A rebellion that lasted from 1524 to 1525 in German-speaking domains of the Holy Roman Empire. The revolt originated in opposition to the heavy burdens of taxes and duties on the German serfs, who had no legal rights and no opportunity to improve their lot. These conditions had sparked conflict in the fifteenth century, but these uprisings remained local and contained. A more widespread rebellion was finally sparked in the 1520s by the movement for reform in the Catholic Church, and the social and political up-heavals that the Protestant Reformation caused. With the authority of church prelates challenged by Martin Luther and others, the peasants saw their cause supported by the Protestant emphasis on individual faith. Empowered in their religious views, and pressed by crop failures that threatened starvation, they saw an opportunity to overthrow the feudal system, in which they were bound to the estates of the nobles and forced to give up the produce of the fields in which they worked.
The revolt began in the summer of 1524 in the county of Stühlingen, in the region of Upper Swabia near the border of Germany and Switzerland. It spread quickly in southern and western Germany, and as far as Switzerland and Austria. In the spring of 1525, there were five large bands of peasants roaming the countryside, burning homes of nobles and princes, and bringing townspeople over to their side. The peasants sought relief from heavy taxes, an end to serfdom, fair trials, and an end to the taxes they owed on the death of a member of their families. They set down these demands in a document known as the Twelve Articles. The rebels seized the town of Heilbronn, where they formed a parliament, as well as Würtzburg, the seat of a Catholic bishop. In Thuringia, the rebels were led by Thomas Muntzer, a fiery Protestant leader.
Poor townspeople and urban artisans joined the rebellion, which also won the support of Huldrych Zwingli, a prominent Protestant leader, but was opposed by Martin Luther. In the meantime, an army of the Swabian League gathered and marched north into Franconia, in central Germany, defeating the peasants in battle at Frankenhausen and Königshofen. About one hundred thousand combatants and civilians were killed before the fighting died down in late 1525, while the armies of the opposition carried out deadly reprisals for the next two years. Small local rebellions continued into the next year in Austria, but the defeat of the peasants in Germany brought a complete repudiation of their demands for a more just economic system. The discontent of the peasants would continue through the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, adding to the bitter conflicts between Protestant and Catholic territories that would finally erupt into the Thirty Years' War in the early 1600s.
See Also: Reformation, Protestant; Thirty Years' War
The Peasants' War was an uprising in southern and central Germany in the 1520s. A wide range of common people, including tillers of the soil, village artisans*, and poor townspeople, supported the uprising. The rebels did not want to overthrow the government or the Holy Roman Empire*. Rather, they hoped to end certain practices of nobles and the Roman Catholic Church. The war lasted from May 1524 to July 1526, involved up to 300,000 people, and claimed as many as 100,000 lives.
The revolt began as protests against lords to force them to treat common people justly. The rebels managed to seize supplies from monasteries and to dismantle several castles. They also forcibly occupied a number of German towns. More commonly, however, they captured cannons and supplies from towns that they did not enter. Violence against individuals by the rebels was rare. Battles did not begin until after April 1525, when armies of mercenaries* serving German princes* assembled to crush the uprising. In the one-sided battles that followed, thousands of peasants died.
The Peasants' War occurred in the most urbanized region of the Holy Roman Empire. Since about 1450, western Europe had experienced sizable population growth and an economic upswing. These changes led to greater differences of wealth and status among rural residents. Peasants who owned land controlled village governments and had a better life than landless peasants, laborers, and servants. However, they still owed rents and other payments to landlords, the government, and the church.
Peasants presented their complaints to the nobles in 1525. They resented the efforts of landlords and rulers to take away their time-honored privileges, such as attempts to exclude them from using the products of forests, waterways, and meadows. These products, especially game and fish, were sources of much-needed extra income. Other objects of protest included labor owed to landlords and rulers, excessive rents, and penalties that varied from customary laws.
The Peasants' War did not resolve the peasants' complaints, and smaller uprisings lasted into the 1600s. Because the revolt began with attacks on monasteries, German princes connected it to the religious upheaval sweeping the region. They feared the effects of the lawlessness on their authority and took firm control of the practice of religion. As a result, the Protestant Reformation in Germany lost some of its early energy.
- * artisan
skilled worker or craftsperson
- * Holy Roman Empire
political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806
- * mercenary
- * prince
Renaissance term for the ruler of an independent state