Those doctors, who had feared neither the Emperor nor the Pope, trembled in the presence of a madman.
Continuing The Peasants’ War in Germany,
our selection from History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century by J. H. Merle d’Augbigne published in 1853. The selection is presented in «DAYSALPHA» easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Peasants’ War in Germany.
But the evil was not confined to the south and west of Germany. Munzer, after having traversed a part of Switzerland, Alsace, and Swabia, had again directed his steps toward Saxony. A few citizens of Muelhausen, in Thuringia, had invited him to their city and elected him their pastor. The town council having resisted, Munzer deposed it and nominated another, consisting of his friends, with himself at their head. Full of contempt for that Christ, “sweet as honey,” whom Luther preached, and being resolved to employ the most energetic measures, he exclaimed, “Like Joshua, we must put all the Canaanites to the sword.” He established a community of goods and pillaged the convents. “Munzer,” wrote Luther to Ansdorff on the 11th of April, 1525, “Munzer is not only pastor, but king and emperor of Muelhausen.” The poor no longer worked; if anyone needed corn or cloth, he went and demanded it of some rich man; if the latter refused, the poor man took it by force; if the owner resisted, he was hanged. As Muelhausen was an independent city, Munzer was able to exercise his power for nearly a year without opposition. The revolt in the south of Germany led him to imagine that it was time to extend his new kingdom. He had a number of heavy guns cast in the Franciscan convent, and endeavored to raise the peasantry and miners of Mansfeld.
How long will you sleep?” said he to them in a fanatical proclamation: “Arise and fight the battle of the Lord! The time is come. France, Germany, and Italy are moving. On, on, on! (Dran, Dran, Dran!) Heed not the groans of the impious ones. They will implore you like children, but be pitiless. Dran, Dran, Dran! The fire is burning: let your sword be ever warm with blood. Dran, Dran, Dran! Work while it is yet day.” The letter was signed, “Munzer, servant of God against the wicked.”
The country people, thirsting for plunder, flocked round his standard. Throughout all the districts of Mansfeld, of Stolberg, and Schwarzburg in Hesse, and the duchy of Brunswick the peasantry rose in insurrection. The convents of Michelstein, Ilsenburg, Walkenfied, Rossleben, and many others in the neighborhood of the Hartz, or in the plains of Thuringia, were devastated. At Reinhardsbrunn, which Luther had visited, the tombs of the ancient landgraves were profaned and the library destroyed.
Terror spread far and wide. Even at Wittenberg some anxiety was felt. Those doctors, who had feared neither the Emperor nor the Pope, trembled in the presence of a madman. They were always on the watch for news; every step of the rebels was counted. “We are here in great danger,” said Melanchthon. “If Munzer succeeds, it is all over with us, unless Christ should rescue us. Munzer advances with a worse than Scythian cruelty, and it is impossible to repeat his dreadful threats.”
The pious Elector had long hesitated what he should do. Munzer had exhorted him and all the princes to be converted, because, said he, their hour was come; and he had signed these letters: “Munzer, armed with the sword of Gudeon.” Frederick would have desired to reclaim these misguided men by gentle measures. On the 14th of April, when he was dangerously ill, he had written to his brother John: “We may have given these wretched people more than one cause for insurrection. Alas! the poor are oppressed in many ways by their spiritual and temporal lords.” And when his attention was directed to the humiliation, the revolutions, the dangers to which he would expose himself unless he promptly stifled the rebellion, he replied: “Hitherto I have been a mighty elector, having chariots and horses in abundance; if it be God’s pleasure to take them from me now, I will go on foot.”
The youthful Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, was the first of the princes who took up arms. His knights and soldiers swore to live and die with him. After pacifying his own states, he directed his march toward Saxony. On their side, Duke John, the Elector’s brother, Duke George of Saxony, and Duke Henry of Brunswick advanced and united their troops with those of Hesse. The peasants, terrified at the sight of this army, fled to a small hill, where, without any discipline, without arms, and for the most part without courage, they formed a rampart with their wagons. Munzer had not even prepared ammunition for his large guns. No succors appeared; the rebels were hemmed in by the army; they lost all confidence. The princes, taking pity on them, offered them propositions which they appeared willing to accept. Upon this Munzer had recourse to the most powerful lever that enthusiasm can put in motion. “To-day we shall behold the arm of the Lord,” said he, “and all our enemies shall be destroyed.” At this moment a rainbow appeared over their heads; the fanatical host, who carried a rainbow on their flags, beheld in it a sure prognostic of the divine protection. Munzer took advantage of it: “Fear nothing,” said he to the citizens and peasants: “I will catch all their balls in my sleeve.” At the same time he cruelly put to death a young gentleman, Maternus von Geholfen, an envoy from the princes, in order to deprive the insurgents of all hope of pardon.
The Landgrave, having assembled his horsemen, said to them: “I well know that we princes are often in fault, for we are but men; but God commands all men to honor the powers that be. Let us save our wives and children from the fury of these murderers. The Lord will give us the victory, for he has said, ‘Whosoever resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.'” Philip then gave the signal of attack. It was the 15th of May, 1525. The army was put in motion; but the peasant host stood immovable, singing the hymn, “Come, Holy Ghost,” and waiting for heaven to declare in their favor. The artillery soon broke down their rude rampart, carrying dismay and death into the midst of the insurgents. Their fanaticism and courage at once forsook them; they were seized with a panic-terror, and ran away in disorder. Five thousand perished in the flight.
After the battle the princes and their victorious troops entered Frankenhausen. A soldier who had gone into a loft in the house where he was quartered, found a man in bed. “Who art thou?” said he; “art thou one of the rebels?” Then, observing a pocket-book, he took it up, and found several letters addressed to Thomas Munzer, “Art thou Munzer?” demanded the trooper. The sick man answered, “No.” But as the soldier uttered dreadful threats, Munzer, for it was really he, confessed who he was. “Thou art my prisoner,” said the horseman. When Munzer was taken before Duke George and the Landgrave, he persevered in saying that he was right to chastise the princes, since they opposed the Gospel. “Wretched man!” replied they, “think of all those of whose death you have been the cause.” But he answered, smiling in the midst of his anguish, “They would have it so!” He took the sacrament, and was beheaded at the same time with Pfeiffer, his lieutenant. Mulhausen was taken, and the peasants were loaded with chains.
A nobleman having observed among the crowd of prisoners a peasant of favorable appearance, went up and said to him: “Well, my man, which government do you like best — that of the peasants or of the princes?” The poor fellow made answer with a deep sigh, “Ah, my lord, no knife cuts so deep as the rule of the peasant over his fellows.”