The Peasant War in Germany
1. Wilhelm Zimmermann – German historian and poet. Born January 2, 1807, in Stuttgart, in the family of an artisan. Graduated gymnasium in Stuttgart, studied in the University of Tuebingen together with F. Strauss. Was first pastor, then professor in the Polytechnic School of Stuttgart, occupying the chair of history, German language and literature. On April 23, 1848, he was elected representative of the National Assembly (Frankfurt). In St. Paul’s Cathedral he joined the extreme left group of representatives. In 1850, he was deprived of the University chair for actively participating in the March revolution. In 1854, he renewed his activities as pastor in Zabergau. He died September 22, 1888.
As a historian, Wilhelm Zimmermann is known by his book, The History of the Great Peasant War (1841, 2nd ed., 1856, 3rd ed., 1891). Zimmermann left a series of works on history, history of literature, and poetry: The History of the Hohenstaufens (2nd ed., 1865), Illustrated History of the German People, History of Poetry of All Nations (1947), etc.
The History of the Great Peasant War, Zimmermann’s chief historic work, was written with astonishing mastery and objectivity. The author utilised documents and materials mainly of the Stuttgart archive. Generally speaking, Zimmermann’s work remains the fullest presentation of the facts relating to the Peasant War. The objectivity of his presentation and “the revolutionary instinct which makes him an advocate of the oppressed classes” gives the book a special interest. But even in this book the radical bourgeois makes himself felt. Zimmermann’s negative attitude toward socialism and communism does not allow him correctly to appreciate the conflict of classes in the history of the peasant wars.
Kautsky’s book, Forerunners of Socialism, supplements that of Engels and corrects some inaccuracies in his presentation. The excerpts from Muenzer’s speech which are quoted by Engels as parts of the sermon given before the princes of Saxony after the destruction by the people of St. Mary’s Chapel in Moellerbach, were written by Muenzer on an entirely different occasion in a polemic work against Luther. Engels here depends on Zimmermann.
Kautsky corrected Zimmermann in another more important question. Zimmermann depicts Muenzer as a man towering above his epoch. In his book, Kautsky proved this standpoint to be unfounded:
“Muenzer was superior to his communist followers, not by philosophical gifts and organisational talents, but by his revolutionary energy, and, first of all, by his statesmanlike mind.”
Even some of the facts in the history of Muenzer’s dictatorship in Muehlhausen, as given by Engels, need correction in some details. Muenzer was not at the head of the Muehlhausen council. Pfeifer was not his disciple, but a representative of a middle-class faction.
2. Louis XI – King of France, son of Charles VII. Born 1423, reigned 1461–1483. He founded the absolute monarchy on the ruins of feudalism in France, and extended the boundaries of his country to the Jura, the Alps, and the Pyrenees. In his youth, as dauphin, Louis participated in the uprising of the nobility against Charles VII. Having ascended the throne after the death of his father, he started a fight against the feudal lords but was opposed by the Common Welfare League which united the big and small feudal lords of France. In his wars against the League, Louis, instead of using the crude methods of feudal policies, practised not only force but cunning, a diplomatic system of lies, deception and caution. Louis XI was defeated and compelled to sign a peace pact with the feudal lords on October 29, 1461. But peace with the feudal lords was not achieved. Aided by the commercial class, he started a new war in November, 1470. All of western France rose against him, but this time he was victorious. In order to be able more successfully to oppose the feudal lords, Louis XI decided to reform the army by freeing the cities from military duties, and to create an army of 50,000. His infantry consisted of Swiss hirelings. In 1481, he added Provence and Liége to his domains and subdued the whole of France outside of Navarre and the duchy of Breton. The absolute power of Louis XI could establish itself in France only through the support of the commercial elements. Louis XI in his turn protected commerce, industry and agriculture. Under his reign the old institution of the Roman empire, the mail, was restored.
3. Carolina – A criminal code of the Sixteenth Century, published in 1532 under Emperor Charles V. In the Sixteenth Century, Germany counted over 300 states, each having its own criminal laws with its own methods of cruelty. Justice at that time aimed at extorting a confession from the prisoner by means of torture. The prevailing Roman law, in the hands of the princes, was a cruel tool for the exploitation of the people. The development of a money economy, however, and the growth of absolutism, demanded a uniform criminal legislation and a reform of the existing laws. Attempts at reform had been made in Germany as early as the end of the Fifteenth and the beginning of the Sixteenth Century. The Reichstag, meeting in Augsburg and Regensburg in 1532, finally adopted a draft of a criminal code known as Carolina (‘Emperor Charles V’s and the Holy Roman Empire’s order of Penal Law’). This code did not abolish the Roman law, but was an attempt only to combine the prevailing Roman with the local law. Neither did the Carolina abolish the codes of the separate states, the new code serving only as a sort of guide for the princes and electors. The new code brought insignificant changes in the court procedure. It mitigated the inquisitional order of investigation and defined the right of defense. But torture as a means of examination of the defendant was retained in the new code. The chapters concerning the ‘cutting of ears,’ ‘cutting of noses,’ ‘burning,’ ‘quartering,’ adorned the new code as well. The code retained its great importance, however, up to the Eighteenth Century.
4. Waldenses – A religious sect which sprang up in the cities of southern France in the middle of the Twelfth Century. The cities of northern Italy and southern France of that time represented very favourable ground for the development of a religious reformist movement. Commerce and industry had developed here earlier than in the west; the bourgeoisie had come into existence, the crafts flourished. But while the cities of northern Italy, which were partly interested in the exploitation of Rome, since they derived from it no small profits, began to show spiritual independence only in relation to the doctrines of the Catholic Church, the cities of southern France, which were no less developed economically but at the same time less dependent upon Rome, started the first serious upheaval against the pope’s domination.
According to the legend, the sect of the Waldenses was founded by a rich merchant of Lyons called Petrus Waldus. It is possible, however, that it existed prior to that time. Petrus Waldus decided to follow the law of the Gospel. He distributed his possessions among the poor, gathered around himself a considerable number of followers, and began preaching (1176). Soon the Waldenses combined in Lombardy with the sect of the Humiliates, who also called themselves the paupers of Lyons. The Waldenses did not confine their preachings to southern France. We find them also in Italy, Germany and Bohemia. In southern France, as elsewhere, they recruited their followers from among the artisans, particularly the weavers.
Originally, the Waldenses did not plan to secede from the church. But their free reading of the Gospel and their lay preachings, their disagreement with Catholicism in understanding the mysteries of transubstantiation, as well as their militant character, compelled the official authorities, the clergy, to start a campaign of cruel persecution against them. Pope Sixtus IV even declared a crusade against them in 1477. Those persecutions continued down to the Eighteenth Century. In 1685, French and Italian armies killed 3,000 Waldenses and captured 1,000. Only in 1848 did they attain civil rights and religious freedom in Piedmont and Savoy. Italian Waldenses are to be found even at present in the Alpine valleys, Val-Martino, Val-Angrona. The Twentieth Century finds 46 communities of Waldenses with 6,276 parishioners.
The Evangelist communism of the Waldenses in the Middle Ages was of a monklike character. For the ‘perfect’ members of their community they made communism and celibacy obligatory. The ‘disciples,’ however, were allowed to marry and to possess property. The Waldenses rejected military service and the oath. They devoted their attention to the education of the masses. In those communities of the Waldenses where the peasants and the middle-class prevailed, they turned into a bourgeois–democratic sect. Where the proletarian elements prevailed, the Waldenses became communist ‘dreamers.’
5. Arnold of Brescia – Made the first serious attempt to reform the Catholic Church as early as the middle of the Twelfth Century. Arnold of Brescia was born between 1100 and 1110 in Brescia, Italy. A disciple of the theologian and philosopher, Abélard, he adopted his critical attitude towards the religious dogmas and the teachings of the fathers. In 1136, he participated, with his native city, Brescia, in its struggle against its lord, the bishop. Arnold of Brescia strove to bring the clergy back to the real Christianity of the Gospel. He demanded that the clergy should relinquish lay authority and should hand over its possessions to the lay rulers. The clergymen who preached must content themselves with the tithe and voluntary contributions, he said. At the second Lateran church council (1139), the Bishop of Brescia accused him of heresy. Arnold of Brescia was compelled to flee to Paris. In 1146, he returned to Rome, where he participated in the struggle between the city democracy and the pope.
Rome in the middle of the Twelfth Century was a spiritual and political centre whither material wealth was flowing from all sections of the Christian world. The popes ably exploited the favourable situation of the Christian capital. Arnold of Brescia appealed to the people to depose the pope and to restore the ancient Roman republic. Pope Hadrian IV, however, succeeded in expelling him from the city. He was taken prisoner by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and extradited to the authorities of Rome. He was hanged as a rabid heretic, and his body was burned (1155).
6. The Albigenses – A religious sect of southern France, were widespread in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Their name was derived from the city of Albi in Languedoc, one of the most important centres of the movement. The Albigenses preached apostolic Christianity and simple life according to the Gospel. They were called the ‘good men.’ The pope and the councils of the church claimed that they denied the Trinity doctrine, the Holy Communion and marriage, as well as the doctrine of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the council of Toulouse (1119), Pope Calixtus II, and subsequently in 1139 Pope Innocent II, excommunicated them. Finally, in 1209, Pope Innocent III organised a crusade against them. The war covered twenty years.
The stubbornness of the bloody fight against the Albigenses is explained partly by the fact that the Albigenses were aided in their war against the pope by the local feudal lords of southern France. When a papal legate and inquisitor was killed on the territory of Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, Pope Innocent III decided to use this occurrence as the occasion for taking away the lands from Count Raymond, who maintained a tolerant attitude towards the heretics. A struggle ensued between the lords of southern France and the pope, who was supported by the lords of the north. Northern France was in conflict with the south, which being economically more developed, was, therefore, a menace to it. The northern armies were headed by Count Simon de Montfort and papal legates. When the armies of the north took the city of Béziers, they killed 20,000 Albigenses. In the course of the ensuing struggle hundreds of thousands fell. The provinces of Provence and Languedoc were devastated. Peace was concluded only as late as 1229. In consequence of the wars against the Albigenses the wealthy south was destroyed and the territories of the French crown were expanded.
7. John Wycliffe (Born October 1320, died 1384) – An English reformer. One of those ideologists who, even prior to the Reformation (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries), drew an outline of the coming reforms. John Wycliffe was a professor of Oxford University. Prior to his appearance on the social and political arena, he devoted himself entirely to research work in the fields of physics, logic and philosophy. The Fourteenth Century was an epoch of stubborn fighting between the royal power of England and the pope. The pope exploited England cruelly. In the Thirteenth Century, the English kingdom paid to the pope a yearly tribute of 1,000 pounds of silver. Under Edward III (Fourteenth Century), Parliament complained that the country was paying the pope a sum five times the amount of the taxes paid to the king. The development of industry and commerce increased the resisting power of England. The struggle between Rome and England was deepened by the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1339–1456). This war affected the interests of all classes of the English people. The governing classes of England sought possession of the treasuries of Netherland, and they also looked with a covetous eye on the riches of the French nobility. The middle-class saw in this war a means of enrichment. The burden of the war fell primarily upon the peasantry. It is not surprising, therefore, that the pope, having become an ally of France, aroused universal hatred in England. In 1336, Parliament abolished the tribute to the pope. Heresies persecuted in Italy and France now spread to England. Wycliffe’s preachings were popular among all the strata of the people. He taught that in case of necessity the State had a right to deprive the Church of its possessions, that power was based upon service, and that consequently only service could justify the levying of taxes and duties by the clergy. In 1374, in disputes with the representatives of the Roman court, Wycliffe disclosed also the abuses of the Roman Church in appointing candidates to ecclesiastical posts in England. He was severely persecuted by the clergy, and only the interference of the court, and the intervention of the university and the cities, saved him.
In his doctrines, Wycliffe never overstepped the boundaries laid down by the ruling classes. He preached poverty and equality in Christ, but only for the clergy. He proposed that their lands should be expropriated; but this was entirely in the interests of the landowners and the king. The relations between man and God, Wycliffe pictured in the image of the feudal relations of his time. Man holds all his possessions, he said, from God. God’s mercy is the condition of this vassalage. Mortal sin deprives man, he preached, of his right to hold possessions by the mercy of God. Therefore, he said, the clergy should have common property, and should submit to civil jurisdiction. The supreme judge of the human conscience, he said, was not the pope, but God.
After the peasant insurrection of 1381, a general sympathy for Wycliffe in his struggle against the pope changed into a hatred on the part of the propertied classes. Oxford University condemned his Twelve Articles, which rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation. Wycliffe died in peace, but his doctrines were cruelly persecuted.
In 1415, the church council at Constance decided to burn his remains.
8. With the name of John Huss is connected the struggle against the Catholic Church in Bohemia, the so-called Hussite movement of the Fifteenth Century. During the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, the Roman Catholic Church had lost its authority among the masses of the people. The Roman pope was, in the eyes of all peoples, an exploiter who deprived them of earthly goods in the name of God and heavenly life. In England, France and Spain, the Church was assuming a national character, severing its relations with Rome. The exception was Germany, which became the object of the avaricious appetite of the pope. If the other countries were in a more favourable condition, if they were earlier in a position to free themselves from under the papal yoke, it is to be explained only by the development of capitalism, the growth of wealth, and the power of the middle-class and the princes. Of all Germany, only Bohemia was, in this respect, in an exceptional situation. Bohemia developed economically in the Fourteenth Century with incredible rapidity because of its silver mines. The Church and the king with his court, as well as the merchants and the artisans, received enormous profits. The pope and the emperor were keenly watching Bohemia lest it free itself from their dependence. Dissatisfaction had begun to gather in the country. The lower nobility, the peasantry and the middle-class were dissatisfied. A price revolution, due to the abundance of silver, caused a general dearth. Besides, the masses of the people in Bohemia were Czechs, while the exploiting upper layer, the lay and ecclesiastical authorities, were Germans. Therefore the class struggle here assumed the character of a religious and national struggle of the Bohemians against the Germans and the pope. In this revolutionary medium, the ideas of the English reformist, Wycliffe, penetrated into Bohemia. Jan Huss was the literary defender and propounder of Wycliffe’s ideas.
Huss was born in 1369, in a well-to-do peasant family. He was professor, and at one time rector, in the then famous Prague University, and also preacher in the Chapel of Bethlehem, where services were held in the Czech language. When the Prague University took a stand against the forty-five theses of Wycliffe, Huss came to their defence (1409). In 1412, Pope John XXIII, being in need of money, organised the sale of indulgences in Prague. Huss came forth with a heated sermon against the corruption of the Church, and demanded the termination of the traffic. He also opposed ‘miracles.’ In a special treatise, Huss proved that true Christians needed no miracles, and that true faith was contained only in the Holy Scriptures. Huss asserted that the Church was only an assembly of the faithful destined for Heaven, whereby he provoked the hatred of the ruling clique, who saw in the Church the dominance of the higher clergy.
On June 6, 1410, the books of Huss were burned, and he was excommunicated. In 1414, the Church council at Constance accused him of heresy, and though Huss declared that he wished to receive guidance and instruction from the princes of the Church as to wherein his opinions differed from the Word of God, he was turned over to the authorities and burned at the stake (June 6, 1415). His ashes were thrown into the Rhine.
9. Hussites (Taborites and Calixtines). The execution of Jan Huss set a revolution afoot in Bohemia. All the classes of the Bohemian people arrayed themselves against the power of the pope – for a church reform, and against the Germans – for national independence. In this nationalist religious struggle the masses of the people revealed their social hatred for the propertied classes. At the beginning, however, all classes of Bohemia acted in unison. The slogan of the struggle was the demand for communion under two forms. The rites of the Catholic Church gave to the layman in communion bread alone, and to the priests bread and wine. The masses rising against the privileges of the Church demanded equality in communion. ‘A chalice for the layman!’ – that was the slogan of the movement. The nobility which joined the movement used this struggle to annex the lands of the Church; and the clergy held no less than one-quarter of the kingdom’s territory. The rich bourgeoisie saw in the Hussite war also a means of gaining more riches from the clergy and the possessions of the German Catholic cities (Kuttenberg, with its famous silver mines was the most desirable of all). The nobility and the rich Bohemian bourgeoisie that joined the Hussite movement formed the moderate party of the Calixtines or Utraquists. Their centre was the city of Prague. Side by side with this moderate movement, however, there existed also a democratic one. Its bulk was formed by the peasants who wished to be free owners of the land, especially after the nobility had appropriated the land of the clergy. The lower middle-class of the cities and the proletarians were with the peasants. They were concentrated in the smaller cities of Bohemia. The democratic elements later began to call themselves Taborites after the name of their military and political centre, the communist city of Tabor. The Hussite movement was now headed by a group of communists.
In 1414, the people drove King Wenceslaus out of Prague, after which heretics began to flow into Bohemia from all parts of Europe.
The Beghards and the Waldenses found in Bohemia a refuge from persecution. The communists fortified themselves in Tabor where they started their propaganda. They declared that the Millennium of Christ had come, that there would be no more servants and masters, and that the people would return to the state of pristine innocence. In various cities, particularly in Tabor, the insurgents began to organise communist centres. Tabor was located in the vicinity of gold mines. Commerce and industry flourished there. When the communists became strong in Tabor they attracted large masses of the people. It is said that one gathering numbered 42,000 (July 22, 1419). The inhabitants of Tabor called each other brother and sister, and recognised no difference between ‘thine’ and ‘mine.’ The Taborites taught that ‘there should be no kings, no masters, no subjects on earth, and that taxes and duties should be abolished.’ According to their doctrine there was to be no coercion, everything was to belong to all, and therefore, they said, he who possesses property commits a mortal sin. This communism, however, was of a Christian nature. It was a communism of consumption, not production. Every family worked for itself, contributing its surplus to the general treasury. There were among the Taborites the most extreme communists, who allowed no concessions, and denied the family. Those ‘brothers and sisters of the free spirit’ called themselves Adamites. The majority of the inhabitants of Tabor and the knights, under the leadership of Zizka, launched a struggle against the Adamites.
The communist community of Tabor was surprisingly well organised. As a military community it alarmed the German princes for a long while. The Taborites represented the first regular army, and they were the first to use artillery in battle. That the Taborites could hold their own for almost a generation is explained by their attention to education, by the order and discipline in their community. Tabor fell, due, mainly, to a split among the Hussites. The moderate Calixtines, having appropriated the land of the clergy, did not wish to recognise the supremacy of Tabor. The war of the Taborites against the king, the pope, and all of Europe, was not in the interests of the nobility. After the victory of the Taborites at Tauss (1431), it seemed that there was no enemy capable of coping with them. But the Calixtines started negotiations with the enemy. They decided to call to a Diet all barons, knights, and representatives of the cities, to discuss a plan for a state organization. Tabor itself was divided. The lower middle-class and the peasantry were indifferent to the communist programme. They wanted peace. Tabor’s communism was not stable. It had not the foundation of communist production, therefore equality of the means of subsistence soon disappeared. There were both rich and poor in Tabor.
The army of Tabor was being overcrowded by ‘crooks and riff-raff of all nations.’ As soon as the nobility began to recruit soldiers for a war against Tabor, offering better conditions than the communist community, treason crept into the ranks of the Taborite army, and wholesale desertion began. This explains the fall of Tabor. On May 30, 1434, the Taborites suffered a crushing defeat near Czeski Brod. Out of 18,000 Taborite soldiers, 13,000 were killed. In 1437, they were compelled to conclude a treaty with Sigismund, who guaranteed them the independence of Tabor. But in spite of this the communist community of Tabor soon disappeared.
10. Scourging Friars (Flagellants) – A sect of people who whip themselves. It appeared in Europe as early as the Eleventh Century, and became widespread in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. From Italy, the movement spread through southern France, Netherlands, Alsace and Lorraine. The Flagellants taught that it was possible to obtain absolution from sin by inflicting sufferings on one’s body. One of the first ecclesiastical theorists of this sect, George VII, taught that in this way the faithful emulated Christ, laboured to obtain a martyr’s crown, deadened and castigated their flesh, and expiated their sins. This doctrine was in line with the prevailing asceticism of the Middle Ages, which demanded of the faithful to harden and torture their bodies by fasting, poor clothing, etc., in the name of Christ. The Flagellant movement, however, assumed the character of an epidemic, of a mass psychosis. Thus, in the Thirteenth Century, bands of people marched through the cities of Italy, whipping themselves with straps and lashes, and praying for absolution. After the devastating epidemic of the ‘Black Death,’ the movement assumed a dangerous character. In many localities of Germany, France and Flanders, Flagellants in mortal terror, imagining that Christ was about to destroy the world for the sins of mankind, inflicted cruel punishment upon themselves. In German cities, Flagellant communities began to come into existence. ‘Those desirous of partaking of self-castigation had to pay a small fee, and this was all demanded of proselytes.’ In the Fifteenth Century, the movement weakened, but it did not disappear. The Flagellants of the Fifteenth Century spoke evil of the monks and demanded a series of church reforms. The Roman Church, which at the beginning had not opposed the movement since, in Italy, it was anti-imperial and therefore a means of strengthening the Church, began to persecute the Flagellants. In the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, the movement became fashionable at court. Sex elements began to dominate in it. Traces of this sect can be found even in the Nineteenth Century.
11. The Lollards – A religious sect widespread among the working populations of England in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. The heresies of those times found favourable ground not only among the master classes. As a matter of fact, every class formulated its demands through the reform movement. Thus, among the poorest weavers of England the sect of Beghards, or, as they were commonly called in England, Lollards, came into existence. (The Lollards were funeral chanters.) The Beghards first appeared in the Netherlands (Flanders and Brabant), in a country where commerce and industry had progressed earlier than in the rest of Europe and where sheep-breeding and the woollen industry were highly developed. The sect of Beghards was in most cases a fraternity of weavers. Unmarried artisans belonging to the sect lived in common houses, where they kept a communist household. The movement started in England when the weavers of Flanders migrated into that country. Norfolk, the centre of the woollen industry, became also the centre of the movement of the English Beghards, the Lollards. The Lollard propagandists, called ‘poor brothers,’ spread the new doctrine over the country. Errant ‘poor ministers’ preached to the people that lay and ecclesiastical possessions should be common property. They urged the people to pay neither dues nor tithes to the clergy, and appealed to the servants to refuse to work for the masters. In 1395, the Lollards petitioned Parliament, demanding a reform of the Anglican Church, abolition of its worldly possessions and celibacy. The petition was rejected.
The most outstanding representative of the Lollards was John Ball, the mad minister of Kent. Coming from the ranks of the Franciscan monks who sympathised with the Lollard movement, he became one of the leaders of the peasant uprising of 1381 in England. Beginning with 1356, John Ball preached mainly in Essex and in Norfolk, delivering his sermons in city squares and cemeteries. They became very popular. He preached common property, and urged the people to exterminate the nobility. Only then, he said, would people be equal, and the masters would be no higher than the rest. All men originated from Adam and Eve, he said. ‘When Adam dolf and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ he queried. He was killed during the suppression of the revolt in 1381.
The Lollard movement gained in importance when it became connected with the peasant uprising and with the opposition movement of the middle-class in the cities, After 1381, the Lollards found themselves in a precarious situation. Every Lollard was considered a criminal and treated accordingly. Terrorist acts against the sect continued for a long while, but it did not disappear from the lower strata of the working population, as is proven by pamphlets appearing even at the end of the Fourteenth and the beginning of the Fifteenth Century: The Ploughman’s Prayer and The Lanthorne of Light. The Lollards spread among the people a knowledge of the Bible in the English language.
12. Chiliastic dreams, Chiliasm – The doctrine of the second coming of Christ and the Millennium on earth. This Millennium was pictured as one thousand years of joy and happiness. All sufferings and privations, the adherents of this doctrine said, would disappear, and perfect harmony between mankind and rejuvenated nature would be re-established. The dreams of a Millennium became widespread in the Middle Ages, in years of elemental sufferings and socio-political cataclysms; in more quiet epochs, Chiliasm was the doctrine of small insignificant sects. Large masses of people were fired with Chiliastic dreams during the persecutions of the Christians in the Tenth Century, because the end of the world was expected to come in the year of Christ 1000. More widespread, however, were the Chiliastic dreams in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, in the Reformation period. A back-to-the-Gospel movement, religious unrest, coupled with an increasing exploitation of the working population, were fertile soil for Chiliastic visions. Thomas Muenzer, the Anabaptists, and the Taborites, all paid tribute to the mystic doctrine of the Millennium.
Social conditions prevailing in the Middle Ages created an atmosphere favourable for mysticism. The ignorance of the masses nurtured it. Besides, Chiliasm, belief in miracles, and mystic visions were an outlet at a time when the masses saw no way of improving their condition by their own efforts. Only a miracle could, in their opinion, overthrow all oppressors and exploiters. The masses were driven to believe in the miracle of the second coming of Christ, in order that they should not sink into despair.
13. With the name of Martin Luther is connected the history of the religious and socio-political transformation of the Germany of the Sixteenth Century, the history of the so-called Reformation. Luther was not the initiator of that movement. His activities and doctrines by no means cover the social history of the Reformation. In the revolutionary movement of the Sixteenth Century, he was the representative of the coalition of the middle-class and the nobility.
From the Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Century, trade capital transformed the old natural economy of the European peoples, and rendered superfluous the political system of feudalism. The victory of absolutism became an economic necessity. On the other hand, development of commercial capital induced the masters to increase the exploitation of the peasants. Freeing the peasants from the feudal yoke, the masters increased their burdens, substituting cash payments for manual labour and payments in kind. The peasants were being driven off the land, and thus the nucleus of the future proletarian class was formed. This incipient proletariat was utilised by the army commanders and the merchants, by the former as material for the armies, by the latter as workers in their manufactories. In a period of economic revolution, feudal nobility became a hindrance to historic development. The lower nobility, the knights, took an intermediary position between the peasantry and the high nobility. The knighthood attempted to halt its own imminent ruin. In Germany, the struggle of these two class groupings was complicated by the peculiarities of German economic development. At the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, Germany, because of its mines and commerce, was still a powerful country economically. But the economic centre of Europe soon moved from the Mediterranean basin to the coast of the Atlantic. The development of Germany, as of all Eastern Europe, became stagnant. Under these circumstances well-established social and political conditions were either breaking down or changing radically. For a century Europe was shaken by terrific wars and revolutions. The exploitation on the part of the Roman Church was most keenly felt in Germany. The monasteries and the princes of the Church exploited the peasantry and the cities to the point of ruin. The middle-classes protested against the aid that the monasteries gave to the poor, because it limited them in their exploitation of the masses.
The Roman Church found a lucrative source of income in the sale of church offices and especially in the sale of the so-called indulgences – absolution for cash. The princes of the Church exploited the people in their own realm, as did the feudal land owners and the capitalist merchants in theirs. A struggle against the Roman Church became inevitable. But while England and France, economically more advanced than Germany, soon succeeded in freeing themselves from papal rule, Germany required a long and stubborn struggle.
In Germany, all classes of the population suffered gravely under papal exploitation, but each formulated its own programme. Luther’s propaganda was the centre which originally united, first, the knighthood struggling against the princes, second, the lower clergy and the peasantry struggling against the princes of the Church and the feudal barons, and, third, the city middle-class chafing under the rule of the city aristocracy, the patricians.
Luther was born November 10, 1483, in a peasant family. His father worked in the mines. In 1501, he entered Erfurt University, where he led a very gay life in the circles of the Humanists, those advocates of radical ideas. In 1505, he entered a monastery, and, as every good Catholic, went to see the pope. In 1509, Luther gave a course of lectures in the Wittenberg University. In 1517, when Tetzel, the representative of Pope Leo X, opened a sale of indulgences in Saxony, Luther hung out on the doors of the Wittenberg chapel, his ninety-five theses against indulgences. His first protest against the Roman Church was very timid. Luther protested against corruption. Thesis 21 read: ‘Advocates of indulgences are mistaken when they say that through papal absolution a man is freed of all punishment.’ Thesis 27: ‘It is nonsense to preach that as soon as the penny jingles in the box, the soul leaves purgatory.’ Luther was surprised at the effect of his theses. He gave impetus to a movement which had started before him, and it engulfed all classes of Germany. Three groups became engaged in the struggle: the Catholic conservatives, the middle-class reformists, and the plebeian revolutionists. As a leader of the middle-class reformist movement, Luther at first appealed to violence, to the use of fire and iron for the extermination of the cancer that, he said, was destroying the world. He called for a decisive struggle against the lay and clerical princes. Between 1517 and 1522, Luther was ready to enter an alliance with the democratic factions. Between 1522 and 1525, however, he betrayed his allies, the peasantry and the lower clergy. His change was due to the Anabaptists in Zwickau and the peasant movement. He was also influenced by the uprising of the knighthood (Autumn, 1522).
At the head of the uprising of the knighthood were Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von Hutten. The former was the commander, and the latter the ideologist of the movement. Their hatred for the pope and the princes and their striving for the reconstruction of a united Germany made them, by the middle of the Sixteenth Century, the heroes of the German bourgeoisie. In substance, however, the movement of united knighthood in a society where capitalism had begun to develop, was reactionary. Sickingen and Hutten dreamed of a renewed mediaeval state where power was in the hands of the nobles and the emperor was their subject. They never aimed at freeing the cities or the peasantry, though they were compelled to appeal to them for aid. In the summer of 1522, Franz von Sickingen led troops against the ‘priestly nest’ of Trier. But the armies of the united Rhenish and Suabian princes dealt him a decisive blow. Many castles were destroyed and many knights perished. Luther did not support that movement, but condemned it as well as that of the peasants.
In his first works, where he called the princes ‘the greatest fools on earth and the most heinous scoundrels,’ and in his first appeals relative to the Peasant War, Luther defended the insurgents. He wrote, for instance, ‘It is not the peasants who arose against you masters, but God himself, who wishes to punish you for your evil doings.’ Luther hoped to find in the peasant movement a support for his struggle against Rome. But when, in April and May, the peasantry revolted all over the country, burning and destroying castles, the movement assuming a communist character, Luther defended the princes against the insurgent peasants. He attributed the movement to the peasants’ easy life. He urged the princes to ‘strangle them as you would mad dogs.’ When the insurrection was quelled, he bragged that he ‘had killed the peasants because he had given the orders to kill.’ ‘All their blood is upon me,’ he said.
An alliance was established between Luther and the princes, who were well satisfied with the acquisition of the church estates. The Reformation was profitable both to them and to the insurgents of the big cities. In 1526, at a Diet session in Speyer, it was for the first time decreed that the subject must follow the faith of his master. This saved the princes, who openly joined Luther. It is true that in 1529 Catholic services were reinstated and the confiscation of the lands of the clergy was halted in the provinces of the Lutheran princes, but the Lutheran minority protested against this decision – hence the name Protestants. In 1530, at a Diet session in Augsburg, the Protestant princes submitted to Emperor Charles V the so-called Augsburg Confession of the Lutherans. It consisted of two parts, the first giving an exposition of the new faith, and the second condemning the corruption of the Roman Church and outlining the necessary reforms.
‘We reject those,’ says the Augsburg Confession, ‘who preach that absolution can be reached, not by faith, but by good deeds.’ Man can find favour in the eyes of God, says the document, only by the word of God and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We must not, it says, confuse the authority of the State with the authority of the pope; the Church has the power to preach the Gospel and to perform rites, but it should not participate in the affairs of the State.
The publication of the Augsburg Confession was not the end of the struggle. In September, 1555, at the Augsburg Diet, the so-called Augsburg Religious Peace confirmed the decision of 1526 relative to the obligation of the subjects to follow the faith of their masters. This decision made it obvious that Germany was to remain dismembered, under the rule of the princes.
Lutherism became the religion of the economically backward countries. It spread in northern and western Germany, Denmark and Sweden, where the princes, the bishops and the landlords became the protectors of the Lutheran Church. But even this partial reform could succeed only as a result of the revolutionary movement of the peasantry, the cities and the knighthood.
14. Joachim of Floris (of Calabria) – An Italian mystic of the Twelfth Century. His doctrine of the eternal gospel is known under the name of Joachimism. In his conception, the Apocalypse teaches us that the world passes through three ages, the age of the Law, or of the Father, the age of the Gospel, or of the Son, and the age of the Spirit, which will bring the ages to an end. The first age, he said, corresponds to the Old Testament, the rule of lay authority, of external law and the preponderance of the flesh. The second age marks the predominance of the clergy, and the combination of spiritual and material interests. This, he said, was the age he lived in. The third age, he prophesied, would soon come and would be marked by a dominance of the spirit over the flesh, the monks becoming the ruling power, and the eternal gospel being the law of the world. Joachim denied that humanity was saved by Christ.
Joachim was of an urban family. Stricken by the horrors of the plague epidemic, he became a monk and founded the monastery of San Giovanni in Fiore. He wrote two books: The Concordance Between the New and the Old Testaments and Commentary on the Apocalypse. Several decades later (1260), the Joachimites were cursed by the pope and severely persecuted.
15. Nicolas Storch – A cloth-maker in Zwickau, where he became famous by preaching religious communism. Thomas Muenzer was under his influence and asserted that he knew the Bible better than all priests combined. In a short time, a whole community, which counted twelve apostles in its midst, gathered around Storch. His disciples believed that the truth was given to him in holy revelations. On May 16, 1521, the community of Zwickau invited a new preacher, Nicolas Hausmann of Schneeberg, a devoted friend of Luther’s, and thus Storch’s activities met with a stubborn opposition. He was expelled from the city, and went to the city of Wittenberg, where the ‘Zwickau prophets’ hoped to find support in Carlstadt, a former co-worker of Luther. But they were compelled to flee to southern Germany where Storch dreamed of establishing the kingdom of God on earth. A holy revelation, he said, made clear to him the true paths of social reformation. In 1522, Storch settled in Thuringia, where he became one of the initiators and leaders of the Peasant War. In collaboration with Muenzer, Pfeifer and others, he composed a programme of demands, which declared property to belong to all alike, since God had created all men equally bare and had given to them everything on the land, in the water and under the sky. All officers, lay and ecclesiastical alike, the programme said, must be removed from their offices, or killed. Every man could freely preach the law of God, as every one had a free will and was able to accept the good and reject the evil. Storch died in Munich in 1525.
16. György Dózsa – Leader of the peasant insurrection of the Sixteenth Century in Hungary. At that time, the struggle between the absolute power of the king and the feudal lords of Hungary still continued. After the death of King Matthias, who, supported by the people, had conducted a successful struggle against the feudal lords, the latter regained the upper hand under Uladislaus, and abolished all the reforms of King Matthias including the standing army. The country was suffering under the struggles of the feudal lords. In 1514, the pope declared a new crusade against the Mohammedans. György Dózsa, who had become famous as a warrior in the fight against the Turks, was offered the post of commander. Within twenty days he gathered a people’s militia numbering 60,000 men. Dózsa was the head of military operations. He was accompanied by two priests, who aroused the soldiers, peasants and city folk by their sermons. The feudal lords were loath to let their servants join the crusade, and, as harvest time was approaching, they demanded their return. In reply, Dózsa and the priests appealed to the people to rebel. The peasants arose all over Hungary, and the war with the feudal barons began. The situation of the peasantry in Hungary of that time was less intolerable than it was in the other countries, but having a little more freedom in Hungary, the peasants felt more keenly the yoke of serfdom. Incessant wars with the Turks were ruining the country, the population was being enormously depleted, and the peasants found themselves in a position to force upon the feudal lords a number of concessions. The peasants, however, being skilled in the art of war, hoped for full liberation. The lower clergy of the villages, hating the princes of the Church, joined the peasants. But they, along with the city middle-class, which also joined the peasant movement, soon betrayed it.
The leaders of the peasant uprising (1514) preached that the nobles were a criminal class which had enslaved the body and the soul of the peasant. They encouraged the destruction of the houses and the castles of the lords. György Dózsa, who had taught the peasants the use of arms, called them to rise all over the country. An army of feudal barons under John Zápolya moved against him. This army, aided by the city middle-class and the nobility, the former allies of the peasants, suppressed the movement cruelly. György Dózsa offered long and stubborn resistance. He proclaimed a republic declaring the power of the king and the privileged classes abolished. Notwithstanding the sympathy of the peasant masses throughout the country, György Dózsa was defeated at Temesvár. His execution was a refined torture. He was placed on a red hot iron throne, his head was adorned with a red hot iron crown, and a red hot iron sceptre was forced into his hand. Dózsa’s only exclamation was: ‘These hounds!’ No less than 60,000 peasants were killed in this uprising. The lords in Diet assembled, decided to increase the burden of the peasantry and declared serfdom a perpetual institution.
17. The War of the Roses (1455–1485) – After the termination of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1339–1450) and after the English armies were compelled to evacuate France, a bloody war started between the two dynasties, Lancaster and York, which lasted over thirty years. The Lancaster dynasty, with a red rose as its emblem, represented the interests of the large feudal masters in Wales and in the north where their large estates were located. The York dynasty, with a white rose as its emblem, depended on the commercial southeast, the city population, the peasants and the House of Commons. The stubborn feud between the two dynasties was to decide whether England would become an absolute monarchy in case of the victory of the York dynasty, or whether it would be divided among the feudal masters with the victory of the Lancaster dynasty.
As early as the Fourteenth Century, large land possessions concentrated in the hands of a few noble families. In the Fifteenth Century, the House of Lords counted only one-third of its old members. The surviving dynasties annexed the land of those families that had disappeared. When the Hundred Years’ War was over, the army was disbanded and the former soldiers taken into the service of the feudal masters. In the second half of the Fifteenth Century, the war between the two dynasties began. In the battle of Northampton (1460), York captured the king and compelled the House of Lords to recognise him as the protector of the state and the heir to the throne. He was defeated by the army of the hostile dynasty, but his son Edward returned to London victorious (1451). Edward’s armies dealt mercilessly with the nobility. In the Taunton battle, forty-two knights and two lords were executed, while Warwick, one of Edward’s commanders, saw to it that little harm was done to the Commoners.
The ascension to the throne of Edward IV, that is, the victory of the White Rose, marked the beginning of the period of absolutism. Edward IV did not raise the question of his election by the English Parliament. He expelled all feudal masters, even his closest friends who opposed his will (his fight against Warwick, ‘the maker of kings’). In his struggle against the feudal masters he used hired armies, thus making the feudal militia superfluous. He cruelly annihilated the adherents of the Lancaster dynasty. To make his victory secure, he refused to make new compulsory loans, and to secure the aid of the peasantry he demanded of Parliament laws prohibiting the dispossession of peasants. Thus the War of the Roses strengthened absolutism in England.
Last updated on 15 July 2020