What was the impact of the German Peasant War (1524-1527) on the Reformation?
The Great German Peasant War or Revolt (1524-1527) was one of the most widespread popular uprising in the early modern period. It has often been seen as a precursor of communism and socialism. The uprising engulfed most of the German-speaking lands and created a crisis for Martin Luther and the Reformation. The German Peasant War was a crucial moment in the development of the thought of Martin Luther and the evolution of the Reformation. The uprising, while inspired in part by the Reformation, forced the movement into the hands of the landed nobility and elites in the German-speaking lands. Luther's Reformation became an increasingly conservative movement. The conservative Reformation, forced commoners to establish a faith and church that meet their needs and gave birth to the Radical or Popular Reformation.
The Peasant Wars Origins
The German Peasant Wars of 1524-1527 were a series of revolts aimed at overthrowing the existing socio-economic system in German-speaking lands.  The Revolt not only involved peasants, but also merchants, artisans, members of the minor nobility and Protestant pastors. They all united to change the prevailing political system. There were many reasons for the outbreak. The German Peasants, especially the wealthier groups, wanted to safeguard a hard-earned prosperity that they believed was under threat from the nobility. The wealthy class of German peasants had become relatively prosperous since the Black Death, however, they felt that the nobility was threatening their prosperity. Feudalism had been greatly weakened since the Black Death but many of the rights and privileges of the German nobility still remained. They used these traditional entitlements to seize more of the peasants’ wealth through taxes and dues.
The German elite also could use the Roman law, which was increasingly popular in German lands to enforce their rights and increasingly many peasants found themselves forced to hand over more of their resources to the elite or to perform more unpaid labor for their lords. Roman law unlike traditional customs made it much easier for German landlords and nobles to demand extra rents and dues. This resulted in the early sixteenth witness an increasing antagonism between the elite and the lower classes. Then there was the unintended consequences of Luther’s attack on the Church hierarchy. He has shown to many Germans satisfaction that the traditional power of the Catholic Church had only been a social construction and was not sanctioned by God. This was revolutionary. Luther only wanted people to see the Catholic Church as something that was not sanctioned by God, he still believed that the social system in Germany, based on ‘orders’ was pre-ordained by God. Many Protestant pastors, such as Thomas Muntzer and they believed that feudalism and the existing social order could be changed and that it was not ordained by God but only designed by the elite for their own advantage and gain. Many educated peasants had also been disappointed with the course of the Reformation and they believed that it did not go far enough and they wanted a more radical church, one that was not hierarchical and dominated by the local notable.
The Peasant War
The revolt covered large areas of Europe and it began in Alsace-Lorraine (now in France) and spread as far west as Austria. It was often led by members of the minor nobility and leading peasants in their communities. The revolts usually began with a symbolic act of defiance, such as the refusal to carry out some order or custom. Soon the peasants would begin to arm themselves and formed companies based on local territorial units. Many of the peasants had served as soldiers but the majority were untrained and only armed with farm implements. The first revolts were in 1524 and they had spread to all of South West Germany by 1525. Soon there were revolts in the Black Forest area. The local elite used their own forces and urban militias to try and quell the disturbances.
In the past, such measures had worked but the peasants were too large in number and too well-organised. In Swabia, the peasants published the 12 Articles and these later were adopted by other rebels elsewhere and they became the manifesto of the movement. The 12 Articles demanded the dismantling of much of the old feudal system and the rollback of many of the new laws. Some of the articles also demanded that ‘tithes’ or payments to the church be only spent locally and that local communities had a greater role in the governing of their churches. The 12 Articles sought a social, economic and religious revolution in German-speaking lands. The 12 Articles were published and spread throughout Germany and this inspired more peasants to take up arms. It seemed that members of the lesser nobility and the urban elite would side with the peasants and the Imperial government and the great nobles were forced to make concessions to these groups. Once they had received their concessions they sided with the great nobles. This allowed the nobles to come together to defeat the peasant armies, that had seized large areas of Germany. In the southwest of Germany, the rebels heartland the nobles formed the Swabian League. This League was a military alliance and it formed its own army. Militarily, the nobles had all the advantaged they had professional officers and had cavalry.
The peasants resisted at times fiercely and circled wagons to defend themselves, but the army of the nobles prevailed</ref> Miller, p. 117</ref>. The professional army of the Swabian League and similar military alliances throughout Germany soon had the upper-hand, they killed thousands of peasants in battle and executed many others. Those who surrendered had to pay hefty fines. The Peasants soon became radicalized and the largest band was led by the radical preacher Thomas Muntzer. Both sides perpetrated atrocities. At the battle of Frankhausen, the Swabian League shattered the peasant army. They later captured and executed Thomas Muntzer. Sporadic resistance continued until 1527 but the Peasant Revolt had been completely defeated, with the deaths of up to 100,000 people of all classes .
Martin Luther and the Peasants War
Luther was deeply influenced by the teachings of St Augustine and believed that all legitimate authority should be obeyed and it was a Christian’s duty to do so. After the Peasants War, Luther became even more conservative and he even argued that every Christian should obey the temporal ruler without question and if requested should serve as an executioner for a tyrant. Luther, especially after the Peasant’s War believed that temporal authority should not be challenged in anyway. Luther promoted this, somewhat reactionary approach, at least in part because of the Peasants War. Many of the rebels had been inspired by Luther and had hoped that he would join them and even lead them. Luther’s ideas had definitely been interpreted by some rebels and Protestant Pastors such as Muntzer as validating radical change in society.
Many Catholics in Germany used the Peasant War to attack the reformers and the war caused something of a crisis in the Reformation. Luther and his supporters were fearful that their movement could become tainted by association with the Peasants Revolt. Luther and others sought to distance themselves from the War and supported unequivocally the nobility and the Swabian League. This was not doubt done out of expediency as Luther know that his reform movement could only survive with the support of the elite. He could not been seen to be siding with the peasants or he would risk losing the support of the nobility, including the Saxon Dukes, his own protectors. Luther was also genuinely appalled by the behaviour of the peasants. He was particular appalled by the massacre at the castle of Weinsberg, when peasant rebels had massacred some nobles and the garrison of a castle. This prompted him to write the polemic ‘Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants’. In this work he used strong language to call for the extermination of the rebels who had ‘’become the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name.”  Luther, under the influence of St Augustine believed that human will was depraved and prone to evil.
Only a strong monarch or government could control the evil nature especially of the lower orders. As a result of the Peasants War, existing trends in the Reformation were confirmed and even became entrenched in Lutheranism. The Protestant Churches were to support the existing social order, that was hierarchal and socially conservative. Lutheranism in part, because of the Peasant War became a faith that was very much concerned with social order and discipline. Initially, Luther had seemed to promise a Church that was more liberal but after the Peasant’s War it became noticeably more conservative and even reactionary.
The Reformation had always been dependent on the support of the elite. They had helped Luther to defy the Pope. Many had seen in Luther’s teachings an opportunity to enrich themselves and to gain control over their own local churches. As the secularisation of monasteries and nunneries progressed the nobles and the urban elite had benefitted enormously. This trend continued during the Peasant War and in its aftermath. Moreover the elites began to have more control over the actual running of the newly formed Lutheran Churches. This was despite Luther’s belief in the separation of state and church. He had previously believed that the church should be kept separate from the secular power, which is inherently corrupt and corrupting.
However, after the Peasant War, Luther became less dogmatic and he seemed to have even acquiesced in the development of churches in German states that were often largely controlled by the local elite. This was even the case in his native Saxony and was possibly a reflection of the fact that he had felt his position had been weakened by the revolt. Luther was not willing to see Reformed Churches to come totally under the sway of local elites but he seemed more willing after the Peasants War to compromise. After his death, many local nobles effectively became head of the local Lutheran Church. This had not been envisaged by Luther and this outcome was partly a result of the compromises he made with the nobles in the aftermath of the Peasant War.
Martin Luther after the Peasant War was seen as leading a religious movement that was more concerned with the elite than the ordinary people. Historians have come to see Luther after 1525 as promoting ‘a Magisterial Reformation.’ one that was directed and controlled by the traditional rulers. Many pastors and ordinary people, who had been inspired by Luther, now turned against him and this had begun prior to the Peasants War. However, this dissatisfaction with Luther and his teachings became more pronounced after 1524-1527. Soon Protestant pastors and preachers, disillusioned with the ‘Magisterial Reformation’ were teaching a more radical version of Protestantism, one that Luther condemned. This led to the formation of many sects and groups. They were often persecuted not only by Catholics but also by Lutherans. This was the Radical or Popular Reformation an effort by radicals, based on the Bible to live in accordance with the Word of God and usually contrary to Martin Luther’s teachings. Many of these groups such as the Anabaptists also were social radicals. Many of the religious sects that emerged after the Peasants War were millenarian movements. Despite being repressed these sects and movements spread all over Europe, although they only managed to hold the allegiance of small numbers of the European population, they were enormously influential especially in America.
The Peasant War of 1524-1527 was crucial in the development of the Reformation. The ideas of the reformers inspired the peasantry and others to challenge the existing hierarchal order and to change the socio-economic system. They failed to achieve any of their aims and the existing elite only became more entrenched. The new Protestant Churches because of the crisis caused by the Peasant War became more conservative and came under the total control of the elite. Luther’s innate conservatism was reinforced by the Revolt. He condoned the elite’s domination of the new Church and a theology that justified and promoted the existing social and economic system. The common people had no real role in the governance of the new Protestant Churches after the great revolt. This led to a growing frustration among many and this led directly to the Radical or the Popular Reformation. The Peasants War changed the course of the Reformation and led to Lutheran churches that served the needs of the elite and ultimately resulting in the splintering of Protestantism into a myriad of sects.
Related DailyHistory.org Articles
- Zagorín, Pérez. Rebels and Rulers, 1500–1660 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984). pp. 187, 188, 190
- Zagorin, p. 116
- Miller, Douglas. Armies of the German Peasants' War 1524–1526 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003), p 6, 9, 14
- Miller, p119
- Scott, Tom. Thomas Müntzer: Theology and Revolution in the German Reformation. London: Macmillan, 1989), p. 45
- Scott, p. 117
- Miller, p. 120
- Miller, p. 121
- St Augustine. The City of God (London, Penguin, 1993), p. 356, 478
- Luther, Martin, Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants (Saxony, 1525), p. 10
- Hale, JR. Renaissance and Reformation (Pelican, London, 1988), p. 67
- Hale, p. 115
- Hale, p. 115
- Luther, p. 3
- Hale, p. 118
- Hale, p. 145
- Williams, George H., The Radical Reformation, 3rd ed (Truman State University Press, 2000), p.113
- Williams, p. 116
- Williams, p. 124
- Scott, p 114