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Medieval Peasant Rebellions, Part 1: Germany by axeloxenstierna
May 12, 2009, 12:00 am
Filed under: history

In the 1400’s, there was a series of peasant rebellions in Germany, mostly along the Rhineland. Most of them were purely local events: quickly defeated and of little historical significance.

The interesting thing about them is that many of them used a common symbol: the bundschuh, which is German for “bound shoe”. Quite literally, the peasants would march around carrying flags with tied shoes on them. While the Bundschuh rebellions of the 1400’s failed to accomplish anything, their symbolism lived on for at least a hundred years.

In the early 1500’s, there emerged a new peasant leader named Joss Fritz. He led three separate rebellions, each of which were quite large and threatening. One of the reasons he was able to gain such a large following was because he appropriated the bundschuh symbolism of the previous generation; the symbol and memory of the old rebellion had grown far in excess of anything the original bundschuh rebels had actually done.

A generation later, the Peasant’s War rocked Germany; but by this time, much of it was fueled by anti-clericalism, such as the “Prague Manifesto” of radical anabaptist preacher Thomas Muentzer. Because of this religious subtext, the Peasants War was much less of a class conflict than its predecessors. Indeed, one of the most colorful leaders of the Peasants War was an eccentric knight named Gotz von Berlichingen, who is famous for having a mechanical arm.

Here is a modern drawing of what his arm may have looked like:

Here is a prosthetic metal arm from around the time of Gotz von Berlichingen, though it is not his:

The Peasants were hoping to gain the support of Martin Luther, whose opposition to the Roman Church was a major inspiration. Instead, Luther wrote a book titled Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, which included such lines as:


“The peasants have taken upon themselves the burden of three terrible sins against God and man; by this they have merited death in body and soul…thus they become the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name

***

Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.

***

I think there is not a devil left in hell; they have all gone into the peasants.”

With Luther cheering them on, the authorities were able to engage the peasants at the Battle of Frankenhausen, at which the peasants were slaughtered.

And thus the German peasant rebellion faded into history. Until East Germany came along.

Like most Eastern European communist regimes, the DDR rehabilitated old peasant rebels and made them into prophets of Marxist-Leninist dialectical materialism. Statues of Joss Fritz went up all over East Germany, even though he wasn’t even from there.

And as for Thomas Muentzer, he of the burning religious faith?

He ended up on the currency of an avowedly atheist regime:

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