The Peasants War. Belfort Bax

Chapter X.

IN the foregoing pages we have followed the chief episodes in the last great agrarian uprising of the Middle Ages. Its result was, with some few exceptions, a rivetting of the peasant’s chains and an increase of his burdens. More than a thousand castles and religious houses were destroyed in Germany alone during 1525. Many priceless works of mediaeval art of all kinds perished. But we must not allow our regret at such vandalism to blind us in any way to the intrinsic righteousness of the popular demands.

Just as little should our judgment be influenced by the fact that we can now see that much of the peasant programme was out of the line of natural social progress, and that the war itself was carried on from the beginning in a manner that rendered success well-nigh impossible, if only from a military point of view. The revolt, as we have seen, was crushed piecemeal, just as it had arisen piecemeal. Co-operation there was none. Thomas Münzer found it hopeless to connect effectively the movement in the countries of Thuringia and Franconia, allied as they were in many ways. In consequence of the movements being thus territorially limited, the forces of the authorities, such as that of the Swabian League, had little difficulty in defeating the several insurgent bodies one after the other.

Of the ruthless and cold-blooded butchery which usually followed we have seen enough. The blow was indeed a heavy one for the “common man” generally, and for the peasant more especially. As to the few exceptions where something was gained, one of the most noteworthy was the case of the subjects of Count Philip of Baden, who were granted some solid ameliorations.

The attitude of the official Lutheran party towards the poor country-folk continued as infamous after the war as it had been on the first sign that fortune was forsaking their cause. Like master, like man. Luther’s jackal, the “gentle” Melancthon, specially signalised himself by urging on the feudal barons with Scriptural arguments to the blood-sucking and oppression of their villeins. A humane and honourable nobleman, Heinrich von Einsiedel, was touched in conscience at the corvées and heavy dues to which he found himself entitled. He sent to Luther for advice upon the subject. Luther replied that the existing exactions which had been handed down to him from his parents need not trouble his conscience, adding that it would not be good for corvées to be given up, since the “common man” ought to have burdens imposed upon him, as otherwise he would become overbearing. He further remarked that a severe treatment in material things was pleasing to God, even though it might seem to be too harsh. Spalatin writes in a like strain that the burdens in Germany were, if anything, too light. Subjects, according to Melancthon, ought to know that they are serving God in the burdens they bear for their superiors, whether it were journeying, paying tribute, or otherwise, and as pleasing to God as though they raised the dead at God’s own behest. Subjects should look up to their lords as wise and just men, and hence be thankful to them. However unjust, tyrannical and cruel the lord might be, there was never any justification for rebellion.

A friend and follower of Luther and Melancthon — Martin Butzer by name went still further. According to this “reforming” worthy, a subject was to obey his lord in everything. This was all that concerned him. It was not for him to consider whether what was enjoined was, or was not, contrary to the will of God. That was a matter for his feudal superior and God to settle between them. Referring to the doctrines of the revolutionary sects, Butzer urges the authorities to extirpate all those professing a false religion. Such men, he says, deserve a heavier punishment than thieves, robbers and murderers. Even their wives and innocent children and cattle should be destroyed (ap. Janssen, Vol. i., p.595).

Luther himself quotes, in a sermon on “Genesis,” the instances of Abraham and Abimelech and other Old Testament worthies, as justifying slavery and the treatment of a slave as a beast of burden. “Sheep, cattle, men-servants and maid-servants, they were all possessions,” says Luther, “to be sold as it pleased them like other beasts. It were even a good thing were it still so. For else no man may compel nor tame the servile folk” (Sammtliche Werke, xv., 276). In other discourses he enforces the same doctrine, observing that if the world is to last for any time, and is to be kept going, it will be necessary to restore the patriarchal condition. Capito, the Strassburg preacher, in a letter to a colleague, writes lamenting that the pamphlets and discourses of Luther had contributed not a little to give edge to the bloodthirsty vengeance of the princes and nobles after the insurrection.

The total number of the peasants and their allies who fell either in fighting or at the hands of the executioners is estimated by Anselm in his Berner Chronik at a hundred and thirty thousand. It was certainly not less than a hundred thousand. For months after, the executioner was active in many of the affected districts. Spalatin says: “Of hanging and beheading there is no end”. Another writer has it: “It was all so that even a stone had been moved to pity, for the chastisement and vengeance of the conquering lords was great”. The executions within the jurisdiction of the Swabian League alone are stated at ten thousand. Truchsess’s provost boasted of having hanged or beheaded twelve hundred with his own hand. More than fifty thousand fugitives were recorded. These, according to a Swabian League order, were all outlawed in such wise that any one who found them might slay them without fear of consequences.

The sentences and executions were conducted with true mediaeval levity. It is narrated in a contemporary chronicle that in one village in the Henneberg territory all the inhabitants had fled on the approach of the count and his men-at-arms save two tilers. The two were being led to execution when one appeared to weep bitterly, and his reply to interrogatories was that he bewailed the dwellings of the aristocracy thereabouts, for henceforth there would be no one to supply them with durable tiles. Thereupon his companion burst out laughing, because, said he, it had just occurred to him that he would not know where to place his hat after his head had been taken off. These mildly humorous remarks obtained for both of them a free pardon.

The aspect of those parts of the country where the war had most heavily raged was deplorable in the extreme. In addition to the many hundreds of castles and monasteries destroyed, almost as many villages and small towns had been levelled with the ground by one side or the other, especially by the Swabian League and the various princely forces. Many places were annihilated for having taken part with the peasants, even when they had been compelled by force to do so. Fields in these districts were everywhere laid waste or left uncultivated. Enormous sums were exacted as indemnity. In many of the villages peasants previously well-to-do were ruined. There seemed no limit to the bleeding of the “common man,” under the pretence of compensation for damage done by the insurrection.

The condition of the families of the dead and of the fugitives was appalling. Numbers perished from starvation. The wives and children of the insurgents were in some cases forcibly driven from their homesteads and even from their native territory. In one of the pamphlets published in 1525 anent the events of that year, we read: “Houses are burned; fields and vineyards lie fallow; clothes and household goods are robbed or burned; cattle and sheep are taken away; the same as to horses and trappings. The prince, the gentleman, or the nobleman will have his rent and due. Eternal God, whither shall the widows and poor children go forth to seek it?” Referring to the Lutheran campaign against friars and poor scholars, beggars and pilgrims, the writer observes: “Think ye now that because of God’s anger for the sake of one beggar, ye must even for a season bear with twenty, thirty, nay still more?”

The courts of arbitration, which were established in various districts to adjudicate on the relations between lords and villeins, were naturally not given to favour the latter, whilst the fact that large numbers of deeds and charters had been burnt or otherwise destroyed in the course of the insurrection left open an extensive field for the imposition of fresh burdens. The record of the proceedings of one of the most important of these courts — that of the Swabian League’s jurisdiction, which sat at Memmingen — in the dispute between the prince-abbot of Kempten and his villeins is given in full in Baumann’s Akten, pp. 329-346. Here, however, the peasants did not come off so badly as in some other places. Meanwhile, all the other evils of the time, the monopolies of the merchant-princes of the cities and of the trading-syndicates, the dearness of living, the scarcity of money, etc., did not abate, but rather increased from year to year. The Catholic Church maintained itself especially in the south of Germany, and the official Reformation took on a definitely aristocratic character.

According to Baumann (Akten, Vorwort, v., vi.), the true soul of the movement of 1525 consisted in the notion of “Divine justice,” the principle “that all relations, whether of political, social, or religious nature, have got to be ordered according to the directions of the ‘Gospel’ as the sole and exclusive source and standard of all justice”. The same writer maintains that there are three phases in the development of this idea, according to which he would have the scheme of historical investigation sub-divided. In Upper Swabia, says he, “Divine justice” found expression in the well-known “Twelve Articles,” but here the notion of a political reformation was as good as absent.

In the second phase, the “Divine justice” idea began to be applied to political conditions. In Tyrol and the Austrian dominions, he observes, this political side manifested itself in local or, at best, territorial patriotism. It was only in Franconia that all territorial patriotism or “particularism” was shaken off, and the idea of the unity of the German peoples received as a political goal. The Franconian influence gained over the Würtembergers to a large extent, and the plan of reform elaborated by Weigand and Hipler for the Heilbron Parliament was the most complete expression of this second phase of the movement.

The third phase is represented by the rising in Thuringia, and especially in its intellectual head, Thomas Miinzer. Here we have the doctrine of “Divine justice” taking the form of a thoroughgoing theocratic scheme, to be realised by the German people.

This division Baumann is led to make with a view to the formulation of a convenient scheme for a “codex” of documents relating to the Peasants War. It may be taken as, in the main, the best general division that can be put forward, although, as we have seen, there are places where, and times when, the practical demands of the: movement seem to have asserted themselves directly and spontaneously apart from any theory whatever.

Of the fate of many of the most active leaders of the revolt, we know nothing. George Metzler disappeared, and was seen no more after the battle of Königshofen. Several heads of the movement, according to a contemporary writer, wandered about for a long time in misery, some of them indeed seeking refuge with the Turks, who were still a standing menace to imperial Christendom. The popular preachers vanished also on the suppression of the movement. The disastrous result of the Peasants War was prejudicial even to Luther’s cause in south Germany. The Catholic party reaped the advantage everywhere, evangelical preachers, even, where not insurrectionists, being persecuted. Little distinction, in fact, was made in most districts between an opponent of the Catholic Church from Luther’s standpoint and one from Karlstadt’s or Hubmayer’s. Amongst seventy-one heretics arraigned before the Austrian court at Ensisheim, only one was acquitted. The others were broken on the wheel, burnt or drowned.

Amongst the non-clerical leaders of the popular party, Friedrich Weigand alone seems to have come off scot free. Hans Flux, of Heilbron, was denounced by his own fellowcitizens, and, for the time being, driven from his native town. It cost him a hundred gold gulden to be reinstated in the rights of citizenship. Some of the heads of the peasant companies found temporary refuge in ruined castles and other out-of-the-way places. Some even became chiefs of robber bands, and were at a later date killed in conflict with the authorities. Martin Feuerbacher was imprisoned in the imperial town of Esslingen and suffered the torture several times. Owing, however, to the good repute in which he stood with certain nobles of his neighbourhood, he was after some years reinstated in his property.

There were some who were arrested ten or fifteen years later on charges connected with the 1525 revolt. Treachery, of course, played a large part, as it has done in all defeated movements, in ensuring the fate of many of those who had been at all prominent. In fairness to Luther, who otherwise played such a villainous rôle, the fact should be recorded that he sheltered his old colleague, Karlstadt, for a short time in the Augustine monastery at Wittenberg, after the latter’s escape’ from Rothenburg. Ehrenfried Kumpf, the iconoclast and ex-bürgermeister of Rothenburg, died of melancholy some little while after the suppression of the insurrection. The nobility of Götz von Berlichingen and his treachery to the peasants’ cause did not save him from the consequences of the part he had ostensibly played. He lay for some time an imperial prisoner in one of the towers on the town wall of Nürnberg. He was subsequently released on a solemn pledge not to quit his ancestral domains, and remained a captive on his own lands for years.

Wendel Hipler continued for some time at liberty, and might probably have escaped altogether had he not entered a process against the Counts of Hohenlohe for having seized a portion of his private fortune that lay within their power. The result of his action might have been foreseen. The counts, on hearing of it, revenged themselves by accusing him of having been a chief pillar of the rebellion. He had to flee immediately, and, after wandering about for some time in a disguise, one of the features of which is stated to have been a false nose, he was seized on his way to the Reichstag which was being held at Speier in 1526. Tenacious of his property to the last, he had hoped to obtain restitution of his rights from the assembled estates of the empire. Some months later he died in prison at Neustadt.

Of the victors, Truchsess and Frundsberg considered themselves badly treated by the authorities whom they had served so well, and Frundsberg even composed a lament on his neglect. This he loved to hear sung to the accompaniment of the harp as he swilled down his red wine. The cruel Markgraf Kasimir met a miserable death not long after from dysentery, whilst Cardinal Matthaus Lang, the Archbishop of Salzburg, ended his days insane.

Of the fate of other prominent men connected with the events described, we have spoken in the course of the narrative.

The castles and religious houses, which were destroyed, as already said, to the number of many hundreds, were in most cases not built up again. The ruins of not a few of them are indeed visible to this day. Their owners often spent the sums relentlessly wrung out of the “common man” as indemnity, in the extravagances of a gay life in the free towns or in dancing attendance at the courts of the princes and the higher nobles. The collapse of the revolt was indeed an important link in the particular chain of events that was so rapidly destroying the independent existence of the lower nobility as a separate status with a definite political position, and transforming the face of society generally. Life in the smaller castle, the knight’s burg, or tower, was already tending to become an anachronism. The court of the prince, lay or ecclesiastic, was attracting to itself all the elements of nobility below it in the social hierarchy. The revolt of 1525 gave a further edge to this development, the first act of which closed with the collapse of the knights’ rebellion and death of Sickingen in 1523.

The knight was becoming superfluous in the economy of the body politic. The rise of capitalism, the sudden development of the world-market, the substitution of a money medium of exchange for direct barter — all these new factors were doing their work.

Obviously the great gainers by the events of the momentous year were the representatives of the centralising principle. But the effective centralising principle was not represented by the emperor, for he stood for what was after all largely a sham centralism, because it was a centralism on a scale for which the Germanic world was not ripe. Princes and margraves were destined to be the bearers of the term territorial centralisation, the only real one to which the German peoples were to attain for a long time to come. Accordingly, just as the provincial grand seigneur of France became the courtier of’ the French king at Paris or Versailles, so the previously quasi-independent German knight or baron became the courtier or hanger-on of the prince within or near whose territory his hereditary manor was situate.

The eventful year 1525 was truly a landmark in German history in many ways — the year of one of the most accredited exploits of Doctor Faustus, the last mythical hero the progressive races have created; the year in which Martin Luther, the ex-monk, capped his repudiation of Catholicism and all its ways by marrying an ex-nun; the year of the definite victory of Charles V. the German Emperor over Francis I. the French King, which meant the final assertion of the “Holy Roman Empire” as a national German institution; and last, but not least, the year of the greatest and the most widespread popular movement central Europe had yet seen, and the last of the mediaeval peasant risings on a large scale. The movement of the eventful year did not, however, as many hoped and many feared, within any short time rise up again from its ashes, after discomfiture had overtaken it. In 1526, as we have seen, the genius of Gaismayr succeeded in resuscitating it, not without prospect of ultimate success, in Tyrol and other of the Austrian territories. In this year, moreover, in other outlying districts, even outside German-speaking populations, the movement flickered. Thus the traveller between the town of Bellinzona in the Swiss Canton of Ticino and the Bernardino pass in Canton Graubünden may see to-day an imposing ruin, situated on an eminence in the narrow valley just above the small Italian-speaking town of Misox. This was one of the ancestral strongholds of the family, well-known in Italian history, of the Trefuzios or Trevulzir, and was sacked by the inhabitants of Misox and the neighbouring peasants in the summer of 1526, contemporaneously with Gaismayr’s rising in Tyrol. A connection between the two events would be difficult to trace, and the destruction of the castle of Misox, if not a purely spontaneous local effervescence, looks like an afterglow of the great movement, such as may well have happened in other secluded mountain valleys.

With the death of Gaismayr, however, the insurrectionary party lost its last hope for the time being. Matters gradually settled down, and the agitation took a somewhat different form. The elements of revolution now became absorbed by the Anabaptist movement, a continuation primarily in the religious sphere of the doctrines of the Zwickau enthusiasts and also in many respects of Thomas Münzer. At first northern Switzerland, especially the towns of Basel and Zurich, became the headquarters of the new sect, which, however, spread rapidly on all sides. Persecution of the direst description did not destroy it. On the contrary, it seemed only to have the effect of evoking those social and revolutionary elements latent within it which were at first overshadowed by more purely theological interests. As it was, the hopes and aspirations of the “common man” revived this time in a form indissolubly associated with the theocratic commonwealth, the most prominent representative of which during the earlier movement had been Thomas Münzer. The Anabaptist sect subsequently concentrated its main strength at Strasburg. Driven thence, Holland and north-west Germany became its chief seat, until events culminated in the drama enacted at Münster in Westphalia in 1534 with the prophet John Bockelson as its leading figure. But neither this serious attempt to realise the popular conception of the Kingdom of God on earth nor the fortunes of the Anabaptist sect in general fall within the scope of the present volume.