The War of the Poor
“Eric Vuillard’s book is an aphoristic masterpiece. Hunger, disease, humiliation, and rage drove the German peasants to a devastating end, and Vuillard’s short chronicle explores the peasants’ distress that led them to that conclusion.”
Eric Vuillard is a remarkable French lyricist whose latest short narrative, The War of the Poor, is an emotive retelling of the German Peasants’ War of 1524–25. Thomas Muntzer, the self-styled radical theologian, a prophet of the impoverished villeins of Germany, generated a short-lived confrontation with the Protestant landed gentry that was destined to fail. This brief retelling of the conflict between peasants and their betters combines a flair in writing that is more poetry than prose, and a candor that is notable. It is a brilliant saga. Every word counts.
Muntzer invoked divine law to demand agrarian rights for his flock. The Reformation, led by Martin Luther, had delivered freedom from Catholic dogma and hierarchy, but nobles and landlords continued to oppress the poor under Protestant regimes. The peasants’ conflict was basically economic although wrapped in religious garb.
Muntzer proselytized across the German states and the oppressed responded. He called for a kingdom of God to replace the existing state of affairs that favored only the rich and titled upper class. Martin Luther had opposed any rebellion, but Muntzer’s words proved stronger. He ultimately came to the conclusion that the tyrants must be killed. No more bowing and scraping. Muntzer’s tone shifted to the harsh reality, and he organized for the final battle.
There is some similarity between this portrait of 16th century provincial life and the economic divide of the modern day. Greed breeds existential mistrust. The words of a devout spiritualist can move the obdurate to action even in the face of overwhelming odds. “Again the words had been spoken: not from money, or power, or princes. Those same small words might change form and tone, but never their target.” Muntzler’s concept of a future society without social and legal distinctions attracted as many as 300,000 peasants to the rebellion across central Europe.
Muntzler was impulsive and burning with a singular desire. He was enraged at the injustice of the world on this earth. “He wants the rulers’ skins; he wants to gut all those bastards.” The elite could not change. Muntzler believed he was inspired:
“He was. He was inspired by green leaves, dung, smallpox, clouds, by the great hive of cities, by his ideas of liberation, by the trampled fields, by smallholdings and estates, by uprooted vines, by tariffs, by charges, by insulting nicknames, by scythes, palings, [and] spears. . . .”
The revolt of the masses finally came to combat. The feudal princes had hired mercenaries and amassed their armies. They would crush the peasants at Frankenhausen, fought May 15, 1525. More than 5,000 peasants were killed in that battle alone. The revolt was suppressed and the leaders, including Muntzler, were captured and executed. Historians blame Martin Luther for the failure of the peasants’ revolt. He certainly was not a supporter. The effort, however, was doomed from the start.
Eric Vuillard’s book is an aphoristic masterpiece. Hunger, disease, humiliation, and rage drove the German peasants to a devastating end, and Vuillard’s short chronicle explores the peasants’ distress that led them to that conclusion.