“Background to the Reformation and the Peasants War” – September 13, 2015

Disclaimer: These are unedited notes, not a presentation.

I have absolutely no idea how to cover two huge topics in one short sunday school lesson. I could happily talk for hours about both the peasant war and the lead up to the reformation. These are two of my favorite topics. In another lifetime, I would probably get my Ph.D. in reformation studies. That is why I’m very fortunate for things like the Lilly Grant which let me do something I’m passionate about and love, without all the political games of academia that frustrate me so much.

Luckily, both of these topics were something that I covered 5 years ago, when I led a Sunday school class on early Anabaptism. I doubt anyone remembers those two classes. I believe Joel recorded them for Kristen, if you really are that interested. What I don’t want to do today is spend much time talking about the same things I discussed 5 years ago. However, not everyone was there. The first class, I talked about the anticlerial agitation that filled the air during the early 16th century. We looked at a lot of different political cartoons from different printers that gave us a glimpse into what was affecting the imaginations of ordinary men and women. We saw pictures like Martin Luther as the German Hercules and priests who were tempted by the seven deadly sins. I was fortunately able to encounter many new political cartoons over in Europe at different museums, like the house of Albrecht Durer, the famous printer of Nuremberg. The second class was on mainly the rise of Thomas Muntzer, the great reformer, who in my eyes, was the only worthy rival of Luther. We talked about Muntzer’s connection to the Swiss Anabaptists, his vision of reform, and his leadership in the peasant revolt. Stephanie and I were able to visit Muhlhausen, the city which Muntzer pastored, when he prepared for his peasant revolt.

Again, there is too much stuff to cover, I can’t cover everything. So let’s move on to something new.

One of the most important things to understand both the Reformation and the peasants revolt is that they occurred in a time of major transition in the lands of Germany and Switzerland. From 1300 – 1450, this was a time of medieval downturn. There was a decline in people and an economic contraction. However, during the mid-fifteenth century, the socioeconomic tide turned. The economy began to enter into a period of long-term expansion that lasted up until the 30 year war.

You might think that economic expansion would be good news! But can anyone give some reasons why economic expansion isn’t always great for some?

During downturn, this was a time of market advantage for commoners. Peasants had easier access to more land on better terms, since land was plentiful due to population decline and rents were low. Scarcity of labor meant that wages went up. For the lower classes, the economic contraction resulted in greater personal freedom. To keep labor, lords relaxed or eliminated serfdom.

But when the economy began to change, population boomed as did levels of production and exchange. Prices mounted, including land values and rents. The great inflation, often termed as a price revolution, was mainly due to the expanding population. The prices of foodstuffs and essentials ran well ahead of the prices of other products. Real wages deteriorated, purchasing power fell.

In other words, the economic conditions which previously had favored the peasants and commoners, turned against them. Landlords were not slow to take advantage of these shifts. Rents were raised, entry fines (feeds paid on first taking possession of leased land, even if the land had long been in the family’s possession) went up. The Lords also sought to reimpose serfdom obligations, to reacquire land and usage rights which had previously been passed onto peasant communities. This means that Lords and peasants began to be in competition for access to natural resources. Tensions logically grew. The gulf between peasants, day laborers, etc and the rich, the priests, the Lords widened drastically.

A quick side note. It is not surprising that the regions where the Peasants’ War occurred, were mostly areas of partible inheritance, or where a families holdings were divided among heirs. When land wasn’t as plentiful, this quickly meant that family holdings were divided in in too small portions that families could not provide for themselves, especially when burdens of taxes, rents, dues, and other obligations quickly rose.

It is safe to say that the initial rise of capitalism in this region is a major force which led to the reactions of the reformation and the peasants’ war. We will see this clearly when we look at some of the articles the peasants presented to the city of Erfurt. Hostility to the merchant-capitalists ran rampant.

Pam briefly mentioned another major change last week. In the late 15th century, state formation became a thing. Many princes introduced a new legal uniformity in their principalities, override local customs and cultures. They built new rathouses, or city halls, expanded walls and their military. How did they pay for such administrative apparatuses? They raised taxes.

These long-term changes in the economy and the politics may be the best explanation of the mood of malaise and discontent that hung over the cultural life of the empire in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. People began to sense that the times were out of joint and that a profound social disturbance was impending. And starting in the last quarter of the 15th century, we begin to see a series of local uprising and popular disturbances which sought to all attention to the economic crises in society. However, these were always local revolts. Several of them adopted as their name and sign the Bundschuh, the bound show, which was the symbol of the peasantry. These took place in the region close to Switzerland. However, what happened in the 1520’s greatly dwarfed all these small revolts. They only help us see when the ripple of disruption began to form.

Reforming from Below

Another thing that is absolutely important if we are going to be entering into this period of reformation and structural chaos is to remember that the period we are entering was a highly optimistic, utopian one, almost 100% different from our contemporary Western world, with its pluralism, skepticism, pessimism, and disillusionment with all grand narratives and heroic solutions. This was the period of Thomas More’s famous Utopia and Campanella’s City of the Sun, where ordinary people had their own fervent dreams of a New Jerusalem, based on stubborn memories and ardent hopes. And the common people had no intention of remaining passive whenever their rights and freedoms were endangered. They were not just going to let things take their courts. Peter Matheson states it best when he says, “What is so distinctive about this age is that a significant minority dared to blaze a new trail.”

This period was a time of visions, a time of prophecy and a time of great apocalyptic expectancy. People were certain that the age would soon experience imminent judgement, convinced that a vast cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil was nearing its climax. The world would soon be turned upside down and justice would prevail.

During this period, religious enthusiasm easily and often slipped into social and political radicalism. Thomas Muntzer is the classic example. It is easy to write him off as a bloodthirsty terrorist, but the reality is, as he ministered to the poor on a day to day basis, and saw the oppressive conditions of their lives, he recognized that one cannot neatly separate the religious world from the secular one. Here is one of my favorite quotes from Muntzer.

What is the evil brew from which all usury, theft and robbery spring, but the assumption of our lords and princes that all creatures are their property. The fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the face of the earth – it all has to belong to them. Isaiah 5. To add insult to injury, that have God’s commandment proclaimed to the poor: God has commanded that you should not steal. But it avails them nothing. For while they do violence to everyone, flay and fleece the poor farm worker, tradesman, and everything that breathes, Micah 3, yet should any of the latter commit the pettiest crime, he must hang. And Doctor Liar responds, Amen. It is the lords themselves who make the poor man their enemy. If they refuse to do away with the causes of insurrection how can trouble be avoided in the long run? If saying that makes me an inciter to insurrection, so be it. – Thomas Muntzer 1524.

This quote was proclaimed a year before the peasant revolt swept throughout Germany and Switzerland. It helps us gauge the spirit filling the common people throughout the land. Any questions so far? If you want to know more about this period, I strongly recommend anything by Peter Matheson, particularly, his book The imaginative world of the reformation.

Peasants Revolt

Before going on sabbatical, it never really hit me how massive the peasant revolt really was. As Mennonites, most of the time when we hear about the peasants war it references Thomas Muntzer and the battle at Frankenhausen. We are talking about over 300,000 peasants with over 100,000 of them killed. Today, if we take into account population, there would be 150-200,000 peasants in each troop fighting to overtake cities. And this was before the days when nations had large standing armies. In the 15th and early 16th centuries, regions had small armies of just a few thousand and most mercenaries refused to fight against the peasants. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that the rebellion failed.

The peasants war broke out in the summer of 1524 on the southern fringes of the Black Forest near the Rhine river and the border of the Swiss Confederation. The straw that started the war is quite hilarious. The countess of Stuhlingen ordered the peasants during harvest-time to  gather snail shells fror her maidservants to wind yard upon. It was the triviality of the task, especially during harvest time that set them off. How humiliating to have to satisfy the self-indulgent whim of these overlords. So they created a list of grievances which are equally bizarre, expressing their displeasure  over being forced to gather roots, morels, juniper berries and even barberries so that their lords could make barberry compote.

At this point, there was no initial recourse to arms. The Stuhlingers hope was to negotiate. But the judicial process dragged on, as it always does, through various fruitless meetings. Until they decided that the case wouldn’t be heard until April of 1525. The peasants were unwilling to wait that long to be heard.

The initial stages of the revolt were nonviolent. They resembled a strike more than open rebellion. Peasants ceased work and assembled en masse as a means of calling attention to their grievances. Their aim was to force their lords to enter into negotiations. Some of the peasants even set out on marches around the region to rally support for their cause, especially among towns and villages which they believed could be persuaded to act as mediators in their negotiations.

Less formal and often more spontaneous were the rallies that formed during 1524. They were akin to flash mobs forming today. Assemblies of a very large number of peasants would gather somewhere in the village. Contemporary observers were struck by the suddenness and the extent of this form of peasant protest and likened it to the behavior of crazed swine or swarming bees.

Throughout the winter of 1524, most of the unrest was contained in the Black Forest, but by the spring mass rebellion began to spread elsewhere. At this point the revolt was still, for the most part, nonviolent. They refused to kill people, however, their aim was to capture nobels’ castles and convents. They were extremely successful that. For example, in a span of ten days, over 200 hundred castles were sacked near Bamberg.

In most areas, the violent revolt lasted no more than six weeks from April through mid-May 1525. After this the revolt continued only in the region of Tirol.


This summer Stephanie and I were able to spend a week in Erfurt, you can see it on the map there. Today, Erfurt isn’t a tourist attraction. Even though it is the capital of Thuringia, it’s population is under 200,000. It’s about the 40th largest city in Germany. However it is beautiful. Great food, beautiful churches. It was my favorite city which we visited in Germany.

However, in the 16th century, Erfurt was a much more important city. It was the 5th largest city in Germany with nearly 20,000 people living there. The city also had 83 villages which it looked after and its nominal overlord was either the archbishop of Saxony or Mainz, the city greatly despised both.

Erfurt is important because here is where Martin Luther attended seminary in the early 1500s. And other than the abnormal amount of churches and clergy who lived in Erfurt, the trade that put Erfurt on the map was Woad. Does anyone know what woad is? It is a plant which grows throughout Europe, and the leaves of the plant can be used to produce a beautiful blue dye. The leaves are crushed, and then left to ferment in a vat for over a year. The pH of the vat was maintained with the urine of the male work force. It needs a certain pH and they found that those who drink a lot of alcohol reach this best. They also go to the restroom more. So Erfurt would hirer people to drink and go to the bathroom.

1509 was a year of madness in Erfurt. An uprising of burghers happened because they saw the city council as mismanaging things. The poor deeply resented the rich and they led a series of riots in order to lower their taxes. In the same year, the city plunged into a seven year war with Saxony. Unfortunately, this conflict lead the city to become bankrupt. They couldn’t even keep up with its interest payments. And a big part of the problem is that over 1,000 persons in Erfurt were clergy or their dependents. All of these individuals were exempt from direct taxation. And during this seven year war, there were at least three coups of power. It was like a revolving door of leadership.

In 1518 and 1519, the city tried to impose a 1% property tax. This led to a series of revolts by the poor in the city and the poor simply refused to pay it. The early 1520’s saw a large market decline for the city as well. Companies began to undercut the woad market. Many traders began to flee the city. By 1523 there were over 1000 empty houses. Over 1/4 of the city’s population, mainly the rich had left.

One of my favorite stories which I learned about was the visit of Martin Luther to Erfurt in April of 1521. I think it shows the disconnect between Luther and the common people over the reformation and what Luther stood for. Luther, on his way to the diet of Worms, wanted to stop by and visit Erfurt and see old friends. Erfurt welcomed him formally, they threw a big party for him. And soon after Martin Luther concluded his visit, some of his followers, they called themselves the Martinists, led an organized riot throughout the city. They stormed a number of church buildings, doing a great bit of damage before they were stopped. They also destroyed 43 houses, mostly belonging to the clergy. It is clear that the people saw Luther as a source of liberation, one that was toppling the world which they knew. The German Hercules overthrowing the order of things. And we know the events in Erfurt had a major effect on Luther as well. It enabled him to see how he was causing revolt and disruption. He feared this could counteract his movement of reformation.

And even though Luther told the people to proceed slowly and carefully with the reformation in Erfurt, the disturbances of violence and revolt continued. Given all these circumstances, it is no surprise that the Peasant Revolt took hold in Erfurt and the surrounding area. It was these economic conditions that lead to a number of uprisings all throughout Thuringia, including the rise of Thomas Muntzer in Muhlhausen.

  But what I found interesting about Erfurt is how the city tried to co-opt the revolt and revolution. On Friday April 28, over eleven thousand peasants stormed the city of Erfurt. The city knew from prior experience that it could not oppose this revolt, so they found a way to use it to strike against the power of Mainz. It welcomed the peasants. It asked them to not hurt any of the citizen. However, they could do whatever they wished to the clergy, they could also destroy any and all property belonging to the jurisdiction of Mainz. The city did its best to redirect its hatred toward a new common enemy. However, the city underestimated the resolve of the peasants who quickly topped the city counsel and set up their own order. The peasants produced 28 articles or lists of demands describing the ways they believed the city was unjustly working against them. The peasants left the city in early May, a few days before the battle of Frankenhausen, believing that their reform would quickly be enacted. However, after Muntzer’s defeat, the new counsel was quickly overthrown, and order re-established.

Look at the Erfurt articles.

Lastly, it is important to note that revolt remained in the air in Erfurt and Thuringia for years after Muntzer’s demise. In 1527, a number of Anabaptists did their best to lead a violent revolt against the city which was to take place on New Years day of 1528. However, in November the city found out about their plans. They captured the leaders, put them to death, thus ending the threat of revolt.