Baylor, Michael G. The German Reformation and the Peasants’ War: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 2012.
For students of the Radical Reformation, the Peasants’ War is a movement in the background that is not entirely understood, especially as it related to those involved with the rebellion who would later join the ranks of the Anabaptists. Dr. Baylor’s latest publication, intended for high school curricula but also appropriate as an introduction at the collegiate level before continuing on to broader treatments. The advantage of Baylor’s work is that the larger themes explaining the movement are not lost in detailed historical narrative. This is helpful for students whose focus is elsewhere but need a basic understanding of the war, which is often referenced but not fully explained in Radical Reformation scholarship.
Several significant themes come to the fore. The sense of dissatisfaction among the peasants arose from changing population dynamics. In the late medieval period populations declined, resulting in feudal lords offering better working conditions in order to attract from among a smaller pool of labor. In the latter half of the fifteenth century, populations rebounded from earlier losses such that lords returned to many of the practices that had formerly worked to the peasants’ disadvantage (3ff). It was this loss of some of the privileges temporarily enjoyed that led to the discontent that fulminated in the mid-1520s.
Baylor’s focus was on the peasants’ revolt’s relationship to the Lutheran Reformation. He recounted the polemic of the Catholics, who had blamed Luther’s teachings with fomenting social unrest yielding rebellion. Luther countered by insisting that he had consistently warned against violent action taken established governments (3). Also, the peasants sometimes saw themselves as a social movement but at other times saw themselves as enacting the teachings of the Reformation in their calls for social reform (15,21). The relationship with the Anabaptists was not described except to point forward toward the future involvement that many of the peasants would have in the then nascent Anabaptist movement (30). The discontent that was felt toward the Established churches that supported the princes was continued in the Anabaptist protest against those same Established churches.
The bulk of the book consists of primary source documents, mostly abridged. They are divided into sections representing documents from before Luther’s Reformation, those representing the views of the Catholics and Protestants, those written by peasants and their supporters, and lastly those on the debate between the relationship between the German Reformation and the Peasants’ War. The documents contain a nice mix of texts and pictures. The abridgement does cause a problem in one place, though. The abridgement of Exsurge Domini skips between the third and eighteenth error listed in the bull without correcting for the change of anathematizing what is denied to what is affirmed (48). So, for the student not sufficiently acquainted with the differences between Catholic and Protestant doctrine might be confused as to whether the doctrines from eighteen on are approved of or condemned by the bull.