The Reformation's Impact on Germany: The Peasant Wars

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  • 0:06 The Reformation
  • 1:16 Luther Ignites a Revolt
  • 2:18 The Peasant Wars
  • 5:14 Peace of Augsburg
  • 5:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

The Reformation was a time when Christianity was split into Catholicism and Protestantism. This lesson explores the major changes brought about by the Reformation in Germany in the 16th century.

The Protestant Reformation

Most people know the term 'the Reformation' deals with unrest between Catholics and Protestants, but do you know why and where it all began? This was a time when new ideas regarding the Christian religion developed, and people began to choose between Catholicism and Protestantism. Catholics believed salvation could be found by completing certain actions like recognizing the sacraments (such as baptism and communion) and confession to a priest. This leaves authority in the hands of the Church. Protestants believed the Church should not have authority over a person's relationship with God. Instead, each person was responsible for reading the Bible for guidance.

Catholics recognize the sacraments of baptism and communion
Catholic Sacraments

The Reformation occurred in the 16th century and was one of the most important events in history. Many say this event was responsible for leading history into the modern age. As Christians became divided between Catholicism and Protestantism, the religious unity that once held a society together fell apart. This led to the beginning of individual thought and individual opinions regarding religion. Inevitably, this led to free thinking in other areas, like politics, economics and social structure.

Luther Ignites a Revolt

Martin Luther is often credited with starting the Reformation. Luther was unhappy with corruption in the Catholic Church. He thought the Church was selling pardons for sins (called indulgences) without concern of whether the person was legitimately repentant.

Luther believed the Pope should not have ultimate authority. He believed the Bible should hold authority and that each person had as much authority over their own religion as the church officials. Luther nailed 95 theses against indulgences (pardoning of a sin) to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg to display his distaste with the Church. He also said nuns and monks shouldn't be held to their vows as he felt this gave the church more authority.

The Reformation spread throughout Europe. Scholars encouraged many to learn to read Hebrew and Greek so they could study the Bible in its original language. Many people saw this as an opportunity to gain more control over their lives and a break from authority, leading to mass popularity of freethinking ideas.

The Peasant Wars

The life of a peasant at this time was not easy. Because of high taxes and the ownership of all land belonging to royalty, peasants were basically slaves who worked the land without receiving any benefit from it. Peasants faced the heaviest taxes. The clergy and the nobles were exempt from taxes. In addition, costs for basic necessities rose consistently.

Peasant uprisings spread from Germany to present-day Austria
Germany Austria Map

As people began to feel freedom from the authority of the Church, they hungered for freedom from the oppression of their landlords and nobles. Peasants began to revolt against their oppressors, claiming the same divine right that gave Luther the right to rebel. Some peasants even built armies to support them. These uprisings are known as the Peasant Wars. Although many peasants participated in these uprisings, they didn't have firm leadership.

Uprisings took place in various areas. It began in southwestern areas in Germany and spread into what is now Austria. The peasant armies lacked an overall structure and adequate weaponry. Many of the fighters had no experience in military or war tactics. The lack of discipline and organization led to the loss of many peasant lives.

During the wars, monasteries were burned down and their possessions stolen or destroyed. Peasants also attacked the nobles, destroying much of their land and homes. After taking over the town of Weinsberg, the peasants captured the castle and forced the ruling Count and about 70 other nobles to run a gauntlet of pikes, which meant to run between two lines of men with swords continuously attacking their victims. However, at Frankenhausen, thousands of peasants faced a prince's army along with mercenaries. Without adequate weaponry and leadership, thousands of peasants were slaughtered.

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