5.2.2. Thomas Müntzer and the German Peasants’ War
Another personality of the Radical Reformation was Thomas Müntzer, a paranoid who saw devilish conspiracies and apocalyptic signs everywhere. When he heard about the fame of the Ninety-Five Theses, Müntzer saw the phenomenon as a divine intervention. Accordingly, he left the monastery in Frohse and began to wander looking for inspiration and answers. In 1520 he arrived at Zwickau and exchanged opinions with Nikolaus Storch. And, while the threat of the authorities banished the Zwickau prophets toward Wittenberg, Müntzer took the road to Prague, where he remained for a couple of months.449
Influenced by Storch, Müntzer adopted Anabaptism, developed an anti-intellectualist philosophy450 and claimed that his personal theology was based on divine revelations. He militated for the formation of a pure church after the model of the early Christian Church,451 but he was rejected both by the magisterial Reformists and Catholics. Constantly banished, between 1521 and 1523 he led a wandering life, until he became a parson in the village of Allsted, where he married a former nun.452 Besides contesting the sacrament of the Eucharist and infant baptism, a crucial idea in Müntzer’s doctrine was the necessity of “continuous revelation”:
these villainous and treacherous parsons are of no use to the church in even the slightest matter. For they deny the voice of the bridegroom, which is a truly certain sign that they are a pack of devils. How could they then be God’s servants, bearers of his word, which they shamelessly deny with their whore’s brazenness? For all true parsons must have revelations, so that they are certain of their cause.453
The belief in the “living word of God” or the doctrine of continuous revelation was in fact what fueled Müntzer’s delusion of grandeur and his conviction that he had a crucial role in the closing act of history. On July 13, 1524, at Allsted, he delivered the sermon Auslegung des anderen Unterschieds Danielis in front of a couple of local dukes and nobles of Saxony. And, as Daniel interpreted the dream of the Babylonian emperor, Müntzer portrayed himself as a new Daniel gifted by God with the ability to interpret the dreams of the contemporary princes:
This text of Daniel is thus as clear as the bright sun, and the work of ending the fifth empire of the world is now in full swing. The first Empire was symbolized by the golden head [of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream]. That was the empire of Babylon. And the second empire was represented by the silver breast and arms, which was the empire of the Medes and Persians. The third empire was the empire of the Greeks, which resounded with its cleverness, indicated by the brass. The fourth empire was the Roman empire, which was won with the iron sword and was an empire of coercion. The fifth empire or monarchy is that which we have before our own eyes [i.e. the Holy Roman Empire] and it is also (like the fourth) of iron and would like to be coercive. But, as we see before our very eyes, the iron is intermixed with filth, vain schemes of flattery that slither and squirm over the face of the whole earth. ... Therefore a new Daniel must arise and interpret your revelation for you. And this same new Daniel must go forth, as Moses teaches, Deuteronomy 20[:2], at the head of the troops. ... the elect did not win the promised land with the sword alone but rather through the power of God. Nevertheless, the sword was the means, just as for us eating and drinking are for sustaining life.454
In July 1524 Luther sent a letter to Protestant princes through which he harshly attacked Müntzer and exposed all his theological flaws. As a result, the duke of Saxony closed the local printing press and Müntzer was forced to leave Allsted and head toward the imperial city of Mühlhausen. At the beginning of 1525 he and his associate, the radical Heinrich Pfeiffer, took advantage of the tensions between the social classes and called for the dissolution of the existing council.455 Müntzer and Pfeiffer established a new council, called the “Eternal League of God,” and turned Mühlhausen into a theocratic republic, governed by biblical laws. Everything was transferred to the public domain, according to the Latin maxim omnia sunt communia. The members of the community were advised to adopt a simple life and to prepare themselves for battle; the Kingdom of God was about to be violently established, after the elimination of all the earthly corrupt authorities, both ecclesiastical and secular, so that absolute power be held only by Christ.456
At the time the situation of the German peasants was highly precarious, the scent of a great revolt floating in the air for more than a century. The clergy was abusing the lower class as much as the nobles, and the messiahs, as the common instigators, were taking advantage of the peasants’ discontents to publicly condemn the church and to gain support. Previously, in 1476, the comedian Hans Böhm was one step away from starting a huge peasant revolt in the region of Franconia “urged” by the Virgin Mary. After he had attended a sermon of the Franciscan Giovanni de Capistrano in the village of Niklashausen, Böhm saw the Mother of God in a dream, calling him to become a prophet. And, even though he lacked education and religious knowledge, Böhm’s preachings were surprisingly complex. He described the upcoming Millennium as a society based on equality, repentance and brotherly love, free of forced labor and taxes; because the waters and the land are gifts from God to all people, no one should have more than others, and all have to live in peace and contentment.457 But when tens of thousands gathered in Niklashausen to hear the drummer’s sermon, the bishop of Würzburg charged him with heresy and arrested him. Böhm’s initiative was premature because it did not have a favorable context; so, the peasants were dispersed and the humble comedian was hanged.458
Half a century later, the spark of the Reformation conferred totally different options to Müntzer. In April 1525 the tensions between peasants and nobles culminated in an open rebellion in the city of Frankenhausen, marking the start of the German Peasants’ War. The revolt, which at its peak came to involve around 300,000 rebels and extended on the territories of today’s Germany and Switzerland, had neither a single leader nor a precisely determined purpose. It was only a movement against the feudal oppression. Müntzer, however, saw the agitation as ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)
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