During the 16th Century, Europe and the Holy Roman Empire was experiencing a grand accumulation of uprisings. Along with the Protestant Reformation (1517) and the Dutch Revolt (1568-1609), the Germanic states and the Holy Roman Empire were home to one of the most significant peasant revolts in European history, the revolt of 1524. Causes of the revolt include the unfair treatment of serfs by nobles and the evolution of Lutheranism and protestant reform in peasant culture.
The nobles were under the assumption that the commoners would follow them blindly with regard to rules and therefore treated the poor as slaves to do their bidding. In addition, the peasants looked towards the protestant revolution and felt that if someone could speak out against the church, they could also speak out against their constricting authority in the name of God. At first, the strikes were turning in the peasant’s favor while the government had yet to respond to the pillaging of its lands. The inevitable responses of the authority, however, were less than favorable.
Martin Luther, who was once looked upon with admiration by common folk betrayed them in an attempt to keep his religious from sinking. He told Charles V to crush the revolution and wrote a book condemning the movement called Against Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, and Charles gladly obliged. By 1525, the revolution was suppressed and hundreds of thousands were left dead. In the aftermath, the peasants were given no freedoms for which they fought and were embedded back into their pre-revolt lifestyle with the added bonus of increased security to prevent any further actions.
Under the Twelve Articles of the Peasants of Swabia, the counsel clearly relays that if the Lords would have treated the serfs with respect and kindness, then the poor would have no reason to resort to violence. They declare that they refuse to give in to the oppression and wish to be treated properly and with appropriate pay for their labor (Document 2). The noble refuted this declaration by stating that they have earned the right to treat the commoners as they see fit.
The Memmingen Town Council explains that since the rich purchased their serfdom “for a considerable sum of money” that they can do whatever they wish until the peasants have paid off their debt in labor (Document 4). This account loses validity through bias under the consideration that the lords had merely become accustomed to having underlings constantly do their bidding even though debt was usually long paid off by this time. With unfair treatment in tow, the peasants also argued their freedom through Lutheran belief that holy, not mortal law, alone could rule them.
The serfs believed that it was the duty of the lords under Christian law to release them from their chains (Document 3). Those opposed to the revolt countered that they are not doing God’s bidding, but instead going against Him and laying waste to his holy kingdom by destroying His churches and harming His people (Document 6). In the beginning of the riots, the peasants saw a fair amount of success. Counts watched as the siege-layers pushed towards the monasteries at first, and ransacked churches. The rich believed that the poor would go no farther and end their revolution at the church (Document 11).
Reports say that the commoners were able to attack so quickly that the lords were unable to retreat quickly enough and many castles fell to the peasants partially through the help of the sympathetic townspeople who helped the attacking force breach the walls (Document 5). After the takeover of the towns, many peasant forces made nobles swear allegiance to the cause or be killed (Document 10). However this account could not be entirely honest, because the source could have been lying to justify his support for the rebel cause.
The success of the serfs was short-lived, however, and soon people began to speak against them and their demise came swiftly. Martin Luther, who originally supported the peasants before violence began, wrote against them only in an attempt to continue his religious movement, and can therefore be viewed as a biased source. He wrote that they are doing the work of the devil and that they are mad with evil and hate. He also wrote that if anyone supported them, they were equally evil and all should be punished for their crimes appropriately (Document 7).
Other sources declared the actions as “unchristian” and “ignorant” (Document 9) and even went so far as to say that the peasants were “blinded, led astray, and made witless” (Document 1). This disapproval from theologians helped turn the sway of the public against the rebels and further extinguished the uprising. After the rebellion had been squelched, many peasants hoped that their attempt would reap some sort of victory to help make the loss a little easier, but none came.
In the Diet of Speyer of 1526, it was decided that the poor should receive no relief and that all rules given by masters would be considered fair in the eyes of the Holy Roman Empire. Those who rebelled, and weren’t killed, were punished for their deeds accordingly and then assimilated back into pre-revolution society. Seemingly, the only possible change in lifestyle from this event was the increase in security and scrutiny placed over those involved to ensure that such occurrences would never again take place (Document 12).