A REPLY TO THE TWELVE ARTICLES OF THE PEASANTS IN SWABIA
The Peasants’ War of 1525 is the most tragic episode in the history of the Reformation in Germany. No student of Luther’s life and work can pass by the writings in which he expressed his views about it. They are fundamental to an understanding of his conceptions of society, of the state, and of the relation of the Gospel to both. We have in them, also, the key to the subsequent development of the Lutheran churches of Germany, with their repression of the democratic element in church government and their close dependence upon the territorial states.
The social ferment, out of which the Peasants’ War arose, had its beginning far back of the Reformation. It had been in progress for a full century before the Reformation began, and evidences of it can be found in England and France, as well as in Germany. The causes of social movements of this kind are always difficult to trace. They are primarily psychological.
Revolutions and rebellions are the product of states of mind, and the processes by which economic and material conditions beget mental states are seldom visible to the eye of the historian.
Nevertheless, it is possible to name with certainty some of the causes of this social ferment. One of them was the ambition of the peasant for a higher social status, for a recognition of his value to the life of society, conferred in the form of privileges and exemptions, which was the only form of recognition that the time understood. A second cause, corollary to the former, was the peasant’s dissatisfaction with the economic burdens that he had to bear. A third cause was the increased demands that were made upon the peasants as the feudal system gradually gave way before the rising power of the territorial state. The efforts of the smaller feudal landholders to maintain themselves in the face of the growing authority of the great princely houses required resources that could be had only by laying greater burdens upon the tillers of the soil, in the form of increased taxation and new services.
From its earliest beginnings, this movement among the peasantry had had a rebellious aspect. For one thing it involved a degree of hostility to existing church institutions. The abbots and the bishops, along with the knights and other landlords, were held responsible for the peasants’ ills. This attitude of mind made the peasantry a fertile field for religious propaganda. The proposals for church reform that had been almost constant since the days of Wyclif had been popular among the peasants, especially those proposals which looked toward reforming the Church by reducing it to apostolic poverty. Heretical ideas of many kinds had combined with these criticisms of the Church, and the hope of the coming millenium glowed most brightly in the hearts of those who had the least to hope for this side of it.
Throughout the fifteenth century, peasant uprisings, of larger or smaller extent, had been relatively common occurrences. There was scarcely a decade that some such rebellion did not take place in some locality, and these revolts were accompanied or paralleled by similar uprisings of the lower classes in the cities. They were directed against the city councils and the country landlords, clerical and lay. Quite usually they claimed a religious motive, and had their inception in visions and revelations of the Lord. The Peasants’ War of 1525 was thus the last of a long series of similar rebellions, but it was the first to occur after the beginning of the Reformation and it was by far the greatest and the most disastrous of them all.
It was intimately connected with the Reformation. The teaching of Luther had been taken up eagerly by the lower classes, but they gave it an interpretation that Luther had never intended it to have. To people who were already on the verge of rebellion, it seemed to furnish a new theoretical reason for opposition to the Church, and to point a way by which the oppressive institutions of the Church, especially the monasteries and the endowed foundations, could be overthrown without giving up the spiritual benefits which the Church claimed to confer. This view of it was zealously spread by radical reformers and preachers of religious revolution.
The best known of these men were Thomas Muenzer and Balthasar Hubmaier. They aimed to be reformers of society, as well as of the Church. They believed that the Church could be reformed only by the abolition of existing ecclesiastical institutions and the creation of new and pure ones, and their ideal of society was a theocracy, a kingdom of God on earth, that would be ruled only by God’s Word, written in Scripture or revealed by His Spirit to His chosen prophets. It was but natural that preachers of this kind of doctrine should find enthusiastic audiences among the classes that felt themselves oppressed. It was the entrance of these new ideas into a state of mind already predisposed to revolution that would seem to have produced the uprising of 1525.
Long before the rebellion came, Luther realized that the preaching of radical reform was sure to lead to serious conflicts. He had experienced the dangers of it in the Wittenberg disturbances of 1522. His Eight Wittenberg Sermons (1522) had proclaimed his ideas of the method by which reforms should be introduced. In his Faithful Exhortation (1522) and his tract On Temporal Government he had issued his warnings against violent measures and defined his attitude toward the ruling classes. In 1525 he had to decide whether, in the face of a new situation, he would still hold to the principles that he had expressed.
In 1524 and 1525 there were three main centers of revolutionary activity in Germany, — Swabia, Franconia, and Thuringia. Thuringia was Luther’s old home, and a considerable part of it was under the government of his own prince, Frederick of Saxony; but it was in Swabia that the situation first became acute. As early as May, 1524, there were local uprisings in these territories, and through the whole remainder of that year the discontent was spreading. There were meetings of peasants here and there for the formulation of demands upon their rulers, and the various “articles” that came out of these meetings are among our most valuable sources for the history of the movement. In more than one place the peasants refused point blank to pay the taxes or perform the services demanded of them, and everywhere throughout the region they were preparing for armed revolt. In the midst of this ferment Muenzer, Hubmaier, and others were preaching religious revolution.
Among the manifestos of various kinds that were issued by the peasants, the Twelve Articles came to have the most important place. They were adopted originally by the peasants of the neighborhood of Memmingen and date from January or February, 1525. They appeared in print before March 19th, and circulated rapidly, being reprinted at least twenty-four times, in widely separated localities, before the end of May. Their authorship presents a problem that will probably never be solved. The names of Christopher Schappeler and Sebastian Lotzer, who were undoubtedly leaders in the movement, have been connected with them, and the earlier historians ascribed their authorship to one or both of these men. On the basis of extensive research, Wilhelm Stolze has suggested that they were written by Hubmaier, or by some one of his disciples. Because of their importance and because of Luther’s frequent references to them, it has seemed advisable to append the full text of the Articles.
Just when the Articles may have come to Luther’s attention we do not know, but it was certainly before April 16th, on which date Melanchthon wrote to Camerarius of Luther’s purpose to reply to them (Corpus Reformatorum, 1:739). The actual work of writing this reply was begun during a journey which took Luther into Thuringia, another of the centers of discontent. How much he may have been influenced by the things that he saw and heard there must remain uncertain. The title that Luther gave to this first treatment of the peasants’ grievances is Ermahnung zum Frieden auf die zwoelf Artikel der Bauernschaft in Schwaben.
There was more than one reason why Luther felt called upon to take a hand in the situation. In the Articles themselves the peasants were appealing to “Christian law,” or “Christian right,” in support of their demands, and Luther felt this to be a complete perversion of the Gospel. In Article 12, also, the peasants had requested advice and instruction on this very point upon the basis of Holy Scripture. Moreover, at the time when Luther received the Articles the insurrection had not yet begun in earnest.
The Article express a situation of calm before the breaking of the storm.
The peasants were in arms but had not yet committed overt acts of violence, and Luther hoped that such acts might still be averted, if they were in earnest with their request for advice. The growing tension in Thuringia doubtless had something to do with his decision.
But beside these reasons there was another. In the Admonition Luther refers to a “second document” that has come into his hands. We do not know for certain what that document was, but we do know that in it Luther was appealed to by name as one of those whose advice and instruction the peasants sought. We know of two such documents. The one is a set of instructions given to representatives of the peasant bands as a guide for negotiations with the Swabian League. They are to ask, among other things, for the appointment of a commission to interpret the “divine law,” and it is suggested that it consist of Ferdinand of Austria, Frederick of Saxony, and Luther, Melanchthon, or Bugenhagen. The other is constitution of the “Christian Association,” adopted by the Swabian peasants, March 7, 1525. Appended to this document is a list of fourteen doctores who will be acceptable expounders of the “divine law.”
Luther’s name headed this list, which included also Melanchthon, Brenz, Osiander, and Zwingli.
The Admonition consists of three parts. The first is addressed to the princes and lords. Luther asks them to take the threatened rebellion seriously, to try conciliation, to moderate their demands upon the peasants, and to reform their way of living. He tells them frankly that they are to blame for the situation that exists. The second part is addressed to the peasants. Here Luther admits that many of the peasants’ demands, contained in the Articles, are just. They have been treated outrageously by their rulers and burdens have been imposed upon them that they ought not to be asked to bear. Nevertheless, they are wrong in attempting to change these things by force, and they are doubly wrong in claiming that the Gospel gives them this right, for the law which Christians accept requires submission to authority and declares that everyone who takes the sword will perish with the sword. He discusses the Preface and the first three articles in some detail, and dismisses the rest as matters that concern the lawyers. The third part is addressed to both lords and peasants. He reminds them that he has just proved that both parties are wrong and that neither is acting in a Christian way. If it comes to a conflict, both parties will lose their souls and Germany will be ruined. The proper way to settle the matter is to appoint a commission to study the situation and propose a compromise that will be agreed to by both parties.
The whole treatise is composed in a dispassionate spirit. Luther speaks plainly, as always. He blames the agitation among the peasants upon the radical preachers, who have confused the law and the Gospel. and he accuses the nobles of bringing this rebellion upon themselves by their arbitrary and unchristian conduct and their persecution of the Gospel.
Nevertheless, it is a moderate and fair statement of a view of the situation which is thoroughly consistent with Luther’s earlier utterances, and from which he did not afterwards depart. That the Admonition failed of its intended effect was due to the rapidity with which events moved. Before its publication the Peasants’ War was already in full sway, and the peasants who had sought the advice and instruction that it gave were burning and pillaging monasteries and castles, villages and towns.
Literature. The literature on the Peasants’ War and Luther’s relation to it is very extensive, though comparatively little of it is in English. The histories of the Reformation and the biographies of the principal reformers all discuss it, the most recent being that ofMACKINNON, Luther and the Reformation 3 (1929), pp. 180-210. The best bibliography in an English work is found in the Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 2 (1907), pp. 752- 54. With this should be compared the bibliography of W.STOLZE, Der deutsche Bauernkrieg; Untersuchungen ueber seine Entstehung und seinen Verlauf, Halle, 1907, and for the more recent literature PaulALTHAUS, in Jahrbuecher der Luthergesellschaft, 1925, pp. 1-39, and Theologische Literaturzeitung, 1926, col. 298.BAX, The Peasants’ War in Germany, 1899, is a one-sided and inaccurate work. The most recent interpretation of the events is that of W.STOLZE, Bauernkrieg und Reformation, Leipzig, 1926. A valuable edition of the most important sources is that of BOEHMER, Urkunden zur Geschichte des Bauernkriegs und der Wiedertaeufer, Bonn, 1910. The Twelve Articles are given in English translation inBAX, op. cit., pp. 63-74, and inKIDD, Sources of the Continental Reformation, 1911, No. 83.
The text of the Admonition is found in Weimar Ed., 18:291 ff.; Erlangen Ed., 24:259 ff. (271 ff.); St. Louis Ed., 16:45-70; Berlin Ed., 7:311 ff.; Clemen, 3:47 ff. The translation follows the text of Clemen; the appended translation of the Twelve Articles based on that of Kidd, compared with the text of Boehmer.
CHARLES M. JACOBS.
MOUNT AIRY, PHILADELPHIA.