Andrew Drummond, The Dreadful History and Judgement of God on Thomas Müntzer: The Life and Times of an Early German Revolutionary (Verso 2024), xii, 372pp. Andrew Drummond, The Dreadful History and Judgement of God on Thomas Müntzer: The Life and Times of an Early German Revolutionary (Verso 2024), xii, 372pp.

An excellent history of the sixteenth-century radical Thomas Müntzer brings the radical Reformation and the dawn of the modern era into focus, finds Dominic Alexander

The Reformation is a major marker of the transition from the medieval to the modern world. While a simple story that Protestants swept away the oppressive, superstition-bound hegemony of the Papal-led Catholic hierarchy shouldn’t be maintained, it was certainly the case that Protestantism raised democratic questions about the practice of Christianity, and made vernacular literacy a mass phenomenon. Ultimately, those democratic theological matters became social and political questions, as they also did later in the English Revolution. It is perhaps the most unfortunate fact about the English Reformation that it is most identified with a top-down process led by a narcissistic tyrant, King Henry VIII. The Reformation in Europe also tends to be remembered through figures like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who both, in their different ways, produced authoritarian versions of Protestantism.

Thomas Müntzer is therefore a figure who richly deserves to be much better known as the early great proponent of the democratic, egalitarian Reformation, whose activity was closely bound up with the German Peasants’ War of 1525. This event can be considered simultaneously to be the last of the great medieval peasant revolts, and the first of the modern revolutionary democratic movements. Müntzer himself shares in this duality. The title of Drummund’s careful, scholarly biography of the man, The Dreadful History and Judgment of God on Thomas Müntzer is drawn from a pamphlet by Martin Luther. Drummond shows the irreducibly theological foundation of Müntzer’s preoccupations, which may seem strange to contemporary eyes, yet, Müntzer’s ideas were shaped by medieval Christian traditions, as well as his contemporary social context. These led to Müntzer becoming a key figurehead for a social revolt with ambitions that anticipated later revolutionary movements.

The Reformation traditionally begins in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses against the sale of indulgences (money paid to the Church for the forgiveness of sins) on the doors of Wittenberg’s churches, although his formulation of key aspects of Protestantism, such as justification by faith alone, (rather than by penance and works mediated by the Catholic Church) and his break with Catholicism came a bit later. However, certainly by the 1520s, it was as if a dam had burst with religious discontent and reforming preachers exploding into view across Europe, and in the German realm particularly.

Preconditions

Religious excitement coincided with a rising tide of economic discontent among the peasantry in particular. The late Middle Ages had been a period punctuated with spectacular peasant uprisings and urban revolts, so the unrest in early sixteenth-century Germany was not an anomaly. Feudal dues and church tithes took their toll from peasant production, while an increasing drive for estate consolidation and enclosure further pressed upon peasants’ livelihoods. While outright serfdom had been in rapid decline in England and France, in Germany ‘it was the Church lordships in particular which began to re-impose basic serfdom during the fifteenth century’ (p.17).

The political and economic role of the Church had long been a leading cause of dissent in medieval Europe, with anticlericalism being a major thread through heretical movements from the twelfth century onwards. It was hard to escape the fact that the Church brimmed with wealth, largely drawn from peasant labour and tithes. Church estates, often more efficiently run than secular lordships, could appear particularly grasping and merciless to peasant eyes. It was not lost on many that this wealthy and worldly Church bore little outward comparison to the image of the poor Christ and the Apostles from the Gospels, living itinerantly and holding their possessions in common.

Attempts to reassert what was seen as the original purity of a poor Church had inspired myriad waves of new monastic movements and wandering holy men, as well as heretical movements. Perhaps the most famous of the former were the Franciscans of the early thirteenth century. However, by the sixteenth century, the radical ‘Spiritual’ wing of that order had long since been suppressed or driven underground into heresy by the Church hierarchy.

The notion of ‘apostolic poverty’ remained lurking beneath the surface of late medieval religion, and certainly informed the Hussites of Bohemia in the early fifteenth century (p.22). This heretical sect, often seen as ‘proto-Protestant’, was bloodily suppressed. Nevertheless, it gained a wide range of sympathisers, and survived, if underground, to be an influence on the early Reformation. This was true of other late medieval heretical sects, such as the Lollards in England, and the Waldensians in the Alps. While Drummond does not pull at the thread of apostolic poverty, he does point out a neat loop in all this, since English Lollards are known to have travelled to Bohemia and influenced the Hussites at the end of the fourteenth century, and the Hussites influenced the radical wing of the German Reformation, which produced the Anabaptist sect, some of whom, in turn, fled to England in the 1530s. Drummond nicely comments, the ‘revolution is indeed global and permanent’ (p.306).

Alongside the bubbling religious dissident movements of the late medieval era, the immediate backdrop to the Reformation in Germany was marked by some significant peasant uprisings, from the 1476 rising in Franconia led by the ‘Drummer of Niklashausen’ leading to a series of localised revolts all linked by their use of a banner of a peasant’s shoe, which gives them their name of the ‘Bundschuh’ movement (pp.13-14). In the growing towns, citizens wanted independence from feudal overlords, while artisans and the poor had significant economic grievances. Even among the lords, the lesser nobility and the knights were increasingly under pressure, and losing ground to the territorial princes.

United for reform

Arguments that the Church should be divested of its property did not just appeal to poor peasants and artisans, but to the secular ruling class too, who could hope to acquire those lands, while the wealth and corruption of the curia meant that anti-papal feeling reached up and down the social spectrum. With all classes of society having grievances about the existing state of affairs, the stage was set for revolutionary events. When Martin Luther began his campaign for Church reform in 1517, there were already many churchmen and intellectuals posing many of the same questions, including, it seems, a young Thomas Müntzer (pp.36-7). From the beginning, ‘Lutheran’ was often applied to the ideas and arguments of a whole range of thinkers, who may have agreed with Luther on some issues, but also diverged in many other ways. To begin with, a spirit of unity among reformers reigned, to the extent that Luther himself declared in 1520, quite uncharacteristically, that ‘we are all Hussites’ (p.27). Reforming ideas and practices certainly spread very quickly at this time.

Thomas Müntzer was one of many reforming preachers in these early years of the Reformation. He was expelled from his first post in Brunswick in 1518 for his reforming stance, and may have met Luther around that time, but opted not to stay in Wittenberg, and pursued his interest in reform ideas on his own (pp.37-8, 46). Müntzer was a minor figure at this time, and there is meagre evidence for his activities, but Drummond shows that, amid some wide-ranging theological study, it is very likely he was particularly interested in various late-medieval mystics.

This might seem a far cry from the socio-political concerns of the Peasants’ War in which he became caught up by 1525, but there is a connection between mysticism and Müntzer’s radical theology. The disparate theologies of medieval mystics had one element broadly in common, which was an emphasis on a personal experience of God. This could get such thinkers in trouble, because the implication could be drawn that the Church hierarchy and its sacraments were not necessary to mediate between God and a believer, who might be independently visited by the Holy Spirit. From there, it was easy for the authorities to suspect the mystic to be threatening the authority of the Church itself, and through it, the social order. It was a narrow and difficult path that the late-medieval mystics trod, and while those that Müntzer read had kept to it, other medieval mystics fell foul of the dangers, such as the much-admired Marguerite Porete, who was burnt for heresy in 1310.

In general, the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers detonated a serious crisis for authority, ecclesiastical and secular alike. In affirming that all Christians potentially had a personal connection to God, this doctrine made ritual holy orders redundant, and implicitly called into question any claim to authority based on religion. Martin Luther and others were quick to try to emphasise the importance of obedience to princes who would support reforming religion. Nonetheless there were many, including Thomas Müntzer, whose ideas and actions realised the worst fears medieval authorities had imagined.

The road to revolution

Müntzer’s radicalism first manifested itself when he found a new post in Zwickau, a major town in Saxony, home of considerable artisanal industry, and close to major mining centres: ‘It was here that Thomas, now age thirty, made perhaps the greatest leap in his understanding of his world. And he did so not by pursuing his studies in theology, but by engaging with the ordinary people of the town’ (p.46).

Religious radicalism was not new to Zwickau; it was near the border with Bohemia from where the influence of Hussites, and their even more radical wing the Taborites, spread into Germany. Some Hussites were burnt as heretics in the town in 1462 (p.27), and in 1475 preachers from Bohemia were noted to be present, while the town’s printworks was still publishing Hussite material in the mid-1520s. When Müntzer arrived in Zwickau, it was already a stronghold of the reform movement, while artisans and the poor were at the same time ‘demanding a say in the democratic management of town affairs’ (pp.48-9). The weavers in particular were proposing ‘concrete social reforms – the establishment of schools and hospitals for the poor, the care of children’ and poor funds (p.49).

To begin with, Müntzer’s advocacy of reform in Zwickau was not incendiary, except to the local Franciscan monks, and he showed a wish to remain aligned with Luther’s reform circles. However, soon he moved to another parish in Zwickau, whose congregation was poorer, and featured a concentration of weavers. Here he came into contact with Nikolaus Storch, a weaver, a self-educated preacher, and leader of Taborite-inspired dissenters in the town.

Their opinions seem to have included doubts around infant baptism, Church ceremonial and sacraments, a call for freedom of conscience, and a view that the Bible was not the only source of Christian faith; in other words, that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit could substitute for a clerical education (p.58). Storch seems to have been an impressive enough figure; in 1521, he and another visited Wittenberg, and impressed Luther’s key ally, Philipp Melanchthon enough that the latter wrote ‘the Holy Spirit is in these men’ (p.60). Melanchthon’s colleagues soon pulled him back to the straight and narrow.

The issue of the source of faith certainly meshes with Müntzer’s documented doctrinal pre-occupations, but Drummond doubts that it was from Storch that Müntzer acquired the views that led him away from Luther and towards the radical Reformation (p.57). Regardless of this debate, what is clear is that many of the same radical ideas were appearing, voiced by a range of individual preachers. Most of these all came back to the desire to democratise the doctrines and practice of religion, which points to the prevailing social discontents and conflicts as their true origin, rather than in this or that individual mind.

Certainly, Storch’s dissident group acted as support for Müntzer during his time battling for reform in Zwickau. Conflict between Müntzer and Catholics in Zwickau heated up, and Wittenberg pleaded with the former to be more measured. Eventually the town council dismissed him, provoking vociferous demonstrations of the weavers and other poor townspeople. From Zwickau, Müntzer went to the Taborite centre Žatac in Bohemia, and then Prague a little later. These two trips resulted in his writing of the ‘Prague Manifesto’, in which he declared his conviction that God ‘speaks to the Son in the hearts of men. All the Elect can read this word’ (p.81). This Word could thus be ‘read’ by illiterate weavers as well as wealthy, educated churchmen, or as Drummond notes: ‘There is no need of mediation by scholars or priests.’

Reform in Allstedt

Once back in Germany, Müntzer had to spend most of 1522 and 1523 wandering from town to town. The patchwork nature of authority in the fragmented German realm nonetheless allowed him to restart his agitation wherever he went. This itinerancy coincided with a period in which Luther decisively turned his back on reformation of the Church from below, and instead turned to secular authority for support, in particular to the reform-friendly branch of the House of Saxony. In contrast, the peripatetic Müntzer was involved in ‘social unrest, iconoclasm, riots and attacks on the established Church’ (p.97), and was serially expelled from towns by the authorities. Finally, however, in 1523, through the patronage of a reform-minded aristocratic widow, he was given a post in the small Saxon market town of Allstedt, where he was able to pursue his agenda with some stability until 1525.

As elsewhere, Müntzer’s support came from the artisans and poorer townspeople. His first major move was to reform the liturgy of the mass, which was the central point of the community’s religious experience. Particularly, in its Catholic form, the mass emphasised the social hierarchy, with only priests taking communion in both kinds (wine and bread), often performing the key rituals behind a screen, so hidden from the sight of the congregation. It was also all in Latin. Unlike Müntzer, Luther was very hesitant to reform the mass. In 1522, he reversed some reforms made by his colleague Andreas Karlstadt, including re-introducing the Latin mass. Luther did not produce his own German mass until 1526, and then brought Latin back in 1528.

Müntzer was much more certain in his introduction of a German mass, communion in both kinds (bread and wine) and so on. Drummond emphasises the importance of all this: ‘these reforms constituted the gearing mechanism between Müntzer’s revolutionary theology and the forces of social revolution (pp.107-8). Müntzer wrote that: ‘It can no longer be tolerated that men attribute some power to Latin words, as if they were the words of magicians, nor that the poor people should leave the church even more ignorant than when they entered’ (p.108). Despite his condemnation and execution in 1525, parts of Müntzer’s published German Church Office was still ‘being used or appearing in print as late as 1612’ (p.115). For a time, Müntzer had the support of the town council of Allstedt, and was able to defy outside authorities.

Müntzer then began to gain significant influence beyond Allstedt, even in areas under Catholic control, and refugees from persecution began to stream into the town. He began to organise a self-defence league to deter anti-Reform authorities from interfering. This was not yet linked to social demands, although there seems to have been a small organisation in the town which did swear to refuse to ‘give tithes to the monks or nuns, and to help destroy and expel them’ (p.152). Müntzer himself began writing to the princes warning them to defend the reforms or risk that ‘the common people will feel dread and hopelessness towards you and others like you’ (p.160). The social consequences of Müntzer’s religious teaching were beginning to come to the fore, and he was forced to flee Allstedt. As a peasant uprising began to gather force in south-west Germany, he began to argue that a Christian need not ‘bow to the secular might of the nobility’ (p.175).

Peasants’ War

The German Peasants’ War began in the summer of 1524, as the territorial princes began more actively to suppress the radical reformers like Müntzer. Drummond argues that this repression had the unintended result of sparking off the revolt (p.211). It began as a strike against the payment of feudal dues, but quickly snowballed as peasants made common cause with townspeople demanding democratic and religious reform in the towns. Large armies of rebels began to coalesce: the ‘new religious dimension provided the peasantry with a regional framework that allowed them to pass beyond merely local risings’, which had marked the previous century or so (p.210).

By early 1525, demands were beginning to standardise around ‘the election of reformed preachers by the parishes; the abolition of all feudal duties and tithes; free access to wood, water and game’, formal contracts for landholding, systems of poor relief and equality before the law (p.214). Müntzer may have contributed to a document associated with one major peasant manifesto (p.222). Many of the same secular demands would continue to be made by the peasantry across Europe in the coming centuries, right into the French Revolution.

At first, the nobility was overwhelmed by the peasant armies, and hundreds of castles were sacked, but notably, very few killed. The nobles did not respond in kind, and once they were able, they committed massacres of whole villages, even under the pretences of truce. Luther meanwhile was attributing manifestos of peasant demands to Müntzer, demanding obedience to the authorities, and declaring in a tract titled ‘Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants: ‘So dear lords, redeem us, save us, help us, take pity on the poor people, stab, smite, strangle …’ (p.216).

After Allstedt, Münster had wound up in Mühlhausen, in Thuringia, where he allied himself with another radical preacher, Heinrich Pfeiffer, and there raised a militia composed of largely of peasants and artisans for overthrowing the ‘godless’ state (p.225). Müntzer and Pfeiffer were involved in the toppling of the town council at Mühlhausen, and revolt became generalised across Thuringia, at a time when the peasant armies were being crushed in the south of Germany. His revolutionary stance at this time is clear: in one letter, he wrote of a town council that the ‘sweat of the working people tastes sweet to them, so sweet, but it will turn into bitter gall’ (p.202). At the last, Müntzer stood with the peasant army at Frankenhausen, not far from Mühlhausen. After a short battle, some 5-7000 out of the army of about 8000 were massacred, and Müntzer and Pfeiffer executed shortly thereafter.

Müntzer and communism

Drummond emphasises that Müntzer should not be seen as an ‘early proletarian revolutionary’ (p.179), although he does note that in Saxony and Thuringia, at that point among the most advanced regions of Germany economically, there was a kind of ‘embryonic proletariat’ (p.240), and Müntzer’s support was certainly largely drawn from the lower ranks of society: ‘His call to revolution was based on a human interest in the poor and oppressed, and a rejection of the material separation between the rulers and ruled, since both were, ultimately, mortals before God’ (p.179).

In Müntzer’s final confession, there is a line that the Reformation he had intended in Allstedt would include the principle that ‘omnia sunt communia’ (p.271), or that all things should be held in common. Drummond points out that this was quite possibly imposed by his interrogators, rather than being Müntzer’s own genuine aim. In Müntzer’s own writing, we find him railing against ‘the oppression of the peasantry’ and intending to make ‘everyone equal in rank’. Drummond allows that his vision may have included ‘common ownership of all property – probably, but it was never specifically mentioned’ (p.272). These are clearly important caveats, but it should also be borne in mind that the communism of ‘apostolic poverty’ was a general inheritance of religious radicals of this time, notably of the Taborites, who were clearly an influence of a sort on Müntzer, and that his colleague in Zwickau, Storch.

Storch, was, later at least, said to have advocated the ‘communisation of property’ (p.58). It is true that his main supporters, peasants and artisans, were small property holders, so Müntzer may not have felt that an emphasis on an eventual apostolic communism was opportune, but equally property was not a fixed concept in this period, and the radical demands of the time did clearly aim to destroy feudal property. The point is that in this society, the division between small property-holder and the communal holding of economic rights was not so clear cut. Moreover, ‘omnia sunt communia’ was certainly in the air as a millenarian demand.

The sect that arose from the Peasant’s War, the Anabaptists, did carry out a regime involving common property in a revolutionary movement in the town of Münster in 1543. Drummond points out that the Anabaptists originated during the last couple of years of Müntzer’s activities. There were clear doctrinal divisions between him and them, and yet, many of the early Anabaptists specifically cited Müntzer as a major, admired figure. Ultimately, Anabaptism was a radical current which fed into the thinking of the sectaries of the English Revolution. In the course of the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists certainly terrified the authorities throughout Europe that they would spark revolutionary movements among the common people. Müntzer may not have been an ‘early proletarian revolutionary’, but he does lie at the root of modern revolutionary movements, at the point before the anti-feudal egalitarianism of small property owners had separated from the class struggle of the exploited working people.

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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