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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries


Sorry - that was a rather long post yesterday. But I was punished for it: we were too late for the 89 euros menu and had to go a la carte - boiled pink beef followed by creamed goats cheese, plums and green peppers.

Chef Raabe's delicious boiled pink beef

I suppose the post was long because of the prominence of the Great Peasants' Rebellion in German history. The countryside was engulfed across a south westerly swathe from Goslar and Gottingen in the north, through the Black Forest and across to the Moselle. Serfs, peasants, miners, poor townspeople and even some disenchanted knights went to war with their overlords. At a guess, this area had a total population of about 3 million in 1525 and over 300,000 rebels took up arms. So when Thomas Muntzer left Muhlhausen with his cohort of fighters, he must have felt he was joining a tsunami.

The printing press was crucially important in the rebellion. The peasants came from small villages, widely dispersed, but they were able to draw together because once their various representatives had agreed on the objectives for the rebellion, the presses ran off 25,000 copies of the manifesto for circulation.

No-one was in any doubt what he was fighting for. The rebels wanted changes to the way, and the amounts of, tithes were taken and used; the abolition of serfdom; restoration of rights to hunt and fish, to use the forests and pastures for themselves; restrictions on taxes, rents and forced labour; and a fair justice system – ambitions that would not have been unfamiliar to Wat Tyler. These secular demands were sheathed in a millennialist fervour that gave revolutionary impetus to the rebellion. Martin Luther was partly responsible for this: though, as an Augustine canon, he could not be a millennialist, he did use apocalyptic imagery – in particular, his depiction of the Pope as the anti-Christ. In so doing, he paved the way for Thomas Muntzer, whose preachings and writings interwove the mystical, apocalyptic and revolutionary - with himself to the fore: "O ho, how ripe the rotten apples are! O ho, how rotten the elect have become! The time of the harvest has come! That is why He himself has hired me for his harvest." Luther's writings showed sympathy for the rebels' objectives and many believed they had his support for direct action. In this they were misguided. There is no evidence in his writings that he incited rebellion: in his opposition to two earlier rebellions, he repeated time and time again that revolt against the lawful government was a great evil. So, as Muntzer prepared for battle, Luther hacked at the sacred underpinnings of the rebellion. Angered by the widespread destruction of Thuringian monasteries, convents and libraries, Luther produced, in early May, a polemic entitled Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants: “Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel ... the gospel does not make goods common ..., Our peasants, however, want to make the goods of other men common, and keep their own for themselves. Fine Christians they are! I think there is not a devil left in hell; they have all gone into the peasants. Their raving has gone beyond all measure.” Undaunted by the venom of Luther's opposition or the fact that many peasants simply gave up and went home on hearing Luther's words, Muntzer spurred his troops: “On! on! while the iron is hot. Let not your sword grow cold. Smite! ... God leads. On! on! God says, 'Fear not.' Recoil not before the great horde. It is not your war. It is God's. Play the man. The shield of the Lord is about you.” On May 11th 1525, he set out to join the peasant army besieging Frankenhausen, a castle town 40 kilometres to the north-west (where, four centuries later, Christa Wolf would go to school). There an army of around 8,000 rebels had been besieging the castle since the end of April and were on the verge of success.

But did Muntzer really believe he could win? Peasant armies had managed only one victory up until then - at Weinsberg, where they had found the Count of Helfenstein in his castle unprotected (his troops were away on duty in Italy) and had taken him, and seventy other nobles, prisoner. The peasants then made the nobles run the gauntlet ('gauntlet' being a corruption of the Swedish word gatlopp, or lane-running - nothing to do with gloves) between two rows of soldiers, stabbing at them with pikes and swords (hence the expression). But this victory was the exception. In the battle to defend Wurzburg, the town handed to them by Tilman Riemenschneider, the rebels lost 8,000 men to the Imperial forces. Four days after Muntzer's arrival in Frankenhausen, a coalition of three Imperial forces numbering 4,000 foot soldiers and 2,800 cavalry arrived to lift the siege. They offered to negotiate with the peasants if they laid down their arms and surrendered Thomas Muntzer. They refused: Muntzer was their talisman – had he not promised to catch cannon balls in his sleeves – and they received a sign from God, a rainbow spread over them, mirroring the rainbow they had emblazoned on their banners.


There was a truce while these negotiations were going on, which the Imperial troops used to get into position to attack. Once ready, they broke the truce with a barrage of artillery and launched their cavalry and foot soldiers. The peasants were caught completely unawares, broke and scattered. They were hunted down and some 7,000 killed – with a loss of just six dead on the Imperial side. As Hilaire Belloc was to put it: “Whatever happens, we have got/ The Maxim gun, and they have not.” Where the peasants had tools of the soil and a few handguns, the Imperial foot soldiers were seasoned mercenaries. These small armies of landsknechte were entirely self-contained military units for hire, well-armed, disciplined and well-led. There was simply no contest. Of the rebels who aggregated around 300,000 in the Rebellion as a whole, some 100,000 were killed mostly by these landsknechte mercenaries. As for Thomas Muntzer, he tried to hide but was captured, tortured and taken back to Muhlhausen, where he was beheaded. Under torture, he is said to have exclaimed: omnia sunt communia and, with Engels' 1850 endorsement of his communist credentials, he became a socialist icon for the German Democratic Republic. Soviet historians after 1945 interpreted the Rebellion as class war and characterised Muntzer's theology as pure ideology of class: so the East German government could explain that the expropriation of 7,000 large estates would finally achieve the central demand of the rebels of 1525. Muhlhausen and Frankenhausen were equipped with monuments, museums and statues; in Frankenhausen, there is a huge panorama 400 feet long and 50 feet high depicting the Rebellion. And on the 450th anniversary of his death, the town was renamed Thomas Müntzer Stadt Mühlhausen (though, sadly for Thomas, it was changed back in 1991). J S Bach was organist of the church of Divi Blasii in Muhlhausen from 1707 until 1708 and composed Gott ist mein König. This is a recording made at St. Mary's Church, Mühlhausen - Here is a link to the full text of Engels' book on the Great Peasant Rebellion -

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