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‘Socialism’ and the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900: Part One – Chartists, Radicals & Revolutionaries.   Leave a comment

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The British Labour Party, 1983-2019:

The British Labour Party published its manifesto for the forthcoming General Election in early December 2019. The Party itself claims that it represents its most radical offering to the British electorate ever. Certainly, it is the most left-wing programme to be put forward since the 1983 Election, at which the then leader, Michael Foot, was later accused by Gerald Kauffman of writing ‘the longest suicide note in history’. As a result, Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory which led to her remaining in power for a further seven years, and the Tories until 1997. There were other factors, of course, not least among them the victory over Argentina in the Falklands Islands in 1982. I campaigned for Labour in Carmarthen in 1983 and, at least in that three-way marginal, Labour defeated both the Tories and Plaid Cymru. Michael Foot delivered a fiery, left-wing speech in the constituency and inspired us, students, to knock on doors in working-class areas of the town to secure their vote for the Labour candidate, Dr Roger Thomas. Across Wales and the UK, however, the Tories destroyed the Labour Party in a manner no-one could have anticipated. In 2019, are we now headed for a similar scale of defeat? Has the Corbyn-led leftward lurch finally brought the party to the end of the road? Or is there an underestimated level of support for radical, redistributive policies in today’s Britain which could yet bring in a government which, to invert the words of a former speaker and Labour MP, George Thomas, would seem to owe more to Marxism than Methodism? To understand these issues, we need to look back to the origins of the Labour Party, founded by, among others, my own grandparents.

In late 1946 a group of historians, friends and members of the Communist Party started regularly meeting in Marx’s House in London, picture here.

The Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, London, home to Walter Crane’s ‘Twentieth Century Press’ in the 1890s

Organising the Labourers, 1870-1879:

My great-grandparents were agricultural labourers and marched with Methodist lay-preacher Joseph Arch in the 1860s and 1870s to organise their fellow villagers into the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union and then the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union in 1872. One of my great-great-uncles became one of its first local full-time officers. By 1875, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong and organised into thirty-eight districts, despite fierce opposition from farmers, landlords, and parish priests. It was against this triple tyranny that the farm labourers struggled to build trade unionism in the countryside. Added to that was the sense of isolation, both at work and in the nature of village life. A labourer might work alone in fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays for a wage of twelve pounds a year. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of the world beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and a semblance of social life at the village pub. Nor did he share in the fruits of the earth on which he toiled; the harvester, like the one in the photograph below, who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could find himself before the local magistrate, invariably a farmer. It took a special kind of courage to stand with a few fellow-labourers and sing:

Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.

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Meanwhile, the industrial advances of the middle-Victorian era eliminated the immediate risk of serious social discontent among the workers, and especially among their potential leaders, the skilled artisans and factory employees. The plight of the poor was made worse by the fact that many more of them lived in towns. In 1871, sixty-two per cent of the population of England and Wales was classed in the census as urban; by 1911 it would reach eighty per cent of a much larger total. Yet in a country like Britain, with a long-established aristocracy and a traditional class system, no very high degree of social fluidity could be attained even in the heyday of industrial capitalism. On the contrary, large-scale industry developed class solidarity among the workers which in the end facilitated effective political election in the interest of labour as a whole. By 1871 the Trades Union Congress had been established and accepted as the central parliament of labour, meeting annually, and its Parliamentary Committee was the recognised agent for applying pressure on behalf of the trades unions at the centre of government. By the Acts of 1871, the trade unions secured a legal status; in the same year, the engineers of north-east England revived the Nine Hours movement and won a strike for this object. In 1875, a Conservative government, showing itself as sensitive as the Liberals to the pressure of the unions in industrial matters, passed two acts which satisfied the unions in respect of breach of contract and picketing.

There were also a few local labour associations active in securing representation for working men on local authorities, and sometimes, as in Birmingham in the 1870s, they carried on their work without any understanding with an existing party. But on a national scale, it is not surprising that few labour leaders regarded the establishment of an entirely independent workers’ party as a practical possibility. Most of them accepted Gladstone’s leadership, for it had been he who had championed the cause of working-class suffrage in the previous decade, and on many issues of policy, the leaders of the artisans found themselves in alliance with the Liberals. The Liberal Party was not a monolithic structure: and the acceptance of the leadership of Gladstone on general questions did not necessarily mean that the labour interest need forego its special organisation. In the circumstances of the time, there was no reason why the Labour Representation League should not continue to exist among, and indeed to struggle against, the other elements of the Liberal Party. This struggle could and did continue at the constituency level. The failure of the League to maintain itself even on those terms indicates the unwillingness of the middle-class Liberals to see working men elected as their representatives. John Bright himself accused the League of disorganising the party unless what are called working-class representatives could be returned. Henry Broadbent, the Secretary of the League, in his rejoinder to this, admitted the failure of its policy:

Up to the present, the number of seats contested by labour candidates have been very few, and in some of these cases the seats sought to be won were those held by the Conservatives, and in many of those instances we singularly enough found large numbers of the middle class electors preferred voting for the Tories rather than support a working-class candidate. Surely, then, we are the aggrieved party. …

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Above & below: The Paris Commune of 1871.

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It was true that the policy of finding Liberal seats for labour candidates had few successes and many failures. At the 1874 election two miners were elected, Thomas Burt for Morpeth and Alexander McDonald for Stafford; but this was a miserable showing for an electorate, the majority of which now consisted of members of the working class. Nevertheless, there were signs of a developing sympathy among them for Socialism at the time of the Paris Commune of 1871 (depicted above). These were mainly to be found among the writings of the Republican movement which sprang up in the period 1871-74 when eighty-four Republican clubs were founded in Britain. But the disagreement among their leaders over the issue of ‘social revolution’ led to division and decline. Its Socialist doctrine was limited to a vague ‘Owenism’, for although Marx was living in London at this time, pursuing his research at the reading room of the British Museum (below), his works were little known in Britain. Nevertheless, Robert Owen’s thinking was not entirely without influence, as it was at this period that many trade unions took up schemes for co-operative production, buying collieries and engineering works in which to try out these ideas. In the years 1874 to 1880, while the Liberals were out of power, it was difficult for a labourist opposition to establish itself as distinct from that of the Liberals.

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By 1878, the Labour Representation League had ceased to attract any public attention and the more independent trade unions, mostly those most vulnerable to the severe trade depression of the late seventies, were killed off by the bad times. Arch’s Agricultural Labourers’ Union was especially hard hit and its membership rapidly declined. In 1881, Arch appeared in person before the Royal Commission on Agriculture, claiming that the only way to ensure higher wages for farm labourers was to reduce the numbers in ‘the market’ through emigration. His Union had aided the emigration of seven hundred thousand men, women and children over the previous nine years, together with the Canadian government. Similarly, the New Zealand government, anxious to overcome the disadvantages of the long, expensive and uncomfortable sea journeys of British emigrants, had offered, from 1873, free passages, especially to agricultural labourers and their families. With the backing of NALU, many families took up the offer, and between 1871 and 1880, the New Zealand government provided over a hundred thousand immigrants with assisted passages.

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This trade union participation in what became known as ‘Liberal Imperialism’ presented a serious challenge to the growth of Socialism in Britain. In general, millworkers and miners were absorbed in their economic struggle for better wages and conditions. This laid some of them open to the argument that faced with stiffening foreign competition and tariffs, Britain could only hold on to or improve its prosperity by having more and more colonies. This ‘bread-and-butter’ argument had a rational flavour, and it would seem that when trade was good most workers were prepared to give it a good hearing. When trading conditions were bad, and especially capital and labour were more at odds than usual, it usually fell into the background, and the instinctive assumptions and loyalties of the class struggle usually took its place. But what historians now refer to as the ‘Great Depression’, far from encouraging that growth and the break-up of the Liberal Party, actually discouraged working-class militancy and destroyed the more ‘advanced’ and independent elements among the working classes in both the agricultural and industrial areas of the Midlands and South of England.

Most of the time, the working classes were simply shut in their own world and its own affairs, including trade union and co-operative activities, the club-life of the public house, the football ground and the chapel, to be either enthusiastic or antagonistic towards imperialism. It never became for them what it was for those higher up; a definite creed, philosophy of life, a mission. But if a long-sustained effort to indoctrinate them with jingoism was rewarded with acquiescence rather than with wholehearted assent, this meant equally that socialist or labour leaders who tried to transform indifference into anti-imperialism met with even smaller success. Some trade union and Socialist spokesmen were reviving an opposition to the empire that had been voiced by Ernest Jones the Chartist, the spirited attacks on it by intellectuals and radical groups fell on deaf working-class ears. Writing to Kautsky in September 1882, Engels commented on working-class attitudes to the empire in response to a question from his continental ‘comrade’:

You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.

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Neither could Owenite Socialism, identified with Utopian experiments and lacking any systematic economic theory, provide a basis for a practical political programme. Writing in 1881, Engels felt bound to admit that the working class of Britain had become the tail of the great Liberal Party. The new orientation of economic thought was influenced not only by the impact of the depression but also by long-term changes in the structure of industry which earlier economists had not predicted. The family firms were being replaced by more impersonal limited companies, in which ownership was divorced from managerial skill and from direct contact with labour. As a result, the opportunities for social advancement were curtailed and the workers’ class solidarity was increased. This did not happen uniformly in all industries, and by the mid-eighties, it was common only in iron, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. But the tendency was the same everywhere, and it seemed very possible that it might lead to the substitution of monopoly for competition in the end, as Marx had forecast. But though he had been living in London since 1849, Marx was virtually unknown at this time, even by Liberal Radicals. His major works were written in German and had not been translated into English, and they were more concerned with events on the continent. Engels was better known as a critic of the industrial system in England.

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Engels in a photograph taken in the 1870s

In the earlier years of the Victorian period, there had always been those intellectuals who maintained that the existing industrial system was unjust or ugly or both. The most notable of those who took this view were Carlyle and Ruskin, both of whom were popular in the later nineteenth century. Ruskin had founded a Utopian experiment, St George’s Guild, and bought a farm where a little group of Sheffield Socialists attempted without success to set up a self-sufficient community. His essays on political economy, Unto this Last (1860), and his letters to working men, known as Fors Clavigera (1871-84), did much to encourage the growing spirit of collectivism. They revived, in simple and impressive language, many of the criticisms of classical economics which had first been voiced by the ‘Ricardian Socialists’ of the 1820s. Not that Ruskin had read the works of these writers, who were completely forgotten in this period except for the occasional footnote in Marx. Ruskin was the great amateur of political economy, but influential for all that. It was not without reason that Keir Hardie and many other labour leaders regarded Carlyle and Ruskin as more important in shaping their political views than any writers more fully versed in the abstractions of economic theory.

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It would be difficult to argue that any of the British labour leaders at the end of the nineteenth century, except for a very few Marxists, were able to build their political views upon a reasoned philosophical basis. The British Socialists at this time were a small and scattered minority. The London Commonwealth Club, which John Hales had represented at the Ghent Socialist Congress of 1877, seems to have died out before the end of the decade. Hales led the opposition to Marx and Engels in the British Section of the First Socialist International (pictured below) and tried to revive the Club by founding the International Labour Union in 1877-8 but this, too, was a very short-lived organisation, despite attracting the support of several leading ‘advanced radicals’. What interest there was in Socialism sprang very largely from the success of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which in 1877 had polled nearly half a million votes and had won thirteen seats in the Reichstag.

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Engels speaking to the Congress of the First International in the Hague in 1872.

In 1879, an old Chartist, John Sketchley of Birmingham, published a pamphlet entitled The Principles of Social Democracy which sought to show, based on the German SPD, what the programme of a similar party in Britain might be. In Birmingham, Sketchley tried to organise a Midland Social Democratic Association, linking to the city’s working-class politics of the early 1870s. Other Socialist propagandists of the time were Henry Travis, a doctor, who published occasional pamphlets on Owenism, and a young journalist, Ernest Belfort Bax, who knew Germany well, had read Marx’s Das Kapital in the original and had written articles on Marxism in the monthly magazine, Modern Thought in 1879. Also, in 1880, the Rose Street club of German exiles expanded rapidly due to the influx of refugees from the regressive legislation in Germany and Austria, developing an English section although it continued to publish only in German. When the Russian scientist and socialist Peter Kropotkin visited England to lecture on Socialism in 1881, he found himself addressing ‘ridiculously small audiences’. Two years later, Marx’s death in London would have passed unnoticed by The Times had its Paris correspondent not sent a paragraph on his European reputation.

Liberal Hegemony & the Birth of Socialism, 1880-84:

Clearly, at the time of the General Election in 1880, Socialism in Britain was as yet a movement without indigenous strength. Until the early 1880s, there had been no organised working-class support for major democratic reform since the death of the Chartist movement in the late 1840s. The mid-Victorian period was generally one of prosperity, rising wages and full employment, at least for ‘skilled’ workers. The Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise to most of the adult male population, was a move towards democratic reform through legislation. At the same time, British socialism acquired some new ideas from refugees who had fled from persecution under autocratic continental governments in the 1870s. The hold of the Liberal Party over the working-class vote was shown to be stronger than ever. Only three working men were returned at the 1880 Election, all of them as Liberals: Henry Broadhurst, Secretary of the TUC, joined Thomas Burt and Alexander McDonald at Westminster. The election showed the strength of Joseph Chamberlain’s new Radical pressure group, the National Liberal Foundation, which dominated the constituency parties to the advantage of the middle-classes and the alarm of labour leaders. The Liberals had a clear majority of seventy-two seats in the new House of Commons. In late 1880 a new weekly paper, the Radical, was established in London ostensibly in opposition to the new Liberal government’s policy of applying coercion in Ireland. However, the leading article in the first issue deplored the small number of labour representatives in Parliament.

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The protagonists of this alliance of Radicals and Irish included Helen Taylor, the stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill, T. P. O’Connor and former Chartists. There followed a proposal for a more permanent organisation of ‘advanced’ Radicals, an idea which seems to have originated with H. M. Hyndman, a Tory Radical who was defeated at Marylebone in the 1880 election, and H. A. M. Butler-Johnstone, MP for Canterbury for many years before resigning over differences with the Tory Party in 1878. He stood as an independent in the 1880 election but was defeated. The views of these two men on ‘the Eastern Question’ provided an unlikely link with Karl Marx, whose advice they sought. In response to their invitation, delegates from various London clubs and associations met at the headquarters of the Social Democrats in Rose Street in an attempt to unite, if possible, all societies willing to adopt Radical programme with a powerful Democratic party. The meeting urged…

… the necessity of the formation of a New Party, the grand object of which should be the direct representation of labour. In addition to Parliamentary reform, the new party would, of course, have to deal with the question of improvement in the social condition of the people. 

A resolution was passed without opposition in favour of an attempt to establish ‘a labour party’, and a committee of nine was appointed to draft a programme. These included liberal trades unionists, social democrats, working-class Radicals, together with Hyndman and Butler-Johnstone. The foundation conference took place in June 1881, and a long advertisement in the Radical invited delegates from advanced political organisations, trade societies and clubs throughout the country. The advertisement advocated a social and political programme which shall unite the great body of the people, quite irrespective of party. The programme was to include attention to labour interests, economy, constitutional reform, the end of coercion in Ireland, and full publicity for the discussion of imperial and foreign affairs. Hyndman’s hand can be detected in the composition of this statement and it is evident that he played an active part in the shaping of the new party. When the conference took place, it was decided that the ‘party’ should rather be called the ‘Democratic Federation’, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to copy and rival Chamberlain’s National Liberal Federation which had proved all too successful in establishing middle-class hegemony over the constituency caucuses.

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Writing to Bernstein in May 1881, Engels had already decided, however, that the Federation was quite without significance because it could only arouse interest on the Irish question. Hyndman’s conversion to Marxian Socialism had taken place on a trip to America the previous year when he read a copy of the French version of Marx’s Kapital given him by Butler-Johnstone. In January 1881 he had published an article in the influential monthly, the Nineteenth Century, which he entitled The Dawn of a Revolutionary Epoch. In June, at the inaugural conference of the Democratic Federation, he distributed to all the delegates a little book he had written called England for All, in which he expounded the views of Marx without mentioning his name. This annoyed Marx and their relations became strained. Marx wrote to his friend Sorge of his irritation with Hyndman’s publication:

It pretends to be written as an exposition of the programme of the ‘Democratic Federation’ – a recently formed association of different English and Scottish radical societies, half bourgeois, half proletarian. The chapters on Labour and Capital are simply literal extracts from … ‘Das Kapital’, but the fellow mentions neither the book nor its author … As to myself, the fellow wrote stupid letters of excuse, for instance, that “the English don’t like to be taught by foreigners”, that “my name was so much detested”, etc. For all that, his little book, so far as it pilfers ‘Das Kapital’ makes good propoganda, although the man is a weak vessel, and very far from having even the patience – the first condition of learning anything – to study a matter thoroughly.

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Above: The last photograph of Marx, taken in the spring of 1882 in Algeria.

In this way, Hyndman lost his brief friendship with Karl Marx and, as a result, that of Friedrich Engels as well. Marx died in 1883, but Engels lived on in London until 1895, aspiring to direct the Socialist movement from behind the scenes. His hostility to Hyndman was to have serious consequences for the movement. Marx and Engels were not, themselves, easy people to get on with, and they were sometimes poor judges of character. Hyndman nicknamed Engels the Grand Lama of the Regents Park Road, a reference to his self-imposed seclusion in his house there, and Engels spoke of Hyndman as an arch-Conservative and extremely chauvinistic but not stupid careerist, who behaved pretty shabbily to Marx, and for that reason was dropped by us personally. Hyndman was by no means a careerist, as his subsequent unrewarding toil in the Socialist movement was to show: Marx himself was perhaps closer to the truth when he described him as self-satisfied and garrulous. Bernard Shaw classified him …

… with the free-thinking English gentlemen-republicans of the last half of the nineteenth century: with Dilke, Burton Auberon Herbert, Wilfred Seawen Blunt, Laurence Oliphant: great globe-trotters, writers, ‘frondeurs’, brilliant and accomplished cosmopolitans so far as their various abilities permitted, all more interested in the world than in themselves, and in themselves than in official decorations; consequently unpurchasable, their price being too high for any modern commercial Government to pay.      

Hyndman’s Conservative origins and leanings made him suspect to many of the Radicals, who mostly preferred the Liberals if they had to choose between the parties. In his Marylebone election address, he had declared his opposition to disestablishment and Irish Home Rule and this was not forgotten by his contemporaries. Following his ‘conversion’ to Marxian thinking, and under its influence, he soon gave up these views, but he was still sufficiently conservative in his leanings to arrange a meeting with Disraeli, now the Earl of Beaconsfield, at which he poured forth his views, apparently in the hope that the Tory Party might adopt them. Disraeli listened patiently and politely but told him that private property which you hope to communise and vested interests which you openly threaten, have a great many to speak up for them still. Despite this rebuttal, Hyndman always hated the Liberals more than the Tories, a feature which was to distinguish his politics from those of many of the other British Socialists. The Democratic Federation’s intransigent opposition to the Liberal Party became unpalatable to many of its early members. Its vigorous support for a Land League candidate against the Liberal nominee at a by-election in Tyrone in the autumn of 1881, at which it issued a denunciation of ‘capitalist radicalism’ in a special manifesto, led to the defection of all the Radical clubs and its original membership contracted. As Socialism began to spread, however, Hyndman was able to convert it into an openly Socialist body at the annual conference in 1883. The Federation now adopted his declaration of principles, Socialism Made Plain, but it did not change its name until the following year when it became the Social Democratic Federation.

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The new recruits to Socialism who joined Hyndman in running the Federation, several young public school men, included H. H. Champion and R. P. B. Frost, who had been contemporaries at Marlborough and held office in the newly founded Land Reform Union, which publicised the views of Henry George in Britain. A more notable convert was William Morris, already a radical writer and artist with a distinguished reputation and an honorary fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. Morris had been active in the Eastern Question Association, which had brought him into contact with Liberal labour leaders a few years before, so his attitude to this question was Gladstonian, the opposite to that of Marx and Hyndman. But he had not been active in the land agitation, and it was Ruskin rather than George who seems to have been his introduction to Socialism. Therefore, as the working-class Radicals left the Federation, the middle-class Socialists came in. Paradoxically, however, by November 1882, Morris had decided that no really far-reaching reforms would be carried out by a party under middle-class control. He wrote:

Radicalism is on the wrong line … and will never develop into anything more than Radicalism … it is made by the middle classes and will always be under the control of rich capitalists: they will have no objection to its political development if they think they can stop it there: but as to real social changes, they will not allow them if they can help it.

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So it was that on 13 January 1883 he committed himself to socialism by joining the Democratic Federation. Becoming a Socialist at the age of forty-nine was not a step which he took lightly. During the winter of 1882-83, he attended a series of lectures, intended as an introduction to Socialism, organised by the Federation. Immediately after joining, he read Das Kapital in French, as it had not then been translated into English. Marx died two months after Morris joined the Federation, and Morris therefore never met him. Nevertheless, Morris regarded himself as a communist and his adoption of the socialist cause was, at first, based on an instinctive response to what he felt to be injustices of capitalism. In Marx’s account of the alienation of the worker in an industrial society, and of his liberation through the class struggle, he found a theoretical base to underpin these instincts. He summed up his position in a letter to C. E. Maurice in July 1883:

In looking into matters social and political I have but one rule, that in thinking of the condition of any body of men I should ask myself, ‘How could you bear it yourself? What would you feel if you were poor against the system under which you live?’ … the answer to it has more and more made me ashamed of my own position, and more and more made me feel that if I had not been born rich or well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, and should have been a mere rebel against what would have seemed to me a system of robbery and injustice. … this … is a matter of religion to me: the contrasts of rich and poor … ought not to be endured by either rich or poor. … such a system can only be destroyed, it seems to me, by the united discontent of numbers; isolated acts of a few persons in the middle and upper classes seeming to me … quite powerless against it: in other words the antagonism of classes, which the system has bred, is the natural necessary instrument of its destruction. … I am quite sure that the change which will overthrow our present system will come sooner or later: on the middle classes to a great extent it depends whether it will come peacefully or violently.

Early on, Morris had understood that there were serious ideological, strategic and tactical divisions within the Federation, not to mention clashes of personality. Morris wrote about these divisions in his letter to Georgiana Burne-Jones in August 1883:

Small as our body is, we are not without dissensions in it. Some of the more ardent members look upon Hyndman as too opportunist, and there is truth in that; he is sanguine of speedy change happening somehow and is inclined to intrigue and the making of a party. … I … think the aim of Socialists should be the founding of a religion, towards which end compromise is no use, and we only want to have those with us who will be with us to the end.

These millenarian beliefs also had an impact on Morris ‘inner’ struggles with his own conscience. The contradiction between his socialist views and his position as a wealthy, middle-class businessman was from the first pointed out by his critics. His workers do not appear to have been disturbed by this apparent inconsistency, however, because Morris treated them with respect as fellow workers and paid them more than average wages. In any case, he felt (perhaps all too conveniently for him personally) that individual tinkering with the system, in the form of profit-sharing, was useless – it must be overthrown in its entirety. He regarded revolution, whether violent or not, as a historical necessity which would certainly come in his lifetime. Nevertheless, in 1884 he calculated that every worker in his employment should receive an extra sixteen pounds a year. He also introduced a form of profit-sharing for his ‘core’ employees, though the Firm overall remained a standard limited company.

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Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery; photographed c. 1895.

In 1884, the Federation became the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and seemed to have every hope of rapid progress. Though not strong in numbers, the SDF had important footholds in the Land Reform Union and the National Secular Society, and it had both weekly and monthly journals in addition to the services of some able men and women, including William Morris and Annie Besant. When, in March 1884, it organised a procession to the grave of Marx in Highgate cemetery on the first anniversary of his death, those who took part amounted, according to Morris, to over a thousand, with another two or three thousand onlookers. This was, at least, a beginning, Morris thought. Once convinced of the rightness of Socialism, Morris threw himself into the work of the Federation, not allowing himself to be deterred by his instinctive dislike and distrust of Hyndman. Morris resolved to tolerate the leader of the Federation because of his genuine belief in Socialism. Unlike Morris, he had met Marx and, like Morris, had converted to Socialism after reading Das Kapital. Morris told his business manager that as he is trying to do what I think ought to be done, I feel that everyone who has similar ideas ought to help him. 

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Marx (standing with Engels) with his daughters (seated), Jenny, Eleanor & Laura, c. 1867

The Social Democratic Federation aimed to educate the working class and to organise them for the socialist revolution which members of the Federation believed to be imminent. In his book, The Historical Basis of Socialism in Britain (1883), Hyndman had implied that the time would be ripe in 1889, the centenary of the French Revolution. It was, however, the disagreement about the means of achieving Socialism that brought the clashes of personality into prominence. Hyndman had captured the Democratic Federation for Socialism, and he expected to go on dominating it and leading it along the line of policy which he favoured. But he did not find favour in all quarters: Marx and Engels never regarded him as a genuine Socialist by their standards, and although Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, was a member of the SDF, both she and her partner, the scientist Edward Aveling (of whom G. B. Shaw, scarcely exaggerating said, he seduced every woman he met, and borrowed from every man) regarded Hyndman with suspicion. Indeed, he was dictatorial, devious and vain; what Morris had identified as Hyndman’s genuine belief in Socialism was now more obviously accompanied by his desire to use the Federation as a vehicle for his parliamentary ambition. He wanted it to become a conventional political party, campaigning for reforms and, as soon as possible, putting up candidates for local and parliamentary elections.

William Morris resented Hyndman’s domineering ways and eventually decided that he could no longer tolerate him. At the SDF conference in June 1884, it was decided not to put up parliamentary candidates and Hyndman was displaced as president; instead, members of the executive took turns to act as chairman. Nevertheless, as Morris recognised, Hyndman was determined to be master, and though Morris did not oppose getting members into parliament once the Federation had a strong enough base, he did not feel that it should be their aim at all costs, as Hyndman did. In particular, Morris was very much opposed to sordid electioneering and to gaining concessions by doing deals with other parties. Along with others in the SDF, he felt that their principal aim should be the preparation of the working classes for their part in the coming revolution: Education towards Revolution seems to me to express in three words what our policy should be. 

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Despite Morris’ efforts to act as a mediator in the intrigue and in-fighting with the Hyndmanites, the crisis came in December 1884. The split took place on 27 December, when ten members of the Executive Council resigned, denouncing what in a signed statement they called the attempt to substitute arbitrary rule therein for fraternal co-operation. The signatories included Morris himself, Eleanor Marx and Aveling, More congenial to Morris was Belfort Bax, a journalist, musician and philosopher, who was a confidant of Engels with whom Morris later collaborated in writing Socialism, its Growth and Outcome (1893). The remaining nine members, led by Hyndman, remained in control of the remnants of the SDF. On the day of the split, and even before the critical Council meeting took place, Morris received an ex-cathedra summons to visit Engels, who gave him his advice on the way to organise a new organisation. Next day Morris acquired headquarters for it: as it had the support of the two leagues of London and Scotland, the new ‘party’ was called The Socialist League. The League began to publish a new journal, Commonweal which in Morris’ hands was a paper of real literary merit. Morris much regretted the split, realising that it had seriously weakened the socialist cause, and hoped that before long the British Socialists might be reunited in one party. Indeed, in his last years, he himself did rejoin the SDF. The two associations managed to stay on reasonably amicable terms. Nevertheless, writing in the Commonweal in 1890, Morris bitterly described the Federation as composed in the early days of …

… a few working men, less successful even in the wretched life of labour than their fellows: a sprinkling of the intellectual proletariat … one or two outsiders in the game political, a few refugees from the bureaucratic tyranny of foreign governments; and here and there an unpractical, half-cracked artist or author.

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Educators, Agitators & Trades Unionists, 1885-89:

But in spite of Morris’s great activity up and down the country, the League did not displace the SDF and after six months it still had only two affiliated bodies and eight branches with 230 members. When Morris resigned from the SDF, its membership amounted to no more than five hundred. Morris became depressed about this, as he wrote to Mrs Burne-Jones in May 1885:

I am in low spirits about the prospects of our ‘party’, if I can dignify a little knot of men by such a word. … You see we are such a few, and hard as we work we don’t seem to pick up people to take over our places when we demit. … I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of ‘civilisation’, which I know now is doomed to destruction, and probably before long … and how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies. … 

This letter explains very clearly the nature of Morris’s views on the character of the future Socialist revolution. Like Hyndman, he believed in a coming catastrophe and even looked forward to it with millenarian enthusiasm, though he did not, like Hyndman, regard himself as marked out for revolutionary leadership. Rather, he believed that the immediate role of the Socialist was to educate people for the great inevitable change which could bring back the simpler, sounder society of medieval times when craftsmen took pride in their work and when there was no capitalist exploitation or industrial ugliness. In this thinking, he was clearly influenced by Ruskin, shaping a criticism of contemporary that was to form the basis of Syndicalism and Guild Socialism in the early twentieth century. Morris disagreed with those who favoured efforts to get Socialists elected onto public bodies, including Parliament because he thought that this would encourage careerists and threaten the purity of the Socialist ideal with the corruption and compromise inevitably involved in politics. But even his own Socialist League divided on this issue, a division which hastened its collapse at the end of the decade. Morris was a fully convinced Socialist, and though he did not know much about Marxian economics, he was quite prepared to take them on trust. His attitude is well illustrated by his answer to a Hyndmanite questioner who asked, Does Comrade Morris accept Marx’s Theory of Value? He replied bluntly:

To speak frankly, I do not know what Marx’s Theory of Value is, and I’m damned if I want to know. Truth to say, my friends, I have tried to understand  Marx’s theory, but political economy is not my line, and much of it appears to me to be dreary rubbish. But I am, I hope, a Socialist none the less. It is enough political economy for me to know that the idle rich class is rich and the working class is poor, and that the rich are rich because they rob the poor. …

In retrospect, Morris’ fine literary and artistic gifts make him, for many, the most attractive personality among the early British Socialists. But to contemporaries, especially among the working class, his opposition to Parliamentary action was unpopular. The SDF, by contrast, seemed more practical than the Socialist League, and better organised as a party. Morris saw his role as that of a propagandist, educating the working classes in socialist theory. As he explained in an interview with the Liberal newspaper, Daily News, in January 1885,

the discontented must know what they are aiming at when they overthrow the old order of things. My belief is that the old order can only be overthrown by force, and for that reason it is all the more important than the revolution … should not be an ignorant, but an educated revolution.

By the summer of 1886, the Socialist League’s membership had risen to seven hundred. Morris’ political work took two forms, writing and public speaking. He was well aware of his deficiencies as a speaker, particularly before a working-class audience, with whom he found it a great drawback that I can’t speak roughly to them and unaffectedly. He candidly commented to Georgiana Burne-Jones that this revealed the great class gulf that lay between him and them. He regarded writing lectures as a laborious chore. He lectured 120 times between 1885 and 1886, touring East Anglia, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland, also travelling to Dublin. In addition, he played a full part in the Socialist League’s campaign of open-air speaking on Sunday mornings. Despite the failures in his delivery and his tendency to speak over the heads of his audience, his sincerity was impressive; so was the simple fact that such a famous man was prepared to devote so much time to speaking on street corners or visiting the East End to address sometimes no more than a handful of workers.

A  severe trade depression in the mid-1880s brought high unemployment and a receptive audience. Attempts by the police to suppress socialist speakers addressing crowds in public places created a good deal of unrest and further publicity for the socialist cause. It united the disparate radical and socialist groups in opposition to the police. The Socialist League offered support to the SDF after charges of obstruction were brought against its speakers in the summer of 1885. In September, Morris himself was arrested and brought before a magistrate, accused of striking a policeman and breaking the strap on his helmet during an uproar in court after a socialist speaker had been sentenced to two months’ hard labour, having been found guilty of obstruction. Morris denied the charge, and when questioned about his identity, replied, I am an artistic and literary man, pretty well known, I think, throughout Europe. He was allowed to go free. His arrest was the best possible publicity for the Socialist League, was reported as far afield as the United States and rallied supporters to the cause of free speech. But the contrast between the court’s treatment of Morris and of his working-class comrades was highlighted both on this occasion and in the following August, when Morris and two others, both working men, were arrested for obstruction. Morris was fined only a shilling because, as the judge explained, as a gentleman, he would at once see, when it was pointed out to him, that such meetings were a nuisance, and would desist in taking part in them. His two working-class accomplices, however, were both fined twenty pounds and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months. Unable to pay, they were sent to prison for two months.

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There was a further division in the mid-eighties among the early Socialists, between those who were for placing economic problems in the prime place, and those who favoured subordinating them to ethical concerns. The former founded, early in 1884, a separate society which they called the Fabian Society, taking the name from the Roman general ‘Fabius’ who waited patiently for his opportunity to strike against Hannibal. Apart from the fact that they were Socialists, it is difficult to determine what the Fabians’ views actually were. Right from the start, the Society was opposed to the revolutionary views of the SDF; while Bernard Shaw, who attended his first meeting in May 1884 and was elected to membership in September, later declared that the constitutionalism which now distinguishes us as being as alien at those early meetings as it was at those of the SDF or the Socialist League. Although most of its early members were constitutionalists, some were revolutionaries and even anarchists. The Fabian Society was not committed to ‘constitutionalism’ at first, only to ‘caution’, which nevertheless was an implied criticism of the tactics of the SDF. It’s clear that, in some quarters, Fabian Socialism became something of a fashion of the middle-class ‘drawing-room’ which kept out nearly all the proletarians in favour of a very miscellaneous audience.

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The first Fabian Tract, issued in April 1884, entitled Why are the Many Poor? simply stated the extent of wealth and poverty but offered no remedy. The second tract, issued in September, was drawn up by Shaw in his most scintillating style and advocated Land Nationalisation, State competition in industries, the abolition of gender inequalities and of all types of privilege. It concluded with the rather stark observation that we had rather face a Civil War than another century of suffering as the present one has been. At this time Shaw was an aspiring novelist, so far unknown. His political interests had first been aroused by Henry George, whom he heard speak in London in 1884:

He struck me dumb and shunted me from barren agnostic controversy to economics. I read his ‘Progress and Poverty’, and wet to a meeting of Hyndman’s Marxist Democratic Federation, where I rose and protested against its drawing a red herring across the trail blazed by George. I was contemptuously dismissed as a novice who had not read the great frst volume of Marx’s ‘Capital’.

I promptly read it, and returned to announce my complete conversion to it. Immediately contempt changed to awe, for Hyndman’s disciples had not read the book themselves, it being then accessible only in Deville’s French version in the British Museum reading room, my daily resort.

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The reading room of the British Museum, used by both Marx and then by G. B. Shaw.

In 1884-5, Shaw was prepared, in his enthusiasm for Marx, to defend him against all comers. But even then, so far as a revolution by violence was concerned, Shaw was beginning to have doubts, and by February 1885 he was urging the middle-classes to join the Socialist movement to counteract the influence of a mob of desperate sufferers abandoned to the leadership of exasperated sentimentalists and fanatical theorists.  this precept, he brought into the Fabian Society his friend Sidney Webb, a clerk in the Foreign Office, who was a disciple of John Stuart Mill. He had, at Shaw’s suggestion, read Marx, but had not been converted to Marxian Socialism. Shortly afterwards, Annie Besant, who had a long record of Radical agitation, also joined the Fabian Society, and under these new and able recruits, it developed a distinctive constitutionalist strategy within British Socialism.

The 1884 extensions of the electorate spelt the end of the already moribund principle of government non-intervention in the economic sphere. As soon as the control of elections passed out of the hands of those who paid income tax, the age-old doctrine of laissez-faire was dead. But it was a far greater leap to Socialism in the stricter sense of either the ‘Marxists’ or of the Fabians, who were more eclectic in their reading of political economy. In 1885, the Socialists were not an electoral force at all, since it was impossible for a body like the SDF, with just a few thousand members, to fight a Parliamentary election, unless those members were al concentrated into one constituency. Despite having never fought an election, however, they were determined to do so. First of all, in October it put up four candidates for the London district school boards. All were unsuccessful, but the system of cumulative voting to some extent concealed the severity of their defeat. Then its leaders began to plan the Parliamentary campaign, but the difficulty was their lack of finance. Desperate to find a new source of funding for the Federation ahead of the General Election, they approached the Liberal Party in the guise of Joseph Chamberlain who was trying to rally the agricultural labourers, miners and the Nonconformists, without alienating the industrialists. They hoped that if they promised him their support, Chamberlain would give them a seat to contest in the Birmingham area: but though he met the Socialist leaders, he rejected their proposals.

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In 1883, one of Hyndman’s young recruits, H. H. Champion had become the secretary of the Social Democratic Federation, having similar political attitudes to those of Hyndman as a ‘Tory Socialist’. Then, in 1885, Champion received an offer of funds through a former Marxist and member of the First International who was then working as a Conservative agent. The money was offered for two candidatures in London, which the contributors no doubt thought would split the Liberal vote. Accordingly, two working-men members were put up, J. E. Williams for Hampstead and John Fielding for Kennington. Neither was a working-class constituency, and the candidates got only fifty-nine votes between them. Another SDF candidate, John Burns, an unemployed engineer, stood in Nottingham, however, where he polled 598 votes. The reaction to the London candidature fiasco was immediate and furious. Outside the party, the result of the so-called ‘Tory Gold’ scandal was that there was almost universal condemnation of the SDF, and even the Fabian Society passed a resolution expressing strong disapproval. J. Hunter Watts, who, as treasurer of the SDF, had been left in the dark by Hyndman and Champion, and a member of the Executive Council denounced the two leaders for ‘irresponsibility’ and for trying to run the Federation in military-style. Another schism took place in the Federation, with a new body called the ‘Socialist Union’ being set up, one of whose ‘bright sparks’ was a young Scotsman named James Ramsay Macdonald, who had picked up Socialist ideas in Bristol before settling in London. Both the Bristol and Nottingham SDF branches came over to the Socialist Union, and new affiliates were formed at Carlisle and Manchester. But there was little demand for a fresh Socialist organisation and, lacking wealthy backers, it did not last long.

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In 1886-87, the SDF had been organising demonstrations of the poor and unemployed in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere in London and the south-east, resulting in their leaders’ arrests. In 1887, Engels was also encouraging Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in their agitation in East London. Morris continued to embarrass the authorities and the police who did not know how to deal with him at demonstrations and were reluctant to arrest him. Well aware of this, Morris tried to be present as often as possible when there was liable to be trouble with the police, who were often brutal in their treatment of working-class agitators. Even in loyal London, the Jubilee year saw, on 13 November 1887, ‘Bloody Sunday’ – as it became known – when troops were used to clear Trafalgar Square while other British troops were ‘pacifying’ Upper Burma.  A meeting which had first been called to protest against Coercion in Ireland became a huge demonstration in defence of free speech in Trafalgar Square, attracting support from all radical and socialist organisations. Processions attempting to enter the square in defiance of an official ban were broken up by police charges in which two of the demonstrators were killed and two hundred hospitalised. The following Sunday a young worker, Alfred Linnell, died after being ridden down by a mounted policeman in Northumberland Avenue, one of the streets leading into Trafalgar Square. His death became the focus for popular outrage, and the procession at his funeral on 16 December was the largest in London since the death of Wellington in 1852. Morris was one of the pallbearers and made an emotive speech at the graveside. The funeral concluded with a song specially composed by him for the occasion which was sold to benefit Linnell’s orphans as a broadsheet, with a design by Walter Crane (see part two).

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Morris continued to write extensively for the cause, especially in The Commonweal, the journal of the Socialist League which became a weekly in May 1886, with Morris as sole editor. He also financed the paper and was one of its principal contributors. Two of his major later works, The Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere (1890) were published in the journal in serial form. In the latter, Morris looked to the future for hope. This utopian novel is perhaps the most accessible of Morris’ writings for the modern reader. In it, the narrator falls asleep in Hammersmith and wakes up in the future. In 1952, a revolution has taken place and the narrator finds an ideal society in which people work for pleasure, mechanisation and private property have been abolished, and there is no money. There is equality of class and sex, and there are no cities; people live in smaller rural communities, working on the land and at hand-crafts in harmony with the natural world. By the time he wrote this, Morris had come to realise that the hoped-for revolution was further away than he thought.

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The Socialist League lingered on, consisting not only of anarchists but also of the Marx-Engels clique who while not hostile to Parliamentary methods, did not rule out the possibility of violent revolution. Engels, a shrewd political strategist, had already put on record for British readers his view of how the Socialists could win power in Britain. In his articles for Shipton’s Labour Standard (1881), he had advised them to build up a labour party which, provided that from the start it was independent of the parties of the ruling class, he believed would gradually become more and more Socialist as time went on. He now drew fresh inspiration from the example of the American United Labour Parties, considering that there was an immediate question of forming an English Labour Party with an independent class programme. Writing to Bernstein in May 1887, Engels claimed that the Radical clubs were…

… aroused by the American example and consequently were now seriously thinking of creating an independent labour party.

This policy had begun to attract other members of the League: among these, whom Engels called ‘our people’, occur the names of young men active in the Socialist League, including J. L. Mahon who, temporarily resident in Newcastle, wrote to Engels in June advocating an amalgamation of the various little organisations in one broad definite political platform. They had been largely responsible for the establishment, early in 1887, of a North of England Socialist Federation among the Northumberland miners, another indication of a real attempt to bring Socialism to the working class. This was built up jointly by SDF and League agitators in the course of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1887. Although the nearest attempt yet made to create a mass movement, it was a transient success, for with the settlement of the strike its branches, numbering twenty-four at the peak, rapidly faded away. Yet the published aims of the North of England Federation were an indication of the way young Socialists were thinking. There were four, but it was the second point which caused most controversy within the League:

Striving to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists to Parliament, local governments, school boards, and other administrative bodies.

016 (3)Morris was sceptical of the practicability of this aim and expressed the hope that our friends will see the futility of sending (or trying to send) Socialists or anyone else to Parliament before they have learned it by long and bitter experience. But Morris could not escape the implications of this clash of opinions within the League: as early as March 1887, he noted in his diary, Whatever happens, I fear that as an organisation we shall come to nothing, though personal feeling may hold us together. The issue was raised at the annual conference that year, and, on being defeated, most of the supporters of Parliamentary action retired from active participation in the running of the League. After the annual conference of the following year, 1888, when they were again defeated, their point of view was explicitly repudiated in a statement by the Council of the League, and they took no further part in its work. The Bloomsbury branch, which included the Marx-Avelings and several German Marxists, left and transformed itself into the independent Bloomsbury Socialist Society. Meanwhile, Mahon and his friends seceded and formed a ‘Labour Union’ which aimed at providing a national platform. It published a document pointing to what the Irish Party have achieved by a similar course of action, which attracted the signature of a Scottish miner, James Keir Hardie (see part two) among other sponsors, but it, too, petered out after a few years as a working-class group in Hoxton (in Hackney). Morris, meanwhile, often despaired at the apathy of the men he was trying to convert, though he also understood and sympathised with their demoralisation:

If I were to spend ten hours a day at work I despised and hated, I should spend my leisure, I hope, in political agitation, but, I fear, in drinking …

( … to be continued…)

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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Six   Leave a comment

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Part Six – Zwingli, Luther and the Anabaptists, 1525-35:

The Lutheran Reformation had been accompanied by certain phenomena which, though they appalled Luther and his associates, were so natural as to appear in retrospect. As against the authority of the Church of Rome, the Reformers appealed to the text of the Bible. But once men were able to read the Bible for themselves, in their own language, they began to interpret it for themselves; their own interpretations did not always accord with those of the Reformers. Wherever Luther’s influence extended the priest lost much of his traditional prestige as a mediator between the layman and God. Once the layman could stand face to face with God and rely for guidance on his individual conscience, it was inevitable that some laymen should claim divine promptings which ran as much counter to the new as to the old orthodoxy.

For many centuries, the Church of Rome, whatever its failings, had been fulfilling a very important normative function in European society. Luther’s onslaught, precisely because it was so effective, seriously disturbed that function. As a result, it produced, along with a sense of liberation, a sense of disorientation which was just as widespread. Moreover, the Lutheran Reformation could not itself master all the anxieties which it had released in the population. Partly because of the content of his doctrine of salvation, partly because of his alliance with the established secular powers, Luther failed to hold the allegiance of great multitudes of the common people. Amongst the perturbed, disoriented masses there grew up, in opposition to both Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism, the movement to which its opponents gave the name of Anabaptism – in many ways a successor to the medieval sects, but a far larger movement which spread over most of west and central Europe.

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By 1525, Zurich was the seat of a new variety of the Reformation which was to be set over against that of Wittenberg and characterised as the Reformed. The leader was Huldreich Zwingli who had received a Humanist training as a Catholic priest, and on the appearance of Erasmus’ New Testament he committed the epistles to memory in Greek and affirmed in consequence that Luther had been able to teach him nothing about the understanding of Paul. But what Zwingli selected for emphasis in Paul was the text: The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life, which he coupled with a Johannine verse; The flesh profiteth nothing. By ‘flesh’ Zwingli meant the body in the Platonic sense, whereas Luther took it to mean, in the Hebraic sense, the ‘evil heart’. Zwingli, therefore, made a characteristic deduction from his disparagement of the body that art and music were inappropriate as the ‘handmaids of religion’ though he himself was an accomplished musician.

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His next logical step was to deny the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the Eucharistic, reducing the sacrament to a symbolic commemoration of the crucifixion, just as the Passover meal had been a memorial to the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt. Jesus’ words, this is my body… this is the new testament in my blood… could just as easily be translated as this signifies… Luther sensed at once the affinity between these views and those of Carlstadt whom he had effectively banished from Wittenberg for his support of iconoclasm. Luther also recognised a similarity with the views of Müntzer in Zwingli, in particular his willingness to turn to politics and even to countenance the use of the sword in the name of the faith. Zwingli was a Swiss patriot, and in translating the twenty-third psalm he rendered the second verse as… He maketh me to lie down in an Alpine meadow. But there he could find no still waters, but only fast-flowing streams. The evangelical issue threatened to disrupt his beloved confederation, for the Catholics turned to the traditional enemy, the House of Habsburg. Ferdinand of Austria was instrumental in the calling of the assembly of Baden to discuss Zwingli’s theory of the sacrament.

This was the Swiss reformer’s Diet of Worms and he became convinced that the gospel could only be saved in Switzerland and the Confederation if the Catholic League with Austria were countered by an evangelical league with the German Lutherans, ready if need be to use the sword. The very notion of a military alliance for the defence of the gospel reminded Luther of Thomas Müntzer. Not only that, but the ‘home’ sphere of Luther’s activity was constantly being encroached upon. The Catholics, both clerical and lay, were determined to launch their counter-reformation. The Swiss, the south German Protestant cities and the Anabaptists had all developed divergent forms of the reformed faith. Even Wittenberg had experienced its radical moments and might not be free from fresh infiltrations from the sectaries. But Luther was more determined than ever to carve out enough space in between for his territorial church, working with the ‘godly princes’. He made a clear-cut division between the concerns and responsibilities of the church and state.

The radicals, sometimes called ‘enthusiasts’, wanted to carry out a complete spiritual transformation of the church, and expected Christians to live by the standards and teachings of Scripture. Their reform programme was, however, more far-reaching than most people were prepared to accept, especially in the rural areas where the activism of Müntzer and the peasants had led to such indescribable misery following the massacres, mass executions,  destruction of farms, agricultural implements and livestock. However, Anabaptism was not a homogeneous movement and was never centrally organised. There existed some forty independent sects of Anabaptists, each grouped around a leader who claimed to be a divinely inspired prophet or apostle, following in the apostolic succession. These sects, often clandestine, constantly threatened with extermination, scattered throughout the German-speaking lands, developed along the separate lines which the various leaders set. Nevertheless, certain tendencies were common to the movement as a whole.

In some parts of the Anabaptist movement which spread far and wide during the years following the Peasants’ War, Müntzer’s memory was venerated, even though he had never called himself an Anabaptist. Other parts of rejected his legacy. Again, this was because they did not, at first, emerge as a single, coherent organisation, but as a loose grouping of movements. All of these rejected infant baptism and practised the baptism of adults upon confession of faith. They themselves never accepted the label ‘Anabaptist’ (meaning ‘rebaptizer’), a term of reproach coined by their opponents, since they objected to the implication that the ceremonial sprinkling which they had received as infants had in fact been a valid baptism. They denied that their baptism of believing adults was arrogant and superfluous. They also soon discovered that the term gave the authorities a legal pretext for persecuting and executing them, based on Roman laws harking back to the fifth century.

For the ‘Anabaptists’ themselves, however, baptism was not the fundamental issue involved in their sectarianism. More basic was their growing conviction about the role the civil government should play in the reformation of the church. Late in 1523 intense debate broke out in Zürich.  At that time it became clear that the city council was unwilling to bring about the religious changes that the theologians believed were called for by Scripture. Zwingli believed that the reformers should wait and attempt to persuade the authorities by preaching. The ‘Anabaptists’ believed that the community of Christians, the corpus Christianum, should follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and initiate Scripture-based reforms regardless of the views of the council. Despite continuing efforts to discuss the matters in dispute between the reformists and the radicals – the mass, baptism and tithes – the gap between the two parties widened. Finally, on 21 January 1525, came a complete rupture. On that day the city council forbade the radicals to assemble or disseminate their views. That evening, in the neighbouring village of Zollikon, praying that God would grant them to do his divine will and that he would show them mercy, the radicals met, baptized each other, and so became the first free church of modern times.

Their point of departure from the ‘mainstream’ reformers was another aspect of Erasmus’ programme and a point which was also important to Zwingli himself. This was the restoration of primitive Christianity, which they took to mean the adoption of the Sermon on the Mount as a literal code for all Christians, who should renounce oaths, the use of the sword whether in war or civil government, private possessions, bodily adornment, revelling and drunkenness. Pacifism, religious communitarianism, simplicity and temperance marked their communities. The church should consist only of the twice-born, committed to the covenant of discipline. Here again was the concept of ‘the Elect’, discernible by the two tests of spiritual experience and moral achievement. The Church should not rest on the baptism administered in infancy, but on regeneration, symbolised by baptism during or after ‘the years of discretion’. Every member should be a priest, a minister, and a missionary prepared to embark on evangelistic tours. Such a Church, though seeking to convert the world and not to exclude anyone from hearing the gospel message, could never embrace the unconverted community, however. Since the State comprised all the inhabitants, the Church would need to separate itself from its control and free itself from all magisterial constraint.

Zwingli was aghast to see the medieval unity of Church and State shattered and in panic invoked the arm of the state. In 1525 the Anabaptists in Zürich were subjected to the death penalty. Luther was not yet ready for such savage expedients, but he too was appalled by what to him appeared to be a reversion to the monastic attempt to win salvation by a higher righteousness. The leaving of families for missionary expeditions was in his eyes a sheer desertion of domestic responsibilities, and the repudiation of the sword prompted him to a new vindication of the divine calling alike of the magistrate and the soldier. But he was very much conflicted over the whole matter of the executions. In 1527, he wrote:

 It is not right, and I am deeply troubled that the poor people are so pitifully put to death, burned, and cruelly slain. Let everyone believe what he likes. If he is wrong, he will have punishment enough in hell fire. Unless there is sedition, one should oppose them with Scripture and God’s Word. With fire you won’t get anywhere. 

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This did not mean, however, that Luther considered one faith as good as another. Most emphatically he believed that the wrong faith would entail hell-fire; although the true faith could not be created by coercion, it could be relieved of impediments. The magistrate should certainly not suffer the faith to be blasphemed. Unlike the ‘mainstream’ reformers, the Anabaptists were not committed to the notion that ‘Christendom’ was Christian. From the beginning, they saw themselves as missionaries to people of lukewarm piety, only partly obedient to the gospel. The Anabaptists systematically divided Europe into sectors for evangelistic outreach and sent missionaries out into them in twos and threes. Many people were bewildered by their message; others pulled back when the cost of Anabaptist discipleship became clear. But others heard them gladly.

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In general, the Anabaptists attached relatively little importance either to theological speculations or formal religious observances. In place of such practices as daily church-going, they set a meticulous, literal observance of the precepts that they thought they found in the New Testament. In place of theology, they cultivated the Bible, which they were apt to interpret in the light of the direct inspirations which they believed they received from God. Their values were primarily ethical; for them, religion was above all a matter of active brotherly love. Their communities were modelled on what they supposed to have been the practice of the early Church and were intended to realise the ethical ideal propounded by Christ.

The diverse backgrounds of their leaders and the absence of any ecclesiastical authority to control them were enough to ensure diversity of belief and practice. They did, however, attempt to agree upon a common basis. In 1527 at Schleitheim, on today’s Swiss-German border near Schaffhausen, the Anabaptists called the first ‘synod’ of the Protestant Reformation. The leading figure at this meeting was the former Benedictine prior, Michael Sattler, who, four months later, was burned at the stake in nearby Rottenberg-am-Neckar. The ‘Brotherly Union’ adopted at Schleitheim was to be a highly significant document. During the next decade, most Anabaptists in all parts of Europe came to agree with the beliefs which it laid down.

It was in their social Attitudes that the Anabaptist were most distinct. These sectarians tended to be uneasy about private property and to accept community of goods as an ideal. If in most of the groups little attempt was made to introduce common ownership, Anabaptists certainly did take seriously the obligations of charitable dealing and generous mutual aid. On the other hand Anabaptist communities, facing continual persecution, often showed a marked exclusiveness. Within each group, there was great solidarity, but the attitude towards society at large tended to be one of rejection.

In particular, Anabaptists regarded the state with suspicion, as an institution which, though no doubt necessary for the unrighteous, was unnecessary for true Christians. Though they were willing to comply with many of the state’s demands, they refused to let it invade the realm of faith and conscience; in general, they preferred to minimise their dealings with it. Most Anabaptists refused to hold an official position in the state, or to invoke the authority of the state against a fellow Anabaptist, or to take up arms on behalf of the state. The attitude towards private persons who were not Anabaptists was equally aloof; Anabaptists commonly avoided all social intercourse outside their own community. Many regarded themselves as the only Elect and their communities as being alone under the immediate guidance of God; small islands of righteousness in an ocean of iniquity. But the history of the movement was punctuated by schisms over this obsession with exclusive election, which some were more obsessed with than others.

The movement spread from Switzerland into Germany. Mysticism, late-medieval asceticism and the disillusionment which followed the Peasants’ War of 1525 had prepared the way for them. Most Anabaptists were peaceful folk who in practice were quite willing, except in matters of conscience and belief, to respect the authority of the state. Certainly, the majority had no thought of social revolution. But the rank-and-file were recruited almost entirely from the ranks of peasants and artisans; after the Peasants’ War, the authorities were nervous of these classes. Even the most peaceful Anabaptists were therefore ferociously persecuted and many thousands of them were killed.

By 1527, the German Reformers and their princely allies had determined to use all necessary means to root out Anabaptism. They were joined in this determination by the Catholic authorities. To Protestants and Catholics alike, the Anabaptists seemed not only to be dangerous heretics; they also seemed to threaten the religious and social stability of Christian Europe. Their growth constituted a very real problem to the territorial church since, despite the decree of death visited upon them at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 with the concurrence of the Evangelicals, the fearlessness and saintliness of the martyrs had enlisted converts to the point of threatening to depopulate the established churches. Philip of Hesse observed more improvement of life among the sectaries than among the Lutherans, and a Lutheran pastor who wrote against the Anabaptists testified that they went in among the poor, appeared very lowly, prayed much, read from the Gospel, talked especially about the outward life and good works, about helping the neighbour, giving and lending, holding goods in common, exercising authority over none, and living with all as brothers and sisters. Such were the people executed by Elector John in Saxony. In the carnage of the next quarter-century, thousands of Anabaptists were put to death; thousands more saved their skins by recanting.

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But the blood of the martyrs proved again to be the seed of the church. This persecution, in the end, created the very danger it was intended to forestall. It was not only that the Anabaptists were confirmed in their hostility to the state and the established order, but that they also interpreted their sufferings in apocalyptic terms, as the last great onslaught of Satan and Antichrist against the Saints, as those ‘messianic woes’ which were to usher in the Millennium. Many Anabaptists became obsessed with imaginings of a day of reckoning when they themselves would arise to overthrow the mighty and, under a Christ who had returned at last, establish a Millennium on earth. The situation within Anabaptism now resembled that which had existed within the heretical movements of previous centuries, like the Waldesians. The bulk of the Anabaptists continued in their tradition of peaceful and austere dissent. But alongside it there was growing up in Anabaptism of another kind, in which the equally ancient tradition of militant millenarianism was finding a new expression.

The first propagandist of this new Anabaptism was an itinerant bookbinder called Hans Hut, a former follower and disciple of Müntzer and like him a native of Thuringia. He claimed to be a prophet sent by God to announce that at Whitsuntide, 1528, Christ would return to earth and place the two-edged sword of justice in the hands of the rebaptised Saints. They would then hold judgement on the priests and pastors for their false teaching and, above all, on the great princes of the earth for their persecutions; kings and nobles would be cast into chains. Finally, Christ was to establish a Millennium which, it seems, was to be characterised by free love and community of goods. Hut was captured in 1527 and imprisoned at Augsburg, where he died or was killed in prison; but not before he had made some converts in the towns of southern Germany. In the professions of faith of Hut’s followers can be recognised the doctrines of John Ball and the radical Táborites, repeated almost verbatim:

Christ will give the sword and revenge to them, the Anabaptists, to punish all sins, stamp out all governments, communise all property and slay those who do not permit themselves to be rebaptised… The government does not treat poor people properly and burdens them too heavily. When God gives them revenge they want to punish and wipe out the evil…

Hut himself expected all this to happen only when ‘Christ came on the clouds’, but his disciples were not so patient: at Esslingen on the Neckar in 1528, Anabaptists seem to have planned to set up the Kingdom of God by force of arms. Among these militant millenarians, the ideal of communal ownership clearly possessed a revolutionary significance; it was no doubt with some justification that the town authorities at Nürnberg warned those at Ulm that the Anabaptists were aiming at overthrowing the established order and abolishing private property. It is true that in south Germany revolutionary Anabaptism remained a small and ineffective force and that it was crushed out of existence by 1530. But by this time, Anabaptist-like groups also sprang up spontaneously in various parts of Europe. By the late 1520s, Anabaptism was to be found as far afield as Holland and Moravia, the Tyrol and Mecklenburg.

The early missionary who took the message along the Alps was Jörg Cajacob (‘Blaurock’), who had been the first adult to be baptized in Zürich in 1525. When the Tyrolean Catholic authorities began to persecute them intensely, many of the Anabaptists found refuge on the lands of some exceptionally tolerant princes in Moravia. There they founded a very long-standing form of an economic community called the Bruderhof. In part, they aimed to follow the pattern of the early apostolic community, but they sought community for practical reasons as well, as a means of group survival under persecution. Their communities attempted to show that brotherhood comes before self in the kingdom of God. Consolidated under the leadership of Jakob Hutter (died 1536), these groups came to be known as ‘Hutterites’.

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In 1530 Luther advanced the view that the two offences of sedition and blasphemy should be penalised even with death. The emphasis was thus shifted from holding incorrect beliefs, or heresy in itself, to its public manifestation by word and deed. This was, however, no great gain for liberty, because Luther construed mere abstention from public office and military service as sedition and a rejection of an article from the Apostles’ Creed as blasphemy. In a memorandum of 1531, composed by Melanchthon and signed by Luther, a rejection of the ministerial office was described as insufferable blasphemy and the disintegration of the Church as sedition against the ecclesiastical order. In order to understand Luther’s position, we need to bear in mind that Anabaptism was not in every instance socially innocuous. The year in which he signed a memorandum counselling death even for the peaceful Anabaptists was also the year in which a group of them ceased to be peaceful. Goaded by ten years of persecution, in 1534 bands of fanatics in the extreme north-west of Germany claimed to have received a revelation from the Lord that they should no more be sheep for the slaughter but rather as the angel with the sickle to reap the harvest.

The results of this so-called ‘revelation’ gripped the attention of the whole of Europe. North-west Germany at the beginning of the sixteenth century consisted mainly of a number of petty ecclesiastical states, each with a prince-bishop as its sovereign. Usually, such a state was torn by fierce social conflicts. The government of the state was in the hands of the prince-bishop and of the chapter of the diocese, which elected him and to a large extent controlled his policy. The members of the chapter were recruited solely from the local aristocracy – a coat of arms with at least four quarterings was commonly an indispensable qualification – and they often chose one of their own number as bishop. This group of aristocratic clerics was not subject any control by a higher authority; in the regional diet they were powerfully represented and could always rely on the support of the knighthood. They, therefore, tended to govern solely in the interests of their own class and of the clergy in the diocese. In an ecclesiastical state, the clergy were not only very numerous but also highly privileged.

In the bishopric of Münster, there were some thirty ecclesiastical centres, including four monasteries, seven convents, ten churches, a cathedral and, of course, the chapter itself. Members of the chapter enjoyed rich prebends and canonries. The monks were permitted to carry on secular trades and handicrafts. Above all, the clergy as a whole were almost entirely exempt from taxation. But the power of the clerical-aristocratic stratum in an ecclesiastical state seldom extended very effectively to the capital city. In these states as elsewhere, the development of commerce and a money economy had given an even greater importance to the towns. The state governments were in constant need of money and by the usual method of bargaining over taxes the towns had gradually won concessions and privileges for themselves. This was particularly true in the bishopric of Münster, the largest and most important of the ecclesiastical states. From the beginning of the fourteenth century, the town had enjoyed a large measure of self-government and the power of the bishop, who seldom resided there, had been much restricted.

In Münster in the 1530s, the bishop was simply a secular lord who had not even been ordained. Moreover, the taxes imposed by the prince-bishop were commonly heavy and the whole burden fell on the laity, who benefited least from the administration. In addition, as citizens of an ecclesiastical state, they had to pay vast sums to the Roman Curia each time a new bishop was elected; Münster did so three times between 1498 and 1522. It is not surprising, therefore, that the immunity of the clergy from taxation was bitterly resented and that tradesmen and artisans also objected to the competition they faced from monks engaged in commerce and industry. The monks had no families to maintain, no military service to perform or provide, and no guild regulations to observe.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the resistance to the power of the bishop and clergy came, not from the town council, which had become a staid and relatively conservative body, but from the guilds. This was certainly the case in Münster. As the town, in the course of the fifteenth century, became an important commercial centre and a member of the Hanseatic League, the guilds obtained great political power. Organised in one great guild, which in the sixteenth-century contained no less than sixteen separate guilds, they could at a suitable opportunity rouse and lead the whole population against the clergy. One such opportunity was offered by the Peasants’ War. It is a striking fact that when the revolutionary excitement which spread from the south of Germany reached the north-west, it was neither the peasantry nor the towns in the secular states which rose in revolt, but solely the capitals of the states: Osnabrück,  Utrecht, Paderborn and Münster. In Münster, the guilds led an attack on a monastery which had entered into commercial competition with them and they also demanded a general restriction on the privileges of the clergy; the chapter was forced to make very considerable concessions.

On that occasion, the triumph of the guilds was short-lived, at Münster and in all its sister towns. As soon as the princes had dealt with peasants in the south, the chapters in the northern bishoprics were able to regain whatever powers they had conceded. They crushed every attempt at reform and did all they could to humiliate the rebellious towns. By 1530 the old system of government was re-established in all the ecclesiastical states. Nevertheless, the townsmen now resented the ascendancy of the clergy and nobles even more than they had done before; they had felt their own strength and now simply waited for another occasion on which to deploy it more successfully. In 1529 an outbreak of Black Death devastated Westphalia and at the same time, the crops failed. Finally, in 1530 an extraordinary tax was levied to finance resistance to the Turkish invasion of the eastern territories of the Empire. As a result of these factors, the distress in north-west Germany was exceptional, and it was therefore only to be expected that in one or other of the ecclesiastical states there would be outbreaks of serious disorder.  When in 1530 the Bishop of Münster tried to sell his bishopric to the Bishop of Paderborn and Osnabrück, these disorders did indeed break out.

In 1531 an eloquent young chaplain called Bernt Rothmann, a blacksmith’s son whose remarkable gifts had won him a university education, began to attract vast congregations in Münster. Very soon he became a Lutheran and put himself at the head of a movement, dating back to 1525, which aimed to bring the town into the Lutheran fold. He found support in the guilds and a patrician ally in a rich cloth-merchant named Bernt Knipperdollinck. The movement was further facilitated by the resignation of one bishop followed by the death of his successor. In 1532 the guilds, supported by the populace, became once more masters of the town, able to force the Council to install Lutheran preachers in all churches. The new bishop was unable to make the town abandon its faith and early in 1533, he recognised Münster as officially Lutheran. It did not remain so for long, however, as in the neighbouring Duchy of Julich-Cleves Anabaptist preachers had for some years enjoyed freedom of propaganda such as existed hardly anywhere else. But in 1532 they were expelled and a number of them sought refuge in Münster.

In the course of 1533, more Anabaptists arrived from the Netherlands, followers of Melchior Hoffman, a celebrated visionary who had wandered through Europe as an itinerant preacher of the Second Coming and the  Millennium. He had joined the Anabaptist movement in 1529 and within a year a new wing of the movement, profoundly influenced by his ideas, had developed in the northern provinces of the Netherlands. According to Hoffman, the Millennium was to begin, after a period of ‘messianic woes’ and many signs and wonders, in the year 1533. In that year, the millenarian fantasy which Hoffman’s supporters brought with them into Münster rapidly turned into a mass obsession, dominating the whole life of the poorer classes in the town.  Meanwhile, Rothmann had abandoned Lutheranism and became an Anabaptist himself, breathing new life into the movement’s preaching. By October 1533 he was holding up the supposed communitarianism of the primitive Church as the ideal for a truly Christian community. In sermons and tracts, he declared that the true believers ought to model their lives minutely on the lives of the first Christians and that this involved holding all things in common.

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Albrecht Dürer’s powerful woodcut, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death is on a bony horse, Want flourishes scales, Sickness waves his sword and War draws his bow. The people are trodden underfoot.

Expecting the Millennium, the Anabaptists, many of them from Holland, took over Münster and there inaugurated the reign of the saints, of which Thomas Müntzer had dreamed. The more prosperous burghers of the town were much perturbed. If most of them had rejoiced at the defeat of the Bishop and Chapter and the victory of the Lutheran cause, a powerful Anabaptist movement supported by a mass of unemployed and desperate foreigners held obvious and grave dangers for all of them alike. In the face of this threat, Lutherans and Roman Catholics closed ranks and came together to suppress this reign of the new Daniels and Elijahs. Towards the end of the year the Council several times tried to silence or expel Rothmann but, secure in the devotion of his followers, he was always able to defy it. The other Anabaptist preachers were indeed expelled and replaced by Lutherans, but before long they returned and the Lutherans were hounded from the churches. Week by week excitement in the town increased until, in the first days of 1534, the men arrived who were to direct it towards a specific aim.

Melchior Hoffman, who believed that the Millennium would dawn in Strasbourg, had been arrested in that town and imprisoned inside a cage in a tower; and there he spent the rest of his days. The prophetic mantle descended on a Dutch Anabaptist, the baker Jan Matthys of Haarlem. This change of leadership changed the whole tone of the movement. Hoffmann was a man of peace who had taught his followers to await the coming of the Millennium in quiet confidence, avoiding all violence. Matthys, however, was a revolutionary leader who taught that the righteous must themselves take up the sword and actively prepare the way for the Millennium by wielding it against the unrighteous. It had, he proclaimed, been revealed to him that he and his followers were called to cleanse the earth of the ungodly. In the first days of 1534, two of his Dutch apostles reached Münster, where their arrival at once produced a contagion of enthusiasm. Rothmann and the other Anabaptist preachers were rebaptised, followed by many nuns and well-to-do laywomen and then by a large part of the population. It is said that within a week the number of baptisms reached 1,400.

The first apostles moved on, but they were then replaced by two more, who were taken at first to be Enoch and Elijah, the prophets who according to traditional eschatology were to return to earth as the two ‘witnesses’ against Antichrist and whose appearance was to herald the Second Coming. One of the newcomers was Jan Bockelson, better known as John of Leyden, a young man of twenty-five who had been baptised by Matthys only a couple of months before. It was he who was to give to Anabaptism in Münster a fierce militancy such as it possessed nowhere else and who was to stimulate an outbreak or revolutionary millenarianism which startled the whole of Europe.

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During February 1534, the power of the Anabaptists in Münster increased rapidly. Bockelson at once established good relations with the leader of the guilds and patron of the Anabaptists, the cloth-merchant Knipperdollinck. On 8 February these two men ran wildly through the streets, summoning all the people to repent of their sins. It was in this millenarian atmosphere that they made their first armed rising, occupying the town hall and the market-place. They were still only a minority and could have been defeated if the Lutheran majority had been willing to use the armed force at its disposal. But the Anabaptists had allies on the Council, and the outcome of the rising was official recognition of the principle of liberty of conscience. The number of Anabaptist immigrants grew even beyond that of Lutheran emigrants, so that in the annual election for the Town Council on 23 February an overwhelmingly Anabaptist body was elected. In the following days monasteries and churches were looted and in a nocturnal orgy of iconoclasm the sculptures, paintings and books of the cathedral were destroyed. Meanwhile, Jan Matthys himself had arrived, and together with Bockelson he quickly dominated the town. On 27 February armed bands rushed through the streets driving multitudes of the ‘godless’ from the town in the bitter cold, without spare clothes and possessions. Those who remained were rebaptised in the market-place in a ceremony which lasted for three days. After that, it became a capital offence to be unbaptised and by 3 March there were no ‘misbelievers’ left in the town.

When the bishop massed his troops to besiege the city, the Anabaptists defended themselves by arms. As the siege progressed, even more, extreme leaders gained control. These Münsterite leaders, besides claiming prophetic authority to receive new revelations, also claimed that the Old Testament ethics still applied, and so felt justified in reintroducing polygamy. They even crowned a ‘King David’ of ‘the New Jerusalem’ in Bockelson. Terror, long a familiar feature of life in the New Jerusalem, was intensified during Bockelson’s reign. Within a few days of his proclamation, it was announced that in future all those who persisted in sinning against the truth must be brought before the king and sentenced to death. A couple of days later, executions began. The first victims were women: one was beheaded for denying her husband his marital rights, and another for bigamy, since the practice of polygamy was a male prerogative, and a third for insulting a preacher and mocking his doctrine. As the Bishop intensified his efforts to reduce the town through a blockade which began in January 1535, Bockelson declared that any man plotting to leave the town, or who was found to have helped someone else to leave was to be at once beheaded, as was anyone who was overheard criticising the ‘king’ or his policy.

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The Anabaptists of Münster under siege. The combined forces of the Catholics and Lutherans were intent on destroying the Anabaptists’ threat to the established order. The defenders were butchered after the final assault; their leaders cruelly tortured to death.

Rather than surrender the town, Bockelson would doubtless have let the entire population starve to death; but in the event, the siege was brought abruptly to a close. Two men escaped by night from the town and indicated to the besiegers certain weak spots in the defences. On the night of 24 June 1535, they launched a surprise attack and penetrated into the town. After some hours of desperate fighting the last two or three hundred surviving Anabaptists accepted an offer of safe-conduct, laid down their arms and dispersed to their homes. , only to be killed one by one and almost to the last man, in a massacre lasting several days. All the leaders of Anabaptism in the town perished. Rothmann is believed to have died fighting, and Bockleson, at the Bishop’s command was for some time led about on a chain and exhibited like a performing bear. In January 1536 he was brought back to Münster, where he, Knipperdollinck and another leading Anabaptist were publicly tortured to death with red-hot irons. After the execution the three bodies were suspended from a church-tower in the town centre, in cages which are still seen there today.

For centuries, churches and governments have exploited the excesses of these months prior to the fall of the city in June 1535 to make ‘Anabaptism’ an all-embracing byword for fanaticism and anarchy. Certainly, at the time, the whole episode did incalculable harm to the reputation of the Anabaptists, who before and after it were peaceable folk. This one episode of rebellion engendered the fear that sheep’s clothing concealed wolves who might better be dealt with before they threw off the disguise. In Luther’s case, it should be further remembered that the leading Anabaptist in Thuringia was Melchior Rink, who had been with Thomas Müntzer at the Battle of Frankenhausen in 1525. Yet when all these attenuating circumstances are taken into account, it is still difficult to ignore the fact that Melanchthon’s memorandum justified the eradication of the peaceful, not because they were clandestine revolutionaries, but on the grounds that even a peaceful renunciation of the state still constituted sedition.

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Besides this view of the role of the State, both Luther and Melanchthon were convinced that the truth of God could be known and that being known it lays supreme obligations on mankind to preserve it. To them, the Anabaptists were corrupters of souls. Luther’s leniency toward them is more deserving of comment than is his ultimate severity. He was consistent to the end in insisting that faith could not be forced; that in private a man might believe what he would; that only open revolt or public attacks on ordained preachers should be penalised; and that only sedition and blasphemy, rather than heresy, should be subject to constraint.

It is also striking that many of the major principles of the Anabaptists of Münster – the linking of church and state; the validity of Old Testament social patterns; the right of Christians to take up arms – were more typical of the ‘official’ churches of the time than they were of the Anabaptists in general. In its original, pacific form, Anabaptism has survived to the present day in communities such as the Mennonites, the Hutterite Brethren and, of course, the Baptists themselves. But militant, millenarian Anabaptism rapidly declined as a movement and though there was an attempt to revive it in Westphalia thirty years later, the band of terrorists which gathered around a cobbler-‘messiah’ called Jan Willemsen were eventually captured and executed.

Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part One   Leave a comment

Part One – ‘The Holy Youth’ of Niklashausen, the Bundschuh and the growth of German Nationalism to 1517:

Below: Europe in 1466: The Age of the New Monarchies

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During the second half of the fifteenth century, Central and Eastern Europe experienced a time of particular turmoil, with the ever-present threat of Ottoman forces diverting much-needed resources to the defence of Christendom.  Setbacks experienced by the advancing Ottomans, such as their failure to overcome Albania, defended resolutely by George Castriota (Skandenberg) from 1443 to 1468, meant that it was more difficult for them to tolerate the independence of Byzantine territory to their rear. In 1453, Mehmet II finally captured Constantinople, causing great consternation in the West. His army laid siege to Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) in 1456, but the siege was raised by the brilliant Hungarian commander (and regent), János Hunyádi (below). By 1460, the remaining Byzantine strongholds in the Morea had fallen with the capture of Trebizond on the Black Sea in 1461, the last remnant of Byzantium was finally extinguished. In 1457, the Bohemians elected the Hussite George Podebrady as their king. Pope Paul II preached a crusade against him, which led to an unsuccessful Hungarian invasion in 1468.

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The prestige of the Holy Roman Emperor sank particularly low, The dignity and authority of the imperial office continued to dwindle as Germany continued to disintegrate into a jumble of principalities. Frederick III had, at first, largely because of his name, been the focus of the wildest millennial expectations; but in the course of a reign which lasted from 1452 to 1493, he proved a singularly ineffective monarch. His deposition was prevented only by the lack of any suitable rival and latterly his very existence was almost forgotten by his subjects. The vacuum at the centre of the state produced a chronic and widespread anxiety, which found its expression in the folklore of the future Frederick but which could also vent itself in sudden waves of eschatological enthusiasm. Amongst its commonest manifestations were mass pilgrimages, reminiscent of the popular crusades and the flagellant processions of earlier times, and no less liable to escape from ecclesiastical control.

The situation was particularly explosive in the territories of the Prince-Bishop of Würzberg. During the early part of the fifteenth century, the bishops had been wildly extravagant and were unable to pay their debts except by levying even heavier taxes. By 1474 the taxes had become so burdensome that one of the Bishop’s officials, comparing the local peasantry to a team of horses drawing a heavy wagon, remarked that if a single egg were added to that wagon, the horses would no longer be able to pull it. To a laity which had learnt from generations of heterodox preachers that the clergy ought to live in total poverty, this heavy burden of taxation was bound to appear particularly monstrous. In the city and diocese of Würzberg, it was no longer acceptable for the bishop, whatever his personal qualities, to be regarded by the laity and especially by the poor as an exploiter.

In 1476, the small of Niklashausen in the Tauber valley, not far from Würzberg, was the backdrop for a movement which could almost be seen as a new People’s Crusade. Much that had occurred during the earlier crusades in France, the Low Countries and the Rhine valley was now repeated in southern Germany, but this time messianic Kingdom was no Heavenly Jerusalem but the State of Nature, as it had been pictured by John Ball in England and the Táborites in Bohemia. The Messiah was a young man called Hans Böhm, a name which suggests that he was either of Bohemian descent or else that in the popular mind he was associated with Hussite teachings. He was a shepherd and, in his spare time, a popular entertainer, drumming and piping in hostelries and in the market-place. Hence the nickname, by which he is still known, of the Drummer (or Piper) of Niklashausen. He had heard the tale of an Italian Franciscan, Giovanni di Capistrano, from a generation earlier, who had through Germany preaching repentance, urging his audience to put away their fine clothes and to burn all dice and playing cards. Shortly afterwards, in the middle of Lent, the shepherd burnt his drum before the parish church of Niklashausen and began to preach to the people.

Exactly like the shepherd lad who is said to have launched the Shepherds’ Crusade of 1320, Böhm declared that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him surrounded by a heavenly radiance and had given him a message of prodigious importance. In the parish church of Niklashausen there stood a statue of the Virgin to which miraculous powers were attributed, long attracting pilgrims. Now, he claimed, this spot had become the salvation of the world. God had intended to punish mankind, but the Virgin had interceded and God had agreed to withhold punishment if people came to Niklashausen in their multitudes, otherwise, the punishment would, after all, descend upon the world. From the village alone, the Virgin would bestow her blessings upon all lands, since divine grace was to be found in the Tauber valley alone. Whoever made the pilgrimage would be absolved of all their sins and whoever died there would not suffer purgatory, but go straight to heaven.

This former shepherd was a simple man, but now he was suddenly able to command astonishing eloquence. On Sundays and feast days crowds streamed to hear him. At first, he merely preached repentance: women were to throw away their gold and jewellery, men were to wear less colourful costumes. Before long, however, the shepherd was claiming miraculous powers for himself. That God had not sent a frost to kill off all corn and vines was due to his prayers alone, he proclaimed. He also swore that he could lead any soul out of hell with his own hand.

Although Böhm had begun to preach with the consent of the parish priest, it was to be expected that he would eventually turn against the clergy. He voiced the traditional accusations of ‘Avarice’ and ‘Luxury’. It would be easier, he asserted, to make a Christian out of a Jew than out of a priest. God had been outraged by the behaviour of the clergy; now he would tolerate it no longer. The day of reckoning was at hand when the clergy would be happy to cover up their tonsures to escape from their pursuers, for to kill a cleric would then be seen as a most meritorious act. God had withdrawn his strength from them, and there would soon be no priests or monks left on earth. If they burnt him as a heretic, he threatened, a fearful punishment awaited them. He also called upon the people to stop paying taxes and tithes. Priests should be made to give up their many benefices and live from meal to meal on what their parishioners chose to give them. The celebrated Abbot of Sponheim commented:

What would the laymen like better than to see clergy and priesthood robbed of all their privileges and rights, their tithes and revenues? For the common people is by nature hungry for novelties and ever eager to shake off its master’s yoke.

The Primate of Germany, the Archbishop of Mainz, also saw in the propheta of Niklashausen a force which might inflict irreparable damage on the Church. In the end, Böhm also revealed himself as a social revolutionary, proclaiming the imminence of the egalitarian Millennium based on Natural Law.  In the coming Kingdom, the use of wood, water and pasturage, the right to fish and hunt would be freely enjoyed by all, as they had been in ‘olden times’. Tributes of all kinds would be abolished forever. No rent or services would be owed to any lord, no taxes or duties to any prince. Distinctions of rank and status would cease to exist and nobody would have authority over anybody else. All would live together as brothers, everyone enjoying the same liberties and doing the same amount of work as everyone else, from the poorest peasant to local lords and princes to the Emperor:

Princes, ecclesiastical and secular alike, and counts and knights should only possess as much as common folk, then everyone would have enough. The time will have to come when princes and lords will work for their daily bread… The Emperor is a scoundrel and the Pope is useless. It is the Emperor who gives the princes and counts and knights the right to levy taxes on the common people. Alas, poor devils that you are!

The demand for the overthrow of all rulers, great and small, probably appealed particularly to the urban poor; we know that townsfolk came to Niklashausen from all over southern and central Germany. On the other hand in demanding that all basic resources and activities should be free for all men, Böhm’s teaching was appealing to the peasants. The German peasants believed that these rights had, in fact, been theirs in ‘olden time’, until usurped by the nobility; this was one of the wrongs that they were always expecting the future ‘Emperor Frederick’ to undo. But above all it was the prestige of the preacher himself, a miraculous being sent by God, which drew tens of thousands to the Tauber Valley. The common people, peasants and artisans alike, saw in him a supernatural protector and leader, a saviour who could bestow on them the fulness of divine grace and who would lead them collectively into an earthly Paradise.

News of the wonderful happenings at Niklashausen passed rapidly from village to village in the neighbourhood and was carried further afield by messengers who went out in all directions. Soon vast hordes of the common folk of all ages and both sexes, including whole families, were streaming towards Niklashausen. Not only the surrounding country but all parts of southern and central Germany were in commotion, from the Alps to the Rhineland and on to Thuringia. Artisans deserted their workshops and peasants their fields, shepherds and shepherdesses abandoned their flocks and hastened to hear and adore him who was now known as ‘the Holy Youth’. What the plebs pauperum had believed of Jerusalem these people believed of Nikashausen. There Paradise had literally descended upon the earth and infinite riches were lying ready to be gathered by the faithful, who would share them out amongst themselves in brotherly love. The hordes advanced in long columns, bearing banners and singing songs of their own composition. One became particularly popular:

To God in Heaven we complain

Kyrie eleison

That the priests cannot be slain

Kyrie eleison.  

As the pilgrims arrived at Niklashausen they placed offerings before the statue of the Virgin, but an even more intense devotion was given to the propheta himself. They dropped to their knees before him, crying, O Man of God, sent from Heaven, take pity on us! It was reported that by laying-on of hands, he had cured people who had been blind or dumb from birth, that he had raised the dead and that he had made a spring gush from a rock. Chroniclers talk of as many as seventy thousand gathered together on a single day, and though this figure is absurd, the assemblies must have been very sizeable. A vast camp grew up around the little village; tents were set up in which tradesmen, artisans and cooks catered for the travellers’ needs. From time to time, Böhm would mount a tub, or appear at an upper window, to preach his revolutionary doctrine to the crowds (see the woodcut below).

The pilgrimages began towards the end of March 1474 and by June the authorities, both ecclesiastical and secular, had decided that Böhm’s propaganda was a serious menace to the social order which must be dealt with. The Town Council of Nuremberg forbade their citizens from going on pilgrimage to Niklashausen and Würzberg soon followed suit. Perturbed at the number of strangers who were pouring through the town, the Council closed as many of its gates as possible, bade its citizens to arm themselves and did what it could to put a stop to wild talk. In the end, the Prince-Bishop set about breaking the power of the propheta. He summoned a Diet at which it was decided that Böhm should be arrested.

According to his enemies, Böhm now tried to organise a revolt, telling his audience in a sermon on 7 July to come armed, without women or children, on the next Sunday. On the night before, a squad of horsemen sent by the Bishop descended on Niklashausen, seizing Böhm and carrying him off to Würzburg. The next day thousands of the assembled pilgrims marched, with only a few weapons but many giant candles taken from the shrine, to the castle at Würzburg where Böhm was imprisoned, arriving at dawn beneath the castle walls. The Bishop and the Town Council sent an emissary to reason with the pilgrims, but he was driven off with stones. A second emissary was more successful in persuading those pilgrims who were subjects of the Bishop to return to their homes. The rest stood firm, insisting on the release of the Holy Youth. A few cannon-shots were fired over their heads, but when no-one was hurt, the pilgrims were convinced that the Virgin was protecting them. As a result, they then tried to storm the town. This time the shots were directed at them and were followed by a cavalry-charge in which some forty of them were killed, the rest fleeing in panic.

Support for Böhm was so strong that even after this overwhelming victory the Bishop and Town Council could not feel secure. The burghers of Würzburg were warned to expect a second and more formidable attack. It was also feared that there were many within the city who might join forces with the pilgrims. The Bishop sent out a request to the neighbouring lords to hold themselves ready to come to his assistance if needed. Before any fresh disturbances could occur, however, Böhm had been tried by an ecclesiastical court and found guilty of heresy and sorcery. Two of his peasant disciples were beheaded and the Holy Youth himself was burnt at the stake, the common people hoping in vain for a miracle from Heaven which would save him. His ashes were thrown into the river so they could not become relics.

Everything possible was done to eradicate all trace of Böhm and his works. The offerings left at the church of Niklashausen were confiscated and shared between the Archbishop of Mainz, the Bishop of Würzburg and the count in whose territory the church stood. In all the affected areas of Germany, bishops, princes and town councils joined in forbidding any further pilgrimages to the village shrine. Nevertheless, pilgrims continued to arrive even after they were threatened with excommunication and the church had been closed and placed under an interdict. In the end, at the beginning of 1477, the church was demolished by order of the Archbishop.

Undoubtedly, the Holy Youth of Niklashausen had been exploited by men far shrewder than he was. Certain local lords made use of the popular excitement to weaken their overlord, the Bishop of Würzburg, with whom they had been in conflict for some years. These men headed the nocturnal march on the city; one of them had later, by way of penance, to hand over much of his land to the cathedral chapter. Like many previous propheta, Böhm was a simple shepherd-boy; we are told that from earliest youth he had appeared as half-witted, that until he began to preach he had never been able to form a coherent sentence, and that he was even unable to repeat the Lord’s Prayer. He was able to throw vast areas of Germany into commotion due to the backing he received. The parish priest of Niklashausen was quick to realise that a few miracles could attract huge offerings to his hitherto obscure shrine; he later admitted inventing miracles and attributing them to Böhm. The major part, however, was played by a hermit who had for some time been living in a nearby cave and who had acquired a great reputation for holiness. He seems to exercised a total domination over Böhm, both intimidating him and inspiring him. When Böhm addressed the crowds from a window the hermit stood behind him and prompted him, as he is shown to be doing in the woodcut from Schedel’s Chronicle below:

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Even if this part of the popular narrative is fanciful propaganda, it probably indicates the true relationship between the two men. The hermit fled when the Holy Youth was arrested, but was caught soon afterwards. The ecclesiastical records name him as Beghard, a native of Bohemia and a Hussite. Although the evidence cannot be called conclusive, it seems reasonably certain that it was the hermit who turned a religious pilgrimage into a revolutionary movement. In the quiet and picturesque Tauber Valley, he must have seen the future centre of a millennial kingdom in which the primal egalitarian order was to be restored.

Egalitarian millenarianism had now effectively penetrated Germany. The forgotten manuscript, the Reformation of Sigismund, after existing for some forty years, appeared for the first time as a printed book within a couple of years of Böhm’s burning and was reprinted in 1480, 1484, 1490 and 1494. The original manuscript was written just after the collapse of Táborite power in Bohemia and was an example of the attraction of the movement’s ideals. Despite its relatively moderate programme, which I have written about in earlier posts on this site, it too summoned the poor to take up the sword and enforce their rights under the leadership of the priest-king Frederick. In a far more violent form, the same theme reappears in the Book of a Hundred Chapters which was produced by an anonymous publicist who lived in Upper Alsace or the Breisgau and who is generally known as the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine. This elderly fanatic was thoroughly familiar with the enormous mass of medieval apocalyptic literature and drew freely upon it in order to write his treatise, in German in the opening years of the sixteenth century, the last and most comprehensive expression of the popular eschatology of the Middle Ages.

What that strange prophet foretells at enormous length is, after all, precisely what had been so simply articulated by John Ball, the Lollards and the Táborites. After one bloody struggle against the hosts of Antichrist perfect justice would be re-established on earth and all men would be equals and brothers, perhaps even holding all things in common. These fantasies were not confined to books; also in the neighbourhood of the Upper Rhine there appeared conspiratorial movements which were dedicated to translating them into reality. These were the movements which were known collectively as the Bundschuh, a term meaning a peasant’s clog and having the same significance as the term sansculotte during the French Revolution.

In one respect this ‘revolutionary’ was truly original – nobody before him had combined devotion to the principal of communal or public ownership with megalomaniac nationalism. This man was convinced that in the remote past the Germans had in reality ‘lived together like brothers on earth’, holding all things in common. The destruction of that happy order had been the work first of the Romans and then of the Church of Rome, through the imposition of a Canon Law which had introduced the idea of private property and thereby undermined the value of fraternity, opening the way to envy and hate.

Behind this curious interpretation of early Church history, lay a whole different and distorted philosophy of history. The Old Testament was dismissed as valueless; for from the time of the Creation onwards it was not the Jews but the Germans who were the Chosen People. Adam and all his descendants down to Japhet, including all the Patriarchs, were German-speaking Germans; other languages, including Hebrew, came into existence only at the Tower of Babel. It was Japhet and his kin who first came to Europe, bringing their language with them. They had chosen to settle in Alsace, the heart of Europe, and the capital of the Empire which they founded was at Trier. This ancient German Empire was so vast, covering the whole of Europe, that Alexander the Great could be claimed as a German national hero. It had been the most perfect of empires, a true earthly paradise, for it was governed according to a legal code, known as the Statutes of Trier, in which the principles of fraternity, equality and communal ownership were enshrined. It was in these Statutes, and not in the ‘Decalogue’ invented by Moses, that God had expressed his commandments to mankind. The Revolutionary appended a copy of these to his work.

The time was at hand, he claimed, when the power of evil epitomised by the Latin peoples and their Church was to be broken forever. When the great leader from the Black Forest seized power as Emperor Frederick he would not only cleanse Germany from the Latin corruption and bring back the ‘Golden Age’ based on the Statutes of Trier but would also restore Germany to the position of supremacy which God intended for her. ‘Daniel’s Dream’, that old apocalypse which had brought such inspiration to the Jews during the Maccabean revolt, was subjected by the ‘Revolutionary’ to yet another reinterpretation. The four successive Empires – Assyria, Babylon, Syria and Greece – now turned into France, England, Spain and Italy. Enraged by the overwhelming pride of these nations the Emperor would conquer them all and establish the German Empire as the fifth and greatest Empire, which shall not pass away. Next, returning from his western campaigns, the Emperor would utterly defeat the Turks. Pressing east at the head of a vast army drawn from many peoples he would carry out the task traditionally assigned to the Last Emperor. The Holy Land would be conquered for Christendom and the society of Mohammedans would be utterly overthrown. The infidel will be baptised and those that will not accept baptism are no Christians nor people of the Holy Scriptures, so they are to be killed, then they will be baptised in their blood. After all this the Emperor will reign supreme over the whole world, receiving homage and tribute from thirty-two kings.

According to ‘the Revolutionary’, the teachings of the historical Christ were directed only to the Jews, not the Germans, for whom the proper religion was still that which had prevailed in ‘the Golden Age’ of Trier and which Emperor Frederick would reinstate. When that happened the spiritual centre of the world would not be Rome but Mainz, where a patriarch would preside in place of the vanquished pope. But it would be the Emperor – ‘the Revolutionary’ himself, triumphant and glorified, who would stand at the centre of the future religion as the ‘supreme priest’, recognised as ‘an earthly God’.  The future Empire was thus to be no less than a quasi-religious community or theocracy, united in adoration and dread of a messiah who would be the embodiment of the German spirit. This was what ‘the Revolutionary’ had in mind when he cried, jubilantly, that the Germans once held the whole world in their hands and will do so again, and with more power than ever.

In this fantasy, the crude nationalism of a half-educated intellectual erupted into the tradition of popular eschatology. The result was uncannily similar to the quasi-religious folk fantasies which were the core of the National-Socialist ‘ideology’ of interwar Germany five centuries later. We only have to turn back to the tracts produced by Rosenberg and Darré, among others, to be struck by the resemblance. There is the same belief in a primitive German culture in which the divine will was once revealed and was the source of all good down the centuries until it was undermined by a conspiracy of capitalists, inferior non-German people and the Church of Rome. This ‘true German’ culture would now be restored by a new aristocracy, of humble but ‘truly German’ stock, under a God-sent saviour who is it once an emperor and a messiah. The whole history of the Third Reich is foreshadowed, the offensives in the West and the East, the Terror wielded as an instrument of policy and for its own sake, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of non-German peoples and the biggest massacres in human history. All that is missing is the final consummation of the world-empire, the welt-Reich, which, in Adolf Hitler’s words, was to last a thousand years, like the earthly kingdom of the returning Messiah in the earlier Judao-Christian prophecies.

The Book of a Hundred Chapters was not printed at the time, nor has it ever been, in contrast to the Reformation of Sigismund, and there is nothing to suggest that the anonymous ‘Revolutionary’ played any significant part in the social movements of his day. The importance of the text lies in its recognisable influences in the apocalyptic literature of the Middle Ages. In particular, there can be little doubt that the prophecy of a future Frederick, a ‘Sleeping Emperor’ who would be the messiah of the poor, continued to fascinate and excite the common people of Germany, peasants and artisans alike, until well into the sixteenth century. In one emperor after another, from Sigismund to Charles V, the people contrived to see a reincarnation of Frederick II. When these monarchs failed to play the eschatological role expected of them, the collective imagination of the people continued to dwell on a mythological parallel emperor ‘of lowly descent’, who would rise up from among the poor, to oust the actual monarch and reign in his stead. The ‘Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine’, writing in 1510 had predicted the apocalyptic year for 1515. When a Bundschuh rising broke out in the same area in 1513 its declared aim was to help righteousness and get rid of blasphemers and finally to recover the Holy Sepulchre.

The leader of the Bundschuh was a peasant called Joss Fritz and many of the rank-and-file were also peasants. This was not the first rising he had organised. Like the outbreak at Niklashausen, the rising which occurred in the diocese of Speyer in 1502 was provoked in a general sense by the failure of the latest attempt to restore the disintegrating structure of the Empire, and by the excessive taxes levied by an insolvent Prince-Bishop, but its object was nothing less than a social revolution of the most thorough-going kind.  Not only the peasantry but also the urban poor, disbanded mercenaries, beggars and the like are known to have played a large part in the movement, giving it its peculiar character. For there were many other peasant risings in southern Germany at that time, and they all aimed merely at limited reforms of the feudal system. Only the Bundschuh aimed at achieving the Millennium. All authority was to be overthrown, all dues and taxes abolished, all ecclesiastical property distributed amongst the people, all woods, waters and pastures were to become communal property.

The flag of the movement showed Christ crucified with on one side a praying peasant, on the other the peasant clog, above it the slogan: Nothing but God’s Justice! It was planned to capture the town of Bruschal, where the Bishop’s palace was located; from there the movement was to spread throughout Germany, bringing freedom to the peasants and town-dwellers who supported it, but death to everyone else. Although this plot was betrayed and the movement crushed, Joss Fritz survived to organise similar risings in 1513 and 1517, in which there were similar mixes of fantasies: on the one hand exterminating all the rich and powerful and establishing an egalitarian order and on the other, a determination to get rid of blasphemers, of being led by the Emperor and of recovering the Holy Sepulchre. Indeed, the image of the Bundschuh came to possess such prodigious significance that it was a popular belief that the original capture of Jerusalem had been achieved by peasants fighting under that banner.

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Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and certainly by the end of the fifteenth century, national boundaries were hardened and the concept of “statehood” was emergent, becoming politically more important than that of the “nation”, in its original meaning of a people of common descent. This development is most marked in the development of England, Scotland, France and Spain. The growth of national consciousness was not, however, dependent on the authority of a unitary state. The strong consciousness of Germanness and German nationhood evolved in a very different political context from that of the western European states.

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Above: Central-Eastern Europe in the Later Middle Ages (circa 1493).

Meanwhile, in a different part of Germany – Thuringia, a territory fertile in millenarian myths and movements –  a radical reformer, Thomas Müntzer, was embarking on a stormy career which was to end by turning him too into a prophet of the egalitarian Millennium.

(to be continued…)

Revolutionary Violence, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1349-1452: Part One   Leave a comment

Part One: Emperors, Flagellants and Lollards

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Central-Eastern Europe in 1382 showing the Ottoman Advance

By the middle of the fourteenth century, quite apart from the Ottoman threat in the Byzantine Empire, the rest of Europe was in a period of crisis. The Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague which devastated Europe from 1346 to 1353, killing at least twenty million out of a population of about eighty million. Further outbreaks later in the century prevented new population growth. This helped to exacerbate social and economic tensions: the socio-economic system of the “High Middle Ages” broke down, helping to cause a wave of both rural and urban disorder. There was a sense of crisis in the Church, too: the transfer of the papacy to Avignon (1305-77) and the Great Schism (1378-1417) in western Christendom between areas owing allegiance to rival popes in Rome and Avignon challenged patterns of authority and obedience, contributing to a sense of fragmentation.

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Above: The courtyard of the papal palace at Avignon,

built during the ‘Avignon Captivity’ of the popes.

In the course of the fourteenth century all the eschatological hopes which the medieval masses had ever managed to squeeze out of the early Christian apocalyptic prophecies became concentrated in Germany on the future resurrection of Frederick II. Thirty-four years after his death, the Holy Roman Emperor underwent a resurrection very similar to that which had once befallen Baldwin, Count of Flanders and, briefly, Byzantine Emperor. Under the year 1284, a chronicler wrote of a former hermit near Worms who, claiming to be the Emperor, had been escorted into Lübeck amidst great popular enthusiasm. By then, Frederick had taken his place in the line of King Arthur, Charlemagne and Baldwin as a Sleeping Emperor who would one day return as saviour, this time of the German people. The fake Frederick gained some support among the princes who wanted to embarrass Rudolf, the first Habsburg who had been elected German king in 1273. But he was eventually burnt at the stake in the town of Wetzlar.

But the execution served only to increase the reputation of the Emperor as a superhuman and immortal being. It was reported that amongst the ashes at the stake no bones had been found, but only a little bean, which people at once concluded must mean that the Emperor had been rescued from the flames by divine providence, that he was still alive, and that he must one day return. This conviction persisted for generation after generation, so that in the middle of the fourteenth century it was still being claimed that Frederick must return, for such was God’s unalterable decree. It was also claimed that Prester John, the fabulous oriental monarch, had provided the Emperor with an asbestos robe, a magic ring which enabled him to disappear and a magic drink which kept him forever young. The Emperor would often appear to peasants in the guise of a pilgrim, confiding in them that the time would yet come when he would take his rightful place at the head of the Empire. One chronicler recorded how,

In all countries a hard time sets in. A feud flares up between the two heads of Christendom, a fierce struggle begins. Many a mother must mourn her child, men and women alike must suffer. Rapine and arson go hand in hand, everyone is at everyone else’s throat, everyone harms everyone else in his person and his belongings, there is nobody but has cause to lament. But when suffering has reached such a pitch that no-one can allay it, then there appears by God’s will the Emperor Frederick, so noble and so gentle… Full of courage, men and women at once stream together for the journey overseas. The Kingdom of God is promised to them. They come in crowds, each hurrying ahead of the other… peace reigns in all the land, fortresses threaten no longer, there is no need to fear force any more. Nobody opposes the crusade to the withered tree. When the Emperor hangs his shield upon it, the tree puts forth leaf and blossom. The Holy Sepulcre is freed, from now on no sword need be drawn on its behalf. The noble Emperor restores the same law for all men… All heathen realms do homage to the Emperor. He overthrows the power of the Jews, though not by force of arms; their might is broken for ever and they submit without a struggle. Of the domination of the clergy almost nothing remains. The high-born prince dissolves the monasteries altogether, he gives the nuns to be wedded; I tell you, they must grow wine and corn for us!

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By the middle of the fourteenth century, Germany had become what it was to remain down to the sixteenth century; a mass of warring principalities, a perpetual chaos in the midst of which the Emperor was altogether helpless. At the same time, the towns of southern and central Germany had replaced the towns of the Low Countries as the main centres of mercantile capitalism north of the Alps, and the social conflicts within them had reached a fierce intensity. While the prosperous guilds fought the patricians and one another, amongst the poor there smouldered a deadly hatred of all the rich. One chronicler from Magdeburg warned the well-to-do burghers that…

… one must not let the common people have their way too much, as has been done of late. They should be kept firmly under control; for there is an old hatred between rich and poor. The poor hate everyone with any possessions and are more ready to harm the rich than the rich are to harm the poor.

The point of view of the poor now found in German literature an expression as violent as it had found a century earlier in French. The poet Suchenwirt, for instance, described how hungry men, leaving their pale and emaciated wives and children in their hovels, crowd together in the narrow streets, armed with improvised weapons and full of desperate courage:

The coffers of the rich are full, those of the poor are empty. The poor man’s belly is hollow… Hack down the rich man’s door! We’re going to dine with him. It’s better to be cut down, all of us, than die of hunger, we’d rather risk our lives bravely than perish in this way…

It was to be expected that in such a society the future Frederick would take on ever more clearly the aspect of the great social revolutionary, the Messiah and the poor. In 1348, the prophecies of the Swabian preachers of a century before recurred in a still more emphatic form in the popular expectations noted by the monk John of Winterthur:

As soon as he has risen from the dead and stands once more at the height of his power, he will marry poor women and maidens to rich men, and ‘vice versa’… He will see to it that everything that has been stolen from minors and orphans and widows is returned to them, and that full justice is done to everyone… he will persecute the clergy so fiercely that if they have no other means of hiding their tonsures they will cover them with cow-dung…

In his text, John of Winterthur disassociated himself from these disturbing beliefs. It was, he remarked, sheer madness to suppose that the Emperor-heretic could ever return; it was contrary to the Catholic faith that a man who had been burnt at the stake could ever again wield sovereign power. The ‘dogma’ of the Second Coming of Frederick was indeed regarded as a dangerous heresy. As another chronicler wrote in 1434,

From the Emperor Frederick, the heretic, a new heresy arose which some Christians still hold to in secret; they believe absolutely that the Emperor Frederick is still alive and will remain alive until the end of the world, and that there has been and shall be no proper Emperor but he… The Devil invented this folly, so as to mislead these heretics and certain simple folk…

How seriously the clergy took this heresy and how alert they were to detect it is shown by the curious story of a Greek philosopher who ventured to divulge in Rome the conviction which he had derived from a long study of the Greek Sibylline, which was that the Last Emperor would shortly be converting all people to Christianity. In this, as in other Byzantine prophecies, the coming of the Last Emperor in no way implied a massacre of the Jews, the clergy or the rich, but this was so inconceivable to the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome that they imprisoned the Greek and confiscated his belongings.

This period from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth century witnessed a considerable decline in the authority of the papacy. At the same time, there was a rise in various dissident religious movements. One such movement which was particularly bizarre was that of the Flagellants, with their practice of whipping themselves. There were other lesser groups which fell outside the lines of orthodoxy, for example, the Brothers of the Free Spirit. 

The two most troublesome movements for wholesale reform from within the Church were those initiated by John Wyclif in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia. They went as far as to attack the very foundations of the medieval hierarchy, including the papacy. However, they did so still, mostly, by using the language of the Church, Latin. The attacks on the Church came not only in the sophisticated writings of theologians, however, but more and more in the vernacular languages. Much of the literature in these languages, written in the later medieval centuries, reveals the popular discontent with the condition of the church and the papacy. Examples occur in the anti-clerical attacks in the writings of Boccaccio, as well as in the condemnation of church wealth by the English poet Langland. His compatriot Geoffrey Chaucer also shows no love for the materialism of the church in fourteenth-century England. Everywhere more and more men began to question the basic tenets of the church.

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The revolutionary flagellant movement of the mid-fourteenth century also spread to most areas of the Low Countries and all over Germany, and ended as a militant and bloodthirsty pursuit of the Millennium. As it turned into a messianic mass movement, its behaviour came to resemble that of its forerunner, the People’s Crusades. The German flagellants, in particular, ended as uncompromising enemies of the Church who not only condemned the clergy but utterly repudiated the clergy’s claim to supernatural authority. They denied that the sacrament of the Eucharist had any meaning, and when the host was elevated they refused to show it reverence. They interrupted church services, setting themselves above not only the clergy but also the Pope. They argued that while clerics could only point to the Bible and to tradition as sources of authority, they themselves had been taught directly by the Holy Spirit which had sent them out across the world. They refused to accept criticism from any cleric, but like the ‘Master of Hungary’, they declared that any priest who contradicted them should be dragged from his pulpit and burnt at the stake. At times, the flagellants would urge the populace on to stone the clergy. A French chronicler wrote that the movement aimed at utterly destroying the Church, expropriating its wealth and killing all the clergy.

As usual, the Jews suffered along with the clergy, and on a far greater scale. Following the massacres of the First Crusade (1096-99), the Jews were banished from England in 1290, from France in 1306, 1322 and finally in 1394. Increasingly, the Jews were given the choice of accepting Christianity, banishment or massacre. In the great massacre of European Jewry which accompanied the Black Death, the greatest before the twentieth century, the flagellants played important roles. The first killings were carried out spontaneously by a populace convinced that the Jews had caused the plague by poisoning the wells. they had come to an end by March 1349, perhaps because by that time people had recognised that among the Jews there were just as many victims of the plague as there were among Christians and that neither were the areas spared where all the Jews had been killed. Four months later the second wave of massacres was launched by the propaganda of the flagellants. Wherever the authorities had so far protected the Jews, these hordes now demanded their massacre. When, in July 1349, flagellants entered Frankfurt, they rushed straight to the Jewish quarter, where the townsfolk joined them in exterminating the whole community. The town authorities were so perturbed by the incident that they drove the penitents from the town and reinforced the gates to prevent their return.

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A month later massacres took place simultaneously at Mainz and Cologne. During a flagellant ceremony at Mainz, the crowd of spectators suddenly ran amok and fell upon the Jews, with the result that the largest Jewish community in Germany was annihilated. At Cologne, a flagellant band which had for some time been encamped outside the city entered its gates and collected a great crowd of ‘those who had nothing to lose.’ They ignored the town councillors and the rich burghers and attacked the Jews, killing many of them. In Brussels too it was the combination of the rumours of well-poisoning and the role of the flagellants which launched the massacre of the whole community of six hundred Jews, despite the efforts of the Duke of Brabant to stop the slaughter. Through large areas of the Low Countries the flagellants, aided by the poor, burnt and drowned all the Jews they could find because they thought to please God in that way.

The sources are few and it is impossible to say how many massacres were led or instigated by the flagellants during the second half of 1349, but they must have been numerous. The Jews themselves came to regard the flagellants as their worst enemies. The Pope gave as one of his chief complaints against them that…

… most of them or their followers, beneath an appearance of piety, set their hands to cruel and impious works, shedding the blood of the Jews, whom Christian piety accepts and sustains…

By the time the flagellants had finished their ‘works’, which the panic of 1348 had begun, there were very few Jews left in Germany or the Low Countries. The 1348-49 massacres completed the deterioration in the position of European Jewry which had begun in 1096. Throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages the Jewish communities in Germany remained small, poor and, of course, condemned to the segregation of the ghetto. In Spain, the massacres of 1391 led many Marranos to accept Christianity, though often only nominally. The Inquisition investigated with its horrors the genuineness of their faith.

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Above: An illustration of the Eve of Passover service at a Jewish synagogue in

fourteenth-century Spain.

It was in the turbulent years around 1380 that the new social myth of a ‘Golden Age’ came into being in Europe. People ceased to think of a society without distinctions of status as being irrecoverably lost in the dim and distant mists of past time and began to think of it instead as preordained for the future, even the near or immediate future. Perhaps it first took place in the towns of Flanders and northern France, which had been swept up throughout the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century in waves of insurrectionary violence. Yet when we examine the chronicles dealing with the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the preaching attributed to John Ball, the myth is found, unmistakably, bubbling away just below the surface. In a celebrated passage, Froissart gives us what is supposed to be a typical sermon of the leader:

And if we are all descended from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve, how can the lords say or prove that they are more lords than we are, save that they make us dig and till the ground so that they can squander what we produce? They are clad in velvet and satin, set off with squirrel fur, while we are dressed in poor cloth. They have wines and spices and fine bread, and we have only rye and spoilt flour and straw, and only water to drink. They have beautiful residences and manors, while we have the trouble and the work, always in the fields under rain and snow. But it is from us and our labour that everything comes with which they maintain their pomp.

For this unequal state of affairs, the preacher prescribes a drastic remedy:

Good folk, things cannot go well in England nor ever shall until all things are in common and there is neither villein nor noble, but all of us are of one condition

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The villeins’ determination to be free men was the main cause of the the revolt. Since the twelfth century they had been able to gain their freedom by paying money to the lord instead of giving personal service. In some counties, like Suffolk, perhaps as many as half the peasants were free men by the mid-fourteenth century. The landlords, sitting in Parliament had agreed to the Statute of Labourers in 1351, reducing wages which had increased since the Black Death had wiped out a third of the population between 1348 and 1349, which in turn had led to a great shortage of labour. As both landlords and labourers broke the new law, however, it was difficult to force wages down, so the landlords began to refuse to make more villeins in order to ‘tie’ more of the peasants to their land. The landlords also began to let more of their land to their tenants, increasing the money rents for it. In some places they also found it more profitable to change arable land into sheep pasture, requiring fewer labourers and producing greater profits from the sale of wool. Many peasants were forced to give up their land and became labourers.

Peasant risings also broke out in France, but resulted in few changes to the feudal system, since most of them were local in character, based on abuses of the system by landlords. The Revolt in England was regional in character, but national in focus with the aim of radical reform of the system. In fact, by the middle of the fifteenth century in England, villeinage was fast disappearing in England as landlords were ready to exchange service for a payment and set the villeins free. Nevertheless, the immediate cause or catalyst of the 1381 Revolt was the imposition of an unfair tax, the poll tax, which resulted from the mismanagement of the wars with France. The Revolt was put down with great severity, and the peasants failed to get any of their demands. When the rebels had dispersed, Ball was taken prisoner at Coventry, given a trial in which, unlike most, he was permitted to speak. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at St Alban’s in the presence of King Richard II on 15 July 1381. His head was displayed stuck on a pike on London Bridge, and the quarters of his body were displayed in four different towns. The English chronicler Thomas Walsingham, the monk of St Alban’s, also gave a report of the sermon which Ball is said to have preached to the rebel host at Blackheath on a text which has remained famous to this day and was already, then, a well-known proverb:

When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?

From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

John Ball encouraging Wat Tyler rebels from ca 1470 MS of Froissart Chronicles in BL.jpg

Above: Medieval drawing of John Ball preaching to the rebels at Blackheath.

According to Walsingham, Ball’s argument was that in the beginning all human beings had been created free and equal. It was evil men who, by unjust oppression, had first introduced serfdom, against the will of God. The common people could cast off the yoke they had borne so long and thereby win the freedom they had always yearned for. Therefore they should be of good heart and conduct themselves like the wise husbandman in the Scriptures who gathered the wheat into the barn, but uprooted and burnt the tares which had almost choked the good grain; for harvest-time had come. The tares were the great lords, the judges and the lawyers, all of whom must be exterminated, and so must everyone else who might be dangerous to the community in the future. Once they had been dealt with, all remaining men would enjoy equal freedom, rank and power.

Above: From William Morris’ Dream of John Ball (1888).

In more academic guise, this doctrine of the primal egalitarian State of Nature had been mooted by John Wyclif (1329-84), the Morning Star of the Reformation in his Latin treatise De civili dominio, which he composed in Oxford in 1374. He argued that it for the unrighteous to hold lordship was mere usurpation, contrary to the first principles of law and incompatible with the divine purpose; whereas the righteous man, who renounced lordship for the sake of obedience to Christ, obtained in return complete lordship over the whole universe, such as had not been enjoyed since our first parents and the Fall. Wyclif went on to produce his own variation on the theory of man’s original egalitarian state of grace:

Firstly, that all good things of God ought to be in common. The proof of this is as follows: Every man ought to be in a state of grace; if he in a state of grace he is lord of the world and all that it contains; therefore every man ought to be lord of the whole world. But, because of the multitudes of men, this will not happen unless they all hold all things in common: therefore all things ought to be in common. 

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Of course, Wyclif never intended this theory to be applied in practice to secular society, himself adding that in practical life the righteous must acquiesce in inequalities and injustices and leave the unrighteous in possession of their wealth and power. If in his attacks on the wealth and worldliness of the clergy Wyclif was in deadly earnest, these comments of his on the communal ownership of all things were little more than an exercise in formal logic. Nevertheless, when abstracted from their scholastic context and stripped of their qualifying clauses those same comments appear to be socially radical. Wyclif was in a position to speak truth to power as John of Gaunt had invited him to serve at the court of Richard II. Wyclif offended the church by backing the right of the state to seize the property of corrupt clergymen. His views were condemned by the pope in 1377, but Wyclif’s influential friends protected him.Wyclif pushed his anti-clerical views further, and began to attack some of the central doctrines of the medieval church, including ‘transubstantiation’. He also claimed that since the church consisted of God’s chosen people, they did not need a priest to mediate for them.

However, it would be surprising if, among his ‘congregations’ at Oxford, there had been none who snatched at such radical social ideas and scattered them abroad, simplified into propaganda slogans. He attracted support by his energetic teaching and preaching. Wyclif was gradually deserted by his friends in high places and the church authorities forced him and his friends out of Oxford. In 1382, he went to live in Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where he died in 1384. Some of his followers had gone there with him and continued his mission after his death. It has been suggested that John Ball had been one of his poor itinerant priests, or ‘Lollards’, whom he had sent out to share the gospels in his newly translated text from Latin into English. By 1395 they had developed into an organised group, with their own ministers enjoying widespread popular support.

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The Lollards stood for many of the ideas set out by Wyclif. In particular, they believed that the main task of a priest was to preach and that the Bible should be available to everyone in his own language. From the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Lollards were suppressed, particularly when their protest became linked with social and political unrest. But Lollardy continued to thrive in some parts of England, thus preparing the way for the spread of Lutheranism to England in the next century.

For the fifteenth century and the early years of the sixteenth in Germany, the myth of the future Frederick no longer has to be pieced together from occasional reports from hostile chroniclers. At this point, it emerges into full daylight, in the form of detailed manifestos. The earliest of these works, the Latin tract known as Gamaleon, probably produced either in 1409, tells of a future German Emperor who is to overthrow the French monarchy and the Papacy. When he has accomplished his mission France will be remembered no more, the Hungarians and Slavs will have been subjugated and reduced to complete dependence, Jewry will have been crushed forever; while the Germans will be exalted above all peoples. The Church of Rome will have been expropriated and all its clergy killed. In place of the Pope a German patriarch will preside from Mainz over a new church, but a church subordinate to the Emperor, the eagle from the eagle’s race, a new Frederick whose wings will stretch from sea to sea and to the very limits of the earth. Those will be the Last Days, followed by the Second Coming and the Judgement.

In about 1439 a far more influential work was produced, the so-called Reformation of Sigismund. Its origin lay in a Latin manifesto prepared by a priest called Frederick of Lantnaw for submission to the General Council of Basle, which had been struggling to achieve reform in the Church since 1431. It was far more than a translation of this manifesto into German, however. The tract deals with the reform of the Empire as fully as it does that of the Church. Its author was clearly familiar with the conditions of life in the towns of southern Germany and sets out his stall as the spokesman above all of the urban poor, not the skilled artisans in the guilds but the unorganised workers, the poorest and least privileged stratum of the urban population. The Reformation of Sigismund demands the suppression of the monopolistic guilds and the great trading companies. It advocates an egalitarian order in which wages, prices and taxes will be fixed to serve the interests of the poor. Wherever serfdom still survives it must be abolished and towns must allow former serfs to immigrate.

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Portrait of Sigismund of Luxemburg, by Pisanello

The book is inspired almost throughout by an empirical rather than a millenarian approach. It ends, however, with a curious messianic prophecy which the author puts into the mouth of Emperor Sigismund. He had only recently died after being himself for some years a subject of messianic expectations. Sigismund had been the longest-reigning medieval monarch of Hungary (1387-1437) was named Holy Roman Emperor in 1433, an event which marked the establishment of the great central-European empire which existed, under Habsburg rule, until 1918. His son-in-law, Albert Habsburg, was the first of that name to sit on the Hungarian throne (1437-39). Even before he became Emperor, Sigismund played a major role in European political affairs since, in addition to his extensive Hungarian crown lands, which included Croatia, he also ruled over Germany (from 1411) and Bohemia (1419).

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In 1396 Sigismund led the combined armies of Christendom, comprising a legion of knights from all over Europe, against the advancing Turks, who had taken advantage of the temporary helplessness of Hungary to extend their dominion to the banks of the Danube. This crusade, preached by Pope Boniface IX, was very popular in Hungary. The nobles flocked in the thousands to the royal standard and were reinforced by volunteers from nearly every part of Europe, the most important contingent being that of the French led by John the Fearless, son of Philip II, Duke of Burgundy. Sigismund set out with 90,000 men and a flotilla of 70 galleys. After capturing Vidin, he camped with his Hungarian armies before the fortress of Nicopolis. Sultan Bayezid I raised the siege of Constantinople and, at the head of 140,000 men, completely defeated the Christian forces in the Battle of Nicopolis fought between the 25 and 28 September 1396.

The disaster in Nicopolis angered several Hungarian lords, leading to instability in the kingdom. Deprived of his authority in Hungary, Sigismund then turned his attention to securing the succession in Germany and Bohemia, where his childless half-brother Wenceslaus IV recognised him as Vicar-General of the whole Empire. However, he was unable to support Wenceslaus when he was deposed in 1400, and Rupert of Germany, Elector Palatine, was elected German king in his stead. After the death of King Rupert in 1410, Sigismund – ignoring the claims of his half-brother Wenceslaus – was elected as successor by three of the electors on 10 September 1410, but he was opposed by his cousin Jobst of Moravia, who had been elected by four electors in a different election on 1 October. Jobst’s death 18 January 1411 removed this conflict and Sigismund was again elected as King of Germany on 21 July 1411. His coronation was deferred until 8 November 1414, when it took place at Aachen.

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Right: The growth of Luxemburg power to 1387

As the King of Germany, he now took advantage of the difficulties of Antipope John XXIII to obtain a promise that a council should be called in Constance in 1414 to settle the Western Schism. He took a leading part in the deliberations of this assembly, and during the sittings made a journey to France, England and Burgundy in a vain attempt to secure the abdication of the three rival popes. The council finally ended in 1418, solving the Schism.

The Council created another problem for Sigismund, however, by having the Czech religious reformer, Jan Hus, burned at the stake for heresy in July 1415. This turned out to be of great consequence for Sigismund’s future career as it was an act which touched off the fifteen-year-long Hussite War.  It is thought that Sigismund’s sister, Anne of Bohemia (1366-94), who married Richard II of England, was instrumental in bringing the ideas of John Wycliffe to Bohemia, thus influencing Hus and his followers. The students of Prague had been going in great numbers to Oxford since the marriage between the two Angevin dynasties in 1382. Although Wyclif was forced to leave Oxford that same year and died in Lutterworth two years later, his teachings were still flourishing in the hands of his followers, the Lollards. Anne died of the plague in  1394, but the interest shown by Sigismund in English events persisted throughout his life.

(to be continued… )

 

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