Peasants War

Peasants' War is the name given to the great insurrection of the German and Swiss peasantry in the Reformation period. It is a subject so intimately connected with the origin of Protestantism that we briefly refer to it here. The war broke out in the beginning of the year 1525. Zschokke has described it as the "terrible scream of oppressed humanity." The oppression of the peasants had gradually increased in severity as the nobility became more extravagant and the clergy more sensual and degenerate. The example of Switzerland encouraged the hope of success, and from 1476 to 1517 there were risings here and there among the peasants of the south of Germany. A peasant rebellion, called in popular phrase the Bundschuh (Laced Shoe), took place in the Rhine countries in 1502, and another, called the "League of Poor Conrad," in Wurtemberg, in 1514, both of which were put down without any abatement of the grievances that had occasioned them. The Reformation, by the mental awakening which it produced, and the diffusion of sentiments favorable to freedom, must be reckoned among the causes of the great insurrection itself; although Luther, Melancthon, and the other leading Reformers, while urging the nobles to justice and humanity, strongly reprobated the violent proceedings of the peasants. The Anabaptists, however, and in particular Munzer, encouraged and excited them, and a peasant insurrection took place in the Hegau in 1522. Another, known as the "Latin War," arose in 1523 in Salzburg, against an unpoplar archbishop, but these were quickly suppressed. On Jan. 1, 1525, the peasantry of the abbacy of Kempten, along with the townspeople, suddenly assailed and plundered the convent, compelling the abbot to sign a renunciation of his rights. This proved the signal for a rising of the peasants on all sides throughout the south of Germany. Many of the princes and nobles at first regarded the insurrection with some measure of complacency, because it was directed in the first instance chiefly against the ecclesiastical lords; some, too, because it seemed likely to promote the interests of the exiled duke of Wurtemberg, who was then upon the point of reconquering his dominions by the help of Swiss troops; and others, because it seemed to set bounds to the increase of Austrian power. But the archduke Ferdinand hastened to raise an army, the troops of the empire being for the most part engaged in the emperor's wars in Italy, and entrusted the command of it to the Truchsess Von Waldburg, a man of stern and unscrupulous character, but of ability and energy. Von Waldburg negotiated with the peasants in order to gain time, and defeated and destroyed some large bodies of them, but was himself defeated by them on April 22, when he made a treaty with them, not having, however, the slightest intention of keeping it. Meanwhile the insurrection extended, and became general throughout Germany, and a number of towns took part in it, as Heilbronn, Muhlhausen, Fulda, Frankfort, etc., but there was a total want of organization and cooperation. Towards Easter, 1525, there appeared in Upper Swabia a manifesto, which set forth the grievances and demands of the insurgents. They demanded the free election of their parish clergy; the appropriation of the tithes of grain, after competent maintenance of the parish clergy, to the support of the poor and to purposes of general utility; the abolition of serfdom, and of the exclusive hunting and fishing rights of the nobles; the restoration to the community of forests, fields, and meadows which the secular and ecclesiastical lords had appropriated to themselves; release from arbitrary augmentation and multiplication of services, duties, and rents; the equal administration of justice, and the abolition of some of the most odious exactions of the clergy. The conduct of the insurgents was not, however, in accordance with the moderation of their demands. Their many separate bands destroyed the convents and castles, murdered, pillaged, and were guilty of the greatest excesses, which must indeed be regarded as partly in revenge for the cruelty practiced against them by Von Waldburg. A number of princes and knights concluded treaties with the peasants conceding their principal demands. The city of Wurzburg joined them, but the castle of Liebfrauenberg made an obstinate resistance, which gave time to Von Waldburg and their other enemies to collect and strengthen their forces. In May and June, 1525, the peasants sustained a number of severe defeats, in which large bodies of them were destroyed. The landgrave Philip of Hesse was also successful against them in the north of Germany. The peasants, after they had been subjugated, were everywhere treated with terrible cruelty. In one instance a great body of them were perfidiously massacred after they had laid down their arms. Multitudes were hanged in the streets, and many were put to death with the greatest tortures. Weinsberg, Rothenburg, Wurzburg, and other towns which had joined them, suffered the terrible revenge of the victors, and torrents of blood were shed. It is supposed that more than 150,000 persons lost their lives in the Peasants' War. Flourishing and populous districts were desolated. The lot of the defeated insurgents became harder than ever, and many burdens of the peasantry originated at this period. The cause of the Reformation also was very injuriously affected. See Sartorius, Versuch einer Geschichte des deutschen Bauernkriegs (Berlin, 1795); Oechsle, Beitrage zur Geschichte des deutschen Bauernkriegs (Heilbronn, 1829); Wachsmuth, Der deutsche Bauernkrieg (Leipsic, 1834); Zimmermann, A hgeneine Geschich to des grossen Bauernkriegs (Stuttgard, 1841-43, 3 vols.).

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