The Potential Limitations of Religious Peasant Revolt
Religion served as the animating force behind many of the early peasant revolts, and as such shaped the goals of these revolts, limiting their methods and at times even the parameters of their ambitions. By centering their revolts around their faiths, they illuminated the relationship between the peasant’s religion, and the officials who were imbued with religious authority.
These revolts were made or broken on the approval they could engender from a religious authority that was often intertwined with the political upper class the peasants were rebelling against.The German Peasant Revolt sticks out as a clear example of the strengths and pitfalls of a religiously motivated uprising. They were constrained by the contours of their faith, and as much as it moved them initially, it stalled them when they reached the boundaries and allowed their movements success to be determined from the outside. Short lived though it was, the German Peasant Revolt served as an initial example of the structural limitations that any religion centered non-elite revolt would face. The whole affair can be traced back to Martin Luther, a monk leading the protestant reformation against the Papacy through a series of religious statements and sermons.
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One of the defining Lutheran texts of this period, On Secular Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed, published in 1523, it served as Luther’s case for the value of Secular governments, and why good christians should obey their laws. The base of his argument lay in the idea that people belong to two kingdoms, one of God and one of the world. He argued that if all men would live fully in the Kingdom of God then there would be no reason for Kings or laws, because all Christians are instructed by the Holy Ghost to “wrong no one, to love everyone… to suffer injustice and even death from everyone” (Luther, 187).
Alas, he felt that True Christians would always be a minority in any nation state, and the existence of this reality validated the need for laws to force people to do good. He went on to argue that because most of the world did not follow the teachings of Christ, trying to rule over them all with Christian values would be like herding sheep alongside lions and wolves, and then simply expecting them to coexist peacefully. He concluded that, at least until such time that Christ returns to create a Kingdom on Earth, there was good cause for Secular governments to hold coercive powers over its citizens, at least to keep the heretics in line. This argument was problematic at the time due in large part to the Papacy’s declared jurisdiction over both Kingdoms, a dominion which Luther was now threatening. He stated as much in this pamphlet, declaring that the Pope was “neither higher nor better than other Christians. Therefore [the Papacy] should not impose any law or decree on others without their will or consent” (Luther, 190).
While this was just one of the treatises that Luther published while forcing a conflict with the Papacy and their allies in the German Nobility, it gave an indication years before the brunt of the Peasant violence as to how Luther would react to an uprising against the secular state. While he was more than happy to combat the Vatican rhetorically, any mass violence would seem to fly in the face of the new order he was attempting to create apart from Papal authority. Nonetheless, the Peasant class was inspired by this challenging of the once unquestionable Papal authority, and along with it came a questioning of the German Elites with whom the Pope has claimed to grant divine authority over the peasantry. Far from a spontaneous outbreak of violence, the Peasants revolted with an outlined declaration expressing their desires and declaring their intentions. Drafted between February and March 1525, The Twelve Articles statement represented the sum of these desires.
They are remarkably limited, never demanding upending of the system in favor of simple reforms that would nonetheless provide a tangible benefit to the peasants. This included a desire to “have the authority and power for the whole community to elect and appoint its own pastor,” as well as “authority to depose a pastor who behaves improperly,” (Peasant Article 1) instead of the lengthy process of waiting for a far off Archbishop to appoint a new pastor, essentially a request for convenience and more religious agency. Rather than upending the feudal system, they opted for requesting a marginally more equitable relationship with their feudal lords, requesting that they reduce the “grievous burden of labor services, which the lords daily increase,” so that they may “serve as our forefathers did, according to God’s word alone” (Peasant Article 6). Again, their focus is on continuing the labor tradition of the past, and while they can identify exploitation by their lord, they wish to While there were some larger changes proposed, such as minor societal restructuring like re-establishing communal ownership over the woods and rivers since “the lords have seized the woods for themselves alone,” and “when the poor commoner needs some wood, he has to pay twice the price for it” (Peasant Article 5).
While this seems to display a sort of consciousness as to the disparity between their class standing in the current system, these requests are far from the radicalism which the nobles would go on to ascribe to their cause. Indeed, when faced with these demands for reform the lords amassed their forces to crush the peasant uprising. Aside from the clear disadvantage of resources the peasants faced, they were struck a devastating blow by the reaction to their revolt by the religious leaders who sparked it. While some radical figures like Thomas Muntzer supported the Peasant revolt, most followed the lead of Luther. Following the outbreak of violence, Luther released a series of pamphlets with the intention of removing the theological basis for the peasant revolt, and when that failed to cease the fighting he released his most vitriolic pamphlet, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. Within those pages he unleashed a torrent of condemnations against the peasants, describing them as a “great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land” (Luther 192). He attacked their piety on several accounts, attempting to sever the combatants from the theology that motivated them into the field in the first place. This critique took several different approaches; first that the Peasants are breaking their sworn duty to be “true and faithful, submissive and obedient” (Luther, 191), citing Matthew 22:21 “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” and Romans 13:1 “Let everyone be subject unto the higher powers” as scriptural proof that the Peasants must maintain subservience to their lords. This tracks with his previous writings in On Secular Government about obeying the laws of the state, having previously expressed that rebellion against their lords on religious grounds would hurt the secular authority in place to prevent this exact type of violence.
Secondly he took exception to their burning of monasteries and castle keeps, going so far as to say that they have become deserving of “death in body and soul … for if a man is an open rebel every man is his judge and executioner … [as] nothing can be more poisonous … than a rebel” (Luther, 191-192). He argues that because of the devastation they have wrought, that they are not, in fact, the Christians they claim to be, and as such are actually agents of the devil, who should be put down at once. He even takes issue with the request for opening up access to the forests and rivers in what seems an exceptionally uncharitable interpretation of the peasants request, explaining that “Our peasants, however, would have other men’s goods common, and keep their own goods for themselves. Fine Christians these!” (Luther, 192). Here it seems Luther diverts from the theological argument he had been making thus far in favor of one that melds religious judgement with the more resource based argument that some historians felt undergirded this conflict.
Luther, of course, before his time as Monk and occasional enemy of the state, came from an Aristocratic background, to which one might attribute his squeamish reaction to any sort of redistributionary argument in the peasants case. Something about the peasants tactics, whether it was the killing of nobles at Weinsberg or the sacking of churches, provoked a particularly visceral response in Luther, who went on to call for “everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly …[for] nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel” (Luther, 192). This open call for violence would seem to contradict Luther’s professed desire for order and abiding by laws, but by then he was disgusted with the Peasant forces and had determined that these devout Christians, rebelling in religious fervor, were fully outside of God’s Kingdom. In any case what became clear from this response was that Luther was not quite as revolutionary as he had appeared during his defiant stand at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Rather, he balked at the more radical aspects of the peasant revolt, wrote treatises against their cause, and established himself as a reformer, more comfortable working within the Secular state to reform the church than he was taking up arms to force a change.
Whether his motivations arose from a genuine scriptural interpretation that the peasants were in the wrong, a disguised aristocratic impulse away from upending society, or a mix of the two, his condemnation of the peasants dealt the final rhetorical blow to their cause, such that their ultimate destruction on the field of battle was more of a formality. Without the font from which their rebellious energy flowed, and without the moral righteousness which carried their cause against insurmountable odds, there were few options left at the peasants disposal, and no real path for their movement to outlast military defeat. Their arguments were largely theological and then the theologians of the time rebuked them in the harshest of terms. When it came time for Luther to stand with what his words had evoked in people, he chose his ties to the Elite class, amongst those who had conflict with the Papacy he was becoming a valued ally and intellectual to protect if you didn’t fear the Vatican’s wrath. Their Christianity informed them of the rights they deserved as people, they were inspired by religious leaders, but when the peasants took agency for themselves they quickly found themselves abandoned by those they thought would stand by their side.
They did not intend to make fundamental changes to their relationship with the feudal lords, and as such had no critique to fall back on when they were rejected by the religious powers that be, no structural changes people could rally behind, no way to create a movement that could reproduce itself when it’s foundations had been thoroughly severed. They had tied their movement to the scriptural interpretations of an elite class, and as such were at the mercy of those who supplied revolutionary thought. This proved to be unstable ground with which to build a movement, and in a revolt that was an uphill battle from the start, ultimately proved fatal.