The people's voice of reason

Five Hundred Years Ago, Peasants in Central Europe Revolted Against Their Overlords.

Inspired by the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther’s confrontation with church hierarchy, peasants staged an insurrection which challenged the socioeconomic order. This revolt would have a lasting impact on Europe and set the stage for future conflicts between the elite aristocracy and the growing middle class.

In 1524, the strata of society was organized according to land: its ownership, its use and ultimately, its profitability. The various plagues that decimated Europe in the past century had created a greater demand for labor. This demand allowed workers to earn more and moved a number into a comfortable class which owned and worked their own property, but inflationary pressures from the influx of gold and silver from the New World undercut some of these achievements and threatened to reverse any gains.

While there has always been friction between tenant and landlord, serf and master and labor and management, these conflicts are routinely managed such that each side receives some benefit from the other, sustaining a sound relationship and enduring community. But this stability becomes threatened when the social fabric starts to unravel. When people feel an existential threat to their livelihood and community wellbeing, they seek some form to redress, but when there is no outlet available, anxiety leads to action.

Five hundred years ago, several factors combined to create an atmosphere ripe for rebellion. First, the civil law that allowed greater ownership of land was jettisoned and replaced by Roman law, which limited the ownership of property to the aristocracy, concentrating landed wealth in the hands of a few.

In some instances, property not owned by the elite was confiscated when the owners were unable to pay taxes, and in these times, the local nobility acted without any check to balance their power and consider the propriety of their actions. In short, there was little that a growing middle class could do to ensure that their rights - both personal and property - would be protected from usurpation by the arbitrary actions of their neighborhood prince.

The societal changes brought about by the Protestant Reformation was also a contributing factor. Luther’s theological disputes with the Catholic Church were championed by many who saw the church in less of a spiritual context and more of an overarching political institution holding rulers and nobility accountable. Luther’s actions were misinterpreted as less of a theological re-set and more of a challenge to the order of society.

In many places, the peasant revolt was aided by Luther’s followers, who equated the structure of the church with the political organization of their community. Thus Luther’s challenge to the church hierarchy was used to question authority of the nobility: how they received it and why it should be maintained. Since Luther advocated reading the Bible and avoiding simple tradition to explain theological concepts, others wanted to use this same model to understand and impose a new political order.

And, as the middling peasants considered their plight and saw the possibility of losing what rights they had gained and property they acquired, they were susceptible to new ideas of their rights, underpinned by a radical theology. Initially, it was not abundantly clear what the peasants wanted.

On one level, the rebellion might be seen as the action of disgruntled workers who felt abused, neglected and under-appreciated, but when this discontent was encouraged by radical reformers, what could have been a local problem, grew and became regional, infecting most of Germany and parts of France, Switzerland and Austria.

The rebellion became less of a list of specific grievances unique to their locale and more of a larger, more thoughtful review of fundamental rights and a specific demand to secure them. None of the rebels was content with their station in life, but they wanted to reach some accommodation to define the rights to which they were entitled and to take action to secure them. As the rebellion gained strength, so too did the need to provide structure to the revolution. It was in this context that the peasants developed Twelve Articles, which summarized their demands and explained the reason for their rebellion.

In addition to demanding that distinctions between the nobility and the peasants be abolished — “we hereby declare that we are free and want to remain free” — the Twelve Articles also sought to curb income, property and inheritance taxes while limiting compulsory labor and advocating the free use of lands for hunting and grazing. Requiring that tax revenues be used to take care of the poor rather than being squandered on clerical projects was yet another goal.

As an attempt to give the middle-class specific rights and limit the mandates of the nobility, the Articles are not viewed as radical in today’s terms. Martin Luther commented favorably that the Articles highlighted issues that the nobility should address and noted that certain abuses should be corrected. Luther would have been all for having a public debate on the Articles and discussing ways to improve the plight of the peasants.

But Luther was no fan of violence, chaos or instability.

Discussing societal improvements was fine and appropriate, but once the peasants went into open rebellion and used theological themes as a license to undermine society and massacre members of the nobility, Luther condemned the revolt.

Around 25,000 copies of the Twelve Articles were printed and distributed throughout the countryside, but as the revolt became more violent and leaders misappropriated Luther’s teachings to justify their actions, the nobles united and killed more than 100,000 peasants.

At the time, the Twelve Articles would be linked with radical political ideas and disregarded. Thereafter, Luther limited his work to the spiritual realm and argued against using theology to inform existing political structures. The peasants’ revolt moved him to conclude that God had established government, and to challenge such temporal authority was to challenge God’s order.

The peasants’ revolt was another milestone for communities desiring self-determination, limited taxation and freedom of conscience.



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