Peasants' War, 1524-1525
The Peasants' War was a social revolution in Germany which, though preceded by a 100-year history of tension and occasional outbreaks, broke out in full bloody revolutionary form in June 1524, and was relatively suppressed by May 1525. Beginning at Stühlingen near Schaffhausen it spread northward and westward via the Black Forest and Alsace, as far as Westphalia, Hesse, and Thuringia, and eastward via the Allgäu and Tyrol as far as Hungary After early success, including considerable destruction of castles and monasteries, it was suppressed in pitched battles (Alsace, 17 May 1525; Württemberg, 12 May; Franconia, 2 and 4 June; Thuringia-Saxony at Frankenhausen, 15 May; around Salzburg as late as 1526). The confusion about the origin and character of the revolution, as well as its relation to Anabaptism and to men like Thomas Müntzer, has gradually been cleared. Müntzer joined the movement and was captured in the battle of Frankenhausen, but he was not the originator or even a major leader. Hubmaier has been blamed as the originator, and as the author of the Twelve Articles (October 1524) of the peasants, but both charges have been disproved by sound scholarship. The Anabaptists were nowhere implicated; in fact the origin of Anabaptism in 1525 at Zürich came months after the war began. Some of the disillusioned participants (Melchior Rinck) and fellow travelers (Hans Hut) later joined the Anabaptists (1526-1527), but this proves only that Anabaptist preachers found a hearing in the aftermath. Competent Lutheran historians have asserted that the outcome of the Peasants' War, with total failure of the peasants to win any of their otherwise very reasonable and moderate original demands (12 Articles), and the vicious attacks on the revolutionaries by Luther in which he strongly took the side of the nobles, led to the turning away of the mass of the peasantry from the Reformation. In this disillusioned mass it would be probable that some turned to Anabaptism, which was already critical of Luther and the state church system, and whose offer of the free church with local lay leadership would certainly find sympathy among the peasants, one of whose twelve articles had called for the local election of the pastor by the people and the administration of the tithe and church finances locally by those who paid them. Franz (p. 479) says flatly, "Many peasants went over (flüchteten) to the Anabaptists. The suppression of the remnants of the Peasants' War and the Anabaptists henceforth went hand in hand." That the Anabaptist concept of Christianity as earnest discipleship under the lordship of Christ, of the church as a free believers' church, and of the ethic of love and sharing had revolutionary implications for traditional European society and Christianity is clear. But nothing is clearer than that the Anabaptist ethic of love and nonresistance made it impossible for Anabaptism to be revolutionary in the sense of the Peasants' War. This does not deny the fact of fringe personalities or fellow travelers here and there who stepped over into radical or revolutionary attitudes, or even into such action as that of the Münsterite kingdom. -- Harold S. Bender
This phrase is the traditional label for a social upheaval early in 1525 in wide areas of southern and central Germany and Austria. Called a "peasants' war" by its aristocratic enemies, it involved various estates of commoners in the regions it affected (peasants, rural artisans, miners and unprivileged townspeople) and it was led most often by non-peasants. In its time it was also, more accurately, referred to as "the rebellion of the common man in town and countryside," although contemporary illustrations show women among the participants. Although it was anticipated by a preliminary uprising in the Black Forest in the summer of 1524 and had a militant aftermath in the Tyrol and the bishopric of Salzburg stretching into 1526, the commoners' resistance extended mainly from late January to early June 1525. It affected Upper Swabia, the Upper Rhine, Franconia, Württemberg, Alsace, Thüringia, and the Tyrol. It can be divided into two ten-week periods. In the first period, until the end of March, the commoners' resistance was essentially an armed mass movement of protest aimed at achieving binding negotiations or legal redress or both. Only with the beginning of April is the label "war" war at all appropriate, and then it was a war by princes and their mercenary armies, led mainly by the Swabian League, to disperse or destroy the large bands of commoners. Even in this last period the commoners' military actions were hesitant and defensive, and most of the battles were one-sided slaughters. Only in the summer in the Austrian Alps were there some rebel victories. The rebel groups numbered 300,000 at their high point and 100,000 persons lost their lives.
In the first, relatively nonviolent, period of the commoners' resistance, the grievances were directed more against the clergy, particularly monasteries and cathedral chapters, than against the aristocracy. Economic anticlericalism protesting against serfdom, labor services, and landlords' exploitation of forests, waters, and common meadows was linked with demands by villagers to administer their own tithes and to choose pastors who would preach the Word of God "without human adulteration." The overwhelming majority of commoners in the movement of 1525 thought of it as part of the Reformation and took for granted that it was appropriate to apply God's law to economic, political, and social abuses. Despite Luther's well-known disavowal of the rebels, they were, by intention, part of the Reformation. Their political programs sought to remove the clergy, but not the aristocracy, from positions of worldly authority. They sought greater autonomy for village self-government and greater power for all urban and rural commoners in the representative assemblies of the territorial states. There were also attempts among resisters in southwestern Germany to copy the model of the neighboring Swiss Confederation. Such programs were modeled on contemporary working political institutions (e.g. peasant estates in Scandinavian representative assemblies) and were practicable and realizable, not "utopian."
Early Anabaptism intersected with the commoners' movement of 1525 in many instances, although deficient source materials prevent us from knowing the extent of the connection of the two movements. Early Anabaptist preachers of 1525, Hans Krüsi in the rural environs of St. Gall, Johannes Brötli and Wilhelm Reublin in Hallau, and Balthasar Hubmaier in Waldshut, were involved, as Anabaptists, with the rebels. It is probable that Hubmaier authored or edited two Black Forest peasant programs, the "Letter of Articles" and the "Draft of a Constitution." Major Anabaptist leaders in south and central Germany, Hans Hut and Melchior Rinck, not only were themselves involved in the uprising before becoming Anabaptists but turned to fellow rebels to make their first Anabaptist converts. Hans Hut assigned the rebellion of 1525 apocalyptic significance as the starting point of the three-and-a-half year period immediately preceding the second coming of Christ. The Christian idealism that the commoners of 1525 turned against social inequality and property continued in another form in the Moravian Hutterites' community of life and goods. -- James M. Stayer
Blickle, Peter. The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants War from a New Perspective. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins, 1981.
Böhmer, H. Urkunden zur Geschichte des Bauernkriegs und der Wiedertaufer. Bonn, 1910, and Berlin, 1933.
Buszello, Horst. Der deutsche Bauernkrieg als politische Bewegung. Berlin: Colloquium, 1969.
Cohn, Henry J. "Anticlericalism in the German Peasants' War 1525." Past and Present 83 (1979): 3-31.
Franz, Günther. Der deutsche Bauernkrieg. Munich and Berlin, 1933.
Franz, Gunther. Der deutsche Bauernkrieg. 9th ed. Darmstadt, 1969.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon. 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 137.39.
Ramaker, A. J. "Hubmaier's Participation in the Peasants' Uprising and in the Authorship of the Peasants' Articles of 1525." Colgate-Rochester Divinity School Bulletin 3 (1930-1931): 277-285.
Scott, Tom. "The Peasants War: A Historiographical Review." Historical Journal 22 (1979): 693-720, 953-974.
Scribner, Robert W. and Gerhard Benecke, eds. The German Peasant War 1525: New Viewpoints. London: Allen and Unwin, 1979.
Seebaß, Gottfried "Bauernkrieg und Täufertum in Franken." Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 85 (1974): 284-300.
Stayer, James M. "Radikaler Frühzwinglianismus: Balthasar Hubmaier, Fabers `Ursach' und die Programme der Bauern.'' Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter, Jg. 42, n.F. 37 (1985): 43-59.
Vogler, Günther. Die Gewalt soll gegeben werden dem gemeinen Volk: Der deutsche Bauernkrieg 1525. Berlin: Dietz, 1983.
Wiswedel, W. Dr. Balthasar Hubmaier. Gunzenhausen, 1940.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 1114; vol 5, pp. 687-688. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S. and James M. Stayer. "Peasants' War, 1524-1525." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/P44.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. and James M. Stayer. (1987). Peasants' War, 1524-1525. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/P44.html.