In the early C16 the population of Germany was growing. There was pressure on land and land prices increased. Landlords attempted to re-introduce feudal labour which would have greatly increased their hold over the peasants. This caused great resentment amongst the peasants and they started to support a man called Thomas Muntzer who openly called for greater social equality.
In 1525, a major revolt took place in the Black Forest. This was the so-called "Peasants Revolt". Violence had occurred as early as 1524 but on an infrequent basis. In 1525 this anger spilled over into a mass revolt involving possibly as many as 250,000 people.
The peasants issued their "Twelve Articles". This was a list of their religious and social demands and included demands that ministers should be elected by the whole congregation and that they should teach the Holy Gospel in a pure and simple form. They also demanded fair rents for land and no serfdom. Though these might have appeared to have been fair demands, the men of property (and therefore of power) were horrified. Some leaders wanted slight change to suit the times but no-one in authority wanted equality.
In April 1525, Luther had shown support for the peasants in his "Friendly Admonition to peace concerning the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants".
This openly criticised lords but especially bishops and "mad priests". However, Luther also criticised the peasants use of force and he clashed with them over their claim that serfdom should be abolished. The peasants argued that Jesus had died on the cross for all people great and small, and therefore there should be no inequality. Luther argued against this by writing that:
|"this article would make all men equal and turn the spiritual kingdom of Christ into a worldly kingdom - and that is not possible……..a slave can be a Christian and have Christian liberty."|
By the spring of 1525, 250,000 peasants were in revolt. Southern Germany suffered especially badly. North-east and North-west Germany were not affected. To the general populace, Luther seemed to support the peasants religious demands but not their social or economic ones. But Luther hit a major problem.
The rebels started calling themselves "Lutherans" and Luther feared that once the revolt had finished he and his new movement might face a severe backlash from state leaders which could seriously undermine it. Would the princes who had supported Luther in some states see him as a threat to law and order? Without their support Luther was in a vulnerable position with regards to the emperor.
Luther penned "Against the murderous, pillaging hordes of peasants". This called for very severe punishment for the rebels and indicated that Luther was opposed to any form of social upheaval which threatened the position of the state leaders.
The state leaders raised an army to defeat the rebels which was duly completed at the Battle of Frankenhausen in May 1525. After this, resistance amongst the peasants collapsed and savage reprisals took place. It is thought that as many as 100,000 died during these reprisals.
Why is this revolt important?
1. Luther ‘showed’ to the princes that he could be trusted with regards to issues such as social stability and opposing rebellion to the established order. In crude terms, he showed to those in power that he was on the 'right side'.
2. He also showed to some elements within the poorer social classes that Luther was not for them. It is difficult to know if they felt betrayed as the evidence does not exist but the poor tuned to more revolutionary sects such as the Anabaptists.
3. The middle class associated themselves to Luther as he represented social stability. Both the middle class and the princes (the upper class) were fearful for their property and the violent but successful end of the revolt and the condemnation of the peasants by Luther lead to these groups in northern Germany giving their support to Luther.
4. Luther had got the support from those who mattered in society. He also lost support from those who mattered least.
Regardless of what occurred in 1525, Luther failed to make any headway in the staunchly catholic southern states of Germany. The four points above primarily relate to the north of Germany.