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The Imperial Diet’s Response to the Peasants’ War, Speyer (August 1526)

Recent scholarship has debunked the oft-repeated myth that the defeat of the insurrection of 1525 put an end to peasant resistance and opened the way for seigneurs to exercise unrestricted control over their peasants. In fact, when the Imperial Diet met at Speyer the following year, some of the Imperial estates proved attentive to the rebels’ demands. As the Memorandum on Abuses (August 18, 1526) demonstrates, the Diet acknowledged and discussed the rebels’ grievances. Indeed, this memorandum shows a very clear understanding of the chief issues at hand, e.g., tithes, free mobility, and death duties. Yet the decisions of the Imperial Diet (i.e., the recess), signed by emperor (actually his vicar) and the estates on August 27, 1526, excerpts from which are reproduced below, described the insurrection predominantly in terms of authority, obedience, and repression. This same Diet failed to reach a decision in the matter of the religious schism and left each estate answerable to God and the emperor for its actions.

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Memorandum on Abuses, [issued] by of the Great Committee of the Diet of Speyer, August 18, 1526.

Concerning the small, new tithe:

Concerning the small, new tithe which is a burden on the common man, the committee suggests that there where it has been collected for as long as anyone can remember, this should continue to be the case, but where it is not a long-established tradition it shall be discontinued, and the common man shall remain unburdened.

The sixth article of the towns, concerning tithes and interest:

Furthermore it was considered, proposed, and discussed, that there are very inconsistent practices and habits throughout the Empire in regards to purchases and the levying of interest, so that each district or circle should be granted the authority to formulate an ordinance concerning the payment of interest which is collected on houses and goods and paid to certain individuals in these places rather than to the authorities for their own sake [ . . . ].

[ . . . ] every authority should be careful to avoid putting an unfair burden on their subjects, and also not allow their bailiffs, stewards, or officials to do so. And [they should] always graciously and amicably listen to their subjects’ petitions and then reach a fair and prompt decision as befits the situation. And no subject who desires to be heard should be sentenced or punished based solely on the charge of an official, forester, or another lord’s servant without a hearing. And whoever is willing to submit to the law shall remain within the law and not be burdened beyond it.

Also, every authority should provide for legal settlement of all disputes among its subjects and assist them in legal claims against foreigners, so that dangerous delays and maneuvering within the law can be discontinued.

Also as the subjects complain about unlearned, incompetent persons being installed as pastors and ministers, it should be considered above in Article 3.*

The harvesting of grapes:

Also, in many places the tithe-holder does not permit the poor to harvest their grapes until it is convenient for him, according to the order he stipulates, so that the grapes often spoil on the vine.** On the fifth article it was considered that the local authorities should formulate an ordinance regulating how and when the grapes are to be harvested and pressed, so that the poor man are not burdened in this malicious way and so that every authority in possession of pressing rights should pay attention to these so that everyone can harvest and press his grapes in a timely fashion.

Concerning the tithe:

And because the subjects have continuously complained that they are disproportionately burdened by the tithe, it is considered necessary that each authority diligently inform themselves so that the subjects not be burdened with tithes which exceed those to which they are obligated by the law or honorable tradition.

Concerning freedom of movement:

Also, the common people complain that their freedom of movement is restricted in many places and that they are held in some places as serfs and must remain there where they were during the recent uprising. And if one of them marries another from beyond his lord’s territory, then they are punished for this.

Note concerning serfdom: it is to be left to the deliberation of the lords as to what should be done [about it], and also how to deal with the marriage of the serfs.

Also, those who have hitherto been free to move about as they please may not be placed into bondage, and especially not because of the recent rebellion. Also, whether measures cannot be found with which serfs might free themselves from bondage.

* Translator’s note: The document does not include an Article 3.
** The poor were often required to assist wealthier tenants in the harvest of their grapes, and while they were assisting elsewhere, there was a risk of their grapes overripening and rotting on the vine.

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