German Peasants’ War

Summary

The German Peasants” War, Great Peasants” War or Great Peasants” Revolt (German: Deutscher Bauernkrieg) was a widespread popular uprising in the German-speaking areas of Central Europe from 1524 to 1525. It was suppressed because of intense opposition from the aristocracy, which killed 100,000 of the 300,000 poorly armed peasants and farmers. Survivors were fined and few of their demands were met. The war consisted of a series of both economic and religious uprisings, led by peasants and farmers, often supported by Protestant clerics. The German Peasants” War was the largest popular uprising in Europe before the French Revolution of 1789. The battles reached their peak in the spring and summer of 1525.

The war began with separate insurrections, starting in the south-west of what is now Germany and in neighbouring Alsace, and the subsequent spread of the insurrections to the central and eastern parts of today”s Germany and Austria. After the uprising in Germany was suppressed, it briefly broke out in the Swiss cantons.

As they organised the insurrection, the peasants faced insurmountable obstacles. The democratic nature of their movement left them without a command structure and lacking artillery or cavalry. Most of them had very little military experience. During the fighting many of them fled and were massacred by their pursuers. The opposition had experienced, well-equipped military leaders, disciplined and well-funded armies.

The rebellion included some of the principles of the developing Protestant Reformation, whereby the peasants sought freedom and influence. Historians have interpreted the economic aspects of the German Peasants” War in different ways, and historians on the social and cultural side continue to disagree about its causes and nature.

In the 16th century, many parts of Europe had common political ties within the Holy Roman Empire, a decentralized entity in which the Holy Roman Emperor himself had little authority outside his own dynastic lands, which were subject to only a small part of the whole. At the time of the Peasants” War, Charles V, King of Spain, held the office of Holy Roman Emperor (elected in 1519). Aristocratic dynasties ruled hundreds of largely independent territories (both secular and ecclesiastical) within the empire, and several dozen other territories were operated as semi-independent city-states. A church in Germany under the control of princes was not in a position to tax them as the Roman church had done. The princes could only win by separation and only economically. Most German princes separated from Rome using the nationalist slogan of “German money for a German church”.

Romanian Civil Law

Princes often tried to force their freer peasants to become serfs by raising taxes and introducing Roman civil law. Roman civil law benefited princes seeking to consolidate their power because it brought all land into their personal ownership and eliminated the feudal concept of land as a trust between lord and peasant that conferred rights, as well as obligations, on the latter. By maintaining the old law, which legitimised their own rule, they not only became richer and strengthened their position in the empire by seizing all property and income, but also increased their power over their peasant subjects.

During the Knights” Revolt, the “knights”, the smallest landowners in the Rhineland (in western Germany), revolted in 1522-1523. Their rhetoric was religious, and several leaders expressed Luther”s ideas on the break between Rome and the new German church. However, the Knights” Revolt was not fundamentally religious. It was tied to the land and sought to preserve the feudal order. The Knights rebelled against the new taxes, which were squeezing them of all their money.

Luther and Müntzer

Martin Luther, the dominant leader of the Reformation in Germany, took a neutral course in the Peasants” War. He criticized both the injustices imposed on the peasants and the peasants” unwillingness to fight back. He tended to support centralisation and urbanisation of the economy. This position alienated the petty nobility, but strengthened its position vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie. Luther argued that labour was the primary duty on the land; the duty of the peasants was that of agricultural labour, and that of the ruling classes was to keep the peace. He could not support the peasant war because it disrupted the peace, an evil he believed to be greater than those against whom the peasants rebelled; he also criticized the ruling classes for ruthlessly suppressing the insurrection. Luther was often harshly criticized for his stance.

Thomas Müntzer was the most important Protestant pastor who supported the demands of the peasantry, including political and legal rights. Although Müntzer was a religious leader, politically he showed less interest in religious matters and more in the social position of the people. Müntzer”s theology contained strong mystical and apocalyptic elements that underpinned his support for the peasants. As the war developed, he increasingly focused on non-religious themes. During the war, Müntzer traveled from province to province offering encouragement and leadership. He became the main leader of the peasantry in Saxony. Diarmaid MacCulloch argues that Müntzer”s role was exaggerated for political reasons. He writes:

“The Communist regime in the German Democratic Republic, relying on the historical Marxist abuse of 1525 since Friedrich Engels, has found it useful to show Müntzer as an earlier incarnation of Lenin. In reality Müntzer was an impossible mystic and dreamer… He had no interest in the material betterment of the poor. His contribution to 1525 was marginal, apart from its result in driving himself and his poor group of followers to a miserable death.”

Luther used every opportunity to attack Müntzer”s ideas. He spoke out against the moderate demands of the peasantry contained in the twelve articles. His article Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants, which appeared in May 1525, confounded the rebels.

Social classes within the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century

In this era of rapid change, modernizing princes tended to align themselves with bourgeois clerics against the petty nobility and peasants.

Many rulers of the various principalities in Germany functioned as autocratic rulers who recognised no other authority in their territory. Princes had the right to levy taxes and borrow money as they saw fit. The rising costs of administration and the upkeep of the military led them to demand more and more from their subjects. Princes were also working to centralise power in towns and on estates. As a result, princes tended to gain economically by ruining the lesser nobility by buying up their estates. This ignited the Knights” Revolt that took place from 1522 to 1523 in the Rhineland. The revolt was “suppressed by both Catholic and Lutheran princes, who were content to cooperate against a common danger”.

To the extent that other classes, such as the bourgeoisie, could gain from the centralization of the economy and the removal of the petty nobility”s territorial controls over production and trade, the princes could unite with the bourgeoisie on this issue.

The evolving military technology of the late medieval period began to make the minor nobility (knights) militarily dispensable. The advent of military science and the growing importance of gunpowder and infantry diminished the importance of heavy cavalry and castles. Their luxurious lifestyle drained their small incomes especially as prices continued to rise. They exercised their ancient rights in order to squeeze revenue from their territories.

In northern Germany many of the minor nobles had already been subordinated to the secular and ecclesiastical lords. Thus their domination over the serfs was more limited. In southern Germany, however, their powers were more intact. Consequently, the harshness of the petty nobles” treatment of the peasantry provided the immediate cause of the revolt. The fact that this treatment was worse in the south than in the north was the reason the war began in the south.

The knights became poorer as their status and income declined and they increasingly came under the jurisdiction of the princes, putting the two groups in constant conflict. The knights also regarded the clergy as arrogant and superfluous, while envying their privilege and wealth. In addition, the knights” relations with patricians in the towns were strained by the debts the knights owed. In contrast to other classes in Germany, the lesser nobility was least willing to change.

The minor nobility and clergy paid no taxes and often supported the local prince.

The clerics of 1525 were the intellectuals of their time. Not only were they literate, but they produced the most books of the Middle Ages. Some clerics were supported by the nobility and the wealthy, while others appealed to the masses. However, the clergy were beginning to lose their overwhelming intellectual authority. The progress of printing (especially the Bible) and the spread of trade, as well as the spread of Renaissance humanism, raised the literacy rate, according to Engels. Engels felt that the Catholic monopoly on higher education was correspondingly reduced. However, despite the secular nature of 19th-century humanism, three centuries earlier Renaissance humanism was still strongly tied to the Church: its proponents attended church schools.

Over time, some Catholic institutions have slipped into corruption. Clerical ignorance, abuses of simony and pluralism (holding multiple offices at the same time) have been rampant. Some bishops, archbishops, abbots and abbots were as ruthless in exploiting their subjects as regional princes. In addition to selling pardons, they set up prayer houses and taxed people directly. Growing outrage over church corruption led the monk Martin Luther to post his 95 theses on the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, as well as urging other reformers to radically rethink church doctrine and organization. The priests who did not follow Luther were those of the clerical aristocracy, who opposed any changes, including any break with the Roman Church.The poorer clergy, itinerant preachers from rural and urban areas who were not well placed in the church, were more likely to join the Reformation. Some of the poorer clergy sought to extend Luther”s ideas of equality in society at large.

Many towns had privileges that exempted them from taxes, so most of the taxation fell on the peasants. As guilds grew and the urban population increased, city patricians faced growing opposition. Patricians consisted of wealthy families who ran the town councils themselves and held all administrative offices. Like princes, they sought to secure their peasants” incomes by any means possible. Arbitrary road, bridge and gate taxes were instituted at will. They gradually revoked common lands and decided that it was illegal for peasants to fish or gather wood from these lands. Guild taxes were also imposed. None of the revenue collected was used in administration, and civic accounts were neglected. Thus embezzlement and fraud became commonplace, and the patrician class, bound by family unions, became richer and more powerful.

The city”s patricians were increasingly criticised by the growing bourgeoisie, which was made up of middle-class citizens who held administrative positions in guilds or worked as merchants. They demanded that town assemblies be made up of patricians and burghers or at least that there be a restriction on the sale of offices and the allocation of council seats to the burghers. The burghers also opposed the clergy, whom they believed had overstepped their powers and failed to uphold their principles. They demanded an end to the special privileges of the clergy, such as exemption from taxation, and a reduction in their numbers -The head of the burghers (the master of the guild, or craftsman) now owned both his workshop and his tools, which he allowed his apprentices to use, and supplied them with the materials they needed. F. Engels quotes, “To Luther”s call for rebellion against the Church, two political uprisings responded, first, that of the petty nobility, led by Franz von Sickingen in 1523, and then, the great peasants” war in 1525; both were crushed, chiefly because of the indecision of the party which had the greatest interest in the struggle, the urban bourgeoisie.” (Forward to the English edition of From Utopian Socialism to Scientific Socialism, 1892)

The plebs comprised the new class of urban workers, the calfe and the ambulant. The ruined bourgeoisie also joined their ranks. Although technically potential burghers, most calfe were excluded from higher positions by the wealthy families who ran the guilds. Thus their “temporary” disenfranchised position tended to become permanent. The commoners did not have property like the ruined bourgeois or peasants.

The heavily taxed peasantry continued to occupy the lowest strata of society. In the early 16th century, no peasant could hunt, fish or chop wood freely, as was previously the case, because the lords had recently taken control of common land. The lord had the right to use his peasants” land as he wished; the peasant could do nothing but watch as his crops were destroyed by wild hunters and nobles galloping across his fields during chivalric hunts. When a peasant wanted to marry, he not only needed the lord”s permission, he had to pay a fee. When the peasant died, the lord was entitled to his best cattle, clothes and tools. The justice system, operated by the clergy or rich bourgeois and patrician jurists, did not give the peasants their due. Generations of traditional serfdom and the autonomous nature of the provinces limited peasant uprisings to local areas.

Military organisations

The Swabian League had an army led by Georg, Truchsess von Waldburg, later known as “Bauernjörg” for his role in suppressing the revolt. He was also known as the “Scourge of the Peasants”. The league”s headquarters was at Ulm, and command was exercised through a war council, which decided the contingents of troops to be levied on each member. Depending on their ability, members contributed a certain number of knights and foot soldiers, called a contingent, to the league army. The Bishop of Augsburg, for example, had to contribute 10 horsemen and 62 foot soldiers, which would be the equivalent of half a company. At the beginning of the uprising, League members had problems recruiting soldiers from their own populations (especially the peasant class), for fear that they would join the rebels. As the rebellion spread more nobles had problems sending troops to the League armies as they had to fight rebel groups from their own estates. Another common problem with raising armies was that while nobles were obliged to provide troops to a League member, they also had other obligations to other lords. These conditions created problems and confusion for the nobles who were trying to gather forces large enough to put down the revolts.

The foot soldiers were brought from the ranks of the Landsknechte. They were mercenaries and usually received a monthly salary of four guilders, and were organized into regiments (Haufen) and companies (fähnlein or flag) of 120-300 men, which differed from one another. Each company, in turn, was made up of smaller units of 10 to 12 men, known as rotte. Landsknechte dressed, armed, and fed themselves from pro-prurient resources, and were accompanied by sutlers, bakers, washerwomen, prostitutes, and various individuals with occupations necessary to sustain the force. These groups were sometimes larger than the fighting force, but needed organisation and discipline. Each landsknecht maintained its own structure, called a gemein, or community gathering, which was symbolized by a ring. The gemein had its own leader (Schultheiss), and a provost officer who policed the ranks and maintained order. The use of landsknechte in German peasant warfare reflects a period of change between the roles or responsibilities of traditional nobles towards war and the practice of buying mercenary armies, which became the norm throughout the 16th century.

The League relied on the armored cavalry of the nobility for most of its strength; the League had both heavy and light cavalry, (rennfahne), which served as the vanguard. Usually the rehnnfahne included the second and third sons of poor knights, the lesser and sometimes impoverished nobility who had little land to farm, or in the case of sons it was those who had no inheritance or social role. These men could be found in the countryside looking for work or engaging in highway robbery.

To be effective the cavalry had to be mobile and avoid hostile forces armed with lances.

The peasant armies were organized into bands (haufen), similar to landsknecht. Each haufen was organised into unterhaufen, or fähnlein and rotten. The bands varied in size, depending on the number of insurgents available in the locality. Peasant bands were divided along territorial lines, while landsknecht bands drew people from a variety of territories. Some gangs could number around 4,000 people; others, such as the Frankenhausen peasant force, could muster 8,000. The Alsatian peasants who took part in the Battle of Zabern (now Saverne) numbered 18,000.

Haufen were made up of companies, usually of 500 men each, subdivided into platoons of 10 to 15 peasants each. Like landsknechts, peasant bands used similar titles: Oberster feldhauptmann or commander-in-chief, like a colonel, and lieutenants or leutinger. Each company was commanded by a captain and had its own fähnrich or ensign who held the company flag . Companies also had a sergeant or feldweibel, and squadron leaders were called rottmeister. Officers were usually elected, especially the supreme commander and leutinger.

The peasant army was led by the community assembly, where peasants gathered in a circle to debate tactics, troop movements, alliances and distribution of dispossessions. The assembly was the decision-making body. In addition to this democratic construct, each band had a hierarchy of leaders, including a supreme commander and a chief inspector (Schultheiss), who maintained law and order. Other roles included lieutenants, captains, standard bearers, chief gunner, chief for carts, four sergeant majors to arrange the order of battle, a sergeant for each company, horseshoes and a communications officer.

Historians disagree on the nature of the revolt and its causes, whether it arose out of emerging religious controversies centered on Luther; whether a wealthy category of peasants saw their own wealth and rights slipping through their hands and sought to bind them into the legal, social and religious structure of society; or whether the peasants opposed the emergence of a centralizing modern state.

Threat to prosperity

One idea is that the origins of the German Peasants” War lie partly in the unusual power dynamics caused by the agricultural and economic dynamism of the previous decades. Labour losses in the last half of the 14th century allowed peasants to sell their labour for a higher price; shortages of food and goods allowed them to sell their produce at a higher price as well. As a result, some peasants, especially those who owned land but had some government restrictions, were able to accumulate significant economic, social and legal advantages. Peasants were more concerned with protecting the social, economic and legal gains they had than seeking additional gains.

Iobăgia

In their attempt to break the ice the first attempt was to increase their freedom by changing their status from serfs, as when the peasants of Mühlhausen refused to gather snail shells for the land owner. The renewal of the seniorial system had weakened in the second half of the previous century, and the peasants did not want to see it revived.

Luther”s Reformation

People from all strata of the social hierarchy – serfs and city dwellers, guilds and farmers, knights and aristocrats – began to question the established hierarchy. The so-called Book of One Hundred Chapters, for example, written between 1501 and 1513, promoted religious and economic freedom, attacked the unity of government and presented the pride of the virtuous peasant. The Bundschuh revolts of the first 20 years of the century provided another avenue for the expression of anti-authoritarian ideas and the spread of these ideas from one geographical region to another.

Luther”s revolution may have added intensity to these movements, but it did not create them; the two events, Luther”s Protestant Reformation and the German Peasants” War, were separate, sharing the same years, but occurring independently of each other. Nevertheless, Luther”s doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” could be interpreted as proposing greater social equality than he intended. Luther was vehemently opposed to rebellion, writing the pamphlet Against the Murderous Hordes of Peasant Rebels, in which he remarks: “Let all who can, strike, kill and stab, secretly or openly … nothing can be more poisonous, diabolical than a rebel. It”s just like you have to kill a mad dog, if you don”t hit it, it will hit you”.

Historian Roland Bainton saw the revolt as a struggle that began as a revolt that was steeped in the rhetoric of Luther”s Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church, but which was indeed pushed far beyond religious boundaries narrowed by the economic tensions of the time.

Class struggle

Friedrich Engels interpreted the war as a case in which the developing proletariat (the urban class) failed to assert a sense of autonomy from the ruling power and left the rural classes to their fate.

During the 1524 harvest in Stühlingen, south of the Black Forest, the Countess of Lupfen ordered the serfs to collect snail shells for use as thread reels after a series of difficult harvests. Within days, 1,200 peasants gathered, created a list of grievances, elected officers and raised a banner. Within weeks, most of southwest Germany was in open revolt. The uprising stretched from the Black Forest along the Rhine River to Lake Constance in the Swabian mountains, along the Danube River in Bavaria

The spread of the insurgency

On 16 February 1525, 25 villages belonging to the city of Memmingen rebelled, demanding that the magistrates (city council) improve the economic and general political situation. They complained about peonage, land use, easements in the forest and in the commune, and the ecclesiastical demands of service and pay.

The town has set up a committee of villagers to discuss their issues, expecting to see a list of specific requirements. Unexpectedly, the peasants issued a uniform statement that struck at the pillars of the peasant-magistrate relationship. Twelve articles clearly and consistently outlined their grievances. The Council rejected many of the demands. Historians have generally concluded that the Memmingen Articles became the basis for the twelve articles agreed by the Swabian Peasant Confederation of 20 March 1525.

A single Swabian contingent of nearly 200 horses and 1,000 foot soldiers could not cope with the scale of the uprising. By 1525, the uprisings in the Black Forest, Breisgau, Hegau, Sundgau and Alsace had led to the mustering of 3,000 soldiers and 300 horses.

The Twelve Articles (statement of principles)

On 6 March 1525, about 50 peasant representatives met in Memmingen to agree on a common cause against the Swabian League. A day later, after difficult negotiations, they proclaimed the establishment of the Christian Association, a Confederation of the Upper Swabian Peasants. The peasants met again on 15 and 20 March in Memmingen and, after some further deliberations, adopted the twelve articles and the Federal Ordinance (Bundesordnung). Their banner, the bundschuh, or braided boot, served as the emblem of their agreement. The Twelve Articles were printed more than 25,000 times over the next two months and quickly spread throughout Germany, an example of how modernization came to the rebels” aid.

The Kempten Uprising

Kempten im Allgäu was an important town in the Allgäu, a region part of what became Bavaria near the borders of Württemberg and Austria. In the early 8th century, Celtic monks established an abbey there, the Abbey of Kempten. In 1213, Emperor Frederick II appointed the abbots as members of the Reichsstand, or part of the Empire, and granted the abbots the title of duke. In 1289, King Rudolf of Habsburg granted special privileges to the urban settlement in the river valley, making it a free imperial city. In 1525, the last property rights of the abbots in the imperial city were sold in the so-called “Great Purchase”, marking the beginning of the coexistence of two independent cities bearing the same name side by side. In this multi-layered authority, during the Peasants” War, the peasants of the abbey rebelled, looting the abbey and moving into the city.

Battle of Leipheim

On April 4, 1525, 5,000 peasants, Leipheimer Haufen (literally: Leipheim Gang) gathered near Leipheim to rise up against Ulm. A troop of five companies, plus about 25 Leipheim citizens, took up positions west of the town. League scouts reported to the Truchsess that the peasants were well armed. They had powder cannons and rifles and numbered 3,000-4,000. They took up an advantageous position on the east bank of the Biber River. On the left was a forest, and on the right a stream and marsh; behind them they built a fortress of wagon-carts and were armed with arquebuses and some pieces of light artillery.

As he had done in previous meetings with the peasants, Truchsess negotiated while continuing to move his troops into advantageous positions. Keeping most of his army at Leipheim, he sent detachments of horses from Hesse and Ulm across the Danube to Elchingen. The detached troops encountered a separate group of 1,200 peasants engaged in local requisitions and entered the fray, dispersing them and taking 250 of them prisoner. At the same time, the Truchsess broke off negotiations and received a volley of fire from the main group of peasants. He sent a light cavalry guard and a small group of foot soldiers against the fortified peasant position. This was followed by the main group; when the peasants saw the size of this group – 1,500 horses, 7,000 foot soldiers and 18 guns – they began an orderly retreat. Of the 4,000 peasants who occupied the fortified position, 2,000 managed to reach the town of Leipheim, taking their wounded with them in wagons. Others sought escape on the Danube, 400 of them drowning. The Truchsess cavalry took out another 500. This was the first major battle of the war.

Weinsberg massacre

Some of the conflict has caused resentment towards some of the nobility. The Odenwald peasants had already taken the Cistercian monastery at Schöntal and were joined by peasant troops from Limpurg (near Schwäbisch Hall) and Hohenlohe. A large band of peasants from the Neckar valley, under the leadership of Jack Rohrbach, joined them, and from Neckarsulm, this enlarged band, called the “Bright Band” (in German, Heller Haufen), marched to the town of Weinsberg, where Count of Helfenstein, then Austrian governor of Württemberg, was present. Here, the peasants won a major victory. The peasants attacked and captured the castle in Weinsberg; most of their own soldiers were away in Italy and there was little protection. After taking him prisoner, the peasants continued their revenge: they forced him and 70 other nobles who had taken refuge with him to be beaten at the stroi, a popular form of execution among the Landsknechts. Rohrbach ordered the band”s piper to play during the execution of the beating.

This was too much for many of the peasant leaders of other troops; they rejected Rohrbach”s actions. He was ousted and replaced by a knight, Götz von Berlichingen, who was then elected supreme commander of the band. At the end of April, the band marched to Amorbach, joined on the road by radical Odenwald peasants who wanted to kill Berlichingen. Berlichingen had been involved in suppressing the Poor Conrad riots 10 years earlier, and these peasants were seeking revenge. During their march, they burned Wildenburg Castle, in contravention of the articles of war to which the band had agreed.

The Weinsberg massacre was too much for Luther, this being the act that led to his rage against the murderous hordes of peasant rebels, in which he criticized the peasants for their unbearable crimes, not only for the murder of the Weinsberg nobles, but also for the impertinence of their revolt.

The Frankenhausen Massacre

On 29 April, peasant protests in Thuringia culminated in an open riot. Large parts of the urban population joined the revolt. Together, they marched into the province and stormed the castle of the counts in Schwarzburg. In the following days, larger numbers of insurgents gathered in the fields around the town. When Müntzer arrived with 300 fighters from Mühlhausen on 11 May, several thousand peasants from the surrounding area camped in the fields and pastures: the strength of the peasants and town forces was estimated at 6,000. Philip of Hesse and Duke George of Saxony were on Müntzer”s trail and led their Landsknecht troops to Frankenhausen. On 15 May, Philip and George”s joint troops defeated the peasants under Müntzer near Frankenhausen in the county of Schwarzburg.

The princes” troops included nearly 6,000 mercenaries, Landsknechte. As such, they were experienced, well-equipped, well-trained and of good morale. The peasants, on the other hand, were poorly equipped, if at all, and many had neither experience nor training. Many of the peasants did not agree about fighting or negotiating. On 14 May they managed to defeat the smaller Hessian and Brunswick forces, but failed to benefit from their success. The insurgents arranged a ceasefire and withdrew to a wagon fort.

The next day Philip”s troops joined Duke George”s Saxon army and immediately broke the truce, beginning a heavy infantry, cavalry and artillery attack. The peasants were taken by surprise and fled into the town, pursued and continually attacked by the public forces. Most of the insurgents were killed in what turned out to be a massacre. The number of casualties is not well known, but estimates range from 3,000 to 10,000, while the number of casualties on the Landsknecht side was six (two of whom were only wounded). Müntzer was captured, tortured and executed at Mühlhausen on 27 May.

Battle of Böblingen

The Battle of Böblingen (12 May 1525) was probably the biggest casualty of the war. When the peasants learned that the Truchsess of Waldburg had set up camp at Rottenburg, they marched towards it and occupied the town of Herrenberg on 10 May. Avoiding the Swabian League”s attempts to retake Herrenberg, the Württemberg band set up three camps between Böblingen and Sindelfingen. There they formed four units, settling on the slopes between the towns. The 18 artillery pieces stood on a hill called Galgenberg. The peasants were defeated by the League cavalry, who surrounded and pursued them for several kilometres. While the Württemberg band lost about 3,000 peasants (estimates range from 2,000 to 9,000), the League lost no more than 40 soldiers.

Battle of Königshofen

At Königshofen on 2 June, the peasant commanders Wendel Hipfler and Georg Metzler set up camp outside the town. After identifying two squads of approaching League and Alliance cavalry on either flank, now recognized as a dangerous Truchsess strategy, they redeployed the wagon-fort and guns to the hill above the town. Having learned how to protect themselves from a cavalry attack, the peasants gathered in four massive ranks behind their cannon but in front of their fort, intended to protect them from an attack from behind. The peasants” artillery fired a volley at the League cavalry attacking them from the left. Truchsess”s infantry made a frontal attack, but without waiting for his soldiers to engage, he also ordered an attack on the peasants from the rear. As the knights struck the rear ranks, panic broke out among the peasants. Hipler and Metzler fled with the gunners. Two thousand reached the nearby woods, where they regrouped and put up some resistance. In the ensuing chaos, peasants, cavalry and infantry fought hard. By nightfall only 600 peasants remained. Truchsess ordered his army to search the battlefield, and the soldiers discovered about 500 peasants who had feigned death. The battle is also called the Battle of Turmberg because of a watchtower on the battlefield.

Siege of Freiburg

Freiburg, which was a Habsburg territory, had great difficulty gathering recruits to fight the peasants, and when the city managed to gather a column and go out to meet them, the peasants disappeared into the woods. After the Duke of Baden, Margrave Ernst, refused to accept the 12 articles, the peasants attacked the monasteries in the Black Forest. The Knights Templar at Heitersheim were defeated on 2 May; bands from the north ravaged the abbeys of Tennenbach and Ettenheimmünster. In early May, Hans Müller arrived with over 8,000 men at Kirzenach near Freiburg. More troops joined, bringing the total to 18,000, and within days the town was surrounded and the peasants began to make siege plans.

Second Battle of Würzburg (1525)

After the peasants took control of Freiburg, Hans Müller took part of the group to help in the siege of Radolfzell. The rest of the peasants returned to their farms. On 4 June, near Würzburg, Müller and his small group of peasant soldiers joined the Frankish farmers of the Hellen Lichten gang. Despite this union, the strength of their force was relatively small. At Waldburg-Zeil, near Würzburg, they met the army of Götz von Berlichingen (”Götz the Iron Hand”). An imperial knight and experienced soldier, although relatively small in strength himself, he easily defeated the peasants. In about two hours, more than 8,000 peasants were killed.

Final stages

Several smaller riots have also been put down. For example, on 2324 June 1525, in the Battle of Pfeddersheim, the rebellious warriors of the Palatinate Peasants” War were defeated for good. By September 1525 all fighting and punitive actions were over. Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII thanked the Swabian League for its intervention.

The peasant movement eventually failed, with the towns and nobles making a separate peace with the princely armies who restored the old order in a harsher form under the nominal control of Charles V, represented in the Germanic areas by his younger brother Ferdinand. The main reasons for the failure of the rebellion were the lack of communication between peasant troops due to territorial divisions and military inferiority. While Landsknechts, professional soldiers and knights joined the peasants in their efforts (albeit in smaller numbers), the Swabian League had a better understanding of technology, strategy and military experience.

The results of the German Peasants” War led to an overall reduction in the rights and freedoms of the peasant class, effectively eliminating them from political life. Certain territories in Upper Swabia, such as Kempton, Weissenau and Tyrol, had territorial assemblies (Landschaft) set up by the peasants, located in territorial committees, as well as other bodies that dealt with issues directly affecting the peasants such as taxation. However, the general goals of change for these peasants, especially those included in the Twelve Articles, failed to be implemented and remained stagnant, with real change coming a few centuries later.

Sources

  1. Războiul Țărănesc German
  2. German Peasants” War