Martin Luther and the Insurgent Peasants: A Critical Look at "Evangelical Freedom".
(Published in Grail World 59/2010)
At the turn of the 15th to the 16th century, the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age[i], there were all sorts of tensions in the German Reich. The country was divided among more than a thousand princes and lords[ii]who had their own personal goals. Chronically short of money, the emperor's power was limited. There was almost no legal security for the population.
Unworthy conditions in the church
There were considerable grievances in the late medieval church. The monasteries did not meet their moral standards. Clergy, pejorative priests[iii] called, led a dissolute life. Buying offices, corruption and nepotism were not only the rule in Rome. The priests made money with relics, blessings, sacraments, indulgences. These unworthy conditions in the church have been criticized and lamented for centuries, for example by Arnold von Brescia (executed 1155), Petrus Waldes (d. Before 1218). John Wiclif (1330-1384), Jan Hus (1370-1415) or Girolamo Savonarola (1492-1498).
The economy was changing. The cities grew and gained importance while the knighthood became impoverished; only the sovereigns at the top became richer and richer and were able to expand their influence accordingly.
Incredible injustice and a "snail war"
How unbelievably the poor and oppressed peasants were treated by their rulers is shown by Otto Zierer in his book "From Servitude to Freedom" using an example from Bulgenbach (today part of Grafenhausen in the southern Black Forest):
“The Jockel farmer died a week ago as a result of a whipping that he had at Hohenlupfen Castle[v] received because he moaned at the Frone. In front of the castle, under the bower, there is a covered pond in which a vast number of frogs live. The croaking disturbs the Countess's sleep. That is why she has ordered that the common man sit on the banks at night and beat the water with willow rods to prevent the frogs from croaking. The Jockel, who has ten children to support, was employed as a game driver in the Bannwald three days a week, he had fronted two more days in the Count's meadows, and the last day he was finally able to go to his own fields, on which he lived and on the proceeds of which he paid interest, tithe, validity, and tax. At night he was dead tired and had therefore bitterly complained about the frog weakness. Somebody had told the bailiff about this and he had had him flogged as a punishment.
The Jockel farmer had spat blood and died two days later.
His wife should now pay interest on death; after all, Herr Sigmund von Lupfen had suffered damage to his property because he owned one less farmer. In the past, the Jockel court, like many others, had a free interest relationship with Hohenlupfen Castle. But there were no sealed writings about the conditions of basic justice, so that the Jockel lacked any legally binding evidence.
One day interest had become personal bondage. As a representative of the landlord on Hohenlupfen, the Fronvogt claimed that the Jockels estate was a 'fall fiefdom', that is, it was only granted to the farmer for life and would revert entirely to the property of the count after death. The ancestors of Jockel sat on the estate for as long as you could remember.
Out of sheer grace, the count wanted to be satisfied with the payment of the 'best head' and a small special tax. The Wittib with her ten children should now lose the most beautiful head of cattle from the stable - as a punishment for the fact that the jocking had not endured the beatings of the stick servants.
Now the peasants band together and run back into the village; they do not want to tolerate injustice ... " (6, p. 182).
This excitement also subsided, like a hundred others. Further unreasonable demands were required on the part of the manor, especially Countess Helena von Lupfen, until a riot broke out on June 24, 1524:
“The Countess was in a strange mood to fall in love with the cute yellow-black snail shells that are not so often found on the banks of the Bulgenbach and the Wutach. Such snail shells can be used to wind up twine when one sits on Hohenlupfen in the winter room and does not know how to kill the time.
So the farmers of Bulgenbach are supposed to look for snail shells today.
And there is still so much cut and uncut grain outside. In the past few days, thunderstorms have rumbled from far away. The ancients of the village say that it smells of hail and weather. That is why young and old have been on the field to salvage the harvest since the first morning light.
But now the bailiff stops and reads out the countess's orders. The traveling farmhands blow out the dirt roads to fetch the people - in the middle of the most urgent harvest work!
An hour later, almost the entire population of the village, grumbling and cursing, moves to the strange Fron. " (6, p. 184).
Around noon dark clouds gather, the peasants are restless, but the overseer is relentless. There is a collision, the overseer is slain ...
This was the initial spark for the armed uprising that began in Bulgenbach in the fall of 1524 and spread across the entire county of Stühlingen and beyond. The leader is the war-experienced mercenary Hans Müller (born around 1480, executed on August 12, 1525 in Lauffenburg).
Peasants as playballs for stately whims
In this feudal society, the peasants had to bear the brunt of the burden. They were oppressed and overwhelmed by taxes, levies and compulsory labor. An example: The game kept for the hunting pleasure of the gentlemen regularly destroyed part of the harvest. Farmers were forbidden to erect wild fences and poachers were cruelly punished. In par force hunts, the cross-country hunts on horseback, accompanied by a pack of dogs, the aristocratic riders rushed ruthlessly across the fields. The defenseless, incapacitated peasants were degraded to the plaything of stately whims. That was the social situation when Martin Luther (1483–1546) taught theology in Wittenberg.
When the money sounds in the box ...
The grievances in the church, especially the sale of indulgences, led to the protest of the Augustinian monk and theologian Martin Luther at the University of Wittenberg. In a letter to his ecclesiastical superiors on October 31, 1517, in the famous 95 theses, he demanded the end of the shameful indulgence fraud[iv]. The business of indulgences promised a ransom from earthly sins and from the impending purgatory. Even the deceased could still be helped according to the motto:
"If the money sounds in the box, ihe soul leaps from purgatory to heaven ”.
The indulgences trade had become an important source of income for the Church that she could not do without. Pope Leo X (Pope from 1513 to 1521) was also short of money due to the construction of the monumental St. Peter's Church and felt dependent on the indulgence money. That is why Luther's reform demands were badly received by the church.
Luther unintentionally sets off an avalanche
As we all know from history lessons, Luther courageously defended his theses in disputations, even before the emperor at the Diet in Worms (1521). He escaped the impending pyre through the intervention of his sovereign Prince Friedrich III. (1463–1525), the Duke of Saxony, who hid him for some time in the Wartburg.
Luther had set off an avalanche, initially unintentionally. It seems as if many have been waiting for such an initial spark to make air in sermons, appeals, and pamphlets. Book printing, invented around 1450, enabled news to spread quickly. Leaflets popularized the new ideas. When the Bible translated into German by Luther came out from 1522, the established priests lost their monopoly on interpretation.
Many lay people could now read the German Bible; the contradictions between the spiritual doctrine and the actions of the church and the authorities could no longer be discussed away. The outrage over the depraved church, the economic difficulties, the unjust exercise of rule, the legal uncertainty, the exploitation of the common man, sparked an uprising that was initially religiously articulated and led to the church split. Within a few decades, large parts of Germany turned away from the Roman Church.
Regional princes like Friedrich III. von Sachsen, "the wise", patron of Martin Luther, promoted the Protestant (Lutheran) religion. The princes dissolved monasteries and enriched themselves with their property. It was not least economic interests that made the new faith interesting for the authorities.
The oppressed peasants revolt
The oppressed peasants who had been treated unfairly also revolted. They referred to the biblical laws, for example the tithe, called for freedom and justice in the sense of the Gospels and appealed to the "divine right". Their hopes rested on Martin Luther, from whom they expected support.
On March 20, 1525 in Memmingen a group of rebellious farmers were the Twelve articles adopted. These were both a letter of complaint and a religiously based reform program, a social policy program and one of the first human rights declarations. Following the example of the Swiss Confederation, the German farmers should stand together and enforce the following demands:
• Abolition of serfdom
• Abolition of the small tithe
• Hunting, fishing and logging should be free
• Return of the common land and the communal forest to the farmers
• Free choice of pastor by the parish
• Reduction of forced labor
• Remaining labor only for compensation
• No arbitrary penalties
If any of these claims were against the gospel, it would be withdrawn.
But the rulers did not think of giving up their privileges and accommodating the oppressed.
"Don't let your sword get cold!"
From an appeal by Thomas Müntzer in April 1525:
"How long do you sleep? How long have you not confessed God's word?
Do not be so despondent and careless. No longer flatter the perverse dreamers, the godless villains. Go ahead and fight the Lord's controversy. It is high time.
All of Germany and Welschland is in motion. It's up to the bad guys. If there are only three of you who, left alone, seek his name and honor in God, you will not fear a hundred thousand. Just turn it! Your turn! Your turn! It's time! The villains are as free as dogs are despondent. Your turn! Your turn! Your turn! Do not be merciful. Do not look at the misery of the wicked. Do not have mercy! We are not allowed to sleep any longer. You have to turn on, turn on! It's time! Since the fire is hot, do not let your sword get cold. Don't let it fade. Forge Pinkepanke on the anvil of Nimrod. Throw the tower to the ground for the tyrants. It is not possible, because they are alive, that you should be devoid of human fear. You cannot be told of God while they rule over you. Turned on, turned on, because it’s time for you! God goes first! Follow, follow! " (1).
Radical preachers call for peasant liberation
The Protestant movement threatened to split as a result of the protests and uprisings of the peasants. Radical preachers, above all Thomas Müntzer (1489–1525), stood for the violent liberation of the peasants and justified their demands with the Bible. In doing so, Müntzer was aware that the required economic reforms also required political change and changes in the structures of rule.
Martin Luther initially took a moderate course. Later he clearly opposed the insurgents. He did not want to see that the revolutionary movements logically emerged from his reformatory demands. A bitter dispute arose between Luther and his follower Müntzer, which was carried out in the very clear language of a time that is known as the “Rough Age”.
Luther was obliged to the Duke of Saxony. Without his energetic help, Luther and his reforms would have failed. Should he have rebelled against his patron? In addition, Luther was and remained a theologian for whom the Bible was at the center; social and political questions hardly interested him. By a clergyman who considered reason "The whore of the devil" (3, p. 226), one could hardly expect rational, social reforms.
Luther's “evangelical freedom” was not one
Luther's memorandum "Of the freedom of the Christian" referred to the religious Freedom. He rejected political and social freedoms and revolutions. Johannes Scherr writes about this in the "Deutsche Kultur- und Sittengeschichte":
“Luther believed his work to be impaired by the efforts of the knight, peasant and bourgeois class to introduce Reformation ideas into the state and society. He therefore hastened to seek support from the princes and to provide evidence for this purpose that the charge that the revolutionary movements arose from his teaching was entirely unfounded. He showed what about evangelical freedom, as he wanted it to be preached, and how this freedom really wasn't, at least it had absolutely nothing to do with political and social freedom. He strongly emphasized the Christian doctrine of unconditional submission to the authorities. He is the actual inventor of the doctrine of the limited understanding of the subject and of the justification of the most unconditional arbitrariness by God's grace. 'That two and five are equal to seven,' he preached, 'you can understand that with your reason; but if the authorities say: two and five are equal to eight, you must believe it against your knowledge and feel yours' " (3, p. 226).
So Luther could not or did not want to see that moral law was on the side of the insurgents. For this he delivered the prince in his sermon "Against the murderous and predatory packs of the peasants" (see box) the justification for the bloody suppression of the uprising.
A great pawn sacrifice and abject poverty
From a later perspective, Luther was bitterly reproached for his failure in economic and social policy.
Martin Luther was without a doubt an outstanding figure in German history; his merits are beyond dispute. But even he could not jump over his shadow. A theologian who was faithful to the Bible and brought up in late medieval thinking was not to be expected to anticipate the ideas of the philosophy of the Enlightenment.
So the peasants were denied the moral support of the decisive spiritual authority of the time. Their uprisings were brutally suppressed, and the oppressed found themselves in more dire straits than before.
From a modern perspective one can speak of a "pawn sacrifice". Because the just concerns of the oppressed were sacrificed in order to win over the princes to the evangelical doctrine. The sovereigns helped the new religion to break through, but the empire was divided and the Reformation got stuck halfway. In Protestant countries the church was reformed, social reforms failed to materialize. It took another three centuries until - for example in the course of the French Revolution - many of the rioters' legitimate demands could finally be enforced.
Luther also opened the way to strengthening the sovereignty of the sovereigns vis-à-vis the emperor, who, as an opponent of evangelical doctrine, was denied the right to demand obedience. The princes should decide on the denomination of their subjects. The "freedom of the Christian" to decide about his religion was sacrificed in favor of the rulers, whose power grew. This strengthened position of the regional rulers had a long - often ominous - effect in German history. It has not yet been overcome today.
"Against the murderous and predatory packs of the peasants"
After Martin Luther had initially warned farmers and princes to moderate, he changed his mind under the impression of the bloody deed by Weinsberg on April 17, 1525, in which aristocrats had to run the gauntlet and were cruelly slain. Now Luther turned against the rebellious peasants with theological arguments without recognizing their economic hardship.
In the introduction to his sermon he says:
“In the previous book I was not allowed to judge the farmers because they were right and better to offer themselves lessons… But before I look around, they go on and grasp with their fists, forgetting their offer, rob and rage and act like madmen Dogs. In doing so, one can see what they had in their wrong sense and that it was a vainly false thing that they referred to under the name of the Gospel in the twelve articles. In short, they do vain work of the devil. "
Luther demands loyalty to the authorities, according to the scriptures "So give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and to God what belongs to God" (Mark. 12, 17) and “Everyone should obey the bearers of state power. For there is no state authority that does not come from God; each one is appointed by God. " (Rom. 13.1).
Luther condemns riot, murder, and looting of monasteries and castles:
“Because riot is not a bad murder, but like a great fire that ignites and devastates a country. So turmoil brings with it a land full of murder, bloodshed, widows and orphans, and destroys everything like the greatest calamity. That is why you should throw, choke and stab, secretly or publicly, who can, and remember that nothing can be more poisonous, more harmful, more devilish than a rebellious person, just as if you have to kill a great dog: if you don't hit him, so he strikes you and a whole country with you ”.
All who - like Thomas Müntzer - justify such crimes with the gospel, thinks Luther, "serve the depthl “and earned "Ten times death in body and soul".
He says of the rebellious peasants
“That they are (not only) of the devil, but force and urge much more pious people who do not like to do it to their devilish covenant and thus make them partakers of all their wickedness and condemnation. Because whoever 'approves' with him, goes with him 'to the devil and is guilty of all the wrongdoing they commit'.
Finally, there is an appeal to those in power to ruthlessly put down the uprising:
“So, dear gentlemen, go here, save here, help here! Have mercy on the poor people! Pierce, hit, choke here, whoever can! If you stay dead, it's good to you! You can never overcome blissful death, because you die in obedience to divine words and commands (Rom. 13) and in the service of love to save your neighbor from hell and the bondage of the devil. So now I ask: flee from the farmers, if you can, but from the devil himself! " (7).
What would have happened if ...
Much was discussed about what was neglected in the great moment of the peasant wars, what future opportunities for Germany were lost. Depending on the personal, religious, social, and political point of view, one will come to different views about Luther's condemnation of the peasant uprisings and the missed opportunities of his time.
A clear commitment by Luther to more earthly justice would have made an impression. But could it have given farmers, citizens and knights the support they needed to enforce their demands? Could Luther's moral authority have given the Germans the spiritual strength to overcome their multiple conflicts of interest, to enforce more social justice, to reform religion and the state, to have Germany under an evangelical commitment to a state that could withstand external interference?
Few historians believe that is possible. But examples from history show that enthusiasm that seizes the masses can turn the fate of a people in an unexpected, seemingly impossible way.
In fact, it turned out differently.
After Protestantism had spread in most of Germany, Emperor Charles V was able to force about half of the princes back into the Catholic faith in the Schmalkaldic War of 1545/47 by force of arms. Its power was not enough to re-Catholicize the whole of Germany.
External violence led to the unfortunate split between North (Protestant) and South (Catholic). Then came the Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church, which culminated in the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), in which it was only superficially about faith. This terrible war was a struggle between France, Spain and Sweden for supremacy in Europe. The German states, on whose soil the war was mainly fought, lost almost half of their population and fell behind in their development by many decades ...
Read the article on this "500 years of the Reformation".
[i] The following dates are given for the beginning of the modern age: the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks (1453), the discovery of America (1492), Luther's 95 theses (1517).
[ii] A number that is easy to remember: In the year of the French Revolution (1789), there was territorial rule in the German Empire in 1789. (Cf. Golo Mann: "German History of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century", Gutenberg Book Guild, Frankfurt, 1962, p. 25), 314 of which were independent states and 1475 were goods.
[iii] As a contrast to the monks, secular priests were named. Since the Reformation, the once dignified term “Pfaffe” (from papa = father) has increasingly become a dirty word.
[iv] Wicliv and Hus had denounced indulgences a century before Luther.
[v] Hohenlupfen Castle is the landmark of the city of Stühlingen today.
(1) Franz Günther, Thomas Müntzers Schriften und Letters, Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht, Göttingen, 1968.
(2) Fernau Joachim, Germany, Germany above everything ..., Stalling, Oldenburg, 1952.
(3) Scherr Johannes, German cultural and moral history, Agrippina, Wiesbaden, undated
(4) Vogler Günter, The violence should be given to the common people, Dietz, Berlin, 1983.
(5) Vogler Günter, Thomas Müntzer, Dietz, Berlin, 1989.
(6) Zierer Otto, From bondage to freedom, Das Bergland-Buch, Salzburg, 1979.