The end of the Feudal period brought widespread change through Europe, particularly Germany, which was ruled by hundreds of landholders of varying stature. The labor shortage through the Black Plague had ensured basic rights for peasants, but now princes were more interested in consolidating power through new civil law. Public lands became property of the prince, who outlawed poaching and charged fines for use. Taxes were increased for princely projects, such as wars on neighboring nobles. The growing middle class resisted such increases on themselves, hoisting the major burden onto the poor.
The lower class of peasants became increasingly resentful as they struggled through bad harvests with little to show for their work after taxes. Meanwhile, the princes seemed to live more and more luxurious lives. Although respite from religious coercion through indulgence payments had come in the Reformation guided by men like Martin Luther, the peasants were eager for economic change, especially the return of communal lands for the good of all.
The Peasants’ War began in the German south during the 1524 harvest season. Workers needing to focus on their fields were stopped and ordered to gather snail shells for the Countess of Lupfen, who wanted them to use as spools for her thread. The peasants refused, and soon more than one thousand angry serfs marched to show their complaints. Likeminded peasants joined the fight, and soon the entire region was in an uproar.
At Memmingen, elected leaders called for a Christian Association and published the Twelve Articles that outlined peasants’ demand for a new social order based in scripture. Communities would elect their own spiritual leaders, and tithes of harvests would be granted to the Church for its support, support of the poor, and for defense. Serfdom was to be eliminated, forests were to be open for all for game and wood, and commons would be returned to free use supported by the town. Inheritance taxes, enforced labor, and fines and fees had to be agreed upon by peasants as well as their lords.
The nobles of the League of Swabia saw that they did not hold much power in this new order and raised armies of mercenaries to put down the insurrection. Such rebellions had happened before, like the Poor Conrad revolt of 1514 when peasants seized the weights of the Duke of Wurttemberg and proved that he had been cheating them. The resulting revolution against the duke was broken up by soldiers, especially after only a fraction of the peasants stood to fight rather than slipping away as the battle approached.
Much the same was expected from this war. Peasants were able to make gains such as seizing Kempten, but the princely army overwhelmed the well-armed peasants at Leipheim. Another peasant army stormed Frankenhausen, attracting more from around the countryside to build a force some ten thousand strong. They nominated Thomas Muntzer as their leader.
Muntzer was a preacher and theologian whose radical ideals prompted him to flee one town to the next before the war. He bickered with Luther, whom he admired after the posting of the Ninety-five Theses but determined that he had not gone far enough. Luther, meanwhile, refused to make the Reformation a worldly revolution, keeping it strictly a spiritual matter. In 1524, Muntzer gave his Sermon to the Princes to the Duke of Saxony in Allstedt, citing the foretelling of the Old Testament prophet Daniel that the Kingdom of God would crush all human kingdoms. He led a revolt in Muhlhausen that eliminated the town council and established communal rule.
Philip of Hesse led an army of thousands of mercenaries against the peasants at Frankenhausen, who formed a wagon-fort, a mobile stronghold made of wagons chained together. Many in the crowd began calling for a ceasefire and negotiations, yet Muntzer recalled the words he wrote earlier to the citizens of Allstedt, “Let not kind words of these Esaus arouse you to mercy. Look not upon the sufferings of the godless! They will entreat you touchingly, begging you like children. Let not mercy seize your soul, as God commanded to Moses.... Forward, forward, while the iron is hot. Let your swords be ever warm with blood!”
Upon the first skirmishers to assault the wagon-fort, Muntzer led a huge charge, crying out a referencing the Magnificat of Mary, mother of Jesus, “Scatter the proud!” The numbers of the peasants overwhelmed the assaulting force. Other mercenaries began to desert Philip’s force when he ordered a full assault. Muntzer organized a continual charge, using the vast numbers of his haphazard soldiers against the remaining mercenaries like a torrent.
The action ignited the Peasants’ War’s appeal. It was shown that the Duke of Saxony was approaching with reinforcements the next day and negotiations were only a stalling tactic. Now the duke, too, retreated. Muntzer determined that massacres like that at Boblingen two days before, where three thousand peasants were cut down, happened primarily in retreat, and so he kept up the momentum of rebellion. Muntzer relieved encircled peasants at Konigshofen and joined with Hans Muller at Freiburg to defeat the imperial army under Gotz of the Iron Hand at Wurzburg.
Muntzer consolidated his power and encouraged dedication of his followers through spiritual rhetoric and enforcing new sets of order, saying, “Omnia Sunt Communia” (“all things in common”). His agents spread through Europe, encouraging rebellions against all nobles and the debased Church. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain launched a campaign and Clement VII attempted to root out Muntzer’s agents with the Inquisition, but the heavy-handedness and taxation to support the expense of the army only caused more rebellion. Muntzer’s communist empire rolled over Europe, which he ruled through strict social control. Within two generations, however, corruption and apathy brought it into collapse and began a new era of feudalism between pseudo-socialist warlord nations, such as English True Leveller State under Digger Gerrard Winstanley.