Chapter II. The Outbreak of the Peasants War

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on March 21, 2013

THE growing discontent among the peasantry had led to many an attempt to curtail the right of assembly in the rural districts throughout Germany. These attempts were specially aimed at the popular merry-makings and festivals which brought the inhabitants of. Different parishes together. Weddings, pilgrimages, church-ales (kirchweihen), guild-feasts, etc., were sought to be suppressed or curtailed in many places. Even the ancient right of the village assembly was entrenched upon, or, in some cases, altogether withdrawn. But it was all of no avail. The fermentation continued to grow. From the spring of 1524 onwards, sporadic disturbances took place on various manors throughout the country. In many places tithes[1] were refused.

The first serious outbreak occurred in August, 1524, in the Rhine valley, in the Black Forest, at Stühlingen, on the domains of the Count of Lupfen, and the immediate cause is said to have been trivial exactions on the part of the countess. She required her tenants on some church holiday to gather strawberries and to collect snail shells on which to wind her skeins after spinning.[2] This slight impost evoked a spark that speedily became a flame running through all the neighbouring manors, where the various forms of corvée and dues were simultaneously refused. A leader suddenly appeared in one Hans Müller, a former soldier of fortune, who was a native of the village of Bulgenbach, belonging to the monastery of St. Blasien. A flag of the imperial colours, black, red and yellow, was made, and on St. Bartholomew’s Day, the 24th August, Hans Müller at the head of 1,200 peasants marched to Waldshut under cover of a church-ale which was being held in that town.

Waldshut, which constituted the most eastern of the four so-called “forest towns” — the others being Laufenburg, Säkingen and Rheinfelden — was, at this moment, in strained relations with the Austrian authorities.

The peasants fraternised with the inhabitants of the little town, and the first “Evangelical Brotherhood” sprang into existence.[3] Every member of this organisation was required to contribute a small coin weekly to defray the expenses of the bearers of the secret despatches, which were to be distributed far and wide throughout Germany, inciting to amalgamation and a general rising. Throughout the districts of Baden in the Black Forest, throughout Elsass, the Rhein, the Mosel territories, as far as Thuringia, the message ran: no lord should there be but the emperor, to whom proper tribute should be rendered, on the guarantee of their ancient rights, but all castles and monasteries should be destroyed together with their charters and their jurisdictions.

As soon as the news of the agitation reached the Swabian League, unsuccessful attempts at pacification were made. The Swabian League, it must be premised, was a federation of princes, barons and towns, whose function was keeping up an armed force for the main purpose of seeing that imperial decrees were carried out, and for preserving public tranquillity generally. It was really the only effective instrument of imperial power that existed. As we shall presently see, it was this Swabian League that chiefly contributed to crushing the peasant revolt throughout southern Germany. Meanwhile the forces of Hans Muller were growing, until by the middle of October well-nigh 5,000 men were ranged under the black, red and gold banner. At the same time, the troops at the disposal of the nobility within the revolting area were altogether inadequate to cope with the situation. In the districts of the Black Forest and elsewhere, the Italian War of Charles V. had drained off the best and most numerous of the fighting men.

After marching through the neighbouring districts with his peasant army, whose weapons consisted largely of pitchforks, scythes and axes, proclaiming the principles and the objects of the revolt, Hans Müller withdrew into a safe retreat in the neighbourhood of the village of Rietheim on learning that a small force of about a thousand men had been got together against him. The winter was now fast approaching, and it did not appear to the aristocratic party desirable for the time being to pursue matters any further in the direction of open hostilities. Accordingly Hans von Friedingen, the Chancellor of the Bishop of Constanz, with three other gentlemen, proceeded to the camp of the peasants to attempt a negotiation. They succeeded in persuading the insurgents to disperse on the understanding that the lords specially inculpated should agree to consider proposals from their tenants, and that, failing an agreement on this basis, the matters in dispute should be referred to an independent tribunal, the district court of Stockach being suggested. A basis of agreement drawn up between the Count of Lupfen and his tenants contains some curious provisions; while fishing was prohibited, a pregnant woman having a strong desire for a fish was to be supplied with one by the bailiff. Bears and wolves were declared free game, but the heads were to be reserved for the lord, and in the case of bears one of the paws as well. Meanwhile, the towns of northern Switzerland, in whose territories an agitation was also proceeding, began to get alarmed and to warn the Black Forest bands off their territories. Switzerland herself was at this time in the throes of the Reformation, and in the neighbouring lands of the St. Gallen Monastery a vehement agitation was going on. No attempt, however, was made by the German peasants to pass over into Swiss territory, although it seems to have been more than once threatened. Zürich, Schaffhausen, and other Swiss cantons, indeed, in the earlier phases of the Peasants War, endeavoured to effect a mediation between the peasants and their lords. They were partly afraid of the agitation taking dangerous form with their own peasants and partly regarded the movement as belonging to the religious reformation, which had now taken root in northern Switzerland.

The following articles were agreed upon as the basis of negotiation by the united peasants of the Black Forest and the neighbouring lands of Southern Swabia, which were also now involved in the movement:-

1. The obligation to hunt or fish for the lord was to be abolished, and all game, likewise fishing, was to be declared free.

2. They should no longer be compelled to hang bells on their dogs’ necks.

3. They should be free to carry weapons.

4. They should not be liable to punishment from huntsmen and forest rangers.

5. They should no longer carry dung for their lord.

6. They should have neither to mow, reap, hew wood, nor carry trusses of hay nor firewood for the uses of the castle.

7. They were to be free of the heavy market tolls and handicraft taxes.

8. No one should be cast into the lord’s dungeon or otherwise imprisoned who could give guarantees for his appearance at the judicial bar.

9. They should no longer pay any tax, due, or charge whatsoever the right to which had not been judicially established.

10. No tithe of growing corn should be exacted, nor any agricultural corvée.

11. Neither man nor woman should be any longer punished for marrying without the permission of his or her lord.

12. The goods of suicides should no longer revert to the lord.

13. The lord should no longer inherit where relations of the deceased were living.

14. All bailiff rights should be abolished.

15. He who had wine in his house should be at liberty to serve it to whomsoever he pleased.

16. If a lord or his bailiff arrested any one on account of a transgression which he was unable to prove with good witnesses, the accused should be set at liberty.

Such were the very moderate demands put forward by the peasants of the Black Forest districts, of the Klettgau, of the Hegau, and of the other manors associated with them. But the object of the feudal lords, as appears from the documents[4] which have subsequently come to light, was not peace on the basis of a fair understanding, but simply to hoodwink their tenants with the pretence of negotiations, until such time as they should have got together sufficient men to crush the rising and compel them to unconditional submission. The Archduke Ferdinand writes expressly as regards Georger Truchsess, Count of Waldburg, the chief commander of the forces of the Swabian League at this time, that he should “amicably treat with the peasants till he had collected his military forces together”. But it was not easy to obtain fighting men at this time. The struggle between the Emperor and Francis I., which was being fought out in Italy, was reaching its most critical stage, and nobles and soldiers of fortune alike were being drafted off south. By the end of 1524 Germany was almost denuded of the usual supply of men-at-arms at the disposal of constituted authority, and there seemed no immediate prospect of their returning.

Meanwhile, the movement in the country districts and the small towns was growing and spreading on all sides. The leader of the Black Forest peasants, Hans Müller of Bulgenbach, in his red hat and mantle, was everywhere active. He succeeded in collecting together another force of some 6,000 men under his flag, most of whom, however, shortly afterwards dispersed, leaving him with only a small residue of their number and some free-lances. The latter attacked and destroyed the castle of the Count of Lupfen, where the outbreak in August had originated. Other bands formed also in neighbouring territories. Truchsess, the generalissimo of the Swabian League, was not inactive. With the comparatively small force he had collected, he kept the peasants under observation, alternately negotiating with and threatening them. But as winter was near, comparatively little was done on either side. The peasant bands sacked a few monasteries; and the Austrian authorities at Ensisheim, between Colmar and Mühlhausen in Elsass — the official seat of the hereditary Hapsburg power in the west — succeeded in gathering a small force, with which they attacked a body of the insurgents, burning some homesteads and seizing cattle. The day originally fixed for the opening of the arbitration between the lords and their tenants was the day of St. John the Evangelist, the 27th of December. When, however, the peasant delegates found that the court was composed entirely of noblemen, they entered a protest, and the proceedings had to be adjourned until 6th January, 1525 (“Three Kings’ Day”). But the matter continued to grow more serious for the nobility, many of whom withdrew from their castles to Radolfzell and to other towns whose loyalty and means of defence offered sufficient guarantees of personal security. As many as three hundred clergy, some of them disguised as Landsknechte, and most of them with the tonsure covered, fled to Ueberlingen, on the Lake of Constanz.

The 6th of January came, and with it the delegations, not only of the peasants, but also, as had been agreed upon, of various towns lying within the disaffected districts; but neither the lords nor the representative of the Bishop of Constanz, appeared; consequently no court could be held, and matters remained in statu quo. Finally, on the 20th of January, what seems to have been a kind of informal meeting took place between Truchsess and some other representatives of the Austrian power on the one side and delegates from a section of the disaffected population on the other. Truchsess, by fair words and promises, succeeded in inducing a portion of those present to capitulate, but with the rest, notably with the inhabitants of the district called the Hegau, neither his promises nor his threats availed to make them consent to lay down their arms and disperse. They insisted upon their sixteen Articles, of which they refused to abate a single one. But the ruling classes now saw some prospect of acquiring an army sufficient to quell the threatened insurrection. The archduke had negotiated a loan from the Welsers of Augsburg, by means of which he was enabled to scour the country in the search for men-at-arms who might be willing to join the League’s forces under Truchsess. This was now being done with partial success, and there seemed a prospect of the League being able to take the field against the insurgent populations, if necessary, within a few weeks. On the 15th of February, Truchsess sent the Hegau bands an insolent and impossible ultimatum, with the threat to pursue them without mercy on their failing to accept his conditions. In a few days the whole neighbouring country was up in arms. But the instructions from Innsbruck, from the archduke, who after all was timid and did not know how to act, considerably impeded the operations of Truchsess.

An accidental circumstance at this time caused a diversion favourable to the threatening insurrection. Duke Ulrich of Würtemberg was a fugitive from his ancestral domains under the ban of the Empire. Compelled to leave Würtemberg in 1519, on the grounds of a family quarrel, which had been decided against him by the imperial authorities, he had in vain sought help from the Swiss Confederation to re-establish himself, and was now constrained to turn to the very peasants whom he had driven out of his territories on the suppression of the rising known as that of “the poor Conrad” in 1514 (cf. German Society, pp.75-77). As he himself expressed it, he was determined to come to his rights, “if not by the aid of the spur, by that of the shoe,” by which was meant, of course, that on the failure of the negotiations he was making with the knights and nobles of various districts, extending even to Bohemia, he was prepared to enter into a league with the rebellious peasants. In fact, he now adopted the affectation of signing himself “Utz Bur” (“Utz the Peasant”) — Utz being the short for Ulrich — instead of “Ulrich, Duke”. He had now established himself in his stronghold of Hohentwiel in Würtemberg, on the frontier of Switzerland. Negotiations with the disaffected had certainly been carried on over a wide extent of territory; and the imperial chancellor was emphatic in accusing Ulrich of fomenting the disorders.

Würtemberg, whose inhabitants, for the most part, detested the house of Austria, and, in spite of exactions and oppression, retained a certain feudal-patriotic affection for their hereditary overlord, was favourably disposed to his return. The opportunity seemed now to have arrived for a successful invasion of his patrimonial territory. His negotiations with the peasant bands were not wholly successful, since he was largely mistrusted by them. However, an arrangement was come to with Hans Müller of Bulgenbach, who arrived with a body of Black Forest and Hegau peasants to his assistance. In addition, he had engaged a large number of mercenaries from the northern Swiss cantons and elsewhere, so that by the end of February he was enabled to start on his campaign with an army of some 6,000 foot and 200 horse, besides a few pieces of artillery. But the Swabian League was beforehand with Duke Ulrich. At the instance of its commander George Truchsess, Count von Helfenstein seized Stuttgart, leaving a garrison within the walls, while the duke was slowly advancing. Truchsess rightly saw that, as capital of the duchy, Stuttgart was the key of the situation. The fact was that Ulrich had allowed his men to carouse too long on the way at the little town of Sindelfingen. Had he proceeded on to Stuttgart at once without stopping, he would probably have succeeded in entering his capital before Helfenstein. As it was, all he could do was. to lay siege to the town. To make matters worse for him, the news of the issue of the battle of Pavia, which was fought on the 24th of February, arrived. The signal victory obtained by the imperial forces decided the struggle between Charles V. and Francis I., which had until then been hanging in the balance. All whose interests, from whatever cause, were contrary to that of the emperor, Ulrich amongst the number, had naturally placed their hopes on the French king. These were now, of course, shattered. What was of more immediate importance was that the Archduke Ferdinand, as representing the victorious house of Austria and imperial power, had just seized the opportunity of insisting that the Swiss cantons should immediately order the return of their men, who were serving with the duke, on pain of outlawry and confiscation of goods. The cantons at this juncture did not dare to refuse the demand, and accordingly the order was issued; the Swiss free-lances, whose pay was in arrears, on its announcement, accompanied, it is said, by Austrian gold, promptly deserted and hurried back to their fatherland. Ulrich with his remaining forces was unable to continue the siege; indeed, he was glad enough in his turn to hurry back to his stronghold — his Hohentwiel — as quickly as possible. The Würtemberg peasants had not risen to his aid with the enthusiasm he had anticipated. Little as they might care for the Austrian regency in Würtemberg, the memory of “the poor Conrad,” and of their friends and relations who had been driven from house and home on the suppression of that movement eleven years before, was too recent for them to be especially eager to sacrifice themselves to reinstate the man primarily responsible for their troubles. Thus ended this attempt of Duke Ulrich to recover his territory by the aid of peasants and mercenaries. The whole episode from first to last occupied. little more than three weeks, but during this time it served to divert the attention of the Swabian League.

The Swabian peasants, as already mentioned, had begun to stir in the autumn of 1524, at about the same time as those of the Black Forest and the Lake of Constanz districts. In Swabia, the first overt signs of disaffection showed themselves in the lands of the abbey of Kempten, and the immediate occasion of them appears to have been the imprisonment and harsh treatment by the abbot of an old man, a tenant of the abbey, on the ground of a disrespectful expression he had let fall concerning him during the haymaking. The abbot’s despotic government of the manor had everywhere incensed the peasantry. The prince prelate, after having promised to consider the grievances in conjunction with other high personages on a given day, appeared indeed, and listened to the complaints laid before him, but it was only to give a categorical refusal to make any concession whatever. The result of his action was that those immediately concerned decided to call an assembly representing all the subjects of the extensive abbey territory, to lay the matter before them, and to consider what further course should be taken. On the 21st of January, a numerous assembly met together accordingly at a given place on the bank of the little stream called the Luibas, to take counsel as to further action. The little town of Kempten was in a ferment, part of the burghers sympathising with the peasants and part with the abbey.

The meeting, at which in addition to representatives of the whole countryside, some members of the town council (Rath) attended, kept its proceedings within the bounds of the strictest moderation, repudiating any hostile intentions with regard to the foundation, and finally decided to lay the dispute before a competent tribunal, all present pledging themselves and their respective villages to contribute to the cost of carrying it through. Three days later, the representatives met in Kempten itself, and chose a committee of their number to take steps in the matter. This committee immediately drew up a formal protest against the wrongs suffered from the abbot, which was forwarded to the council of the Swabian League and to the emperor. In this document was expressed the readiness of the villeins of the abbey to furnish all dues and all service to which the prince-prelate could establish his right by charter. On the other hand, it energetically protested against new and unjustifiable exactions and arbitrary oppressions, and prayed that the case might be laid before the supreme court of the district. The league, meanwhile, undertook to prevent their lord, the abbot, from taking any hostile steps against them pending the decision. The latter, however, immediately answered this protest by a letter addressed to the Swabian League, in which he accused his subjects of having entered into a conspiracy against the foundation and demanded armed intervention in his favour. The Councillors of the League, who were sitting in permanence at the imperial town of Ulm, temporised, promising to consider the grievances of the peasantry, and, should it prove impossible to effect an informal compromise, to see that the matter was legally decided by a competent authority.

By this time, the whole country north and south of Ulm was in a state of nascent insurrection. From Kempten northwards to the latter city, ecclesiastical foundations pressed hard on one another. Their tenants were everywhere desperately angry. In the district known from its swampy character as the Ried, a blacksmith named Schmidt constituted himself leader of the rising. In all the village inns thereabouts bodies of peasants daily came together to take counsel. On the 9th of February, a camp of some 2000 peasants was formed at a place called Leipheim. Another contingent was started which soon rose to nearly 13,000 men. Armed bodies of peasants were now forming themselves into camps throughout Southern Germany. The insurgents were divided into three main bodies — those of the Ried, of the Lake of Constanz districts, and of the Black Forest. In the course of the month, these divisions amalgamated into the so-called “Christian brotherhood”. The leaders of the movement assembled at the small town of Memmingen, where the “Peasants Parliament” was held at the beginning of March, where in all probability the celebrated “Twelve Articles” were drawn up, and where they were certainly adopted. Here also the most studied moderation was observed in the demands made and in the proceedings generally. The decisions arrived at this conference of Memmingen were sworn to by all the camps throughout the country. The restoration of ancient privileges, where these had been abrogated, was demanded, such as the ancient right to carry arms, together with that of free assembly.

On the same day on which the order of federation was adopted, the representatives at Memmingen addressed a formal letter to the Swabian League explaining that the action taken was in accordance with the Gospel and with Divine Justice. The Christian Brotherhood was to form the bond of organisation for the whole country. A president and four councillors were to be chosen from every camp or organised body of peasants. These should have plenary powers to enter into agreements with other similar camps or bodies, as well as in certain cases to negotiate with constituted authorities. No one was to enter into an agreement with his feudal lord without the consent of the whole countryside, and even where such consent was granted the tenants in question should nevertheless continue to belong to the Christian Brotherhood and to be subject to its decisions. Any who from any cause had to leave their native place should first swear before the headman of the district to do nothing to the hurt of the Christian Brotherhood, but to assist it by word and deed wherever necessary. The existing judicial functions should continue in exercise as before. Unbecoming pastimes, blasphemy and drunkenness should be forbidden, and all such offences duly punished. Lastly, no one should, from any cause whatever, undertake any action against his lord, or commit any trespass on his lands or goods, until a further decision had been taken. There was now, therefore, it will be seen, a definite organisation of the peasantry throughout the whole of the South German territories — an organisation prepared for action at any moment.

The Black Forest, the Duchy of Würtemberg, and Eastern or Upper Swabia were already organised. In the course of this month of March, the Episcopal territories of Bamberg, of Würtzburg, the Franconian districts generally, Bavaria, Tyrol, and the Arch-episcopal territories of Salzburg, rose — from Thuringia in the north to the Alpine lands in the south, from Elsass and Lorraine in the west to the Austrian hereditary dominions in the east, the whole of Central Europe was astir. The “common man” was everywhere in evidence. By the beginning of April, as though it had been concerted, the Peasants War had broken out throughout Germany.

Before giving a sketch of the chief incidents connected with the rising, we will cast a glance at the formulated demands represented in the “Twelve Articles,” at the different currents embodied in the movement, and at the men who were its intellectual heads — Weigand, Hipler, Karlstadt, Gaismayr, Hubmayer, reserving Münzer and Pfeiffer for a subsequent chapter.