Reading Time: 5 mins

The Battle of Frankenhausen and the Ruin of Thomas Müntzer

Reading Time: 5 mins

The Battle of Frankenhausen stands as a warning for what can happen when we abandon the Word God has given us and chase after some vision of our own imaginations.

Imagine a crowd of thousands of people, all crying out in righteous indignation. For years, the oppressor class has trampled on them, denying them freedom and refusing to acknowledge their rights. Now, they march behind a flag bearing the colors of the rainbow, led by a radical ideologue who has lit a fire in their hearts. They are certain they stand at the apex of history, and justice will finally be done. 

The scene I have just described does not belong to the twenty-first century but the sixteenth. The crowd is not protesting for LGBT+ rights but the rights of the peasant class: those assigned to serfdom by birth. Their leader is not an Ivy League professor or leftist politician, but the preacher Thomas Müntzer. The rainbow on their flag is not symbolic of the many varieties of sexual expression but of God’s covenant with Noah.

This was the scene near the German town of Frankenhausen on May 15, 1525. It was the culmination of the German Peasants’ War (also called the Peasants’ Revolt), a nebulous rebellion that began in what is now southwestern Germany, near the Black Forest, and eventually spread to many parts of the Holy Roman Empire. This was certainly not the first time a large group of peasants had taken up arms: the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England nearly brought an end to the reign of King Richard II. However, the revolt of 1524-5 was even larger—the biggest popular uprising in Europe prior to the French Revolution—and it was largely driven by principles of the radical Reformation.

That last sentence is controversial, for scholars are endlessly debating the motivations of the protesters. Some classify the Peasants’ War as a struggle of one economic class against another. (This was how Marxist scholars interpreted it in the twentieth century.) Others see it as a natural response to Luther’s proclamation of the freedom of a Christian. 

In truth, the German Peasants’ War consisted of two phases. Phase one began in autumn 1524 and continued into early 1525. It was centered in southwestern Germany and driven by the desires of peasants to be free from overburdensome taxes and regulations. The violence in this phase was narrowly targeted, and there were few charismatic leaders. The rebels released the Twelve Articles of the Christian Union of Upper Swabia asserting their complaints and found a somewhat sympathetic reader in Martin Luther, who admitted the peasant class had been treated poorly. However, in his Admonition to Peace, he urged the peasants not to resort to violence in pursuit of their aims.

In late spring 1525 came phase two, which we might deem the radical phase. By this point, Thomas Müntzer had become a prominent figure. His theology was rapidly departing from the orthodox mainstream as he became caught up in apocalyptic visions. Müntzer abandoned traditional understandings of the sacraments and divine revelation, instead promoting a mystical Christianity steeped in asceticism. In his biography of Luther, Martin Brecht describes Müntzer’s theology thus:

“Without judgment, the gospel was cheap. What was important was to follow the narrow way and renounce the lusts of the flesh or, even more important, to become nothing through the inner turmoil (Anfechtung) wrought by God. In Müntzer’s view, Luther, who was numbered among the fattened hogs of the false prophets, disregarded all of this or minimized it. That Müntzer, in his zeal, was again in danger of making a rigid legalism a prerequisite for faith was something that obviously was not apparent to him.” [1] 

This second, radical phase of the Peasants’ War was more prominent in central Germany, eventually creeping into Thuringia, which was within the realm of Luther’s great protector, Elector Frederick the Wise. Here, Müntzer was a pastor in the town of Allstedt until the authorities took issue with his theology. Müntzer had originally studied in Wittenberg and subscribed to Luther’s teachings, but he now declared Luther a heretic.

Acts of violence became more brazen. A typical incident occurred on Easter 1525: a massacre in the town of Weinsberg. The count and his attendants were dragged from the castle and made to run the gauntlet while their horrified loved ones watched. Then, a substantial portion of the townspeople were put to the sword for unclear reasons. News of such bloodbaths traveled throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Society seemed to be falling apart.

This is when Luther wrote his infamous tract, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. In it, he called for the governing authorities to take up arms against the violent threat within their borders. The rebels must be put to death, Luther argued, or society would soon collapse. “For in this case a prince and lord must remember that according to Romans 13, he is God’s minister and the servant of his wrath and that the sword has been given him to use against such people.” [2] Many have since blamed Luther for inciting the German princes to violence, but by the time he wrote those words, the princes had already sprung into action.

Emperor Charles V was ostensibly in charge of the territory where the rebellion was raging, but political authority was highly fragmented between dozens of princes and bishops, and there was no large standing army on alert. It was up to the regional rulers to respond to urgent threats by raising their own forces. If the threat was too large for one prince to handle, as occurred in 1525, they had to band together and coordinate their efforts. 

The problem in 1525 was that the Reformation had set one ruler against another, some adopting Luther’s theology and others refusing to do so. The princes were, therefore, disinclined to cooperate, but the Peasants’ Revolt presented such an existential threat that they temporarily put aside their differences. Elector Frederick the Wise and his staunchly Catholic cousin, Duke George of Saxony, combined their forces with those of Langrave Philip of Hesse, who had just come over to Lutheranism a few months earlier.

The three princes sent their warriors into Thuringia, where Luther had tried only weeks earlier to calm the rebellion through his preaching. By this point, Müntzer was riding at the head of an army of perhaps ten thousand peasants. They far outnumbered the princes’ forces, but crucially, they were lightly armed. This did not phase Müntzer, who was convinced God was on his side and would intervene in any armed confrontation.

Some initial maneuvers took place around Frankenhausen on May 14. The next day, the peasants lined up on one side and the princes on the other (minus Elector Frederick himself, who was on his deathbed). What followed was not a battle so much as shooting practice for the princes’ men. They fired their cannons and arquebuses. The projectiles tore into the rebel lines. Soon, anyone left alive was fleeing the field while the princes’ men chased them down with their swords. By the end of the day, thousands were dead. Müntzer himself attempted to hide but was found and executed soon after, his head left to rot on a pike.

In truth, the Peasants’ Revolt was a complicated movement.

All this happened before Luther’s pamphlet was widely disseminated, so he probably had little impact on the princes’ immediate actions. The princes, nevertheless, may have seen the pamphlet as justification for what happened thereafter. As their power was brought to bear, it took on a ferocity beyond anything the rebels had done. Some scholars estimate as many as 100,000 peasants were put to death, many of whom surely had nothing to do with the rebellion. It would be the greatest bloodletting on German soil until the Thirty Years’ War. 

Who is to blame for the peasants’ deaths? Again, many have faulted Luther not only for writing that pamphlet but also for preaching the freedom of a Christian. In truth, the Peasants’ Revolt was a complicated movement. As is the case with so many revolutions, it was co-opted by multiple forces, all seeking to bend it to their own designs. Perhaps an uprising against the practices of serfdom was inevitable in the early modern age, and it really was all about economics, as Marxists have argued; or perhaps Luther’s theological revolution would have always been taken too far by people who saw an opportunity to reshape society as well as the church.

But it seems to me that no one bears more blame for the slaughter at Frankenhausen than the man who stood at the head of the multitude: Thomas Müntzer. He was the one the peasants followed. It was his words that drove them to take up arms that day. The false teachings of Müntzer led directly to the deaths of thousands of people. As soon as he led them on that field, they were bound to be slaughtered.

The Battle of Frankenhausen stands as a warning for what can happen when we abandon the Word God has given us and chase after some vision of our own imaginations. It is equally a warning that desperate people can be turned to desperate ends by those with an ideology to promote. The tragedy that day was the inevitable correction of a society grown tired of violence and radicalism. But it was also a correction against a theology that was ruining people’s lives in the most literal sense.