By Kelly DeVries
Why would peasants revolt? The answer once given by historians influenced by Marxist economic and historical thought was that they were oppressed by those who, in a pre-industrial historical context, essentially “owned” them. This ownership gave these “lords” the right to determine an almost daily regimen of hard agricultural work for their peasants, whose only respite came from the times they were worshiping in their churches or involved in Church “holy days” and other activities. The peasants were simply revolting against this oppressive enforced labor.
Such a response, however, fails to easily answer history’s subsequent question: why, if peasants were always oppressed, did they not revolt more often? The number of peasant revolts throughout all of history are in fact very few, with larger-scale peasant revolts – meaning more peasants involved in the revolt over a much larger area of land than a single village or region – even rarer.
The answer to the lack of frequency is actually simple: even if they had the slightest initial impact on agricultural, economic, or political policy, peasant revolts were never successful. Of course, peasants – in their broadest definition as agricultural workers – were parts of the successful American, French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions, but in these they were joined with people who lived in larger, urban areas, and history has given the latter more credit for these successful revolutions than their rural compatriots. Had peasants alone tried to fight these revolutions, it is a justifiable conclusion that they would have lost.
The historical rarity of peasant revolts means that those which do occur throughout history excite lots of contemporary commentary – although this is generally one-sided against the peasants. As the literacy rate of peasants has always been quite low, almost all sources were written from the perspective of those who were being rebelled against and not from the rebels’. Nor does it help that the majority of sources reporting these revolts were written after the conflicts were over and the peasants had lost. Those writers, especially clerics, who might have shown sympathy with or found justice in the peasants’ cause, knew by the time they were writing that the peasants had been defeated, and that whatever sympathy or justice they had felt at the start of the rebellion had been in vain.
Without knowing the peasants’ accounts of events, it is difficult to understand their motive in rebelling. Such is the case with the peasants who revolted in Central Europe in 1524-25, in what has become known to history as the German Peasants’ Revolt because the majority of those involved in the revolt – or, to be more historically correct, revolts – spoke a vernacular German language. To be accurate there was no Germany at the time, but a conglomerate of states and principalities called the Holy Roman Empire, ruled over, strictly in some cases and more loosely in others, by an emperor elected by important nobles and high-ranking ecclesiastics.
The emperor at this time was Charles V, who had held the imperial throne since 1519, his selection secured at the time because he was the son of the Habsburg Philip (the Handsome) and Spanish Joanna (the Mad), and grandson of the Habsburg Maximilian, duke of Austria (his direct predecessor as Holy Roman Emperor), and Mary, duchess of Burgundy, on his father’s side, and Ferdinand, king of Aragon, and Isabella, queen of Castile, on his mother’s. However, it is likely that none of the revolting peasants were aware of this genealogical background, even if they did know the name of their emperor. They may well have known the name of their local lord, to whom they paid their rentes, but they probably did not understood that lord’s relationships with the emperor and other noble leaders of the Holy Roman Empire, nor that these relationships were frequently strained in the early sixteenth century due to economic inequality and political sovereignty. Political issues seem not to have been what caused the German peasants to revolt in 1524-25.
However, politics was not the only tumult of the early sixteenth century. In asking the question, “what were these German peasants revolting against?”, it is much easier to blame religious and economic issues as the cause.
It had only been seven years since Martin Luther had tacked his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, but already his influence was being felt, even among those in the rural reaches. Few would have understood the intricacies of his religious “reformation” of Catholicism; what they would have understood well were his attacks against clerical corruption. Luther’s targets were the higher clergy and their financial exploitation of others in urban and noble society; but, seemingly unrecognized by him, this corruption had reached even to the villages in the countryside. Early sixteenth-century peasants welcomed pretty much whatever religious change could be offered.
Itinerant preachers brought messages both for and against Luther during these early years of the Reformation, with some of the latter advocating neither for Catholicism nor Lutheranism. This more radical religious reformation promoted the perfect Christian commonwealth, one of economic equality among persons and the community of goods that could be acquired by revolution if necessary. Peasants liked these ideas. One of the most influential of the radical reformers was Thomas Müntzer, whose preaching among the peasants in the southern Holy Roman Empire certainly aided the initiation of rebellion in the region. His early sympathy would eventually turn into participation.
Economically, almost two centuries earlier, the Black Death had given peasants who survived unprecedented rights and privileges simply because their population had so drastically dropped that they had become a commodity. Since then, however, these rights and privileges had diminished, with lords offering fewer personal freedoms and economic benefits. Common lands decreased in numbers and sizes, with peasants finding their fishing and lumber access in these cut off or made illegal. Rentes, tolls and duties increased, with new and oppressive taxes waged on the peasants while the clergy, nobles and bourgeoisie escaped them mostly if not altogether. Taxes were levied on peasants’ births, marriages and deaths.
The Beginning of the Revolt
Of course, as with most revolutions, it is not the long-term oppressions or burdens that build up to confrontation, but a single, more immediate incident. Such it was with the German Peasants’ Revolt. In Fall 1524, as her peasants were working long hours harvesting grain in Stühlingen, Helena, countess of Lupfen, required them also to collect snail shells for use as thread spools. It must have seemed a small task to her, but dissatisfaction against the added work grew among these peasants, with an estimated 1,200 gathering in protest within a few days. They formed an army, electing officers and raising a banner; their grievances were numerous.
The Peasants’ Revolt spread widely and quickly. Within only a few weeks, rebellion had spread throughout the southern part of the Empire. Revolution among the peasants was infectious. On 16 February 1525, 25 villages outside of Memmingen joined the rebellion. They enlisted the assistance of the town’s leaders to improve their economic status. The town relied on the peasants in these villages for foodstuffs, and the leaders agreed to meet. They were presented, unexpectedly it seems according to original sources, with a written document outlining the peasants’ grievances.
This document appears to have initiated what became known as the Twelve Articles, written on 20 March 1525 for the Upper Swabian Peasants’ Confederation. The Twelve Articles were demands rather than complaints – more of a Constitution than a Declaration of Independence. They made demands on the Catholic Church – the people should be able to elect their priest, and remove him if he misbehaved; tithes should pay the preacher and taxes levied for war, but also be for the poor – asked for more personal freedoms – freedom from feudal control; freedom to hunt and fish; free access to the woods; freedom from arbitrary punishment – but also included demands for greater economic sovereignty – no excessive fees or fines; no services without payment; rente review; the right to common-held meadows and other lands; the abolition of the inheritance tax (todfall).
The Peasants as a Military Force
The Upper Swabian Peasants’ Confederation made the Germans Peasants’ Revolt more than a local uprising of a few thousand peasants. This group was administratively well organized. Where they learned how to organize in such a manner is unknown, and it also included organizing an army, although what constituted the force – how many foot and horse – and how they were armed and armored cannot be determined. And here is where the efficiency in organization failed. Although their numbers were impressive, their organization, strategy and tactics were not. Some details of the peasants’ military organization are known, as the Field Ordinances of peasants rebelling in Franconia survive, but, as actions would show, the peasants were actually little more than disorganized and unruly hordes.
Modern historians assume the peasants were organized in bands (haufen) similar to Landsknecht forces, although this belief is based primarily on Landsknecht bands consisting of other rural and lower-class soldiers from similar areas of Europe. However, peasant haufens did not resemble any Landsknecht haufens of the time. Who and how many fought in peasant haufens is unknown, but varied from haufen to haufen. How many and what officers led them is also unknown, although again it is reported that they had some hierarchical leadership, with some of the leaders named in the sources. The most notable of these was Götz von Berlichingen, an Imperial knight who sympathized with the peasants and may have been the chief peasant military leader.
What the German peasants lacked were experienced soldiers, especially cavalry. Some had clearly fought in wars before – likely in Italy against the French and Italians and in Hungary against the Ottomans. But fighting in a war was different than leading or training an army, and skills in wielding arms, using gunpowder weapons and fighting on horseback took years of practice. Availability of arms, armor, gunpowder weapons, gunpowder, and horses mostly came from what could be taken, rather than what was owned or accessed in arsenals. German peasants were far less well-armed and armored, with many fewer gunpowder artillery pieces, than their opponents.
The skills that the peasants did have – the building of fortifications – they put to good use. Earth-and-wood fortifications, wagon fortresses (wagenburgs), trenches/ditches and other battlefield changes were frequently made by these peasants. They also understood that their advantages were in defensive rather than offensive tactics. However, a defensive-only war can only be won if the opposing side gives up, and this was likely not to happen in the German Peasants’ war.
Many of the best Imperial troops were in Italy, where the Holy Roman Empire had been waging war against France and its allies for three decades – 1525 was also the year of Siege of Pavia. However, the forces left behind, primarily to protect the Empire from foreign invasion and not internal uprisings, were still formidable. The largest of the armies to take part in the Peasants’ Revolt was the Swabian League. It was slow to form against the initial peasants’ threats, with several reports of the difficulty of recruitment. “The devil take all horsemen! There are none available,” wrote Christoph Blarer to his brother, Gerig, the Abbot of Weingarten, in response to a request for cavalry. “By God, I know of no more than two mounted soldiers I could send for I have neither horses nor men.” But once it came together it was extremely strong and well led. Its “commander-in-chief” was Georg III, Truchsess (Seneschal) von Waldburg-Zeil. Only 37 at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt, he had already helped to put down German rebellions in 1514 and 1516, as well as fighting in Italy.
The soldiers recruited by the Swabian League were unlike the peasant soldiers in every way possible. Most were well trained, and had been since adolescence. Most were experienced, and had seen years of warfare. All were well paid, although it is difficult to distinguish professional soldiers from mercenaries by this time. Never as numerous as the infantry, there were nonetheless a large number of cavalrymen. The cavalry were skilled at using lances and swords, the infantry at using arquebuses, as well as more traditional personal weapons. Both cavalry and infantry still wore strong suits of armor, although this was beginning to fall out of fashion for infantry. There were also a large number of gunners capable of firing larger gunpowder artillery pieces, which were known by several names at the time, but which modern historians generally refer to as cannon.
The Battle of Leipheim
In the weeks following the formation of the Upper Swabian Peasants’ Confederation, rebellious peasants plundered agricultural lands and unfortified abbeys. The first military action was fought in April 1525 at Leipheim, outside the town of Ulm. There peasants, purportedly numbering 5,000, faced an army of well-armed local militias and the retinues of nobles and numbering more than 8,500, including 1,500 cavalry. Facing a large number of cannons and arquebuses, the peasants had erected a wagenburg, which they defended with a much smaller number of hand-held gunpowder weapons and cannon.
Initially the Swabian League kept their troops away from the peasants, although they had cavalry roaming the countryside, knowing that some of the peasants would soon have to leave their fortification to gain supplies. When this occurred, on 4 April, the peasants did not fare well: 1,200 peasants were attacked, with 250 captured and the others dispersed, unable to return to their wagenburg. The League took advantage of the now diminished numbers of those remaining, and attacked the wagenburg with their full force. The peasants tried to flee, but only about half were able to get away, with close to 1,000 killed on the battlefield or drowned in the Danube River while attempting to swim to safety across it.
The Battle of Leipheim, as it came to be known, was a devastating defeat, but it was not decisive. In retaliation, peasant haufens from Odenwald, Limpurg, Hohenlohe, Neckar and Neckarsulm joined together to form the Heller Haufen (Bright Band) under the leadership of Jack Rohrbach. On 16 April they attacked the town and castle of Weinsberg. There were several nobles in Weinsberg, more than 70, including Ludwig, the Count of Helfenstein, who was the governor of the Würtemberg province. However, most of their retinues were away, fighting with the Imperial forces in Italy. Realizing their defense was futile, after a short amount of fighting they surrendered; despite this, Rohrbach had them all executed. Count Ludwig, thirteen other nobles and their servants, 24 in total, were made to run a gauntlet of peasant soldiers, being stabbed continually as they ran until, finally, the relief of death put an end to their torture.
The ruthlessness of what quickly became known as the Weinsberg Massacre became an early turning-point of the Peasants’ Revolt. The Upper Swabian Peasants’ Confederation quickly removed Rohrbach as a military leader, but the damage to their cause was done. Martin Luther, who had earlier decried the rebellion in his Ermanunge zum frid, auff die zwölff Artickel der Bawrschafft in Schwaben (Admonition to Peace, on the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia), but had blamed the nobles of the Holy Roman Empire for exploitation (cheating and robbing) of the peasants to sustain their luxurious lifestyles – “the poor common people cannot bear it any longer” – released Wider die Mordischen und Reubischen Rotten der Bawren (Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants). In this treatise Luther condemned the rebellion as “the devil’s work”; the peasants had committed crimes and tried to rationalize them in the name of God. This meant that the nobles could do whatever was needed to bring the rebellion to an end: “even a heathen ruler has the right and authority to punish” (for Luther read “heathen” as “Catholic”).
Losing Luther as even a reluctant sympathizer seems not to have affected the rebellious peasants, though. By the end of April the rebellion had spread to Württemberg and Thuringia. In Württemberg the peasants took the offensive. Learning that the Truchsess of Waldburg’s Swabian League forces were camped at Rottenburg, they took the small town of Herrenberg nearby. Using it as their headquarters, on 12 May they set up their lines and their 18 captured cannons, facing the Truchsess’ army and trying to lure it into an attack. But their lack of cavalry once again thwarted their efforts, as the Swabian League easily surrounded them. Fenced in on all sides, their artillery soon became ineffective. The peasants broke and fled, with estimates of casualties ranging from 2,000 to 9,000; the League lost fewer than 40.
The Battle of Frankenhausen
At the same time, in Thuringia the local peasants were scouring the countryside, plundering anything connected to the local lord, the Count of Schwarzburg. Eventually they began a siege of the underdefended Schwarzburg Castle. In the next month thousands of other peasants joined them there, until the number reached an estimated 6,000. Among these was Thomas Müntzer, who arrived on 11 May. Four days later a relief army arrived, led by Philipp I, Landgrave of Hesse, and George, Duke of Saxony. Their numbers, mostly Landsknechts, equaled those of the peasants. A battle followed, called the Battle of Frankenhausen from the village near where it was fought. It was really no contest. The Landsknechts were well armed and armored; they were warriors with training and skill. Many had recently fought in Italy. The peasants were the complete opposite, without arms, armor, training, skill or experience. They withstood a few assaults, but were forced to retreat. Those not killed or captured fled into a wagenburg they had previously built on the field. The next day the wagenburg was attacked and overrun. Peasant casualties were very great – sources report 3,000-10,000 – with Landsknecht casualties extremely low – 4 dead and 2 wounded. Müntzer was captured, tortured and, on 27 May, beheaded.
A third significant defeat followed less than a month later. On 2 June the League advanced on another peasant army at Königshofen in Württemberg. Seeing this advance, the peasants retreated to a wagenburg in a nearby hill and re-established their lines. Nonetheless, the Truchsess attacked, his infantry charging on their front and his cavalry on their flanks and rear. As with the earlier conflicts the actual fighting was only minutes long. The peasants quickly turned and fled. They regrouped at the edge of the woods, but a counter-attack also quickly failed. Only 600 out of an estimated 2,000-3,000 escaped. As night fell, League soldiers mercilessly walked over the battlefield killing the wounded and those feigning death.
The Final Battles
Meanwhile, another peasant haufen, this one personally led by Götz von Berlichingen, had been finding success further south, in the Black Woods region of Württemberg. Throughout May 1525 they sacked abbeys, then decided to make a bigger military statement. Surrounding the town of Freiburg in Breisgau, they began to besiege it. Freiburg had been a wealthy, populous town in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, but then the vein of silver in the nearby mountain petered out and the population plummeted. By the early sixteenth century the town’s fortifications were decayed and ruined; nor could the town raise a militia of sufficient size to defend itself. However, as late as 23 April, Hans Imer von Gilgenberg, the Deputy Governor of Outer Austria, reported that “there is no fear” that Freiburg would be attacked by the peasants. His dispatch was begun by a complaint that the Freiburg town council had not yet refunded a 500 florin surplus from war taxes collected earlier in the year. He again asserted that the town was safe from attack and requested the war tax surplus be returned on 27 April, by which time the Freiburgers were well under siege. When a group of the Hellen Lichten, under the leadership of Hans Müller, joined the siege, numbers of peasants rose to a purported 18,000. A second siege was laid against nearby Radolfzell.
Freiburg surrendered on 24 May, and Radolfzell was on the verge of falling, when, on 4 June, a relief army, led by Louis V, Elector of the Palatine (among others), arrived. Müller led an army to meet them near Würzburg. Details of the battle are scant, other than that it cost more than 8,000 peasants their lives. Götz von Berlichingen escaped, and then he disappeared, seemingly abandoning the revolt.
One final battle was fought on 23 or 24 of June, at Pfeddersheim in the Palatine. Never as large as other peasant haufens, Palatine rebels had not drawn as much attention for their activities as they had elsewhere in the Holy Roman Empire, although they had certainly caused damage. The town of Pfeddersheim, its population sympathetic to and collaborative with the peasants, was under rebel control. But after taking part in the Battle of Würzburg and seeing how easy it was to defeat the peasants there, Louis V decided to put down the rebellion in his own lands. The result was the same at Pfeddersheim as at Würzburg. The rebels put up a valiant effort, but they were undermanned, inexperienced, unskilled, outgunned and without cavalry. Taking advantage of the high ground on which the town was built, the peasants even tried an impetuous charge against their Landsknecht opponents. But this quickly failed, with the hill now proving an impediment to the retreat. Louis’ cavalry easily cut the peasants off from reaching the town, and a reported 4,000 were killed. The following day Pfeddersheim surrendered to the Elector’s forces.
The battles of Würzburg and Pfeddersheim were the last major conflicts fought during the Peasants’ Revolt. While a few small peasant haufens remained defiant, they were quickly subdued. Towns which had been besieged or threatened with siege – Fulda, Strasbourg and others – saw the peasant armies facing them diminish and then disappear. Within two months the rebellion had ended. Emperor Charles V, Pope Clement VII and Martin Luther all blessed the actions of the noble leadership and their forces in defeating the peasants, and thanked God for the victory. Especially praised was Georg, Truchsess von Waldburg, who somewhere in the course of the revolt had gained the nickname “Bauernjörg” (Peasant Hunter). Thousands of peasants had lost their lives, so many peasant men in such a small area of the Holy Roman Empire that the region’s economy was devastated for many years. But within a generation or two agricultural production returned to what it had previously been. It would be several centuries before the peasants achieved even one of their demanded Twelve Articles.
Strangely still alive, though, was Götz von Berlichingen. On the run until 1528, he was finally captured and imprisoned. But he had served less than two years when he was freed after swearing an oath of loyalty to the Emperor. Later, he would fight for Charles V, in 1542 against the Ottoman Empire and in 1544 against the French. He would die in 1562; at 82 years old, he was undoubtedly one of the last veterans of the German Peasants’ Revolt.
Terror and the Peasants
Thus yet another of history’s few peasant revolts ended without success. The peasants won not a single military victory, other than their capture of the very poorly defended Weinsberg. It had been the ruthlessness that accompanied that victory which may have caused such a strong Imperial military response and likely led to the equally merciless ruthlessness of those armies which fought against them.
This was, after all, the biggest threat of peasant revolts: the threat of violence. Revolting peasants in Germany in 1524-25 were seen as the domestic terrorists of their day. There was little fear of their winning battles and conducting long and determined sieges. Most leaders believed that they would quickly disperse once faced with a force of professional soldiers. But then the massacre of Weinsberg happened, and the real threat of the peasant uprising appeared: terror. Rebels were now viewed as uncontrollable pillagers and plunderers, rapists and murderers of all they found who did not adhere to their cause. Several had warned against the “faintheartedness” of the local lords in seeing the peasants as a threat. But, even as late as 25 April 1525, Imperial leaders were only worried about abbeys and convents being destroyed, with the Deputy Governor of Austria somewhat concerned, warning that if it was not stopped “the rising will reach such proportions that it cannot be withstood.”
But he was in Ensisheim, far from any peasants rebelling. Those in the paths of peasant haufens thought otherwise. “Lucifer and his angels” is what Johann Herolt, a priest, called the peasants after Weinsberg, while others, including both the Catholic pope and the founder of Protestantism, in very rare agreement, declared their actions as “unchristian.” Only after Weinsberg did the Territorial Clerk at Ravensburg write to the Territorial Balliff of Upper Swabia that “if the [Swabian] League’s army is once defeated, the whole land will fall and the peasants will be the lords. May God prevent it!”
The peasants, of course, saw their actions, some even including the massacre at Weinsberg, as justified by God. After all, their social, political, economic, and religious freedoms had been oppressed and abused. Surely no just and merciful God would sanction that. God chose otherwise in 1525. However, five hundred years later, we tend to side with the peasants. Sixteenth-century terrorists have become twenty-first-century freedom-fighters.
Kelly DeVries is Professor of History at Loyola University in Maryland and Honorary Historical Consultant, Royal Armouries, UK. He is the author of many works on medieval history, including the recently published 1066: A Guide to the Battles and the Campaigns (co-authored by Michael Livingston).
Michael G. Baylor, The German Reformation and the Peasants’ War: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012)
Janos Bak, The German Peasant War of 1525 (Routledge, 2014)
Tom Scott and Bob Scribner (eds.), The German Peasants’ War: A History in Documents (Humanities Press, 1991)