The Social Revolution



THE famished knights had waited impatiently for a chance to rise against princes, prelates, and financiers. In 1522 Charles V was far away in Spain; Sickingen’s troops were fretfully idle; rich Church lands lay open to easy seizure. Hutten was calling for action. Luther had invited the German people to sweep their oppressors from the earth.

On August 13 a number of knights signed at Landau a pledge of united action. Sickingen besieged Trier, and shot letters into it inviting the people to join him in overthrowing the ruling archbishop; they remained quiet. The archbishop gathered troops, played general, and beat back five assaults. Sickingen raised the siege and retired to his castle at Landstuhl. The archbishop, with help from neighboring princes, stormed the castle; Sickingen was mortally wounded in its defense; on May 6, 1523, he surrendered; on May 7 he died. The knights submitted to the princes, disbanded their private armies, and clung with desperate severity to the peasant feudal dues that were their main support.

Foreseeing this debacle, Luther had dissociated himself, none too soon (December 19, 1522), from the revolt. Otherwise his star continued to ascend. “The cause of Luther,” wrote Archduke Ferdinand to his brother the Emperor (1522), “is so deeply rooted in the whole Empire that not one person in a thousand is free from it.” 1 Monks and priests were flocking to the new altar of matrimony. At Nuremberg the Lorenzkirche and the Sebalduskirche resounded with “God’s Word”—the Reformers’ phrase for a faith based solely on the Bible. “Evangelical” preachers moved freely through northern Germany, capturing old pulpits and setting up new ones; and they denounced not only popes and bishops as “servants of Lucifer,” but secular lords as “iniquitous oppressors.” 2However, secular lords were themselves converts: Philip of Hesse, Casimir of Brandenburg, Ulrich of Württemberg, Ernest of Lüneberg, John of Saxony. Even the Emperor’s sister Isabella was a Lutheran.

Charles’s old teacher had now become Pope Adrian VI (1521). To a Diet at Nuremberg (1522) he sent a demand for Luther’s arrest, and a candid confession of ecclesiastical faults:

We know well that for many years things deserving of abhorrence have gathered round the Holy See. Sacred things have been misused, ordinances transgressed, so that in everything there has been a change for the worse. Thus it is not surprising that the malady has crept down from the head to the members, from the popes to the hierarchy. We all, prelates and clergy, have gone astray from the right way, and for long there is no one that has done good, no, not one.... Therefore... we shall use all diligence to reform before all else the Roman Curia, whence perhaps all these evils have had their origin.... The whole world is longing for such reform.3

The assembly agreed to ask Elector Frederick to check Luther, but it asked why Luther should be condemned for pointing out clerical abuses now so authoritatively confirmed. Finding the Pope’s confession insufficiently detailed, it sent him its own list of one hundred gravamina of Germany against the Church, and proposed that these grievances should be considered and remedied by a national council to be held in Germany under the presidency of the Emperor.

The same Diet, dominated by the nobility, gave a sympathetic hearing to charges that monopolists were enriching themselves at the expense of the people. A committee wrote to the major cities of Germany asking their advice as to whether the monopolies were harmful, and should they be regulated or destroyed. Ulm replied that they were an evil, and that business firms should be limited to a father, his son, and his son-in-law. Augsburg home of the Fuggers, submitted a classic defense of “big business,” laissez faire,and widows and orphans:

Christendom (or shall we say the whole world?) is rich because of business. The more business a country does, the more prosperous are its people.... . Where there are many merchants there is plenty of work.... It is impossible to limit the size of the companies.... . The bigger and more numerous they are, the better for everybody. If a merchant is not perfectly free to do business in Germany he will go elsewhere, to Germany’s loss.... If he cannot do business above a certain amount, what is he to do with his surplus money?... It would be well to let the merchant alone, and put no restrictions on his ability or capital. Some people talk of limiting the earning capacity of investments. This would .... work great injustice and harm by taking away the livelihood of widows, orphans, and other sufferers... who derive their income from investments in these compames.4

The Diet legislated that companies should not be capitalized above 50,000 guilders; that profits must be distributed every two years, and public accounting made; that money should not be loaned at usurious rates; that no merchant should buy more than a stated maximum of any commodity in any quarter-year; and that prices should be fixed by law. The merchants appealed to Charles V; he supported them for reasons that have been stated; and as many city magistrates shared in the profits of the monopolies, the edicts of Nuremberg soon became a dead letter.

To a later session of the Diet (January 1524) a new pope, Clement VII, sent Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio with fresh demands for the arrest of Luther. Crowds jeered the nuncio in Augsburg; he had to enter Nuremberg secretly to avoid hostile demonstrations; and he had the humiliation of seeing 3,000 persons, including the Emperor’s sister, receive the Eucharist in both kinds from a Lutheran pastor. He warned the Diet that the religious revolt, if not soon suppressed, would soon undermine civil authority and order; but the Diet replied that any attempt to put down Lutheranism by force would result in “riot, disobedience, slaughter... and a general ruin.” 5 While the deliberations proceeded the social revolution began.

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