The Dreadful History and Judgement of God on Thomas Müntzer: The Life and Times of an Early German Revolutionary by Andrew Drummond - review by Peter Marshall

Peter Marshall

Pastor with a Poleaxe

The Dreadful History and Judgement of God on Thomas Müntzer: The Life and Times of an Early German Revolutionary


Verso 384pp £25

Hands up: who’s heard of the German Peasants’ War? Outside of specialist academic circles, the quincentenaries of its outbreak in 1524 and bloody resolution in 1525 are likely to pass largely unnoticed in this country. Even in Germany, commemorations look set to claim only a fraction of the cultural bandwidth occupied by the anniversary of the promulgation of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses in 2017. Yet the German Peasants’ War was by any reckoning an extraordinary event, the largest popular rebellion in western Europe prior to the French Revolution. It rolled across huge swathes of central and southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria, and its suppression by the authorities may have cost a hundred thousand lives. 

Peasant rebellions were a semi-regular occurrence in late medieval Europe, particularly in politically fragmented Germany, but the war of 1524–5 was an unprecedented convulsion, brought on by an explosive convergence of circumstances. There had been several bad harvests and a downturn in the rural economy, which landowners sought to ride out by reimposing old-fashioned patterns of feudalism and serfdom on a peasantry increasingly accustomed to forms of village self-government. 

The precise relationship between the rebellion and the Reformation was a matter of intense controversy at the time and has been debated ever since. But peasant leaders certainly justified insurrection by invoking ‘God’s law’, and by looking to their own interpretation of what Luther was teaching about grace and salvation. Serfdom was unchristian, according to a set of twelve articles drawn up at Memmingen in Swabia, because ‘Christ has redeemed and bought us all by the shedding of his precious blood’.

Luther himself was having none of it. Stung by Catholic jibes that attacks on the established religious order were bound to lead to the unravelling of the social one, he produced a notorious pamphlet, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, and urged the German princes to ‘stab, smite,

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