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.
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