The Lutheran Reformation began in 1517 when the German Monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted his 95 Theses that were a list of complaints about abuses of money and privilege among the Catholic clergy and hierarchy. When Luther refused to recant his complaints he was excommunicated in 1521 from the Catholic Church by Pope Leo X at the Diet of Worms. Luther anticipated and advocated wide reforms that found great support among the Catholic laiety and the lesser clergy in Germany and other parts of Europe. Among his great innovations was the insistence on translating the Bible and all liturgical texts from Latin into the vernacular language of German. Luther was soon forced into hiding but was protected by members of the German nobility and the Elector of Saxony who sheltered him and saw an opportunity to increase their own power and autonomy with the new Lutheran Reformation. These princes found the Reformation a convenient means to increase their local power and economies and to break from the Holy Roman Empire’s influence in their own affairs.
Luther soon instituted a new church, the Lutheran Church, that while retaining certain Catholic and fundamental Christian ideas also developed several important distinguishing differences. An emphasis on the idea of redemptive Grace. One is ultimately judged by God on their personal relationship with God through a life of reflection on Christian principles that provide one with a sense and state of Grace with God. This differed from Catholic emphasis on judgment of actions as sins that needed to be redeemed through acts of Confession and penance dictated to the individual by a priest, confessor or other clergy.Allowing priests to marry and have families. Luther’s own decision to marry a former nun and his personal lifestyle as a married man became a model for a new type of cleric who was better suited to an increased secular system of power sharing. The Reformation was therefore a direct challenge to the feudal power and system of control exercised by the Catholic Church and its clerical-political hierarchy and hegemony with the court culture and politics of Europe. Based on appeal to those of a middle peasant, middle-clergy and urban merchant and tradesmen, it allowed an ideology of reform that was suited to an expansion of capitalist agriculture and industries. Luther’s reforms found widespread support among guildsmen who could now avoid various fees, tithes and charges collected by feudal lords and the Church. By 1521-22 perhaps two-thirds of German towns supported Luther’s Reformation (Faulkner 2013, 95-97).
The less wealthy knights of southern Germany rebelled between 1522-23 but were defeated by the Catholic princes in power in Bavaria and other parts. The Reformation in Germany was taking on a significant regional struggle. The German Peasants Revolt of 1524-25 was based around armed groups of the middle peasantry, followed the pronouncements of the more radical reformer Thomas Müntzer who had denounced usury and corruption. They issued The ‘Twelve Points’ of the Memmingen Charter that demanded an end to feudal land rents and dues.
Luther was caught by surprise at the success of the more radical wave of the movement he had started and almost immediately denounced the revolt. He had too because his supporters, both financial and out of personal safety were the powerful new Protestant Princes who had sheltered him. Luther’s wrote a proclamation, Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of the Peasants, that attacked the peasant movement and provided a moral basis for the Protestant princes and landed elite to crush the rebellion.
The German Peasant Wars of 1524-25 were both a revolutionary attempt at creating greater communal power and a challenge to the authority of the landed aristocracy. By initially adopting Luther’s call for Reformation the middle peasantry of the central and Western regions of Germany forced a power struggle between the local princes and elites and their alliance with the new secularizing regional states or alignment with the Catholic princes.
Among the key works on the German Peasant Revolution of 1525 are the numerous studies by Peter Blickle (Blickle, Die Revolution von 1525 2004). Blickle is an influential historian of the transitional period from the High Middle Ages through modern history (Blickle 2008) including, Der Bauernkrieg: Die Revolution des Gemeinen Mannes (The Peasant Wars: The Revolution of the Common Men, 2011) and in his review article of some post-World War II historiography (2007, 11-22).
Marxist historiography also provides key insights into the nature of class struggle. Neil Faulkner has provided a short synthesis of the wave of new urban and rural conflicts and militant struggles in his Marxist History of the World (Faulkner 2013). A more detailed and insightful study of the difficulty and delay of reception of the Reformation in the key commercial city of Strasbourg is was written by Thomas Brady (Brady 1978) and summarized in several useful anthologies on the period’s historiography (Scott 2013).
Blickle, Peter. 2008. Das Alte Europa: Vom Hochmittelalter bis zur Moderne. Munich: C.H. Beck.
—. 2011. Der Bauernkrieg: Die Revolution des Gemeinen Mannes . Munich: C.H. Beck.
—. 2004. Die Revolution von 1525. Oldenbourg: De Gruyter.
Blickle, Peter. 2007. “The Reformation in Post-War Historiography: An American Contribution.” In Politics and Reformations: Histories and Reformations: Essays in Honour of Thomas A. Brady, Jr., by Christopher Ocker, Michael Printy, Peter Starenko and Peter Wallace, edited by Christopher Ocker, Michael Printy, Peter Starenko and Peter Wallace. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Brady, Thomas A. 1978. Ruling Class, Regime and Reformation at Strasbourg 1520-1550. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Faulkner, Neil. 2013. “The First Wave of Bourgeois Revolutions: 1517-1775.” In Marxist History of the World, by Neil Faulkner, 92-116. London: Pluto Press.
Scott, Tom. 2013. The Early Reformation in Germany: Between Secular Impact and Radical Vision. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate.