The Twelve Articles
Updated: May 15, 2022
It has been the custom hitherto for men to hold us as their own property, which is pitiable enough, considering that Christ has delivered and redeemed us all, without exception, by the shedding of his precious blood, the lowly as well as the great. Accordingly it is consistent with Scripture that we should be free and should wish to be so.
-Third Article of the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants (Translated from the German by James H. Robinson, Readings in European History, 1904)
In the fall of 1524, there began an uprising of the lower classes in southwestern Germany. Centered in the region of Swabia, this unrest would be the most widespread and most significant popular revolt on the continent of Europe until the French Revolution. The underlying causes of the so-called German Peasants' War are the result of a complicated set of economic, social, and political conditions. Depending on the school of thought, historians have emphasized one over the other. (For example, Marxists since Friedrich Engels viewed the conflict as an example of the class warfare that would presage the proletariat revolution.)
Regardless, the forces producing the popular discontent of the early 16th century have long roots back to the mid-14th century. Changes in the climate of Europe brought about a series of poor harvests resulting in widespread famine and ending nearly two centuries of agricultural growth. By mid-century, the Black Death struck the continent. In the wake of the pestilence, the old feudal order showed signs of weakening. With an estimated third of Europe's population dying from the plague, there was a severe labor shortage. This eventually led to higher wages, and there began a migration from farms to towns and cities where labor was in demand.
Over time, the old feudal relationship between lord and vassal broke down. Alongside this was the steady rise of a national state with political authority being centralized with the king. This eroded the power of local lords and other landowners. Concurrently, as authority became stronger and more centralized, there emerged from the Black Death, a deep-seated questioning of authority. This questioning was particularly aimed at the Catholic Church. Movements such as the Lollards in England, led by John Wycliffe, and the Hussites in Central Europe, led by Jan Hus, challenged the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in overseeing the spiritual needs of the people. From this fertile ground, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation sprouted.
The end result was a slump in agrarian prices leading to a decline in income for landowners. Higher wages in the towns meant higher prices for manufactured products. This would have an effect on rural populations who then sought high incomes in the town. It was a harsh cycle landowners wished to break. By the end of the 15th century, landowners sought to tighten the feudal bonds of serfdom. On top of this, the population of Europe was beginning to rebound from the Black Death and putting renewed pressure upon land resources.
In 1524, as England and France trended towards a stronger national state, Germany remained a hodgepodge of dynastic lands, archbishoprics, monasteries, and independent city-states who nominally gave allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V of Spain at the time). They jealously clung to the old feudal order and strictly enforced ancient feudal obligations in terms of taxes, duties, and hunting and fishing restrictions. The goal was to keep peasants shackled to the land in order to support flagging landowner incomes.
During the harvest of 1524, so the story goes, near Stuhlingen (situated south of the Black Forest on the border with Switzerland), the Countess of Lupfen commanded the serfs on her lands to gather snail shells. The capriciousness of the request was evident, and after several years of poor harvests, the peasants had enough.
Within days, over 1,200 peasants gathered together in protest, preparing lists of grievances, and electing representatives. Within a month, nearly all of southwestern Germany was in open rebellion. Throughout the winter, the uprising grew in number and scope. The peasants organized themselves into armed groups called haufen. Officers were elected, and decisions were made by the ring. The ring was where peasants, in a democratic fashion, gathered in a circle to debate proposals related to tactics, troop movements, and other matters. The peasants gained support from preachers, such as Thomas Muntzer, who wanted a more radical break with the Church than what Luther himself proposed. The peasants, for their part, took Luther's teachings against authority to heart. Luther vehemently opposed this appropriation of his message. His doctrine of a "priesthood of all believers" had not been intended to mean greater social equality. He viewed the rebelling peasants as "murderous, thieving hordes".
In March of 1525, representatives from several of the peasant haufens gathered in the town of Memmingen. Their goal was to consolidate the hundreds of local grievances of the various peasant groups throughout Swabia. The result of their work is known as the Twelve Articles. These were a significant declaration of rights by the common man. The articles could be summarized as such:
"(1) communal election of priests, who must preach the unadulterated Gospel of Christ;
(2) abolition of the small tithe, but retention of the great tithes by the community for remuneration of the priests;
(3) abolition of serfdom and the heriot [essentilly a death tax]
(4) free hunting and fishing, and free use of woods and pastures;
(5) reduction and/or regulation of labour-services;
(6) reduction and/or regulation of rents and fines"
(From Tom Scott, The Peasants' War: A Historiographical Review Part I, The Historical Journal, Sep 79)
Despite the moderate and humble tone of the articles, they deeply challenged both secular and religious leadership. Sensible as they seem to our modern viewpoint, the Twelve Articles threatened to destroy the social order. The article abolishing serfdom struck at the very heart of feudal authority, and the limiting of tithes and the regulation of rents and services put the landowners' finances at risk. There were twenty printings of the articles that reached all parts of the German territories. Promulgated by reformist preachers and supported by illustrations more radical than the actual text, the Twelve Articles became the manifesto for the various peasant factions. Indeed, its success grew from the revolutionary use of religious tenets to justify more pragmatic grievances born out of a sense of injustice.
The German nobility reacted accordingly. Though the loosely organized peasant armies had some initial success, they lacked military experience and still suffered from a lack of communication and cohesion. The German nobility ultimately had the upper hand in terms of military and financial resources, and by the fall of 1525, they were able to quell the unrest. The peasants had failed to get any of their demands met. In the aftermath, the old feudal order was restored to even a harsher degree, and the peasants lost more rights and freedoms. They lost any semblance of a political voice. Germany would remain fractured, torn by ensuing religious conflict between Reformation and Counter-reformation factions, and would end up being the battleground for other nation-states in the struggle for the balance of power in Europe. It would not be until the revolutions of 1848 before the German peasants attempted another revolt.
Nonetheless, the Twelve Articles should be regarded along with the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence as an expression of basic human aspirations and fundamental rights. They gave voice to the powerless in their neverending struggle to be heard.
For the full text of the Twelve Articles in English: German History in Documents
Digital copy of original German text can be found at the Memmingen municipal archive: Twelve Articles in German
The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants War from a New Perspective: Peter Blickle
The Peasant War in Germany: Friedrich Engels
The German Peasant War of 1525: Janos Bak, ed