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Peasants’ Revolt

1524-25. German revolutionary mass movement. Unrest had spread among German peasants because the territorial princes ignored their customary rights and introduced new taxes. After vainly looking to a reformed and strengthened empire for justice, some engaged in sporadic violence (Bundschuh movement, 1502-17). Luther's theological views and attacks on greedy princes, merchants, and clergy, although misunderstood by the peasant leaders, helped to ignite the uprising. It broke out at Stühlingen (Black Forest) in June 1524 and spread rapidly over southern and central Germany until by late April 1525 some 300,000 peasants were under arms. Their program, Twelve Articles of the Peasantry, called for: congregational election of pastors, modification of tithes, abolition of serfdom, discontinuing enclosure of common lands, elimination of feudal dues, and reforming the administration of justice. Although some knights participated (Götz von Berlichingen and Florian Geyer), the peasants generally lacked capable direction and organization. Even Thomas Müntzer* in Thuringia was a better preacher and agitator than military leader.

Luther's harsh, uncompromising opposition (Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants) and the combined forces of the Hessian, Saxon, and Brunswick princes led to Müntzer's defeat at Frankenhausen on 15 May 1525. The Swabian League under Count Truchsess suppressed the movement in Swabia and Franconia, and within six weeks it had been brutally crushed almost everywhere. The revolt was extremely detrimental to the Reformation. Even though Luther soon moderated, the disillusioned peasants turned against him, and Lutheranism lost its popular appeal. It enabled princes to centralize their authority, including that over their churches. Catholics portrayed it as a divine judgment against Protestantism, thus discouraging further defections from Rome.

W. Zimmermann, Allgemeine Geschichte des grossen Bauerkrieges (3 vols., 1841-43); F. Engels, The Peasant War in Germany (1850, 1956); E.B. Bax, The Peasants' War in Germany (1903); G. Franz, Der deutsche Bauernkrieg (1956).