Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer

Q1: Read sources 2, 3 and 4. Explain Martin Luther's views on using violence to achieve religious and political change.

A1: Martin Luther suggested on 25th June, 1520 (source 2) that popes and cardinals should be punished like "highwaymen with the sword, and heretics with fire". Luther warned in December 1521 (source 3) that "priests, monks, bishops, and the entire spiritual estate may be murdered or driven into exile, unless they seriously and thoroughly reform themselves." Henry Ganss (source 4) suggests that comments like these led to the Peasants' Revolt: "This smouldering fire Luther fanned to a fierce flame by his turbulent and incendiary writings."

Q2: What kind of society did Thomas Müntzer want? It will help you to read sources 5 and 6.

A2: In the speech Thomas Müntzer made in August, 1524 (source 6) he makes it clear that he considers society to be very unfair. "The worst of all the ills on Earth is that no-one wants to concern themselves with the poor. The rich do as they wish... Our lords and princes encourage theft and robbery." Yet when "the poor man takes even the slightest thing he has to hang". According to Frederick Engels (source 5) Müntzer was an early communist who wanted a society "with no class differences, no private property and no state authority independent of, and foreign to, members of society".

Q3: According to source 7, why did Henry VIII become opposed to Lutherism in 1525.

A3: Jasper Ridley (source 7) makes the point that even though Henry VIII often quarrelled with the Catholic hierarchy he realised the dangers of the teachings of Martin Luther. This fear was reinforced by the Peasant War in Germany in 1525. According to Ridley, Henry believed "a popular movement which attacked Papal authority was a seditious threat to the social order of Christendom which could soon lead to revolutionary attacks on the authority of Kings and on the privileges and property of the nobility and the wealthy classes."

Q4: Read the introduction and source 8 and then explain why Thomas Müntzer's army was defeated at Frankenhausen.

A4: It is estimated that Thomas Müntzer had an army of 8,000 men but they were only armed with "scythes and flails" and stood little chance against the "combined infantry, cavalry and artillery attack". Over 3,000 peasants were killed whereas only four of the soldiers lost their lives.

Q5: Study sources 11 and 14. Do you think the producers of these sources were critical of Thomas Müntzer.

A5: The woodcut (source 11) suggests no criticism of Thomas Müntzer. Source 14 shows a bank note issued by the communist government in East Germany in 1975. Governments often use bank notes to recognize the achievements of people from the past.

Q6: Martin Luther argued in favour of the demands being made by the peasants in 1520. Select information from the sources to explain why he did not support the Peasants' Revolt in 1525.

A6: Owen Chadwick (source 9) points out that Martin Luther, as a former peasant, was sympathetic to their demands. However, he "hated armed strife" and risked his life "to preach against violence".

Derek Wilson (source 10) agrees with Chadwick and reports that Luther told the peasants "the rebels have no mandate from God to challenge their masters". Luther also made it clear that he did not want to see a change to the class system and approved of serfdom.

In source 13 Martin Luther makes it clear that the rebels "deserved death in body and soul" and calls on "everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab". He adds that it "is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you." This view is reinforced in a letter to his friend, Nicolaus von Amsdorf (source 15) on 25th May, 1525. He makes it clear that he is on the side of the rich and powerful: "My opinion is that it is better that all the peasants be killed than that the princes and magistrates perish, because the rustics took the sword without divine authority... Even if the princes abuse their power, yet they have it of God, and under their rule the kingdom of God at least has a chance to exist."

In July, 1525, Martin Luther issued an open letter to defend his views (source 16). He denied he advocated "the slaughter of the poor captured peasants without mercy". Luther claimed that if the rulers misused their power "they have not learned it from me."