The German Peasants' War, Great Peasants' War or Great Peasants'
Revolt (German: Deutscher Bauernkrieg) was a widespread popular revolt
German-speaking Europe from 1524 to 1525. It failed because of
the intense opposition by the aristocracy, who slaughtered up to
100,000 of the 300,000 poorly armed peasants and farmers. The
survivors were fined and achieved few, if any, of their goals. The war
consisted, like the preceding
Bundschuh movement and the Hussite Wars,
of a series of both economic and religious revolts in which peasants
and farmers, often supported by
Anabaptist clergy, took the lead. The
German Peasants' War
German Peasants' War was Europe's largest and most widespread popular
uprising prior to the
French Revolution of 1789. The fighting was at
its height in the middle of 1525.
The war began with separate insurrections, beginning in the
southwestern part of what is now
Germany and Alsace, and spread in
subsequent insurrections to the central and eastern areas of Germany
and present-day Austria. After the uprising in
suppressed, it flared briefly in several Swiss Cantons.
In mounting their insurrection, peasants faced insurmountable
obstacles. The democratic nature of their movement left them without a
command structure and they lacked artillery and cavalry. Most of them
had little, if any, military experience. In combat they often turned
and fled, and were massacred by their pursuers. The
opposition had experienced military leaders, well-equipped and
disciplined armies, and ample funding.
The revolt incorporated some principles and rhetoric from the emerging
Protestant Reformation, through which the peasants sought influence
Martin Luther and other
Magisterial Reformers condemned
it and clearly sided with the nobles. In Against the Murderous,
Thieving Hordes of Peasants, Luther condemned the violence as the
devil's work and called for the nobles to put down the rebels like mad
dogs. In contrast,
Radical Reformers and
Anabaptists instigated and
supported the revolt. Historians have interpreted the economic aspects
German Peasants' War
German Peasants' War differently, and social and cultural
historians continue to disagree on its causes and nature.
1.1 Roman civil law
1.2 Luther and Müntzer
1.3 Social classes in the 16th century Holy Roman Empire
1.3.2 Lesser nobility
1.4 Military organizations
1.4.1 Army of the Swabian League
1.4.2 Peasant armies
18.104.22.168 Peasant resources
2.1 Threat to prosperity
2.3 Luther's Reformation
2.4 Class struggle
3 Outbreak in the southwest
3.1 Insurgency expands
Twelve Articles (statement of principles)
4 Course of the war
4.1 Kempten Insurrection
4.2 Battle of Leipheim
4.4 Massacre at Frankenhausen
4.5 Battle of Böblingen
4.6 Battle of Königshofen
4.7 Siege of Freiburg im Breisgau
4.8 Second Battle of Würzburg (1525)
4.9 Closing stages
5 Ultimate failure of the rebellion
6.1 Marx and Engels
6.2 Later historiography
7 See also
10 Additional Readings
11 External links
12 Further reading
In the sixteenth century, many parts of
Europe had common political
links within the Holy Roman Empire, a decentralized entity in which
Holy Roman Emperor
Holy Roman Emperor himself had little authority outside of his own
dynastic lands, which covered only a small fraction of the whole. At
the time of the Peasants' War, Charles V, King of Spain, held the
Holy Roman Emperor
Holy Roman Emperor (elected in 1519). Aristocratic
dynasties ruled hundreds of largely independent territories (both
secular and ecclesiastical) within the framework of the empire, and
several dozen others operated as semi-independent city-states. The
princes of these dynasties were taxed by the Roman Catholic church.
The princes could only gain, economically, by breaking away from the
Roman church and establishing a German church under their own control,
which would then not be able to tax them as the Roman church did. Most
German princes broke with Rome using the nationalistic slogan of
"German money for a German church".
Roman civil law
Princes often attempted to force their freer peasants into serfdom by
increasing taxes and introducing Roman civil law. Roman civil law
advantaged princes who sought to consolidate their power because it
brought all land into their personal ownership and eliminated the
feudal concept of the land as a trust between lord and peasant that
conferred rights as well as obligations on the latter. By maintaining
the remnants of the ancient law which legitimized their own rule, they
not only elevated their wealth and position in the empire through the
confiscation of all property and revenues, but increased their power
over their peasant subjects.
Knights' Revolt the "knights", the lesser landholders of
Rhineland in western Germany, rose up in rebellion in 1522–1523.
Their rhetoric was religious, and several leaders expressed Luther's
ideas on the split with Rome and the new German church. However, the
Knights' Revolt was not fundamentally religious. It was conservative
in nature and sought to preserve the feudal order. The knights
revolted against the new money order, which was squeezing them out of
Luther and Müntzer
Twelve Articles of the Peasants pamphlet of 1525
Martin Luther, the dominant leader of the
Reformation in Germany, took
a middle course in the Peasants' War. He criticized both the
injustices imposed on the peasants, and the rashness of the peasants
in fighting back. He also tended to support the centralization and
urbanization of the economy. This position alienated the lesser
nobles, but shored up his position with the burghers. Luther argued
that work was the chief duty on earth; the duty of the peasants was
farm labor and the duty of the ruling classes was upholding the peace.
He could not support the Peasant War because it broke the peace, an
evil he thought greater than the evils the peasants were rebelling
against. Therefore, he encouraged the nobility to swiftly and
violently take out the rebelling peasants. Later, Luther also
criticized the ruling classes for their merciless suppression of the
insurrection. Luther has often been sharply criticized for his
Thomas Müntzer was the most prominent radical reforming preacher who
supported the demands of the peasantry, including political and legal
rights. Müntzer’s theology had been developed against a background
of social upheaval and widespread religious doubt, and his call for a
new world order fused with the political and social demands of the
peasantry. In the final weeks of 1524 and the beginning of 1525,
Müntzer travelled into south-west Germany, where the peasant armies
were gathering; here he would have had contact with some of their
leaders, and it is argued that he also influenced the formulation of
their demands. He spent several weeks in the
Klettgau area, and there
is some evidence to suggest that he helped the peasants to formulate
their grievances. While the famous
Twelve Articles of the Swabian
peasants were certainly not composed by Müntzer, at least one
important supporting document, the Constitutional Draft, may well have
originated with him. Returning to Saxony and
Thuringia in early
1525, he assisted in the organisation of the various rebel groups
there and ultimately led the rebel army in the ill-fated Battle of
Frankenhausen on 15 May 1525.  Müntzer’s role in the Peasant War
has been the subject of considerable controversy, some arguing that he
had no influence at all, others that he was the sole inspirer of the
uprising. To judge from his writings of 1523 and 1524, it was by no
means inevitable that Müntzer would take the road of social
revolution. However, it was precisely on this same theological
foundation that Müntzer’s ideas briefly coincided with the
aspirations of the peasants and plebeians of 1525: viewing the
uprising as an apocalyptic act of God, he stepped up as ‘God’s
Servant against the Godless’ and took his position as leader of the
Luther and Müntzer took every opportunity to attack each other’s
ideas and actions. Luther himself declared against the moderate
demands of the peasantry embodied in the twelve articles. His article
Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants appeared in May
1525 just as the rebels were being defeated on the fields of battle.
Social classes in the 16th century Holy Roman Empire
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Flyer from the time of the Peasants' War
In this era of rapid change, modernizing princes tended to align with
clergy burghers against the lesser nobility and peasants.
Many rulers of Germany's various principalities functioned as
autocratic rulers who recognized no other authority within their
territories. Princes had the right to levy taxes and borrow money as
they saw fit. The growing costs of administration and military upkeep
impelled them to keep raising demands on their subjects. The
princes also worked to centralize power in the towns and estates.
Accordingly, princes tended to gain economically from the ruination of
the lesser nobility, by acquiring their estates. This ignited the
Knights' Revolt that occurred from 1522 through 1523 in the Rhineland.
The revolt was "suppressed by both Catholic and Lutheran princes who
were satisfied to cooperate against a common danger".
To the degree that other classes, such as the bourgeois, might
gain from the centralization of the economy and the elimination of the
lesser nobles' territorial controls on manufacture and trade, the
princes might unite with the burghers on the issue.
The innovations in military technology of the Late Medieval period
began to render the lesser nobility (the knights) militarily
obsolete. The introduction of military science and the growing
importance of gunpowder and infantry lessened the importance of heavy
cavalry and of castles. Their luxurious lifestyle drained what little
income they had as prices kept rising. They exercised their ancient
rights in order to wring income from their territories.
In the north of
Germany many of the lesser nobles had already been
subordinated to secular and ecclesiastical lords. Thus, their
dominance over serfs was more restricted. However, in the south of
Germany their powers were more intact. Accordingly, the harshness of
the lesser nobles' treatment of the peasantry provided the immediate
cause of the uprising. The fact that this treatment was worse in the
south than in the north was the reason that the war began in the
The knights became embittered as their status and income fell and they
came increasingly under the jurisdiction of the princes, putting the
two groups in constant conflict. The knights also regarded the clergy
as arrogant and superfluous, while envying their privileges and
wealth. In addition, the knights' relationships with the patricians in
the towns was strained by the debts owed by the knights. At odds
with other classes in Germany, the lesser nobility was the least
disposed to the changes.
The lesser nobility and the clergy paid no taxes and often supported
their local prince.
The clergy in 1525 were the intellectuals of their time. Not only were
they literate, but in the Middle Ages they had produced most books.
Some clergy were supported by the nobility and the rich, while others
appealed to the masses. However, the clergy was beginning to lose its
overwhelming intellectual authority. The progress of printing
(especially of the Bible) and the expansion of commerce, as well as
the spread of renaissance humanism, raised literacy rates, according
to Engels. Engels held that the Catholic monopoly on higher
education was accordingly reduced. However, despite the secular nature
of nineteenth century humanism, three centuries earlier Renaissance
humanism had still been strongly connected with the Church: its
proponents had attended Church schools.
Over time, some Catholic institutions had slipped into corruption.
Clerical ignorance and the abuses of simony and pluralism (holding
several offices at once) were rampant. Some bishops, archbishops,
abbots and priors were as ruthless in exploiting their subjects as the
regional princes. In addition to the sale of indulgences, they set
up prayer houses and directly taxed the people. Increased indignation
over church corruption had led the monk
Martin Luther to post his 95
Theses on the doors of the
Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, in
1517, as well as impelling other reformers to radically re-think
church doctrine and organization. The clergy who did not
follow Luther tended to be the aristocratic clergy, who opposed all
change, including any break with the Roman Church.
The poorer clergy, rural and urban itinerant preachers who were not
well positioned in the church, were more likely to join the
Reformation. Some of the poorer clergy sought to extend Luther's
equalizing ideas to society at large.
Many towns had privileges that exempted them from taxes, so that the
bulk of taxation fell on the peasants. As the guilds grew and urban
populations rose, the town patricians faced increasing opposition. The
patricians consisted of wealthy families who sat alone in the town
councils and held all the administrative offices. Like the princes,
they sought to secure revenues from their peasants by any possible
means. Arbitrary road, bridge, and gate tolls were instituted at will.
They gradually usurped the common lands and made it illegal for
peasants to fish or to log wood from these lands.
Guild taxes were
exacted. No revenues collected were subject to formal administration,
and civic accounts were neglected. Thus embezzlement and fraud became
common, and the patrician class, bound by family ties, became
wealthier and more powerful.
The town patricians were increasingly criticized by the growing
burgher class, which consisted of well-to-do middle-class citizens who
held administrative guild positions or worked as merchants. They
demanded town assemblies made up of both patricians and burghers, or
at least a restriction on simony and the allocation of council seats
to burghers. The burghers also opposed the clergy, whom they felt had
overstepped and failed to uphold their principles. They demanded an
end to the clergy’s special privileges such as their exemption from
taxation, as well as a reduction in their numbers. The burgher-master
(guild master, or artisan) now owned both his workshop and its tools,
which he allowed his apprentices to use, and provided the materials
that his workers needed. F. Engels cites: "To the call of
Luther of rebellion against the Church, two political uprisings
responded, first, the one of lower nobility, headed by Franz von
Sickingen in 1523, and then, the great peasant's war, in 1525; both
were crushed, because, mainly, of the indecisiveness of the party
having most interest in the fight, the urban bourgeoisie". (Foreword
to the English edition of: 'From Utopy Socialism to Scientific
The plebeians comprised the new class of urban workers, journeymen,
and peddlers. Ruined burghers also joined their ranks. Although
technically potential burghers, most journeymen were barred from
higher positions by the wealthy families who ran the guilds. Thus
their "temporary" position devoid of civic rights tended to become
permanent. The plebeians did not have property like ruined burghers or
The heavily taxed peasantry continued to occupy the lowest stratum of
society. In the early 16th century, no peasant could hunt, fish, or
chop wood freely, as they previously had, because the lords had
recently taken control of common lands. The lord had the right to use
his peasants' land as he wished; the peasant could do nothing but
watch as his crops were destroyed by wild game and by nobles galloping
across his fields in the course of chivalric hunts. When a peasant
wished to marry, he not only needed the lord's permission but had to
pay a tax. When the peasant died, the lord was entitled to his best
cattle, his best garments and his best tools. The justice system,
operated by the clergy or wealthy burgher and patrician jurists, gave
the peasant no redress. Generations of traditional servitude and the
autonomous nature of the provinces limited peasant insurrections to
local areas.
Army of the Swabian League
Bauernjörg, Georg, Truchsess von Waldburg, the Scourge of the
Swabian League fielded an army commanded by Georg, Truchsess von
Waldburg, later known as "Bauernjörg" for his role in the suppression
of the revolt. He was also known as the "Scourge of the
Peasants".[a] The league headquarters was in Ulm, and command was
exercised through a war council which decided the troop contingents to
be levied from each member. Depending on their capability, members
contributed a specific number of mounted knights and foot soldiers,
called a contingent, to the league's army. The Bishop of Augsburg, for
example, had to contribute 10 horse (mounted) and 62 foot soldiers,
which would be the equivalent of a half-company. At the beginning of
the revolt the league members had trouble recruiting soldiers from
among their own populations (particularly among peasant class) due to
fear of them joining the rebels. As the rebellion expanded many nobles
had trouble sending troops to the league armies because they had to
combat rebel groups in their own lands. Another common problem
regarding raising armies was that while nobles were obligated to
provide troops to a member of the league, they also had other
obligations to other lords. These conditions created problems and
confusion for the nobles as they tried to gather together forces large
enough to put down the revolts.
Foot soldiers were drawn from the ranks of the landsknechte. These
were mercenaries, usually paid a monthly wage of four guilders, and
organized into regiments (haufen) and companies (fähnlein or little
flag) of 120–300 men, which distinguished it from others. Each
company, in turn, was composed of smaller units of 10 to 12 men, known
as rotte. The landsknechte clothed, armed and fed themselves, and were
accompanied by a sizable train of sutlers, bakers, washerwomen,
prostitutes and sundry individuals with occupations needed to sustain
the force. Trains (tross) were sometimes larger than the fighting
force, but they required organization and discipline. Each landsknecht
maintained its own structure, called the gemein, or community
assembly, which was symbolized by a ring. The gemein had its own
leader (schultheiss), and a provost officer who policed the ranks and
maintained order. The use of the landsknechte in the German
Peasants' War reflects a period of change between traditional noble
roles or responsibilities towards warfare and practice of buying
mercenary armies, which became the norm throughout the 16th
The league relied on the armored cavalry of the nobility for the bulk
of its strength; the league had both heavy cavalry and light cavalry,
(rennfahne), which served as a vanguard. Typically, the rehnnfahne
were the second and third sons of poor knights, the lower and
sometimes impoverished nobility with small land-holdings, or, in the
case of second and third sons, no inheritance or social role. These
men could often be found roaming the countryside looking for work or
engaging in highway robbery.
To be effective the cavalry needed to be mobile, and to avoid hostile
forces armed with pikes.
The peasant armies were organized in bands (haufen), similar to the
landsknecht. Each haufen was organized into unterhaufen, or fähnlein
and rotten. The bands varied in size, depending on the number of
insurgents available in the locality. Peasant haufen divided along
territorial lines, whereas those of the landsknecht drew men from a
variety of territories. Some bands could number about 4,000; others,
such as the peasant force at Frankenhausen, could gather 8,000. The
Alsatian peasants who took to the field at the Battle of Zabern (now
Saverne) numbered 18,000.
Haufen were formed from companies, typically 500 men per company,
subdivided into platoons of 10 to 15 peasants each. Like the
landsknechts, the peasant bands used similar titles: Oberster
feldhauptmann, or supreme commander, similar to a colonel, and
lieutenants, or leutinger. Each company was commanded by a captain and
had its own fähnrich, or ensign, who carried the company's standard
(its ensign). The companies also had a sergeant or feldweibel, and
squadron leaders called rottmeister, or masters of the rotte. Officers
were usually elected, particularly the supreme commander and the
The peasant army was governed by a so-called ring, in which peasants
gathered in a circle to debate tactics, troop movements, alliances,
and the distribution of spoils. The ring was the decision-making body.
In addition to this democratic construct, each band had a hierarchy of
leaders including a supreme commander and a marshal (schultheiss), who
maintained law and order. Other roles included lieutenants, captains,
standard-bearers, master gunner, wagon-fort master, train master, four
watch-masters, four sergeant-majors to arrange the order of battle, a
weibel (sergeant) for each company, two quartermasters, farriers,
quartermasters for the horses, a communications officer and a pillage
Coat of arms
Coat of arms of the Swabian League, with a flag of St. George. Two
putti support a red cross in a white field; the motto: What God has
joined let man not separate; coloured woodcut by Hans Burgkmair, 1522.
The peasants possessed an important resource, the skills to build and
maintain field works. They used the wagon-fort effectively, a tactic
that had been mastered in the
Hussite Wars of the previous
century. Wagons were chained together in a suitable defensive
location, with cavalry and draft animals placed in the center.
Peasants dug ditches around the outer edge of the fort and used timber
to close gaps between and underneath the wagons. In the Hussite Wars,
artillery was usually placed in the center on raised mounds of earth
that allowed them to fire over the wagons. Wagon forts could be
erected and dismantled quickly. They were quite mobile, but they also
had drawbacks: they required a fairly large area of flat terrain and
they were not ideal for offense. Since their earlier use, artillery
had increased in range and power.
Peasants served in rotation, sometimes for one week in four, and
returned to their villages after service. While the men served, others
absorbed their workload. This sometimes meant producing supplies for
their opponents, such as in the Archbishopric of Salzburg, where men
worked to extract silver, which was used to hire fresh contingents of
landsknechts for the Swabian League.
However, the peasants lacked the Swabian League's cavalry, having few
horses and little armour. They seem to have used their mounted men for
reconnaissance. The lack of cavalry with which to protect their
flanks, and with which to penetrate massed landsknecht squares, proved
to be a long-term tactical and strategic problem.
Historians disagree on the nature of the revolt and its causes,
whether it grew out of the emerging religious controversy centered on
Luther; whether a wealthy tier of peasants saw their own wealth and
rights slipping away, and sought to weave them into the legal, social
and religious fabric of society; or whether peasants objected to the
emergence of a modernizing, centralizing nation state.
Threat to prosperity
One view is that the origins of the
German Peasants' War
German Peasants' War lay partly in
the unusual power dynamic caused by the agricultural and economic
dynamism of the previous decades. Labor shortages in the last half of
the 14th century had allowed peasants to sell their labor for a higher
price; food and goods shortages had allowed them to sell their
products for a higher price as well. Consequently, some peasants,
particularly those who had limited allodial requirements, were able to
accrue significant economic, social, and legal advantages.
Peasants were more concerned to protect the social, economic and legal
gains they had made than about seeking further gains.
Their attempt to break new ground was primarily seeking to increase
their liberty by changing their status from serfs, such as the
infamous moment when the peasants of
Mühlhausen refused to collect
snail shells around which their lady could wind her thread. The
renewal of the signeurial system had weakened in the previous half
century, and peasants were unwilling to see it restored.
Rebellious peasants surrounding a knight.
People in all layers of the social hierarchy—serfs or city dwellers,
guildsmen or farmers, knights and aristocrats—started to question
the established hierarchy. The so-called Book of One Hundred Chapters,
for example, written between 1501 and 1513, promoted religious and
economic freedom, attacking the governing establishment and displaying
pride in the virtuous peasant. The
Bundschuh revolts of the first
20 years of the century offered another avenue for the expression of
anti-authoritarian ideas, and for the spread of these ideas from one
geographic region to another.
Luther's revolution may have added intensity to these movements, but
did not create them; the two events, Luther's Protestant Reformation
and the German Peasants' War, were separate, sharing the same years
but occurring independently. However, Luther's doctrine of the
"priesthood of all believers" could be interpreted as proposing
greater social equality than Luther intended. Luther vehemently
opposed the revolts, writing the pamphlet Against the Murderous,
Thieving Hordes of Peasants, in which he remarks "Let everyone who
can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly ... nothing can be more
poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as one must
kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him he will strike you."
Roland Bainton saw the revolt as a struggle that began as an
upheaval immersed in the rhetoric of Luther's Protestant Reformation
Catholic Church but which really was impelled far beyond
the narrow religious confines by the underlying economic tensions of
Friedrich Engels interpreted the war as a case in which an emerging
proletariat (the urban class) failed to assert a sense of its own
autonomy in the face of princely power and left the rural classes to
Outbreak in the southwest
During the 1524 harvest, in Stühlingen, south of the Black Forest,
the Countess of Lupfen ordered serfs to collect snail shells for use
as thread spools after a series of difficult harvests. Within days,
1,200 peasants had gathered, created a list of grievances, elected
officers, and raised a banner. Within a few weeks most of
Germany was in open revolt. The uprising stretched
from the Black Forest, along the
Rhine river, to Lake Constance, into
the Swabian highlands, along the upper
Danube river, and into
Bavaria and the Tyrol.
On 16 February 1525, 25 villages belonging to the city of Memmingen
rebelled, demanding of the magistrates (city council) improvements in
their economic condition and the general political situation. They
complained of peonage, land use, easements on the woods and the
commons as well as ecclesiastical requirements of service and payment.
The city set up a committee of villagers to discuss their issues,
expecting to see a checklist of specific and trivial demands.
Unexpectedly, the peasants delivered a uniform declaration that struck
at the pillars of the peasant-magisterial relationship. Twelve
articles clearly and consistently outlined their grievances. The
council rejected many of the demands. Historians have generally
concluded that the articles of
Memmingen became the basis for the
Twelve Articles agreed on by the Upper Swabian Peasants Confederation
of 20 March 1525.
A single Swabian contingent, close to 200 horse and 1,000 foot
soldiers, however, could not deal with the size of the disturbance. By
1525, the uprisings in the Black Forest, the Breisgau, Hegau, Sundgau,
Alsace alone required a substantial muster of 3,000 foot and 300
Twelve Articles (statement of principles)
Main article: Twelve Articles
The title page of the 12 Articles. On browned paper, an illustration
shows men seated in a circle talking.
On 6 March 1525, some 50 representatives of the Upper Swabian Peasants
Haufen (troops)—the Baltringer Haufen, the Allgäuer Haufen, and the
Haufen (Seehaufen)—met in
Memmingen to agree a common
cause against the Swabian League. One day later, after difficult
negotiations, they proclaimed the establishment of the Christian
Association, an Upper Swabian Peasants' Confederation. The
peasants met again on 15 and 20 March in
Memmingen and, after some
additional deliberation, adopted the
Twelve Articles and the Federal
Order (Bundesordnung). Their banner, the Bundschuh, or a laced
boot, served as the emblem of their agreement. The Twelve Articles
were printed over 25,000 times in the next two months, and quickly
spread throughout Germany, an example of how modernization came to the
aid of the rebels.
Twelve Articles demanded the right for communities to elect and
depose clergymen and demanded the utilization of the "great tithe" for
public purposes after subtraction of a reasonable pastor's salary.
(The "great tithe" was assessed by the
Catholic Church against the
peasant's wheat crop and the peasant's vine crops. The great tithe
often amounted to more than 10% of the peasant's income.) The
Twelve Articles also demanded the abolition of the "small tithe" which
was assessed against the peasant's other crops. Other demands of the
Twelve Articles included the abolition of serfdom, death tolls, and
the exclusion from fishing and hunting rights; restoration of the
forests, pastures, and privileges withdrawn from the community and
individual peasants by the nobility; and a restriction on excessive
statute labor, taxes and rents. Finally, the
Twelve Articles demanded
an end to arbitrary justice and administration.
Course of the war
A finely detailed drawing of an old city, with church towers, thick
defensive walls, moats, and lots of houses. The Iller river divided
the Free Imperial City of Kempten and Kempten Abbey.
Kempten im Allgäu
Kempten im Allgäu was an important city in the Allgäu, a region in
what became Bavaria, near the borders with Württemberg and Austria.
In the early eighth century, Celtic monks established a monastery
there, Kempten Abbey. In 1213,
Holy Roman Emperor
Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II
declared the abbots members of the Reichsstand, or imperial estate,
and granted the abbot the title of duke. In 1289, King Rudolf of
Habsburg granted special privileges to the urban settlement in the
river valley, making it a free imperial city. In 1525 the last
property rights of the abbots in the Imperial City were sold in the
so-called "Great Purchase", marking the start of the co-existence of
two independent cities bearing the same name next to each other. In
this multi-layered authority, during the Peasants' War, the
abbey-peasants revolted, plundering the abbey and moving on the
Battle of Leipheim
48°26′56″N 10°13′15″E / 48.44889°N 10.22083°E /
48.44889; 10.22083 (Battle of Leipheim)
On 4 April 1525, 5,000 peasants, the Leipheimer
Haufen (literally: the
Leipheim Bunch) gathered near
Leipheim to rise against the city of
Ulm. A band of five companies, plus approximately 25 citizens of
Leipheim, assumed positions west of the town. League reconnaissance
reported to the Truchsess that the peasants were well-armed. They had
cannons with powder and shot and they numbered 3,000–4,000. They
took an advantageous position on the east bank of the Biber. On the
left stood a wood, and on their right, a stream and marshland; behind
them, they had erected a wagon fortress, and they were armed with
arquebuses and some light artillery pieces.
As he had done in earlier encounters with the peasants, the Truchsess
negotiated while he continued to move his troops into advantageous
positions. Keeping the bulk of his army facing Leipheim, he dispatched
detachments of horse from Hesse and
Ulm across the
Elchingen. The detached troops encountered a separate group of 1,200
peasants engaged in local requisitions, and entered into combat,
dispersing them and taking 250 prisoners. At the same time, the
Truchsess broke off his negotiations, and received a volley of fire
from the main group of peasants. He dispatched a guard of light horse
and a small group of foot soldiers against the fortified peasant
position. This was followed by his main force; when the peasants saw
the size of his main force—his entire force was 1,500 horse, 7,000
foot, and 18 field guns—they began an orderly retreat. Of the 4,000
or so peasants who had manned the fortified position, 2,000 were able
to reach the town of
Leipheim itself, taking their wounded with them
in carts. Others sought to escape across the Danube, and 400 drowned
there. The Truchsess' horse units cut down an additional 500. This was
the first important battle of the war.[c]
49°9′1.90″N 9°17′0.20″E / 49.1505278°N
9.2833889°E / 49.1505278; 9.2833889 (
Illustration of the castle at Weinsberg, surrounded by vineyards. At
Weinsberg, the peasants overwhelmed the castle, and slaughtered the
An element of the conflict drew on resentment toward some of the
nobility. The peasants of Odenwald had already taken the Cistercian
Monastery at Schöntal, and were joined by peasant bands from Limpurg
(near Schwäbisch Hall) and Hohenlohe. A large band of peasants from
Neckar valley, under the leadership of Jack Rohrbach, joined them
and from Neckarsulm, this expanded band, called the "Bright Band" (in
German, Heller Haufen), marched to the town of Weinsberg, where the
Count of Helfenstein, then the Austrian Governor of Württemberg, was
present.[d] Here, the peasants achieved a major victory. The peasants
assaulted and captured the castle of Weinsberg; most of its own
soldiers were on duty in Italy, and it had little protection. Having
taken the count as their prisoner, the peasants took their revenge a
step further: They forced him, and approximately 70 other nobles who
had taken refuge with him, to run the gauntlet of pikes, a popular
form of execution among the landsknechts. Rohrbach ordered the band's
piper to play during the running of the gauntlet. 
This was too much for many of the peasant leaders of other bands; they
repudiated Rohrbach's actions. He was deposed and replaced by a
knight, Götz von Berlichingen, who was subsequently elected as
supreme commander of the band. At the end of April, the band marched
to Amorbach, joined on the way by some radical Odenwald peasants out
for Berlichingen's blood. Berlichingen had been involved in the
suppression of the
Poor Conrad uprising 10 years earlier, and these
peasants sought vengeance. In the course of their march, they burned
down the Wildenburg castle, a contravention of the Articles of War to
which the band had agreed.
The massacre at
Weinsberg was also too much for Luther; this is the
deed that drew his ire in Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of
Peasants in which he castigated peasants for unspeakable crimes, not
only for the murder of the nobles at Weinsberg, but also for the
impertinence of their revolt.
Massacre at Frankenhausen
Further information: Battle of Frankenhausen
51°21′21″N 11°6′4″E / 51.35583°N 11.10111°E /
51.35583; 11.10111 (Battle of Frankenhausen)
The burning of Little Jack (Jacklein) Rohrbach, a leader of the
peasants during the war, in Neckargartach.
On 29 April the peasant protests in
Thuringia culminated in open
revolt. Large sections of the town populations joined the uprising.
Together they marched around the countryside and stormed the castle of
the Counts of Schwarzburg. In the following days, a larger number of
insurgents gathered in the fields around the town. When Müntzer
arrived with 300 fighters from
Mühlhausen on 11 May, several thousand
more peasants of the surrounding estates camped on the fields and
pastures: the final strength of the peasant and town force was
estimated at 6,000. The Landgrave, Philip of Hesse and Duke George of
Saxony were on Müntzer's trail and directed their
toward Frankenhausen. On 15 May joint troops of Landgraf Philipp I of
George, Duke of Saxony
George, Duke of Saxony defeated the peasants under Müntzer
Frankenhausen in the County of Schwarzburg. 
The Princes' troops included close to 6,000 mercenaries, the
Landsknechte. As such they were experienced, well-equipped,
well-trained and of good morale. The peasants, on the other hand, had
poor, if any, equipment, and many had neither experience nor training.
Many of the peasants disagreed over whether to fight or negotiate. On
14 May, they warded off smaller feints of the Hesse and Brunswick
troops, but failed to reap the benefits from their success. Instead
the insurgents arranged a ceasefire and withdrew into a wagon fort.
The next day Philip's troops united with the Saxon army of Duke George
and immediately broke the truce, starting a heavy combined infantry,
cavalry and artillery attack. The peasants were caught off-guard and
fled in panic to the town, followed and continuously attacked by the
public forces. Most of the insurgents were slain in what turned out to
be a massacre. Casualty figures are unreliable but estimates range
from 3,000 to 10,000 while the
Landsknecht casualties were as few as
six (two of whom were only wounded). Müntzer was captured, tortured
and executed at
Mühlhausen on 27 May.
Battle of Böblingen
The Battle of
Böblingen (12 May 1525) perhaps resulted in the
greatest casualties of the war. When the peasants learned that the
Truchsess (Seneschal) of Waldburg had pitched camp at Rottenburg, they
marched towards him and took the city of Herrenberg on 10 May.
Avoiding the advances of the
Swabian League to retake Herrenberg, the
Württemberg band set up three camps between
Sindelfingen. There they formed four units, standing upon the slopes
between the cities. Their 18 artillery pieces stood on a hill called
Galgenberg, facing the hostile armies. The peasants were overtaken by
the League's horse, which encircled and pursued them for
kilometres. While the Württemberg band lost approximately 3,000
peasants (estimates range from 2000 to 9000), the League lost no more
than 40 soldiers.
Battle of Königshofen
At Königshofen, on 2 June, peasant commanders Wendel Hipfler and
Georg Metzler had set camp outside of town. Upon identifying two
squadrons of League and Alliance horse approaching on each flank, now
recognized as a dangerous Truchsess strategy, they redeployed the
wagon-fort and guns to the hill above the town. Having learned how to
protect themselves from a mounted assault, peasants assembled in four
massed ranks behind their cannon, but in front of their wagon-fort,
intended to protect them from a rear attack. The peasant gunnery fired
a salvo at the League advanced horse, which attacked them on the left.
The Truchsess' infantry made a frontal assault, but without waiting
for his foot soldiers to engage, he also ordered an attack on the
peasants from the rear. As the knights hit the rear ranks, panic
erupted among the peasants. Hipler and Metzler fled with the master
gunners. Two thousand reached the nearby woods, where they
re-assembled and mounted some resistance. In the chaos that followed,
the peasants and the mounted knights and infantry conducted a pitched
battle. By nightfall only 600 peasants remained. The Truchsess ordered
his army to search the battlefield, and the soldiers discovered
approximately 500 peasants who had feigned death. The battle is also
called the Battle of the Turmberg, for a watch-tower on the field.
Siege of Freiburg im Breisgau
Freiburg, which was a Habsburg territory, had considerable trouble
raising enough conscripts to fight the peasants, and when the city did
manage to put a column together and march out to meet them, the
peasants simply melted into the forest. After the refusal by the Duke
of Baden, Margrave Ernst, to accept the 12 Articles, peasants attacked
abbeys in the Black Forest. The Knights Hospitallers at Heitersheim
fell to them on 2 May;
Haufen to the north also sacked abbeys at
Tennenbach and Ettenheimmünster. In early May, Hans Müller arrived
with over 8,000 men at Kirzenach, near Freiburg. Several other bands
arrived, bringing the total to 18,000, and within a matter of days,
the city was encircled and the peasants made plans to lay a siege.
Second Battle of Würzburg (1525)
After the peasants took control of Freiburg in Breisgau, Hans Müller
took some of the group to assist in the siege at Radolfzell. The rest
of the peasants returned to their farms. On 4 June, near Würzburg,
Müller and his small group of peasant-soldiers joined with the
Franconian farmers of the Hellen Lichten Haufen. Despite this union,
the strength of their force was relatively small. At Waldburg-Zeil
near Würzburg they met the army of
Götz von Berlichingen
Götz von Berlichingen ("Götz of
the Iron Hand"). An imperial knight and experienced soldier, although
he had a relatively small force himself, he easily defeated the
peasants. In approximately two hours, more than 8,000 peasants were
Several smaller uprisings were also put down. For example, on 23/24
June 1525 in the
Battle of Pfeddersheim the rebellious haufens in the
Palatine Peasants' War
Palatine Peasants' War were decisively defeated. By September 1525 all
fighting and punitive action had ended. Emperor Charles V and Pope
Clemens VII thanked the
Swabian League for its intervention.
Ultimate failure of the rebellion
The peasant movement ultimately failed, with cities and nobles making
a separate peace with the princely armies that restored the old order
in a frequently harsher form, under the nominal control of the Holy
Roman Emperor Charles V, represented in German affairs by his younger
brother Ferdinand. The main causes of the failure of the rebellion was
the lack of communication between the peasant bands because of
territorial divisions, and because of their military inferiority.
While Landsknechts, professional soldiers and knights joined the
peasants in their efforts (albeit in fewer numbers), the Swabian
League had a better grasp of military technology, strategy and
The aftermath of the
German Peasants' War
German Peasants' War led to an overall reduction
of rights and freedoms of the peasant class, effectively pushing them
out of political life. Certain territories in upper
Swabia such as
Kempton, Weissenau, and Tyrol saw peasants create territorial
assemblies (Landschaft), sit on territorial committees as well as
other bodies which dealt with issues that directly affected the
peasants like taxation. However the overall goals of change for
these peasants, particularly looking through the lens of the Twelve
Articles, had failed to come to pass and would remain stagnant, real
change coming centuries later.
Marx and Engels
Friedrich Engels wrote The Peasant War in
Germany (1850), which opened
up the issue of the early stages of German capitalism on later
bourgeois "civil society" at the level of peasant economies. Engels'
analysis was picked up in the middle 20th century by the French
Annales School, and Marxist historians in East
Britain. Using Karl Marx's concept of historical materialism,
Engels portrayed the events of 1524–1525 as prefiguring the 1848
Revolution. He wrote, "Three centuries have passed and many a thing
has changed; still the Peasant War is not so impossibly far removed
from our present struggle, and the opponents who have to be fought are
essentially the same. We shall see the classes and fractions of
classes which everywhere betrayed 1848 and 1849 in the role of
traitors, though on a lower level of development, already in
1525." Engels ascribed the failure of the revolt to its
fundamental conservatism. This led both Marx and Engels to
conclude that the communist revolution, when it occurred, would be led
not by a peasant army but by an urban proletariat.
Stamp of Thomas Müntzer
Historians disagree on the nature of the revolt and its causes,
whether it grew out of the emerging religious controversy centered on
Martin Luther; whether a wealthy tier of peasants saw their wealth and
rights slipping away, and sought to re-inscribe them in the fabric of
society; or whether it was peasant resistance to the emergence of a
modernizing, centralizing political state. Historians have tended to
categorize it either as an expression of economic problems, or as a
theological/political statement against the constraints of feudal
After the 1930s, Günter Franz’s work on the peasant war dominated
interpretations of the uprising. Franz understood the Peasants’ War
as a political struggle in which social and economic aspects played a
minor role. Key to Franz’s interpretation is the understanding that
peasants had benefited from the economic recovery of the early 16th
century and that their grievances, as expressed in such documents as
the Twelve Articles, had little or no economic basis. He interpreted
the uprising’s causes as essentially political, and secondarily
economic: the assertions by princely landlords of control over the
peasantry through new taxes and the modification of old ones, and the
creation of servitude backed up by princely law. For Franz, the defeat
thrust the peasants from view for centuries.
The national aspect of the
Peasants' Revolt was also utilised by the
Nazis. For example, an SS cavalry division (the 8th SS Cavalry
Division Florian Geyer) was named after Florian Geyer, a knight who
led a peasant unit known as the Black Company.
A new economic interpretation arose in the 1950s and 1960s. This
interpretation, informed by economic data on harvests, wages and
general financial conditions. It suggested that in the late 15th and
early 16th centuries, peasants saw newly achieved economic advantages
slipping away, to the benefit of the landed nobility and military
groups. The war was thus an effort to wrest these social, economic and
political advantages back.
Meanwhile, historians in East
Germany engaged in major research
projects to support the Marxist viewpoint.
Starting in the 1970s, research benefited from the interest of social
and cultural historians. Using sources such as letters, journals,
religious tracts, city and town records, demographic information,
family and kinship developments, historians challenged long-held
assumptions about German peasants and the authoritarian tradition.
This view held that peasant resistance took two forms. The first,
spontaneous (or popular) and localized revolt drew on traditional
liberties and old law for its legitimacy. In this way, it could be
explained as a conservative and traditional effort to recover lost
ground. The second was an organized inter-regional revolt that claimed
its legitimacy from divine law and found its ideological basis in the
Later historians refuted both Franz’s view of the origins of the
war, and the Marxist view of the course of the war, and both views on
the outcome and consequences. One of the most important was Peter
Blickle’s emphasis on communalism. Although Blickle sees a crisis of
feudalism in the latter Middle Ages in southern Germany, he
highlighted political, social and economic features that originated in
efforts by peasants and their landlords to cope with long term
climate, technological, labor and crop changes, particularly the
extended agrarian crisis and its drawn-out recovery. For Blickle,
the rebellion required a parliamentary tradition in southwestern
Germany and the coincidence of a group with significant political,
social and economic interest in agricultural production and
distribution. These individuals had a great deal to lose.
This view, which asserted that the uprising grew out of the
participation of agricultural groups in the economic recovery, was in
turn challenged by Scribner, Stalmetz and Bernecke. They claimed that
Blickle’s analysis was based on a dubious form of the Malthusian
principle, and that the peasant economic recovery was significantly
limited, both regionally and in its depth, allowing only a few
peasants to participate. Blickle and his students later modified their
ideas about peasant wealth. A variety of local studies showed that
participation was not as broad based as formerly thought.
The new studies of localities and social relationships through the
lens of gender and class showed that peasants were able to recover, or
even in some cases expand, many of their rights and traditional
liberties, to negotiate these in writing, and force their lords to
The course of the war also demonstrated the importance of a congruence
of events: the new liberation ideology, the appearance within peasant
ranks of charismatic and military-trained men like Müntzer and
Gaismair, a set of grievances with specific economic and social
origins, a challenged set of political relationships and a communal
tradition of political and social discourse.
List of peasant revolts
Popular revolt in late-medieval Europe
Melchior Rink, who was accused by
Lutherans of being an instigator of
^ Born in Waldsee (25 January 1488 – 29 May 1531), the son of Johann
II von Waldburg-Wolfegg († 19. October 1511) and of Helena von
Hohenzollern, he married Appolonia von Waldburg-Sonnenberg in 1509;
and, secondly, Maria von Oettingen (11 April 1498 – 18 August 1555).
Marek, Miroslav. "Waldburg genealogical table".
source][better source needed])
^ More conflict arose after the Imperial City converted to
Protestantism in direct opposition to the Catholic monastery (and Free
City) in 1527.
^ In 1994, a mass grave was discovered near Leipheim; linked by coins
to the time period, archaeologists discovered that most of the
occupants had died of head wounds (Miller 2003, p. 21).
^ The count, much despised by his subjects, was the son-in-law of the
previous Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian.(Miller 2003, p. 35)
^ Blickle 1981, p. 165.
^ Klassen 1979, p. 59.
^ Jaroslav J. Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, Luther's Works, 55 vols. (St.
Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia Pub. House and Fortress Press,
1955–1986), 46: 50–51.
^ Bainton 1978, p. 76.
^ Wolf 1962, p. 47.
^ Donald K. McKim (2003). The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther.
Cambridge University Press. pp. 184–6.
^ Scott 1989, p. 132ff.
^ Scott 1989, p. 164ff.
^ Scott 1989, p. 183.
^ a b c d e Wolf 1962, p. 147.
^ Engels 1978, p. 402.
^ a b c Klassen 1979, p. 57.
^ a b c d e Engels 1978, pp. 400.
^ Engels 1978, pp. 403–404.
^ Engels 1978, p. 687, Note 295.
^ Lins 1908, Cologne.
^ Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Chapter". Encyclopedia
Americana. ," New York, 1918, p. 514[verification needed]
^ (in German) Ennen, pp. 291–313.[verification needed]
^ Engels 1978, p. 404.
^ Engels 1978, p. 405.
^ Engels 1978, pp. 407.
^ a b c Miller 2003, p. 7.
^ Sea, Thomas F. (2007). "The German Princes' Response to the German
Peasants' Revolt of 1525". Cambridge University Press, Central
European History. JSTOR 20457227.
^ Moxey, Keith (1989). Peasants Warriors and Wives. London: The
University of Chicago Press. p. 71.
^ Miller 2003, p. 6.
^ a b Miller 2003, p. 8.
^ a b Miller 2003, p. 10.
^ Wilhelm 1907, Hussites.
^ Miller 2003, p. 13.
^ Miller 2003, p. 11.
^ Zagorín 1984, pp. 187–188.
^ Zagorín 1984, p. 187.
^ Zagorín 1984, p. 188.
^ Bercé 1987, p. 154.
^ Strauss 1971, p. [page needed].
^ Zagorín 1984, p. 190.
^ Bainton 1978, p. 208.
^ Engels 1978, pp. 411–412 & 446.
^ Engels 1978, pp. 59–62.
^ a b Engels 1978, p. 446.
^ Miller 2003, p. 4.
^ Hannes Obermair, "Logiche sociali della rivolta tradizionalista.
Bolzano e l’impatto della “Guerra dei contadini” del 1515,"
Studi Trentini. Storia, 92#1 (2013), pp. 185–194.
^ Bainton 1978, p. 210.
^ a b c d Bainton 1978, p. 211-212.
^ a b Engels 1978, p. 451.
^ Engels 1978, p. 691, Note 331.
^ Miller 2003, pp. 20–21.
^ Menzel & 1848–49, p. 239.
^ Miller2003, p. 35.
^ Miller 2003, p. 34.
^ Blickle 1981, p. xxiii.
^ Scott 1989, p. 158ff.
^ Miller 2003, p. 33.
^ Wald 2010, Böblingen.
^ Miller 2003, p. 37.
^ Scott, pp. 204–209.
^ a b Blickle, Peter (1981). the revolution of 1525: the German
Peasants' War from a new perspective. Baltimore and London: The Johns
Hopkins University Press. pp. 181–182.
^ Eric R. Wolf, "The Peasant War in Germany:
Friedrich Engels as
Social Historian," Science and Society (1987) 51:1 pp82-92.
^ Engels 1978, p. 399.
^ Engels 1978, pp. 397,482.
^ Ozment 1980, p. 279.
^ a b Ozment 1980, p. 250.
^ Tom Scott, "The Peasants' War: A Historiographical Review,"
Historical Journal (1979) 22#3, pp. 693-720 in JSTOR
^ Peter Blickle, The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants War from
a New Perspective (1981).
^ Tom Scott and Robert W. Scribner, eds. The German peasants' war: a
history in documents (Humanities Press International, 1991).
^ Govind P. Sreenivasan, "The social origins of the Peasants' War of
1525 in Upper Swabia." Past & Present 171 (2001): 30-65. in JSTOR
^ Keith Moxey, Peasants, Warriors, and Wives: Popular Imagery in the
Reformation (U of Chicago Press, 2004).
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Linebaugh, Peter (March 2015). "Fire Next Time - The Rainbow Sign".
Old Order Mennonites
Schwarzenau (German Baptist) Brethren
Brethren in Christ Church
Apostolic Christian Church
German Peasants' War
Dordrecht Confession of Faith
Theology of Anabaptism
Apostolic succession/Great Apostasy
Freedom of religion
Nonconformity to the world
Priesthood of all believers
Separation of church and state/free church
Medieval and Early Modern European peasant wars
Rebellions of Basil the Copper Hand
Uprising of Ivaylo
Peasant revolt in Flanders 1323–28
St. George's Night Uprising
Peasants' Revolt in England
Transylvanian peasant revolt
Funen and Jutland Peasant rebellions
Jack Cade's rebellion
John and William Merfold's uprising
Carinthian Peasant Revolt
Friulian Revolt of 1511
Poor Conrad rebellion
Slovene Peasant Revolt
Arumer Zwarte Hoop
German Peasants' War
Palatine Peasants' War
Skipper Clement's Rebellion
Peasant's Rebellion in Telemark
Croatian–Slovene Peasant Revolt
Ivan Bolotnikov's Rebellion
Peasants' War in Upper Austria
Morning Star Rebellion
Swiss peasant war of 1653
Stenka Razin Uprising
Dalecarlian Rebellion (1743)
Revolt of Horea, Cloșca and Crișan
Saxon Peasants' Revolt
Peasants' War (1798)
Unrest in Spain, 1517–1523
Navarre (partially occupied, disputed)
Granada (annexed by Castile)
King Charles I of Castile and Aragon
Joanna of Castile
Joanna of Castile and Aragon
Cardinal Adrian of Utrecht
William de Croÿ, sieur de Chièvres
Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros
Germaine of Foix
Revolt of the Comuneros
List of important figures
Battle of Villalar
Juan de Padilla
Antonio de Acuña
Revolt of the Brotherhoods
List of important figures
Frisian peasant rebellion (1515–1523)
Knights' Revolt (1522)
German Peasants' War
German Peasants' War (1524–1525)