German Peasants' War

German Peasants' War
For other conflicts referred to as peasant wars or revolts, see List of peasant revolts.
German Peasants' War
Date 1524–1526
Location modern Germany, Switzerland, Austria
Result suppression of revolt and execution of participants
Peasant Army Swabian League
Commanders and leaders
Thomas Müntzer 
Hans Müller von Bulgenbach 
Wendel Hipler 
Georg, Truchsess von Waldburg
Casualties and losses

The German Peasants' War or Great Peasants' Revolt (German: Deutscher Bauernkrieg) was a widespread popular revolt in the German-speaking areas of Central Europe, 1524–1526. At its height in the spring and summer of 1525, the conflict involved an estimated 300,000 peasants: contemporary estimates put the dead at 100,000. It consisted, like the preceding Bundschuh movement and the Hussite Wars, of a series of both economic and religious revolts in which peasants, town-dwellers and nobles participated.

In mounting their insurrection, peasants faced several basic problems. The democratic nature of their organization complicated their military organization. They were further frustrated by lack of such important resources as artillery and cavalry. Most of them had little, if any, military experience and their resources were insufficient for them to hire mercenaries who did. Their opposition, on the other hand, had experienced military leaders and deep pockets with which to fund military operations against them. Despite the obstacles, the German Peasants' War was Europe's largest and most widespread popular uprising prior to the French Revolution of 1789. It involved townspeople, rural dwellers and aristocrats; it incorporated rhetoric from the emerging religious reform movement, through which the peasants sought legitimation. The war broke out in separate insurrections, beginning in the southwestern part of what is now Germany and neighboring Alsace, and spread in subsequent insurrections to the central and eastern areas of Germany and present-day Austria. After the uprising in Germany was suppressed, it flared briefly in several of the Swiss Cantons.

In historiography, the German Peasants' War also formed the basis of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx's concept of historical materialism. Engels described the peasants' failure in 1524–1526, in his work, The Peasant War in Germany.[1] Engels ascribed the failure of the peasants revolt to the fundamental peasant conservativism. This led both Marx and Engels to conclude that the communist revolution, when it occurred, would be led not by a peasant army but by an urban proletariat. Since then, other historians have interpreted the economic aspects of the German Peasants' War differently and social and cultural historians continue to disagree on the nature of the revolt and its causes: whether it grew out of the emerging religious controversy centered on Martin Luther; whether a wealthy tier of peasants saw their own wealth and rights slipping away and sought to re-inscribe them in the legal, social and religious fabric of society; or whether it was peasant resistance to the emergence of a modernizing, centralizing political state.



Social and political organization of the Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire had its roots in the medieval kingdom created by Charlemagne, in German, as Karl der Grosse, or Charles the Great at the beginning of the ninth century. Upon the death of Charles, his kingdom was divided among his grandsons. Though initially disputed among the Carolingian rulers of Western Francia, what we know today as France, (France) and Eastern Francia (Germany), with first the western king (Charles the Bald) and then the eastern (Charles the Fat) attaining the prize. However, after the death of Charles the Fat in 888 the empire broke asunder, never to be restored. According to Regino of Prüm, each part of the realm elected a "kinglet" from its own "bowels". After the death of Charles the Fat those who were crowned Emperors by the Pope controlled only territories in Italy. The last of these such Emperors was Berengar I of Italy, who died in 924.[citation needed]

In the early 11th century, the eastern kingdom was a "confederation" of the old Germanic tribes of the Bavarians, Alemanns, Franks and Saxons. The Empire as a political union probably only survived because of the strong personal influence of King Henry the Saxon and his son, Otto. Although formally elected by the leaders of the Germanic tribes, they were actually able to designate their successors. This changed after Henry II died in 1024 without any children. Conrad II, the first of the Salian Dynasty, was then elected king in 1024 only after some debate. How exactly the king was chosen thus seems to be a complicated conglomeration of personal influence, dynastic quarrels, inheritance, and acclamation by those leaders that would eventually become the college of Electors.[citation needed]

The dualism between the territories of the stem duchies rooted in the Frankish lands and the man representing the group of territories had become apparent. Each king preferred to spend most time in his own homelands; the Saxons, for example, spent much time in palatinates near the Harz mountains, among them Goslar. This practice had only changed under Otto III (king 983, Emperor 996–1002), who began to utilize bishoprics all over the Empire as temporary seats of government. During his travels, he could require these ecclesiastical territories to provide a locale at which he could hold a court and dispense justice; while there, he could also live at their expense, and keep potentially troublesome or ambitious clerics under observation. Exerting their own influence, his successors, Henry II, Conrad II, and Henry III, apparently managed to acquire concessions for troops, hunting, or political support by negotiating with local men of influence. By negotiating with these local leaders, granting them local sovereignty and titles in exchange for military or political support, the early emperors, whose authority was tenuous, acquired more and more influence centered on the office of emperor, but at the expense of local authority. It is thus no coincidence that at this time, the terminology changes and the first occurrences of a regnum Teutonicum (German Kingdom) are found.[citation needed]

This geographic dispersal of authority led to the development of decentralized relationships of power and authority. Consequently, the Holy Roman Empire, which Voltaire later described as neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, developed as a decentralized legal entity. Instead, it was divided into dozens—eventually hundreds—of individual secular and ecclesiastical entities. Dynastic houses controlled the secular entities. These were governed by men who called themselves kings, dukes, counts, barons, and knights. They maintained power, influence and authority over territory during the course of generations. Most commonly the term is used specifically in reference to royal houses and imperial dynasties — their authority manifested itself as the sovereign of a state or territory. Usually the dynasties of noble houses were patrilineally, with inheritance and kinship being predominantly viewed and legally calculated through descent from a common ancestor in the male line. The female line was normally considered only when the male lineage had died out.[citation needed]

Ecclesiastical territories were ruled by archbishops and bishops, abbots and abbesses. The position of archbishop was usually held by a scion of nobility, but not necessarily a priest; this widespread practice allowed younger sons of noble houses to find prestigious and financially secure positions without the requirements of priesthood.[2] The archbishop and prince-elector was chosen by a cathedral chapter, the members of which also served as his advisers. As members of a cathedral chapter, they participated in the Mass; in addition, they performed other duties as needed. They were not required to be priests but they could, if they wished, take Holy Orders. As prebendaries, they received stipends from cathedral income; depending on the location and wealth of the cathedral, this could amount to substantial annual income which, naturally, they drew from all their appointments, not simply one of them.[3]

Beginning in the High Middle Ages, then, the Holy Roman Empire was marked by an uneasy coexistence of individuals who held local authority and the Emperors, who sought to expand their own power at the expense of the local territories. At the same time, the men who held local authority sought to expand their own influence at the expense of both neighbors and the emperor. To a greater extent than in such other medieval entities as France and England, the Holy Roman Emperors were unable to expand their own authority and consolidate their personal control. Instead, to maintain their own positions, emperors granted more and more autonomy to local rulers, to both dynastic houses (nobility) and ecclesiastical states. This process began in the 11th century with the Investiture Controversy and was more or less concluded with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Several Emperors attempted to reverse this steady dissemination of their authority, but were thwarted both by the papacy and by the princes of the Empire.[citation needed]

Social and economic conditions in the late 15th century

Two of the most important influences on the social and economic conditions setting the stage for the German Peasant War were the Hanseatic League and the Bubonic Plague of 1348 through 1350. The Hanseatic League began as a series of trade connections between merchants in various cities along the coast of Northern Europe. First use of the term "Hansa" in relation to this network of commercial conntections occurred in 1267. Gradually these connections grew and strengthened until the Hanseatic League actively monopolized sea faring and trade in Northern Europe. The period of time that the Hanseatic League dominated the sea trade in Northern Europe was very short—only about 100 years from about 1350 until about 1490.[4] However, during that time the Hanseatic League had the effect of bringing an early "Renaissance" to northern Europe and in particular to northern Germany.[5]

Prior to 1267, industry in northern Germany had been limited to coarse woolen fabrics created under a strictly feudal system.[5] However, the trade brought through northern Germany by the Hanseatic League created new more refined types of manufacture. Soon finer woolens, linens and even silks were being manufactured in northern Germany.[5] Additionally, improvements in the technology of other industries were also made. Finer methods of etching, wood carving, armour making, engraving of metals and wood turning were all noticeable during this period of time.[6] More importantly, the method under which these items were produced tended to be the guild system rather than the old feudal system.[5]

The primary origins of the German Peasants' War lay partly in this unusual power dynamic and in the agricultural and economic contradictions and expansions of the previous decades. Shortages of labor in the last half of the 14th century had allowed peasants to sell their own labor for a higher price; food and goods shortages had allowed them to sell their products for a higher price as well. Consequently, some peasants, particularly those who had limited allodial requirements, were able to accrue significant economic, social, and legal advantages.[7] Peasants were not necessarily deprived and burdened; instead, the relative improvements in their life's condition in the previous 75 years had encouraged them to preserve their prosperity.[8] Thus, a factor in the outbreak of the war was the need to preserve what they had acquired in the previous decades—to defend established social, economic, and legal positions—and to throw off older burdens that may not have been recently enforced, but were seen as oppressive in the light of recent improvements,[9] such as when the peasants of Mühlhausen refused to perform their duties as serfs to collect snail shells around which their lady could wind her thread. The reiteration of the signeurial system, which had weakened in the previous half century, reformed peasant subjection into serfdom at the time when many peasants felt they were breaking out of the status of serf.[10]

These economic shifts occurred at a time during which people at all layers of the social hierarchy—serfs or city dwellers, guildsmen or farmers, knights and aristocrats—started to question the established hierarchy of authority. The so-called Book of one hundred chapters, for example, written between 1501 and 1513, promoted religious and economic freedom in a vocabulary of hatred toward the governing establishment and glowing pride of the virtuous peasant.[11] The Bundschuh revolts of the first 20 years of the century offered another avenue for the expression of anti-authoritarian ideas, and for the spread of these ideas from one geographic region to another. Martin Luther's revolution of religion added intensity to these movements, but did not necessarily create them; the two events, Martin Luther's Reformation and the German Peasants' War, were separate events, intertwined by sharing the same years, but each occurring separately of one another.[12] On the one hand, Luther's doctrine of the priesthood of all believers could be interpreted as proposing greater social equality than Luther meant to. Thomas Müntzer's apocalyptic visions, though not responsible for the War, served as an inspiration in the later stages.[citation needed]

Hussite Wars

The experience of the Hussite wars contributed to both the successes and failures of the German Peasant War. When Jan Hus was executed, by order of the Council of Constance (6 July 1415), Bohemian and Moravian knights and nobles sent a protest to the Council of Constance on (2 September 1415), The protestatio Bohemorum condemned the execution of Hus in the strongest language. Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor sent threatening letters to Bohemia declaring that he would soon drown all Wycliffites and Hussites and angered Hus's followers and the Bohemian and Moravian nobility. Almost immediately, local uprisings in Bohemia directed anger and frustration on the Church and insurgents drove many Catholic priests from their parishes. After the death of King Václav IV (en: Wenceslaus in English; de: Wenzel), fighting between the Hussites and the royal mercenaries destroyed much of Prague. In the course of the rioting, protesters tossed several magistrates out a window of the city hall in the First Defenestration of Prague. Jan Žižka, a Hussite leader, marched to southern Bohemia, and defeated the Catholics at the battle of Sudoměř (25 March 1420) in the first pitched battle of the Hussite wars. Employing the Wagenburg (Wagon fortress) defensive system, Hussites enticed enemy cavalry and infantry into battle. Sigismund engaged in three anti-Hussite campaigns; the Hussites responded with campaigns against Sigismund and his allies. Major battles occurred at Ústí nad Labem and Tachov, and Battle of Domažlice. The war lasted from 30 July 1419 – 30 May 1434; although it resulted in the defeat of the radical portion of the Hussite communities, the moderate Hussite organization remained intact.[13]

Bundschuh movement

Rebellious peasants surrounding a knight.

The Bundschuh movement was a localized series of peasant rebellions, centered in what is today southwestern Germany and northeastern France (Alsace) during the last quarter of the 15th century and the first quarter of the 16th. It acquired its name from the peasant shoe, which the peasants displayed as their symbol of unity and defiance. Under the symbol of the Bundschuh, or the tied shoe, peasants and town dwellers sought relief from oppressive taxes, arbitrary justice, and costly ecclesiastical privileges. In particular, the local lord could assess an oppressive death tax and take between a quarter and a half of the decedent's property. In a situation in which several family members died within weeks, months or even a couple years of one another, this tax could destroy a family's wealth within a generation.[citation needed]

Under this flag, peasants and city dwellers had protested feudal dues, taxes, and obligations (1439–1444) and had defeated the troops of the French count of Armagnac along the upper Rhine in three battles in 1439, 1443 and 1444.[citation needed] Individual uprisings in which peasants sought relief from resurgence of old feudal obligations, many of which had fallen into abeyance in the previous decades. Grievances against ecclesiastical and feudal obligations merged with popular religious observances. In 1476, in Niklaushausen, the shepherd, Hans Böhm, experienced a vision of Holy Mary, which established Niklaushausen as a pilgrimage site. He spoke against the vanities of the ecclesiastical leadership, and his preaching attracted thousands of pilgrims to sites in the Tauber river valley. In 1476, he was executed by burning, and his ashes strewn in the Main river. By 1493, other uprisings had occurred in Schlettstadt, in Alsace, in 1502 to Bruchsal and nearby Untergrombach, in 1513 to Lehen in the Breisgau, and in 1517 along the upper Rhine.[citation needed]

Aristocratic and magesterial protective alliances: Swabian League

Coat of arms of the Swabian League, with a flag of St. George. Two putti support a red cross in a white field; the motto: What God has joined let man not separate; coloured woodcut by Hans Burgkmair, 1522.

Formed in 1487, this alliance of German princes included dukes and nobles who belonged to the Company of the Shield of St. George, several of the Free Imperial Cities and several towns of the region, including Ulm, Esslingen, Reutlingen, Überlingen, Lindau, Nordlingen, Memmingen, Ravensburg, Gmünd, Biberach, Dinkelsbühl, Pfullendorf, Kempten, Kaufbeuren, Isny, Leutkirch, Giengen, Wangen, and Aalen. In the months immediately following its initial formation, Augsburg, Heilbronn, Wimpfen, Donauwörth, Weil der Stadt, and Bopfingen also joined, and, later, the Bavarian territories of the House of Wittelsbach, the territories of the Duchy of Württemberg, and lower Austria.[14]

Military Organizations

Army of the Swabian League

Bauernjoerg, Georg, Truchsess von Waldburg, the Scourge of the Peasants.

The Swabian League fielded an army commanded by Georg, Truchsess von Waldburg, later known as Bauernjörg for his role in the suppression of the revolt. He was also known as the scourge of the peasants. (25 January 1488 – 29 May 1531),[15] The league headquarters was based in Ulm, and command was exercised through a war council which decided the size and contingents of troops to be levied from each member. Depending on their size and capability, members contributed a specific number of mounted knights and foot soldiers, called a contingent, to the League's army. The Bishop of Augsburg, for example, had to contribute 10 horse (10 mounted men), and 62 foot soldiers, which would be the equivalent of a half-company. A standing contingent of close to 200 horse and 1000 foot, however, could not deal with the size of the disturbance. By 1525, the uprisings in the Black Forest, the Breisgau, Hegau, Sundgau, and Alsace alone required a substantial muster of 3,000 foot and 300 horse.[16]

Foot soldiers were drawn from the ranks of the Landknechts. These were mercenary soldiers, usually paid a monthly wage of four guilders, organized into regiments, called Haufen, and companies, of 120-300 men, called Fähnlein, or little flag, which differentiated the companies from one another. Each company, in turn, was composed of smaller units, a squad of 10-12 men, known as Rotte. The Landsknecht clothed, armed and fed themselves, and were accompanied by a sizable train of sutlers, bakers, washerwomen, prostitutes, and sundry individuals with occupations needed in a military community. The trains, or Tross, were sometimes larger than the fighting force, but their presence required organization and discipline. Landsknechts maintained their own structure, called the Gemein, or community assembly, which was symbolized by a ring. The Gemein had its own officer, known as the Schultheiss, and an officer called the Provost, who policed the ranks and maintained order.[16]

The League relied on the heavy armored cavalry of the nobility for the bulk of its strength; the League had both a heavy cavalry force, and a light cavalry, known as the Rennfahne, which acted as a vanguard, or advanced guard. Typically, the Rehnnfahne were the second and third sons of poor knights, the lower and sometimes impoverished nobility with small land-holdings, or, in the case of second and third sons, no inheritance or social role. These men could often be found roaming the countryside, looking for work, or, short of finding it, engaging in highway robbery.[17]

To be effective, however, the cavalry needed to be mobile, and needed to oppose a force not heavily armed with pikes.

Peasant armies

The peasant armies were organized in bands, called Haufen, similar to the Landsknecht units. Each Haufen was organized into Unterhaufen, or Fähnlein and Rotten. The bands varied in size, depending on the numbers of insurgents available to join a force in a single locality; unlike the Landsknecht Haufen, the peasant Haufen united peasants by territory, whereas the Haufen of the Landsknecht drew men from a variety of territories. Some bands could number about 4,000; others, such as the peasant force at Frankenhausen, could gather 8,000. The Alsatian peasants who took to the field at the Battle of Zabern numbered 18,000.[18]

Haufen were formed from companies: typically 500 men per company, subdivided by platoons of 10–15 peasants. Like the Landsknechts, the peasant bands used similar titles: Oberster Feldhauptmann, or supreme commander, similar to a colonel, and Lieutenants, or Leutinger. Each company was commanded by a captain and had its own Fähnrich, or ensign who, naturally, carried the company's standard (its ensign). The companies also had a sergeant or Feldweibel, and squadron leaders called Rottmeister, or masters of the Rotte. Officers were usually elected, particularly the supreme commander and the Leutinger.[19]

The democratic principle of the peasant army governed its organizing structure and the so-called ring, in which peasants gathered in a circle to debate tactics, troop movements, alliances, and the distribution of spoils, dominating the organization. Despite this democratic principle, there was a hierarchy and every peasant band had a supreme command and a marshal (Schultheiss), who maintained law and order. Each company also had lieutenants, captains and standard-bearers, a master gunner, a master of the wagon-fort, a master of the train (transportation), four watch masters, four sergeant majors to arrange the order of battle, a Weibel (sergeant) for each company, two quartermasters, farriers, quartermasters for the horses, a communications officer, and, importantly, a pillage master for each company.[20]

Peasant resources

Peasants possessed an important resource, the skills to build and maintain field works. They also used the wagon-fort effectively, a tactic that had been mastered in the Hussite Wars of the previous century. Wagons would be chained together in a suitable defensive location. Cavalry and draft animals were placed in the center. Peasants dug ditches around the outer edge of the fort and used timbers to close the gaps between and underneath the wagons. In the Hussite wars, artillery was usually placed in the center, on raised mounds of earth that allowed them to be fired over the wagons. Wagon forts could be erected quickly and taken down quickly; they were relatively mobile, but they also had drawbacks: they required a fairly large area of flat terrain, they were not the ideal offensive deployment, and they had been used 75 years earlier to great effect, when artillery was less sophisticated. By 1525, artillery had greater range and power.[21]

Peasants served in rotation, sometimes for one week in four, and returned to their villages after their service. They were replaced by another man. While the men were gone, other men absorbed the workload of the missing men. Ironically, this sometimes meant producing wealth or resources that supplied their opponents, such as in the Archbishopric of Salzburg, where men worked to extract silver, which was used to hire fresh contingents of Landsknechts for the Swabian League's army.[20]

Notably, however, the peasants lacked an essential element that the Swabian league had: cavalry. Certainly, some peasants arrived with horses, and any mounted troops that the peasants did have seem to have been used for reconnaissance. The lack of cavalry with which to protect their flanks, and with which to penetrate massed Landsknecht squares proved to be a long-term tactical and strategic problem.[22]

Outbreak in the southwest

During the 1524 harvest, in Stühlingen, south of the Black Forest, the Countess of Lupfen ordered serfs to collect snail shells for use as thread spools. This was the final straw in a series of difficult harvests, and within days, 1,200 peasants had gathered, created a list of grievances, elected officers, and raised a banner. The disturbance spread quickly, and within a few weeks, most of southwestern Germany was in open revolt. The uprising stretched from the Black Forest, along the Rhine, to Lake Constance, into the Swabian highlands, along the upper Danube River, and into Bavaria.[23]

Insurgency expands

On 16 February 1525, 25 villages belonging to the city of Memmingen rebelled, demanding of the Memmingen magistrates (city council) improvements in their economic condition and the general political situation. Their complaints touched subjects like peonage, land use, easements on the woods and the commons as well as ecclesiastical requirements of service and payment.

The city set up a committee of villagers to discuss their issues, expecting to see a checklist of specific and trivial demands: for example, the payment of such and such for so and so's lost wood; the settlement of a boundary dispute relative to four measures of land between two villages; the re-establishment of fishing rights, or permission to release hogs in a wooded area; or release from trivial duties during peak labor seasons (harvest, sowing). Unexpectedly, the peasants delivered a uniform declaration that struck at the pillars of the peasant-magisterial relationship. Twelve articles clearly and consistently outlined their grievances. Many of those demands did subsequently not prevail in the city council. Historians have generally assumed that the articles of the ordines provinciales una congregati (the representatives of the communities) of Memmingen became the basis of discussion for the Twelve Articles agreed on by the Upper Swabian Peasants Confederation of 20 March 1525.

Statement of principle

On browned paper, an illustration shows men seated in a circle talking.
The title page of the 12 Articles.

On 6 March 1525, close to 50 representatives of the Upper Swabian Peasants Haufen, or circles— the Baltringer Haufen, the Allgäuer Haufen, and the Lake Constance Haufen (Seehaufen)—met in Memmingen iterate a common cause against the Swabian League. One day later, after difficult negotiations, they proclaimed the Christian Association, an Upper Swabian Peasants' Confederation. The peasants met again on 15 and 20 March 1525 in Memmingen and, after some additional deliberation, adopted the Twelve Articles and the Federal Order (Bundesordnung). Their banner, the Bundschuh, or a laced boot, served as the emblem of their agreement. These Twelve Articles were printed over 25,000 times in the next two months, and quickly spread throughout Germany.[citation needed]

The Twelve Articles iterated specific community rights, largely relating to community self-governance. These included the right to retain or remove the community's pastor, the limitation of tithes and what the tax will pay for, the expansion of hunting, fishing and gathering rights, the establishment of fair and usual leases, rents, and payments, and the elimination of the Todfall, or death tax.[citation needed]

Course of the war

Kempten Insurrection

A finely detailed drawing of an old city, with church towers, thick defensive walls, moats, and lots of houses.
The Iller river divided the Free Imperial City of Kempten and Kempten Abbey.

Kempten im Allgäu was an important city in the Allgäu, a region in southern Germany in modern day Bavaria, near the borders with Württemberg and Austria. In the early eighth century, Celtic monks established a monastery there: Kempten Abbey. In 1213, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II declared the abbots members of the Reichstand, or Imperial estate and granted the abbot the right to bear the title of Duke. However in 1289, King Rudolf of Habsburg also granted special privileges to the urban settlement in the river valley, making it a Free imperial city. In 1525 the last property rights of the abbots in the Imperial City were sold in the so-called “Great Purchase”, marking the start of the co-existence of two independent cities bearing the same name next to each other. In this multi-layered authority, during the Peasants' War, the Abbey-peasants revolted, plundering the abbey and moving on the town.[24]

Battle of Leipheim

48°26′56″N 10°13′15″E / 48.44889°N 10.22083°E / 48.44889; 10.22083
On 4 April 1525, 5,000 peasants, the Leipheimer Haufen (literally: the Leipheim Bunch) gathered near Leipheim to rise against the city of Ulm. A band of five companies, plus approximately 25 citizens of Leipheim, assumed positions to the west of the town. League reconnaissance reported to the Truchsess that the peasants were well-armed. They had powder and shot for their cannon, and they were 3,000-4,000 strong. They also had an advantageous position on the east bank of the Biber. On the left stood a wood, and on their right, a stream and marshland; behind them, they had erected a wagon fortress, and they were armed with Hook guns and some light artillery pieces.[25]

As he had done in earlier encounters with the peasants, the Truchsess negotiated while he continued to move his troops into advantageous positions. Keeping the bulk of his army facing Leipheim, he dispatched detachments of horse from Hesse and Ulm across the Danube to Elchingen. The detached troops encountered a separate group of 1,200 peasants engaged in local requisitions, and entered into a lively combat, dispersing them and taking 250 prisoners. At the same time, Truchsess broke off his negotiations, and received a volley of fire from the main group of peasants. He dispatched a guard of light horse and a small group of foot soldiers against the fortified peasant position. This was followed by his main force; when the peasants saw the size of his main force—his entire force was 1,500 horse, 7,000 foot, and 18 field guns—they began an orderly retreat. Of the 4,000 or so peasants who had manned the fortified position, 2,000 were able to reach the town of Leipheim itself, taking their wounded with them in carts. Others sought to escape across the Danube, and 400 drowned there. The Truchsess' horse units cut down an additional 500. This was the first decisive battle of the war.[26]

Battle of Wurzach

Weinsberg Massacre

49°9′6″N 9°17′8″E / 49.15167°N 9.28556°E / 49.15167; 9.28556

An element of the conflict drew on resentment toward some of the nobility. The peasants of Odenwald had already taken the Cistercian Monastery at Schöntal, and were joined by peasant bands from Limburg and Hohenlohe. A large band of peasants from the Neckar valley, under the leadership of Jack Rohrbach, joined them and from Neckarsulm, this expanded band, called the Bright Band (in German, Heller Haufen), marched to the town of Weinsberg, where the Duke of Helfenstein had his seat.[27] Here, the peasants achieved a major victory, in which they were aided by the duke's own subjects. The peasants assaulted and captured his castle; most of his own soldiers were on duty in Italy, and he had little protection. Having taken the Duke as their prisoner, the peasants took their revenge a step further: They forced the Duke, and approximately 70 other nobles who had taken refuge with him, to run the gauntlet of pikes, a popular form of execution among the Landsknechts. Rohrbach ordered the band's piper to play during the running of the gauntlet. The Duke died horribly.[28]

Illustration of the castle at Weinsberg, surrounded by vineyards.
At Weinsberg, the peasants overwhelmed the castle, and slaughtered the aristocratic landlords.

This was too much for many of the peasant leaders of other bands; Rohrbach's actions were repudiated, he was deposed, and replaced by a knight, Götz von Berlichingen, who was subsequently elected as supreme commander of the band. At the end of April, the band marched to Amorbach, joined on the way by some radical Odenwald peasants out for Berlichingen's blood. Berlichingen had been involved in the suppression of the Poor Conrad uprising 10 years earlier, and these peasants had a long memory. In the course of their march, they burned down the Wildenburg castle, a contravention of the Articles of War to which the band had agreed.[29]

The massacre at Weinsberg was also too much for Luther to tolerate; this is the deed that drew his ire, in Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants in which he castigated peasants for unspeakable crimes, not only for the murder of the nobles at Weingarten, but also for the impertinence of their revolt.[30]

The burning of Little Jack (Jacklein) Rohrbach, a leader of the peasants during the war, in Neckargartach.

Massacre at Frankenhausen

51°21′21″N 11°6′4″E / 51.35583°N 11.10111°E / 51.35583; 11.10111

On 29 April 1525, the peasant grumbling and protests in and around Frankenhausen culminated into an open revolt. Large parts of the citizenry joined the uprising. Together they occupied the town hall and stormed the castle of the Counts of Schwarzburg. In the following days, an even larger number of insurgents gathered in the fields around the town. When Thomas Müntzer arrived with 300 fighters from Mühlhausen on 11 May, several thousands more peasants of the surrounding estates camped on the fields and pastures: the final strength of the peasant and town force is unclear, but estimated at 8,000–10,000. The Landgrave, Philip of Hesse and Duke George of Saxony were on Müntzer's trail and directed their Landsknecht troops toward Frankenhausen. On 15 May 1525, joint troops of Landgraf Philipp I of Hesse and George, Duke of Saxony defeated near Frankenhausen in the County of Schwarzburg the peasants under the Anabaptist leader Thomas Müntzer.[citation needed]

The Princes' troops included close to 6,000 mercenaries, the Landsknecht. As such they were well equipped, well trained and had good morale. They were also experienced. The peasants, on the other hand, had poor, if any, equipment, and except for those 300 fighters who had arrived with Müntzer, many had neither experience nor training. Furthermore, many of the peasants disagreed over their options. Should they fight the Princes' troops, or should they negotiate? On 14 May, they had been able to ward off some smaller feints of the Hesse and Brunswick troopers, but failed to reap the benefits from their victory. Instead the insurgents arranged a ceasefire and withdrew into a wagon fort.[citation needed]

The next day Philip's troops united with Saxon army of Duke George and immediately broke the truce, starting a heavy combined infantry, cavalry and artillery attack. The peasants were caught off guard and fled in panic to the town, followed and continuously attacked by the mercenaries. Most of the insurgents were slain in what turned out to be a massacre. Casualty figures are unreliable but peasant losses have been estimated at 3,000–10,000 and the Landsknecht casualites estimated as low as six (two of whom were only wounded). Müntzer himelf was captured, tortured and finally executed at Mühlhausen on 27 May 1525.[citation needed]

Battle of Zabern

Battle of Böblingen

The battle of Böblingen (12 May 1525) was the one with the greatest losses throughout the whole German Peasants' War. When the peasants came to know that the Truchsess of Waldburg pitched camp at Rottenburg, they marched towards them and took the city Herrenberg (10 May 1525). Avoiding advances of the Swabian League to retake Herrenberg, the Württemberg band set up three camps between Böblingen and Sindelfingen. There they formed four units, standing upon the slopes between the cities. Their artillery (18 pieces)stood on a hill called Galgenberg, facing the hostile armies. The peasants were though overtaken by the Leagues horses which encircled and pursued them for kilometres.[31] While the Württemberg band lost approximately 3000 peasants (numbers alternate from 2000 to 9000), the League lost no more than 40 soldiers.Peasants' War museum Böblingen

Battle of Königshofen

At Königshofen, on 2 June 1525, the peasant commanders Wendel Hipfler and Georg Metzler had set camp outside of town. Upon identifying two squadrons of League and Alliance horse approach on each flank, now recognized as a dangerous Truchsess strategy, they redeployed the wagon-fort and guns to the hill above the town. Having learned by now how to protect themselves from a mounted assault, peasants assembled in four massed ranks behind their cannon, but in front of their wagon-fort, intended to protect them from a rear attack. The peasant gunnery fired a salvo at the League advanced horse, which attacked them on the left. The Truchsess' infantry made a frontal assault, but without waiting for his foot soldiers to engage, he also ordered an attack on the peasants from the rear. As the knights hit the rear ranks, panic erupted among the peasants. Hipler and Metzler fled with the master gunners. Two thousand reached the nearby woods, where they re-assembled and mounted some resistance to the League horsemen. In the chaos that followed, the peasants and the mounted knights and infantry conducted a pitched battle and by nightfall, only 600 peasants remained. The Truchsess ordered his army to search the battlefield, and the soldiers discovered approximately 500 peasants who had feigned death. The battle is also called the Battle of the Turmberg, for a watch-tower on the field.[32]

Siege of Freiburg im Breisgau

Freiburg, which was an Austrian (Habsburg) territory, had a considerable amount of trouble raising enough conscripts to fight the peasants, and when the city did manage to put a column together and march out to meet them, the peasants simply melted into the forest, to reappear later. After refusal by the Duke of Baden, Margrave Ernst, to accept the 12 Articles of the Swabia Haufen, a sizable contingent of peasants attacked several abbeys in the Black Forest. The Knights Hospitallers at Heitersheim fell to them on 2 May; Haufen to the north also sacked abbeys at Tennenbach and Ettenheimmünster. In early May, Hans Müller arrived at Kirchartzen with over 8,000 men at Kirzenach, near Freiburg. Several other bands arrived, bringing the total to 18,000, and within a matter of days, the city was encircled and the peasants made plans to lay a siege.[33]

Second Battle of Würzburg (1525)

After the Black Forest corps of 18,000 men took control of Freiburg im Breisgau, Hans Müller took some of the group to assist in the siege at Radolfzell. The rest of the peasants returned to their farms to plant crops. On 4 June, by Würzburg, Müller and his small group of peasant-soldiers joined with the Franconian farmers of the Hellen Lichten Haufen. Despite this union, the strength of their force was relatively small. At Waldburg-Zeil they met the army of Götz von Berlichingen near Würzburg, who was also called Gotz of the Iron hand. An imperial knight and experienced soldier, although he had a relatively small force himself, the peasants did not stand a chance against him. In approximately 2 hours, more than 8,000 peasants were killed.

Battle of Schladming

Map showing the locations of the Peasant uprisings and major battles.


Marx, Engels and the Peasant War

The German Peasants' War provided the basis of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx's concept of historical materialism. Marx and Engels attributed the peasant failure in 1524–1526, described in their work, The Peasant War in Germany, to peasant conservativism; this led them to conclude that the revolution, when it occurred, would be led not by a peasant army but by an urban proletariat. In this interpretation of class warfare, Engels identified the peasants as traitors to the cause of freedom, although at a lesser level of development.[34]

Place in historiography

Beyond Marx and Engels interpretation of the Peasant War, historians disagree on the nature of the revolt and its causes, whether it grew out of the emerging religious controversy centered on Martin Luther; whether a wealthy tier of peasants saw their own wealth and rights slipping away, and sought to re-inscribe them in the legal, social and religious fabric of society; or whether it was peasant resistance to the emergence of a modernizing, centralizing political state. Historians have tended to toward categorizing the German peasant war in two ways, either as an expression of economic problems, or as a theological/political statement against the constraints of feudal society.[35]

Since the 1930s, Günter Franz’s work on the peasant war dominated interpretations of the uprising. Franz understood the Peasants’ War as a political struggle in which any social and economic aspects played a minor role. Key to Franz’s interpretation is the understanding that peasants had benefited from the economic recovery of the early 16th century and that their grievances, as expressed in such documents as the Twelve Articles, had little or no basis in the economic reality of the time. He interpreted the uprising’s causes as essentially political, and secondarily economic: the assertions by princely landlords of control over the peasantry through new taxes and the modification of old ones, and the creation of servitude backed up by princely law. For Franz, the peasant uprisings of 1525 were a political conflict between “revolting peasants” and princes in which the peasants were horribly crushed and disappeared from view for centuries. A different economic interpretation challenges Franz's work has been challenged in the 1950s and 1960s. This interpretation, informed by analysis of economic data of harvests, wages, and general financial conditions of the participants, suggested that economic improvements in the early 15th century reflects and improvement in peasant conditions; in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, peasants saw these advantages slipping away, with concessions to the landed nobility and military groups. The war is thus an effort to wrest these social, economic and political advantages back from the ruling class while, on the other hand, the nobility tried to affirm concessions made in the previous decades.[36]

Since the 1970s, research on the German Peasants’ War has benefited from the interest of social and cultural historians. Utilizing various sources such as letters, journals, religious tracts, city and town records, demographic information, family and kinship developments, and so on, historians have in turn challenged the long-held assumptions about German peasants and the authoritarian tradition to hypothesize alternatives. Peasant resistance occurred in two forms. The first, spontaneous (or popular) and localized revolt that drew on traditional liberties and old law for its legitimacy. In this way, it could be explained as a conservative and traditional effort to recover lost ground. The second saw the conflict as an organized inter-regional revolt that claimed its legitimacy from divine law, and found its ideological basis from the Reformation. Historians, particularly those studying local histories of southwestern German territories have refuted both Franz’s view of the origins of the war, and the Marxist view of the course of the war, and both views on the outcome and consequences. One of the most important has been Peter Blickle’s emphasis on communalism as a factor. Although Blickle agrees with Franz and the Marxists in that he sees a crisis of feudalism in the latter Middle Ages in southern Germany, this has political and social and economic features and originated in efforts by peasants and their landlords to cope with long term climate, technological, labor, and crop changes during the 15th century, particularly the extended agrarian crisis and its drawn out recovery. For Blickle, the possibility of peasant rebellion is contingent upon the existence of a parliamentary tradition in southwestern Germany and the coincidence of a tier of individuals with significant political, social and economic interest in agricultural production and distribution. These individuals had had a great deal to lose.[citation needed]

This view, which asserts the uprising grew out of the participation of groups within the agricultural system in the economic recovery, has in turn been challenged by Scribner, Stalmetz and Bernecke. They assert that Blickle’s analysis of the peasant economic recovery is based on dubious form of the Malthusian principle, and that the peasant economic recovery was significantly limited, both regionally, and by the depth to which it extended into peasant ranks. A few peasants had participated in the recovery in a few areas, but as a group, participation was spotty and regional, and did not extend to the greater portion of the agricultural workforce. Blickle and his students have modified their ideas about peasant wealth. A variety of local studies show that peasants did participate in the economic recovery, but the participation was not as broadly based as formerly thought.[citation needed]

The course of the war also demonstrates the importance of a congruence of events: the new liberation ideology, the appearance within peasant ranks of charismatic and military-trained men like Munzer and Gaisman, a set of grievances with specific economic and social origins, a challenged, although not fatally weakened, set of political relationships, and a communal tradition of political and social discourse. The traditional take Franz offers on the slaughter of peasants in the final battles, and the execution of the leaders, suggests a total failure on the part of the peasants to achieve their goals: the peasants disappeared, then, from historical discussion for centuries. Yet the new studies of localities and studies examining social relationships through the lens of gender and class shows that peasants were able to recover, or even in some cases expand many of their rights and traditional liberties, to negotiate these in writing, and force their lords to guarantee them. If many of the more radical demands were not met, this is not unusual; given the nature of historical change, some of the less controversial demands are usually met first.[citation needed]


Citations and notes

  1. ^ Frederick Engels, "The Peasant War in Germany" contained in the Collected Works of Marx and Engels: Volume 10 (International Publishers: New York, 1978) pp. 397-482.
  2. ^ Lins, Cologne. New Advent.
  3. ^ Encyclopedia Americana, "Chapter," New York, Encyclopedia Americana, 1918, p. 514; (German) Ennen, pp. 291–313.
  4. ^ Note 295 in the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Volume 10 (International Publishers: New York, 1978) p. 687.
  5. ^ a b c d Frederick Engels, "The Peasant War in Germany" contained in the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Volume 10, p. 400.
  6. ^ Frederick Engels, "The Peasant War of Germany" contained in the Collected works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Volume 10, p. 400.
  7. ^ Pérez Zagorín. Rebels and rulers, 1500–1660. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN 9780521287111 pp. 187–188.
  8. ^ Zagorín, p. 187.
  9. ^ Zagorín, p. 188.
  10. ^ Yves Marie Bercé. Revolt and revolution in early modern Europe: an essay on the history of political violence. (French) Révoltes et révolutions. Joseph Bergin, trans. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987. 9780719019678. p. 154.
  11. ^ Gerald Strauss (ed.) Manifestations of Discontent in Germany on the Eve of the Reformation. Bloomington, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1971.
  12. ^ Zagorín. p. 190.
  13. ^ Wilhelm, Joseph. "Hussites". In The Catholic Encyclopedia (New Advent online). New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Retrieved 5 January 2010.
  14. ^ Miller, p. 5.
  15. ^ He was born in Waldsee, the son of Johannes d. j. v. Waldburg and Helene Countess von Zollern. He married Appolonia von Waldburg-Sonnenberg in 1509; and, second, to Maria von Oettingen (11 April 1498 – 18 August 1555). Georg III ("Bauernjörg"), des H.R.R. Erbtruchseß (1519–1531), Field Captain of the Swabian League. Miroslav Marek., Waldburg genealogical table. Version 2008. Accessed 15 October 2009.
  16. ^ a b Miller, p. 7.
  17. ^ Miller, p. 6.
  18. ^ Miller, p. 8. Zabern the German name for the modern French city of Saverne.
  19. ^ Miller, p. 8.
  20. ^ a b Miller, p. 10.
  21. ^ Miller, p. 13.
  22. ^ Miller, p. 11.
  23. ^ Miller, p. 4.
  24. ^ More conflict arose after the Imperial City converted to Protestantism in direct opposition to the Catholic monastery (and Free City) in 1527.
  25. ^ Miller, p. 20–21.
  26. ^ Miller, p. 21. In 1994, a mass grave was discovered near Leipheim; linked by coins to the time period, archaeologists discovered that most of the occupants had died of head wounds.
  27. ^ The Duke, much despised by his subjects, was the son-in-law of the previous Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian. Miller, p. 35.
  28. ^ Wolfgang Menzel. The history of Germany, from the earliest period to the present time. Mrs. George Horrocks, Trans. London, H. G. Bohn, 1848-49, p. 239; and Miller, p. 35.
  29. ^ Miller, p. 34.
  30. ^ Peter Blickle, ed. The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants’ War from a New Perspective. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981, p. xxiii.
  31. ^ Miller, Douglas: Armies of the German Peasants' War 1524 - 26. Oxford 2003, p. 33.
  32. ^ Miller, p. 37.
  33. ^ Tom Scott. Freiburg and the Breisgau: Town-country relations during the Reformation. p. 204–209.
  34. ^ Frederick Engels, "The Peasant War in Germany" in Marx & Engels Collected Works Vol. 10, p. 399.
  35. ^ Steven E Ozment, The age of reform 1250-1550 : an intellectual and religious history of late medieval and reformation Europe. New Haven: Yale U.P., 1980, ISBN 978-0300027600, p. 279.
  36. ^ Ozment, p. 250.


  • Bercé, Yves Marie. Revolt and revolution in early modern Europe: an essay on the history of political violence. (French) Révoltes et révolutions. Joseph Bergin, trans. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987. 9780719019678.
  • Blickle, Peter. The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants War from a New Perspective, Translated by Thomas A. Brady Jr. and H. C. Midelfort. New York: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Dill, Marshal. Germany: a modern history. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970.
  • (German) Franz, Gunther. Der Deutsche Bauernkrieg. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgeselschaft, 1956.
  • Holborn, Hajo. A History of Modern Germany, The Reformation. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959.
  • Miller, Douglas. Armies of the German Peasants' War 1524–1526. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003.
  • MAREK,Miroslav . Waldburg genealogical table. Version 17 March 2008. Accessed 15 October 2009.
  • Ozment, Steven E. The age of reform 1250-1550: an intellectual and religious history of late medieval and reformation Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press 1980, ISBN 978-0300027600,
  • Wilhelm, Joseph. "Hussites". In The Catholic Encyclopedia (New Advent online). New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Retrieved 5 January 2010.
  • Zagorín, Pérez. Rebels and rulers, 1500–1660. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN 9780521287111

Further reading

  • Bak, János M.The German Peasant War of 1525. London: F. Cass, 1976.
  • Christensen, Carl C., Bob Scribner, and Gerhard Benecke.1981. "Review of The German Peasant War of 1525: New Viewpoints". Church History. 50, no. 2: 215–216.
  • Close, Christopher W. The Negotiated Reformation: Imperial Cities and the Politics of Urban Reform, 1525–1550. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Close, Christopher W. The negotiated Reformation: Swabian Imperial cities and urban reform (1530–1546). 2006.
  • Dixon, C. Scott. The German Reformation: the essential readings. Blackwell essential readings in history. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
  • Engels, Friedrich, and Leonard Krieger. The German Revolutions: The Peasant War in Germany, and Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution. Classic European historians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.
  • Forster, Marc R. Catholic Germany from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. European history in perspective. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  • Forster, Marc R. Catholic Revival in the Age of the Baroque: Religious Identity in Southwest Germany, 1550–1750. New studies in European history. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Foster, Helen Wright. The Peasant War in German Literature. 1908.
  • Heal, Bridget. The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Early Modern Germany: Protestant and Catholic Piety, 1500–1648. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Hsia, Po-chia, Bob Scribner, and Gerhard Benecke. "Review of: The German Peasant War of 1525, New Viewpoints". The Sixteenth Century Journal. 1980, 11, no. 4: 111.
  • Jung, Jacqueline E.. "Peasant Meal or Lord's Feast? The Social Iconography of the Naumburg Last Supper". Gesta. 2003, 42, no. 1: 39–61.
  • Midelfort, H. C. Erik. Mad Princes of Renaissance Germany. Studies in early modern German history. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
  • Moeller, Bernd. Imperial Cities and the Reformation; Three Essays, trans. H. C. Erik Midelfort, and Mark U. Edwards. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.
  • Oman, C. W. C.1890. "The German Peasant War of 1525". English Historical Review. 5, no. 17: 65–94.
  • Pettegree, Andrew, and James M. Stayer.1994. "Review of The German Peasant War and Anabaptist Community of Goods". English Historical Review. 109, no. 432: 714-715.
  • Plummer, Marjorie Elizabeth, Robin Bruce Barnes, and H. C. Erik Midelfort. Ideas and Cultural Margins in Early Modern Germany: Essays in Honor of H.C. Erik Midelfort. Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2009.
  • Reiland, Mark G.Martin Luther and Secular Authority in Relation to the German Peasant's War, 1524–1526. Thesis (M.A.)--Concordia University, Irvine, 2000, 2000.
  • Rublack, Ulinka. Gender in Early Modern German History. Past and present publications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Schertlin, Sebastian von Burtenbach, Engelbert Hegaur, Samuel G. Shartle, and William W. Lockwood. Journal of Sebastian Schertlin Von Burtenbach (1496–1577): A Knight of the 16th Century Germany. 1951.
  • Schindler, Norbert. Rebellion, community and custom in early modern Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Scott, Tom, Janos Bak, Bob Scribner, and Gerhard Benecke.1980. "Review of The German Peasant War of 1525 - New View-Points". English Historical Review. 95, no. 377: 900–901.
  • Scribner, Bob, and G. Benecke. The German Peasant War of 1525: New Viewpoints. London: Allen & Unwin, 1979.
  • Scribner, Robert W.Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany. London: Hambledon Press, 1987.
  • Scribner, Robert W., and Gerhard Benecke. The German Peasant War of 1525. London: Allen and Unwin, 1979.
  • Sea, Thomas F.1999. "The Swabian League and Peasant Disobedience Before the German Peasants' War of 1525". The Sixteenth Century Journal. 30, no. 1: 89–111.
  • Sessions, Kyle, Janos Bak, and Thomas Muntzer. "Review of The German Peasant War of 1525". The Sixteenth Century Journal. (1978) 9:1, pp. 95–99.
  • Stayer, James M. The German Peasant's War and Anabaptist Community of Goods. McGill-Queen's studies in the history of religion, 6. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991.

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