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Peasants’ revolts in the German states, 1524–1526

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While Lutheran beliefs, high taxes, and serfdom caused the peasant revolts, the nobles’ responses were solely based upon monetary gains and fear, while commoners had mixed reactions but were mostly against the peasants.

Religious officials viewed the peasant revolts with differing views. For example, Thomas Muntzer encouraged these revolts, implying that they were God’s Will (Doc 6). On the other hand, Martin Luther condemned the peasants, claiming that they were associated with the Devil (Doc 7). However, Luther’s claim was influenced by his political situation. Exiled by the Edict of Worms, Luther needed the protection of nobles. Due to this, he could not support the revolts unless he opposed the nobles. What’s more, Muntzer was once a follower of Luther. This further proves that Luther’s position on the peasant revolts was biased, because Luther went against his original beliefs. Moreover, peasants were dissatisfied with their way of life, claiming that the rich should share what they had with the poor. They claimed that Christ had redeemed both the peasants and the Emperor with His blood (Doc 3).

Thus, the peasants were hopeful that as Christian lords the nobles would free them from serfdom. Also, the peasants of Wurzburg believed that the nobles were brothers with the peasants (Doc 8). They also stated that the rich should share with the poor, especially if the rich had used the poor for monetary gains. In the end, this revealed the peasants’ agitation at their situation, which led the nobles to rethink their actions. Furthermore, Caspar Nutzel said that although the peasants went too far, it was not unjustified (Doc 9). The authorities treated the peasants like sheep, using the wool for profit but neglecting to keep the sheep healthy by taking care of it. Therefore, the peasant revolts were viewed with both sympathy and disdain by the nobles.

The European economy during the time experienced inflation due to the increase in demand for food and the colonization that occurred due to the European nations’ seeking for power. Nobles began to transition from the open-field system to enclosures and charged high rents for their own luxurious needs. Peasants in turn, due to hunger and deprivation of economic wellbeing, began to revolt. Sebastian Lotzer talks about a contract between the peasants and the Lord (Doc 2); however, Lotzer is biased as a craftsperson and he does not want lords to force more work because he himself wants a reduced workload. The other peasants called for an equal distribution of wealth. (Doc 8). The Nobles on the other hand, believe that the Lords purchased the service of the peasants for a considerable sum of money and thus there should be neither revolts nor petition for a contract (Doc 4). The second reason was a crisis for the nobles with declining income. By 1285 inflation had become rampant (in part due to population pressures) and nobles charged rent based on customary fixed rates, based on the Feudal system, so as the price of goods and services rose (from inflation), the income of nobles remained stagnant (effectively dropping). To make matters worse, the nobles had become accustomed to a more luxurious lifestyle that required more money.

To address this nobles illegally raised rents, cheated, stole, and sometimes resorted to outright violence to take what they wanted. Thirdly, kings needed money to finance wars and resorted to devaluing currency, by cutting silver and gold coins with less precious metal, which resulted in increased inflation and in the end, increased taxations. Furthermore, the social gap between rich and poor had become more extreme. The origins of this change can be traced to the 12th century and the rise of the concept of “nobility”. How one dressed, behaved, manners, courtesy, how one spoke, what one ate, education, all became a part of the noble class making them distinct from others.

By the 14th century the nobles had indeed become very different in their behavior, appearance and values from those “beneath.” In urban centers, the early capitalist enterprises connected with long-distance trade and the textile industry had given rise to an urban underclass who were prone to riot in times when the price of bread was high. The perpetual apprentices who could not purchase a mastership in the tightly-controlled guilds were quick to express their resentment, and in university cities, students might be enlisted.

In general, the nobles feared the peasant revolts because they feared displacement from their positions of power. There were few that were willing to grant the peasants some concessions. But they wanted the peasants to pay them (Doc 4). Their goal was for the peasants to still be dirt-poor. Though the peasants will have freedom, having no money will still ensure that the nobles are the highest in society. Others hated the peasants no matter what, primarily because of their savage attacks. In certain raids, they “drunk up and consumed all” (Doc 11), then burned some houses down. These sorts of actions illustrate why the peasants were looked upon as savages. However, it is possible that the count gives a bad eyewitness statement because he wants to lower the peasants’ reputation. Nonetheless, more stringent laws were instituted (Doc 12) so that no revolts would happen in the future. These new laws were another mechanism by which nobles retained and even expanded their power.

Commoners had mixed feelings, but most were against the peasants. Some felt that the peasants overstepped their boundaries (Doc 9). However, the town Councilor is biased by greed and personal gain; he wants the Duke to think that the peasants are savage, so the Duke will suppress the uprisings leading to profits for the Councilor. In the aftermath of the chaos of Reformation, many people feared the peasants “unseemly” behavior, especially their religious justification, which people feared would lead to more religious wars. People said that it wasn’t God’s will for the peasants to make trouble. Other commoners were simply tired of turnover and feared that they would become the lowest in society if peasants rose up above them. But since commoners hated those arrogant nobles, some helped the peasants. In Weinsburg, for instance, they “opened the gates and towers” for the peasants and let them attack the nobles. But this was a rare occurrence.

Thus, even though Lutheran beliefs, high taxes, and serfdom played a role in the peasant revolts, the nobles’ reaction was fueled by monetary gains and fear. Furthermore, the commoners had an assortment of reactions but generally were against the peasants and consequently, the peasants were mostly friendless in their pursuit for their rights.


Bloch, Marc. “French Rural History: An Essay on its Basic Characteristics.” Berkeley: University of California Press. 1966.

“Peasant Violence: Rebellion and Riot in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1789.” A History of Western Society. Ed. John P. McKay. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008.

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