During the Renaissance, social, economic, and political tensions often led to popular revolts. Although commonly referred to as peasant revolts, these uprisings usually involved townspeople as well as peasants. Moreover, most revolts were carefully planned and led by individuals from the upper levels of urban and rural society. The primary goal of rebellion was to achieve justice, and most rebels respected life and property. While some committed bloody acts, they targeted only individuals viewed as enemies of the community.
Causes of Revolt. Protest was a normal part of relations between lords and tenants or princes* and subjects. Most protests arose because of changes in political and economic organization or in social relationships. However, protest turned into revolt when the people believed that such changes threatened the survival of the community. For example, a combination of high taxes and unequal distribution of food might trigger an uprising. In most cases, the rebels sought to restore the previous state of affairs, not to overthrow the system.
Bad harvests, excessive taxation, and abuse from soldiers were the most common causes of rebellion. People tended to accept these hardships when they affected everyone equally. However, if some people profited while others suffered, revolt was likely. In 1585, for example, an uprising in Naples specifically targeted individuals who had been hoarding food.
Theories of Resistance and Revolt. Those who led rebellions turned to religion, history, and myth to justify their actions. Many cited biblical examples of protest and just wars against tyrants*. Both ancient Roman and Germanic law provided support for the right of the people to resist bad leaders and to take back power from them. Medieval churchmen also promoted the idea of justified resistance. In 1405, Jean de Gerson of France declared that, "No sacrifice is more pleasing to God than the death of a tyrant." Within the Roman Catholic Church, councils could challenge even the authority of the pope.
The Protestant Reformation* ushered in the great age of resistance in Europe. The original Protestants were German princes who opposed the decision of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor*, to outlaw the teachings of religious reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546). The princes based their right to revolt partly on Luther's claims that people should be free to follow their consciences. Luther accepted that kings ruled by God's will. However, he argued that "if one may resist the pope, one may also resist all the emperors and dukes who … defend the pope." Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) also accepted the divine rights of kings. Calvin recommended passive resistance instead of uprisings. However, he left the door open for revolt by adding that obedience to secular* authority should never come before obedience to God.
Calvinist leaders in France took a stronger position, especially after the French king authorized a massacre on St. Bartholomew's Day, August 24, 1572, that left thousands of Protestants dead. In writings that followed this event, resistors stated that the king drew his power from the people and that it was the duty of the people to reject tyranny. French writer Philippe Duplessis-Mornay proclaimed that subjects were justified in taking up arms against an unjust ruler.
Calvinists in the Netherlands and Catholics in England and France also used some of these arguments for revolt when they found themselves in opposition to their rulers. The argument turned on the question of who ultimately held power—the monarch or the people. In either case, there was always the danger of abuse of power.
Records of Revolt. Documents from the 1430s and 1440s indicate numerous revolts in Denmark and Sweden, and in the late 1400s several uprisings occurred in Germany. Reports of revolts become much more common during the 1500s. The first recorded major peasant uprisings in central and eastern Europe took place in Hungary (1514) and Slovenia (1515).
The revolt of Spain's Castilian cities (comuneros) shows how revolts affected the way rulers governed. Spanish nobles were alarmed when Charles I, their king, left Spain for Germany in 1519 to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. They feared that his absence would further weaken the kingdom, which was already being harassed by its neighbors. They also had complaints about Charles's rule—about the many foreigners who held government positions and about a new tax.
The Spanish rebellion began in urban areas as cities rose up against the crown. Rural villages quickly took advantage of the confusion to revolt against their lords. In response, many of the lords looked for royal protection. They gave the king their full support and strengthened the royal army. Many of the rebellion's urban leaders found it too difficult to maintain one revolt while fighting off another. They soon ended their uprising. Charles generously pardoned the rebels. Although he maintained control, the Comunero Revolt made it clear that Charles could govern successfully only by seeking the support of those he ruled.
The German peasant's revolt of 1525 stands out as the classic example of a popular uprising of the time. It began with opposition to German nobles expanding their economic and political control over their subjects. The main leaders were not peasants but artisans*, preachers, minor nobles, and middle-class townspeople. They organized resistance, and violence broke out in 1524. Over the next year uprisings swept through areas of southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and what is now eastern France.
Much of western Europe followed Germany's lead. In 1529 in France and in the 1540s in Belgium, people revolted to defend their traditional privileges. Several major uprisings occurred in the French territory of Aquitaine beginning in 1548 protesting a new salt tax. Bad harvests and political crises in the mid-1580s led to revolts in France and Italy. Religious politics set off a revolt in Paris in 1588, when the king ordered the execution of a duke and a cardinal.
Conditions worsened in the 1590s as a result of bad harvests and rising prices. Widespread famine and increasing prices led to a peasant uprising in Finland that lasted two years and a short-lived revolt in England. Between 1594 and 1597, Austrian peasants revolted on a large scale. From 1593 to 1595, French peasants and laborers rose up to resist new taxes in the revolt of the Croquants.
- * prince
Renaissance term for the ruler of an independent state
- * tyrant
absolute ruler who uses power unjustly or cruelly
- * Protestant Reformation
religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches
- * Holy Roman Emperor
ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806
- * secular
nonreligious; connected with everyday life
- * artisan
skilled worker or craftsperson