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3. The Reformation
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1. Witnesses and Families   |   2. Governance   |   3. The Reformation   |   4. Confessions

C. Peasants’ War.

In 1524 and 1525, a tremendous, largely rural, insurrection known as the Peasants’ War of 1525, spread across the German lands from Lorraine to Hungary and from Lake Constance to Thuringia. Although the rebels made the ruling classes tremble, they could not produce the military victories that might have given their political agendas lasting credence. The ensuing repression, true, did not crush the communal structures of local life, but it did block access for village people to territorial governance except in small southern polities. The insurrection came as a brief but heavy shock to societies already agitated by the mounting debate about the reform of the Church, though the connection between the Peasants’ War and the Protestant Reformation remains controversial. Protestant reformers condemned the insurrection as dangerous and criminal; Catholic critics condemned it as the inevitable fruit of heresy. While the rebels in the Peasants’ War did employ religious language to justify their actions, their chief goal was not salvation but the abolition of feudal burdens on agrarian life through a reform of territorial and local governance. On the other hand, the local control of religious life formed an important part of their political basis in the communal structures and practices of local life. Villagers held that communal life required local control of their churches and priests on the principle that the priest is the servant of the commune, not its master.

Two genres of documents reveal what the insurrection was about. The local and regional grievance lists specify the need for change and help us to understand the revolt’s underlying causes. The most influential of them was the “Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasantry,” which circulated widely in 1525 across the regions in revolt. Although the language of the grievance lists sometimes echoed that of the Protestant reformers, notably in “the holy, godly, true Word of God” as the basis of Christian community, the chief issues concern serfdom and its restrictions and other conditions of agrarian life. The second documentary genre consists of programmatic statements about larger political reforms. The plans drafted by Wendel Hipler and Friedrich Weigandt, both Franconians, incorporate the peasants’ demands into wider agendas of reform of territorial and even Imperial governance. By far the most radical is Michael Gaismair’s “Tyrolean Constitution.” He advocated the reform of territorial governance in a radically communalist sense, the abolition of noble and clerical political power, and a centralized management of Tyrol’s trade and manufacturing. Gaismair’s justification for his ideal egalitarian republic is cast in the language of Biblicism and the “godly law.”

How deeply the Peasants’ War shook the ruling classes in the zones of revolt emerges from the deliberations of the Imperial Diet, which assembled at Speyer in the late summer of 1526. While the estates acknowledged the rebels’ grievances and showed a clear understanding of the chief issues – serfdom, tithes, free mobility, and death duties – their recommendations speak only of authority, obedience, and repression. Still, the events of 1525 did influence the Diet’s timid decision about the religious schism, which was to leave each ruler responsible to God and the emperor for his actions.

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