In a former volume we considered at length the condition of Central Europe at the close of the period known as the Middle Ales. It will suffice here to recapitulate in a few paragraphs the general position.
The time was out of joint in a very literal sense of that somewhat hackneyed phrase. Every established institution — political, social, and religious — was shaken and showed the rents and fissures caused by time and by the growth of a new life underneath it. The empire — the Holy Roman — was in a parlous way as regarded its cohesion. The power of the princes, the representatives of local centralised authority, was proving itself too strong for the power of the emperor, the recognised representative of centralised authority for the whole German-speaking world. This meant the undermining and eventual disruption of the smaller social and political unities, the knightly manors with the privileges attached to the knightly class generally. The knighthood, or lower nobility, had acted as a sort of buffer between the princes of the empire and the imperial power, to which they often looked for protection against their immediate overlord or their powerful neighbour — the prince. The imperial power, in consequence, found the lower nobility a bulwark against its princely vassals. Economic changes, the suddenly increased demand for money owing to the rise of the “world-market,” new inventions in the art of war, new methods of fighting, the rapidly growing importance of artillery and the increase of the mercenary soldiery, had rendered the lower nobility, as an institution, a factor in the political situation which was fast becoming negligible. The abortive campaign of Franz von Sickingen in 1523 only showed its hopeless weakness. The “Reichsregiment,” or imperial governing council, a body instituted by Maximilian, had lamentably failed to effect anything; towards cementing together the various parts of the unwieldy fabric. Finally, at the “Reichstag” held in Nürnberg, in December, 1522, at which all the estates were represented, the “Reichsregiment,” to all intents and purposes, collapsed.
The Reichstag in question was summoned ostensibly for the purpose of raising a subsidy for the Hungarians in their struggle against the advancing power of the Turks. The Turkish movement westward was, of course, throughout this period, the most important question of what in modern phraseology would be called “foreign politics”. The princes voted the proposal of the subsidy without consulting the representatives of the cities, who knew the heaviest part of the burden was to fall upon themselves. The urgency of the situation, however, weighed with them, with the result that they submitted after considerable remonstrance. The princes, in conjunction with their rivals, the lower nobility, next proceeded to attack the commercial monopolies, the first fruits of the rising capitalism, the appanage mainly of the trading companies and the merchant-magnates of the towns. This was too much for civic patience. The city representatives, who of course belonged to the civic aristocracy, waxed indignant. The feudal orders went on to claim the right to set up vexations tariffs in their respective territories whereby to hinder artificially the free development of the new commercial capitalist. This filled up the cup of endurance of the magnates of the cities. The city representatives refused their consent to the Turkish subsidy and withdrew. The next step was the sending of a deputation to the young Emperor Karl, who was in Spain, and whose sanction to the decrees of the Reichstag was necessary before their promulgation. The result of the conference held on this occasion was a decision to undermine the “ Reichsregiment,” and weaken the power of the princes, by whom and by whose tools it was manned, as a factor in the imperial constitution. As for the princes, while some of their number were positively opposed to it, others cared little one way or the other. Their chief aim was to strengthen and consolidate their power within the limits of their own territories, and a weak empire was perhaps better adapted for effecting this purpose than a stronger one, even though certain of their own order had a controlling voice in its administration. As already hinted, the collapse of the rebellious knighthood under Sickingen, a few weeks later, clearly showed the political drift of the situation in the haute politique of the empire.
The rising capitalists of the cities, the monopolists, merchant princes and syndicates, are the theme of universal invective throughout this period. To them the rapid and enormous rise in prices during the early years of the sixteenth century, the scarcity of money consequent on the increased demand for it, and the impoverishment of large sections of the population, were attributed by noble and peasant alike. The whole trend of public opinion, in short, outside the wealthier burghers of the larger cities — the class immediately interested — was adverse to the condition of things created by the new world-market, and by the new class embodying it. At present it was a small class, the only one that gained by it, and that gained at the expense of all the other classes.
Some idea of the class-antagonisms of the period may be gathered from the statement of Ulrich von Hutten, in his dialogue entitled “Predones,” that there were four orders of robbers in Germany — the knights, the lawyers, the priests, and the merchants (meaning especially the new capitalist merchant-traders or syndicates). Of these, he declares the robber-knights to be the least harmful. This is naturally only to be expected from so gallant a champion of his order, the friend and abettor of Sickingen. Nevertheless, the seriousness of the robber-knight evil, the toleration of which in principle was so deeply ingrained in the public opinion of large sections of the population, may be judged from the abortive attempts made to stop it, at the instance alike of princes and of cities, who on this point, if on no other, had a common interest. In 1502, for example, at the Reichstag held in Gelnhausen in that year, certain of the highest princes of the empire made a representation that, at least, the knights should permit the gathering in of the harvest and the vintage in peace. But even this modest demand was found to be impracticable. The knights had to live in the style required by their status, as they declared, and where other means were more and more failing them, their ancient right or privilege of plunder was indispensable to Hutten was right so far in declaring the knight the most harmless kind of robber, inasmuch as, direct as were his methods, his sun was obviously setting, while as much could not be said of the other classes named; the merchant and the lawyer were on the rise, and the priest, although about to receive a check, was not destined to speedily disappear, or to change fundamentally the character of his activity.
The feudal orders saw their own position seriously threatened by the new development of things economic in the; cities. The guilds were becoming crystallised into close corporations of wealthy families, constituting a kind of second Ehrbarkeit or town patriciate; the numbers of the landless and unprivileged, with at most a bare footing in the town constitution, were increasing in an alarming proportion; the journeyman-workman was no longer a stage between apprentice and master-craftsman, but a permanent condition embodied in a large and growing class. All these symptoms indicated an extraordinary economic revolution, which was making itself at first directly felt only in the larger cities, but the results of which were dislocating the social relations of the Middle Ages throughout the whole empire.
Perhaps the most striking feature in this dislocation was the transition from direct barter to exchange through the medium of money, and the consequent suddenly increased importance of the role played by usury in the social life of the time. The scarcity of money is a perennial theme of complaint for which the new large capitalist-monopolists are made responsible. The class in question was itself only a symptom of the general economic change. The seeming scarcity of money, though but the consequence of the increased demand for a circulating medium, was explained to the disadvantage of the hated monopolists by a crude form of the “mercantile” theory. The new merchant, in contradistinction to the master-craftsman working en famille with his apprentices and assistants, now often stood entirely outside the processes of production as speculator or middleman; and he, and still more the syndicate who fled the like functions on a larger scale (especially with reference to foreign trade), came be regarded as particularly obnoxious robbers, because interlopers to boot. Unlike the knights, they were robbers with a new face.
The lawyers were detested for much the same reason (cf. German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages, pp.219-228), the professional lawyer-class, since its final differentiation from the clerk-class in general, had made the Roman or civil law its speciality, and had done its utmost everywhere to establish the principles of the latter in place of the old feudal law of earlier mediaeval Europe. The Roman law was especially favourable to the pretensions of the princes, and, from an economic point of view, of the nobility in general, inasmuch as land was on the new legal principles treated as the private property of the lord, over which he had full power of ownership, and not, as under feudal and canon law, as a trust involving duties as well as rights. The class of jurists was itself of comparatively recent growth in Central Europe, and its rapid increase in every portion of the empire dated from less than half a century back. It may be well understood, therefore, why these interlopers, who ignored the ancient customary law of the country, and who by means of an alien code deprived the poor freeholder or copyholdcr of his land, or justified new and unheard-of exactions on the part of his lord on the plea that the latter might do what he liked with his own, were regarded by the peasant and humble man as robbers whose depredations were, if anything, even more resented than those of their old and tried enemy — the plundering knight.
The priest, especially of the regular orders, was indeed an old foe, but his offence had now become very rank. From the middle of the fifteenth century onwards the stream of anti-clerical literature waxes alike in volume and intensity. The “monk” had become the object of hatred and scorn throughout the whole lay world. This view of the “regular” was shared, moreover, by not a few of the secular clergy themselves. Humanists, who were subsequently ardent champions of the Church against Luther and the Protestant Reformation — men such as Murner and Erasmus had been previously bitterest satirists of the “friar” and the “monk”. Amongst the great body of the laity, however, though the religious orders came perhaps for the greater share of animosity, the secular priesthood was not much better off in popular favour, whilst the upper members of hierarchy were naturally regarded as the chief blood-suckers of the German people in the interests of Rome. The vast revenues which both directly in the shape of pallium, the price of “investiture”), annates (first year’s revenues of appointments, Peter’s Pence, and recently of indulgences — the latter the by no means most onerous exaction, since it was voluntary, though proving as it happened the proverbial “last straw “ — all these things, taken together with what was indirectly obtained from Germany, through the expenditure of German ‘ecclesiastics on their visits to Rome and by the crowd of parasites, nominal holders of German benefices merely, but real recipients of German substance, who danced attendance at the Vatican — obviously constituted an enormous drain on the resources of the country from all the lay classes alike, of which wealth the papal chair could be plainly seen to be the receptacle.
If we add to these causes of discontent the vastness in number of the regular clergy, the “friars” and “monks” already referred to, who consumed, but were only too obviously unproductive, it will be sufficiently plain that the Protestant Reformation had something very much more than a purely speculative basis to work upon. Religious reformers there had been in Germany throughout the Middle Ages, but their preachings had taken no deep root. The powerful personality of the Monk of Wittenberg found an economic soil ready to hand in which his teachings could fructify, and hence the world-historic result. As we saw in the former volume of this history, the peasant revolts, sporadic the Middle Ages through, had for the half-century preceding the Reformation been growing in frequency and importance, but it needed nevertheless the sudden impulse, the powerful jar given by a Luther in 1517, the series of blows with which it was followed during the years immediately succeeding, to crystallise the mass of fluid discontent and social unrest in its various forms and give it definite direction. The blow which was primarily struck in the region of speculative thought and ecclesiastical relations did not stop there in its effects. The attach on the dominant theological system — at first merely on certain comparatively unessential outworks of system — necessarily of its own force developed into an attack on the organisation representing it, and on the economic basis of the latter. The battle against ecclesiastical abuses, again, in its turn, focussed the ever-smouldering discontent with abuses in general; and this time, not in one district only, but simultaneously over the whole of Germany. The movement inaugurated by Luther gave to the peasant groaning under the weight of baronial oppression, and the small handicraftsman suffering under his Eharbarkeit, a rallying point and a rallying cry.
In history there is no movement which starts up full grown from the brain of any one man, or even from the mind of any one generation of men, like Athene from the head of Zeus. The historical epoch which marks the crisis of the given change is after all little beyond a prominent landmark — parting of the ways — led up to by a long preparatory development. This is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the Reformation and its accompanying movements. The ideas and aspirations animating the social, political and intellectual revolt of the sixteenth century can each be traced back to, at least, the beginning of the fifteenth century, and in many cases farther still. The way the German of Luther’s time looked at the burning questions of the hour was not essentially different from the way the English Wycliffites and Lollards or the Bohemian Hussites and Taborites viewed them. There was obviously a difference born of the later time, but this difference was not, I repeat essential. The changes which, a century previously, were only just be beginning, had, meanwhile, made enormous progress. The disintegration of the material conditions of mediaeval social life was now approaching its completion, forced on by the inventions and discoveries of the previous half-century. But the ideals of the mass of men, learned and simple, were still in the main the ideals that had been prevalent throughout the whole of the later Middle Ages. Men still looked at the world and at social progress through mediaeval spectacles. The chief difference was that now ideas which had previously been confined to special localities, or had only had a sporadic existence among the people at large, had become general throughout large portions of the population. The invention of the art of printing was of course largely instrumental in effecting this change.
The comparatively sudden popularisation of doctrines previously confined to special circles was the distinguishing feature of the intellectual life of the first half of the sixteenth century. Among the many illustrations of the foregoing which might be given, we are specially concerned here to note the sudden popularity during this period of two imaginary constitutions dating from early in the previous century. From the fourteenth century we find traces, perhaps suggested by the Prester John legend, of a deliverer in the shape of an emperor who should come from the East, who should be the last of his name; should right all wrongs; should establish the empire in universal justice and peace; and, in short, should be the forerunner of the kingdom of Christ on earth. This notion or mystical hope took increasing root during the fifteenth century, and is to be found in many respects embodied in the spurious constitutions mentioned, which bore respectively the names of the Emperors Sigismund and Friedrich. It was in this form that the Hussite theories were absorbed by the German mind. First of all, it was the eccentric and romantic Emperor Friedrich II. who was conceived of as playing the rôle in question. Later, the hopes of the Messianists of the “Holy Rooman Empire” were centred in the Emperor Sigismund. Later on still the rôle of the former Friedrich was carried over to his successor, Friedrich III., upon whom the hopes of the German people were cast.
The Reformation of Kaiser Sigismund, originally written about 1438, went through several editions before the end of the century, and was many times reprinted during the opening years of Luther’s movement. Like its successor, that of Friedrich, the scheme attributed to Sigmund proposed the abolition of the recent abuses of feudalism, of the new lawyer class, and of the symptoms already making themselves felt of the change from barter to money payments. It proposed, in short a return to primitive conditions. It was a scheme of reform on a Biblical basis, embracing many elements of a distinctly communistic character, as communism was then understood. It was pervaded with the idea of equality in spirit of the Taborite literature of the age, from which it dated its origin. The so-called Reformation of Kaiser Sigismund dealt especially with the peasantry — the serfs and villeins of the time; that attributed to Friedrich was mainly concerned with the rising population of the towns. All towns and communes were to undergo a constitutional transformation. Handicraftsmen should receive just wages; all roads should be free; taxes, dues and levies should be abolished; trading capital was to be limited to a maximum of 10,000 gulden; all surplus capital should fall to the imperial authorities, who should lend it in case of need to poor handicraftsmen at five per cent.; uniformity of coinage and of weights and measures was to be decreed, together with the abolition of the Roman and Canon law. Legists, priests and princes were to be severely dealt with. But, curiously enough, the middle and lower nobility, especially the knighthood, were more tenderly handled, being treated as themselves victims of their feudal superiors, lay and ecclesiastic, especially the latter. In this connection the secularisation of ecclesiastical fiefs was strongly insisted on.
As men found, however, that neither the Emperor Sigismund, nor the Emperor Friedrich III., nor the Emperor Maximilian, upon each of whom successively their hopes had been cast as the possible realisation of the German Messiah of earlier dreams, fulfilled their expectations, nay, as each in succession implicitly belied these hopes, showing no disposition whatever to act up to the views promulgated in their names, the tradition of the imperial deliverer gradually lost its force and popularity. By the opening of the Lutheran Reformation the opinion had become general that change would not come from above, but that the initiative must rest with the people themselves — with the classes specially oppressed by existing conditions, political, economic and ecclesiastical — to effect by their own exertions such a transformation as was shadowed forth in the spurious constitutions. These, and similar ideas, were now everywhere taken up and elaborated, often in a still more radical sense than the original; and they everywhere found hearers and adherents.
The “true inwardness” of the change, of which the Protestant Reformation represented the ideological side, meant the transformation of society from a basis mainly corporative and co-operative to one individualistic in its essential character. The whole polity of the middle ages, industrial, social, political, ecclesiastical, and based on the principle of the group or the community — ranging in hierarchical order from trade-guild to the town corporation; from the town corporation through the feudal orders to the imperial throne itself; from the single monastery to the order as a whole; and from the order as a whole to the complete hierarchy of the Church as represented by the papal chair. The principle of this social organisation was now breaking down. The modern and bourgeois conception of the autonomy of the individual in all spheres of life was beginning to affirm itself.
The most definite expression of this new principle asserted itself in the religious sphere. Individualism which was inherent in early Christianity, but which was present as a speculative content merely, had not been strong enough to counteract even the remains of corporate tendencies on the material side of things, in the decadent Roman Empire; and infinitely less so the vigorous group-organisation and sentiment of the northern nations, with their tribal society and communistic traditions still mainly intact. And these were the elements out of which mediaeval society arose. Naturally enough the new religious tendencies in revolt against the mediaeval corporate Christianity of the Catholic Church seized upon this individualistic element in Christianity, declaring the chief end of religion to be a personal salvation, for the attainment of which the individual himself was sufficing, apart from Church organisation and Church tradition. This served as a valuable destructive weapon for the iconoclasts in their attack on ecclesiastical privilege; consequently, in religion, this doctrine of Individualism rapidly made headway. But in more material matters the old corporative instinct was still too strong and the conditions were as yet too imperfectly ripe for the speedy triumph of Individualism.
The conflict of the two tendencies is curiously exhibited in the popular movements of the Reformation time. As enemies of the decaying and obstructive forms of Feudalism and Church organisation, the peasant and handicraftsman were necessarily on the side of the new Individualism. So far as negation and destruction were concerned, they were working apparently for the new order of things that new order of things which longo intervallo has finally landed in the developed capitalistic Individualism of nineteenth century. Yet when we come to consider their constructive programmes we find the positive demands put forward are based either on ideal conceptions derived from reminiscences of primitive communism, or else that they distinctly postulate a return to a state of things — the old mark organisation — upon which the later feudalism had in various ways encroached, and finally superseded. Hence, they were, in these respects, not merely not in the trend of contemporary progress, but in actual opposition to it; and therefore, as Lasalle justly remarked, they were necessarily and any case doomed to failure in the long run. This point should not be lost sight of in considering the various popular movements of the earlier half of the sixteenth century. The world was still essentially mediaeval; men were still dominated by mediaeval ways of looking at things and still immersed in medieval conditions of life. It is true that out of this mediaeval soil the new individualistic society was beginning to grow, but its manifestations were as yet not so universally apparent as to force a recognition of their real meaning. It was still possible to regard the various symptoms of change, numerous as they were, and far-reaching as we now see them to have been, as sporadic phenomena, as rank but unessential overgrowths on the old society, which it was possible by pruning and the application of other suitable remedies to get rid of, and thereby to restore a state of pristine health in the body political and social.
Biblical phrases and the notion of Divine justice now took the place in the popular mind formerly occupied by Church and Emperor. All the then oppressed classes of society — the small peasant, half villein, half free-man; the landless journeyman and town-proletarian; the beggar by the wayside; the small master, crushed by usury or tyrannised over by his wealthier colleague in the guild, or by the town-patriciate; even the impoverished knight, or the soldier of fortune defrauded of his pay; in short, all with whom times were bad, found consolation for their wants and troubles, and at the same time an incentive to action, in the notion of a Divine Justice which should restore all things, and the advent of which was approaching. All had Biblical phrases tending in the direction of their immediate aspirations in their mouths. As bearing on the development and propaganda of the new ideas, the existence of a new intellectual class, rendered possible by the new method of exchange through money (as opposed that of barter), which for a generation past had been in full swing in the larger towns, had not been forgotten. Formerly land had been the essential condition of livelihood; now it was no longer so. The “universal equivalent,” money, conjoined with the printing press, was rendering a literary class proper, for the first time possible. In the same way the teacher, e small lawyer were enabled to subsist as followers of independent professions, apart from the special service of the Church or as part of the court-retinue of some feudal potentate. To these we must add a fresh and very important section of the intellectual class which also now for the first time acquired an independent existence — to wit, that of the public official or functionary. This change, although only one of many, is itself specially striking as indicating the transition from the barbaric civilisation of the Middle Ages to the beginnings of the civilisation of the Modern World. We have, in short, before us, as already remarked, a period in which the Middle Ages, whilst still dominant, have their force visibly sapped by the growth of a new life.
To sum up the chief features of this new life: Industrially, we have the decline of the old system of production in the countryside in which each manor or, at least, each district, was for the most part self-sufficing and self-supporting, where production was almost entirely for immediate use, and only the surplus was exchanged, arid where such exchange as existed took place exclusively under the form of barter. In place of this, we find now something more than the beginnings of a national-market and distinct traces of that of a world-market. In the towns the change was even still more marked. Here we have a sudden and hothouse-like development of the influence of money. The guild system, originally designed for associations of craftsmen, for which the chief object was the man and the work, and not the mere requirement of profit, was changing its character. The guilds were becoming close corporations of privileged capitalists, while a commercial capitalism, as already indicated, was raising its head in all the larger centres. In consequence of this state of things, the rapid development of the towns and of commerce, national and international, and the economic backwardness of the countryside, a landless proletariat was being formed, which meant on the one hand an enormous increase in mendicancy of all kinds, and on the other the creation of a permanent class of only casually-employed persons, whom towns absorbed indeed, but for the most part with a new form of citizenship involving only the bare right of residence within the walls. Similar social phenomena were of course manifesting themselves contemporaneously in other parts of Europe; but in Germany the change was more sudden than elsewhere, and was complicated by special political circumstances.
The political and military functions of that for the mediaeval polity of Germany, so important class, the knighthood, or lower nobility, had by this time become practically obsolete, mainly owing to the changed conditions of warfare. But yet the class itself was numerous, and still, nominally at least, possessed of most of its old privileges and authority. The extent of its real power depended, however, upon the absence or weakness of a central power, whether imperial or state-territorial. The attempt to reconstitute the centralised power of the empire under Maximilian, of which the Reichsregiment was the outcome, had, as we have seen, not proved successful. Its means of carrying into effect its own decisions were hopelessly inadequate. In 1523 it was already weakened, and became little more than a “survival” after the Reichstag held at Nürnburg in 1524. Thus this body, which had been called into existence at the instance of the most powerful estates of the empire, was “shelved” with the practically unanimous consent of those who had been instrumental in creating it. But if the attempt at imperial centralisation had failed, the force of circumstances tended partly for this very reason to favour state-territorial centralisation. The aim of all the territorial magnates, the higher members of the imperial system, was to consolidate their own princely power within the territories owing them allegiance. This desire played a not unimportant part in the establishment of the Reformation in certain parts of the country — for example, in Würtemberg, and in the northern lands of East Prussia which were subject to the Grand Master of the Teutonic knights. The time was at hand for the transformation of the medieval feudal territory, with its local jurisdictions and its ties of service, into the modern bureaucratic state, with its centralised administration and organised system of salaried functionaries subject to a central authority.
The religious movement inaugurated by Luther met and was absorbed by all these elements of change. It furnished them with a religious flag, order cover of which they could work themselves out. This was necessary in an age when the Christian theology was unquestioningly accepted in one or another form by well-nigh all men, and hence entered as a practical belief into their daily thoughts and lives. The Lutheran Reformation, from its inception m 1517 down to the Peasants War of 1525, at once absorbed, and was absorbed by, all the revolutionary elements of the time. Up to the last-mentioned date it gathered revolutionary force year by year. But this was the turning point. With the crushing of the peasants’ revolt and the decisively anti-popular attitude taken up by Luther, the religious movement associated with him ceased any longer to have a revolutionary character. It henceforth became definitely subservient to the new interests of the wealthy and privileged classes, and as such completely severed itself from the more extreme popular reforming sects. Up to this time, though by no means always approved by Luther himself or his immediate followers, and in some cases even combated by them, the latter were nevertheless not looked upon with disfavour by large numbers of the rank and the of those who regarded Martin Luther as their leader. Nothing could exceed the violence of language with which Luther himself attacked all who stood in his way. Not only the ecclesiastical, but also the secular heads of Christendom came in for the coarsest abuse; “swine” “water-bladder” are not the strongest epithets employed. But this was not all; in his Treatise on Temporal Authority and how far it should be Obeyed published in 1523), whilst professedly maintaining the thesis that the secular authority is a Divine ordinance, Luther none the less expressly justifies resistance to all human authority where its mandates are contrary to “the word of God”. At the same time, he denounces in his customary energetic language the existing powers generally. Thou shouldst know,” he says “that since the beginning of the world a wise prince is truly a rare bird, but a pious prince is still more rare. They (prince’s) are mostly the greatest fools or the greatest rogues on earth; therefore must we at all times expect from them the worst, and little good.” Farther on, he proceeds: “The common man begetteth understanding, and the plague of the princes worketh powerfully among the people and the common man. He will not, he cannot, he purposeth not, longer to suffer your tyranny and oppression. Dear princes and lords, know ye what to do, for God will no longer endure it? The world is no more as of old time, when ye hunted and drove the people as your quarry. But think ye to carry on with much drawing of sword, look to it that one do not come who shall bid ye sheath it, and that not in God’s name!’ again, in a pamphlet published the following year, 1524, relative to the Reichstag of that year, Luther proclaims that the judgment of God already awaits “the drunken and mad princes”. He quotes the phrase: “Deposuit potentes de sede” (Luke i.52), and adds “ that is your case, dear lords, even now, when ye see it not"! After an admonition to subjects to refuse to go forth to war against the Turks, or to pay taxes towards resisting them, who were ten times wiser and more godly than German princes, the pamphlet concludes with the prayer “May God deliver us from ye all, and of His grace give us other rulers"! Against such utterances as the above, the conventional exhortations to Christian humility, non-resistance, and obedience to those in authority, would naturally not weigh in a time of popular ferment. So, until the momentous year 1525, it was not unnatural that, notwithstanding his quarrel with Münzer and the Zwickau enthusiasts, and with others whom he deemed to be going “too far,” Luther should have been regarded as in some sort the central figure of the revolutionary movement, political and social, no less than religious.
But the great literary and agitator forces during the period referred to were of course either outside the Lutheran movement proper or at most only on the fringe of it. A mass of broadsheets and pamphlets, specimens of some of which have been given in a former volume (German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages, pp. 114-128), poured from the press during these years, all with the refrain that things had gone on long enough, that the common man, be he peasant or townsman, could no longer bear it. But even more than the revolutionary literature were the wandering preachers effective m working up the agitation which culminated in the Peasants War of 1525. The latter comprised men of all classes, from the impoverished knight, the poor priest, the escaped monk, or the travelling scholar, to the peasant, the mercenary soldier out of employment, the poor handicraftsman, or even the beggar. Learned and simple, they wandered about from place to place, in the market place of the town, in the common field of the village, from one territory to another, preaching the gospel of discontent. Their harangues were, as a rule, as much political as religious, and the ground tone of them all was the social or economic misery of the time, and the urgency of immediate action to bring about a change. As in the literature, so in the discourses, Biblical phrases designed to give force to the new teaching abounded. The more thorough-going of these itinerant apostles openly aimed at nothing less than the establishment of a new Christian Commonwealth, or, as they termed it, “the Kingdom of God on Earth”.
This vast agitation throughout Central Europe reached its climax in 1524, in the autumn and winter of which year definite preparations were in many places made for the general rebellion which was to break out in the following spring.
In describing the course of the movement known as the Peasants War, since there is no concerted campaign throughout the whole of the districts affected, to be recorded, it is impossible to preserve complete chronological order. The several outbreaks, though the result of a common agitation working upon a common discontent, engendered by conditions everywhere essentially the same, had each of them its own local history and its own local colour. There was no general preconcerted plan of campaign, and this, as we shall see, was the main cause of the comparatively speedy and signally disastrous collapse of the movement. The outbreaks occurred for the most part simultaneously or within a few days of each other, but the immediate cause was often some local circumstance, and no sufficient communication was kept up, even between districts where this would not have been difficult, while any concerted action between the peasant forces of north and central, or of central and southern Germany, was scarcely even thought of
Like all other movements of the time, that of the peasants and small townsmen had a strong infusion of religious sentiment based Christian theology. It was, it is true, primarily an economic and social agitation, but it had a strong religious colouring. The invocation of Christian doctrine and Biblical sentiments was no mere external flourish, but formed part of the essence of the movement. It must also be remembered that there was more than one side to the agitation; for example, the of Thomas Münzer, whose name most prominently associated with he social revolution of 1525, was confined to one town, and it is doubtful whether it was really accepted by all the insurrectionary elements, even in Mühlhausen, not to speak of the rest of Thuringia. There was undoubtedly a sub-conscious communistic element underlying the whole uprising, but for the most part it was little more than a sentiment which took no definite shape. While partially successful in impressing his teaching on the Thuringian revolt, Münzer it seems had little success in Franconia or in southern Germany. Indeed, the south Germans appear to have been actually averse to any definite utopistic idealism such as that of Thomas Münzer, and to have tended to confine themselves strictly to the limits of the celebrated “twelve articles”. It is, moreover, in the latter document, which certainly comes from a south German source, that we find formulated the definite demands which constituted the practical basis of the movement generally. In the “twelve articles” we have expressed undoubtedly the ideas and aspirations of the average man throughout Germany who took part in the movement. What went beyond these demands was mere vague sentiment, in which possibly the average man shared but which did not take definite shape in his mind. In this remarkable document, the precise authorship of which is matter of conjecture only, we have unquestionably the best expression of the average public opinion of the “peasant” of Central Europe in the first half of the sixteenth century.