We come now to speak of the figure most prominently associated by tradition and the popular mind with the Peasants War. In the view of most persons, the whole movement that we are describing centres in the figure of the schoolmaster and preacher who came from Stolberg in the Hartz Mountains. For weal or for woe, history seems to have indelibly stamped the last great peasant revolt of the Middle Ages with the name of Thomas Münzer. Yet it may be fairly doubted whether the stupendous influence on the events of the year 1525 attributed by historical tradition to the personality in question has not been very much exaggerated.
That Münzer, in the winter of 1524-5, made a tour of agitation through central and southern Germany, including those districts where the revolt earliest broke out, is undoubtedly true, but we find, if we analyse the accounts, that the reception of his preaching was by no means everywhere encouraging. Thus Melancthon, in his pamphlet Historia Thoma Müntzers, etc., expressly states that the Franconians, who, as we have seen, played such a zealous and important part in the movement, would have none of Münzer or his doctrine. It is, of course, perfectly true that the object of the malignant toady Melancthon in writing this political manifesto, was to curry favour with the victorious princes and to defame Münzer’s character. But, seeing that the whole trend of the work in question is to display Münzer in the role of a powerful and dangerous demagogue, as, in fact, a kind of arch-fiend of rebellion, Melancthon can have had no conceivable object in making the above statement. Moreover, a statement of this kind, not referring to an obscure episode in a man’s life, but to his public activity of a few months before, if untrue, must have been so notoriously untrue as not to have been worth the stating. Hence, in the absence of rebutting evidence which does not seem forthcoming, we can hardly do otherwise than accept it. Other accounts, which speak of Münzer’s influence in south Germany, especially in the Klettgau and the Hegau, leave it uncertain how far they refer to Münzer himself and how far to those preaching similar doctrines — doctrines unquestionably in the air at the time, and not exclusively ascribable to any single man.
Turning from Münzer as agitator to Münzer as thinker, the same tendency to exaggeration with otherwise accurate and sober-minded historians is often to be found. Münzer is represented as an embodiment not only of the practical movement of the time but also of its idealistic side. That he energetically championed the chiliastic notion of a Christian Commonwealth, then so generally prevalent amongst the thinking heads of the revolt, is true enough. But, on the other hand, we fail to discover in his extant writings anything more than vague aspirations towards it; there is certainly nothing approaching the originality of handling, and the elaboration of the idea, exhibited by Michacl Gaismayr. We find this even in the pamphlet where the social views of Münzer are most prominent, his “Emphatic Exposure of the False Belief of the Faithless World” (“Aussgetruckte emplossung des falschen Glaubens der ungetrewen Welt”), published at Mühlhausen late in 1524. Here also all we have is a vague expression of belief in the necessity of the establishment of a communistic society and in its approaching advent.
Münzer strikes us as before everything a theologian. This is noticeable in his pamphlets down to the very eve of the Peasants War. In the one on the ordering of the German mass at Allstatt, in another on the book of Daniel, and in an exposition of the nineteenth Psalm — the last published in 1525 — we see him most concerned to justify his ecclesiastical innovations and his theories respecting infant baptism, the Eucharist, and other edifying theological topics. He speaks, indeed, at times bitterly enough of the oppression of prince, noble and prelate, and of the right of the “common man” to rebel, but, we repeat, there is no evidence of any constructive theory beyond the most casual expressions. Of course, in saying this, we by no means forget that his main strength lay in his fervid oratory, and that his influence from this point of view was considerable. All we contend is that, as in so many historical cases, chance has played kindly with his fame, and has obtained for him credit for an influence, theoretical and practical, over the general movement of 1525 which the cold light of research hardly seems to justify.
Thomas Münzer appears to have been born in the last decade of the fifteenth century. An uncertain tradition states that his father was hanged by the Count of Stolberg. The first we hear of him with certainty is as teacher in the Latin school at Aschersleben and afterwards at Halle. Where he studied is doubtful, but by this time he had already graduated as doctor. In Halle he is alleged to have started an abortive conspiracy against the Archbishop of Magdeburg. In 1515 we find him as confessor in a nunnery and afterwards as teacher in a foundation school at Brunswick. Finally, in 1520, he became preacher at the Marienkirche at Zwickau, and here his public activity in the wider sense really began. The democratic tendencies previously displayed by him broke all bounds. He thundered against those who devoured widows’ houses and made long prayers and who at death-beds were concerned not with the faith of the dying but with the gratification of their measureless greed.
At this time Münzer was still a follower of Luther, but it was not long before he found him a lukewarm church-reformer. Luther’s bibliolatry, as opposed to his own belief in the continuous inspiration of certain chosen men by the Divine spirit, excited his opposition. He criticised still more severely as an unpardonable inconsistency Luther’s retention of certain dogmas of the old Church whilst rejecting others. He now began to study with enthusiasm the works of the old German mystics, Meister Eck and Johannes Tauler, and more than all those of Joachim Floras, the Italian enthusiast of the twelfth century. A general conviction soon came uppermost in his mind of the necessity of a thorough revolution alike of Church and State.
His mystical tendencies were strengthened by contact with a sect which had recently sprung up amongst the clothworkers of Zwickau, and of which one Nicholas Storch, a master clothworker, was corypheus. The sect in question lived in a constant belief in the approach of a millennium to be brought about by the efforts of the “elect”. Visions and ecstasies were the order of the day amongst these good people. This remarkable sect influenced various prominent persons at this time. Karlstadt was completely fascinated by them. Melancthon was carried away; and even Luther admits having had some doubts whether they had not a Divine mission. The worthy Elector Friedrich himself would take no measures against them, in spite of the dangerous nature of their teaching from the point of view of political stability. He was afraid, as he said “lest perchance he should be found fighting against God”.
It was not long before Münzer allied himself with these “enthusiasts,” or “prophets of Zwickau,” as they were called. When the patrician council at Zwickau forbade the cloth-workers to preach, Münzer denounced the ordinance and encouraged them to disobey it. New prohibitions followed, culminating in prosecutions and imprisonments. The result was that, by the end of 1521, the cloth-working town had become too hot to hold the new reformers. Some fled to Wittenberg, and others, including Münzer himself, into Bohemia. Arrived in Prague, Münzer posted up an announcement in Latin and German that he would “like that excellent warrior of Christ, Johann Huns, fill the trumpets with a new song”. He proceeded in his addresses to denounce the clergy, and to prophesy the approaching vengeance of heaven upon their order. He here also preached against the “dead letter,” as he called it, of the Bible, expounding his favourite theory of the necessity of believing in the supplemental inspiration of all elect persons. But the soil of Bohemia proved not a grateful one. It had been exhausted by over a century of religious fanaticism and utopistic dreams of social regeneration.
The next we hear of Münzer is as preacher at Alstatt in Thuringia. Allstatt was the scene of his great Church reformation, in defence of which he published a pamphlet. The whole seance was conducted in the German language. All the books of the Bible were read and expounded in their order, instead of the isolated passages used in the Roman ritual. His success here was immense. Crowds streamed to hear him from the neighbouring towns and villages. He soon counted not a few theologians and other learned persons amongst his adherents. Great was the rush from all sides to listen to the popular preacher. As Münzer himself has it, “the poor thirsty folk did so yearn for the truth that all the streets were full of people come to hear it”.
He was still, up to the spring of 1523, almost entirely a drastic Church reformer rather than a political or social revolutionist. He wrote repeatedly to the Elector Friedrich of Saxony and to his brother, Duke Johann, exhorting them as his “dearest, must beloved rulers,” and warning them not to he deceived by hypocritical priests, but to boldly take their stand on the Gospel. Finding that his admonitions to those in authority produced no immediate effect, he turned with increasing zeal to the “common man”. Although the religious side of Münzer’s character probably remained the most prominent to the end, the political side now came distinctly to the fore. He founded a secret society at Allstatt pledged by a solemn oath to labour unceasingly for the promotion of the new kingdom of God on earth, a kingdom to be based on the model of the primitive Christian Church as he supposed it to have been. Freedom and equality must reign here. The princes and the great ones of the earth refused to espouse the cause of the new Gospel. Hence, they must be overthrown, and the “common man”, who was prepared to embrace the Gospel, must be raised up in their place. He who would not become a citizen of the kingdom of God must be banished or killed. The great barrier to the awakening of the inward light was the riches of this world. Hence, in the kingdom of God, private wealth should cease to be, and all things should be in common.
Münzer now began to send out missionaries to different parts of Germany, and soon after established a special printing press in Allstatt for the publication of the pamphlets he was issuing. Whilst at this town he also, like Luther, married an escaped nun. As a result of his preaching against the worship of images, a chapel, a well-known place of pilgrimages near Allstatt, was burned to the ground. Called to account for this by Duke Johann, those responsible, Münzer at their head, refused to appear to answer for their action, justifying themselves by texts out of the Old Testament.
Finally, Elector Friedrich and Duke Johann came in person to the castle at Allstatt, where they summoned Münzer to preach before them and expound the doctrines that seemed so subversive of “social order”. Münzer, obeying the summons, delivered an impassioned sermon, well stocked with Biblical quotations. In this discourse he vehemently demanded the death of all priests and monks who perverted the people and who stigmatised the Gospel preached by him as heresy. The godless, he said, had no right to live. If the princes refused themselves to exterminate the godless, God would take the sword from them and accomplish the work through others. He then proceeded to attack such social evils of the times as usury, oppression by princes and lords, and the appropriation by them of what of right belonged to the “common man,” the fish in the water, the fowls of the air, the produce of the soil. While professing to protect the commandments of God, one of which said “Thou shah not steal,” they themselves robbed without mercy the poor husbandmen and the poor craftsman. If the latter in their turn committed ought, be it never so little, against the property of their lords, they must forsooth hang for it. To all this iniquity, said he, your Doctor Liar — his favourite sobriquet for Luther — saith Amen.
The effect on his princely hearers may be imagined, an effect that was enhanced when Münzer immediately caused his discourse to be printed and circulated amongst their liege subjects. It does not appear that even now the mild and benevolent-minded prince-elector took any action, but Duke Johann at once ordered the printer to quit the territory. Münzer, in a document dated the 13th of July, 1524, protests against the attempt to prevent his freely expounding the doctrines with which the Divine Spirit had inspired him. He refused the invitation of Luther to debate with him at Wittenberg, alleging the undue influence of Luther’s party in that town. He would not, he said, preach in a corner, but only before the people.
The new doctrines were now gall and wormwood to Luther, who had hurried hack from the Wartburg in the spring of 1523, on learning of the turn things were taking in Wittenberg owing to the doctrines of the Zwickau enthusiasts. In imminent fear of the Reformation getting beyond his control, he had succeeded by his strong personality and authority in stemming the tide, but only after he had made some outward concessions, at least, to the new tendencies. Thus, the German mass, the total abolition of images, and other innovations introduced by Karlstadt and his friends were reluctantly adopted by Luther. But the new political and social doctrines, represented by Münzer, Luther could not away with. In a letter to his patron, the prince-elector, against the rebellious spirit abroad, Luther entreats the princes to banish these unruly prophets. “Let them keep their hands still,” said he, “or straightway be cast out of the land. Thus should he the speech of princes to the prophets. For Satan worketh through these misguided spirits.” Münzer, not without reason, retorted on Luther that he (Luther) wished to hand over the Church he had torn from the Pope to the secular princes, and that he himself would fain be the new Pope. Luther’s little dog, Melancthon, wrote to his friend Spalatin in tones of unctuous horror that the new preachers would make worldly politics of the Gospel. Territorial lords forbade their villeins to attend Münzer’s preachmg.
A false disciple at this time betrayed Münzer’s secret propagandist organisation to the authorities. The result was the citation of Münzer to the castle at Weimar once more to give an account of himself before the princes, this time on a direct accusation of incitement to rebellion. He went alone and ably defended himself when confronted with passages from his published tracts. The prince-elector still maintained his unwillingness to take active measures against the new doctrines, preferring, as he expressed it, to take his staff in hand and quit for ever his ancestral territories rather than risk doing aught against the will of God. Certainly, Prince Friedrich of Saxony is one of the very few potentates in history of whose complete sincerity and single-mindedness we can have no reasonable doubt. His brother, however, Duke Johann, and the councillors, threatened Münzer with peremptory expulsion from the land should he continue his present course. Münzer was then dismissed. As he descended from the castle he met one of his friends who was in the princely service. “How hath it gone with thee?” asked the latter. “It hath so gone with me,” replied Münzer, “that I must needs seek another principality.”
Münzer hurried hack to Allstatt, but only to find that the sworn enemy of the Reformation, the aggressively Catholic Duke George of Saxony, had interposed, demanding of the elector his deliverance into his hands, and threatening to interfere by force of arms if he were longer allowed to remain at Allstatt. At last the elector gave way to the extent of issuing an order to the town council of Allstatt to direct Münzer to leave that place. Münzer immediately quitted Allstatt for the neighbouring imperial city of Mühlhausen. This city, like the other Thuringian towns, notably Erfurt, had been profoundly excited by the events of the Reformation. Münzer here encountered the man who was destined to be his colleague in the noteworthy historical events that followed. This was Heinrich Pfeiffer, who was originally a monk in a neighbouring monastery, and had Luther-wise cast his cowl. He preached the new doctrines, first of all, in the territory of the Archbishop of Mainz. Driven thence he returned to his native town. Here he further carried on the work of a popular preacher and agitator.
One Sunday, as the public crier summoned the burghers to partake of beer and wine, he stood upon the stone when the crier quitted it, shouting: “Hear me, ye citizens; I will offer you another drink”. He proceeded abusing the clergy, monks and nuns in the usual church reformer’s manner. His discourse exciting attention, he promised to preach again from the same place next day. The city council in vain summoned him before them, he replying that he would first keep his word and deliver the promised speech. At its close, he deigned to appear at the Rathhaus, but accompanied by such a formidable crowd of sympathisers that the council (Rath) feared to take immediate steps against him.
Pfeiffer continued to preach at Mühlhausen, and his adherents increased every day. He now boldly demanded a guard of honour from the council, to ensure his safety from the enemies of the Gospel. This being naturally refused, he again ascended the stone of the public crier, and challenged the immense crowd assembled to indicate by holding up their hands their determination to stand by him and the Gospel. A forest of hands appeared in response. The matter now shaped itself as a conflict between the town population, zealous supporters of Pfeiffer, and the patrician council as zealous upholders of the old order in Church and State.
Pfeiffer soon became convinced of the need for a radical reformation of the council. What happened in other towns happened also in Mühlhausen. A non-official council or committee of the citizens was formed to oppose the Rath. Pfeiffer’s chief claim was that the churches should cease to be the exclusive appanage of members of the “Teutonic Order”, but should be occupied by competent preachers of the new doctrines. The Rath finally took the step of driving Pfeiffer from the town. A short time afterwards, however, he seems to have returned. The iconoclastic zeal of the citizens now took the form of the destruction of pictures and ornaments in the churches, but Pfeiffer appears to have taken little part in this action. His chief interest henceforth was the reform of the town government.
On the 24th of August, 1524, he was again driven from Mühlhausen. He now turned to the environs and the peasants. A document containing twelve “articles” was drawn up by him and presented to the Rath. The articles were probably the same as those which Münzer laid before his own contingent, claiming the confiscation of all the landed property of the Church, the abolition of corvées, the annulment of feudal dues that could not show a prescription of two hundred years, and the freedom of the chase and of fishing. Reform of the criminal law was also demanded, with what amounted to the abolition of the arbitrary jurisdiction of the territorial feudal lords. Finally, the election of the city council by the body of the citizens was claimed, with the power of revoking mandates. Eligibility should not be confined to members of the Geschlechter or old patrician families; at least a certain number of the council were to be ordinary guildsmen.
Münzer now arrived in Mühlhausen and constituted himself the leader of the town proletariat, just as Pfeiffer was already the successful champion of the guildsmen or main body of the citizens against the patrician Rath. The diversity of interests between the two classes and between the ultimate aims of the two men caused a certain amount of friction in the popular movement. Pfeiffer, as a representative of the small middle class, desired the destruction of feudalism for middle class purposes, but does not appear to have had any communistic sympathies. Münzer, on the contrary, as we have already seen, was now nothing if not a prophet of the Christian Commonwealth, or Kingdom of God on earth, of which communism, as understood in the Middle Ages, was an essential element. Hence the patrician party was able to force the assent of the requisite number of the body of the citizens to Münzer’s expulsion. But that of Pfeiffer followed hard upon it, the Guildsmen having apparently become frightened at the intrusion of the extramural proletarians and the peasantry of the city territory into the movement. For it must not be forgotten that the two men, despite divergencies of ultimate purpose, worked hand in hand for the attainment of their immediate objects, Pfeiffer using the eloquence and energy of Münzer to increase the adherents of the revolutionary movement, and Münzer not unwillingly allowing himself to be guided by Pfeiffer’s sagacity in matters of organisation, tactics, and the present ends to be striven for.
The expulsion occurred in September, 1524 and was accompanied by the exodus of many adherents of the movement. Münzer now entered upon a period of several weeks’ travel, staying a short time in Nürnberg and then passing the winter in some part of south Germany. This tour, it has been, without doubt rightly, assumed, was of a propagandist character. Münzer certainly traversed various districts, possibly returning by way of Franconia. Pfeiffer, it is said, was back in Mühlhausen early in December, but it was certainly not before February, 1525, that Münzer again entered the gates of the imperial city. The powerful guild-following of Pfeiffer succeeded in effecting the latter’s recall. This success led the adherents of Münzer in and around the town to agitate on behalf also of their leader. Foremost amongst these was an enthusiastic master of the skinners’ guild, named Rothe, who, during his leader’s absence, kept together the poor journeymen and city proletarians constituting the bulk of Münzer’s following. On hearing the call of his disciples, Münzer hurried back to Thuringia. He was arrested on his way in the Fulda territory, but not being identified was released after a few days.
On his return, Münzer naturally found a strong opposition in the patrician party to his being allowed to preach, but his friends, who. had secured his re-admission to the city, reinforced by Pfeiffer’s party, proved strong enough to overcome it. Münzer now began a vigorous agitation in the suburbs and the open country round the town. Presently, crowds flocked through the gates from the adjacent districts.
The council, alarmed, suddenly ordered the gates to be shut, but it was too late. The partisans of Münzer paraded the town at night, raising seditious cries and even demanding in menacing terms the death of certain prominent representatives of the old families and members of the council. The next day saw a most numerous exodus of the town patriciate.
Both Pfeiffer and Münzer had already established their position in the town, the one having taken possession of the Church of St. Nicholas and the other that of St. Mary. As town preachers they had insisted on the right of being present at all council meetings — a claim that the affrighted councillors durst not gainsay. A few of the patrician party, from either fear or conviction, now joined the popular government. An armed assembly of the citizens was called for the purpose of taking a muster roll. The opportunity was seized by Pfeiffer and Münzer to persuade the people to overthrow the existing council altogether. By an overwhelming majority the council was deposed.
The new council was nominated, with the consent of those assembled, by the burgher committee already spoken of, which Pfeiffer had instituted some months previously. It received the name of the “Eternal Council,” a designation explained as implying that it should not, like its predecessor, be subject to a periodic renewal of a fourth of its members, but should continue to govern in its entirety until its mandate was formally revoked by the general assembly of the citizens. This explanation of the name is probably correct, but as the archives containing the constitution of this “Eternal Council” were destroyed in the events which followed, it is impossible now to determine its character precisely. The foregoing decisive stage in the Mühlhausen revolution was reached on the 17th of March, 1525. Pfeiffer and Münzer were henceforth practically dictators in their respective spheres, although they both remained in name merely the leading preachers of the two chief churches of the town. They attended all meetings of the new council, and important or doubtful points were, as a rule, referred to them to decide from the standpoint of the new religious doctrines. Pfeiffer probably exercised the greater influence within the town itself, whilst Münzer had the surrounding districts under his sway. Münzer endeavoured, moreover, it would seem, to keep in touch with the movements in other parts of Germany with which he had become acquainted in the course of his recent travels. His efforts in this direction were not crowned with any practical success, save in so far as Thuringia and the adjacent Hesse and Saxony were concerned.
Münzer now proceeded to put his communistic principles into practice on a small scale. The Johanniterhof, the foundation of the monks of St. John, was selected by him as a residence for himself and his chief disciples. The monks were turned out and the place reorganised on principles dictated by Münzer. Here the new religionists seemed to have lived in a manner after all not essentially different from that of a monastic order, — so true it is that the new, when it appears on the arena of history, almost uniformly adopts the garb of the old to which it opposes itself! Thus Christianity started first of all as a Jewish sect, and this it remained as long as its conscious opposition lay in Judaism. Later on, after it had spread throughout the Roman Empire, and after this opposition had been shifted to Paganism, it absorbed pagan doctrines, practices and rites wholesale, until in the final stage of the conflict in the fourth century there was little outwardly to distinguish the two.
To compare great things with small we find A similar phenomenon in the movement of English sectarian freethought, known as Secularism, which became popular some generations ago with some of the more intelligent of the lower middle and upper fringe of the working classes. This was supposed to be a protest against “church and chapel”. Yet the moment it began to organise itself positively as a cult, it unconsciously had to adopt the forms of Nonconformist services. Turning to things economic, we find similarly the rising middle class holding fast to guild regulations and to various other relics of feudal times long after its opposition to the feudal classes had been emphasised by more. than one violent crisis. So it will probably be in the future. When new socialistic conditions of society take the place of present conditions, it will doubtless be found that for a time production and distribution of social wealth will be carried on upon lines little more than a development of the most advanced economic forms of modern capitalism.
There are in all new movements a Scylla and a Charybdis; the one consists in the mistaking the swaddling-clothes derived from the old as a part of the essential garb of the new, and the other consists in the premature and too drastic attempt to rid the new of these very swaddling-clothes. This applies to all changes, be they primarily religious, political, intellectual, aesthetic or economic. Thus the original Judaic Christianity was in time sloughed off as a heresy — the Eblonite heresy. On the opposite, the pagan side, the same thing happened with Gnosticism and Montanism. In modern Socialism again, have the state-socialistic tendency known in this country as Fabianism, which hugs old bureaucratic forms, and, on the other hand, we have the anarchistic tendency, which would abruptly abolish all existing administrative organisations.
Of course, it may be objected that Münzer’s ideas were not new, that all medieval communistic theories issued in the long run in a species of monkery. This is true as far as the positive side of his teaching and action were concerned, but it must not be forgotten that the movements with which we are dealing, although on the positive side reactionary, as Lassalle justly pointed out, were on the negative side sufficiently in accord with the contemporary trend of social evolution. In fact, their failure definitely to break up the old feudal organisation contributed in a great measure to the backwardness of Germany for well-nigh three centuries, as compared with other countries of western Europe. Münzer’s communism was still-born, but his antagonism to feudal and ecclesiastical privileges became common-places of the democratic thought of a later age. Again, his insistence on the paramount nature of the “inner light” was simply a mystical way of asserting the right of private judgment against tradition, and also the rights of the individual within his own sphere against external authority — ideas that have likewise become the theoretical cornerstones of post-medieval progressive movements. Outside the Johanniterhof, Münzer’s communism at most extended itself to a distribution of corn and possibly other food-stuffs, and of pieces of cloth for the making of garments.
The new state of things attracted thousands of the country-folk into the town, where they were now gladly received. Münzer preached assiduously in the Marienkirche, and his sermons were followed by anthems sung by a choir of youths and maidens organised by himself, the words being taken from Old Testament exhortations and promises to the children of Israel.
The agitation, under Münzer’s auspices, soon spread from Mühlhausen to the neighbouring territories, as far as Erfurt, Coburg, and even into the Hesse Duchy and the neighbourhood of Brunswick. At the beginning of April, the country was everywhere aflame. The archiepiscopal city of Erfurt itself was at one time besieged by bands of peasants some three or four thousand strong. They were induced to disperse by a harangue from the popular preacher Eberlin. Here, as elsewhere, noblemen were compelled to enter the peasant brotherhood, amongst them the Counts von Hohenstein. One of them narrowly escaped being lynched for a veiled threat uttered in response to an observation by one of the peasant leaders.
All this time Münzer remained in Mühlhausen, although he was in constant communication with his agents, notably with certain of them in the mining districts of the Mansfeld territories. He issued an address to the miners, exhorting them to hold together in the common cause, which was now everywhere in the ascendant. His activity within the city showed itself in the casting of cannon of heavy calibre, and in the holding of the forces together. Pfeiffer, on his side, occupied himself with organising and drilling his partisans.
It is a mistake to suppose that during the two months’ régime of Münzer in Mühlhausen the whole town was animated by communistic sentiments. On the contrary, as Karl Kautsky has pointed out, Münzer’s sect formed at most a tolerated imperium in impero, the fighting strength of which, judging by the number of those who went out with Münzer to the final battle, amounted to not more than some three hundred men. The close union with Pfeiffer and his movement was caused by the exigencies of the situation and the necessity for the complete overthrow of the patrician party in the town. Pfeiffer was almost exclusively interested in the success of the local revolt. Münzer, on the other hand, with his visions of a universal social revolution, was one of the few leaders in the Peasants War who attempted to bring unity, at least so far as Germany was concerned, into the insurrection, by establishing organised communication between the different centres. That he failed was due to the conditions already alluded to under which the movement arose, and not, as far as we can see, to any fault on his part. The whole movement was essentially local, and the materials for an effective centralisation were nowhere at hand.
Meanwhile, the princes, the Landgraf of Hesse and Duke George Henry of Brunswick, with other minor potentates, had collected their resources with a determination to make a definite end of the Thuringian revolt. The followers of Pfeiffer and Münzer within the walls of Mühlhausen seem to have got restive and to have forced the hands of their chiefs. That Münzer’s hands were forced, if not Pfeiffer’s, admits of no doubt. He seems to have been well aware that matters were not yet ripe, and that the artisans and peasants at the disposal of the insurrection were inadequate to meet the army of trained fighting men that the princes were preparing to hurl against them. Finally, Pfeiffer, either unable to keep his men in hand, or having become otherwise convinced of the necessity for action, compelled Münzer to join him in a sortie. In this sortie the usual booty was obtained, but no permanent results were achieved.
A few days later, Pfeiffer, on his part, remained inactive at Mühlhausen, when the situation urgently demanded an expedition for the relief of the main camp at Frankenhausen some miles away. The position of this camp was itself unwise. The correct policy would obviously have been for the whole available insurgent strength, to have entrenched itself in the well-fortified imperial city and to have used this as a base. Münzer in vain endeavoured to effectually arouse the Mansfelders, notwithstanding that Frankenhausen was in close proximity to the Mansfeld mines. The encamped peasants by the usual trickery were lured into negotiations with Count Albrecht until the arrival of the princes with their overwhelming force. Münzer joined the peasant bodies outside Frankenhausen on the 12th of May. Two days later, the Landgraf of Hesse with the Duke of Brunswick came within striking distance, and their strength was reinforced within twenty-four hours, by the arrival of the Duke of Saxony with a large and well-disciplined body of troops.
In point of numbers the two camps were now nearly equal, being composed of about eight thousand men each. But, in the one case, they were finely-equipped men-at-arms, well-supported by artillery, while, in the other case, they were inexperienced, badly-armed rustics and poor citizens, with only one or two pieces of ordnance in their midst. The insurgents were entrenched on an elevation a short distance from the town behind a stockade of waggons.
For information respecting the course of the battle, which took place on the 15th of May, the usual source is the highly-coloured and partisan narrative of Melancthon in his well-known pamphlet on Münzer and the Thuringian revolt. Melancthon puts a speech into the mouth of Münzer, in which he bids his followers to have no fear, for that God would deliver their enemies into their hands, and guarantees that the bullets should not hurt them, for that he himself would catch them in the sleeve of his mantle. This speech was followed, according to the same account, with one from the Landgraf Philip to his men, in the course of which he deprecated the aspersions cast by the insurgent leaders upon princes, nobles and the authorities generally. On the attack being thereupon made by the Landgraf’s followers, it is stated that the peasants stood still singing the chorale, Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist (Now beseech we the Holy Ghost).
Another pamphlet, published the same year, 1525, implies that the princes and barons had given the insurgents a three hours’ truce to consider their terms of surrender, but that having gained over the Count von Stolberg and some other nobles, who had hitherto been forced into siding with the peasants, they proceeded at once to the attack, thereby taking their adversaries by surprise. The latter account is unquestionably the more reliable of the two, since it coincides with the general treatment of the revolted peasants by their treacherous oppressors.
The following account of the battle is based upon Zimmermann (iii., pp.776-781), who had opportunities of consulting the Mühlhausen archives and other manuscript sources.
Münzer marched with his men to the elevation above Frankenhausen, called to this day the Schlachtberg. The negotiations entered into by the princes had had a demoralising effect upon the peasant army. A full amnesty was promised if they would only hand over their leaders, among whom Münzer was specially singled out. The noblemen who had been forced to join the peasants were naturally the most zealous advocates of surrender. On seeing themselves surrounded by the hostile ordnance, the peasant army sent the three Counts, von Stolberg, von Rixleben, and von Wertern, into the princely camp. This was the occasion of the three hours’ truce already spoken of. Unconditional submission, with the surrender of Münzer, were the terms insisted upon. Two of the counts remained in the princely camp, and one returned to tell the tale. The party of surrender redoubled their efforts, a nobleman and a priest signalising themselves specially in their opposition to Münzer. The latter, still with his devoted bodyguard intact, and with a strong party amongst the other combatants, was able to cause the nobleman and priest to be beheaded. He then endeavoured to raise the enthusiasm of the camp by a discourse, denouncing the godless tyrants with more than his accustomed vehemence and adding allusions to Gideon, David, and other Biblical heroes, who with a small force of the chosen people had conquered hosts. This is the “bullet-catching” speech reported by Melancthon. He wound up, according to the same source, by pointing to a suddenly-appearing rainbow as a sign from heaven of their predestined triumph.
Whether the speech in question was genuine or was fabricated by Melancthon, the episode of the rainbow need not be doubted. In any case, Münzer succeeded in rousing his hearers to a momentary enthusiasm. They rejected the terms offered, and began to sing their hymn, the time of the truce not having yet expired. Suddenly the cannon of the princes thundered into the camp. Many looked upwards, says a contemporary manuscript quoted by Zimmermann, to behold whether help would not come from heaven. But before the legions of angels descended, the waggon-stockade was broken through, and “they were shot, pierced and miserably slain”. In a few minutes the peasant army was dispersed and in full flight in various directions. A small body held its own for a short time in a stone quarry, only to be ultimately overpowered.
The bulk of the fugitives made for the town of Frankenhausen, hotly pursued by a detachment of the Landgraf’s men-at-arms. Within the walls, the massacre was frightful, extending to churches, houses and monasteries, where refuge had been sought. The stream running through the chief street seemed turned to blood. More than five thousand peasants perished within a few hours, but, not yet satisfied, the princes had three hundred prisoners brought into the square before the Rathhaus to be beheaded, among them an old priest and his young assistant. The women of Frankenhausen begged for mercy for their husbands and brothers. This was accorded them on condition that they slew these two priests with their own hands.
According to the manuscript chronicle of Erfurt, “the Landgraf and Duke George delivered to the women a preacher and his assistant. They must perforce strike them dead with clubs, to the end that their husbands might remain in life. Therefore did the women in such wise beat them that their heads were like unto a rotten cabbage and the brains did cling unto the clubs. Thereupon were their husbands given unto them. The princes themselves did behold how this thing came to pass.” The singling out of the clericals as scapegoats was obviously dictated by the feeling that they were in a special sense traitors to the cause of the governing classes.
Münzer, upon whose head a price had been set, and who was amongst the fugitives who reached Frankenhausen, fled into a deserted house hard by the gate. Concealing himself here in a loft, he threw off some of his clothes, and, binding his head with the hope of rendering himself unrecognisable lay down on a bed. A knight’s servant, one of the pursuers, shortly afterwards entered the same house and discovered him in the loft. Münzer, whom he did not identify, pretended that he was ill of a ever, but the fellow’s plundering instincts led him to search the knapsack lying near. He found therein correspondence that revealed the identity of the apparently sick man, and he straightway apprised his master of his valuable discovery.
Münzer was seized and brought before the princes, who asked him why he had misled the poor people. He had done what he had done, he replied, because the princes persecuted the Gospel and sacrificed all to their avarice and lists. The young Landgraf then admonished him with the well-known quotations from Holy Writ as to the duty of obeying authority, to which admonitions Münzer made no reply. Thereupon he was handed over to the executioner to be tortured. In the midst of his suffering, on being once more reproached with having led his followers to destruction, he said with a grim smile, “They would not have it otherwise,” apparently referring to the premature action of the insurgents.
He was subsequently sent to his arch-enemy, Count Ernst von Mansfeld, who immured him in a dungeon in the tower at Heldrungen. Here he dictated his celebrated letter to the inhabitants of Mühlhausen, in which he certainly “backs down”. So much must be said in spite of the attempt of Zimmermann and other admirers of Münzer to give the letter a more favourable interpretation. He not merely deprecates any further attempts at insurrection, advice that might be dictated by the hopelessness of the situation, but confesses to having “seductively and rebelliously preached many opinions, delusions and errors concerning the Holy Sacrament . . . as also against the ordinances of the universal Christian Church”. Further, he confesses himself as dying as “a once again reconciled member of the Holy Christian Church,” praying God to forgive him his former conduct. The only redeeming passage is one that pleads for his wife and child, that they might not be deprived of his worldly goods.
The doubts suggested by Kautsky as to the genuineness of this letter are hardly tenable. It may have been to the interest of the princes that such a letter should have been written, and they may have terrorised him into writing it, in the same way as prison authorities may from time to time have terrorised innocent persons condemned to death into “confessing” and acknowledging the justice of their sentence”. But when Kautsky endeavours to impugn its having issued from Münzer by asking why he dictated it instead of writing it, the answer is sufficiently clear. A man who had so recently suffered the last extremities of the thumbscrew would hardly be able to write autograph letters.
The scandalous lack of solidarity among the peasants is particularly illustrated in this Thuringian revolt. Two important armed bodies which might well have turned the scale, heavy weighted as it was on the side of the nobles, were carousing not many miles away, when they ought to have been hastening to the assistance of their brethren at Frankenhausen.
Pfeiffer’s party in Mühlhausen. on the 19th of May, wrote a despairing letter to the Franconian insurgents, apprising them of the destruction of the Frankenhausen force and imploring them to come to their assistance. But it was of no avail. They had their own dissensions and their own local objects, with but little feeling for the general movement.
Meanwhile Münzer was taken from the tower at Heldrungen and brought for execution into the camp of the princes, which now lay before Mühlhausen itself. The imperial city was surrounded on three sides. Pfeiffer, who commanded in the town, was, in face of the imminent danger, beginning to lose his popularity. The demand for the unconditional surrender of the ringleaders, and especially of Pfeiffer, became increasingly favoured by the citizens. As breaches were made in the walls and the position seemed more and more hopeless, notwithstanding the heroic defence of Pfeiffer’s twelve hundred faithful followers, the public sentiment in favour of capitulation quickly gained the upper hand. Finally, on the 24th of May, seeing that all was lost, Pfeiffer escaped from the town with four hundred adherents, with the object of joining the Franconian insurgents.
The next day twelve hundred Mühlhausen women, with tattered clothes, bare feet and dishevelled hair, and five hundred virgins with mourning wreaths, streamed out of the gate leading to the princes’ camp, where they presented themselves to implore mercy for their native city. They were given bread and cheese, but were informed that the men themselves of the town must put in an appearance. This was done. A number of prominent citizens came, bareheaded and barefooted, with white staves in their hands, and kneeling three times before the assembled princes handed over the keys of the town. After the combined army had made its entry the citizens were compelled to deliver up their arms. The “Eternal Council” set up by Pfeiffer and Münzer was deposed, and the old patrician council reinstated. Executions followed, that of the bürgermeister amongst them. The chief fortifications were levelled with the ground. The imperial city was deprived of its freedom, and reduced to the status of a tribute-paying town. Weapons, treasure, horses were seized, and it was only spared a wholesale sacking by a ransom of 40,000 gulden.
On learning of Pfeiffer’s flight, the princes sent a body of horsemen in pursuit. They came up with his party near Eisenach, where, after a desperate resistance, Pfeiffer was taken with ninety-two of his men and brought back bound into the camp. They were all, or nearly all, instantly condemned to death and executed together, Pfeiffer scorning confession and sacrament, and dying without sign of fear or wavering. These facts regarding Pfeiffer are admitted even by his enemies.
Münzer, on the other hand, is accused by the same chroniclers of having shown up to the last a spirit of faltering and pusillanimity which, it must be admitted, accords with the tone of his Heldrungen letter. The badgering of their victim by the princes was significant. The Catholic Duke George of Saxony admonished him to repent of having forsaken his order and of having taken a wife. The young Lutheran Landgraf of Hesse told him that he had no need to repent of these things, but that what he had to repent of was his having led the people into rebellion. Münzer, in his turn, admitted that he had attempted matters beyond his powers, but urgently entreated the princes and nobles to deal more mercifully with their subjects, and to read diligently the Holy Scriptures, especially the books of Samuel and the Kings, and to take to heart the lesson, there related, as to the miserable end of tyrants.
After this speech he said no more, as he was awaiting the stroke of the executioner. He did not even break his silence on being challenged to recite the “Credo,” owing, as his enemies allege, to the extremity of his fear, or, as his friends suggest, to his contempt of the conventional usage. His head was struck off, and was fixed upon a long pole, as also was that of Pfeiffer, and his body was impaled.
After the defeat at Frankenhausen, and the surrender of Mühlhausen, the suppression of the revolt throughout the rest of Thuringia offered no great difficulty, and was largely effected by the individual princes and lords, each in his own territory. The plunder and devastation by the insurgents had not been less in Thuringia than elsewhere. As many as forty-six castles and monasteries lay in ruins. In the chief places the usual bloodthirsty executions followed. In Erfurt the old council was restored to office, and proceeded with merciless severity against all connected with the recent risings.
The battle of Frankenhausen is a landmark in the history of the Peasants War, and was synchronous within a few days with crushing defeats of the insurgents in other parts of Germany. The insurrection, which up to the beginning of May had, speaking generally, carried all before it, by that time had reached the turning-point, and its fortunes henceforward as steadily receded. In our next chapter we shall follow the disasters and the final extinction of the various movements, the rise and temporary success of which we have been describing.