The 20 March is the anniversary of The Twelve Articles of the Peasants Revolt in Germany in 1525.
Four hundred ninety years ago at Memmingen near Lake Constance in south-western Germany peasants from the region gathered to compose these articles which, despite their moderate expression, challenged European capitalism and imperialism at its birth and at their roots. Pope and Protestant, Martin Luther, the Habsburgs, the banking family of the Fuggers, aristocrat and burgher, united to suppress the revolt. Hajo Holborn wrote in his History of Modern Germany (I, 63), “The impact of these events on the character of modern German history can hardly be overrated.”
Concentrated at first in south-western Germany – Alsace, Franconia, Thuringa, and close to Lake Constance and the movement of Swiss republicanism. It spread down the Rhine river to Cologne and Münster and the Netherlands.
The Twelve Articles served as a manifesto. The Twelve Articles are a summary of hundreds of other articles and grievances with the biblical references that support each point. They include: the wish to be able to elect their own pastors; the collection of tithes for use only within their own communities; an end to serfdom with a promise to obey elected and appointed rulers; the right to fish or hunt without limitation; the right to take wood as necessary; a limitation on labor due to lords; an end to traditional peasant services; reasonable rents paid to lords; fair judgments in legal cases; common lands returned to the peasants for common use; an end to the custom of heriot (the right of a lord to seize a peasant’s best chattel upon his or her death); and lastly, if any of these demands can be demonstrated to be unsupported by scripture, they are null and void. The peasants wanted to hear the Gospel and live their lives accordingly, and those who could be considered enemies of the gospel were the enemies of the peasants. The Twelve Articles succinctly called for the end of feudalism and the strengthening of the commons, a system of communal usufruct that stood in the way of Roman civil law, privatization, and capitalism.
Three demands in particular, the 4th, 5th, and 10th concern commons of rivers, meadows, and forest. The 11th seeks security for widows and orphans. These must be celebrated in 2015 in our own revolutionary projects.
A greater preacher and agitator than an organizer or soldier, Thomas Münzer, cited scriptural passages to help people imitate the revolutionary, Jesus. “Whoever has a purse had better take it with him, and his pack too; and if he has no sword, let him sell his cloak to buy one. For Scripture says, ‘And he was counted among the outlaws,’ and these words, I tell you, must find fulfillment in me.” Luke 22:37-38. Or, “You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34.
The peasant armies were organized in bands. The bands varied in size. Some bands could number about 4,000; others, such as the peasant force at Frankenhausen, could gather 8,000. The peasant army was governed by a so-called ring, in which peasants gathered in a circle to debate tactics, troop movements, alliances, and the distribution of spoils. They used the wagon-fort effectively. Wagons were chained together in a suitable defensive location, with cavalry and draft animals placed in the center.
Thomas Münzer led a group of about 8000 peasants at the battle of Frankenhausen (15 May 1525) their flags and ensigns bore rainbows. Then as he rallied them to battle an actual rainbow appeared in the sky. Taken as a propitious sign of a revolutionary covenant of deliverance from oppression, it did not prevent utter defeat in battle that day. Under torture he confessed that he believed that omnia sunt communia, all things are in common. The rainbow remained the image and symbol of the commons and human equality, if not the causal sign of divine intervention.
Thomas Nashe, a hostile writer in England and propagandist for Elizabeth I, wrote bitterly in 1594, “These Anabaptists had not yet forsook all and followed Christ, they had not forsook their own desires of revenge and innovation, they had not abandoned their expectation of the spoil of their enemies, they regarded their lives, they looked after their wives and children, they took not up their crosses of humility and followed him, but would cross him, upbraid him, and set him at naught if he assured not by some sign their prayers and supplications. Deteriora sequuntur, they followed God as daring him; God heard their prayers, Quod petitur poena est, it was their speedy punishment that they prayed for. Lo, according to the sum of their impudent supplications, a sign in the heavens appeared, the glorious sign of the rainbow, which agreed just with the sign of their ensign, that was a rainbow likewise.”
In May 1525 Luther’s script “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants” appeared. Luther wrote, “Therefore must he smite, choke, and stab … whoever can be conscious that there is nothing more poisonous, obnoxious and devilish than a revolutionary man, as one must kill a mad dog.” An orgy of torture and mutilation followed. Perhaps 300,000 lost their lives. “The cruelty of the punishment that followed defies description,” Holborn writes (I, 174).
Yet the movement continued underground in alliance of urban journeyman, vagabond, beggar, and peasant. Its ideals moved down the Rhine river towards the Netherlands. In Munster ten years later Jan of Leyden helped put omnia sunt communia in practice. It was savagely suppressed. Yet the memory would not disappear. Listen to Thomas Nashe again in his book The Unfortunate Traveller, written to nip this kind of revolutionary baptism in the bud, along with the rainbow.
This tale must at one time or other give up the ghost, and as good now as stay longer; I would gladly rid my hands of it cleanly if I could tell how, for what with talking of cobblers, tinkers, rope-makers, botchers, and dirt-daubers, the mark is clean out of my muse’s mouth, & I am as it were more than duncified twixt divinity and poetry. What is there more as touching this tragedy that you would be resolved of? Nay, quickly, for now is my pen on foot again. How John Leyden died, is that it? He died like dog; he was hanged & the halter paid for. For his companions, do they trouble you? I can tell you they troubled some men before, for they were all killed, & none escaped, no, not so much as one to tell the tale of the rainbow. Hear what it is to be Anabaptists, to be Puritans, to be villains; you may be counted illuminate botchers for awhile, but your end will be, Good people, pray for us.
Edmund Burke, too, protested and protested too much. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) he wrote,
“When the Anabaptists of Munster, in the sixteenth century, had filled Germany with confusion by their system of levelling and their wild opinions concerning property, to what country in Europe did not the progress of their fury furnish just cause of alarm? … We cannot be ignorant of the spirit of atheistical fanaticism, that is inspired by a multitude of writings, dispersed with incredible assiduity and expense, and by sermons delivered in all the streets and places of public resort in Paris.”
Yet, still we sing,
God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water but the fire next time.
Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org