The German Peasants’ War, 1524–1525

Professor Roper has been awarded a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship for two years.

the panorama museum frankenhausen on site of one of the battlefields

The German Peasants’ War, 1524–1525 was the biggest uprising in Western Europe before the French Revolution. The rebellion extended to the Tyrol, Northern Italy and Alsace and at its peak covered most of Germany. It occurred at the height of the Reformation in successive waves,  during which, thousands of people – miners, peasants, and townsfolk risked everything and lost their lives. Yet despite its significance, I would be surprised if you had ever heard of it. 

In 2017 when Germany celebrated the quincentenary of the Reformation, the Peasants’ War remained something of an embarrassment: Luther, after all, had condemned the peasants and called on them to be slain like ‘mad dogs’. But the reason the Peasants’ War has passed out of modern consciousness lies in the divisions between East and West, which a reunited Germany is trying to overcome. Communist East Germany did not at first celebrate Luther and the Reformation but saw instead Thomas Müntzer as its hero and the Peasants’ War as the decisive world historical event. Indeed, the final and greatest artistic monument the East German state created was the Peasant War Panorama. Executed by the artist Werner Tübke, it is 14 metres high and 123 metres long, the biggest canvas oil painting in the world. In a final historical irony, it was opened in a ceremony just a few days before the fall of the Berlin wall. 

When I first saw this work, erected on the battlefield where so many died, I was overwhelmed and moved and felt I had to write the history of these people. Why were they so inspired by ideas of brotherhood, freedom and the gospel? What did these words mean to them? I wanted to know how they got to the battlefields, and how they brought together people with different dialects and backgrounds to create a fighting force.

I became fascinated by the various landscapes in which the war took place and the agricultural economy that was the backdrop to their grievances. The revolt began in autumn when the harvest was in and reached its peak in the early summer. The research involved cycling the routes the peasants took to understand the lie of the land. Only after retracing their steps did I understand why the peasants targeted the high buildings, the monasteries and castles that made lordship visible. It became abundantly clear why they felt compelled to burn them down. 

I am accustomed to studying the ‘subjectivity’ of individuals, but this new work has made me realise that it is much harder to study the collective emotions of peasants and lords, especially when most of the sources were authored by literate townsfolk and are thus second hand. I must also conceive of a way of studying movement to comprehend how peasant bands progressed through time and space. Contemporaries referred to their rebellion as ‘Aufruhr’, the stirring up, or ‘turbulence’. Peasants tended to mobilise other villagers within a radius of about twenty kilometres, travelling to one another and inciting others to join. In this way, they created a spiral of revolt that terrified their lords.

I also want to understand what they meant by their watchword, ‘brotherhood’. Did brotherhood include women? Was its radical egalitarianism just for men as peasants called for lords to get off their horses (which literally raised them above their peasants) or insisted they address each other as brothers? Did its idealisation of manhood exclude women, who do not seem to have joined in the ‘circles’ where men took counsel together and who did not swear the oaths which bound the rebels together?