German Culture Past and Present
by Ernest Belfort Bax
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The scandals as regards clerical manners, growing, as they had been, for many generations, reached their climax in the early part of the sixteenth century. It was a common thing for priests to drive a roaring trade as moneylenders, landlords of alehouses and gambling dens, and even in some cases, brothel-keepers. Papal ukases had proved ineffective to stem the current of clerical abuses. The regular clergy evoked even more indignation than the secular. "Stinking cowls" was a favourite epithet for the monks. Begging, cheating, shameless ignorance, drunkenness, and debauchery, are alleged as being their noted characteristics. One of the princes of the empire addresses a prior of a convent largely patronized by aristocratic ladies as "Thou, our common brother-in-law!" In some of the convents of Friesland, promiscuous intercourse between the sexes was, it is said, quite openly practised, the offspring being reared as monks and nuns. The different orders competed with each other for the fame and wealth to be obtained out of the public credulity. A fraud attempted by the Dominicans at Bern, in 1506, with the concurrence of the heads of the order throughout Germany, was one of the main causes of that city adopting the Reformation.

In addition to the increasing burdens of investitures, annates, and other Papal dues, the brunt of which the German people had directly or indirectly to bear, special offence was given at the beginning of the sixteenth century by the excessive exploitation of the practice of indulgences by Leo X for the purpose of completing the cathedral of St. Peter's at Rome. It was this, coming on the top of the exactions already rendered necessary by the increasing luxury and debauchery of the Papal Court and those of the other ecclesiastical dignitaries, that directly led to the dramatic incidents with which the Lutheran Reformation opened.

The remarkable personality with which the religious side of the Reformation is pre-eminently associated was a child of his time, who had passed through a variety of mental struggles, and had already broken through the bonds of the old ecclesiasticism before that turning-point in his career which is usually reckoned the opening of the Reformation, to wit—the nailing of the theses on to the door of the Schloss-Kirche in Wittenberg on the 31st of October, 1517. Martin Luther, we must always bear in mind, however, was no Protestant in the English Puritan sense of the word. It was not merely that he retained much of what would be deemed by the old-fashioned English Protestant "Romish error" in his doctrine, but his practical view of life showed a reaction from the ascetic pretensions which he had seen bred nothing but hypocrisy and the worst forms of sensual excess. It is, indeed, doubtful if the man who sang the praises of "Wine, Women, and Song" would have been deemed a fit representative in Parliament or elsewhere by the British Nonconformist conscience of our day; or would be acceptable in any capacity to the grocer-deacon of our provincial towns, who, not content with being allowed to sand his sugar and adulterate his tea unrebuked, would socially ostracise every one whose conduct did not square with his conventional shibboleths. Martin Luther was a child of his time also as a boon companion. The freedom of his living in the years following his rupture with Rome was the subject of severe animadversions on the part of the noble, but in this respect narrow-minded, Thomas Muenzer, who, in his open letter addressed to the "Soft-living flesh of Wittenberg," scathingly denounces what he deems his debauchery.

It does not enter into our province here to discuss at length the religious aspects of the Reformation; but it is interesting to note in passing the more than modern liberality of Luther's views with respect to the marriage question and the celibacy of the clergy, contrasted with the strong mediaeval flavour of his belief in witchcraft and sorcery. In his De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae (1519) he expresses the view that if, for any cause, husband or wife are prevented from having sexual intercourse they are justified, the woman equally with the man, in seeking it elsewhere. He was opposed to divorce, though he did not forbid it, and recommended that a man should rather have a plurality of wives than that he should put away any of them. Luther held strenuously the view that marriage was a purely external contract for the purpose of sexual satisfaction, and in no way entered into the spiritual life of the man. On this ground he sees no objection in the so-called mixed marriages, which were, of course, frowned upon by the Catholic Church. In his sermon on "Married Life" he says: "Know therefore that marriage is an outward thing, like any other worldly business. Just as I may eat, drink, sleep, walk, ride, buy, speak, and bargain with a heathen, a Jew, a Turk, or a heretic, so may I also be and remain married to such an one, and I care not one jot for the fool's laws which forbid it.... A heathen is just as much man or woman, well and shapely made by God, as St. Peter, St. Paul, or St. Lucia." Nor did he shrink from applying his views to particular cases, as is instanced by his correspondence with Philip von Hessen, whose constitution appears to have required more than one wife. He here lays down explicitly the doctrine that polygamy and concubinage are not forbidden to Christians, though, in his advice to Philip, he adds the caveat that he should keep the matter dark to the end that offence might not be given. "For," says he, "it matters not, provided one's conscience is right, what others say." In one of his sermons on the Pentateuch[5] we find the words: "It is not forbidden that a man have more than one wife. I would not forbid it to-day, albeit I would not advise it.... Yet neither would I condemn it." Other opinions on the nature of the sexual relation were equally broad; for in one of his writings on monastic celibacy his words plainly indicate his belief that chastity, no more than other fleshly mortifications, was to be considered a divine ordinance for all men or women. In an address to the clergy he says: "A woman not possessed of high and rare grace can no more abstain from a man than from eating, drinking, sleeping, or other natural function. Likewise a man cannot abstain from a woman. The reason is that it is as deeply implanted in our nature to breed children as it is to eat and drink."[6] The worthy Janssen observes in a scandalized tone that Luther, as regards certain matters relating to married life, "gave expression to principles before unheard of in Christian Europe";[7] and the British Nonconformist of to-day, if he reads these "immoral" opinions of the hero of the Reformation, will be disposed to echo the sentiments of the Ultramontane historian.

The relation of the Reformation to the "New Learning" was in Germany not unlike that which existed in the other northern countries of Europe, and notably in England. Whilst the hostility of the latter to the mediaeval Church was very marked, and it was hence disposed to regard the religious Reformation as an ally, this had not proceeded very far before the tendency of the Renaissance spirit was to side with Catholicism against the new theology and dogma, as merely destructive and hostile to culture. The men of the Humanist movement were for the most part Free-thinkers, and it was with them that free-thought first appeared in modern Europe. They therefore had little sympathy with the narrow bigotry of religious reformers, and preferred to remain in touch with the Church, whose then loose and tolerant Catholicism gave freer play to intellectual speculations, provided they steered clear of overt theological heterodoxy, than the newer systems, which, taking theology au grand serieux, tended to regard profane art and learning as more or less superfluous, and spent their whole time in theological wrangles. Nevertheless, there were not wanting men who, influenced at first by the revival of learning, ended by throwing themselves entirely into the Reformation movement, though in these cases they were usually actuated rather by their hatred of the Catholic hierarchy than by any positive religious sentiment.

Of such men Ulrich von Hutten, the descendant of an ancient and influential knightly family, was a noteworthy example. After having already acquired fame as the author of a series of skits in the new Latin and other works of classical scholarship, being also well known as the ardent supporter of Reuchlin in his dispute with the Church, and as the friend and correspondent of the central Humanist figure of the time, Erasmus, he watched with absorbing interest the movement which Luther had inaugurated. Six months after the nailing of the theses at Wittenberg, he writes enthusiastically to a friend respecting the growing ferment in ecclesiastical matters, evidently regarding the new movement as a Kilkenny-cat fight. "The leaders," he says, "are bold and hot, full of courage and zeal. Now they shout and cheer, now they lament and bewail, as loud as they can. They have lately set themselves to write; the printers are getting enough to do. Propositions, corollaries, conclusions, and articles are being sold. For this alone I hope they will mutually destroy each other." "A few days ago a monk was telling me what was going on in Saxony, to which I replied: 'Devour each other in order that ye in turn may be devoured (sic).' Pray Heaven that our enemies may fight each other to the bitter end, and by their obstinacy extinguish each other."

Thus it will be seen that Hutten regarded the Reformation in its earlier stages as merely a monkish squabble, and failed to see the tremendous upheaval of all the old landmarks of ecclesiastical domination which was immanent in it. So soon, however, as he perceived its real significance, he threw himself wholly into the movement. It must not be forgotten, moreover, that, although Hutten's zeal for Humanism made him welcome any attempt to overthrow the power of the clergy and the monks, he had also an eminently political motive for his action in what was, in some respects, the main object of his life, viz. to rescue the "knighthood," or smaller nobility, from having their independence crushed out by the growing powers of the princes of the empire. Probably more than one-third of the manors were held by ecclesiastical dignitaries, so that anything which threatened their possessions and privileges seemed to strike a blow at the very foundations of the Imperial system. Hutten hoped that the new doctrines would set the princes by the ears all round; and that then, by allying themselves with the reforming party, the knighthood might succeed in retaining the privileges which still remained to them, but were rapidly slipping away, and might even regain some of those which had been already lost. It was not till later, however, that Hutten saw matters in this light. He was, at the time the above letter was written, in the service of the Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, the leading favourer of the New Learning amongst the prince-prelates, and it was mainly from the Humanist standpoint that he regarded the beginnings of the Reformation. After leaving the service of the archbishop he struck up a personal friendship with Luther, instigated thereto by his political chief, Franz von Sickingen, the leader of the knighthood, from whom he probably received the first intimation of the importance of the new movement to their common cause.

When, in 1520, the young Emperor, Charles V, was crowned at Aachen, Luther's party, as well as the knighthood, expected that considerable changes would result in a sense favourable to their position from the presumed pliability of the new head of the empire. His youth, it was supposed, would make him more sympathetic to the newer spirit which was rapidly developing itself; and it is true that about the time of his election Charles had shown a transient favour to the "recalcitrant monk." It would appear, however, that this was only for the purpose of frightening the Pope into abandoning his declared intention of abolishing the Inquisition in Spain, then regarded as one of the mainstays of the royal power, and still more to exercise pressure upon him, in order that he should facilitate Charles's designs on the Milanese territory. Once these objects were attained, he was just as ready to oblige the Pope by suppressing the new anti-Papal movement as he might possibly otherwise have been to have favoured it with a view to humbling the only serious rival to his dominion in the empire.

Immediately after his coronation he proceeded to Cologne, and convoked by Imperial edict a Reichstag at Worms for the following 27th of January, 1521. The proceedings of this famous Reichstag have been unfortunately so identified with the edict against Luther that the other important matters which were there discussed have almost fallen into oblivion. At least two other questions were dealt with, however, which are significant of the changes that were then taking place. The first was the rehabilitation and strengthening of the Imperial Governing Council (Reichsregiment), whose functions under Maximilian had been little more than nominal. There was at first a feeling amongst the States in favour of transferring all authority to it, even during the residence of the Emperor in the empire; and in the end, while having granted to it complete power during his absence, it practically retained very much of this power when he was present. In constitution it was very similar to the French "Parliaments," and, like them, was principally composed of learned jurists, four being elected by the Emperor and the remainder by the estates. The character and the great powers of this council, extending even to ecclesiastical matters during the ensuing years, undoubtedly did much to hasten on the substitution of the civil law for the older customary or common law, a matter which we shall consider more in detail later on. The financial condition of the empire was also considered; and it here first became evident that the dislocation of economic conditions, which had begun with the century, would render an enormously increased taxation necessary to maintain the Imperial authority, amounting to five times as much as had previously been required.

It was only after these secular affairs of the empire had been disposed of that the deliberations of the Reichstag on ecclesiastical matters were opened by the indictment of Luther in a long speech by Aleander, one of the papal nuncios, in introducing the Pope's letter. In spite of the efforts of his friends, Luther was not permitted to be present at the beginning of the proceedings; but subsequently he was sent for by the Emperor, in order that he might state his case. His journey to Worms was one long triumph, especially at Erfurt, where he was received with enthusiasm by the Humanists as the enemy of the Papacy. But his presence in the Reichstag was unavailing, and the proceedings resulted in his being placed under the ban of the empire. The safe-conduct of the Emperor was, however, in his case respected; and in spite of the fears of his friends that a like fate might befall him as had befallen Huss after the Council of Constance, he was allowed to depart unmolested.

On his way to Wittenberg Luther was seized, by arrangement with his supporter, the Kurfuerst of Saxony, and conveyed in safety to the Castle of Wartburg, in Thueringen, a report in the meantime being industriously circulated by certain of his adherents, with a view of arousing popular feeling, that he had been arrested by order of the Emperor and was being tortured. In this way he was secured from all danger for the time being, and it was during his subsequent stay that he laid the foundations of the literary language of Germany.

Says a contemporary writer,[8] an eye-witness of what went on at Worms during the sitting of the Reichstag: "All is disorder and confusion. Seldom a night doth pass but that three or four persons be slain. The Emperor hath installed a provost, who hath drowned, hanged, and murdered over a hundred men." He proceeds: "Stabbing, whoring, flesh-eating (it was in Lent) ... altogether there is an orgie worthy of the Venusberg." He further states that many gentlemen and other visitors had drunk themselves to death on the strong Rhenish wine. Aleander was in danger of being murdered by the Lutheran populace, instigated thereto by Hutten's inflammatory letters from the neighbouring Castle of Ebernburg, in which Franz von Sickingen had given him a refuge. The fiery Humanist wrote to Aleander himself, saying that he would leave no stone unturned "till thou who earnest hither full of wrath, madness, crime, and treachery shalt be carried hence a lifeless corpse." Aleander naturally felt exceedingly uncomfortable, and other supporters of the Papal party were not less disturbed at the threats which seemed in a fair way of being carried out. The Emperor himself was without adequate means of withstanding a popular revolt should it occur. He had never been so low in cash or in men as at that moment. On the other hand, Sickingen, to whom he owed money, and who was the only man who could have saved the situation under the circumstances, had matters come to blows, was almost overtly on the side of the Lutherans; while the whole body of the impoverished knighthood were only awaiting a favourable opportunity to overthrow the power of the magnates, secular and ecclesiastic, with Sickingen as a leader. Such was the state of affairs at the beginning of the year 1521.

The ban placed upon Luther by the Reichstag marks the date of the complete rupture between the Reforming party and the old Church. Henceforward, many Humanist and Humanistically influenced persons who had supported him withdrew from the movement and swelled the ranks of the Conservatives. Foremost amongst these were Pirckheimer, the wealthy merchant and scholar of Nuernberg, and many others, who dreaded lest the attack on ecclesiastical property and authority should, as indeed was the case, issue in a general attack on all property and authority. Thomas Murner, also, who was the type of the "moderate" of the situation, while professing to disapprove of the abuses of the Church, declared that Luther's manner of agitation could only lead to the destruction of all order, civil no less than ecclesiastical. The two parties were now clearly defined, and the points at issue were plainly irreconcilable with one another or involved irreconcilable details.

The printing-press now for the first time appeared as the vehicle for popular literature; the art of the bard gave place to the art of the typographer, and the art of the preacher saw confronting it a formidable rival in that of the pamphleteer. Similarly in the French Revolution, modern journalism, till then unimportant and sporadic, received its first great development, and began seriously to displace alike the preacher, the pamphlet, and the broadside. The flood of theological disquisitions, satires, dialogues, sermons, which now poured from every press in Germany, overflowed into all classes of society. These writings are so characteristic of the time that it is worth while devoting a few pages to their consideration, the more especially because it will afford us the opportunity for considering other changes in that spirit of the age, partly diseased growths of decaying mediaevalism and partly the beginnings of the modern critical spirit, which also find expression in the literature of the Reformation period.


[5] Saemmtliche Werke, vol. xxxiii. pp. 322-4.

[6] Quoted in Janssen, Ein Zweites Wort an meine Kritiker 1883, p. 94.

[7] Geschichte des Deutschen Volkes, vol. ii. p. 115.

[8] Quoted in Janssen, bk. ii. 162.



In accordance with the conventional view the Reichstag at Worms was a landmark in the history of the Reformation. This is, however, only true as regards the political side of the movement. The popular feeling was really quite continuous, at least from 1517 to 1525. With the latter year and the collapse of the peasant revolt a change is noticeable. In 1525 the Reformation, as a great upstirring of the popular mind of Central Europe, in contradistinction to its character as an academic and purely political movement, reached high-water mark, and may almost be said to have exhausted itself. Until the latter year it was purely a revolutionary movement, attracting to itself all the disruptive elements of its time. Later, the reactionary possibilities within it declared themselves. The emancipation from the thraldom of the Catholic hierarchy and its Papal head, it was soon found, meant not emancipation from the arbitrary tyranny of the new political and centralizing authorities then springing up, but, on the contrary, rather their consecration. The ultimate outcome, in fact, of the whole business was, as we shall see later on, the inculcation of the non-resistance theory as regards the civil power, and the clearing of the way for its extremest expression in the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, a theory utterly alien to the belief and practice of the Mediaeval Church.

The Reichstag of Worms, by cutting off all possibility of reconciliation, rather gave further edge to the popular revolutionary side of the movement than otherwise. The whole progress of the change in public feeling is plainly traceable in the mass of ephemeral literature that has come down to us from this period, broadsides, pamphlets, satires, folk-songs, and the rest. The anonymous literature to which we more especially refer is distinguished by its coarse brutality and humour, even in the writings of the Reformers, which were themselves in no case remarkable for the suavity of their polemic.

Hutten, in some of his later vernacular poems, approaches the character of the less-cultured broadside literature. To the critical mind it is somewhat amusing to note the enthusiasm with which the modern Dissenting and Puritan class contemplates the period of which we are writing—an enthusiasm that would probably be effectively damped if the laudators of the Reformation knew the real character of the movement and of its principal actors.

The first attacks made by the broadside literature were naturally directed against the simony and benefice-grabbing of the clergy, a characteristic of the priestly office that has always powerfully appealed to the popular mind. Thus the "Courtisan and Benefice-eater" attacks the parasite of the Roman Court, who absorbs ecclesiastical revenues wholesale, putting in perfunctory locum tenens on the cheap, and begins:—

I'm fairly called a Simonist and eke a Courtisan, And here to every peasant and every common man My knavery will very well appear. I called and cried to all who'd give me ear, To nobleman and knight and all above me: "Behold me! And ye'll find I'll truly love ye."

In another we read:—

The Paternoster teaches well How one for another his prayers should tell, Thro' brotherly love and not for gold, And good those same prayers God doth hold. So too saith Holy Paul right clearly, Each shall his brother's load bear dearly.

But now, it declares, all that is changed. Now we are being taught just the opposite of God's teachings:—

Such doctrine hath the priests increased, Whom men as masters now must feast, 'Fore all the crowd of Simonists, Whose waxing number no man wists, The towns and thorps seem full of them, And in all lands they're seen with shame. Their violence and knavery Leave not a church or living free.

A prose pamphlet, apparently published about the summer of 1520, shortly after Luther's ex-communication, was the so-called "Wolf Song" (Wolf-gesang), which paints the enemies of Luther as wolves. It begins with a screed on the creation and fall of Adam, and a dissertation on the dogma of the Redemption; and then proceeds: "As one might say, dear brother, instruct me, for there is now in our times so great commotion in faith come upon us. There is one in Saxony who is called Luther, of whom many pious and honest folk tell how that he doth write so consolingly the good evangelical (evangelische) truth. But again I hear that the Pope and the cardinals at Rome have put him under the ban as a heretic; and certain of our own preachers, too, scold him from their pulpits as a knave, a misleader, and a heretic. I am utterly confounded, and know not where to turn; albeit my reason and heart do speak to me even as Luther writeth. But yet again it bethinks me that when the Pope, the cardinal, the bishop, the doctor, the monk, and the priest, for the greater part are against him, and so that all save the common men and a few gentlemen, doctors, councillors, and knights, are his adversaries, what shall I do?" "For answer, dear friend, get thee back and search the Scriptures, and thou shalt find that so it hath gone with all the holy prophets even as it now fareth with Doctor Martin Luther, who is in truth a godly Christian and manly heart and only true Pope and Apostle, when he the true office of the Apostles publicly fulfilleth.... If the godly man Luther were pleasing to the world, that were indeed a true sign that his doctrine were not from God; for the word of God is a fiery sword, a hammer that breaketh in pieces the rocks, and not a fox's tail or a reed that may be bent according to our pleasure." Seventeen noxious qualities of the wolf are adduced—his ravenousness, his cunning, his falseness, his cowardice, his thirst for robbery, amongst others. The Popes, the cardinals, and the bishops are compared to the wolves in all their attributes: "The greater his pomp and splendour, the more shouldst thou beware of such an one; for he is a wolf that cometh in the shape of a good shepherd's dog. Beware! it is against the custom of Christ and His Apostles." It is again but the song of the wolves when they claim to mix themselves with worldly affairs and maintain the temporal supremacy. The greediness of the wolf is discernible in the means adopted to get money for the building of St. Peter's. The interlocutor is warned against giving to mendicant priests and monks.

We have given this as a specimen of the almost purely theological pamphlet; although, as will have been evident, even this is directly connected with the material abuses from which the people were suffering. Another pamphlet of about the same date deals with usury, the burden of which had been greatly increased by the growth of the new commercial combinations already referred to in the Introduction, which combinations Dr. Eck had been defending at Bologna on theological grounds, in order to curry favour with the Augsburg merchant-prince, Fuggerschwatz.[9] It is called "Concerning Dues. Hither comes a poor peasant to a rich citizen. A priest comes also thereby, and then a monk. Full pleasant to read." A peasant visits a burgher when he is counting money, and asks him where he gets it all from. "My dear peasant," says the townsman, "thou askest me who gave me this money. I will tell thee. There cometh hither a peasant, and beggeth me to lend him ten or twenty gulden. Thereupon I ask him an he possesseth not a goodly meadow or corn-field. 'Yea! good sir!' saith he, 'I have indeed a good meadow and a good corn-field. The twain are worth a hundred gulden.' Then say I to him: 'Good, my friend, wilt thou pledge me thy holding? and an thou givest me one gulden of thy money every year I will lend thee twenty gulden now.' Then is the peasant right glad, and saith he: 'Willingly will I pledge it thee.' 'I will warn thee,' say I, 'that an thou furnishest not the one gulden of money each year, I will take thy holding for my own having.' Therewith is the peasant well content, and writeth him down accordingly. I lend him the money; he payeth me one year, or may be twain, the due; thereafter can he no longer furnish it, and thereupon I take the holding, and drive away the peasant therefrom. Thus I get the holding and the money. The same things do I with handicraftsmen. Hath he a good house? He pledgeth that house until I bring it behind me. Therewith gain I much in goods and money, and thus do I pass my days." "I thought," rejoined the peasant, "that 'twere only the Jew who did usury, but I hear that ye also ply that trade." The burgher answers that interest is not usury, to which the peasant replies that interest (Guelt) is only a "subtle name." The burgher then quotes Scripture, as commanding men to help one another. The peasant readily answers that in doing this they have no right to get advantage from the assistance they proffer. "Thou art a good fellow!" says the townsman. "If I take no money for the money that I lend, how shall I then increase my hoard?" The peasant then reproaches him that he sees well that his object in life is to wax fat on the substance of others; "But I tell thee, indeed," he says, "that it is a great and heavy sin." Whereupon his opponent waxes wroth, and will have nothing more to do with him, threatening to kick him out in the name of a thousand devils; but the peasant returns to the charge, and expresses his opinion that rich men do not willingly hear the truth. A priest now enters, and to him the townsman explains the dispute. "Dear peasant," says the priest, "wherefore camest thou hither, that thou shouldst make of a due[10] usury? May not a man buy with his money what he will?" But the peasant stands by his previous assertion, demanding how anything can be considered as bought which is only a pledge. "We priests," replies the ecclesiastic, "must perforce lend moneys for dues, since thereby we get our living"; to which, after sundry ejaculations of surprise, the peasant retorts: "Who gave to you the power? I well hear ye have another God than we poor people. We have our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath forbidden such money-lending for gain." Hence it comes, he goes on, that land is no longer free; to attempt to whitewash usury under the name of due or interest, he says, is just the same as if one were to call a child christened Friedrich or Hansel, Fritz or Hans, and then maintain it was no longer the same child. They require no more Jews, he says, since the Christians have taken their business in hand. The townsman is once more about to turn the peasant out of his house when a monk enters. He then lays the matter before the new-comer, who promises to talk the peasant over with soft words; for, says he, there is nothing accomplished with vainglory. He thereupon takes him aside and explains it to him by the illustration of a merchant whose gain on the wares he sells is not called usury, and argues that therefore other forms of gain in business should not be described by this odious name. But the peasant will have none of this comparison; for the merchant, he says, needs to incur much risk in order to gain and traffic with his wares; while money-lending on security is, on the other hand, without risk or labour, and is a treacherous mode of cheating. Finding that they can make nothing of the obstinate countryman, the others leave him; but he, as a parting shot, exclaims: "Ah, well-a-day! I would to have talked with thee at first, but it is now ended. Farewell, gracious sir, and my other kind sirs. I, poor little peasant, I go my way. Farewell, farewell, due remains usury for ever more. Yea, yea! due, indeed!"

The above specimens of the popular writing of the time must suffice. But for the reader who wishes to further study this literature we give the titles, which sufficiently indicate their contents, of a selection of other similar pamphlets and broadsheets: "A New Epistle from the Evil Clergy sent to their righteous Lord, with an answer from their Lord. Most merry to read" (1521). "A Great Prize which the Prince of Hell, hight Lucifer, now offereth to the Clergy, to the Pope, Bishops, Cardinals, and their like" (1521). "A Written Call, made by the Prince of Hell to his dear devoted, of all and every condition in his kingdom" (1521). "Dialogue or Converse of the Apostolicum, Angelica, and other spices of the Druggist, anent Dr. Martin Luther and his disciples" (1521). "A Very Pleasant Dialogue and Remonstrance from the Sheriff of Gaissdorf and his pupil against the pastor of the same and his assistant" (1521). The popularity of "Karsthans," an anonymous tract, amongst the people is illustrated by the publication and wide distribution of a new "Karsthans" a few months later, in which it is sought to show that the knighthood should make common cause with the peasants, the dramatis personae being Karsthans and Franz von Sickingen. Referring to the same subject we find a "Dialogue which Franciscus von Sickingen held fore heaven's gate with St. Peter and the Knights of St. George before he was let in." This was published in 1523, almost immediately after the death of Sickingen. "A Talk between a Nobleman, a Monk, and a Courtier" (1523). "A Talk between a Fox and a Wolf" (1523). "A Pleasant Dialogue between Dr. Martin Luther and the cunning Messenger from Hell" (1523). "A Conversation of the Pope with his Cardinals of how it goeth with him, and how he may destroy the Word of God. Let every man very well note" (1523). "A Christian and Merry Talk, that it is more pleasing to God and more wholesome for men to come out of the monasteries and to marry, than to tarry therein and to burn; which talk is not with human folly and the false teachings thereof, but is founded alone in the holy, divine, biblical, and evangelical Scripture" (1524). "A Pleasant Dialogue of a Peasant with a Monk that he should cast his Cowl from him. Merry and fair to read" (1525).

The above is only a selection taken haphazard from the mass of fugitive literature which the early years of the Reformation brought forth. In spite of a certain rough but not unattractive directness of diction, a prolonged reading of them is very tedious, as will have been sufficiently seen from the extracts we have given. Their humour is of a particularly juvenile and obvious character, and consists almost entirely in the childish device of clothing the personages with ridiculous but non-essential attributes, or in placing them in grotesque but pointless situations. Of the more subtle humour, which consists in the discovery of real but hidden incongruities, and the perception of what is innately absurd, there is no trace. The obvious abuses of the time are satirized in this way ad nauseam. The rapacity of the clergy in general, the idleness and lasciviousness of the monks, the pomp and luxury of the prince-prelates, the inconsistencies of Church traditions and practices with Scripture, with which they could now be compared, since it was everywhere circulated in the vulgar tongue, form their never-ending theme. They reveal to the reader a state of things that strikes one none the less in English literature of the period—the intense interest of all classes in theological matters. It shows us how they looked at all things through a theological lens. Although we have left this phase of popular thought so recently behind us, we can even now scarcely imagine ourselves back into it. The idea of ordinary men, or of the vast majority, holding their religion as anything else than a very pious opinion absolutely unconnected with their daily life, public or private, has already become almost inconceivable to us. In all the writings of the time, the theological interest is in the forefront. The economic and social groundwork only casually reveals itself. This it is that makes the reading of the sixteenth-century polemics so insufferably jejune and dreary. They bring before us the ghosts of controversies in which most men have ceased to take any part, albeit they have not been dead and forgotten long enough to have acquired a revived antiquarian interest.

The great bombshell which Luther cast forth on June 24, 1520, in his address to the German nobility,[11] indeed, contains strong appeals to the economical and political necessities of Germany, and therein we see the veil torn from the half-unconscious motives that lay behind the theological mask; but, as already said, in the popular literature, with a few exceptions, the theological controversy rules undisputed.

The noticeable feature of all this irruption of the cacoethes scribendi was the direct appeal to the Bible for the settlement not only of strictly theological controversies but of points of social and political ethics also. This practice, which even to the modern Protestant seems insipid and played out after three centuries and a half of wear, had at that time the to us inconceivable charm of novelty; and the perusal of the literature and controversies of the time shows that men used it with all the delight of a child with a new toy, and seemed never tired of the game of searching out texts to justify their position. The diffusion of the whole Bible in the vernacular, itself a consequence of the rebellion against priestly tradition and the authority of the Fathers, intensified the revolt by making the pastime possible to all ranks of society.


[9] See Appendix C.

[10] We use the word "due" here for the German word Guelt. The corresponding English of the time does not make any distinction between Guelt or interest, and Wucher or usury.

[11] An der Christlichen Adel deutscher Nation.



Now in the hands of all men, the Bible was not made the basis of doctrinal opinions alone. It lent its support to many of the popular superstitions of the time, and in addition it served as the starting-point for new superstitions and for new developments of the older ones. The Pan-daemonism of the New Testament, with its wonder-workings by devilish agencies, its exorcisms of evil spirits and the like, could not fail to have a deep effect on the popular mind. The authority that the book believed to be divinely inspired necessarily lent to such beliefs gave a vividness to the popular conception of the devil and his angels, which is apparent throughout the whole movement of the Reformation, and not least in the utterances of the great Luther himself. Indeed, with the Reformation there comes a complete change over the popular conception of the devil and diabolical influences.

It is true that the judicial pursuit of witches and witchcraft, in the earlier Middle Ages only a sporadic incident, received a great impulse from the Bull of Pope Innocent VIII (Dec. 5, 1484), entitled Summis Desideruntes, to which has been given the title of Malleus Maleficorum, or The Hammer of Sorcerers, directed against the practice of witchcraft; but it was especially amongst the men of the New Spirit that the belief in the prevalence of compacts with the devil, and the necessity for suppressing them, took root, and led to the horrible persecutions that distinguished the "Reformed" Churches on the whole even more than the Catholic.

Luther himself had a vivid belief, tinging all his views and actions, in the ubiquity of the devil and his myrmidons. "The devils," says he, "are near us, and do cunningly contrive every moment without ceasing against our life, our salvation, and our blessedness.... In woods, waters, and wastes, and in damp, marshy places, there are many devils that seek to harm men. In the black and thick clouds, too, there are some that make storms, hail, lightning, and thunder, that poison the air and the pastures. When such things happen, the philosophers and the physicians ascribe them to the stars, and show I know not what causes for such misfortunes and plagues." Luther relates numerous instances of personal encounters that he himself had had with the devil. A nobleman invited him, with other learned men from the University of Wittenberg, to take part in a hare hunt. A large, fine hare and a fox crossed the path. The nobleman, mounted on a strong, healthy steed, dashed after them, when, suddenly, his horse fell dead beneath him, and the fox and the hare flew up in the air and vanished. "For," says Luther, "they were devilish spectres."

Again, on another occasion, he was at Eisleben on the occasion of another hare-hunt, when the nobleman succeeded in killing eight hares, which were, on their return home, duly hung up for the next day's meal. On the following morning, horses' heads were found in their place. "In mines," says Luther, "the devil oftentimes deceives men with a false appearance of gold." All disease and all misfortune were the direct work of the devil; God, who was all good, could not produce either. Luther gives a long history of how he was called to a parish priest, who complained of the devil's having created a disturbance in his house by throwing the pots and pans about, and so forth, and of how he advised the priest to exorcise the fiend by invoking his own authority as a pastor of the Church.

At the Wartburg, Luther complained of having been very much troubled by the Satanic arts. When he was at work upon his translation of the Bible, or upon his sermons, or engaged in his devotions, the devil was always making disturbances on the stairs or in the room. One day, after a hard spell of study, he lay down to sleep in his bed, when the devil began pelting him with hazel-nuts, a sack of which had been brought to him a few hours before by an attendant. He invoked, however, the name of Christ, and lay down again in bed. There were other more curious and more doubtful recipes for driving away Satan and his emissaries. Luther is never tired of urging that contemptuous treatment and rude chaff are among the most efficacious methods.

There was, he relates, a poor soothsayer, to whom the devil came in visible form, and offered great wealth provided that he would deny Christ and never more do penance. The devil provided him with a crystal, by which he could foretell events, and thus become rich. This he did; but Nemesis awaited him, for the devil deceived him one day, and caused him to denounce certain innocent persons as thieves. In consequence, he was thrown into prison, where he revealed the compact that he had made, and called for a confessor. The two chief forms in which the devil appeared were, according to Luther, those of a snake and a sheep. He further goes into the question of the population of devils in different countries. On the top of the Pilatus at Luzern, he says, is a black pond, which is one of the devil's favourite abodes. In Luther's own country there is also a high mountain, the Poltersberg, with a similar pond. When a stone is thrown into this pond, a great tempest arises, which often devastates the whole neighbourhood. He also alleges Prussia to be full of evil spirits (!!).

Devilish changelings, Luther said, were often placed by Satan in the cradles of human children. "Some maids he often plunges into the water, and keeps them with him until they have borne a child." These children are placed in the beds of mortals, and the true children are taken out and hurried away. "But," he adds, "such changelings are said not to live more than to the eighteenth or nineteenth year." As a practical application of this, it may be mentioned that Luther advised the drowning of a certain child of twelve years old, on the ground of its being a devil's changeling. Somnambulism is, with Luther, the result of diabolical agency. "Formerly," says he, "the Papists, being superstitious people, alleged that persons thus afflicted had not been properly baptized, or had been baptized by a drunken priest." The irony of the reference to superstition, considering the "great reformer's" own position, will not be lost upon the reader.

Thus, not only is the devil the cause of pestilence, but he is also the immediate agent of nightmare and of nightsweats. At Moelburg in Thueringen, near Erfurt, a piper, who was accustomed to pipe at weddings, complained to his priest that the devil had threatened to carry him away and destroy him, on the ground of a practical joke played upon some companions, to wit, for having mixed horse-dung with their wine at a drinking bout. The priest consoled him with many passages of Scripture anent the devil and his ways, with the result that the piper expressed himself satisfied as regarded the welfare of his soul, but apprehensive as regarded that of his body, which was, he asserted, hopelessly the prey of the devil. In consequence of this, he insisted on partaking of the Sacrament. The devil had indicated to him when he was going to be fetched, and watchers were accordingly placed in his room, who sat in their armour and with their weapons, and read the Bible to him. Finally, one Saturday at midnight, a violent storm arose, that blew out the lights in the room, and hurled the luckless victim out of a narrow window into the street. The sound of fighting and of armed men was heard, but the piper had disappeared. The next morning he was found in a neighbouring ditch, with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross, dead and coal-black. Luther vouches for the truth of this story, which he alleges to have been told him by a parish priest of Gotha, who had himself heard it from the parish priest of Moelburg, where the event was said to have taken place.

Amongst the numerous anecdotes of a supernatural character told by "Dr. Martin" is one of a "Poltergeist," or "Robin Goodfellow," who was exorcised by two monks from the guest-chamber of an inn, and who offered his services to them in the monastery. They gave him a corner in the kitchen. The serving-boy used to torment him by throwing dirty water over him. After unavailing protests, the spirit hung the boy up to a beam, but let him down again before serious harm resulted. Luther states that this "brownie" was well known by sight in the neighbouring town (the name of which he does not give). But by far the larger number of his stories, which, be it observed, are warranted as ordinary occurrences, as to the possibility of which there was no question, are coloured by that more sinister side of supernaturalism so much emphasised by the new theology.

The mediaeval devil was, for the most part, himself little more than a prankish Ruebezahl, or Robin Goodfellow; the new Satan of the Reformers was, in very deed, an arch-fiend, the enemy of the human race, with whom no truce or parley might be held. The old folklore belief in incubi and succubi as the parents of changelings is brought into connection with the theory of direct diabolic begettal. Thus Luther relates how Friedrich, the Elector of Saxony, told him of a noble family that had sprung from a succubus: "Just," says he, "as the Melusina at Luxembourg was also such a succubus, or devil." In the case referred to, the succubus assumed the shape of the man's dead wife, and lived with him and bore him children, until, one day, he swore at her, when she vanished, leaving only her clothes behind. After giving it as his opinion that all such beings and their offspring are wiles of the devil, he proceeds: "It is truly a grievous thing that the devil can so plague men that he begetteth children in their likeness. It is even so with the nixies in the water, that lure a man therein, in the shape of wife or maid, with whom he doth dally and begetteth offspring of them." The change whereby the beings of the old naive folklore are transformed into the devil or his agents is significant of that darker side of the new theology, which was destined to issue in those horrors of the witchcraft-mania that reached their height at the beginning of the following century.

One more story of a "changeling" before we leave the subject. Luther gives us the following as having come to his knowledge near Halberstadt, in Saxony. A peasant had a baby, who sucked out its mother and five nurses, besides eating a great deal. Concluding that it was a changeling, the peasant sought the advice of his neighbours, who suggested that he should take it on a pilgrimage to a neighbouring shrine of the Mother of God. While he was crossing a brook on the way an impish voice from under the water called out to the infant, whom he was carrying in a basket. The brat answered from within the basket, "Ho, ho!" and the peasant was unspeakably shocked. When the voice from the water proceeded to ask the child what it was after, and received the answer from the hitherto inarticulate babe that it was going to be laid on the shrine of the Mother of God, to the end that it might prosper, the peasant could stand it no longer, and flung basket and baby into the brook. The changeling and the little devil played for a few moments with each other, rolling over and over, and crying, "Ho, ho, ho!" and then they disappeared together. Luther says that these devilish brats may be generally known by their eating and drinking too much, and especially by their exhausting their mother's milk, but they may not develop any certain signs of their true parentage until eighteen or nineteen years old. The Princess of Anhalt had a child which Luther imagined to be a changeling, and he therefore advised its being drowned, alleging that such creatures were only lumps of flesh animated by the devil or his angels. Some one spoke of a monster which infested the Netherlands, and which went about smelling at people like a dog, and whoever it smelt died. But those that were smelt did not see it, albeit the bystanders did. The people had recourse to vigils and masses. Luther improved the occasion to protest against the "superstition" of masses for the dead, and to insist upon his favourite dogma of faith as the true defence against assaults of the devil.

Among the numerous stories of Satanic compacts, we are told of a monk who ate up a load of hay, of a debtor who bit off the leg of his Hebrew creditor and ran off to avoid payment, and of a woman who bewitched her husband so that he vomited lizards. Luther observes, with especial reference to this last case, that lawyers and judges were far too pedantic with their witnesses and with their evidence; that the devil hardens his clients against torture, and that the refusal to confess under torture ought to be of itself sufficient proof of dealings with the Prince of Darkness. "Towards such," says he, "we would show no mercy; I would burn them myself." Black magic or witchcraft he proceeds to characterize as the greatest sin a human being can be guilty of, as, in fact, high treason against God Himself—crimen laesae majestatis divinae.

The conversation closes with a story of how Maximilian's father, the Emperor Friedrich, who seems to have obtained a reputation for magic arts, invited a well-known magician to a banquet, and on his arrival fixed claws on his hands and hoofs on his feet by his cunning. His guest, being ashamed, tried to hide the claws under the table as long as he could, but finally he had to show them, to his great discomfiture. But he determined to have his revenge, and asked his host whether he would permit him to give proofs of his own skill. The Emperor assenting, there at once arose a great noise outside the window. Friedrich sprang up from the table, and leaned out of the casement to see what was the matter. Immediately an enormous pair of stag's horns appeared on his head, so that he could not draw it back. Finding the state of the case, the Emperor exclaimed: "Rid me of them again! Thou hast won!" Luther's comment on this was that he was always glad to see one devil getting the better of another, as it showed that some were stronger than others.

All this belongs, roughly speaking, to the side of the matter which regards popular theology; but there is another side which is connected more especially with the New Learning. This other school, which sought to bring the somewhat elastic elements of the magical theory of the universe into the semblance of a systematic whole, is associated with such names as those of Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, and the Abbot von Trittenheim. The fame of the first-named was so great throughout Germany that when he visited any town the occasion was looked upon as an event of exceeding importance.[12] Paracelsus fully shared in the beliefs of his age, in spite of his brilliant insights on certain occasions. What his science was like may be imagined when we learn that he seriously speaks of animals who conceive through the mouth of basilisks whose glance is deadly, of petrified storks changed into snakes, of the stillborn young of the lion which are afterwards brought to life by the roar of their sire, of frogs falling in a shower of rain, of ducks transformed into frogs, and of men born from beasts; the menstruation of women he regarded as a venom whence proceeded flies, spiders, earwigs, and all sorts of loathsome vermin; night was caused, not by the absence of the sun, but by the presence of the stars, which were the positive cause of the darkness. He relates having seen a magnet capable of attracting the eyeball from its socket as far as the tip of the nose; he knows of salves to close the mouth so effectually that it has to be broken open again by mechanical means, and he writes learnedly on the infallible signs of witchcraft. By mixing horse-dung with human semen he believed he was able to produce a medium from which, by chemical treatment in a retort, a diminutive human being, or homunculus, as he called it, could be produced. The spirits of the elements, the sylphs of the air, the gnomes of the earth, the salamanders of the fire, and the undines of the water, were to him real and undoubted existences in Nature.

Strange as all these beliefs seem to us now, they were a very real factor in the intellectual conceptions of the Renaissance period, no less than of the Middle Ages, and amidst them there is to be found at times a foreshadowing of more modern knowledge. Many other persons were also more or less associated with the magical school, amongst them Franz von Sickingen. Reuchlin himself, by his Hebrew studies, and especially by his introduction of the Kabbala to Gentile readers, also contributed a not unimportant influence in determining the course of the movement. The line between the so-called black magic, or operations conducted through the direct agency of evil spirits, and white magic, which sought to subject Nature to the human will by the discovery of her mystical and secret laws, or the character of the quasi-personified intelligent principles under whose form Nature presented herself to their minds, had never throughout the Middle Ages been very clearly defined. The one always had a tendency to shade off into the other, so that even Roger Bacon's practices were, although not condemned, at least looked upon somewhat doubtfully by the Church. At the time of which we treat, however, the interest in such matters had become universal amongst all intelligent persons. The scientific imagination at the close of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance period was mainly occupied with three questions: the discovery of the means of transmuting the baser metals into gold, or otherwise of producing that object of universal desire; to discover the Elixir Vitae, by which was generally understood the invention of a drug which would have the effect of curing all diseases, restoring man to perennial youth, and, in short, prolonging human life indefinitely; and, finally, the search for the Philosopher's Stone, the happy possessor of which would not only be able to achieve the first two, but also, since it was supposed to contain the quintessence of all the metals, and therefore of all the planetary influences to which the metals corresponded, would have at his command all the forces which mould the destinies of men. In especial connection with the latter object of research may be noted the universal interest in astrology, whose practitioners were to be found at every Court, from that of the Emperor himself to that of the most insignificant prince or princelet, and whose advice was sought and carefully heeded on all important occasions. Alchemy and astrology were thus the recognized physical sciences of the age, under the auspices of which a Copernicus and a Tycho Brahe were born and educated.


[12] Cf. Sebastian Franck, Chronica, for an account of a visit of Paracelsus to Nuernberg.



From what has been said the reader may form for himself an idea of the intellectual and social life of the German town of the period. The wealthy patrician class, whose mainstay politically was the Rath, gave the social tone to the whole. In spite of the sharp and sometimes brutal fashion in which class distinctions asserted themselves then, as throughout the Middle Ages, there was none of that aloofness between class and class which characterizes the bourgeois society of the present day. Each town, were it great or small, was a little world in itself, so that every citizen knew every other citizen more or less. The schools attached to its ecclesiastical institutions were practically free of access to all the children whose parents could find the means to maintain them during their studies; and consequently the intellectual differences between the different classes were by no means necessarily proportionate to the difference in social position. So far as culture and material prosperity were concerned, the towns of Bavaria and Franconia, Munich, Augsburg, Regensburg, and perhaps, above all, Nuernberg, represented the high-water mark of mediaeval civilization as regards town life. On entering the burg, should it have happened to be in time of peace and in daylight, the stranger would clear the drawbridge and the portcullis without much challenge; passing along streets lined with the houses and shops of the burghers, in whose open frontages the master and his apprentices and gesellen plied their trades, discussing eagerly over their work the politics of the town, and at this period probably the theological questions which were uppermost in men's minds, our visitor would make his way to some hostelry, in whose courtyard he would dismount from his horse, and, entering the common room, or Stube, with its rough but artistic furniture of carved oak, partake of his flagon of wine or beer, according to the district in which he was travelling, whilst the host cracked a rough and possibly coarse jest with the other guests, or narrated to them the latest gossip of the city. The stranger would probably find himself before long the object of interrogatories respecting his native place and the object of his journey (although his dress would doubtless have given general evidence of this), whether he were a merchant or a travelling scholar or a practiser of medicine; for into one of those categories it might be presumed the humble but not servile traveller would fall. Were he on a diplomatic mission from some potentate he would be travelling at the least as a knight or a noble, with spurs and armour, and, moreover, would be little likely to lodge in a public house of entertainment.

In the Stube he would probably see, drinking heavily, representatives of the ubiquitous Landsknechte, the mercenary troops enrolled for Imperial purposes by the Emperor Maximilian towards the end of the previous century, who in the intervals of war were disbanded and wandered about spending their pay, and thus constituted an excessively disintegrative element in the life of the time. A contemporary writer[13] describes them as the curse of Germany, and stigmatizes them as "unchristian, God-forsaken folk, whose hand is ever ready in striking, stabbing, robbing, burning, slaying, gaming, who delight in wine-bibbing, whoring, blaspheming, and in the making of widows and orphans."

Presently, perhaps, a noise without indicates the arrival of a new guest. All hurry forth into the courtyard, and their curiosity is more keenly whetted when they perceive by the yellow knitted scarf round the neck of the new-comer that he is an itinerans scholasticus, or travelling scholar, who brings with him not only the possibility of news from the outer world, so important in an age when journals were non-existent and communications irregular and deficient, but also a chance of beholding wonder-workings, as well as of being cured of the ailments which local skill had treated in vain. Already surrounded by a crowd of admirers waiting for the words of wisdom to fall from his lips, he would start on that exordium which bore no little resemblance to the patter of the modern quack, albeit interlarded with many a Latin quotation and great display of mediaeval learning. "Good people and worthy citizens of this town," he might say, "behold in me the great master ... prince of necromancers, astrologer, second mage, chiromancer, agromancer, pyromancer, hydromancer. My learning is so profound that were all the works of Plato and Aristotle lost to the world I could from memory restore them with more elegance than before. The miracles of Christ were not so great as those which I can perform wherever and as often as I will. Of all alchemists I am the first, and my powers are such that I can obtain all things that man desires. My shoe-buckles contain more learning than the heads of Galen and Avicenna, and my beard has more experience than all your high schools. I am monarch of all learning. I can heal you of all diseases. By my secret arts I can procure you wealth. I am the philosopher of philosophers. I can provide you with spells to bind the most potent of the devils in hell. I can cast your nativities and foretell all that shall befall you, since I have that which can unlock the secrets of all things that have been, that are, and that are to come."[14] Bringing forth strange-looking phials, covered with cabalistic signs, a crystal globe and an astro-labe, followed by an imposing scroll of parchment inscribed with mysterious Hebraic-looking characters, the travelling student would probably drive a roaring trade amongst the assembled townsmen in love-philtres, cures for the ague and the plague, and amulets against them, horoscopes, predictions of fate, and the rest of his stock-in-trade.

As evening approaches, our traveller strolls forth into the streets and narrow lanes of the town, lined with overhanging gables that almost meet overhead and shut out the light of the afternoon sun, so that twilight seems already to have fallen. Observing that the burghers, with their wives and children, the work of the day being done, are all wending toward the western gate, he goes along with the stream till, passing underneath the heavy portcullis and through the outer rampart, he finds himself in the plain outside, across which a rugged bridle-path leads to a large quadrangular meadow, rough and more or less worn, where a considerable crowd has already assembled. This is the Allerwiese, or public pleasure-ground of the town. Here there are not only high festivities on Sundays and holidays, but every fine evening in summer numbers of citizens gather together to watch the apprentices exercising their strength in athletic feats, and competing with one another in various sports, such as running, wrestling, spear-throwing, sword-play, and the like, wherein the inferior rank sought to imitate and even emulate the knighthood, whilst the daughters of the city watched their progress with keen interest and applauding laughter. As the shadows deepen and darkness falls upon the plain, our visitor joins the groups which are now fast leaving the meadow, and re-passes the great embrasure just as the rushlights begin to twinkle in the windows and a swinging oil-lamp to cast a dim light here and there in the streets. But as his company passes out of a narrow lane debouching on to the chief market-place, their progress is stopped by the sudden rush of a mingled crowd of unruly apprentices and journeymen returning from their sports, with hot heads well beliquored. Then from another side-street there is a sudden flare of torches, borne aloft by guildsmen come out to quell the tumult and to send off the apprentices to their dwellings, whilst the watch also bears down and carries off some of the more turbulent of the journeymen to pass the night in one of the towers which guard the city wall. At last, however, the visitor reaches his inn by the aid of a friendly guildsman and his torch; and retiring to his chamber, with its straw-covered floor, rough oaken bedstead, hard mattress, and coverings not much better than horse-cloths, he falls asleep as the bell of the minster tolls out ten o'clock over the now dark and silent city.

Such approximately would have been the view of a German city in the sixteenth century as presented to a traveller in a time of peace. More stirring times, however, were as frequent—times when the tocsin rang out from the steeple all night long, calling the citizens to arms. By such scenes, needless to say, the year of the Peasants' War was more than usually characterized. In the days when every man carried arms and knew how to use them, when the fighting instinct was imbibed with the mother's milk, when every week saw some street brawl, often attended by loss of life, and that by no means always among the most worthless and dissolute of the inhabitants, every dissatisfaction immediately turned itself into an armed revolt, whether it were of the apprentices or the journeymen against the guild-masters, the body of the townsmen against the patriciate, the town itself against its feudal superior, where it had one, or of the knighthood against the princes. The extremity to which disputes can at present be carried without resulting in a breach of the peace, as evinced in modern political and trade conflicts, exacerbated though some of them are, was a thing unknown in the Middle Ages, and indeed to any considerable extent until comparatively recent times. The sacred right of insurrection was then a recognized fact of life, and but very little straining of a dispute led to a resort to arms. In the subsequent chapters we have to deal with the more important of those outbursts to which the ferment due to the dissolution of the mediaeval system of things, then beginning throughout Central Europe, gave rise, of which the religious side is represented by what is known as the Reformation.


[13] Sebastian Franck, Chronica, ccxvii.

[14] Cf. Trittheim's letter to Wirdung of Hasfurt regarding Faust. J. Tritthemii Epistolarum Familiarum, 1536, bk. ii. ep. 47; also the works of Paracelsus.



For the complete understanding of the events which follow it must be borne in mind that the early sixteenth century represents the end of a distinct historical period; and, as we have pointed out in the Introduction, the expiring effort, half-conscious and half-unconscious, of the people to revert to the conditions of an earlier age. Nor can the significance be properly gauged unless a clear conception is obtained of the differences between country and town life at the beginning of the sixteenth century. From the earliest periods of the Middle Ages of which we have any historical record, the Markgenossenschaft, or primitive village community of the Germanic race, was overlaid by a territorial domination, imposed upon it either directly by conquest or voluntarily accepted for the sake of the protection indispensable in that rude period. The conflict of these two elements, the mark organization and the territorial lordship, constitutes the marrow of the social history of the Middle Ages.

In the earliest times the pressure of the overlord, whoever he might be, seems to have been comparatively slight, but its inevitable tendency was for the territorial power to extend itself at the expense of the rural community. It was thus that in the tenth and eleventh centuries the feudal oppression had become thoroughly settled, and had reached its greatest intensity all over Europe. It continued thus with little intermission until the thirteenth century, when from various causes, economic and otherwise, matters began to improve in the interests of the common man, till in the fifteenth century the condition of the peasant was better than it has ever been, either before or since within historical times, in Northern and Western Europe. But with all this, the oppressive power of the lord of the soil was by no means dead. It was merely dormant, and was destined to spring into renewed activity the moment the lord's necessities supplied a sufficient incentive. From this time forward the element of territorial power, supported in its claims by the Roman law, with its basis of private property, continued to eat into it until it had finally devoured the old rights and possessions of the village community. The executive power always tended to be transferred from its legitimate holder, the village in its corporate capacity, to the lord; and this was alone sufficient to place the villager at his mercy.

At the time of the Reformation, owing to the new conditions which had arisen and had brought about in a few decades the hitherto unparalleled rise in prices, combined with the unprecedented ostentation and extravagance more than once referred to in these pages, the lord was supplied with the requisite incentive to the exercise of the power which his feudal system gave him. Consequently, the position of the peasant rapidly changed for the worse; and although at the outbreak of the movement not absolutely in extremis, according to our notions, yet it was so bad comparatively to his previous condition and that less than half a century before, and tended as evidently to become more intolerable, that discontent became everywhere rife, and only awaited the torch of the new doctrines to set it ablaze. The whole course of the movement shows a peasantry, not downtrodden and starved but proud and robust, driven to take up arms not so much by misery and despair as by the deliberate will to maintain the advantages which were rapidly slipping away from them.

Serfdom was not by any means universal. Many free peasant villages were to be found scattered amongst the manors of the territorial lords, though it was but too evidently the settled policy of the latter at this time to sweep everything into their net, and to compel such peasant communes to accept a feudal overlordship. Nor were they at all scrupulous in the means adopted for attaining their ends. The ecclesiastical foundations, as before said, were especially expert in forging documents for the purpose of proving that these free villages were lapsed feudatories of their own. Old rights of pasture were being curtailed, and others, notably those of hunting and fishing, had in most manors been completely filched away.

It is noticeable, however, that although the immediate causes of the peasant rising were the new burdens which had been laid upon the common people during the last few years, once the spirit of discontent was aroused it extended also in many cases to the traditional feudal dues to which, until then, the peasant had submitted with little murmuring, and an attempt was made by the country-side to reconquer the ancient complete freedom of which a dim remembrance had been handed down to them.

The condition of the peasant up to the beginning of the sixteenth century—that is to say, up to the time when it began to so rapidly change for the worse—may be gathered from what we are told by contemporary writers, such as Wimpfeling, Sebastian Brandt, Wittenweiler, the satires in the Nuernberger Fastnachtspielen, and numberless other sources, as also from the sumptuary laws of the end of the fifteenth century. All these indicate an ease and profuseness of living which little accord with our notions of the word "peasant". Wimpfeling writes: "The peasants in our district and in many parts of Germany have become, through their riches, stiff-necked and ease-loving. I know peasants who at the weddings of their sons or daughters, or the baptism of their children, make so much display that a house and field might be bought therewith, and a small vineyard to boot. Through their riches, they are oftentimes spendthrift in food and in vestments, and they drink wines of price."

A chronicler relates of the Austrian peasants, under the date of 1478, that "they wore better garments and drank better wine than their lords"; and a sumptuary law passed at the Reichstag held at Lindau, in 1497, provides that the common peasant man and the labourer in the towns or in the field "shall neither make nor wear cloth that costs more than half a gulden the ell, neither shall they wear gold, pearls, velvet, silk, nor embroidered clothes, nor shall they permit their wives or their children to wear such."

Respecting the food of the peasant, it is stated that he ate his full in flesh of every kind, in fish, in bread, in fruit, drinking wine often to excess. The Swabian, Heinrich Mueller, writes in the year 1550, nearly two generations after the change had begun to take place: "In the memory of my father, who was a peasant man, the peasant did eat much better than now. Meat and food in plenty was there every day, and at fairs and other junketings the tables did wellnigh break with what they bore. Then drank they wine as it were water, then did a man fill his belly and carry away withal as much as he could; then was wealth and plenty. Otherwise is it now. A costly and a bad time hath arisen since many a year, and the food and drink of the best peasant is much worse than of yore that of the day labourer and the serving man."

We may well imagine the vivid recollections which a peasant in the year 1525 had of the golden days of a few years before. The day labourers and serving men were equally tantalized by the remembrance of high wages and cheap living at the beginning of the century. A day labourer could then earn, with his keep, nine, and without keep, sixteen groschen[15] a week. What this would buy may be judged from the following prices current in Saxony during the second half of the fifteenth century. A pair of good working-shoes cost three groschen; a whole sheep, four groschen; a good fat hen, half a groschen; twenty-five cod-fish, four groschen; a wagon-load of firewood, together with carriage, five groschen; an ell of the best homespun cloth, five groschen; a scheffel (about a bushel) of rye, six or seven groschen. The Duke of Saxony wore grey hats which cost him four groschen. In Northern Rhineland about the same time a day labourer could, in addition to his keep, earn in a week a quarter of rye, ten pounds of pork, six large cans of milk, and two bundles of firewood, and in the course of five weeks be able to buy six ells of linen, a pair of shoes, and a bag for his tools. In Augsburg the daily wages of an ordinary labourer represented the value of six pounds of the best meat, or one pound of meat, seven eggs, a peck of peas, about a quart of wine, in addition to such bread as he required, with enough over for lodging, clothing, and minor expenses. In Bavaria he could earn daily eighteen pfennige, or one and a half groschen, whilst a pound of sausage cost one pfennig, and a pound of the best beef two pfennige, and similarly throughout the whole of the States of Central Europe.

A document of the year 1483, from Ehrbach in the Swabian Odenwald, describes for us the treatment of servants by their masters. "All journeymen," it declares, "that are hired, and likewise bondsmen (serfs), also the serving men and maids, shall each day be given twice meat and what thereto longith, with half a small measure of wine, save on fast days, when they shall have fish or other food that nourisheth. Whoso in the week hath toiled shall also on Sundays and feast days make merry after mass and preaching. They shall have bread and meat enough, and half a great measure of wine. On feast days also roasted meat enough. Moreover, they shall be given, to take home with them, a great loaf of bread and so much of flesh as two at one meal may eat."

Again, in a bill of fare of the household of Count Joachim von Oettingen in Bavaria, the journeymen and villeins are accorded in the morning, soup and vegetables; at midday, soup and meat, with vegetables, and a bowl of broth or a plate of salted or pickled meat; at night, soup and meat, carrots, and preserved meat. Even the women who brought fowls or eggs from the neighbouring villages to the castle were given for their trouble—if from the immediate vicinity, a plate of soup with two pieces of bread; if from a greater distance, a complete meal and a cruse of wine. In Saxony, similarly, the agricultural journeymen received two meals a day, of four courses each, besides frequently cheese and bread at other times should they require it. Not to have eaten meat for a week was the sign of the direst famine in any district. Warnings are not wanting against the evils accruing to the common man from his excessive indulgence in eating and drinking.

Such was the condition of the proletariat in its first inception, that is, when the mediaeval system of villeinage had begun to loosen and to allow a proportion of free labourers to insinuate themselves into its working. How grievous, then, were the complaints when, while wages had risen either not at all or at most from half a groschen to a groschen, the price of rye rose from six or seven groschen a bushel to about five-and-twenty groschen, that of a sheep from four to eighteen groschen, and all other articles of necessary consumption in a like proportion![16]

In the Middle Ages, necessaries and such ordinary comforts as were to be had at all were dirt cheap; while non-necessaries and luxuries, that is, such articles as had to be imported from afar, were for the most part at prohibitive prices. With the opening up of the world-market during the first half of the sixteenth century, this state of things rapidly changed. Most luxuries in a short time fell heavily in price, while necessaries rose in a still greater proportion.

This latter change in the economic conditions of the world exercised its most powerful effect, however, on the character of the mediaeval town, which had remained substantially unchanged since the first great expansion at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries. With the extension of commerce and the opening up of communications, there began that evolution of the town whose ultimate outcome was to entirely change the central idea on which the urban organization was based.

The first requisite for a town, according to modern notions, is facility of communication with the rest of the world by means of railways, telegraphs, postal system, and the like. So far has this gone now that in a new country, for instance, America, the railway, telegraph lines, etc., are made first, and the towns are then strung upon them, like beads upon a cord. In the mediaeval town, on the contrary, communication was quite a secondary matter, and more of a luxury than a necessity. Each town was really a self-sufficing entity, both materially and intellectually. The modern idea of a town is that of a mere local aggregate of individuals, each pursuing a trade or calling with a view to the world-market at large. Their own locality or town is no more to them economically than any other part of the world-market, and very little more in any other respect. The mediaeval idea of a town, on the contrary, was that of an organization of groups into one organic whole. Just as the village community was a somewhat extended family organization, so was, mutatis mutandis, the larger unit, the township or city. Each member of the town organization owed allegiance and distinct duties primarily to his guild, or immediate social group, and through this to the larger social group which constituted the civic society. Consequently, every townsman felt a kind of esprit de corps with his fellow-citizens, akin to that, say, which is alleged of the soldiers of the old French "foreign legion" who, being brothers-in-arms, were brothers also in all other relations. But if every citizen owed duty and allegiance to the town in its corporate capacity, the town no less owed protection and assistance, in every department of life, to its individual members.

As in ancient Rome in its earlier history, and as in all other early urban communities, agriculture necessarily played a considerable part in the life of most mediaeval towns. Like the villages, they possessed each its own mark, with its common fields, pastures, and woods. These were demarcated by various landmarks, crosses, holy images, etc.; and "the bounds" were beaten every year. The wealthier citizens usually possessed gardens and orchards within the town walls, while each inhabitant had his share in the communal holding without. The use of this latter was regulated by the Rath or Council. In fact, the town life of the Middle Ages was not by any means so sharply differentiated from rural life as is implied in our modern idea of a town. Even in the larger commercial towns, such as Frankfurt, Nuernberg, or Augsburg, it was common to keep cows, pigs, and sheep, and, as a matter of course, fowls and geese, in large numbers within the precincts of the town itself. In Frankfurt in 1481 the pigsties in the town had become such a nuisance that the Rath had to forbid them in the front of the houses by a formal decree. In Ulm there was a regulation of the bakers' guild to the effect that no single member should keep more than twenty-four pigs, and that cows should be confined to their stalls at night. In Nuernberg in 1475 again, the Rath had to interfere with the intolerable nuisance of pigs and other farm-yard stock running about loose in the streets. Even in a town like Muenchen we are informed that agriculture formed one of the staple occupations of the inhabitants, while in almost every city the gardeners' or the wine-growers' guild appears as one of the largest and most influential.

It is evident that such conditions of life would be impossible with town-populations even approaching only distantly those of to-day; and, in fact, when we come to inquire into the size and populousness of mediaeval German cities, as into those of the classical world of antiquity, we are at first sight staggered by the smallness of their proportions. The largest and most populous free Imperial cities in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Nuernberg and Strassburg, numbered little more than 20,000 resident inhabitants within the walls, a population rather less than that of (say) many an English country town at the present time. Such an important place as Frankfurt-am-Main is stated at the middle of the fifteenth century to have had less than 9,000 inhabitants. At the end of the fifteenth century Dresden could only boast of about 5,000. Rothenburg on the Tauber is to-day a dead city to all intents and purposes, affording us a magnificent example of what a mediaeval town was like, as the bulk of its architecture, including the circuit of its walls, which remain intact, dates approximately from the sixteenth century. At present a single line of railway branching off from the main line with about two trains a day is amply sufficient to convey the few antiquaries and artists who are now its sole visitors, and who have to content themselves with country-inn accommodation. Yet this old free city has actually a larger population at the present day than it had at the time of which we are writing, when it was at the height of its prosperity as an important centre of activity. The figures of its population are now between 8,000 and 9,000. At the beginning of the sixteenth century they were between 6,000 and 7,000. A work written and circulated in manuscript during the first decade of the sixteenth century, "A Christian Exhortation" (Ein Christliche Mahnung), after referring to the frightful pestilences recently raging as a punishment from God, observes, in the spirit of true Malthusianism, and as a justification of the ways of Providence, that "an there were not so many that died there were too much folk in the land, and it were not good that such should be lest there were not food enough for all."

Great population as constituting importance in a city is comparatively a modern notion. In other ages towns became famous on account of their superior civic organization, their more advantageous situation, or the greater activity, intellectual, political, or commercial, of their citizens.

What this civic organization of mediaeval towns was, demands a few words of explanation, since the conflict between the two main elements in their composition plays an important part in the events which follow. Something has already been said on this head in the Introduction. We have there pointed out that the Rath or Town Council, that is, the supreme governing body of the municipality, was in all cases mainly, and often entirely, composed of the heads of the town aristocracy, the patrician class or "honorability" (Ehrbarkeit), as they were termed, who on the ground of their antiquity and wealth laid claim to every post of power and privilege. On the other hand were the body of the citizens enrolled in the various guilds, seeking, as their position and wealth improved, to wrest the control of the town's resources from the patricians. It must be remembered that the towns stood in the position of feudal over-lords to the peasants who held land on the city territory, which often extended for many square miles outside the walls. A small town like Rothenburg, for instance, which we have described above, had on its lands as many as 15,000 peasants. The feudal dues and contributions of these tenants constituted the staple revenue of the town, and the management of them was one of the chief bones of contention.

Nowhere was the guild system brought to a greater perfection than in the free Imperial towns of Germany. Indeed, it was carried further in them, in one respect, than in any other part of Europe, for the guilds of journeymen (Cesellenverbaende), which in other places never attained any strength or importance, were in Germany developed to the fullest extent, and of course supported the craft-guilds in their conflict with the patriciate. Although there were naturally numerous frictions between the two classes of guilds respecting wages, working days, hours, and the like, it must not be supposed that there was that irreconcilable hostility between them which would exist at the present time between a trade-union and a syndicate of employers. Each recognized the right to existence of the other. In one case, that of the strike of bakers towards the close of the fifteenth century, at Colmar in Elsass, the craft-guilds supported the journeymen in their protest against a certain action of the patrician Rath, which they considered to be a derogation from their dignity.

Like the masters, the journeymen had their own guild-house, and their own solemn functions and social gatherings. There were, indeed, two kinds of journeymen-guilds: one whose chief purpose was a religious one, and the other concerning itself in the first instance with the secular concerns of the body. However, both classes of journeymen-guilds worked into one another's hand. On coming into a strange town a travelling member of such a guild was certain of a friendly reception, of maintenance until he procured work, and of assistance in finding it as soon as possible.

Interesting details concerning the wages paid to journeymen and their contributions to the guilds are to be found in the original documents relating exclusively to the journeymen-guilds, collected by Georg Schanz.[17] From these and other sources it is clear that the position of the artisan in the towns was in proportion much better than even that of the peasants at that time, and therefore immeasurably superior to anything he has enjoyed since. In South Germany at this period the average price of beef was about two denarii[18] a pound, while the daily wages of the masons and carpenters, in addition to their keep and lodging, amounted in the summer to about twenty, and in the winter to about sixteen of these denarii. In Saxony the same journeymen-craftsmen earned on the average, besides their maintenance, two groschen four pfennige a day, or about one-third the value of a bushel of corn. In addition to this, in some cases the workmen had weekly gratuities under the name of "bathing money"; and in this connection it may be noticed that a holiday for the purpose of bathing once a fortnight, once a week, or even oftener, as the case might be, was stipulated for by the guilds, and generally recognized as a legitimate demand. The common notion of the uniform uncleanliness of the mediaeval man requires to be considerably modified when one closely investigates the condition of town life, and finds everywhere facilities for bathing in winter and summer alike. Untidiness and uncleanliness, according to our notions, there may have been in the streets and in the dwellings in many cases, owing to inadequate provisions for the disposal of refuse and the like; but we must not therefore extend this idea to the person, and imagine that the mediaeval craftsman or even peasant was as unwholesome as, say, the East European peasant of to-day.

When the wages received by the journeymen artisans are compared with the prices of commodities previously given, it will be seen how relatively easy were their circumstances; and the extent of their well-being may be further judged from the wealth of their guilds, which, although varying in different places, at all times formed a considerable proportion of the wealth of the town. The guild system was based upon the notion that the individual master and workman was working as much in the interest of the guild as for his own advantage. Each member of the guild was alike under the obligation to labour, and to labour in accordance with the rules laid down by his guild, and at the same time had the right of equal enjoyment with his fellow-guildsmen of all advantages pertaining to the particular branch of industry covered by the guild. Every guildsman had to work himself in propria persona; no contractor was tolerated who himself "in ease and sloth doth live on the sweat of others, and puffeth himself up in lustful pride." Were a guild-master ill and unable to manage the affairs of his workshop, it was the council of the guild, and not himself or his relatives, who installed a representative for him and generally looked after his affairs. It was the guild again which procured the raw material, and distributed it in relatively equal proportions amongst its members; or where this was not the case, the time and place were indicated at which the guildsman might buy at a fixed maximum price. Every master had equal right to the use of the common property and institutions of the guild, which in some industries included the essentials of production, as, for example, in the case of the woollen manufacturers, where wool-kitchens, carding-rooms, bleaching-houses and the like were common to the whole guild.

Needless to say, the relations between master and apprentices and master and journeymen were rigidly fixed down to the minutest detail. The system was thoroughly patriarchal in its character. In the hey-day of the guilds, every apprentice and most of the journeymen regarded their actual condition as a period of preparation which would end in the glories of mastership. For this dear hope they were ready on occasion to undergo cheerfully the most arduous duties. The education in handicraft, and, we may add, the supervision of the morals of the blossoming members of the guild, was a department which greatly exercised its administration. On the other hand, the guild in its corporate capacity was bound to maintain sick or incapacitated apprentices and journeymen, though after the journeymen had developed into a distinct class, and the consequent rise of the journeymen-guilds, the latter function was probably in most cases taken over by the latter. The guild laws against adulteration, scamped work, and the like, were sometimes ferocious in their severity. For example, in some towns the baker who misconducted himself in the matter of the composition of his bread was condemned to be shut up in a basket which was fixed at the end of a long pole, and let down so many times to the bottom of a pool of dirty water. In the year 1456 two grocers, together with a female assistant, were burnt alive at Nuernberg for adulterating saffron and spices, and a similar instance happened at Augsburg in 1492. From what we have said it will be seen that guild life, like the life of the town as a whole, was essentially a social life. It was a larger family, into which various blood families were merged. The interest of each was felt to be the interest of all, and the interest of all no less the interest of each.

But in many towns, outside the town population properly speaking, outside the patrician families who generally governed the Rath, outside the guilds, outside the city organization altogether, there were other bodies dwelling within the walls and forming imperia in imperiis. These were the religious corporations, whose possessions were often extensive, and who, dwelling within their own walls, shut out from the rest of the town, were subject only to their own ordinances. The quasi-religious, quasi-military Order of the Teutonic Knights (Deutscher Orden), founded at the time of the Crusades, was the wealthiest and largest of these corporations. In addition to the extensive territories which it held in various parts of the empire, it had establishments in a large number of cities. Besides this there were, of course, the Orders of the Augustinians and Carthusians, and a number of less important foundations, who had their cloisters in various towns. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the pomp, pride, and licentiousness of the Teutonic Order drew upon it the especial hatred of the townsfolk; and amid the general wreck of religious houses none were more ferociously despoiled than those belonging to this Order. There were, moreover, in some towns, the establishments of princely families, which were regarded by the citizens with little less hostility than that accorded to the religious Orders.

Such were the explosive elements of town life when changing conditions were tending to dislocate the whole structure of mediaeval existence. The capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 had struck a heavy blow at the commerce of the Bavarian cities which had come by way of Constantinople and Venice. This latter city lost one by one its trading centres in the East, and all Oriental traffic by way of the Black Sea was practically stopped. It was the Dutch cities which inherited the wealth and influence of the German towns when Vasco da Gama's discovery of the Cape route to the East began to have its influence on the trade of the world. This diversion of Oriental traffic from the old overland route was the starting-point of the modern merchant navy, and it must be placed amongst the most potent causes of the break-up of mediaeval civilization. The above change, although immediately felt by the German towns, was not realized by them in its full importance either as to its causes or its consequences for more than a century; but the decline of their prosperity was nevertheless sensible, even now, and contributed directly to the coming upheaval.

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