburgs. Early in 1526, he returned and laid siege to Radstadt. Gaismair succeeded in defeating the contingents of the Swabian League twice, which were sent by Leonhard von Eck to dislodge him, but then was finally overcome, and sought refuge in Venetia. The despotic archbishop, Matthew Lang, did not want the help of the Swabian League and Archduke Ferdinand and the Dukes of Bavaria also tried to prevent Leonhard von Eck’s intervention, but to no avail. When the Swabian League arrived in their territory, they did not let stand the concessions that Archbishop Lang and Archduke Ferdinand had granted to the peasants. Not even the Archduke and the Archbishop, supposedly superior to someone like Leonhard von Eck, could prevent the Swabian League from doling out their punishment on the rebellious peasants and turning back their hard won concessions. Even in a place like Rheingau, where Friedrick von Greiffenklau brought all the knights and nobility together, joined the peasants, negotiated concessions, and brought their peasants uprising to a successful end, the Swabian League marched in and also turned back the clock. Even Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg could not deter Truchsess.[76]

Michael Gaismair wrote a constitution for an egalitarian Christian democratic peasant republic, a very sophisticated document, which may well have been inspired by his conversations with Zwingli. After he escaped into Venetia, he also took part in the sack of Rome in 1527, and finally was murdered in 1532 by two Spanish assassins in the payment of Archduke Ferdinand. As the case of Michael Gaismair shows, Germany became a police state, very much like modern ones today, where all who had participated in the uprising were mercilessly hunted down and executed.[77] In Kempten, the ruling Abbot prepared a list of 173 names of the peasant leaders to be executed, with Jörg Schmid, alias, Knopf of Leubas on the list.[78]

Downthrow of the Uprising in Franconia and Swabia

From Easter Day in mid-April when the Odenwald peasants under Matern Feuerbacher and Jäcklein Rohrbach took Weinsberg, and carried out the Weinsberg atrocity, until the middle of May, the peasantry was sovereign in these regions. Where they had not taken military command, they had received concessions and treaties that had granted them their demands. When they were defeated, they usually flared right back up after the Swabian League had departed. The latter, along with Philipp of Hesse were the two pillars of the old order. The territorial princes would have been hard put to do without the energetic Philipp. Few other Dukes were very helpful. Had either the Swabian League or Philipp of Hesse been defeated, the old order would have been much more seriously challenged.  The Frauenberg (Marien Castle) at Würzburg was still under siege, with the pressure mounting.

Suddenly in mid-May the whole tide of the war changed. The Thuringian revolt was overthrown. The Alsatian peasants had been massacred. And in the battle of Böplingen May 14, fought between this city and Sindelfingen, slightly southwest of Stuttgart, the Württemberg peasants were defeated. Perhaps the peasants directed their siege against the Bishop of Würzburg, because he was at the same time the Duke of Franconia, the most powerful prince of the whole region. His defeat would have had a powerful symbolic value, and Wendel Hipler and Friedrich Weigandt were ready to compromise and allow the ecclesiastical wealth of so great an ecclesiastical lord, by means of their attack to come into the dukes’ possession, which could more than offset the ducal loss in peasant feudal dues.[79]

On May 21 Truchsess entered the city of Weinsberg, in which only women and children remained. He had captured Jäcklein Rohrbach and devised a clever way to roast him slowly to death, while he and his cohorts feasted in full view enjoying their revenge. Melchior Nonnenmacher, von Helfenstein’s former piper, who had played his flute happily as the nobles were marched to their gruesome execution, was also roasted alive in the same way. Then the women and children were driven out of the city and it was put to the torch with all its wine cellars and laden granaries. (That next Easter, 1526, the nobility sent a goodly number of peasants through the spears to run the gauntlet in the full view of their wives and children to revenge the deaths of Ludwig von Helfenstein and the other nobility.)[80]

Then Truchsess joined with the forces of the Rheinland Elector, Ludwig von der Pfalz, and the Archbishop of Trier, Richard von Greiffenklau, and the ruling Bishop of Würzburg, Conrad von Thüngen, to move against the center of the peasant strength at Würzburg. They defeated the Odenwald Peasant army at Königshofen on June 2. Filled with fear at the news of all the victories of the Swabian League, they had left Würzberg in order to meet the advancing army. Here Götz von Berlichen suddenly vanished quietly, later giving word that his contract had expired, which he regretted he was unable to renew.

When the vanguard of the League arrived, it immediately attacked the peasant army positioned on the heights of the Tauber. The three salvos from the peasants did nothing. When the peasants started to flee in disarray, the peasant captains and commanders cut the horses from the supply and munitions wagons, mounted them, and succeeded to escape, leaving the peasant army to fend for itself. The cavalry decimated the peasants from the flanks. All those who were able to play dead, were later finished off by the Landsknechte, who followed after. About four thousand peasants were killed that day. Three hundred peasants hid themselves in the trees and were inaccessible to the cavalry and spears of the Landsknechte. They gave themselves up for a ransom. The Landsknechte were angered because they felt they deserved extra pay for the battle, whereas the Commanders ruled the cavalry had fought the battle and not the mercenaries. They marched to the next battle at snails pace in protest.

Therefore, two days later on Pentecost, the cavalry alone first attacked the Franconian peasants at Sulzdorf. They were under the peasant commander Jakob Kohl. The peasant force was deceived into coming out to rescue the peasants at Königshofen, where they were decimated by the cavalry who had clear riding in that open area. Because in anger the peasants were to have said that they were going to take no prisoners, the forces of the nobility did the same to the peasants, killing them all. Some knights first wanted to take peasants and brand them as their serfs. But then angered that the peasants were not going to take prisoners, they stabbed them, ran them through, in piles of sixty for each knight. The corpses of about five thousand of peasants lay strewn upon the battlefield of Sulzdorf.

Those that could hide themselves in the Florien Geyer’s castles of Ingolstadt were also stabbed to death or burned. When some escaped into the thickly wooded area around the castle walls, the knights shouted to them that whoever killed his fellow peasants would be spared. One peasant killed five of his fellows. The next would not be so easily killed. He wrestled with the killer, and while wrestling, they both fell into the moat and drowned. Florien Geyer, a knight who fought with the peasants, was not there, because he was still negotiating in Rothenberg with Count Casimir. When he had to flee the city, he detoured around Ingolstadt, where they had already destroyed his castles. Around Würzburg, he was murdered by the squires of his distant relative, Wilhelm von Grumbach on June 9th as already noted.

On June 6, the last resistance of the Franconian peasants was broken and after negotiations with courageous members of the council of the city, the victorious Truchsess and the Dukes marched into the city of Würzburg. The councilmen were executed. Jacob Kohl, who had escaped from the Battle of Sulzdorf, had been captured by other peasants and the city had saved him in the dungeon to surrender to Truchsess. He was beheaded with four others. Then Truchsess chose 200 of the remaining 2,000 peasants, circled them with cavalry, and had the executioners begin to decapitate them. When one peasant pressed into the circle of horses to see the fate of his companions, he could not get back out. The servant of the executioner brought him up and he was also promptly beheaded. One peasant, tired of it all, placed himself forward in the line to be over and done with it. He was one of the last to die, because the knights grew tired of all the blood and killing and requested Truchsess to pardon the remaining. This the commander did, so that only about seventy-five had been executed.[81]

The bitterness of the revenge of the victors was matched only by its brutality. Droves of executioners roamed the luckless land. Professional incendiaries, i.e. fire-brands, (Brandmeistern) put village after village to the torch. The Margrave Casimir now took Rothenburg. Carlstadt was among those peasant leaders, who had been able to escape from this city. Like St. Paul, he was let down a rope from a window of a house on the town wall. From Rothenburg, Casimir continued his campaign of vengeance. Arriving in Kitzingen, he put out the eyes of 59 townsfolk, because he wanted to grant them their wish never to see him again. No one was permitted to come to the aid of the victims under severe penalties. Eleven of their number died from the pain.

After the taking of Würzburg, the combined forces of the Archbishop, Elector, Duke and Swabian League went their separate ways. The Elector von der Pfalz returned home and defeated the Rheinland peasants at Pfeddersheim in the vicinity of Worms on June 23. This put an end to the uprising there.

Now Truchsess moved South because the Allgäu peasants were “still restless” even with the Weingarten Treaty. Truchsess joined forces with George von Frundsberg (the commander who later sacked Rome under Charles V in 1527), who now had just returned from the Battle of Pavia and the imperial Italian campaign. What was not accomplished by brutality and deception was now done by treachery. The commanders of the two Allgäu armies, Walter Bach and Kaspar Schneider, had fought under von Frundsberg and now secretly sold out their armies for money, promising to deliver them helpless to the Swabian League. In the heat of the battle, they set the peasant munitions afire and dashed off for the boarder of Switzerland with a great sum of money. The Swabian League moved in and dispersed these two powerful peasant armies on July 22. The commander of the third army was still Jörg Schmid, alias, Knopf of Luibas. He was compelled to surrender on the banks of the Luibas, where the merciless decimation of the peasants had already started in the Spring.

Then Count Felix von Werdenberg, who had just returned with a force mercenaries from Pavia with von Frundsberg, moved into action in the Black Forest. He defeated the Hegau contingent at Hilzingen on July 16, 1525, relieved Radolfzell, and beheaded Hans Müller of Bulgenbach.[82] Before the end of the summer, the whole peasant uprising had come to a cruel, crushing, and bloody end.

The city of Walshut still held out until December 12, 1525. Hubmeier escaped, but a new draft of a constitution was found in his desk. Martial Law obtained and the hope for freedom, justice, and equality was dashed into the ground. Cruel oppression was at hand. A contingent of the Swabian League remained somewhat like a modern-day death-squad, to execute peasants out of hand, those who had been missed, or returned, or Anabaptists. A very sad statistic estimates that 100,000 peasants lost their lives in this massive revolt.[83]

Some amelioration of conditions for the peasants did take place. This was mostly the case in the Duchies of Austria. Margrave Philip of Baden, whose humanity was recognized on all sides, pursued a similar policy and the Landgrave Philipp of Hessen also made some concessions.[84] Truchsess, perhaps suffering from a guilty conscience, spoke up for honoring the terms of the Weingarten Treaty. He did not get much of a hearing.

A Few Afterthoughts:

Was there any possible scenario in this war that could have changed the devastatingly brutal outcome? It is possible, if the peasants would have accepted the surrender of the Marien Castle on moderate conditions. Instead they stormed the castle and experienced a very sound defeat. Then they became obsessed with starving out and bombing the inhabitants into surrender. This strategy took a period of time that the peasants did not have to spare. Interestingly enough, Götz von Berlichen was right and Florien Geyer was wrong. The former advised the peasants to accept the castle’s surrender, while the latter wanted it overthrown. In much the same way, Müntzer was right and Luther was wrong about making treaties. By and large they were merely a means for Truchsess’ buying time.

The peasants would still have ultimately been defeated. They remained in a basically provincial perspective in the war, while the Swabian League moved from Swabia to Württemberg to Franconia, to Austria and Tyrol. At one point a peasant Army of Swabia followed the Swabian League all the way to the boarder of Württemberg, and there turned back to let the Württemberger peasants be defeated by it. The peasant armies and their leaders were in different compartments, and would not come to each other’s aid, made separate treaties, and were easily played off one against the other. Truchsess just annihilated each army one by one.

Not only therefore did bad judgments, easy deceptions, lack of a central command, and the short-sighted orgies of pillage doom the peasants’ cause, but Heike Obermann is basically correct about the status of peasant weaponry. Except for the Lake Armies and some of the Franconian Peasant Armies, they fought with flails, sickles and pitchforks.[85] Even for the Lake Bands only every third man had real weaponry! Perhaps the peasants harness of weapons was no match at all for the state of the art weapons of the professional mercenaries.[86] The artillery terrified the peasants most of all in what was actually the first “modern war.” While the peasants had some field pieces, 18 at Böplingen and forty-seven at Königshofen, they had virtually no cavalry, which also accounts for their dreadful record in this war. Sometimes a thousand peasants were slain for every one Landsknecht, as in Frankenhausen.

The peasants looked up to Luther and expected moral support from him, as well as Scriptural support. They expected armed assistance from Frederick the Wise. Friedrich Weigandt was right in his letter to Wendel Hippler:

“Because Duke Frederick the Wise of Saxony, the Father of all evangelicals, has passed away, with that, I believe, for our part, we have lost a great comfort.”[87]

Frederick the Wise died in his Castle Lochau on May 5, 1525 and that spelled a real loss to the peasants as well as for Martin Luther, whom he always protected. But it would be hard to imagine the hesitant and passive Elector taking the field for the peasants. And if he had, he would have provoked the war against himself and Saxony that so many would have gladly wanted. The battles that Charles V had to fight with France and Suleiman the Magnificent, postponed that war until after Luther’s death.

If Charles V had been defeated in the Battle of Pavia, then the Swiss would not have called back their mercenaries fighting under Duke Ulrich. An expansion of Swiss freedom may have occurred. Duke Ulrich was really no friend of the peasants, however. As soon as Württemberg had been his, he would have turned on the peasants again. The Swiss mercenaries would have had to defeat the Swabian League. That would not have been very likely.

What if Luther had taken the side of the peasants? It would have spelled his martyrdom, most likely. But Luther did not, but placed a resolute “NO!” against the revolutionary ideals of the peasants.

Had Luther been a Zwingli and had he aided and abetted the revolution, the reaction would have wiped out Wittenberg. And in addition, if he sided with them, and they had been victorious, his human religious quest would have sunk into a mundane one-sided party platform.[88]

But even so Luther’s work suffered immensely because of the peasant uprising. Before it Luther’s movement carried the broad spectrum of the estates of the German Nation. There were hopes for a National Evangelical Church of Germany.[89] Thereafter, the Fourth Estate became indifferent or hostile. From the living congregation of the spring-time of Luther, a rigor mortis of a new state-church hierarchy set in.[90]

Franz Lau argues against this assessment: The Reformation as a movement did not stop. His article is entitled: “The Peasants’ War and the So-Called End of the Lutheran Reformation as a Spontaneous People’s Movement.”[91] The northern cities of Germany opted for the Reformation and the imperial cities of southern Germany followed, except for Rothenburg and Böpfingen that returned to the old faith immediately after the war.

In a letter to Amsdorf on May 30, 1525 Luther states:

“The consequence of this wickedness of Satan can only be the satanic devastation of the kingdom of God and of the world. Even if the sovereigns exceed [their authority], yet at least they carry the sword by God’s authority; under their government it is still possible for both kingdoms to exist.”[92]

Luther maintains that the confusion of the peasants would devastate both the church and state. And of course this brings us to the issue that this first and the coming chapters hope to investigate more thoroughly: the evaluation of Luther’s relationship and theology with the Peasants’ War of 1525. In the same letter Luther states:

“Afterwards the Lord will judge which spirit is from the devil, theirs or mine.”[93]

This is afterwards. It is still controversial. And the judgment is not easily made. Many issues will have to be thought through to make a sound evaluation about so complicated and controversial a set of events in the tragic relationship between the Reformation and the Great Peasants’ War.

N.B. February 14, 2011: Thinking about what just happened in the recent 18 days in Egypt: Had the peasants practiced non-violence and maintained a higher moral ground, they would have had a far better chance of improving their lot. As it was, they assembled in a quasi military formation. But what could they do? Because of the history of the Bundshuh, however, they had absolutely no right of assembly. Then after plundering the monasteries and burning down so many castles they certainly needed armed protection from the vengeance of their Lords, but they were overwhelmingly incapable and inadequate militarily in their own self-defense. The Peasants’ War was a murderous atrocity on the part of the nobility and an unfathomable tragedy for the peasants. It would take over a century and a half before John Locke would argue that a government existed by the consent of its people.

Here is a non-religious rationale for non-violent protest. It comes from Gene Sharp, who wrote “From Dictatorship to Democracy” a 93 page guide-book on how to topple autocrats: “Peaceful protest is best, he says – not for any moral reason, but because violence provokes autocrats to crack down. ‘If you fight with violence, you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon and you may be a brave but dead hero'” (New York Times, 2/17/2011, pages A1 and A11).  In some important ways, some of the Swabian peasants’ army-assemblies were given no alternative, but the Peasants’ War certainly illustrates what Gene Sharp is arguing.

It might do well to list Luther’s writings which are involved in the Peasants’ War.

“Admonition to Peace, A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants of Swabia,” of April 1525 in Eisleben.

“Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants”, written about May 4, and published before May 26, 1525.

“Treaty between the Praiseworthy League of Swabia and the Two Armies of Peasants of Lake Constance and Allgäu,” republished by Luther with a preface and epilogue in the beginning of May, but after “Against the Robbing and Murdering Peasants…”

“A Dreadful Story and a Judgment of God on Thomas Müntzer,” a selection of Müntzer’s letters with Luther’s commentary, published in the second half of May, 1525.

Luther’s “Pentecost Sermon” on June 4, 1525, transcribed by Stephan Roth, against his critics.

“An Open Letter on the Harsh Book against the Peasants”, which counters the arguments of his divers critics, written in middle of July, 1525.

“Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved”, written in 1526

There are also many letters that reveal his relationship with the revolt, and the writings of his that give early warning that a rebellion was a foot:

“A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard against Insurrection and Rebellion”, from the Wartburg in December, 1521.

The “Invocavit Sermons,” March 9-16, 1522. Here he confronts the false approach of the Zwickau Prophets, Carlstadt and Zwilling, which created the Wittenberg Disturbances.

“Letter to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Rebellious Spirit,” referring to the danger in Müntzer’s teachings and activities, in 1524.

“In Opposition to the Fanatic Spirit,” a response to an inquiry by the City Council of Strasbourg on the teachings of Carlstadt, in 1524.

“Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments” Part I in December, 1524, and Part II in January, 1525.


Peter Blickle. The Revolution of 1525. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1977.

A. F. Pollards Chapter IV: “Social Revolution and Catholic Reaction in Germany” in A. W. Ward, G. W. Pothero, Stanley Leathes, eds. The Cambridge Modern History, Vol. II, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1902-1912.

Dr. Günther Franz. Der deutsche Bauernkrieg 1525. Berlin: Deutsche Buch Gemeinschaft, 1926.

——————. Der deutsche Bauernkrieg 1525, 4th Edition. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1956.

Wilhelm Stolze. Bauernkrieg und Reformation. Verein für Reformations Geschichte, 140-145. Leipzig: M. Heinsius, Nachfolger Eger & Sievers, 1926.

Adolf Waas. Die Bauern im Kampf um Gerechigkeit 1300-1525. München: Verlag Georg D.W. Callwey, 1964.

Leo Sievers. Revolution in Deutschland. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1980.

James M. Stayer. Anabaptists and the Sword. Lawrence, Kansas: Coronado Press, 1976.

Leopold von Ranke. History of the Reformation in Germany, Vol.I. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1966.

Otto Nasemann. Friedrich der Weise, Kurfurst von Sachsen. Halle: Verein der Reformationgeschichte, 1889.

Gottfried G. Krodel, editor and translator. Helmut T. Lehman, General Editor. Luther’s Works, Vol. 49, Letters II. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.

Thomas Lindsay. A History of the Reformation, vols. I and II. Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1907.

Eric W. Gritsch. Reformer without a Church: the Life and Thought of Thomas Müntzer (1488?-1525). Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.

—————–Thomas Müntzer: a Tragedy of Errors.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.

Bernd Moeller. Imperial Cities and the Reformation. (Durham, N.C.: The Labyrinth Press, 1982.

[1] It is very difficult to find a brief descriptive account in English about what took place and constituted the Peasants’ War. But the translators’ introduction by Thomas A. Brady, Jr. and H. C. Erik Midelfort in Peter Blickle’s The Revolution of 1525 (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1977), pages xi-xxvi. is one, in which another brief account is also mentioned: A. F. Pollard’s chapter in the old Cambridge Modern History, Vol.2, published in 1903.

[1a] The old Cambridge Modern History,including this chapter by Pollard can now be read online:

As insightful as this account is, it is somewhat distorted by false assumptions. (I refer to this reference in footnote 10.)

[2] The Duke von Helfenstein had been under Austrian orders from Stuttgart to take the offensive and capture the center of the Odenwald territory. He made a march from Stuttgart to Weinsberg and had strangled and killed every peasant along the way. See Wilhelm Stolze, Bauernkrieg und Reformation, (Leipzig: M. Heinsius, Nachfolger Eger & Sievers, 1926), page 90-91.

[3] Dr. Günther Franz, Der deutsche Bauernkrieg 1525, (Berlin: Deutsche Buch Gemeinschaft, 1926), p. 133.

[4] No Luther pamphlets had been allowed into Bavaria.

[5] Günther Franz, (1926), op. cit., p. 16.

[6] On the other hand, the ecclesiastical lords had signed an agreement with the Austrian authorities to proceed against the Lutherans and a campaign against the free proclamation of the Word of God was afoot, angering the peasants. Stolze, p. 76. Lending support to the repression of the faith renewal causing the uprising – this note added April 22, 2012 – is a peasant revolt from 1594-1597, that took hold of almost all of upper Austria and parts of lower Austria against the measures taken to recatholigize the peasants there by the “Catholic” authorities. See Harm Klueting, Luther und die Neuzeit, (Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, 2011), page 171.

[7] The Swiss had an alliance with the French, because Austria threatened their freedom. Zwingli planned a military campaign to protect the peasants from the coming Austrian attack. Stolze, pages 71-72.

[8]James M. Stayer in his book: Anabaptists and the Sword (Lawrence, Kansas: Coronado Press, 1976), pages xix-xxii, argues that Waldshut in 1524-1525 was really an expansion of the unrest of the radical circle around Zwingli. Hubmaier tried to make Waldshut another Zürich. Stayer argues that the Anabaptists had not yet made the decision for separatist nonresistance. They were still militant social revolutionaries. 1525 brings about or reveals the differentiation in the movement we call the Reformation, as well as for Anabaptists: the distinction between those of the sword and those of the staff, i.e., the militants and the pacifists.

[9]Evidently this was first a real physician from Frieburg, who took this appellation for himself, whose name later became the archetype of the ominous revolting peasant. See Stolze, page 42.

[10] A. W. Ward, G. W. Pothero, Stanley Leathes, eds. The Cambridge Modern History, Vol. II, (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1903), p. 177-178. In A. F. Pollards Chapter IV: “Social Revolution and Catholic Reaction in Germany”.

[11]Ibid., page 178.

[12]Stolze, op. cit., p. 70.

[13]Stolze, op. cit., p.84-85. Stolze refers to Hubmeier’s concluding remarks in his “Disputation against Eck” of November 1524, where Hubmeier calls himself Zwingli’s brother in Christ. Stolze also finds many parallels and echoes in Hubmeier writings that come from Zwingli.

[14]Dr. Günther Franz, op. cit., p. 55-56.

[15] The confusion of ecclesiastical and temporal power comes from a Lutheran perspective. Governments cannot claim to be Christian, because that designation can belong to the Kingdom of God alone. Governments stand under reason and law and are not about the Gospel. “It is better to be ruled by a wise Turk than an ignorant Christian.” Thus a government did not become disqualified with an attack on the Gospel and its preaching, although that did constitute a violation of the freedom of speech. A theocracy, as Calvin would later establish in Geneva, is unsound, according to Luther’s theology.

[16] Adolf Waas, Die Bauern im Kampf um Gerechigkeit 1300-1525, (München: Verlag Georg D.W. Callwey, 1964) pages 128-130. Heinrich Pfeiffer, Schwertfeger, had independent visions, and did not seem to be under Müntzer’s command. Hans Sippel was a leader of one peasant band and the military leader of the Frankenhausen army was a citizen of that city named Bonaventura Kürschner. See Leo Sievers, Revolution in Deutschland (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1980), p. 303. Among the Thuringians, Müntzer seems to have had the most authority, however.

[17] The Hapsburgs stood to lose much if Charles V would be defeated in Pavia and Duke Ulrich would be able to retake its Württemberg holdings. This would have strengthened the Swiss Cantons by defeating the Emperor who still threatened their freedom. It is very conceivable that the peasants had a victory in mind, like the one that the Swiss had attained before them, when they all rose up in the agitation of this uncertain time. But Charles V won, and the Swiss called back their mercenaries under Duke Ulrich, and a great political advantage was lost.

[18] Leopold von Ranke, History of the Reformation in Germany, Vol. I, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1966), p.339.

[19] Adolf Waas, op. cit., p. 185-186. Also in G. Franz, op. cit., p. 89.

[20] Ibid.

[21] G. Franz, op. cit., p. 89. Ulrich Schmid seems to be taking a conscious Lutheran stance, in that he feels that as a Christian, he can represent and fight for the rights of others, but not his own.

[22] Lotzer along with Schappeler is thought to have written the Twelve Articles of the Peasants’ War.

[23] G. Franz, op. cit., p. 90.

[24] G. Franz, op. cit., 92. And also in A. Waas, op. cit., p. 93.

[25]Stolze, op. cit., pages 71-72. Stolze shows that citizens from Zürich rushed to the city of Waldshut to show solidarity and support. In addition Zwingli was contemplating a military campaign “in honor of God and for the benefit of the Gospel of Christ, in order that mischief and injustice not take the upper hand and oppress the God-fearing and innocent.”

[26] Cambridge Modern History, op. cit., p. 179.

[27] Eric W. Gritsch, Reformer without a Church: the Life and Thought of Thomas Muentzer, page 97.

[28] Cambridge Modern History, op. cit., p. 180.

[29] Günther Franz, op. cit., p. 105.

[30] ibid., p. 98.

[31] Thomas M. Lindsay, A History of the Reformation, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1906), p. 336.

[32] Peter Krey, Sword of the Spirit, Sword of Iron: Word of God, Scripture, Gospel, and Law in Luther’s Most Often Published Pamphlets, (Ph.D. Diss. Graduate Theological Union, 2001), page 102. Luther wrote his notorious pamphlet against the rampaging peasants around May 4th and its late publication and its attachment to his Admonition pamphlet, which was quite balanced, added to its negative impact. The disparity between when an author writes and the time of publishing can be a real problem. The timing of the publishing of Luther’s negative pamphlet could not have been worse.

[33] Cambridge Modern History, op. cit., p. 180.

[34] This peasant leader, Walter Bach, along with Kaspar Schneider, betrayed the peasant cause to von Frundsberg and Truchsess. See E. Belfort Bax, The Peasants War in Germany, 1525-1526, (New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1968), pages 308-310. Belfort Bax wrote his monograph in 1899.

[35] Günther Franz, Der deutsche Bauernkrieg, 4th Edition, (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1956), page 131.

[36] Adolf Waas, op. cit., p. 66. In some nineteenth century histories, the historians made up speeches, conjecturing that something of the sort must have been said. Hopefully, that is not the case here.

[37] G. Franz, (1926), op. cit., p. 123-124.

[38] Günther Franz, 4th Edition, page 132. Franz notes that what happened were bloody persecutions rather than battles.

[39] W. Stolze, op. cit., p. 95.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., p. 102.

[42] Ibid., p. 101.

[43] G. Franz, op. cit., p. 168 – 169.

[44] Ibid., p. 170.

[45] Ibid., 181.

[46] Ibid, p. 196.

[47] G. Franz, op. cit., p. 251.

[48] G. Franz, op. cit., p. 269.

[49] Horst Buszello/Peter Blickle/Rudolf Endres, Der deutsche Bauernkrieg, (München: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1984) p. 328.

[50] The knights attempted to reverse their diminishing influence and bring back the powerful standing they once had in feudal times. They understood Luther in terms of trying to secularize the Prince-Bishop of Trier, perhaps, however, wanting his principality for themselves. A coalition of territorial princes defeated them.

[51] James A. Stayer, op. Cit., p. xxiv-xxv. Here James Stayer argues that Hans Hut was a rather “dangerous man” for the order of the day. Indeed, he is in the last scene with Thomas Müntzer and points out the vision of the rainbow, which he prophesizes as indicating victory for the peasants. Stayer sees Müntzer and Pfeiffer as “slain, unburied witnesses of the Apocalypse” (page xxiv). The decision for separatist non-resistance was preceded by earlier active resistance and participation in the overthrow of the civil order. On page xxi he states, “[The Anabaptist] movement was a socially militant movement led by radical pastors and local worthies – not by the dispossessed – and in this it foreshadowed the Puritan non-separating congregationalism of seventeenth-century England.”  W. Stolze, however, argues that the Anabaptist ideas were not causative in the uprising, but were part of popular culture, which the peasants only tapped to expand the support of their movement, to recruit more peasants into their midst (page 84). Stolze tends to negate the social and political aspects of the Peasants’ War (page 85), and argues that it was purely a religious-ecclesiastical movement in the secularization of monastic wealth and power (page 93). A critique of Stolze is that he has too narrow a religious interpretation, organizing disparate events too closely around Luther, Carlstadt, and Müntzer.

[52] G. Franz, op. cit., p. 202.


[54] Eric W. Gritsch, Thomas Müntzer, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 42.  (I have to compare these footnotes with the manuscript. Pages 54-58.)

[55] Ibid., p. 83.

[56] Ibid., p. 91.

[57] Ibid., p. 94 and Franz, 4th edition, (1956), page 110.

[58] Gritsch, (1989 edition), p. 93.

[59] Franz, (1926 edition), p. 202.

[60] Gritsch, (1989 edition), p. 100-101.

[61] Ibid., p. 101.

[62] Thomas M. Lindsay, op. cit., p. 336.

[63] Peter Krey, Sword of the Spirit, Sword of Iron, page 102.

[64] Alfred Meusel, Thomas Müntzer und Seine Zeit, (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1952), pages 273-274. (my translation). Also in Eric Gritsch, (1967), op. cit., p. 99-100.

[65] Otto Nasemann, Friedrich der Weise, Kurfurst von Sachsen, (Halle: Verein der Reformationgeschichte, 1889), p.46. [66] G. Franz, op. cit., p. 203.

[67]The Cambridge Modern History, op. cit., p. 189.

[68]Leo Sievers, op. cit., p. 304. Also in Gritsche, (1989), page 102 and Meusel, op.cit., p. 275-276.


[70]Eric Gritsch, (1967), op. cit., p. 103.

[71]Hans Hut, of Anabaptist fame, escaped from this battle with his life, in successful flight.

[72] Eric Gritsch, (1989), op. cit., p. 109.

[73]Cambridge Modern History, Pollard, op. cit.,p.  190. and Peter Blickle, op. cit., p.xix.

[74]Peter Blickle, op. cit., p. xix.

[75]Blickle, op.cit., p. xix.

[76]A. Waas, op. cit., p.243-244.

[77]Leo Sievers, op. cit., p. 336.

[78]A. Waas, op. cit., p. 242.

[79]The Cambridge Modern History, op. cit., p. 188.

[80]G. Franz, (1926), op. cit., p. 313.


[82] The Cambridge Modern History, op. cit.,p. 190. Also in E. B. Bax, op. cit., p.319.

[83]This estimate comes from Luther himself in a letter to John Briessmann, dated after August, 1525. Gottfried G. Krodel, editor and translator. Helmut T. Lehman, General Editor, Luther’s Works, Vol. 49, Letters II, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), p.124. Luther also adds the numbers of casualties up for Nicholas von Amsdorf in a letter to him dated June 21, 1525. page 118 of the same volume.

[84]The Cambridge Modern History, op. cit., p. 190.

[85]Eric Gritsch, op. cit., p.95.

[86]Peter Blickle, op. cit., p.xx-xxii.

[87]G. Franz, op. cit., p. 277.

[88]G. Franz, op. cit., p. 278.

[89]Thomas Lindsay, A History of the Reformation, vol. I. (Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1907), p. 338.

[90]G. Franz, op. cit.,p.278. These are some of the arguments of Günter Franz. But A.F. Pollard’s Chapter VI in the old Cambridge Modern History, Vol II, published in 1903, is much more hard hitting still. The underlying assumptions that inform these historical judgments need to be aired and discussed.

[91] See Bernd Moeller, Imperial Cities and the Reformation, (Durham, N.C.: The Labyrinth Press, 1982), page 57.

[92]LW, Vol. 49, p. 114.



Written by peterkrey

December 18, 2010 at 1:40 am

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  1. […] The Great Peasants’ War in Germany of 1525: a Little Known Story […]

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