Article Thumbnail

A 16th-Century Peasant Uprising Has Bleak Lessons for Our Era

Éric Vuillard’s new book, ‘The War of the Poor,’ recounts the little remembered — but resoundingly badass — German Peasants’ War

In 2009, protesters demonstrating against the opening of the first private prison in France spray-painted the Baptistere Saint-Jean, reputed to be the oldest Christian building in the country. While it may not be of much solace to religious fanatics or history buffs, the graffiti was in fact oddly appropriate. Omnia sunt communia, it read — Latin for “all things in common” — which was the slogan of Thomas Müntzer, an itinerant preacher from 16th century Germany who railed against the inequities of his time, including the dominion of the Catholic Church and the institution of private property.

“Graffiti in Latin, you don’t see that every day!” exclaims author Éric Vuillard, who was inspired by a photo of the newly redecorated Baptistere to dive into the writings of Müntzer. Vuillard had previously heard of Müntzer secondhand, but now approached his work directly for the first time. The result of Vuillard’s study is the recently published short history, The War of the Poor, which recounts with cinematic flare the preacher’s role in leading the German Peasants’ War and, most significantly for us today, impresses the conflict’s ongoing relevance.

The German Peasants’ War unfolded over 1524 and 1525 in portions of what is today Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France, but was then all the Holy Roman Empire. Inspired by the Reformation, which challenged the corruption of the Catholic Church by seeking to divest it of religious authority, Müntzer took the ideas of the relatively moderate Martin Luther to radical heights. Where Luther called on Christians to reject Catholicism, Müntzer called on them to tear it down — including the aristocracy that the Holy Roman Empire had allowed to rule over them. The results were, well, a war. It’s estimated that Muntzer led up to 300,000 peasants against the church and aristocracy, culminating in the Battle of Frankenhausen, where the insurgents were cut down by a joint army of professional soldiers. Müntzer was captured, tortured and executed, his head put on display outside of the German city of Muhlhausen to intimidate other would-be revolutionaries.

Vuillard, who doubles as a film director, tells the story of Müntzer and the German Peasants’ War in a compelling, cinematic style. Far from being a dry history, The War of the Poor is told through a sequence of scenes, such as churchgoers flocking to hear Müntzer conduct a wrathful mass in German — as opposed to the orthodox Latin — despite the staunch opposition, and deep fear, of the local count. Vuillard not only draws on his study of Müntzer’s incendiary writing to include a few fiery passages — “Now tell us, you miserable, wretched sack of maggots, who made you into a prince over the people whom God redeemed with his own blood?” the preacher opens in a letter to a count — but Müntzer’s passion appears to ignite Vuillard’s words as well. “It wasn’t God rising up,” Vuillard writes, “it was taxes, tithes, land rights, ground rents, tariffs, travel dues, hay harvests, droit du seigneur, cutting of noses, gouging of eyes, pinching with burning tongs, bodies broken on the wheel.”

“I have tried to faithfully recount the events of the German Peasants’ War and Thomas Müntzer’s life, but historical accuracy is just one aspect of the truth,” says Vuillard of writing The War of the Poor. “When presenting the events of an insurgency, you must also follow its course, embrace its effervescent line.”

The line that Vuillard follows doesn’t begin with Müntzer’s first formative moment — his father’s hanging when the preacher-to-be was only 11 years old — and end with his head on a pike outside of medieval Muhlhausen. The War of the Poor traces the lineage of the German Peasants’ War back to conflicts in England, such as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and forward too, right up to the present. Little remembered today, the proto-communist aspirations of the German Peasants’ War, which included common ownership of land, were an inspiration to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who wrote his own history of the events, The Peasant War in Germany.

Burning with contemporary fire, Vuillard’s book recalls the German Peasants’ War as not a bygone conflict, but one battle in the ongoing class war. The English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the German Peasants’ War of 1524 and 1525, the French anti-prison demonstration in 2009 — these geographically and temporally disparate events are united, Vuillard stresses. Only the language changes.

“In a time where religion saturates all of social life,” says Vuillard of Müntzer’s era, “it’s natural that the struggles of the destitute have finally resorted to the only language that was then available: Christianity.”

And it should go without saying that the class war isn’t confined to Europe. The events detailed in The War of the Poor unfold across the continent, and of course, the U.S. has been grappling with its own street movements demanding social justice. “Feudalism and the modern age are radically different societies, but the hierarchical phenomenon continues,” Vuillard tells me. “Some American presidents are descended from Pilgrims, like our aristocrats came from Louis IX’s old companions. Basically, it’s the same thing. In this respect, any revolt is part of the same process, people are ill-accustomed to being subjected.”

“The circumstances have changed a lot,” he concludes, “but the inequalities are now greater than ever.”