The German Peasant War

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                ERNEST BELFORT BAX



            _First published in 1915_
             [_All rights reserved_]



The year following the collapse of Franz Sickingen’s rebellion saw the first mutterings of the great movement known as the Peasants’ War, the most extensive and important of all the popular insurrections of the Middle Ages, which, as we have seen in a previous chapter, had been
led up to during the previous half-century by numerous sporadic movements throughout Central Europe having like aims.

The Evangelical brotherhood

The first actual outbreak of the Peasants’ War took place in August 1524, in the Black Forest, in the village of Stühlingen, from an apparently trivial cause. It spread rapidly throughout the surrounding districts, having found a leader in a former soldier of fortune, Hans Müller by name. The so-called Evangelical Brotherhood sprang into existence.

On the new movement becoming threatening it was opposed by the Swabian League, a body in the interests of the Germanic Federation, its princes, and cities, whose function it was to preserve public tranquillity and enforce the Imperial decrees. The peasant army was armed with the rudest weapons, including pitchforks, scythes, and axes; but nothing decisive of a military character took place this year.

Meanwhile the work of agitation was carried on far and wide throughout the South German territories. Preachers of discontent among the peasantry and the former towns were everywhere agitating and organizing with a view to a general rising in the ensuing spring. Negotiations were carried on throughout the winter with nobles and the
authorities without important results. A diversion in favour of the peasants was caused by Duke Ulrich of Würtemberg favouring the peasants’ cause, which he hoped to use as a shoeing-horn to his own plans for recovering his ancestral domains, from which he had been driven on the grounds of a family quarrel under the ban of the empire in 1519. He now established himself in his stronghold of Hohentwiel,in Würtemberg, on the Swiss frontier.

Peasants’ Parliament

By February or the beginning of March peasant bands were organizing throughout Southern Germany. Early in March a so-called Peasants’ Parliament was held at Memmingen, a small Swabian town, at which the principal charter of the movement, the so-called “Twelve Articles,” was adopted.

This important document has a strong religious colouring, the political and economic demands of the peasants being led up to and justified by Biblical quotations. They all turn on the customary grievances of the time. The “Twelve Articles” remain throughout the chief Bill of Rights of the South German peasantry, though there were other versions of the latter current in certain districts.

What was said before concerning the local sporadic movements which had been going en for a generation previously applies equally to the great uprising of 1525. The rapidity with which the ideas represented by the movement, and in consequence the movement itself, spread, is marvellous. By the middle of April it was computed that no less than 300,000 peasants, besides necessitous townsfolk, were armed and in open rebellion.

Response of the Nobles

On the side of the nobles no adequate force was ready to meet the emergency. In every direction were to be seen flaming castles and monasteries. On all sides were bodies of armed countryfolk, organized in military fashion, dictating their will to the countryside and the small towns, whilst disaffection was beginning to show itself in a threatening manner among the popular elements of not a few important cities.

A slight success gained by the Swabian League at the Upper Swabian village of Leipheim in the second week of April did not improve matters. In Easter week, 1525, it looked indeed as if the “Twelve Articles” at least would become realized, if not the Christian Commonwealth dreamed of by the religious sectaries established throughout the length and breadth of Germany.

Princes, lords, and ecclesiastical dignitaries were being compelled far and wide to save their lives, after their property was probably already confiscated, by swearing allegiance to the Christian League or Brotherhood of the peasants and by countersigning the “Twelve Articles” and other demands of their refractory villeins and serfs. So threatening was the situation that the Archduke Ferdinand began himself to yield, in so far as to enter into negotiations with the insurgents.

In many cases the leaders and chief men of the bands were got up in brilliant costume. We read of purple mantles and scarlet birettas with ostrich plumes as the costume of the leaders, of a suite of men in scarlet dress, of a vanguard of ten heralds, gorgeously attired.

As Lamprecht observes
(Deutsche Geschichte, vol. v. p. 343):

“The peasant revolts were, in general, less in the nature of campaigns, or even of an uninterrupted series of minor military operations, than of a slow process of mobilization, interrupted and accompanied by continual negotiations with lords and princes–a mobilization which was rendered possible by the standing right of assembly and of carrying arms possessed by the peasants.”

Massacre of the knightly host

The smaller towns everywhere opened their gates without resistance to the peasants, between whom and the poorer inhabitants an understanding commonly existed. The bands waxed fat with plunder of castles and religious houses, and did full justice to the contents of the rich monastic wine-cellars.

Early in April occurred one of the most notable incidents. It was at the little town of Weinsberg, near the free town of Heilbronn, inWürtemberg. The town, which was occupied by a body of knights and men-at-arms, was attacked on Easter Sunday by the peasantbands, foremost among them being the “black troop” of that knightly champion
of the peasant cause, Florian Geyer. It was followed by a peasant contingent, led by one Jäcklein Rohrbach, whose consuming passion was hatred of the ruling classes. The knights within thetown were under
the leadership of Count von Helfenstein. The entry of Rohrbach’s
company into Weinsberg was the signal for a massacre of the knightly
host. Some were taken prisoners for the moment, including Helfenstein
himself, but these were massacred next morning in the meadow outside
the town by “Jäcklein,” as he was called. The events at Weinsberg produced in the first instance a horror and consternation which was
speedily followed by a lust for vengeance on the part of the
privileged orders.

Franconia and Middle Germany

In Franconia and Middle Germany the peasant movement went on apace. In Franconia one of its chief seats was the considerable town of
Rothenburg, on the Tauber. The episcopal city of Würzburg was also
entered and occupied by the peasant bands in coalition with the
discontented elements of the town. The sacking of churches and
throwing open of religious houses characterized proceedings here as
elsewhere. The locking up of a large peasant host in Würzburg was
undoubtedly a source of great weakness to the movement. In the east,
in the Tyrol and Salzburg, there were similar risings to those farther
west. In the latter case the prince-bishop was the obnoxious

Thomas Münzer

The most interesting of the local movements was, however, in many
respects that of Thomas Münzer in the town of Mülhausen, in Thuringia. Thomas Münzer is, perhaps, the best known of all the names in the peasants’ revolt. In addition to the ultra-Protestantism of his
theological views, Münzer had as his object the establishment of a
communistic Christian Commonwealth. He started a practical
exemplification of this among his own followers in the town itself.

Up to the beginning of May the insurrection had carried everything
before it. Truchsess and his men of the Swabian League had proved
themselves unable to cope with it. Matters now changed. Knights,
men-at-arms, and free-lances were returning from the Italian campaign
of Charles V after the battle of Pavia. Everywhere the revolt met with

The Mülhausen insurgents were destroyed at Frankenhausen by
forces of the Count of Hesse, of the Duke of Brunswick, and of the
Duke of Saxony. This was on May 15th. Three days before the defeat at
Frankenhausen, on May 12th, a decisive defeat was inflicted on the
peasants by the forces of the Swabian League, under Truchsess, at
Böblingen, in Würtemberg. Savage ferocity signalized the treatment of
the defeated peasants by the soldiery of the nobles.

Jäcklein Rohrbach was roasted alive. Truchsess with his soldiery then hurried north and inflicted a heavy defeat on the Franconian peasant contingents at Königshaven, on the Tauber. These three defeats, following one another in little more than a fortnight, broke the back of the whole movement in Germany proper.

In Elsass and Lorraine the insurrection was crushed by the hired troops and the Duke of Lorraine; eastward, on the little river Luibas. In the Austrian territories, under the able leadership of Michael Gaismayr, one of the lesser nobility, it continued for some months longer, and the fear of Gaismayr, who, it should be said, was the only man of really constructive genius the movement had produced, maintained itself with the privileged classes till his murder in the autumn of 1528, at the instance of the Bishop of Brixen.

Cause of the failure

The great peasant insurrection in Germany failed through:

– want of a well-thought-out plan and tactics, and, above all,
-want of cohesion among the various peasant forces operating in different sections of the country.
-want of regular communications between forces.
-The attitude of Martin Luther towards the peasants and their
cause was base in the extreme.

Martin Luther’s first document

Martin Luther’s’ action was mainly embodied in two documents, of which the first was issued about the middle of April, and the second a month later. The difference in tone between them is sufficiently striking.

In the first, which bore the title, “An Exhortation to Peace on the Twelve Articles of the Peasantry in Swabia,” Luther sits on the fence, admonishing both parties of what he deemed their shortcomings. He was naturally pleased with those articles that demanded the free preaching of the Gospel and abused the Catholic clergy, and was not indisposed to assent to many of the economic demands. In fact, the document strikes one as distinctly more favourable to the insurgents than to their opponents.

“We have,” he wrote, “no one to thank for this mischief and sedition,
save ye princes and lords, in especial ye blind bishops and mad
priests and monks, who up to this day remain obstinate and do not
cease to rage and rave against the holy Gospel, albeit ye know that it
is righteous, and that ye may not gainsay it. Moreover, in your
worldly regiment, ye do naught otherwise than flay and extort tribute,
that ye may satisfy your pomp and vanity, till the poor, common man
cannot, and may not, bear with it longer. The sword is on your neck.
Ye think ye sit so strongly in your seats, that none may cast you from
them. Such presumption and obstinate pride will twist your necks, as
ye will see.” And again: “God hath made it thus that they cannot, and
will not, longer bear with your raging. If ye do it not of your free
will, so shall ye be made to do it by way of violence and undoing.”
Once more: “It is not peasants, my dear lords, who have set themselves
up against you. God Himself it is who setteth Himself against you to
chastise your evil-doing.”

He counsels the princes and lords to make peace with their peasants,
observing with reference to the “Twelve Articles” that some of them
are so just and righteous that before God and the world their
worthiness is manifested, making good the words of the psalm that they
heap contempt upon the heads of the princes. Whilst he warns the
peasants against sedition and rebellion, and criticizes some of the
Articles as going beyond the justification of Holy Writ, and whilst he
makes side-hits at “the prophets of murder and the spirits of
confusion which had found their way among them,” the general
impression given by the pamphlet is, as already said, one of
unmistakable friendliness to the peasants and hostility to the lords.

The manifesto may be summed up in the following terms: Both sides are, strictly speaking, in the wrong, but the princes and lords have
provoked the “common man” by their unjust exactions and oppressions;
the peasants, on their side, have gone too far in many of their
demands, notably in the refusal to pay tithes, and most of all in the
notion of abolishing villeinage, which Luther declares to be
“straightway contrary to the Gospel and thievish.” The great sin of
the princes remains, however, that of having thrown stumbling-blocks
in the way of the Gospel–bien entendu the Gospel according to
Luther–and the main virtue of the peasants was their claim to have
this Gospel preached. It can scarcely be doubted that the ambiguous
tone of Luther’s rescript was interpreted by the rebellious peasants
to their advantage and served to stimulate, rather than to check, the

Meanwhile, the movement rose higher and higher, and reached Thuringia, the district with which Luther personally was most associated. His patron, and what is more, the only friend of toleration in high places, the noble-minded Elector Friedrich of Saxony, fell ill and
died on May 5th, and was succeeded by his younger brother Johann, the
same who afterwards assisted in the suppression of the Thuringian
revolt. Almost immediately thereupon Luther, who had been visiting his
native town of Eisleben, travelled through the revolted districts on
his way back to Wittenberg. He everywhere encountered black looks and jeers. When he preached, the Münzerites would drown his voice by the ringing of bells. The signs of rebellion greeted him on all sides.
The “Twelve Articles” were constantly thrown at his head. As the
reports of violence towards the property and persons of some of his
own noble friends reached him his rage broke all bounds. He seems,
however, to have prudently waited a few days, until the cause of the
peasants was obviously hopeless, before publicly taking his stand on
the side of the authorities.

Luther’s second document

On his arrival in Wittenberg, he wrote a second pronouncement on the
contemporary events, in which no uncertainty was left as to his
attitude. It is entitled, “Against the Murderous and Thievish Bands of
Peasants.”[24] Here he lets himself loose on the side of the
oppressors with a bestial ferocity.

“Crush them (the peasants) strangle them and pierce them, in secret places and in sight of men, he who can, even as one would strike dead a mad dog!” All having authority who hesitated to extirpate the insurgents to the uttermost were committing a sin against God. “Findest thou thy death therein,” he writes, addressing the reader, “happy art thou: a more
blessed death can never overtake thee, for thou diest in obedience to
the Divine word and the command of Romans xiii. 1, and in the service
of love, to save thy neighbour from the bonds of hell and the devil.”

Never had there been such an infamous exhortation to the most
dastardly murder on a wholesale scale since the Albigensian crusade
with its “Strike them all: God will know His own”–a sentiment indeed
that Luther almost literally reproduces in one passage.

The attitude of the official Lutheran party towards the poor
country folk continued as infamous after the war as it had been on the
first sign that fortune was forsaking their cause. Like master, like
man. Luther’s jackal, the “gentle” Melanchthon, specially signalized
himself by urging on the feudal barons with Scriptural arguments to
the blood-sucking and oppression of their villeins. A humane and
honourable nobleman, Heinrich von Einsiedel, was touched in conscience at the corvées and heavy dues to which he found himself entitled. He sent to Luther for advice upon the subject. Luther replied that the existing exactions which had been handed down to him from his parents need not trouble his conscience, adding that it would not be good for corvées to be given up, since the “common man” ought to have
burdens imposed upon him, as otherwise he would become overbearing.

Pleasing to God

He further remarked that a severe treatment in material things was
pleasing to God, even though it might seem to be too harsh. Spalatin
writes in a like strain that the burdens in Germany were, if anything,
too light. Subjects, according to Melanchthon, ought to know that they
are serving God in the burdens they bear for their superiors, whether
it were journeying, paying tribute, or otherwise, and as pleasing to
God as though they raised the dead at God’s own behest. Subjects
should look up to their lords as wise and just men, and hence be
thankful to them. However unjust, tyrannical, and cruel the lord might
be, there was never any justification for rebellion.

A friend and follower of Luther and Melanchthon–Martin Butzer by
name–went still farther. According to this “reforming” worthy a
subject was to obey his lord in everything. This was all that
concerned him. It was not for him to consider whether what was
enjoined was, or was not, contrary to the will of God. That was a
matter for his feudal superior and God to settle between them.
Referring to the doctrines of the revolutionary sects, Butzer urges
the authorities to extirpate all those professing a false religion.
Such men, he says, deserve a heavier punishment than thieves,
robbers, and murderers. Even their wives and innocent children and
cattle should be destroyed (ap. Janssen, vol. i. p. 595).

Luther himself quotes, in a sermon on “Genesis,” the instances of
Abraham and Abimelech and other Old Testament worthies, as justifying slavery and the treatment of a slave as a beast of burden. “Sheep, cattle, men-servants and maid-servants, they were all possessions,” says Luther, “to be sold as it pleased them like other beasts. It were even a good thing were it still so. For else no man may compel nor tame the servile folk” (Sämmtliche Werke, vol. xv. p. 276).

In other discourses he enforces the same doctrine, observing that if the world is to last for any time, and is to be kept going, it will be necessary
to restore the patriarchal condition. Capito, the Strassburg preacher,
in a letter to a colleague, writes lamenting that the pamphlets and
discourses of Luther had contributed not a little to give edge to the
bloodthirsty vengeance of the princes and nobles after the

Over 100,000 killed

The total number of the peasants and their allies who fell either in
fighting or at the hands of the executioners is estimated by Anselm in
his Berner Chronik at 130,000. It was certainly not less than 100,000. For months after the executioner was active in many of the affected districts. Spalatin says: “Of hanging and beheading there is no end.” Another writer has it: “It was all so that even a stone had been moved to pity, for the chastisement and vengeance of the conquering lords was great.” The executions within the jurisdiction of the Swabian League alone are stated at 10,000. Truchsess’s provost boasted of having hanged or beheaded 1,200 with his own hand. More than 50,000 fugitives were recorded. These, according to a Swabian League order, were all outlawed in such wise that any one who found them might slay them without fear of consequences.

The sentences and executions were conducted with true mediæval levity. It is narrated in a contemporary chronicle that in one village in the Henneberg territory all the inhabitants had fled on the approach of the Count and his men-at-arms save two tilers.

The two were being led to execution when one appeared to weep bitterly, and his reply to interrogatories was that he bewailed the dwellings of the aristocracy thereabouts, for henceforth there would be no one to supply them with durable tiles. Thereupon his companion burst out laughing, because, said he, it had just occurred to him that he would not know where to place his hat after his head had been taken off. These mildly humorous remarks obtained for both of them a free pardon.


The aspect of those parts of the country where the war had most
heavily raged was deplorable in the extreme. In addition to the many
hundreds of castles and monasteries destroyed, almost as many villages
and small towns had been levelled with the ground by one side or the
other, especially by the Swabian League and the various princely

Many places were annihilated for having taken part with the peasants, even when they had been compelled by force to do so. Fields in these districts were everywhere laid waste or left uncultivated. Enormous sums were exacted as indemnity. In many of the villages peasants previously well-to-do were ruined. There seemed no limit to the bleeding of the “common man,” under the pretence of compensation for damage done by the insurrection.

The condition of the families of the dead and of the fugitives was
appalling. Numbers perished from starvation. The wives and children of
the insurgents were in some cases forcibly driven from their
homesteads and even from their native territory.

In one of the pamphlets published in 1525 anent the events of that year we read: “Houses are burned; fields and vineyards lie fallow; clothes and household goods are robbed or burned; cattle and sheep are taken away; the same as to horses and trappings. The prince, the gentleman, or the nobleman will have his rent and due. Eternal God, whither shall the
widows and poor children go forth to seek it?” Referring to the Lutheran campaign against friars and poor scholars, beggars, and pilgrims, the writer observes: “Think ye now that because of God’s anger for the sake of one beggar, ye must even for a season bear with twenty, thirty, nay, still more?”

Courts of Arbitration

The courts of arbitration, which were established in various districts
to adjudicate on the relations between lords and villeins, were
naturally not given to favour the latter, whilst the fact that large
numbers of deeds and charters had been burnt or otherwise destroyed in
the course of the insurrection left open an extensive field for the
imposition of fresh burdens.

The record of the proceedings of one of the most important of these courts–that of the Swabian League’s jurisdiction, which sat at Memmingen–in the dispute between the prince-abbot of Kempten and his villeins is given in full in Baumann’s Akten, pp. 329-46. Here, however, the peasants did not come off so badly as in some other places. Meanwhile, all the other evils of the time, the monopolies of the merchant-princes of the cities and of the trading-syndicates, the dearness of living, the scarcity of money, etc., did not abate, but rather increased from year to year. The Catholic Church maintained itself especially in the South of Germany, and the official Reformation took on a definitely aristocratic character.

Diving Justice

According to Baumann (Akten, Vorwort, v, vi), the true soul of the
movement of 1525 consisted in the notion of “Divine justice,” the

“that all relations, whether of political, social, or religious nature, have got to be ordered according to the directions of the ‘Gospel’ as the sole and exclusive source and standard of all justice.” The same writer maintains that there are three phases in the development of this idea, according to which he would have the scheme of historical investigation subdivided. In Upper Swabia, says he, “Divine justice” found expression in the well-known “Twelve Articles,” but here the notion of a political reformation was as good as absent.

In the second phase, the “Divine justice” idea began to be applied to political conditions. In Tyrol and the Austrian dominions, he observes, this political side manifested itself in local or, at best, territorial patriotism. It was only in Franconia that all territorial patriotism or “particularism” was shaken off and the idea of the unity of the German peoples received as a political goal. The Franconian influence gained over the Würtembergers to a large extent, and the plan of reform elaborated by Weigand and Hipler for the Heilbronn Parliament was the most complete expression of this second phase of the movement.

The third phase is represented by the rising in Thuringia, and especially in its intellectual head, Thomas Münzer. Here we have the doctrine of “Divine justice” taking precedence of all else and assuming the form of a thoroughgoing theocratic scheme, to be realized by the German people.

This division Baumann is led to make with a view to the formulation of
a convenient scheme for a “codex” of documents relating to the Peasants’ War. It may be taken as, in the main, the best general division that can be put forward, although, as we have seen, there are places where, and times when, the practical demands of the movement seem to have asserted themselves directly and spontaneously apart from any theory whatever.

The fate of the leaders of the revolt

Of the fate of many of the most active leaders of the revolt we know nothing. Several heads of the movement, according to a contemporary writer, wandered about for a long time in misery, some of them indeed seeking refuge with the Turks, who were still a standing menace to Imperial Christendom.

The popular preachers vanished also on the suppression of the movement. The disastrous result of the Peasants’ War was prejudicial even to Luther’s cause in South Germany.

The Catholic party reaped the advantage everywhere, evangelical preachers, even, where not insurrectionists, being persecuted. Little distinction, in fact, was made in most districts between an opponent
of the Catholic Church from Luther’s standpoint and one from Karlstadt’s or Hubmayer’s. Amongst seventy-one heretics arraigned before the Austrian court at Ensisheim, only one was acquitted. The others were broken on the wheel, burnt, or drowned.

There were some who were arrested ten or fifteen years later on charges connected with the 1525 revolt. Treachery, of course, played a large part, as it has done in all defeated movements, in ensuring the fate of many of those who had been at all prominent. In fairness to Luther, who otherwise played such a villainous rôle in connection with the peasants’ movement, the fact should be recorded that he sheltered his old colleague, Karlstadt, for a short time in the Augustine monastery at Wittenberg, after the latter’s escape from Rothenburg.

Wendel Hipler continued for some time at liberty, and might probably have escaped altogether had he not entered a protest against the Counts of Hohenlohe for having seized a portion of his private fortune that lay within their power. The result of his action might have been foreseen. The Counts, on hearing of it, revenged themselves by accusing him of having been a chief pillar of the rebellion. He had to flee immediately, and, after wandering about for some time in a disguise, one of the features of which is stated to have been a false nose, he was seized on his way to the Reichstag which was being held at Speier in 1526. Tenacious of his property to the last, he had hoped to obtain restitution of his rights from the assembled estates of the empire. Some months later he died in prison at Neustadt.

To the victors

Of the victors, Truchsess and Frundsberg considered themselves badly treated by the authorities whom they had served so well, and Frundsberg even composed a lament on his neglect. This he loved to hear sung to the accompaniment of the harp as he swilled down his red wine. The cruel Markgraf Kasimir met a miserable death not long after from dysentery, whilst Cardinal Matthaus Lang, the Archbishop of Salzburg, ended his days insane.

Of the fate of other prominent men connected with the events described, we have spoken in the course of the narrative. The castles and religious houses, which were destroyed, as already said, to the number of many hundreds, were in most cases not built up again. The ruins of not a few of them are visible to this day. Their owners often spent the sums relentlessly wrung out of the “common man” as indemnity in the extravagances of a gay life in the free towns or in dancing attendance at the Courts of the princes and the higher nobles.

The collapse of the revolt was indeed an important link in the particular chain of events that was so rapidly destroying the independent existence of the lower nobility as a separate status with a definite political position, and transforming the face of society generally. Life in the smaller castle, the knight’s burg or tower, was already tending to become an anachronism. The Court of the prince, lay or ecclesiastic, was attracting to itself all the elements of nobility below it in the social hierarchy.

The revolt of 1525 gave a further edge to this development, the first act of which closed with the collapse of the knights’ rebellion and death of Sickingen in 1523. The knight was becoming superfluous in the economy of the body politic.

The rise of capitalism and the centralizing principle

The rise of capitalism, the sudden development of the world-market,
the substitution of a money medium of exchange for direct barter–all
these new factors were doing their work. Obviously the great gainers
by the events of the momentous year were the representatives of the
centralizing principle. But the effective centralizing principle was
not represented by the Emperor, for he stood for what was after all
largely a sham centralism, because it was a centralism on a scale for
which the Germanic world was not ripe.

Princes and margraves were destined to be bearers of the territorial centralization, the only real one to which the German peoples were to attain for a long time to come. Accordingly, just as the provincial grand seigneur of France became the courtier of the King at Paris or Versailles, so the previously quasi-independent German knight or baron became the courtier or hanger-on of the prince within or near whose territory his hereditary manor was situate.

The eventful year 1525 was truly a landmark in German history in many
ways–the year of one of the most accredited exploits of Doctor
Faustus, the last mythical hero the progressive races have created;
the year in which Martin Luther, the ex-monk, capped his repudiation
of Catholicism and all its ways by marrying an ex-nun; the year of the
definite victory of Charles V. the German Emperor, over Francis I. the
French King, which meant the final assertion of the “Holy Roman
Empire” as being a national German institution; and last, but not
least, the year of the greatest and the most widespread popular
movement Central Europe had yet seen, and the last of the mediæval
peasant risings on a large scale. The movement of the eventful year
did not, however, as many hoped and many feared, within any short time rise up again from its ashes, after discomfiture had overtaken it.

In 1526, it is true, the genius of Gaismayr succeeded in resuscitating
it, not without prospect of ultimate success, in the Tyrol and other
of the Austrian territories. In this year, moreover, in other outlying
districts, even outside German-speaking populations, the movement
flickered. Thus the traveller between the town of Bellinzona, in the
Swiss Canton of Ticino, and the Bernardino Pass, in Canton Graubünden, may see to-day an imposing ruin, situated on an eminence in the narrow valley just above the small Italian-speaking town of Misox. This was one of the ancestral strongholds of the family, well known in Italian history, of the Trefuzios or Trevulzir, and was sacked by the inhabitants of Misox and the neighbouring peasants in the summer of 1526, contemporaneously with Gaismayr’s rising in the Tyrol. A connection between the two events would be difficult to trace, but the destruction of the castle of Misox, if not a purely spontaneous local effervescence, looks like an afterglow of the great movement, such as may well have happened in other secluded mountain valleys.

The Peasants’ War in Germany we have been considering is the last
great mediæval uprising of the agrarian classes in Europe. Its result
was, with some few exceptions, a riveting of the peasant’s chains and
an increase of his burdens. More than 1,000 castles and religious
houses were destroyed in Germany alone during 1525. Many priceless
works of mediæval art of all kinds perished. But we must not allow our
regret at such vandalism to blind us in any way to the intrinsic
righteousness of the popular demands.

Seeds of the Anabaptist movement

The elements of revolution now became absorbed by the Anabaptist
movement, a continuation primarily in the religious sphere of the
doctrines of the Zwickau enthusiasts and also in many respects of
Thomas Münzer. At first Northern Switzerland, especially the towns of
Basel and Zürich, were the headquarters of the new sect, which,
however, spread rapidly on all sides. Persecution of the direst
description did not destroy it. On the contrary, it seemed only to
have the effect of evoking those social and revolutionary elements
latent within it which were at first overshadowed by more purely
theological interests. As it was, the hopes and aspirations of the
“common man” revived this time in a form indissolubly associated with
the theocratic commonwealth, the most prominent representative of
which during the earlier movement had been Thomas Münzer.

But, notwithstanding resemblances, it is utterly incorrect, as has
sometimes been done, to describe any of the leaders of the great
peasant rebellion of 1525 as Anabaptists. The Anabaptist sect, it is
true, originated in Switzerland during the rising, but it was then
confined to a small coterie of unknown enthusiasts, holding
semi-private meetings in Zürich. It was from these small beginnings
that the great Anabaptist movement of ten years later arose. It is
directly from them that the Anabaptist movement of history dates its
origin. Movements of a similar character, possessing a strong family
likeness, belong to the mental atmosphere of the time in Germany. The
so-called Zwickau prophets, for example, Nicholas Storch and his
colleagues, seem in their general attitude to have approached very
closely to the principles of the Anabaptist sectaries. But even here
it is incorrect to regard them, as has often been done, as directly
connected with the latter; still more as themselves the germ of the
Anabaptist party of the following years.

Munzer and the Zurich enthusiasts

Thomas Münzer, the only leader of the movement of 1525 who seems to have been acquainted with the Zürich enthusiasts, was by no means at one with them on many points, notably refusing to attach any importance to their special sign, rebaptism. Chief among the Zürich coterie may be mentioned Konrad Grebel, at whose house the sect first of all assembled.

At first the Anabaptist movement at Zürich was regarded as an extreme
wing of the party of the Church reformer, Zwingli, in that city, but
it was not long before it broke off entirely from the latter, and
hostilities, ensuing in persecution for the new party, broke out.

To understand the true inwardness of the Anabaptist and similar
movements, it is necessary to endeavour to think oneself back into the
intellectual conditions of the period. The Biblical text itself, now
everywhere read and re-read in the German language, was pondered and
discussed in the house of the handicraftsman and in the hut of the
peasant, with as much confidence of interpretation as in the study of
the professional theologian. But there were also not a few of the
latter order, as we have seen, who were becoming disgusted with the
trend of the official Reformation and its leading representatives.

The Bible thus afforded a point d’appui for the mystical tendencies now
becoming universally prominent–a point d’appui (rally point) lacking to the earlier movements of the same kind that were so constantly arising
during the Middle Ages proper. Seen in the dim religious light of a
continuous reading of the Bible and of very little else, the world
began to appear in a new aspect to the simple soul who practised it.
All things seemed filled with the immediate presence of Deity. He who
felt a call pictured himself as playing the part of the Hebrew
prophet. He gathered together a small congregation of followers, who
felt themselves as the children of God in the midst of a heathen
world. Did not the fall of the old Church mean that the day was at
hand when the elect should govern the world? It was not so much
positive doctrines as an attitude of mind that was the ruling spirit
in Anabaptism and like movements. Similarly, it was undoubtedly such a sensitive impressionism rather than any positive dogma that dominated the first generation of the Christian Church itself. How this acted in the case of the earlier Anabaptists we shall presently see.

The Zurich sect

The new Zürich sect, by one of those seemingly inscrutable chances in
similar cases of which history is full, not only prospered greatly but
went forth conquering and to conquer. It spread rapidly northward,
eastward, and westward. In the course of its victorious career it
absorbed into itself all similar tendencies and local groups and
movements having like aims to itself. As was natural under such
circumstances, we find many different strains in the developed
Anabaptist movement.

Anabaptist tennets by Bullinger

The theologian Bullinger wrote a book on the subject, in which he enumerates thirteen distinct sects, as he terms them, in the Anabaptist body. The general tenets of the organization, as given by Bullinger, may be summarized as follows:
-They regard themselves as the true Church of Christ pleasing to God;
– they believe that by rebaptism a man is received into the Church;
-they refuse to hold intercourse with other Churches or to recognize their ministers;
-they say that the preachings of these are different from their works, that no man is the better for their preaching, that their ministers follow not the teaching of Paul, that they take payment from their benefices, but do not work by their hands;
-that the Sacraments are improperly served, and that every man, who feels the call, has the right to preach;
-they maintain that the literal text of the Scriptures shall be accepted without comment or the additions of theologians;
-they protest against the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone;
-they maintain that true Christian love makes it inconsistent for any Christian to be rich, but that among the Brethren all things should be in common, or, at least, all available for the assistance of needy Brethren and for the common cause;
-that the attitude of the Christian towards authority should be that of
submission and endurance only;
– that no Christian ought to take office of any kind, or to take part in any form of military service;
-that secular authority has no concern with religious belief;
-that the Christian resists no evil and therefore needs no law courts nor should ever make use of their tribunals;
-that Christians do not kill or punish with imprisonment or the sword, but only with exclusion from the body of believers;
-that no man should be compelled by force to believe, nor should any be slain on account of his faith;
-that infant baptism is sinful and that adult baptism is the only Christian
baptism–baptism being a sacrament which should be reserved for the
elect alone.

Such seem to represent the doctrines forming the common ground of the
Anabaptist groups as they existed at the end of the second decade of
the fifteenth century. There were, however, as Heinrich Bullinger and
his contemporary, Sebastian Franck, point out, numerous divergencies
between the various sections of the party. Many of these recalled
other mediæval heretic sects, e.g. the Cathari, the Brothers and
Sisters of the Spirit, the Bohemian Brethren, etc.

The Elect

For the first few years of its existence Anabaptism remained true to
its original theologico-ethical principles. The doctrine of
non-resistance was strictly adhered to. The Brethren believed in
themselves as the elect, and that they had only to wait in prayer and
humility for the “advent of Christ and His saints,” the “restitution
of all things,” the “establishment of the Kingdom of God upon earth,”
or by whatever other phrase the dominant idea of the coming change was expressed.

During the earlier years of the movement the Anabaptists were peaceable and harmless fanatics and visionaries. In some cases,
as in Moravia, they formed separate communities of their own, some of
which survived as religious sects long after the extinction of the
main movement.

In the earlier years of the fourth decade of the century, however, a
change came over a considerable section of the movement. In Central
and South-eastern Germany, notably in the Moravian territories,
barring isolated individuals here and there, the Anabaptist party
continued to maintain its attitude of non-resistance and the
voluntariness of association which characterized it at first. The
fearful waves of persecution, however, which successively swept over
it were successful at last in partially checking its progress. At
length the only places in this part of the empire where it succeeded
in retaining any effective organization was in the Moravian
territories, where persecution was less strong and the communities
more closely knit together than elsewhere. Otherwise persecution had
played sad havoc with the original Anabaptist groups throughout
Central Europe.

Strassburg Anabaptists

Meanwhile a movement had sprung up in Western and Northern Germany, following the course of the Rhine Valley, that effectually threw the older movement of Southern and Eastern Germany into the background.

These earlier movements remained essentially religious and
theological, owing, as Cornelius points out (Münsterische Aufruhr,
vol. ii. p. 74), to the fact that they came immediately after the
overthrow of the great political movement of 1552. But although the
older Anabaptism did not itself take political shape, it succeeded in
keeping alive the tendencies and the enthusiasm out of which, under
favourable circumstances, a political movement inevitably grows. The
result was, as Cornelius further observes, an agitation of such a
sweeping character that the fourth decade of the sixteenth century
seemed destined to realize the ideals which the third decade had
striven for in vain.

The new direction in Anabaptism began in the rich and powerful
Imperial city of Strassburg, where peculiar circumstances afforded the
Brethren a considerable amount of toleration. It was in the year 1526
that Anabaptism first made its appearance in Strassburg. It was
Anabaptism of the original type and conducted on the old
theologico-ethical lines.

But early in the year 1529 there arrived in Strassburg a much-travelled man, a skinner by trade, by name Melchior Hoffmann. He had been an enthusiastic adherent of the Reformation, and it was not long before he joined the Strassburg Anabaptists and made his mark in their community. Owing to his personal magnetism and oratorical gifts, Melchior soon came to be regarded as a specially ordained prophet and to have acquired corresponding influence.

After a few months Hoffmann seems to have left Strassburg for a propagandist tour along the Rhine. The tour, apparently, had great success, the Baptist communities being founded in all important towns as far as Holland, in which latter country the doctrines spread rapidly. The Anabaptism, however, taught by Melchior and his disciples did not
include the precept of patient submission to wrong which was such a
prominent characteristic of its earlier phase.

Some time after his reception into the Anabaptist body at Strassburg,
Hoffmann, while in most other points accepting the prevalent doctrines
of the Brethren, broke entirely loose from the doctrine of
non-resistance, maintaining, in theory at least, the right of the
elect to employ the sword against the worldly authorities, “the
godless,” “the enemies of the saints.”

It was predicted, he maintained, that a two-edged sword should be given into the hands of the saints to destroy the “mystery of iniquity,” the existing principalities and powers, and the time was now at hand when this prophecy should be fulfilled. The new movement in the North-west, in the lower Rhenish districts, and the adjacent Westphalia sprang up and extended itself, therefore, under the domination of this idea of the
reign of the saints in the approaching millennium and of the notion
that passive non-resistance, whilst for the time being a duty, only
remained so until the coming of the Lord should give the signal for
the saints to rise and join in the destruction of the kingdoms of
this world and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Hoffmann’s whole learning seems to have been limited to the Bible, but
this he knew from cover to cover. A diffusion of Luther’s translation
of the Bible had produced a revolution. The poorer classes, who were
able to read at all, pored over the Bible, together with such popular
tracts or pamphlets commenting thereon, or treating current social
questions in the light of Biblical story and teaching, as came into
their hands. The followers of the new movement in question acquired
the name of Melchiorites. Hoffmann now published a book explanatory of his ideas, called The Ordinance of God, which had an enormous
popularity. It was followed up by other writings, amplifying and
defending the main thesis it contained.

Outwardly the Melchiorite communities of the North-west had the same
peaceful character as those of South Germany and Moravia, holding as
they did in the main the same doctrines. It was ominous, however, that
Melchior Hoffmann was proclaimed as the prophet Elijah returned
according to promise.

Up to 1533 Strassburg continued to be regarded as the chief seat of Anabaptism, especially by Melchior and his disciples. It was, they declared, to be the New Jerusalem, from which the saints should march out to conquer the world. Melchior, on his return journey to Strassburg from his journey northwards, proclaimed the end of 1533 as the date of the second advent and the inauguration of the reign of the saints. Owing to the excitement among the poorer population of the town consequent upon Hoffmann’s preaching, the prophet was arrested and imprisoned in one of the towers of the city wall. But 1533 came and went without the Lord or His saints appearing, while poor Hoffmann remained confined in the tower of the city wall.

Meanwhile the new Anabaptism spread and fermented along the Rhine, and especially in Holland. In the latter country its chief exponent was a
master baker at Harleem, by name Jan Matthys, who seems to have been a born leader of men. While preaching essentially the same doctrines as
Hoffmann, with Matthys a Holy War, in a literal sense, was placed in
the forefront of his teaching. With him there was to be no delay. It
was the duty of all the Brethren to show their zeal by at once seizing
the sword of sharpness and mowing down the godless therewith. In this
sense Matthys completed the transformation begun by Hoffmann. Melchior had indeed rejected the non-resistance doctrine in its absolute form, but he does not appear in his teaching to have uniformly emphasized the point, and certainly did not urge the destruction of the godless as an immediate duty to be fulfilled without delay.

With him was always the suggestion, expressed or implied, of waiting for the signal from heaven, the coming of the Lord, before proceeding to action. With Matthys there was no need for waiting, even for a day; the time was not merely at hand, it had already come. His influence among the Brethren was immense. If Melchior Hoffmann had been Elijah, Jan
Matthys was Elisha, who should bring his work to a conclusion.

Among Matthys’ most intimate followers was Jan Bockelson, from Leyden. Bockelson was a handsome and striking figure. He was the illegitimate son of one Bockel, a merchant and Bürgermeister of Saevenhagen, by a peasant woman from the neighbourhood of Münster, who was in his service. After Jan’s birth Bockel married the woman and bought her her freedom from the villein status that was hers by heredity.

Jan was taught the tailoring handicraft at Leyden, but seems to have received little schooling. His natural abilities, however, were considerable, and he eagerly devoured the religious and propagandist literature of the time. Amongst other writings the pamphlets of Thomas Münzer especially fascinated him. He travelled a good deal, visiting Mechlin and working at his trade for four years in London. Returning home, he threw himself into the Anabaptist agitation, and, scarcely twenty-five years old, he was won over to the doctrines of Jan Matthys. The latter with his younger colleague welded the Anabaptist communities in Holland and the adjacent German territories into a well-organized federation. They were more homogeneous in theory than those of Southern and Eastern Germany, being practically all united on the basis of the Hoffmann-Matthys propaganda.


The episcopal town of Münster, in Westphalia, like other places in the
third decade of the sixteenth century, became strongly affected by the
Reformation. But that the ferment of the time was by no means wholly
the outcome of religious zeal, as subsequent historians have persisted
in representing it, was recognized by the contemporary heads of the
official Reformation. Thus, writing to Luther under date August 29,
1530, his satellite, Melanchthon, has the candour to admit that the
Imperial cities “care not for religion, for their endeavour is only
toward domination and freedom.”

As the principal town of Westphalia at this time may be reckoned the chief city of the bishopric of Münster, this important ecclesiastical principality was held “immediately of the empire.” It had as its neighbours Ost-Friesland, Oldenburg, the bishopric of Osnabrück, the county of Marck, and the duchies of Berg and Cleves. Its territory was half the size of the present province of Westphalia, and was divided into the upper and lower diocese, which were separated by the territory of Fecklenburg. The bishop was a prince of the empire and one of the most important magnates of North-western Germany, but in ecclesiastical matters he was under the Archbishop of Köln. The diocese had been founded by Charles the Great.

Owing to a succession of events, beginning in 1529, which for those
interested we may mention may be found discussed in full detail in
The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists (124-71), by the present
writer, the extreme wing of the Reformation party had early gained the
upper hand in the city, and subsequently became fused with the native
Anabaptists, who were soon reinforced by their co-religionists from
the country round, as well as from the not far distant Holland; for it
should be said that the Dutch followers of Hoffmann and Matthys had
been energetic in carrying their faith into the towns of Westphalia as

Without entering in detail into the events leading up to it, it is sufficient for our purpose to state that by a perfectly lawful election, held on February 23, 1534, the Government of Münster was reconstituted and the Anabaptists obtained supreme political power. Hearing of the way things were going in Münster, Matthys and his followers had already taken up their abode in the city a little time before.

The cathedral and other churches were stormed and sacked during the following days, while all official documents and charters dealing with the feudal relations of the town were given to the flames during the ensuing month. Both the moderate Protestant (Lutheran) and the Catholic burghers who had remained were indignant at the acts of
destruction committed, and openly expressed their opposition. The
result was their expulsion from the city; the condition of being
allowed to remain became now the consent to rebaptism and the formal
adoption of Anabaptist principles.

Münster now took the place Strassburg had previously held as the
rallying point of the Anabaptist faithful, whence a crusade against
the Powers of the world was to issue forth. The Government of Münster,
though it officially consisted of the two Bürgermeisters and the new
Council, to a man all zealous Anabaptists, left the real power and
initiative in all measures in the hands of Jan Matthys and of his
disciple, Jan Bockelson, of Leyden. The reign of the saints was now
fairly begun. Various attempts at an organized communism were made,
but these appear to have been only partially successful. One day Jan
Matthys with twenty companions, in an access of fanatical devotion,
made a sortie from the town towards the bishop’s camp. Needless to
say, the party were all killed. The great leader dead, Jan Bockelson
became naturally the chief of the city and head of the movement.

The rise of Bockelson

Bockelson proved in every way a capable successor to Matthys. A new
Constitution was now given by Bockelson and the Dutchmen, acting as
his prophets and preachers. It was embodied in thirty-nine articles,
and one of its chief features was the transference of power to twelve
elders, the number being suggested by the twelve tribes of Israel. The
idea of reliving the life of the “chosen people,” as depicted in the
Old Testament, showed itself in various ways, amongst others by the
notorious edict establishing polygamy.

This measure, however, as Karl Kautsky has shown, there is good reason for thinking was probably induced by the economic necessity of the time, and especially by the enormous excess of the female over the male population of the city.Otherwise the Münsterites, like the Anabaptists generally, gave evidence of favouring asceticism in sexual matters.

Considerations of space prevent us from going into further detail of
the inner life of Münster under the Anabaptist regime during the siege
at the hands of its overlord, the prince-bishop. This will be found
given at length in the work already mentioned. As time went on famine
began to attack the city.

Betrayal of Munster

It is sufficient for our purpose to state that on the night of June 24,
1535, the city was betrayed and that in a few hours the free-lances of
the bishop were streaming in through all the gates. The street fighting
was desperate; the Anabaptists showed a desperate courage, even women joining in the struggle, hurling missiles from the windows upon their foes beneath. By midday on the 25th the city of Münster, the New Zion, passed over once more into the power of its feudal lord, Franz von
Waldeck, and the reign of the saints had come to an end.

The vengeance of the conquerors was terrible; all alike, irrespective of age or sex, were involved in an indiscriminate butchery. The three leaders, Bockelson, Krechting, and Knipperdollinck, after being carried round captives as an exhibition through the surrounding country, were, some months afterwards, on January 22, 1536, executed, after being most horribly tortured. Their bodies were subsequently suspended in three cages from the top of the tower of the Lamberti church.

The three cages were left undisturbed until a few years ago, when the old tower, having become structurally unsafe, was pulled down and replaced, with questionable taste, by an ordinary modern steeple, on which, however, the original cages may still be seen. A papal legate, sent on a mission to Münster shortly after the events in question, relates that as he and his retinue neared the latter town “more and more gibbets and wheels did we see on the highways and in the villages, where the false prophets and Anabaptists had suffered for their sins.”

The Münster incident was the culmination of the Anabaptist movement.
After the catastrophe the militant section rapidly declined. It did
not die out, however, until towards the end of the century. The last
we hear of it was in 1574, when a formidable insurrection took place
again in Westphalia, under the leadership of one Wilhelmson, the son
of one of the escaped Anabaptist preachers of Münster. The movement
lasted for five years. It was finally suppressed and Wilhelmson burned
alive at Cleves on March 5, 1580.

Menno Simon

Meanwhile, soon after the fall of Münster, the party split asunder, a moderate section forming, which shortly after came under the leadership of Menno Simon. This section, which soon became the majority of the party, under the name of Mennonites, settled down into a mere religious sect. In fact, towards the end of the sixteenth century the Anabaptist communities on the continent of Europe, from Moravia on the one hand to the extreme North-west of Germany on the other, showed a tendency to develop into law-abiding and prosperous religious organizations, in many cases being officially recognized by the authorities.

After the close of the sixteenth century Anabaptism lost all political
importance on the continent of Europe. It had, however, a certain
afterglow in this country during the following century, which lasted
over the times of the Civil War and the Commonwealth, and may be
traced in the movements of the “Levellers,” the “Fifth Monarchy men,”
and even among the earlier Quakers.


[23] Those interested will find the events briefly sketched in the
present chapter exhaustively treated, with full elaboration of detail,
in the two previous volumes of mine, The Peasant’s War in Germany and
The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists (Messrs. George Allen & Unwin).

[24] Amongst the curiosities of literature may be included the
translation of the title of this manifesto by Prof. T.M. Lindsay, D.D.,
in the Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th edition (Article, “Luther”). The
German title is “Wider die morderischen und rauberischen Rotten der
Bauern.” Prof. Lindsay’s translation is “Against the murdering, robbing Rats [sic] of Peasants“!