Meanwhile Germany was being torn asunder by one of the most terrible struggles ever known in Europe.
For hundreds of years the peasants of Germany had been ground down by their masters with unthinking cruelty. They were looked upon as little better than beasts of burden, created to toil and sweat, to live in pain and poverty, so that their lords might enjoy ease and comfort. In many places they were little better than slaves. From the day of their birth to the day of their death they were the bondmen of their lord. They might not move away to another town, they might not change their trade unless they paid heavy fines. They were taxed almost beyond endurance; they had to pay their dues in money, in labour, and in the produce of their farms. Often too, at the very busiest times, when the fields were waiting to be sown, or the corn ripe for harvest, they would be called away to catch frogs so that their croaking might not disturb her ladyship, or to gather snails that she might wind her homespun wool upon the shells.
Still, patiently the peasants bore all their hardships. It was the custom, it had always been the custom, and they knew nothing better. But at length they grew restless beneath their misery. They began to form leagues amongst themselves, and taking a common shoe for their badge, they rose in rebellion, once and again. But these rebellions were always put down with great sternness, and the position of the peasants grew no better, but rather worse.
Then came Luther. He rebelled against the tyranny of the Church, he preached freedom. Nowhere in all Germany did he get a more ready hearing than among the peasants. They hoped that this new freedom in religion would bring with it another sort of freedom too. The protestant religion taught that rich and poor alike were the children of one great and merciful Father, and that Christ had shed his blood for all alike; therefore, said the peasant, all must be alike free, and soon on every side they rose in wild rebellion.
Banner after banner was raised. Now it was a golden sun with the words, "Whoso would be free, let him come out into the sunshine"; now it was a flag of black, white, and red.
One of the leaders was called Hans Müller. With a red cap upon his head and a red cloak about his shoulders, he journeyed throughout the country rousing the people to rebellion. A herald went before him, and a cart decorated with wreaths and ribbons, and carrying the war-standard of black, white, and red, followed him. So through all the land the peasants passed, forcing and persuading others to join them. If any man refused, they drove a stake into the ground in front of his house as a sign that he was a traitor and that he might be despoiled of all his possessions.
Soon the peasant army grew great, but it was a wild, undisciplined mob. Many indeed were honest men driven by cruelty at last to rebel. But many too were thieves and murderers, the riff-raff of the towns, who joined the army for the love of bloodshed, and in the hope of plunder.
The peasants demanded twelve things, and they became known as the Twelve Articles. Among them were the rights of hunting and fishing, and of hewing wood, and the right of choosing their own clergy. These demands do not seem very outrageous, but they were sternly refused. Then the peasants turned upon their masters with awful fury. They vowed to put to death every man who wore spurs, that is every knight and noble. There should be neither towns nor castles now, they swore, but only villages and farmhouses. For the castles and the great towns were the dwellings of the hated nobles. Castles, churches, monasteries were sacked and burned. Many of the nobles and clergy were reduced to misery and utter poverty, and all the land was filled with blood and ruin.
Noble after noble was forced to yield to the peasants' demands, or die. At the castle of Weinsberg, the Count Lewis of Helfenstein made a brave stand against them. This is the town which, you remember, won the name of "Women's Faithfulness" in the reign of Conrad III.
Eight thousand maddened peasants now stormed without its walls. Within, Count Lewis and his handful of knights prepared manfully to defend it. Gathering all his men together into the market-place the Count spoke brave words to them. But the hearts of the citizens were with the foe without, not with their lord within the castle.
So one of the city gates was opened and the wild mob rushed in. They swarmed up the castle walls like mountain cats; they wrecked and plundered it from dungeon to turret, and laid it in ruins.
In the church the Count and his knights made a last stand, but here too the rabble followed them, and every man of them was slain or taken prisoner. It was a terrible scene of fury and rage.
Count Lewis and a few of his followers were taken alive, and the peasants resolved to put them to death in cruel fashion. They were led out to a meadow before the town. There, armed with spears, the peasants formed themselves into two long lines. Down this lane of bristling steel, the Count was ordered to march.
With her little two-year-old boy in her arms, the countess threw herself on her knees before the peasant leader, and implored him to have mercy on her husband. But all her tears and prayers were in vain. The rough peasants pushed her back, one of them wounding the little boy with his dagger.
The Count too tried to buy his freedom, and offered the peasants a great sum of gold. But they scornfully refused it. "If you offered us two tons of gold, it would make no difference; you would still have to die," they said.
So, seeing that there was no escape, Count Lewis marched bravely to his death. His piper went before him playing a mocking tune. Upon his head was the Count's plumed hat, which he had snatched from his master. "You have worn it long enough," he said; "it is now my turn to be count. Often enough have I piped for your dancing, but now I shall pipe you a right good tune, and you shall dance to my piping."
With bare head held proudly erect, the Count followed his mocking leader, and scarce three strides had he taken down that glittering, bristling lane, when two hundred spears were buried in his heart.
The poor Countess thus left alone among her foes was insulted, and wounded, and robbed of her jewels. She was placed in a common refuse cart, and driven to the nearest town, while the mob howled and raged around her. "You are used to a chariot of gold," they jeered; "now you have a refuse cart."
The news of the taking of Weinsberg spread through the land, striking terror to the hearts of many. And still the slaughter and destruction went on. Two brother counts, Count George and Count Albert of Hohenlohe, were forced on their bended knees to yield to the peasants. "Come here, brother George, and brother Albert," called a peasant to them; "come here and promise the peasants that you will henceforth look upon them as brothers, for you are no longer lords, but peasants."
"Dear brothers," said another of the peasant leaders, fearing that the prayers of the nobles might touch his followers' hearts, "do not let your hearts be softened because Esau speaks you fair. Have no pity for the godless. Do not let the blood grow cold upon your sword, and smite a merry cling-clang on the anvil of these hunters. Throw down their strong towers while yet there is day."
The peasant leaders boasted that they would reform the whole Empire, and that now a new and happy time was about to begin. But the peasants were after all but a mob without discipline. Their leaders were neither statesmen nor soldiers. When at length the nobles really banded against them, it was soon seen how powerless they were. They were badly armed, they knew no discipline; they had guns without powder, cannon without shot. They trusted in miracles rather than in armies.
Weaponless, they dashed against the foe, singing psalms and hymns.
Now, in battle after battle they were defeated, with terrible slaughter, until a hundred thousand peasants were slain. Many too were taken prisoner, and these, to strike terror to the hearts of others, were treated with frightful cruelty. Their eyes were put out, their hands cut off, and thus they were sent to their homes as a lesson to others.
At length the revolt was utterly crushed. Thousands of peasants had died, and those who remained were more wretched than before, and they sank back into a state of sullen misery, cursing alike their old masters and the new religion.
For Luther, himself a peasant's son, had sided against the peasants. To begin with, his writing and preaching had helped to give them courage to rise. But when they rebelled, he wrote and preached against them. At first he tried to preach peace, and quell the storm he had helped to raise. But when he saw that was useless, he took the side of the nobles, and preached and thundered against the revolt with all his might. This seemed to many in days to come like a great betrayal, a black blot on the kindly character of Luther. Yet he believed himself to be right. "Their blood is upon my head," he said, long years afterwards, "but I lay it all on God, who bade me so to speak."
The peasants, however, felt themselves betrayed and deceived, and for a time the name of Luther and his new religion were hated by them with a bitter hatred.