*** This is a rough transcript of today's show ***
It is the 7th of May 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
Today you are going to meet a figure that you've probably never heard of, and the point with this isn't to be an obscurantist but rather to give you another lens by which you might see the turbulent events of the early 16th century.
This is a story about the Knight Franz von Sickingen. He is sometimes referred to as the "last Knight," as it was his role, in defeat, that helped lead to the birth of the modern military. There are Knights today, but it is only ceremonial. In the feudal system, they were the ones who policed polite society. They were the middle managers of the day to ensure that the system would continue to trickle towards the top. But as this system began to dissolve with the rise of nationalism and mercantilism, they became increasingly irrelevant. And the last gasp of these increasingly irrelevant gentlemen has been given a name nobler, possibly, than it deserves: the Knights Revolt.
And here's where I'm going to pump the breaks on some Reformation historiography. The lesser nobility, the Knights, were hardly rebelling in the same way that we might see some dissenting priests or peasants. The Knights, led by Sickingen, may have been sincere in their beliefs. Still, much of the story tries to equivocate the legitimate movements from below, actual revolts, with an extra-legal feud between a famous Knight and the Archbishop of Trier. We will get to that. I want to highlight before we get into the details that the story of Franz von Sickingen brings together the humanist movement, a new German nationalism, and the Reformation.
Franz von Sickingen was born in 1481 in southwest Germany into the class of Free Imperial Knights. And Sickingen appears to have been a pretty good one at that. He positioned himself as the champion of the little guy, and in doing so, became immensely wealthy himself. Private warfare can be lucrative if you're lucky. In 1495 at a different Diet of Worms, the opportunism of aggressive Knights was blunted with a ban on private warfare. Sickingen, never good at following rules, kept about his privateering ways and was put under the Imperial Ban. However, his popularity in France scared the Germans who believed that Sickingen would back King Francis of France to become the new emperor instead of the Habsburg Charles. The ban was removed, and Franz rallied around Charles. But soon after Charles was elected, Franz went back to his old ways.
Von Sickingen had become close with Ulrich von Hutten, a knight and humanist who had studied at Wittenberg. A significant connection between Hutten and Sickingen was their shared vision of an independent German nation. Here we see the nexus of humanism, nationalism, and early Lutheranism. By way of introductions via Hutten, von Sickingen became something of a hero to embattled Reformers who were offered refuge in his castles.
Now, the Knight's Revolt narrative as a reaction to economic insecurity is a stretch, especially in the case of Sickingen (who was not financially insecure). Another narrative, that of the success of the early Reformation pinned on the lesser nobility, also rings unnecessarily reductionistic. The so-called Knights revolt, the Peasants revolt a few years later, and whatever else we would like to call revolts represented a general rejection of the structures of a waning Medieval society.
Sickingen's last stand was against the Archbishop of Trier and the Swabian League. The Swabian League was made up of princes and other nobles who saw Sickingen as part of the rowdy Reformation movement. The league could use its size and funds to crush Sickingen's castles to deploy new modern cannons. Unfortunately, one such cannonball broke through into a room where Sickingen was, and he was wounded. He would die the next day, which was the 7th of May 1523.
Franz von Sickingen: the Last Knight, the Reformer's friend, and unwitting cannonball fodder, was 42 years old.
A final word today from the Prince of Peace in the Gospel of John, chapter 14.
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, 'I go away, and I will come to you.' If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place, you may believe."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of May 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, who thought the "Last Knight" was Mark Wahlberg's character in Transformers 5: The Last Knight. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who thought "Last Knight" was the Strokes' first single. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.