Martin Luther and Peasants Revolt in Germany in 1524-1525
Martin Luther is remembered as the father of Protestantism, a man, who fiercely combated injustice and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church during late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. His image is associated with freedom and enlightenment, and this image often prevents us from noticing another Luther – Luther who protected feudalism and serfdom, Luther who blessed nobles to brutally avenge peasants, who, for his own profit, blamed the threadbare, hungry and hopeless people as villains and outlaws. This paper aims to investigate this dark side of Luther’s biography. For Sure, Martin Luther is a person whose influence on the Western civilization is impossible to overstress. Yet the study of his unpleasant deed is not less necessary, that the study of his reforms. This would allow to create a complete portray of this controversial person in his controversial age.
Backgrounds and Course of the Peasant’s war in Germany
The Peasants’ War in Central Europe is a part of social cataclysm, caused by Renaissance and Reformation, together with related economic, political and ideological changes. The development of military technology made the princes to equip their armies with artillery, rebuild their fortifications and rely on costly mercenaries rather than unpaid knights. The government machine became more sophisticated and required additional financing. Masses of gold brought from the New World caused shifts in economic system including incredible inflation. All this indiced German rulers to seek new profits, and the only solution they were able to think of was increase tax burden – both direct and indirect. Being basic taxpayers peasants dramatically suffered from those new homages.
Local rebellions became usual for Central Europe since 1400, including such famous ones as Hussite wars (1420-1434), series of revolts known as the Bundschuh movement (circa 1440-1530), Hungarian peasants revolt (1514) and s number of minor disorders. Religious upheaval, resulting from Luther’s call for Reformation, made the new revolt greater and more brutal than all the previous ones. In fact, it is not quite correct to call it “Peasant’s war”, since lower classes of the cities, local clergy and sometimes even broke chivalry were among the supporters of the rebellion. They were confronted by richer nobility and German princes interested in maintaining their rule and wellbeing, as well as by bourgeoisie interested in stability. The conflict grew slowly out of separate complaints and disorders in various regions of Germany and neighboring states. Crop failure in 1523-1524 brought the countrymen on the edge of starvation. Being driven to despair by their disastrous state, increasing taxes and bondhold and by disregard to their petitions the peasants across Swabia, Baden, Bavaria, Saxony, Thuringia, Westphalia, Hessen and other German lands, as well as Switzerland, Austria and eastern provinces of France raised arms against their oppressors. A major rebellion broke out in Lower Swabia in 1524, and spread to the neighboring regions during spring of 1525 supported by about 300 000 rebels. What was new about this rebellion was that the peasants used a new mighty ideological weapon – Protestantism.
Throughout the Middle Ages illiterate peasants poorly understood religious teaching including the text of the Bible. The holy texts were all written in Latin and inaccessible for the majority of population. Luther’s translation of the Bible into German combined with invention of book printing by Gutenberg allowed to bring the text of the Bible to every village. Upon reading it, the peasants could now ask a reasonable question: “When Adam dug and Eve spun, where was then the nobleman?” Local clergy often supported the rebels, including such famous supporters as Thomas Müntzer. Yet the peasants expected Luther himself to choose their side.
At the early stages of the rebellion Luther indeed sympathized peasants grieves, although refusing to join the rebels openly. In response to the renowned Twelve Articles of the Christian Union of Upper Swabia, more often recalled as The Twelve Articles of the Black Forest, Luther published his Admonition to Peace in which he called upon the lords to be considerable and even directly blaming them as the reason for the revolt: “we have no one on earth to thank for this disastrous rebellion except you princes and lords… as temporal rulers you do nothing but cheat and rob the people so that you may lead a life of luxury and extravagance. The poor common people cannot bear it any longer”. He called upon both princes and peasants to act as good Christians, at that explaining the peasants that they have to obey the authorities.
Such surprising Luther’s position is nevertheless explainable by several reasons. Firstly, Luther was personally dependent on the princes. In his confrontation with the Catholic Church, he relied upon German rulers and took refuge in their castles. The second reasons were the needs of Protestantism, which took roots between the feudals and in the cities. The latter wanted moderate reforms, while peasants represented and anarchical power, which could sweep away the early modest achievements of Luther’s teaching and likely cause a crusade like the Hussite wars. Support of peasants would make the nobility to stagger back from Luther, making the success of possible crusade inevitable. Therefore, Luther’s choice is logical and was aimed to secure the survival of Protestantism and Luther itself.
Seeing that the rebellion cannot be liquidated by calls for peace Luther decided to actively contribute to its forcible suppression. In May 1525, he wrote his famous tractate Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Its original name was Against the Rioting Peasants, yet it was harshened by publishers with Luther’s assent. In this work Luther first accused the rebels of “three terrible sins against God and man”, stating that “they are starting a rebellion, and are violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs…thus they become the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name”. Further he called upon the nobles to “smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel”.
Upon reading or hearing this, many of the peasants felt betrayed and laid down their weapons. After the defeat in the Battle of Frankenhausen on May 25, 1525, the rebellion was almost over. Up to 100 000 peasants were killed or executed, however, Protestantism survived and further flourished in the shade of secular powers.
Attitude of other Coevals and Criticism of Luther’s Position
The Peasant’s War in Germany was an event that could not leave the major thinkers of the time untouched, yet their attitudes were different dependent on their previous ideological line. This included even Luther’s friends like Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas Müntzer.
Erasmus of Rotterdam originally admired Luther and noted that many of his reforms are urgently needed. In turn, Luther spoke of Erasmus as of a superior philosopher. However, in later years Erasmus became Luther’s opponent believing that Reformation has gone too far and actually naming Luther as principal author of the war. This especially concerned the translation of the Bible into German, which, under Erasmus, “increased pity among peasant men and woman in that country”. Yet Erasmus was wise enough not to place the whole responsibility on Luther. In his letter to Noel Beda Erasmus noticed: “as for your view that the revolt of the peasants was caused by books of this sort, the facts, my dear Beda, certainly do not bear you out…There are additional causes of more fundamental kind which it would not be safe to put in this letter”. Remaining a faithful catholic and dealing Luther as rebel, Erasmus had enough common sense to realize, that the reason of the rebellion was not only in Luther’s works.
In contrast to Erasmus’ moderation and Luther’s secularism, other leaders of peasants movement were much more radical, including Thomas Müntzer and Huldrych Zwingli. Despite of the conflict between the latters, Zwingly blessed and Müntzer headed the rebellion. Müntzer was willing to create a kingdom of Christian equity based on principles of Anabaptism – one of the radical movements inside Reformation. He introduced a battlecry “All things are common”, later responded by Luther in Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants: “They did not demand, as do our insane peasants in their raging, that the goods of others—of Pilate and Herod—should be common, but only their own goods. Our peasants, however, want to make the goods of other men common, and keep their own for themselves”. Life itself has demonstrated Luther’s rightness. Prior to his beheading after the defeat in the battle of Frankenhausen Müntzer recanted and accepted the Roman Catholic mass, while Luther remained undefeated.
Whether consciously or not, Luther provoked the Peasants’ War in Germany. The reason was not in Luther himself, but in terrible state in which German peasants had to live at the time, as well as ignorance of the landlords and their desire to maintain their power and profits. A class conflict by nature, the war gained additional justification due to Luther’s teaching. Erasmus’ observation that reading the translated Bible made peasants pitiful.
When the conflict spread throughout most of the German principalities, Luther and other church reformers faced a harsh moral dilemma. On the one hand, they all sympathized peasants’ grieves. On the other hand, the rebellion would likely throw German lands into anarchy and provides an outstanding cause for Catholics to ruin Reformation in the egg. The radical leaders like Müntzer preferred to fight and die. In contrast, Luther likely felt that his teaching is created for wealthy and educated classes like landlords and bourgeoisie. Further events have demonstrated his rectitude. Having sacrificed peasants, he secured the existence of Protestantism.
1. Greengrass, Mark. The Longman Companion to the European Reformation c.1500-1618, Harlow: Longman 1998.
2. Erasmus, Desiderius, Nauert, Charles (editor) The Correspondence of Erasmus: Letters 1658-1801 (1526-1527) (Collected Works of Erasmus). University of Toronto Press, University of Toronto Press, 2003.
3. Potrer J.M. “Luther and Political Mileniarism: the Case of the Peasants’ War.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1981), pp. 389-406.
4. Bax, Belfort. The Peasants War in Germany, 1525-1526. Sonnenschein, 1899. Nov. 12, 2008 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=1501138
5. Stayer, James M. The German Peasant’s War and Anabaptist Community of Goods. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994. p. 107. Nov. 12, 2008 https://www.questiaschool.com/read/93782078?title=Chapter%20Five%20the%20Anti-Materialistic%20Piety%20of%20Thomas%20M%C3%BCntzer%20and%20Its%20Anabaptist%20Expressions
6. Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Vol VII. Nov. 12, 2008 http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/history/7_ch04.htm
7. Luther Martin. Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia. 1525. Quoted from: Martin Luther Support for Religious Persecution fnd Anti-Semitism. 12 Nov. 2008 http://www.liu.edu/cwis/cwp/library/workshop/citmla.htm
 Greengrass, Mark. The Longman Companion to the European Reformation c.1500-1618, Harlow: Longman 1998, p.76
 Bax, Belfort. The Peasants War in Germany, 1525-1526. Sonnenschein, 1899. Nov. 12, 2008 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=1501138 pp. 4-7
 Greengrass, Mark. Ibid. p. 77
 Greengrass, Mark. Ibid. p. 77
 Greengrass, Mark. Ibid. p. 77
 Luther Martin. Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia. 1525. Quoted from: Martin Luther Support for Religious Persecution fnd Anti-Semitism. 12 Nov. 2008 http://www.liu.edu/cwis/cwp/library/workshop/citmla.htm
 Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Vol VII. Nov. 12, 2008 http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/history/7_ch04.htm
 Potrer J.M. “Luther and Political Mileniarism: the Case of the Peasants’ War.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1981), pp. 389-406.
 Greengrass, Mark. Ibid. p. 80
 Erasmus, Desiderius, Nauert, Charles (editor) The Correspondence of Erasmus: Letters 1658-1801 (1526-1527) (Collected Works of Erasmus). University of Toronto Press, University of Toronto Press, 2003. p. 126
 Supra note, p. 159
 Stayer, James M. The German Peasant’s War and Anabaptist Community of Goods. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994. p. 107. Nov. 12, 2008 https://www.questiaschool.com/read/93782078?title=Chapter%20Five%20the%20Anti-Materialistic%20Piety%20of%20Thomas%20M%C3%BCntzer%20and%20Its%20Anabaptist%20Expressions
 Potrer J.M. Ibid.
 Stayer, James M. Supra note. p. 109