Historic Uprisings that Shook Powerful Governments

Historic Uprisings that Shook Powerful Governments

Khalid Elhassan - February 14, 2022

Historic Uprisings that Shook Powerful Governments
Rebellious peasants surround a knight. Imgur

2. Europe’s Biggest Popular Revolt Before the 1789 French Revolution

The German Peasants’ War of 1524 – 1525 was Europe’s largest popular revolt prior to the French Revolution of 1789. For generations, peasants in Germany had experienced a steady curtailment of their ancient rights to fish, hunt, bear arms, or collect wood from common lands. In the meantime, their aristocratic overlords’ exactions grew ever more burdensome. The conflict was reportedly – and perhaps apocryphally – sparked by the Countess of Lupfen’s orders to her serfs to stop work on their fields in order to collect snail shells for her to use as thread spools. To neglect their fields and crops meant starvation, so the peasants took up arms.

Wherever and however the revolt began, shared and widespread grievances ensured that it spread quickly among the peasantry. The pent-up resentments also ensured that when the peasants finally turned to violence against their noble lords, they turned to violence in a big way. Atrocities abounded, and a noble or landlord who fell into the rebels’ clutches was in for rough treatment. Upper-class captives were often forced to run a gauntlet between rows of peasants who wielded clubs and whips. Bad as that was, it was considered to be at the milder end of the spectrum of the violence dished out by the peasants.

Historic Uprisings that Shook Powerful Governments
Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529. National Public Radio

1. A Medieval Peasant Revolt Whose Legacy Can be Felt to This Day

As the German Peasants’ War grew in scope and intensity, many were inspired by changes brought about by the Reformation, recently launched by Martin Luther. They invoked divine law to support the peasants’ rights and freedom from oppression at the hands of the aristocrats and landlords. The peasants’ demands were encapsulated in a manifesto titled The Twelve Articles of the Christian Union, which also provided biblical justification for the rebels’ cause. Some prominent Protestant reformers, such as Thomas Muntzer and Huldrych Zwingli, supported the peasants and the justice of their cause. Martin Luther, however, knew on which side his bread was buttered, and he wanted nothing to do with the rebels. Instead, he sided with the aristocrats and went so far as to pen a pamphlet titled Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.

Historic Uprisings that Shook Powerful Governments
German peasants in arms. Steam Images

The revolt spread quickly through Germany, and at its height, over 300,000 peasants were under arms. However, their lack of organization, artillery, cavalry, and nonexistent military training, doomed them to ultimate defeat. As with most peasant uprisings, the revolt was crushed once the forces of reaction gathered their strength. Once the rebellion was put down, the peasantry were subjected to widespread retaliatory vengeance in which over 100,000 were massacred. Despite the revolt’s failure, it had a lasting impact on history. The Twelve Articles – the document that listed the peasants’ demands – has been described as an inspiration for the French Revolution, and as a model for America’s Bill of Rights.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

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Anisimov, Evgenii Viktorovich – The Reforms of Peter the Great: Progress Through Coercion in Russia (1993)

Archaeology Archive – Mavia of Arabia

Avrich, Paul – Russian Rebels, 1600 – 1800 (1972)

Bainton, Roland Herbert – Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1978)

Blickle, Peter – The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants’ War From a New Perspective (1981)

Brauer, George C. – The Age of the Soldier Emperors: Imperial Rome, AD 244 – 284 (1975)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Lakshmi Bai

Encyclopedia Britannica – Wang Mang, Emperor of Xin Dynasty

Field, Cecil – The Great Cossack: The Rebellion of Stenka Razin Against Alexis Mikhaelovitch, Tsar of All the Russias (1947)

History Collection – 16 Bloody Tales of the Jacobite Rebellions

Kiernan, Ben – Viet Nam: A History From Earliest Times to the Present (2019)

Lebra, Joyce C. – Women Against the Raj: The Rani of Jhansi Regiment (2008)

Pushkin, Alexander – The History of Pugachev (2001 Translation)

Reuter, Timothy – Germany in the Early Middle Ages, C. 800 – 1056 (1991)

History Collection – Nobody Can Hold a Candle to These Top 12 Fearsome Female Warriors

Speculum, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Jul., 1995) – Popular Revolt, Dynastic Politics, and Aristocratic Factionalism in the Early Middle Ages: The Saxon Stellinga Reconsidered

Tebrake, William H. – A Plague of Insurrection: Popular Politics and Peasant Revolt in Flanders, 1323-1328 (1993)

Thomsen, Rudi – Ambition and Confucianism: A Biography of Wang Mang (1988)

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World History Encyclopedia – Mavia