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Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen

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"... lively and intellectually stimulating... " —Speculum

"Wunderli... has lucidly reconstructed a controversial conflict in 15th-century south-central Germany.... this engaging narrative takes off from Hans Behem—the peasant who claimed to see the Virgin and gained followers until crushed by the established church—to explore larger forces at work in Germany on the eve of the Reformation... Wunderli also attempts to sort out the violent conflict that ensued and Hans's subsequent trial. His scrupulousness and sensitivity make for a small but valuable book." —Publishers Weekly

"Fascinating and well written, this is highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries."—Library Journal

"Richard Wunderli... deftly tells the story in Peasant Fires, finding in it a foreshadowing of peasant uprisings in the 16th century."—New York Times Book Review

"... a stimulating read... an engaging synthesis."—Central European History

In 1476, an illiterate German street musician had a vision of the Virgin Mary and began to preach a radical social message that attracted thousands of followers—and antagonized the church. The drummer was burned at the stake. This swiftly moving narrative of his rise and fall paints a vivid portrait of 15th-century German society as it raises important questions about the craft of history.

"A gem of a book.... It has a plot, good guys and bad buys, it opens up a ‘strange’ world, and it is exceptionally well written." —Thomas W. Robisheaux

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I Enchanted Time

ePub

Hans Behem’s sheep were settled down for the night. Across the meadow Hans could see the black silhouetted hills of the Tauber Valley against an overcast sky faintly aglow from a full moon. Small, lumpy bundles that were his sheep huddled in groups of eight or ten in brown dirt patches where they had nosed through the snow to find meager shoots of grass. Hans was a young man, perhaps in his early twenties although he probably could not have given his exact age. He was a peasant, a serf, a common herdsman over sheep belonging to other peasants and lords from the village of Niklashausen in the Tauber Valley of south-central Germany.

It was Saturday evening during Lent in 1476. Perhaps early April. The winter had been especially hard and long this year. Deep drifts of snow covered the ground throughout Carnival and Lent, and would continue even through Easter and May Day. Hans, like everybody else, had suffered through the intense, unrelenting cold, and had feared for spring fodder for his animals. He and other peasants faced the coming starvation; the hungry time of Lent might not end unless the weather changed. It seemed as if God had turned his full wrath upon mankind.

 

II Carnival

ePub

There is an old story that was told and retold throughout Europe about a helpless boy who is mistreated by his stepmother and those in authority, and how he exacts revenge. It appears in many versions, often in song. In the following tale from a fifteenth-century English source, those who make life hell for the boy are his stepmother and her lover-friend, Friar Tobias. The boy is called Jack, but in my version I will use the German equivalent, Hans, or better, the diminutive Hänsel. With wild, carnivalesque humor, Hänsel finds justice against his tormentors. But he must resort to magic, that is, he must appeal for help from the other, enchanted realm for his special powers.

The story begins with a dispute between the father and the stepmother over what to do about Hänsel. The stepmother wants to send him away to fend for himself in the world, but the father decides to allow the boy to stay for another year and work in the fields as a cowherd.

So, the next day, Hänsel went into the fields. Presently, he came to a meadow and sat down in the grass to enjoy his dinner, but the food his stepmother gave him was so bad that he couldn’t eat it. As the boy sat alone, an old man came to him, gave a greeting, and told Hänsel how hungry he was. Could the boy spare some food? Hänsel replied, “God save me, but you are right welcome to such poor victuals as I have.” The old man ate the food and was happy.

 

III Lent

ePub

The Virgin Mary, Mother of the Holy Church, charges us today at the beginning of Lent to recall how our captain, Jesus Christ, fought against the Enemy of the human race and how he conquered the three great evils. He is our Teacher and Instructor and we give Him our complete trust that today we also will begin to fight against—and conquer—our three great enemies: our own flesh and blood, the world, and the Evil Spirit. Whichever of you good Christians will conquer these three enemies, you must observe the teachings of our Captain.

So began the series of Lenten sermons by Ulrich Kraft in the late fifteenth century. Lent was just the opposite of Carnival. No more feasting, no more pleasures of the flesh, no more wallowing in the joys of the world. Now was the time to fast. Christians all over Europe were told to conquer the three great enemies, “our own flesh and blood, the world, and the Evil Spirit.” The obese, flesh-eating, sausage-wielding voluptuary of the Carnival dramas was now replaced by the emaciated old hag with a fish about her neck. Forty grim, soul-cleansing weekdays and six Sundays awaited believers until the joyful arrival of Easter.

 

IV Walpurgisnacht

ePub

Easter Sunday was followed by the seven weeks of Easter that led to Pentecost (the seventh Sunday) and a celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles after the resurrection of Christ. In 1476, Pentecost fell on June 2. Between Easter and Pentecost were many other celebrations and feast days. In Germany, for example, was celebrated the Feast of St. Walburga, or Walpurgisnacht, on April 30, the eve of May Day. Walburga was an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon nun and missionary to Franconia, particularly to Bischofsheim on the Tauber, just south of Niklashausen. Her bones were “translated” (that is, moved) on April 30—which became her feast day—sometime during the 870s to Eichstütt, where her brother Willibald had Walpurgisnacht been bishop. Ever since then an oily liquid has oozed out of the rock on which her tomb rests, and has been renowned among pilgrims for its great healing power. St. Walburga was revered not only in the Tauber Valley and Franconia but also throughout much of Germany as a protectress against plague and hunger. From its inception, her feast day (or rather night) was bound to the old pagan holiday of May Day (May 1) that celebrated the beginning of summer and the expulsion of witches.

 

V The Feast of Corpus Christi

ePub

In the eyes of the authorities, the Drummer was a dangerous player of foolish music, leading his followers in a crazy, egalitarian dance that promised only social chaos. He had to be stopped, so wrote Archbishop Dieter to Bishop Rudolph on June 13, and his perilous doctrines rooted out of popular belief.

Thursday, June 13, was the Feast of Corpus Christi, one of the major festival days of medieval Europe—and an especially appropriate day for the assertion of hierarchical authority against the Carnival-Lent-Crazy Dance-Pilgrimage of the Drummer of Niklashausen.

The Feast of Corpus Christi had originated with an Augustinian nun named Juliana of Liège, who in 1209 had a vision of a bright, full moon, marred only by a small, dark spot. She interpreted the moon to represent the church and the dark spot to represent the absence of a separate feast in honor of the Eucharist. Juliana belonged to a generation that was especially sensitive to the sacrament of the Eucharist and the arguments over transubstantiation, that is, that the sacramental host becomes the body of Christ (corpus Christi). Her cause for a new feast day to celebrate the Eucharist was taken up by the archdeacon of Liège, Jacques Pantaléon. In 1246, the feast of the Eucharist (or Corpus Christi) was made a feast day in the diocese of Liège, celebrated on the Thursday after the octave (eighth day) of Pentecost. When Archdeacon Jacques became Pope Urban IV, he made the local feast of Liège a feast for the entire church.

 

VI The Feast of the Visitation of Mary

ePub

Saints in heaven were honored on earth by feast days. Most saints had a single day, some had two. But the Virgin Mary, as suited her position as the Queen of Heaven, had seven feast days. Throughout the Middle Ages, people celebrated the Virgin’s Birth (September 8), Purification (February 2), Annunciation (March 25), and Assumption (August 15): one feast day for each season of the year. During the fifteenth century, to match the great upsurge in Marian sentiment that swept over all Europe, there were added three more feast days: the Engagement of Mary (January 23), the Offering of Mary in the Temple (November 21), and the Visitation of Mary (July 2).

The Visitation refers to a passage in Luke (1:36–45) in which the young, pregnant Mary “visited” Elizabeth, an old, erstwhile barren woman, who now also was miraculously pregnant. In Elizabeth’s womb was the future John the Baptist, who leapt for joy in the womb at Mary’s greeting to Elizabeth. The fetal John announced Jesus the Messiah through his movement, and “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” In the later Middle Ages, the Franciscan friars treated this moment as worthy of a feast day: Mary’s visit marked for them a special moment of ecstatic joy that heralded—and heralds—a new messianic age. The old age is over. A new age, one of renewal, hope, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, begins.

 

VII The Feast of St. Margaret

ePub

Margaret who?
That’s a good question. St. Margaret is a very confusing saint, or better, collage of saints. Her name usually refers to Margaret of Antioch, who reputedly had been martyred during Diocletian’s persecutions in the early fourth century. We know that she was honored in the Eastern Church from an early date, and in the Western Church from about the ninth century, when she appears in the martyrology of Rhabanus Maurus. From the twelfth century, St. Margaret’s popularity in the West grew enormously. She was especially favored by pregnant women, who invoked her protection at childbirth, and by crusaders. She reached the height of her popularity during the late Middle Ages when she was accepted as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers-a group of saints, all martyrs, popular in Germany but few other places, who usually appeared together to protect against disease and death.

But who was she? She may have been the Margaret that St. Ambrose wrote about: a fifteen-year-old virgin who preserved her chastity by jumping off a building. Or she may have been the Margaret (or was it Pelagia?), an actress, who had lived a debauched life only to see the light and become a Christian penitent.

 

VIII Historical Time

ePub

The pilgrimage to Niklashausen as a mass movement, indeed, had come to an end. But contemporaries did not know that, and for weeks after the Drummer’s execution, authorities in Würzburg continued to maintain their defenses against another expected assault by the peasant-pilgrims. Water buckets were ordered to be refilled, not only because the old water was beginning to stink, but also in anticipation of fire from a peasants’ war. The assault never came. Massive numbers of peasants who had trooped to Niklashausen now trooped home.

The execution of the Drummer, however, was not the end of the affair. In Würzburg, some secret followers of the Drummer dug up dirt from the spot where he had been burned and pre served it as a sacred relic or as magic powder, perhaps similar to the ashes they collected from the regenerative Easter bonfires. In Niklashausen, pilgrims still came to the church, not in gangs as during the summer, but they came. The spot where the young prophet had preached was for them a blessed site.

 

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