Belfort Bax. The Peasant War


In presenting a general view of the incidents of the so-called Peasants War of 1525, the historian encounters more than one difficulty peculiar to the subject. He has, in the first place, a special trouble in preserving the true proportion in his narrative. Now, proportion is always the crux in historical work, but here, in describing a more or less spontaneous movement over a wide area, in which movement there are hundreds of different centres with each its own story to tell, it is indeed hard to know at times what to include and what to leave out. True, the essential similarity in the origin and course of events renders a recapitulation of the different local risings unnecessary and indeed embarrassing for readers whose aim is to obtain a general notion. But the author always runs the risk of being waylaid by some critic in ambush, who will accuse him of omitting details that should have been recorded.

Again, the approximate simultaneity of the risings over a wide extent of territory makes it impossible to preserve chronological sequence in the general survey. Yet again, here, even more than elsewhere, discrepancies are to be found in different accounts of the same event, and the historian, writing for the general reader, must either reconcile them to the best of his power or choose between them. He cannot well give a wealth of variorum versions or enter into elaborate disquisitions justifying the view he takes, To do either would change the character of such a work as this from a volume designed for the average reader of history to a dissertation for the benefit of a specialist student of Reformation history.

I mention these difficulties as there is always a field in a work of this nature for the ingenuity of a hostile reviewer qui cherche les puces dans la paille to hunt out minutiae on which two opinions may be held. By enlarging upon them, he attempts to disparage the work as a whole. A former volume, dealing with German Society in Reformation times, received favourable recognition, I believe, in every quarter save one. The one hostile review appeared anonymously in a literary journal, which, if I mistake not, was then making a special point of signed reviews. Internal evidence identified the critic as a gentleman who has been believed, rightly or wrongly, to have been for some years preparing material for a work on German Reformation History. Of the somewhat laboured attempts in the article in question to prove the inadequacy of my book, I will only mention one. Quoting a narrative passage, the reviewer stigmatised it as in the style of Zimmermann, which, he observes, “belongs to an obsolete method of writing history”. Now, Zimmermann’s method was to bring an historical event, as realistically as his power of language would go, before the mind’s eye of the reader. This method our superfine and would-be up-to-date critic describes as obsolete! I need only point out that, if so, the late Professor Freeman and the late Mr. J. R. Green, not to speak of other .leading historians, English and foreign, must be reckoned as exceedingly “obsolete” persons. That Zimmermann possessed in an exceptional degree the gift of such descriptive writing has been remarked by all who have read him. Personally, I make no claim to the power, and do not wish to excuse my own shortcomings, but I can only say that if such writing be obsolete, the sooner it be revived the better. Surely the faculty of reproducing the past as a living present remains the ideal of historical literary style!

The literature of the Peasants War is considerable in German-speaking countries. An immense amount of exceedingly careful research has been applied to the collection and elucidation of documents relating to the movement in different places and districts. Just as in Paris there are many retired scholars whose hobby it is to spend their lives in collecting every scrap of information concerning the French Revolution and the lives of the actors in it, so here, although perhaps on a smaller scale, there are many German bibliophiles who have devoted years to investigating in elaborate detail the facts in connection with the events and persons of the 1525 revolt. Instead of cumbering the text with a multitude of footnotes, I give here a list of some principal authorities consulted:-

Zimmermann’s Allgemeine Geschichte des grossen Bauernkrieges.
Do., 1891 edition, edited by Wilhelm Blos.
Bezold’s Geschichte der deutschen Reformation.
Janssen’s Geschichte des deutschen Volkes.
Egelhaaf’s Deutsche Geschichte im 16ten. Jahrhundert.
Lamprecht’s Deutsche Geschichte.
Ranke’s Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation.
Weill’s Der Bauernkrieg.
Hartfelder’s Geschichte des Bauernkrieges in Süddeutschland.

Amongst the collection of contemporary documents and early sources that have been found useful may be mentioned:-

Sehreiber’s Der deutsche Bauernkrieg gleichseitige Urkunden.
Baumann’s Akien zur Geschichte des deutschen Bauernkrieges aus Oberschwaben.
Zimmersche Chronik.
Villinger Chronik.
Rothenburger Chronik.
Schwabisch Hall, Chronika, etc.
Sebastian Franck’s Chronik.
Melancthon’s pamphlet on Thomas Münzer, and other documents in Luther’s Sämmtliche Werke.

Tagebuch des Herolds Hans Lutz von Augsburg, published from the original manuscript in Zeitschrift für die Geschichte des Oberrheins.
Lorenz Fries’s Geschichte des Bauernkrieges in Ostfranken.
Gotz von Berlichingen’s Lebensbeschreibung.
Haarer’s Eigentliche Warhafftige Beschreibung dess Bawrenkriegs.
The various pamphlets by Thomas Münzer.

Amongst monographs on special subjects connected with the events of 1525 may be mentioned :-

The chapters relating to the revolt in Thuringia, by Kautsky, in the Geschichte des Sozalismus, Band i.
Seidemann’s Thomas Münzer.
Blos’s Pater Ambrosius.
Barthold’s Georg von Frundsberg.

I give the above partial list to obviate the inconvenience of crowding up the text with references. Of all the works on the Peasants War, that of Zimmermann still holds the first place, alike for comprehensiveness of view and accuracy. Many details, it is true, have been corrected and expanded by later research, but empathetic understanding of the movement, historical insight, Zimmermann yet hardly been equalled and certainly not surpassed.

To render the present volume complete, a map of Reformation-Germany (from Spruner-Menke’s Historischer Atlas has been included.

E. B. B.