Outline

I. We begin the process of contextualizing the German peasant uprisings, seeking to explain the reasons for the dramatic apocalyptic bent of peasant resistance in early modern Germany.

A. At the end of the Middle Ages and the beginnings of the modern era, economic conditions changed dramatically.

B. These changes created unstable conditions that fostered resistance to the established order.

1. In Germany, but also throughout most of Western Europe, the village community, which had long been the mainstay of the rural economy, experienced great changes. These changes affected the social structure of rural society.

2. In the villages, growing social differences led to rapid stratification. A few wealthy peasants and urban dwellers began to purchase most of the village common lands. A large number of peasants were thrown into the ranks of a landless proletariat, daily journeymen, who hired themselves out to the wealthy farmers.

3. The enclosure of common lands throughout Western Europe led to protests as peasants saw their traditional ways of life eroded beyond recognition.

II. The most important change was brought about by the onset of the Reformation. Martin Luther's break with the papacy and with Catholic dogma transformed the mental landscape of Germany and Europe.

A. Martin Luther's biography helps explain some of his most fundamental challenges to Church dogmas. His discovery of a vocation in the middle of a lightening storm, his dramatic conversion, and his crisis of faith in the choir set the stage for his dispute with Rome.

B. These challenges revolved around Luther's arguments for the priesthood of all believers and his denial of transubstantiation, ecclesiastical celibacy, and the supremacy of the pope. He also advocated the translation (which he did himself) of the Holy Scriptures into the vernacular.

C. Luther's successful challenge to Church authority was closely linked to the political infighting taking place in Germany at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The German princes, now threatened by the growing power of the new emperor, Charles V, looked to Luther as a way to legitimize their resistance to imperial power.

III. We now turn to a close examination of the great peasant uprising and explore the social and economic grievances of the peasants and how these complaints were articulated through an apocalyptic discourse.

A. Under the impact of the Reformation, the Ottoman threat, and the social and economic shifts outlined above, the German peasants began to make social, economic, and religious demands, asking for justice and for a more egalitarian society.

1. The outbreaks of violence were widespread and, often, led to attacks on monasteries and to the peasants' appropriation of Church lands.

2. The discourse of violence was often articulated in radical revolutionary and religious terms.

B. The ideologue of the "Great Peasant War" was Thomas Muntzer (ca. 1488-1525).

1. Muntzer began his preaching as a follower of Luther, then broke with him to espouse far more radical political and theological positions. He believed in direct revelation and spirit possession.

2. In his Prague Manifesto, Muntzer described the seventh-fold gift of the Spirit and the direct reception of the Holy Spirit.

3. In his preaching, Muntzer began to justify violence and encourage peasant rebellion.

C. Muntzer's preaching marked the opening of radical Anabaptism and the beginnings of full-fledged violence.

1. In the early stages of the Great Peasant War, the rebels defeated noble armies.

2. After their early success, the peasants presented their list of demands. These requests ranged from fairly traditional economic claims to a radical restructuring of German society.

3. These radical demands rallied the high nobility to meet the challenge presented by the new peasant radicalism.

4. The Great Peasant War ended with the victory of the nobility—Luther condemned the peasants and encouraged the nobility to suppress them—and the final slaughter of untold numbers of peasants.

IV. The crushing defeat of the Anabaptists did not end millenarian agitation in Germany and elsewhere in the West.

A. The Protestant Reformation in its most radical forms also found a home in England. There, religious devotion mixed with new forms of political radicalism, eventually leading to direct confrontation with the Crown.

B. By the mid-seventeenth century, some Protestant sects, the Puritans among them, were able to overthrow King Charles I and establish, under Cromwell, a commonwealth, a godly republic. "No king but king Jesus" was the cry of many of these radicals, who protested against the secularity of power.

C. The Puritans, although entertaining some millenarian and apocalyptic beliefs, did not, strictly speaking, espouse such radical views. Nonetheless, their execution of the king and their heightened sense of being selected by God opened the way for a proliferation of millenarian movements.

1. During the rule of Cromwell, numerous fringe groups became active in England. These groups, Levellers, Diggers, Quakers, Fifth Monarchy men, and others, combined radical social views with apocalyptic expectations.

2. Many of their views could also be described as utopian, because they sought to create God's heaven on earth.

3. As was the case in Germany, the most radical elements were suppressed, some even during Cromwell's rule and others after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II.

V. We consider the impact that these Anabaptist, Puritan, and English radical beliefs had on the construction of an American identity and in the making of American democracy.

A. The first wave of English migration to the American northeast was composed of Puritans and other religious radicals. They brought with them that heady combination of levelling political ideals and religious commitment.

B. In New England, the settlers thought of their new land as the "city upon the hill," an earthly recreation of the blessed Jerusalem. Their vision also led to the construction of American exceptionalism. The country continued to be a magnet for religious radicals and utopian thinkers, who migrated to North America as the ideal place to construct a perfect society.

Suggested Reading:

Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium. Freedman, Images of the Peasantry. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down.

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