Wild Boar in the Vineyard: Martin Luther at the Birth of the Modern World

Reform and Revolution

The Peasants’ War of 1524-25, a series of violent uprisings throughout Germany, was the largest popular revolt in Europe before the French Revolution. Initially met with negotiation and mediation, these revolts were eventually put down ruthlessly by the armies of the German nobility, and as many as 100,000 peasants were killed. Some of the peasants’ demands drew heavily on Luther’s ideas and language, such as Christian “freedom” and conscience, and the supreme authority of the biblical “Word” over temporal authorities. The peasants rode a wave of optimism generated by the first years of the Reformation, when the honest layperson was seen as more holy than the deceitful cleric.

Luther rejected what he saw as the disorder being fomented in his name and objected when his works were taken in revolutionary, sometimes apocalyptically-inspired directions. Initially, in his Admonition to Peace, Luther blamed both sides for the disorder and called for calm. Faced with the armies of his rival Thomas Müntzer in Thuringia, however, Luther took an extreme and brutal position against the peasant “rebels.” His Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants (1525) appeared as their suppression was well underway, but the tract gave support to the landlords’ response: “Let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab, secretly and openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.” As a result of the uprisings, Luther distanced himself from some of the trajectories inherent his own teachings.


Faithful Advice of a Christian Peasant: How the Faithful Christian Soul Should Hold and Consider a Daily Dialogue with the Human Flesh
Diepold Peringer
Zwickau: Johann Schönsperger, 1524
Burke Tower 03-B1601

Published in Zwickau, a hotbed of the radical appropriation of his ideas that Luther came to disdain. The caption for the woodcut reads: “In human terms I am a peasant. God gives his grace where he thinks fit.“

Diepold Peringer, author of this item the work adjacent, claimed that he could neither read nor write and learned by the direct inspiration of God. He was in fact an educated former member of a religious order, but appealed to the idealized image of the simple layperson led by the Spirit.


A Letter to the Princes of Saxony, Concerning the Revolutionary Spirit
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Wittenberg: Lucas Cranach and Christian Döring, 1524
Burke Tower 03-B1143

Thomas Müntzer was among the “radicals” initially sympathetic to some of Luther’s teachings, but he and Luther became bitter opponents. Müntzer remained an important figure and his image appeared on the 5 Mark bill of the German Democratic Republic. In this letter, Luther urged the rulers of their region to suppress Müntzer and his popular movement.


A Sermon Preached by the Peasant from Wöhrd-by-Nuremberg, on the Sunday Before Carnival about the Free Will of Man
Diepold Peringer
Nuremberg: Hieronymus Höltzel, 1524
Burke Tower 03-B1883

“The peasant from Wöhrd-by-Nuremberg” was an appellation for the author of this sermon, an itinerant radical preacher at the time of German Peasants’ War. Its theme of the religious value of the layperson indicates how one of Luther’s defining emphases resonated with, and was used to energize, the uprisings that Luther would soon after denounce.


An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Erfurt: Melchior Sachse, 1525
Burke Tower 03-B1163

In this work, published after his controversial Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants and after the peak of the uprisings, Luther does not retract his attacks levelled there, which many of his allies and supporters had decried, though he accuses the landlords of being too extreme in their violent response to the uprisings.

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