The Peasants War. Belfort Bax
WE have now to follow the rise and progress of the movement in the eastern Austrian territories of Tyrol and Salzburg. We shall then briefly trace its fortunes in the western dependencies of Austria, in the Breisgau and Upper Elsass, and along the Rhine.
In the first rank of the prince-ecclesiastics of the extensive hereditary domains of the house of Austria stood the Archbishop of Salzburg. Amongst the numerous well-hated prince-prelates of the age, Archbishop Matthaus Lang by no means took a back place. The town of Salzburg had long been at cross purposes with the arch-episcopal castle overhanging it. History tells how the predecessor of Lang, Leonhard by name, had invited the bürgermeister and some distinguished members of the city-council to a banquet. As soon as they sat down to table, he caused the castle banqueting-hall to fill with armed men, to whom he gave orders for his guests to be seized, fettered and carried off to a distant portion of his territories to be executed. The reason of this act of treachery was a report that had reached his ears of the intention of the council to apply to the emperor for a charter constituting Salzburg a free city. This act, however, seems to have excited less indignation amongst the body of the burghers, owing to the class hatred entertained for the wealthy town patricians whom it immediately concerned.
As for the peasants in the Salzburg lands, they, like other peasantries on ecclesiastical domains, had a standing quarrel with their lord, and had more than once risen against what, they deemed unjust exactions during the latter half of the preceding century. It was natural, therefore, that the great popular wave of 1525 should not have passed over the town and country of Salzburg without leaving its impression.
The then Archbishop Matthaus Lang came to his see in 1519. He had sprung from a patrician family of the town of Augsburg, and by cunning and diplomacy had attained to one of the wealthiest and most powerful sees in the empire. His character may be judged from the statement of one of his own privy councillors that “it were well known with what roguery and knavery he had come into the benefice, how his whole life long he had naught that was good in his thought, was full of malice, a knave, and his disposition never good towards his countryfolk”. That the foregoing estimate is in nowise too severe his public acts amply testify.
On the opening of the Lutheran Reformation, it is not surprising that the Salzburgers showed themselves eminently favourable to the new doctrines. Here, as elsewhere, were to be found enthusiastic reformers amongst the clergy. With these must be included the confessor of the archbishop himself. No sooner did the latter become aware of the fact than he threw the priest, whose name was Kastenbauer, into prison, and gave orders for all those acknowledging the Lutheran heresy, were they clerical or lay, to be pursued with heavy pains and penalties. But the cunning prelate had a plan in view for making the spread of the Lutheran movement a shoeing-horn to an ambitious scheme of his own for doing away with all ancient rights and privileges in the town and the country alike, and for reducing the whole territory beneath his absolute sway. Under pretence of repressing heresy, and protecting the see against disaffection, it was his aim, namely, to collect a body of mercenaries from outside, to fall upon his own subjects, and by a display of severity to reduce them to an abject submission. “The burghers,” he is reported to have said, “must be the first that I shall undo; then those of the country must follow.”
In Tyrol, accordingly, whither he journeyed to do homage to his feudal superior, the Archduke Ferdinand, who was at Innsbruck, he engaged six companies of free-lances, alleging to the archduke as his excuse the necessity of being prepared against a possible Lutheran rising in his dominions. The citizens of Salzburg were horrified at the return of their liege lord with a small army at his back. Their alarm was increased on observing signs at the castle of the planting of ordnance in a position to threaten the town. So great was the panic that, on the peremptory demand of the cardinal-archbishop, the city surrendered at once unconditionally, and the prince-prelate rode in in triumph, followed by his retinue, to the guildhall on the bread market.
This entry lacked none of the pomp and magnificence characteristic of the age. The archbishop, clad in full armour, was mounted on a white charger, surrounded by his pages and courtiers, and followed by two companies of free-lances. A humble address delivered to the archbishop by the bürgermeister was answered by his chancellor in haughty and almost insulting language. All imperial charters, granting privileges to the town, were ordered to be surrendered, as well as those given by himself or by his predecessors. A formal document was then required to be drawn up and signed by the bürgermeister and principal councillors, pledging the town to submit in all things to the will of its feudal superior. Salzburg thus, unlike most of the other important towns of Germany, which had long ago settled accounts with their feudal overlords, was still in the throes of a struggle which, in not a few other cases, had been left two centuries behind. As a natural consequence, the class-antagonism within the walls, although unmistakably existing, was somewhat overshadowed. There was at least a solidarity of all classes against the feudal oppressor. A similar despotic policy was pursued throughout the whole territory of the archbishopric.
Severe persecutions of the preachers of the new gospel now followed. The recalcitrant priest, Matthaus, who had been amongst the most active of its propagandists, was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment. He was bound on a horse with an iron chain and was to be conveyed to a distant castle. On the way thither, however, his conductors turned into a friendly inn to refresh, leaving their prisoner alone outside. Finding a few peasants around him, attracted by curiosity, the preacher appealed to them to release him. In a short time a considerable crowd had gathered, and, a young peasant constituting himself leader, the preacher was released and went his way. The leader and another peasant engaged in this affair were afterwards secretly executed at Salzburg within the castle. , As soon as this was known, however, it acted as a powerful stimulus to the prevailing disaffection. The friends of the victims and of the new doctrines went about from valley to valley, secretly urging the country-folk to defend the gospel and avenge innocent blood.
The measureless exactions of the Cardinal-Archbishop all helped in the same direction. Not only was the peasantry taxed up to the hilt, but heavy subsidies were demanded from the wealthy burghers of the town of Salzburg. Insults, oppressions, exactions, continued throughout the winter of 1524-1525. But, at the same time, here as elsewhere, the opposition, which was to break out in the spring in the form of open rebellion, was organising itself. This first took definite shape in the valley of Gastein. Fourteen “articles” were formulated by this peasant population, whom the celebrated “Twelve Articles” of Upper Swabia appear not yet to have reached. First and foremost, the free preaching of the gospel without human additions was demanded. The free election of preachers was also insisted upon. Furthermore, various imposts were to be done away with, notably the merchet (or due payable on the marriage of a son or daughter, the death due, the so-called small tithe, and many other things of a like nature. A righteous administration of justice — and especially that the judges should be independent of the lord and his bailiffs — was also amongst the demands. A further curious item was that the cost of the execution of criminals should not fall upon the rural community. Finally, the maintenance of public roads for the facility of trade and intercourse was required.
On the basis of these articles, a “Christian Brotherhood” was formed here also. Messengers were sent into all the neighbouring valleys to secure adhesion. Soon the whole of the Alpine archbishopric was in motion, and by the end of April the insurrection had reached Styria, Carinthia and Upper Austria. The “Christian Brotherhood” was now well-established in all the Austrian lands.
The Archduke Ferdinand, who held court at Innsbruck, at this time called together the assembly of the Estates of the five Austrian Duchies to consider what action should be taken. The local assemblies of the territories also met. It was generally admitted on all sides that the revolt was brought about by high-handed and oppressive action on the part of the territorial magnates. Here, indeed, even the lower nobility, when offering the archduke their aid in quelling the insurrection, made the redress of certain specified wrongs, under which the “common man” was suffering, a necessary condition. The archduke himself had to agree. His real views and inclinations as regards the situation were probably better expressed by a rescript previously issued by himself and the court-council at Vienna to the effect that “the crime must be chastised with a rod of iron, to the end that the evil and wanton device of the peasants should be punished, so that others may take warning thereby, also that those who are elsewhere already rebellious may be stilled and brought into submission. It is therefore our counsel and good opinion that ye all do proceed against all chiefs and leaders, wheresoever they may arise, or show themselves, with spearing, flaying, quartering, and every cruel punishment.”
In Styria, Sigmund von Dietrichstein, who ten years before had mercilessly suppressed a peasant insurrection in the duchy (cf. German Society, pp.82-86) held still the chief authority in the land. He was, however, without men. Even the mercenaries sent him from Vienna refused to march against the peasantry, a section of them actually deserting to the latter. He would have been absolutely powerless, had not a contingent of three hundred Bohemian men-at-arms arrived upon the scene. An attempt, nevertheless, to attack a peasant encampment at Goysen resulted in the repulse and flight of his whole force. In his retreat through a narrow defile, the sides of which were occupied by parties of insurgents, Dietrichstein suffered almost more than in the open field. He himself was wounded, and confessed to a loss of over a hundred men killed, though this was undoubtedly far below the true number. To make matters worse, his remaining men now mutinied, and it was only with difficulty, and with the expenditure of a large sum of money, that he could induce them to remain with him. Two companies of free-lances and some three hundred horsemen were, however, on their way from Carinthia to his assistance. With the aid of these he was able to maintain his position, though he did not dare to attack the main body of rebels, consisting of some six thousand peasants. under the leadership of one Reustl. His attempts at negotiations, though they first of all failed owing to the opposition of Reustl, were eventually successful, the majority of the contingent deserting their leader and accepting the terms offered. Reustl, with a band of faithful followers, mostly workers in the salt mines, made good his retreat, and succeeded in reaching the main Salzburg contingent, which he joined.
By this time, things were getting hotter than ever in the archbishopric. The main body of the insurgent peasants were encamped in a village a few miles from Salzburg. They were armed with the most motley weapons, clubs, pitchforks and sickles, with only here and there a rusty sword or spear or a worn-out piece of armour. In this way they streamed forth from their valleys and mountain pastures. The episcopal functionaries were taken by surprise. They had omitted to occupy the leading pass. In vain the archbishop altered his tone; in vain he became mild, persuasive and even fatherly. The peasants were not so boorish as not to know the worth of his assurances. The townspeople of Salzburg were in full sympathy with them. So threatening did matters become that Matthaus Lang felt himself no longer safe in his palace on the market-place, and made good his retreat to his castle immediately above. A steep and narrow path led from the city to this impregnable fortress, which boasted a double wall, in part hewn out of the natural rock. The south side rested on a sheer precipice of 440 feet. Here the archbishop was safe enough as regards his person, but the position was not favourable for conducting negotiations with the town, in which his whole force consisted of one of the companies afore-mentioned, under the command of two knights named Schenk and Thurn. As in the case of the Frauenberg, members of his council were active in riding to and fro between the castle and the town, with the object of establishing a pact with the citizens.
The peasants kept in close touch with the Salzburgers. The chief intermediary of the latter with their overlord was a municipal functionary of the name of Gold. He was, however, suspected of treachery. One day, as the archbishop’s military commanders, Hans Schenk and Sigmund von Thurn, were endeavouring to appease a tumultuous general assembly of the citizens on the market-place, Hans Gold was seen on horseback in the neighbourhood. Believing him to be acting the spy, or swayed by motives of personal vengeance, a butcher, against whom Gold had given an unfair decision in his judicial capacity, dragged him off his horse by the hook of his halberd. He was only prevented from running him through by the intervention of a brewer named Pickler. The incident was, nevertheless, a signal for the assembly to become openly insurrectionary; so much so that Schenk and Thurn themselves, fearing that their force was insufficient for the emergency, made a dash for the castle. Gold himself was not so fortunate, being seized and thrown into one of the towers, where he was put to the torture and had to confess matters concerning the archbishop’s policy not calculated to conciliate the popular feeling. Finding that their official leaders had abandoned them, the company of free-lances were nothing loth to allow themselves to be enrolled in the service of the citizens.
The peasants now drew nearer the town, and on Whit Monday the brother of one of the peasants whom Lang had had secretly executed in his castle, entered the gates and rushed through the streets, affixing notices on the houses of the canons and councillors of the archbishop with the words: “This house is mine until the innocent blood of my brother be avenged”. The same evening the main body of the peasants entered the city, the gates of which were thrown open to them. The usual scenes ensued on the following day; the palace of the prince-prelate on the market-place was entered; charters, documents and registers were destroyed, so that, as it was stated, one might wade knee-deep in the fragments; kitchens, cellars and dwelling-rooms were sacked, the retainers being turned out. By evening the building was empty, and became a place from the windows of which women hung their washing. In a few days, reinforcements arrived from the mining districts, well-armed and disciplined. Finding this to be the case, a large number of the original ill-armed contingent withdrew to their fields and villages, undertaking to maintain their newly-arrived comrades.
The insurgent city now set about laying siege in earnest to the archbishop and his nobles in the castle, the Hohen-Salzburg, as it was called. Every possible means of egress was occupied by them. They were, however, too late to prevent one of the prelatical councillors from riding off to solicit aid from the, courts of Bavaria and Austria. The Archduke was himself already too much pressed to afford any assistance, for in addition to his troubles previously spoken of in the so-called “five duchies,” the movement had now reached Tyrol. As for the Duke of Bavaria, so far from being anxious to assist his brother potentate, he was disposed to treat secretly with the insurgents, with the view of obtaining possession of the Salzburg territories, and was only with difficulty prevented from carrying out this policy by the advice of his chancellor, Leonhard von Eck.
The Tyrolese movement is remarkable as being the only one of which it can be said that it obtained ultimate success of a modified kind. With the rest, rapid and complete as seemed their success at first, as rapidly and completely were they crushed in a few weeks. The Tyrolese, on the other hand, not only succeeded in prolonging the struggle far into the summer of 1526, but, although the far-reaching aspirations of those engaged in the conflict were doomed to disappointment, the peasantry as a whole did not go out altogether empty-handed. They obtained certain distinct concessions of a permanent nature. This was partly due, no doubt, to the intrepid character of the inhabitants, accustomed as they were from the earliest ages to a life of comparative freedom and independence; partly also to the formation of the country, in many parts inaccessible to any but natives, and everywhere easily capable of defence by small bands, and, last but not least, to the remarkable man who was not only the intellectual head of the movement, but who was as eminent as an organiser and diplomatist as he was bold and logical as a thinker — I refer to Michael Gaismayr.
On the Tyrolese insurrection, it may be worth while to quote here a report of a hostile contemporary witness, George Kirchmair (apud Jansen, vol. ii., pp.492-494 “There arose,” writes Kirchmair, “a cruel, fearful, inhuman insurrection of the common peasant-folk in this land, at which I was at hand and beheld many wonders. Certain noisy, base people did adventure with violence to free from the judge a condemned rebel who had done mischief and who justly had been ordained to the penalty. After that they had done this thing on a Wednesday, did the peasants run together out of all mountains and valleys on Whit Sunday, young and old, albeit they knew not what they would do. As then a great concourse was come together in the Muklander Au within the Eisack valley, their conclusion was to free themselves from their oppression. A noble gentleman, Sigmund Brandisser, bailiff at Rodenegg, went straightway to the assembled peasants and showed to them all the danger, vanity, mischief, trouble and care. Notwithstanding that they promised him not to go forward to deeds, but to bring their complaint before their rightful prince, who was then in Innsbruck, yet did they not keep their promise, but on Whit Sunday at night made assault to Brixen, plundering and robbing in defiance of God and right, all priests, canons and chaplains. Thereafter did they assemble before the bishop’s court and drave thence his councillors and his servants, with much violence, and in such inhuman manner that one may not write thereof. They of Brixen had as soon forgotten their duty toward Bishop Sebastian as the peasants of the new foundation toward their lord, the Prior Augustin. In fine, was there no duty, faith, vow, or other thing whatsoever bethought. The Brixeners and the peasants were of one mind. Every part had its chief men. These chiefs did without any cause or any renunciation (of allegiance) move with five thousand men against the monastery of the new foundation, and overran the priory on Friday, the 12th of May, 1525. Of the wantonness which they there wrought, a man might write a whole book. Prior Augustin, a pious man, was driven out and pursued, and the priests in such wise despised, mocked and tormented, that they must forsooth be made ashamed of the priestly sign and name. More than twenty-five thousand florins of loss in houses, silver, treasure, furnishings and eating vessels, charters and books, did the peasants bring about. No man may say with how much pride, drunkenness, blaspheming and sacrilege the priory was at this time offended. It had also been burned, had not God willed it otherwise. On Saturday, the 13th of May, they chose a captain, a fair-spoken yet cunning man, named Michael Gaismayr, son of a squire of Sterzing, an evil, a rebellious, but a cunning man. So soon as he was chosen their captain, the plundering of priest went on in the whole land. There was no priest so poor in the land but that he must lose all that was his own. Thereafter fell they upon divers nobles and did destroy so many that no man could or would arm himself to resist them; nay, even the Archduke Ferdinand and his most excellent wife held themselves nowhere saved. For in this whole land, in the valley of the Inn and of the Etsch, there was in the towns and amongst the peasants such a concourse, cry, and tumult, that hardly might a good man walk in the streets. Robbing, plundering and stealing did become so common that even not a few pious men were tempted thereto, who afterwards bitterly repented. And I speak the truth when I say that through this robbing, plundering and stealing, did no man wax rich.”
A spy of the Archbishop of Trier reports to his master that emissaries from the Tyrolese insurgents were to be found in southern Germany and in Elsass, seeking to establish communications and an understanding between the two movements. He cautions his master at the same time, probably with the fear of Michael Gaismayr’s constitutional reforms before his eyes, not to be deceived by the comparatively harmless “articles” of the peasants, for that something quite different lay behind these.
The Tyrolese peasantry had been stirring already, a few years before the great outbreak. They complained of much having been promised, but little carried out, by their lords and rulers. One of their great grievances was the prohibition of the killing of game. This prohibition, at last, they openly disregarded, and so impossible did it become to rehabilitate it that the Austrian Government at Innsbruck formally conceded the right of every peasant to hunt and shoot game on his own land. But, here as elsewhere, the embitterment of the people against nobles and clergy had gone too far to be appeased by partial concessions. In the mining districts, especially those belonging to the Fugger family at Schwatz, where the capitalistic wage-system was apparently first introduced, wages are said to have been in arrear at this time to the extent of forty thousand gulden. Add to this that the imperial council had recently put on an additional tax.
The new religious doctrines had soon obtained adherents in the Tyrol, especially amongst the miners. Foremost of the preachers were Johannes Strauss and Urbanus Regius. The evil life of princes and great ones was, of course, denounced. The rights proclaimed by the new jurists were likewise attacked as heathenish, and as not binding on Christian men. The year of jubilee was declared to be an institution still in force. Many other doctrines of a like nature were promulgated. A friar left his cell and engaged himself as a workman in the Fugger mines, in order to follow out the scriptural injunction to earn bread by the sweat of his brow. Here he had a taste of the newly-introduced wages-system for profit.
Followers of Thomas Münzer, or at least persons holding similar views, appeared also about this time in the valleys in question. Finally, these mining and peasant communities assembled together in the usual manner and drew up nineteen “articles” of reform. Most of these “articles” deal with the right of preaching the Gospel and other rights identical with those demanded elsewhere. The novel points were protests against the constant passage of armed men through the country and the quartering of alien troops in the frontier villages. One of the complaints was directed against the free exportation of the wines of Trient; another against the reckless riding of lords over cultivated fields; another against the new lawyer class; yet another against the keeping of wine-rooms by the judges and clerks of tribunals. Most noteworthy of all was a remonstrance against the Fugger family and against other privileged companies of merchants, which through their agents produced such a great increase in the cost of provisions that many articles had risen in price from eighteen kreutzers to a gulden. The assembled country people gave also, as one of the immediate causes of their action in coming together, the attempted removal by the authorities of certain ordnance and ammunition, which removal, however, it would appear, they had been successful in preventing. Zimmermann conjectures that they feared that the war-material in question was to be used against their brethren who had risen in the neighbouring provinces.
The concessions of the archduke had their effect for the moment. Most of the rural communities consented to await the Landtag which was to consider their grievances. This applies to the Tyrol itself, but not to the Vorarlberg. In and around Bregenz the insurrection gathered, until it soon numbered forty thousand men, who insultingly replied to the emissaries from the archducal court at Innsbruck that they would come in a few days and bring the answer themselves to the proposals made.
In the south also, the movement showed no signs of abating. As we have seen, the source and centre of the Tyrolese rising was the neighbourhood of the town of Brixen, many public functionaries there joining the cause. Michael Gaismayr himself had been the bishop’s secretary and the keeper of the customs at Klausen. From the proceeds of the sacking of the wealthy house of the Teutonic Order at Bozen, Gaismayr, now elected captain of the local contingent, formed the nucleus of a war-chest. It was augmented by numerous other spoliations of ecclesiastical possessions. Gaismayr, further, at once opened up a correspondence with the view of gathering into his hand the threads of agitation in the surrounding territories. In his manifestoes he knew how to combine in the cleverest way the immediate aspirations and the popular demands of those with whom he was dealing, whilst hinting at the more far-reaching projects of the Christian commonwealth that formed his ultimate goal. For example, he knew how to exploit patriotic sentiment by pointing out the evils resulting from the occupation of important posts by aliens, notably by Spaniards, whose promotion Charles V. and his brother had naturally favoured.
Under Gaismayr the insurrection rapidly spread, in spite of the archduke’s blandishments and the temporary character of the peasants’ success in certain interior districts of the Tyrol itself. From the lake of Garda and Trient in the south, the whole country soon broke out into open and organised revolt. One peasant camp was formed outside the city of Trient itself. Other contingents swept the valleys of the Brixen territories and of the Etsch, plundering monasteries and castles, and occupying the smaller towns or laying them under contribution. Gaismayr’s headquarters were at Meran. With him were the delegates of the towns and of the various jurisdictions of the Tyrol province, endeavouring with difficulty to reconcile local demands with one another and with the general object of the movement. Loyalty to the feudal chiefs of the province, the house of Austria, seems to have been deeply ingrained in the hearts of the countryfolk, and, in spite of his own ultimate end, Gaismayr was careful not to openly collide with, or even disregard, this feeling. Although the local nobility and clergy were everywhere regarded as fair game for plunder and rapine, the agrarians were particularly concerned to spare the archduke’s castles.
Meanwhile, the archduke himself continued to adopt a conciliatory and even friendly tone in his messages. It is said that he had really an affection for his patrimonial province, but in any case he had no force of fighting men at hand with which to quell the revolted populations. That this latter motive was chiefly responsible for his mildness is evidenced by the fact that he gave orders to the Innsbruck council to negotiate a loan by the pledging of certain lands and jewellery for the purpose of raising the force he wanted. At the same time he sought to hurry on the promised Landtag.
Gaismayr, on his side, had called a Landtag, which, however, was forbidden by the archduke by special messengers with signed and sealed despatches. On the despatches being read, the majority of the peasant council at Meran accepted the armistice and abandoned the projected Landtag, which was to have been held at that place. But difficulties arose when it was found that the Austrian Government did not interpret the armistice as implying any duty on its part to abstain from further armaments. In a special rescript to the imperial authorities, written about this date by the archduke, the latter lets his mask of mildness fall, complaining that the machinations of the evil-minded populations were such that they would allow no foreign mercenaries to enter the country, that he himself was practically a prisoner in his own land, and that from day to day there was no certainty that the capital, Innsbruck itself, would not be attacked.
The insurrection was master throughout the duchy. On the calling of the Landtag at Innsbruck, a hundred and six “articles,” formulated by the standing council at Meran, probably under Gaismayr’s direction, were submitted, and the archduke was compelled to concede a number of points that must have proved very sour to him. These were finally brought together in the form of a new constitution for the province, containing strong and democratic provisions. But further demands were made in many quarters, and the insurrection, everywhere smouldering, burst out into renewed activity in several districts.
We must now, for the present, leave the fortunes of the Tyrolese, in order to turn to those of the movement in west Austrian lands and in the Alsatian and Rhenish districts abutting on them. It is impossible to separate, either topographically or historically, the hither Austrian dominion of Breisgau from the Margravate of Baden and the adjoining districts. The Black Forest contingent, under Hans Müller von Bulgenbach, moved westward early in May for the purpose of combining with contingents which had formed, in the latter part of April, in the Austrian territory and in the Margravate, and of making a combined attack upon the important city of Freiburg, one of the best defended and most noteworthy towns of south-west Germany. Breisgau and Baden had been in a state of fermentation for a year past. Local disturbances and a threatened general rising are recorded from the early summer of 1524 onwards. By the end of that year, large numbers of nobles and clerics, apprehending anew “Bundschuh,” had fled into Freiburg for security, amongst them the Markgraf Ernst, with his wife and children. Freiburg had, therefore, become a nest of the privileged classes and a repository of vast treasures.
The chief of the Margravate contingent was one Hans Hammerstein. In dread of an attack by Hammerstein upon his castle of Rotelen, the Markgraf had taken to flight. Rotelen, however, did not share the fate of so many other strongholds of Baden, and was reserved for destruction in the second half of the seventeenth century during the wars of Louis XIV. Arrived at Freiburg, the Markgraf sent conciliatory letters, accompanied by offers of mediation on the part of the Freiburg authorities. But, unlike his brother Philip, a man of exceptional humanity for that age, and immensely popular with his subjects, Ernst was mistrusted, and could not succeed in making any impression with his overtures. After discussing the matter in conclave, the peasants returned answer that if he would unreservedly countersign the “Twelve Articles,” and regard himself henceforward as no more than the trustee and vicegerent of the emperor, he might retain his castle and his lands. If, on the other hand, he refused to consider himself as primus inter pares of themselves, it would go badly with him, since they were determined to have done with nobles, to have nobody in authority over them save peasants like themselves, and to acknowledge no lord but the emperor. These proposals obviously did not suit this wealthy territorial magnate, who, finding himself in security for the time being, was content to let matters drift.
The practical refusal of the Markgraf to concede anything resulted in a rising of the whole land. All the important castles, including Rotelen, were occupied. A camp of peasant contingents was formed at Heidersheim. The wealthy monastery of Thennenbach was stripped, suffering damage, as was alleged, to the amount of thirty thousand golden, whilst the small town of Kenzingen was taken and garrisoned, and the arrival was awaited of Hans Müller with his contingent before Freiburg.
Freiburg was at its wits’ end, and was well-nigh denuded of fighting men, having a few weeks previously sent some bodies of free-lances in its service to the assistance of other towns more immediately threatened than itself. The Schlossberg, the great stronghold commanding the town, was manned by no more than a hundred and twenty-four men. All available persons, however, who were in the town, made ready to assist in its defence, and all flaws in the fortifications were repaired. The authorities then sent out to know the meaning of the presence of Hans Müller and the Black Forest contingent in the Breisgau territory. The reply was an expression of regret that Freiburg should be on the side of the oppressors of the “common man,” and of hope that the city would enter the “Evangelical Brotherhood”. To this the city answered that its oath to the House of Austria prevented its undertaking such obligations as those suggested, but professed its willingness to mediate where special grievances could be shown, and concluded with hoping that the Black Forest peasants, mindful of how divine and blessed it was to live in peace, would withdraw themselves from the neighbourhood of Breisgau. Hans Müller, thereupon, declared that his Black Forest men were not acting without the concurrence of their brethren, the Breisgau peasants. He then moved his camp into the city’s immediate proximity.
By the 17th of May, the local contingents also arrived before Freiburg, from the battlements of which the banners of twenty companies were to be counted. Accordingly, the forces being now joined, an ultimatum was sent on this day requiring the formal alliance of Freiburg with the “Evangelical Brotherhood”. No answer was returned, and the siege began by the close investment of the city. Aqueducts were constructed to draw off the water. The block-house on the Schlossberg was taken by surprise a day or two later, and, as some nobles were sitting on a fine May evening drinking their wine before a hostelry in the cathedral close, five hundred shots fell around them. The fighting power of the town was forthwith drawn up in readiness on the fish-market. The citizens were divided into twelve companies corresponding to the twelve guilds, each of which had to defend its own gate, tower and section of the wall. Even the University supplied its company, consisting of some forty students under the leadership of the rector and two professors. Help from without was nowhere forthcoming. The civic authorities thus expressed themselves in a report made later on, “No man did come to our help. From Hegau to Strasburg, and thence from Würtemberg to the Welsh [French] country we had no friends. All townships, hamlets and villages were against us.”
On the evening of the 21st, a further ultimatum from the peasants was sent into the town. They only wished well to the country, but demanded “a goodly Christian order and the freeing of the common man from excessive and unjust burdens “. Meanwhile, within the town, ominous voices made themselves heard in the guildrooms. Freiburg was not in a position to sustain a long siege, and the idea of its being taken by assault was not palatable to the wealthy citizens. Moreover, sympathy with the peasant cause, though not so widely spread as in some other towns, was not wanting, and there were many poor citizens who had friendly relations with the besiegers without the walls. The upshot was that on the 24th of May, a week after the siege had been begun, Freiburg capitulated and agreed to enter the “Evangelical Brotherhood”.
Both sides pledged themselves to do their utmost to further a general peace, and the removal of the burdens of the “common man,” and also to cherish the true principles of the Gospel. The relations of the town to its feudal overlord were not to be compromised, nor its liberty in any way curtailed. It was to pay to the assembled contingents the sum of three thousand golden as earnest of its good intentions. This sum was afterwards increased, and further pecuniary demands were made. Freiburg appears also to have supplied the peasants with some artillery, for in an exculpatory report, subsequently made to the Austrian Government, we read: “We have indeed loaned the peasants four falconets, the which had no great worth, but yet for no other end than that they might hold the Rhine at Limburg against the Welsh [the foreigners]. For we have given the commandment to the twain to whom we delivered them that they should destroy this ordnance so soon as there were danger against any other person soever.” Thus ended the peasant siege of Freiburg.
The attention of the peasant bodies was at this time drawn off from Freiburg and Breisgau generally to the disasters that were befalling their cause in the neighbouring Elsass. Even the strongly-fortified town of Breisach they were content to leave, after having threatened it for some days, on a pledge being given that no foreign troops should be permitted to cross the river at any point within the defensive capacity of the town.
The attack on the town of Villingen was repulsed, the garrison making sorties and razing the peasant homesteads near by Rudolfzcll, which, as we have seen, had received into its walls numbers of fugitive nobles, who constituted its main armed force, had also compelled the Black Foresters to retire. A body of knights, in fact, in making a sortie, distinguished themselves by burning the neighbouring villages and throwing women and children into the flames. An agreement was ultimately made through the mediation of the popular and amiable Markgraf Philip of Baden, who also acted on behalf of his brother Ernst. It consisted of the following two articles: (1) that the great tithe should be rendered as of wont, but, until the judgment of the mutter, should be laid by in a neutral place, while the small tithe should not be rendered until this judgment, and that corvées should also cease meanwhile; (2) that all the ordnance of the Markgraf and all other that might be in the hands of the peasant bodies should be brought into the town of Neuenburg, should be there preserved until the issue of the matter, and should be by neither side used against the other.
About this time — the middle of June — further understandings as regards an armistice were entered into between the various contingents and Freiburg, Breisach, Offenburg, and other towns of Breisgau and Baden.
We now turn to the contiguous, and in many respects allied, movement in Elsass. Here the insurrection began, as elsewhere, early in April. It spread like wild-fire from town to town and from village to village. A contemporary, writing from Strasburg at the end of April, says: “The peasants have everywhere assembled themselves in companies. They hold the most towns and divers castles. The Papists are in a fear such as is not to be believed. The rich are filled with alarm for their treasure, and even we in our strong town live not wholly without dread.”
Iconoclasm was the order of the day in Strasburg. Churches were ransacked; monks and nuns were driven out of cloister and convent. The city, in fact, was at one time in imminent danger of falling into the hands of the rebels. The council, however, appears to have got wind of a conspiracy to introduce the armed peasants into the town, and sixteen worthy burghers were in consequence arrested, some of them paying for their temerity with their lives. Unfortunately, throughout Elsass many priceless works of mediaeval art were destroyed in the pillaging; pictures, wood carvings, and the contents of monastic libraries being often used for the lighting of fires.
On the 28th of April the “United Contingent of Elsass,” as it was called, which numbered 20,000 men, commanded by one Erasmus Gerber, marched along a mountain ridge, constituted by a spur of the Vosges, to attach the town of Zabern, the residence of the Bishop of Strasburg. Zabern, although comparatively small, was well fortified, and was calculated to form a most valuable base and storehouse for the insurgent forces. Their first objective was the wealthy abbey of Mauersmünster, between two and three miles from Zabern. The foundation was completely sacked from cellar to roof. An establishment of the Teutonic Order was also sacked, and a valuable booty was obtained. In fact, the insurgent camp glittered with chalices, salvers, church utensils, and decorations of all sorts. Zabern was then challenged to open its gates and join the Peasant League. The canons and the patrician councillors wished to send for help to Duke Antoinc of Lorraine, who on the first symptoms of danger had offered to throw a garrison into the town. The bulk of the citizens, however, declared that they would rather open their gates to the peasants than to these Frenchmen. They refused to receive any aliens at all. Finally, after some negotiations, the gates were opened, and the peasant army entered Zabern on the 13th of May, occupying the fortifications with a strong force, and also entrenching themselves immediately outside the walls.
Far-reaching plans seem to have been talked of at this time of the invasion of France and of the humiliation of the French seigneur like the German adelige. The impression seems to have prevailed that the whole strength of the French noblesse had been exhausted at the battle of Pavia. The importance of the capture of Zabern was hardly to be exaggerated, and Duke Antoine hurried on his preparations for crushing the rebels. Weissenburg was from the very first entirely in their hands, even the bürgermeister and the majority of the council being on the insurgent side, together with the powerful vintners’ guild, to which most of the councillors belonged.
The formula of the peasants was to demand, “in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord,” that every town, hamlet and village should furnish their fourth man to the contingent. As we have seen in a former chapter, the demands put forward in Elsass were considerably more drastic than the celebrated “Twelve Articles”. An agent of the Archbishop of Trier reports to his master that the “common man” of the towns was far more violent even than the peasant. “With one accord,” he writes, “cry they: “we will not alone win monasteries and castles; but will have our hands busy in the towns, and there also will we be as gentlemen’.” He alleges that they had definite relations with the Breisgau and Black Forest contingents.
The movement did not leave the town of Colmar untouched. The discontented here formulated fourteen “articles,” which they laid before the council. The matter was quieted for a time, but in the second week of April renewed disturbances took place. The insurrection, however, did not succeed in making any headway within the walls, and in spite of repeated threats the gates remained closed to the peasants. Colmar in fact at this time, like many other towns that had successfully resisted invasion, was full of fugitives glad to save the wreck of their property. Jews were especially in evidence.
From Elsass, the movement spread along the Rhine. On the 23rd of April, in a village in the neighbourhood of Landau, on the occasion of a kirchaweith (church-ale), a peasant band formed itself, which subsequently developed into the so-called Geilweiler contingent. Emissaries from the band went round all the neighbouring villages, visited the peasants in their houses, and even fetched them out of their beds, persuading or compelling them to join the ranks. The band almost immediately began the pillaging of monasteries and other ecclesiastical foundations. They took therefrom “corn, wine, cattle and victuals, and lived in wantonness,” says a contemporary chronicler. The neighbouring castles shared the same fate. Such an enormous amount of spoil was collected, that the half of it had to be left behind in a village through which the contingent passed. Day by day their numbers swelled. Feeling themselves strong enough now to proceed to greater things, they summoned, on Sunday, the 13th of April, the little, well-fortified town of Neustadt to surrender. The Rhenish Elector in vain admonished the citizens to hold no converse with “the wanton, lawless band”. The Bishop of Speyer, who counted a large number of his own villeins in the contingent, also interposed without effect.
At the beginning of ‘May another body formed near Lauterburg, the captain being the bürgermeister of that place. The bishop was forced to concede to them the entry into one or two strongholds, on their professing to have no disloyal sentiments towards himself, but only to wish to defend the territory against the foreigner. In Lauterburg, high festival was held. The overhanging castle was broken into, and, according to a contemporary account, “the women from the villages hard by did come into the castles and did drink themselves so full of wine that they might no more walk”. Meanwhile the town of Landau itself had become the prey of the Geilweiler contingent, and had to hand over all the corn and wine in its possession, most of which had been entrusted to its care by various neighbouring monasteries. Two peasant delegates from each company were sent into the town to see that there was no cheating in this transaction.
A band now formed in the neighbourhood of Worms which swept the country round, receiving the adhesion of all the villages through which it passed. On learning of the approach of the Marshal of the Palatinate, Wilhelm von Habern, with a force of three hundred horse and five hundred foot, they established themselves in a strong position in a vine-clad hill above the little town of Westhofen. The marshal was prevented by the favourable position of the peasants from making a direct attack, but he had no sooner fired three shots into their camp than they fled into the village below — a flight that cost the lives of sixty of them, at the hands of the marshal’s men. During the night they retreated to Neustadt, where they united with the Geilweiler contingent.
The Elector Ludwig, besides being unable for want of men to suppress the rising by force, showed signs of his being sincerely desirous of an amicable arrangement with his subjects. Through the mediation of the town of Neustadt, an interview was arranged between the elector and the peasant leaders in a field outside the village of Forst. It was stipulated, however, that the elector should be accompanied by no more than thirty horsemen as his retinue. As soon as the parties were met, the whole of the peasant forces appeared on the brow of an elevation a little way off.
This was evidently a device of the leaders to overawe the elector. After protracted negotiations, it was agreed that the towns, castles and villages taken should be surrendered to their lawful lords and masters, that no further hostile acts should be committed, and that the peasant bands, which here numbered some 8,000 men, should disperse to their homes. On his side, the Elector Ludwig promised the peasants a complete amnesty, and, in addition, the calling at an early date of a Landtag, at which their grievances should be considered and remedied.
Thereupon the elector retired for the night to Neustadt. The following day, on representatives of the peasants announcing themselves with a view of obtaining a definite promise as to the date of the Landtag in question, the elector not only satisfied their demands, but invited them to his table. “There,” in the words of Harer, a contemporary historian of the war, “one saw villeins and their lord sit together, and eat and drink together. He had, so it seemed, one heart to them and they to him.”
The Landtag was then convened for the week after Whitsuntide. Its decisions were to be binding throughout the whole country, that is to say, on both sides of the Rhine. The seemingly mild, and even generous conduct of the elector did not, however, entirely quell the insurrection. General excitement and the temptation of plunder were too great. Bands of peasants throughout the Palatinate continued the old course of pillage and destruction. It was not until the common suppression of the movement that these bands dispersed, and the Palatinate settled down to its wonted state. Similarly, in the adjacent bishopric of Speyer, in spite of agreements, it was not until the advance of Truchsess and the forces of the Swabian League that all hostilities on the side of the peasants came to an end.