Germanic Peasants’ Revolts
During the latter portion of 1524, peasants, craftspeople, laborers, and poorer soldiers began revolting in an extensive portion of the Holy Roman Empire. Their riots destroyed an immense amount of property ranging in ownership from nobility to clergy. Moreover, these revolts occurring during a time of religious reformation within the Holy Roman Empire. It is apparent that these uprisings of the 1520s were galvanized by the newly introduced religious ideas of the time as well as despotic treatment of the peasantry by the landlords, but some also believed that the peasants had simply gone mad.
The responses by the nobles to these revolts included initial support of the movement but also extremely hostile actions towards the dissenting peasants. By the end of this brief period of violence more than 100,000 people had been killed, peasants and others included. It is definite that these revolts impacted the Germanic States.
In the 1500s Europe, especially the Holy Roman Empire, was undergoing widespread time of religious change, this period is known as the Reformation.
Reformists such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin were all leaders of new religions that were collectively referred to as Protestants. These new theologies, although still Christian, differed from Catholicism quite a bit and often their teachings would be misinterpreted and these misconceptions may have caused the Peasants’ Revolts.
For example, document 1 states that it has “its ultimate source in Lutheran teaching” when referring to the revolts. (The author also believes that the teachings of Martin Luther have turned the peasants blind and witless but this may be a bias based simply on the religious differences between the noble author and peasants; assuming the author is Catholic.) Furthermore, Thomas Muntzer, a theologian, states that the revolts were nothing more than God’s will (document 6). (Although Muntzer believed that the revolts were a divine sign, he was extremely biased towards the riots and supported them wholeheartedly. He often preached in support of them, despite calling the riots “God’s will” they were also Muntzer’s vision.) In fact, in document 7 Luther openly attacks Muntzer and ,calling him a devil, and blames him for played a huge role in the beginning and spread of the revolts. The religious differences as well as misinterpretations of newer teachings during the 1500s in Germany can be blamed, in part, for causing the Peasants’ Revolts; but not entirely.
The Holy Roman Empire during the 1500s was divided into hundreds of small kingdoms ruled over by princes and lords, during this time peasants lived mainly as serfs to their respective landlords. Oppressive treatment by these landlords was a seemingly perpetual occurrence and was one of the main factors that caused the Peasants’ Revolts. To begin with, document 2, written by peasants, states that they will no longer allow themselves to be oppressed by their lords. These document states the multiple wrongdoings of the lords, such as demanding unjust work that was not agreed upon previously and extra services forced upon peasants without proper compensation. (This document was written by a peasant to nobility so there is some bias in that perspective, but because it is historical fact that serfs are almost always treated unjustly, this bias is nullified.) Another peasant wrote that serfdom is unchristian and therefor all serfs under Christian rule should be released. It is also stated how pitiful the life of a serf is during this time (document 3). Although there is no evidence of neglect to the serfs in this document, it is apparent that the serfs led miserable lives which were most likely caused by their treatment.
In this same document, the serfs stated that they were willing to be peaceful if their treatment improved. Another example of unfair ruling was the extremely uneven distribution of wealth. Document 8 states how some believed that the rich should share their wealth with the poor, especially wealth acquired at the expense of the peasants, many peasants in the countryside agreed with this. In addition, once the peasants published the Articles of the Peasants of Memmingen, nobility began to somewhat listen to their pleas and agreed to release them from serfdom if paid compensation for the loss of labor force (document 4). It is obvious that the poor treatment of the peasants angered them enough to cause the revolts, but despite all the facts and motives behind the revolts a few had a different opinion on the subject.
Germany during the time of the Reformation was extremely divided, not just be religion but by class as well. There were three definite classes, nobility, clergy, and peasantry and once born into one it is very difficult to change between classes; especially for peasants. Some members of the nobility as well as the clergy believed that the peasants had simply gone crazy and forgot their place at the bottom of society and they believed this caused the rebellion. Firstly, document 9 says that the peasants have “overstepped the mark” when concerning the riots. This makes the divide between peasantry and any other class seem almost as a tangible concept so with this exceeding of the boundaries, peasants have committed a visible wrong both to themselves and others.
Secondly, document 12 states that in the recent disturbances the common man (peasant) has forgot himself and his place in society which caused him to act violently against his authorities. (Both of these documents were written by nobility who have, presumably, been nobles since birth so they are biased to the massive gap between peasantry and nobility. It is possible that they feel that changing classes is impossible that they feel as if the peasants have simply forgotten or underestimated this definite law of society.) There were numerous causes behind the Peasants’ Revolts of the Germanic States, but just as there were several reasons there were also a number of different responses.
Although it would seem right for the nobility to be entirely against the revolts that was not always the case. In the early stages of revolting only clerical possessions were destroyed and only clergy were killed so this led the nobility to respond by supporting the rebellion; initially. Firstly, many nobles saw the attacks and wondered what the outcome of these revolts may become, but they were not yet afraid and still supported the revolt. Document 11 shows that as nobility looked on with pleasure while the churches were attacked by the rebellion. But this was only a temporary view, for as the rebellion spread the nobles quickly became targets for attacks.
Furthermore, many nobles joined the rebel cause to spare their lives but others were forced to swear an oath to the cause (document 10). This shows that although at first the nobility supported the revolts, their opinions were quickly changed. But, the nobles weren’t the only ones in favor of the rebellion (at least for a time). Document 5 reports townspeople as “peasant-supporters” who opened the gates to let the peasants inside of the town’s barriers. Initial response to the revolts were support by nobility and peasantry but they eventually became fearful and against the movement. Unlike the briefly supportive response of some of the nobility, others responded with much harsher actions.
Although supportive responses to the revolts were somewhat clear, there were much more blatant responses. The Emperor as well as many Princes and even some members of the clergy responded in an extremely hostile, even violent manner to the rebellion. One of these aggressive responses came from Martin Luther who condemned all rebels to eternity in Hell (document 7). Because religion was so important during these times, this is comparable to violent responses through the emotions that it caused; especially anger and fear. But although this was a nonviolent response, the Princes responded in a much more hostile manner. In fact, the Princes ordered the killing of any rebels; which became nothing more than a simple slaughter (document 9). Enough peasants were killed that eventually the rebellion ended and then the Emperor ordered an investigation of the riots and how to prevent them in the future.
The Peasants’ Revolts of the 1520s in Germany were caused by the perfect storm of religious tension, unfair lords, and blurring of the lines between classes. The responses to the rebellion included brief support from the nobility as well as violent opposition. These revolts were one of the bloodiest times in the history of the Holy Roman Empire up to the 1520s and they undoubtedly had a profound effect on the development of present-day Germany.
Cite this Germanic Peasants’ Revolts
Germanic Peasants’ Revolts. (2016, Oct 20). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/germanic-peasants-revolts/