How the first “viral” media sparked a peasant uprising in Germany



The Protestant Reformation was a period of religious and political upheaval caused by corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. With the dissolution of medieval feudalism in the early 16th century, newly proletarianized workers and peasants experienced many of the same inequalities. In the German-speaking regions of central Europe, former serfs flocked to booming cities while poor farmers were taxed and criminalized to increase the incomes of the ruling class. As Pope Leo X and the aristocracy tightened their financial grip on the German underclass, a revolutionary peasant uprising struck a major blow, fueled by the early mass media of the modern era.

The German peasant war overtook the Saxon states through Germany, Alsace and Austria. While smaller uprisings took place in previous decades, a decentralized movement organized around secular pamphleteer propaganda in the 1520s. Rebels armed with farm implements stormed castles and burned down villages. churches, threatening not only the clergy but also the princes and aristocrats who owned land. It was such a shock that they responded with a violent counterinsurgency, killing thousands of rioters in broad daylight.

The invention of the printing press broke the church’s monopoly on education and culture, allowing artisans to print low-cost large-format brochures and newspapers that combined image and text. Public readings of these works, and the ensuing debates between Christians and Protestants, replaced recitations of Scripture. Forerunner of newspapers, large formats were printed vertically and used either for distribution or for decoration. As Keith Moxey notes in his book Peasants, warriors and wives (2004), their usefulness “depended on the fragility of the paper, the effect of sunlight on the ink, and the rate at which their topical significance lost interest”.

Hans Sebald Beham, “Dispute between Luther and a Catholic Theologian” (c. 16th century), woodcut

Martin Luther used the print to his advantage, especially with his 95 theses oppose the sale of indulgences. As the princes aligned with the Pope, Luther argued for secular reform by appealing to the oppressed classes. In works of art, early Lutherans like Hans Holbein and Lucas Cranach presented him as a Herculean savior from abuse of church power. Early publications also depicted Luther confronting Christians, as in “Dispute Between Luther and a Theologian” by Hans Sebald Beham (c. 16th century). Luther leads a host of artisans and farmers, representing the grievances of the working class.

Beham and his brother, Barthel, were influenced by the master engraver Albrecht Dürer, who depicted peasants in celebratory scenes. Dürer’s prints worked against classist stereotypes that associated poverty with sin, but he retained altered facial features, illustrating what Jürgen Müller calls “aesthetic subversion.” The Beham brothers took it a step further by producing anti-church woodcuts in large-format Nuremberg newspapers, including The Pope’s Descent into Hell and Allegory of monasticism, which shows a monk turning his back on the personification of poverty in favor of pride and luxury.

Albrecht Dürer, “Dancing Peasant Couple” (1517), engraving

The spread of humanist writing coincided with the spontaneous uprisings of Bundschuh movement (“Union Shoe”), in reference to the leather boots worn by rural populations since the Middle Ages. An outpouring of Bundschuh pamphlets attacked the privileges of higher states in favor of gemeinen mann, or ordinary man. Peasants, artisans, and townspeople represented common sense, religious devotion, and proud work, in contrast to the orthodox critics of Luther working primarily in satire. the Bundschuh The symbol was painted and embroidered on flags carried by rebels, often with the slogan “Lord, uphold your divine justice” and appeared in brochures promoting or condemning them.

Pamphilus Gengenbach title page The Bundschuh (1514), a pamphlet condemning the peasant uprisings around the Black Forest

Bundschuh The literature garnered wide support from artisans, with Dürer even creating a woodcut of Black Forest insurgent leader Joss Fritz. The publication in 1521 of the anonymous pamphlet Karsthans, or “Hans of the Hoe”, featured the archetype of a commoner named Hans holding a two-tine hoe. Later posts show him carrying a flail next to the slogan Fryhans, or “Hans free”. In the woodcuts by Hans Weiditz and Hans Leonhard Schäufelein, the peasants avoid their haggard appearance in battle scenes with knights in armor. In 1525, when the uprisings overtook Swabia and Franconia, popular representations blurred the distinction between peasants and nobles.

This aesthetic change was due in part to the revolutionary preacher Thomas Müntzer, an Anabaptist who rejected the Bible and seven sacraments. Its brochures promoted the material creation of Heaven on Earth and the organization of trade unions. Based in Zwickau, Müntzer is said to have inspired the 12 Peasants’ Articles, a widely distributed brochure listing the demands of a workers’ parliament in Memmingen. Printed 25,000 times in two months, the articles called for an end to serfdom, as well as the free election of pastors and the restoration of public land use.

Woodcut title of Karsthans (1521)

To date, the 12 items The brochure is considered the first draft of human rights in Europe after the fall of Rome. Its popularity, which endangers the dominant social order, leads Martin Luther to denounce the rebellion. In Luther’s pamphlet Against the hordes of peasant murderers and thieves, he laments his responsibility and urges the princes to “let all who can strike, kill and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or evil than a rebel.” It’s like when you have to kill a mad dog. The aristocracy shut down Müntzer’s printers and beheaded him while burning other rulers at the stake and punishing associated artisans, revealing how the mastery of new technologies by the working class broke through the highest echelons of power .

Until the French Revolution, the Peasant War was the biggest uprising in Europe. Frédéric Engels, in The peasants’ war in Germany (1850), argued that its legacy as a religious conflict obscures its origins in the class struggle. “By the kingdom of God, Müntzer meant nothing other than a state of society without class differences, without private property and without superimposed state powers opposed to members of society,” he wrote. In the process, Dürer proposed a monument to the victory of the princes, perhaps ironically, by drawing a peasant without shoes atop a tall column with a sword protruding from his back.

The heroic images of the working class eventually dissipated into popular culture; However, this aesthetic subversion has survived in radical printmaking traditions – from the 20th century labor movement to contemporary zines. Meanwhile, state propaganda manifests itself in anti-union memes and social media posts condemning petty crime – promoted by corporate posts owned by the richest wage thieves in history. As the mainstream media continue to serve Western elites, this brief period of unrest illustrates the true power of the press.

Barthel Beham, “Peasant Woman with Two Jars” (1524), engraving
Title page of The Federal Ordinance of Memmingen brochure (1525)
Albrecht Dürer, “Monument to the Vanquished Peasants” (1525), woodcut

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