German Peasants’ War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The German Peasants’ War—caused by a number of factors, including economic, political, and religious—marked the last major and most widespread of a series of peasant revolts throughout Europe, precursors to the later democratic revolutions that ended feudal rule in Europe.

Summary of Event

Discontent among the peasantry, common in most parts of Europe throughout the Middle Ages, expressed itself in violence on many occasions, notably the Great English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The greatest and most prolonged of these revolts was the German Peasants’ War of 1524-1526, which involved hundreds of thousands of peasants. German Peasants’ War (1524-1526)[German Peasants War (1524-1526)] Müller, Hans Gaismair, Michael Carlstadt, Andreas Münzer, Thomas Charles V (1500-1558) Philip the Magnanimous Georg Truchsess von Waldburg Luther, Martin Berlichingen, Götz von Geyer, Florian Ferdinand I (1503- 1564) Ulrich Müller, Hans Truchsess von Waldburg, George Ulrich, duke of Württemberg Lötzer, Sebastian Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Gaismair, Michael Luther, Martin Carlstadt, Andreas Münzer, Thomas Philip the Magnanimous Geyer, Florian Berlichingen, Götz von Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Emperor)

A moving, if exaggerated, rendering of a “scene” from the German Peasants’ War of 1524-1526.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

While it was the last of the late, great medieval peasant revolts, the goals, themes, and organization of the revolt make it, in some respects, the first of the modern popular revolutions. While the war consisted of a number of regional uprisings, peasant groups of various princes and lords banded together in a common revolt. The peasants also made alliances with various towns and often were able to enlist the support of some clergy and nobility.

The first outbreak occurred at Stühlingen in the Black Forest in June of 1524, when the peasants were required to labor on a holy day. Hans Müller, a knight, led a force of twelve hundred men to the neighboring town of Waldshut, where an evangelical brotherhood was established.

A small army of the Swabian League Swabian League , a union of princes and towns, was sent into the district under George Truchsess von Waldburg. Because he was not sure of his strength, he attempted to quiet the peasants with negotiations, pending the arrival of more troops. By early 1525, however, the revolt had broken out in other regions as well, notably near Lake Constance, the duchy of Württemberg, and Swabia. In Württemberg, the rebels were encouraged by the exiled Duke Ulrich, who had been deprived of his duchy by imperial order after a family quarrel.

In February, Truchsess reversed his conciliatory policy, which had held violence to a minimum, and armed rebellion erupted in many places. By the spring, there were three main centers: the Ried district near the city of Ulm, the Black Forest, and Lake Constance. Each district had its own organized forces loosely united as “the Christian Brotherhood.”

The leaders of the three divisions met in late February or early March at the town of Memmingen and probably on that occasion drew up the Twelve Articles of the Peasants of Swabia Twelve Articles of the Peasants of Swabia , compiled by laypreacher Sebastian Lötzer. The articles outlined some three hundred grievances as told by the region’s peasants, becoming not only the model manifesto for the rebellions throughout Germany but also the classic statements of the peasants’ demands.

The twelve articles were prefaced by the assertion that the Bible counseled peace and patience, and that the demands were meant to secure such virtues for the whole people. The first article provided for the popular election of pastors, with the stipulation that they should preach the “pure Gospel alone,” a Lutheran idea. The peasants refused to be serfs, “because Christ has purchased us with His blood.” Serfdom Other demands were primarily economic: the mitigation of church tithes, free access to woods and water for game and fish, the abolition of excessive feudal dues, and protection against arbitrary punishment. The twelfth article promised the withdrawal of any of the others that could be proven contrary to Scripture.

Following adoption of the articles, peasant armies began sieges in the diocese of Bamberg and Würtzburg in Germany, and in the duchy of the Tyrol and the diocese of Salzburg in Austria. In all places where local revolts broke out, authorities found themselves without adequate troops because the majority of the armed forces were with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V fighting in Italy.

The demands of the rebels in the Elsass district of Germany were more far-reaching than those of Memmingen. They had nationalistic and democratic overtones, insisting on the deposition of all unpopular officials with full allegiance being promised only to the emperor. All princely power was to be abolished and local government reformed along democratic lines.

The leader of the Tyrolean revolt, Michael Gaismair, put forth the most radical demands for reform. Gaismair advocated a return to simple community living for everyone, with only the authority of the emperor limiting personal freedom. All towns and castles were to be destroyed, individuals were to live in villages on the basis of equality, trade was considered profiteering, and people were to engage in agriculture on a scientific basis.

In Germany, the rebellion, which already had religious overtones, came to be associated closely with two radical former followers of Martin Luther: Andreas Carlstadt and Thomas Münzer. Carlstadt, a former rector of Wittenberg University, had been forced out of Wittenberg because of his radicalism. He became a leader of revolt in the town of Rothenburg. When the town fell again to the princes in 1525, he fled to Basel, where he ended his days as a professor.

Münzer played an important, if somewhat vague, role in the uprising, chiefly by preaching a democratic, communistic, millenarian Christianity that urged the peasants to murder their enemies, who were regarded as the enemies of true religion. He made a tour of the strife-torn regions of south Germany in 1524-1525, preaching the equalizing effects of Christ’s redemption. He settled in the town of Muhlhausen, where a revolt subsequently occurred. In May of 1525, the armies of the Muhlhausen rebels were defeated at Frankenhausen Frankenhausen, Battle of (1525) by Philip the Magnanimous, the leading Lutheran prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Münzer was tortured and killed, after he had repudiated his earlier beliefs and actions.

Fighting went on throughout the spring of 1525. Certain areas were controlled by the peasants, who attacked castles and forced nobles and clergy to flee. The peasants sacked many monasteries, which were generally wealthy and strict in dealing with peasants. Many of the peasant bands displayed strong anticlerical and anti-Catholic overtones, although wholesale bloodshed was avoided. The successful peasant leaders were those who, like Müller, came from the middle class or the lower strata of the nobility. Two knights, Florian Geyer and Götz von Berlichingen (who was forced to serve against his will), were the most successful leaders, together with a number of Protestant and Catholic clergy who associated themselves with the uprisings.

The victories of the emperor in Italy brought a steady flow of soldiers back into Germany, and the Swabian League under Truchsess and other princely armies began to subdue the peasants when they began to show signs of disorganization and a lack of morale. The victory of Philip at Frankenhausen began a swift decline in the rebels’ fortunes.

In April of 1525, Luther had issued his Exhortation to Peace on the Twelve Articles Exhortation to Peace on the Twelve Articles (Luther) , which urged the peasants to obey their lords, but also blamed the nobility for most of the problems and castigated them strongly for greed and tyranny. The following month, however, he published Against the Robbing and Murdering Horde of Peasants Against the Robbing and Murdering Horde of Peasants (Luther) , in which he violently condemned the rebels and urged the princes to kill them without mercy.

One by one the peasant armies were subdued and their leaders killed. Götz deserted the peasants and was later pardoned by the emperor. Geyer was defeated in battle, but escaped and was later murdered. Müller was burned at the stake. The princely commanders became more successful and grew increasingly ferocious. As the rebellions were put down, thousands of peasants were slaughtered, towns were burned, and women and children were forced into exile. In the last days of the war, the peasants amassed their largest force of twenty-three thousand at Algäu, but through treachery, they were defeated by Truchsess.

Only in a few districts near Lake Constance were the peasants able to gain substantial concessions from their lords, chiefly because the people of Basel intervened on their side. In parts of Austria, however, Gaismair was able to keep the war going until 1526, while Archduke Ferdinand I, the emperor’s brother and regent in his absence, vainly sought a settlement by granting concessions. Finally, in July, Gaismair was defeated. He fled to Venice, where he later became a Venetian diplomat and almost succeeded in negotiating an anti-imperial league to aid the peasants. His return to Austria was eagerly awaited for some time, but he was murdered in 1532, probably on Austrian instigation.

Significance

A number of factors—economic, political, and religious—caused the rebellions. Population growth in some regions, and tax rates and church tithes on peasant agricultural production approaching 40 percent, led to economic hardship and poverty among peasant groups. Peasants resented the increasing disparity in wealth between themselves and the nobility.

Additionally, religious reform instituted by Luther and the Lutheran Lutheranism reformation and the even more radical Anabaptist Anabaptism movement undermined the religious legitimation of feudalism. The new Protestant movements declared the equality of all persons, articulated in Luther’s doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” Pastors were placed at the call of the people and church hierarchy was replaced by more democratic forms. These ideas challenged the notion of the feudal political hierarchy as well. Additionally, the Protestant claim that all law is to be based in the Word of God allowed the peasants to challenge feudal law and show its contradiction to principles of biblical justice.

In articulating a belief in the equality of persons and demanding more political control and economic justice, the peasants used religious language to articulate many of the themes that were to emerge as the center of modern democratic revolutions.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blickle, Peter. From the Communal Reformation to the Revolution of the Common Man. Translated by Beat Kümin. Boston: Brill, 1998. Study of the relationship between the communal lives of residents of German towns and villages and the mass movement that spawned the Peasants’ War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edwards, Mark U. Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Discusses the role of new technologies of mass printing in the interpretation and spread of the Peasants’ War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Engels, Friedrich. The Peasant War in Germany. 3d ed. New York: International, 2000. A Marxist analysis of the economic roots of the Peasants’ War by Karl Marx’s collaborator.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greengrass, Mark. The Longman Companion to the European Reformation, c. 1500-1618. New York: Longman, 1998. Discusses the Peasants’ War alongside the German urban imperial leagues and compares the German and Swiss Reformations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hillerbrand, Hans. J., ed. Radical Tendencies in the Reformation: Divergent Perspectives. Princeton, N.J.: Sixteenth Century Essays, 1988. A collection of essays documenting the effect of radical religious perspectives on popular unrest in Germany during the time of the Peasants’ War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Tom, and Bob Scribner, eds. The German Peasants’ War: A History in Documents. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1991. An extensive collection of original documents from various participants and spectators of the Peasants’ War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scribner, Bob, and Gerhard Benecke. The German Peasant War of 1525: New Viewpoints. London: Allen & Unwin, 1979. A collection of essays that analyze the various political, economic, and religious factors that contributed to the social unrest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stayer, James M. The German Peasants’ War and Anabaptist Community of Goods. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991. A discussion of the role of the Anabaptist theory of communitarianism and its critique of privilege in the Peasants’ War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stayer, James M. “The German Peasants’ War and the Rural Reformation.” In The Reformation World, edited by Andrew Pettegree. New York: Routledge, 2000. Discussion of the war in terms of the distinctively rural character of the Reformation in Germany.

1514: Hungarian Peasants’ Revolt

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Feb. 27, 1531: Formation of the Schmalkaldic League

Categories: History Content