To start this project, I knew I had to look back into the broader perspective of the Protestant Reformation, and what it meant, before diving deeper into the Radical Reformation and my specific topic. The Protestant Reformation lasted from 1517 to 1560 and had different and separate views on religion, society, and philosophy. The Protestant Reformation went against the Catholic Church, and Martin Luther, it’s leader, did not agree with the rituals of the Catholic Church. For example, Luther believed that only God’s mercy brought salvation, as the Catholic Church thought that institutions and sacraments brought salvation. Europe was then divided, and was forced to choose between the Catholic Church traditional ideas and Martin Luther’s new ones. An article from Modern World History Online stated that that “Protestant Reformation was a watershed in the history of Christianity and its consequences were far-reaching”, meaning that it was a turning point for Christianity, and it changed many peoples’ ideas and beliefs about Christianity.
Below is a diagram that was extremely helpful in understanding the different “sub-topics” of the entire Reformation, and you can probably see it a little better if you click HERE. The sub-topic I chose to research in greater detail was the Radical Reformation. The Radical Reformation was in response to corruption in the Roman Catholic Church and the expansion of the Protestant Reformation. The Radical Reformation started in Germany and Switzerland, and had many influential people leading it such as Martin Luther, Thomas Müntzer, and many others. It was a small group of believers, classified as Spiritualists, Evangelical Rationalists, or Anabaptists who showed their faith by having adult baptisms, called Anabaptism. The Radical Reformation rejected both the Catholic and Protestant Churches, just like the Protestant Reformation rejected the Catholic Church. The Protestant Churches opposed the Radical Reformation when they tried to slow down the Radical Reformation’s progress.
After researching about the Protestant and Radical Reformations, I needed to research about a specific topic in the Radical Reformation. I decided to learn more about the German Peasants’ War, not only because it was an interesting subject, but because it showed the relationships between the lower and upper classes during the Reformation.
The revolt of the German peasants and the start of the German Peasants’ War began in June of 1524 in a small Black Forest territory in Stühlingen, Germany, during a time of economic and religious change. It was spread widely which caused a chain reaction of rebellion in both the urban and rural areas of Germany. I read a few sections of a book called The German Peasants’ War, which gave me quite a bit of information about the war and uprising, what caused the war, or what happened, the organization of the rebellion, the social aspect of the peasants, and the book also mentioned some of the political theories and ideas that the peasants had. There were conflicts between the princes and the people who worked under them. Each region had their own prince, with their own amount of power that was tested with revolts from the peasants. Peasants were the lowest members in society and had few rights. They worked in mines or farmed land and raised livestock for the prince or nobleman, and the peasants could not own their own land. The peasants complained about fees from the noblemen, and did not believe that they should have to pay so many taxes to the wealthy.
They wanted freedom of being oppressed by the nobles and the landlords, and would assemble in large protests and assemblies, one of which was an organized march through the Black Forest, led by Hans Müller, one of the leaders of the peasant uprising. Peasants were able to join the rebellion by receiving a letter that invited them to join, but they were threatened with coercion if there was any kind of refusal. The rebellion was made up of mostly male peasant tenant farmers, rural artisans, and even miners, although the miners made their own organization that was different from traditional organizations for the revolt. Women’s roles in the rebellion and war were to support and care for the men and be messengers or contacts because they were not allowed into formal assemblies, although there was some independent action such as an attack, organized by women, on a convent in Windsheim. Some documents called the Allgäu Articles showed a significant stage of the peasant war, which was “introducing the idea of a Christian brotherhood, sworn to uphold the Word of God and to seek justice,” simply meaning that those involved and looking to be involved in the rebellion should consider bonding together under common ground of the Bible, or the Word of God, in order to find justice for themselves (the peasants) (Scott, Scribner, 1991). The peasants used the Word of God as a political principle in order to negotiate with the lords and the noblemen about disputes and grievances. The peasant rebellion was defeated by the condemnation of Martin Luther, and by the Swabian League army; the war of which killed 100,00 peasants.
I found my primary document, in a book called The European Reformations Sourcebook. The document is a letter from Martin Luther to the peasants and the princes about the admonition, or warning, of peace between the peasants and the noblemen. Luther addressed both the noblemen and the peasants, and the first part of this document, which is just Martin Luther expressing his ideas about the rebellion, says that the peasants banded together and finally agreed on rebelling against the noblemen. The peasants would also accept a compromise, although if there was not a compromise between the peasants and the noblemen, then the peasants would continue to revolt. What the passage is saying is that if the peasants continued to rebel and they were not stopped, then they would eventually take over all of Germany. Luther is offering advice to the princes and the lords, telling them that they should listen to the peasants’ demands, or else they will bring on God’s wrath. In the second part of this document, when Martin Luther writes a letter aimed directly at the princes and lords, he says that the noblemen are to blame for the rebellion, because they are taxing the peasants so much. Once again, Luther mentions the wrath of God, and that, if the princes and lords are not careful and do not end the injustice against the peasants, then God will not stop them either, and the peasants will rebel against all of Germany. Luther accuses the noblemen of not dealing with the peasants’ problems at all, and he suggests that they be kind to the peasants to prevent God’s wrath. The last paragraph of the primary document says that neither the peasants nor the noblemen are acting very Christian-like, so they shouldn’t call themselves Christians, and that the rebellion is not a Christian issues, but instead a matter of justice and injustice among people who do not belong to a widely held religion.
The peasants believed that the rebellion was caused by the noblemen because of such high taxes. They also believed that if the noblemen were not kinder and did not reduce the taxes on the peasants, then the wrath of God would come and destroy all of Germany. This was because the peasants would not stop their rebellion showing that this primary document gave an idea of what they thought about the rebellion, and what they thought the noblemen should do about it. The last paragraph shows that Martin Luther thought that the noblemen and the peasants were merely arguing about the justice and injustice of the common man, who has no religion, although it is mentioned that only the Holy Scripture can correct a conscience.
The issue of the German Peasants’ War relates to the general issues of the entire Reformation with the idea of rebelling against a bigger group, especially one that was already set in motion and had high power, and simply the act of trying to change ideas and beliefs. The peasants rebelled against the noblemen in a way similar to the Protestant Reformation going against the Catholic Church. The Radical Reformation went against both the Protestant and Catholic Churches, but the peasants started a war as the Protestant and Radical Reformations started their own beliefs, ideas, and churches.
Luther: Admonition to Peace. A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia (1525)
The peasants who have now banded together in Swabia have formulated their intolerable grievances against the rulers in twelve articles, and have undertaken to support them with certain passages of Scripture. Now they have published them in printed form. The thing about them that pleases me most is that, in the twelfth article, they offer to accept instruction gladly and willingly, . . . . to the extent that it can be done by clear, plain, undeniable passages of Scripture. And it is indeed right and proper that no one’s conscience should be instructed or corrected except by Holy Scripture. . . .
This, then is a great and dangerous matter. It concerns both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. If this rebellion were to continue and get the upper hand, both kingdoms would be destroyed and there would be neither worldly government nor word of God, which would ultimately result in the permanent destruction of all Germany. Therefore it is necessary for us to speak boldly and to give advice without regard to anyone. It is also necessary that we be willing to listen and allow things to be said to us, so that we do not now – as we have done before – harden our hearts and stop our ears, and so that God’s wrath not run its full course. . . .
To the Princes and Lords
We have no one on earth to thank for this disastrous rebellion, except you princes and lords, and especially you blind bishops and mad priests and monks, whose hearts are hardened, even to the present day. . . . [Y]ou do nothing but cheat and rob the people so that you may lead a life of luxury and extravagance. The poor common people cannot bear it any longer. The sword is already at your throats, but you think that you sit so firm in the saddle that no one can unhorse you. This false security and stubborn perversity will break your necks, as you will discover. . . .
If it is still possible to give you advice, my lords, give way a little to the will and wrath of God. A cartload of hay must give way to a drunken man – how much more ought you to stop your raging and obstinate tyranny and not deal unreasonable with the peasants. . . . Try kindness first, for you do not know what God will do to prevent the spark that will kindle all Germany and start a fire that no one can extinguish.
Admonition to Both Rulers and Peasants
There is nothing Christian on either side and nothing Christian is at issue between you; both lords and peasants are discussing questions of justice and injustice in heathen, or worldly terms. . . . For God’s sake, then take my advice! Take a hold of these matters properly, with justice and not with force or violence and do not start endless bloodshed in Germany. . . .
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