Popular culture

How the first “viral” media sparked a peasant uprising in Germany



The Protestant Reformation was a period of religious and political upheaval caused by corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. With the dissolution of medieval feudalism in the early 16th century, newly proletarianized workers and peasants experienced many of the same inequalities. In the German-speaking regions of central Europe, former serfs flocked to booming cities while poor farmers were taxed and criminalized to increase the incomes of the ruling class. As Pope Leo X and the aristocracy tightened their financial grip on the German underclass, a revolutionary peasant uprising struck a major blow, fueled by the early mass media of the modern era.

the German peasants’ war overtook the Saxon states through Germany, Alsace and Austria. While smaller uprisings took place in previous decades, a decentralized movement organized around secular pamphleteer propaganda in the 1520s. Rebels armed with farm implements stormed castles and burned down villages. churches, threatening not only the clergy but also the princes and aristocrats who owned land. It was such a shock that they responded with a violent counterinsurgency, killing thousands of rioters in broad daylight.

The invention of printing press broke the church’s monopoly on education and culture, allowing artisans to print large-format brochures and newspapers at low cost combining image and text. Public readings of these works, and the ensuing debates between Christians and Protestants, replaced recitations of Scripture. the precursor in newspapers, large format newspapers were printed vertically and used for distribution or decoration. As Keith Moxey Remarks in his book Peasants, warriors and wives (2004), their usefulness “depended on the fragility of the paper, the effect of sunlight on the ink, and the rate at which their topical significance lost interest”.

Hans Sebald Beham, “Dispute between Luther and a Catholic Theologian” (c. 16th century), woodcut

Martin Luther used the print to his advantage, especially with his 95 theses oppose the sale of indulgences. As the princes aligned with the Pope, Luther argued for secular reform by appealing to the oppressed classes. In works of art, early Lutherans like Hans Holbein and Lucas Cranach regarded him as a Herculean savior against the church abuse of power. Early publications also depicted Luther facing Christians, as in “” by Hans Sebald BehamDispute between Luther and a theologian(Circa 16th century). Luther leads a host of artisans and farmers, representing the grievances of the working class.

Beham and his brother, Barthel, were influenced by the master engraver Albrecht Dürer, who represented peasants in festive scenes. Dürer’s prints worked against classist stereotypes that associated poverty with sin, but he retained the altered facial features, exemplifying what Jürgen Müller calls “Aesthetic subversion”. The Beham brothers took it a step further by producing anti-church woodcuts in large-format Nuremberg newspapers, including The Pope’s Descent into Hell and Allegory of monasticism, which shows a monk turning his back on the personification of poverty in favor of pride and luxury.

Albrecht Dürer, “Dancing Peasant Couple” (1517), engraving

The spread of humanist writing coincided with spontaneity uprisings from Bundschuh movement (“Union Shoe”), in reference to the leather boots worn by rural populations since the Middle Ages. An outpouring of Bundschuh pamphlets attacked the privileges of higher states in favor of gemeinen mann, or ordinary man. Peasants, artisans, and townspeople represented common sense, religious devotion, and proud work, in contrast to the orthodox critics of Luther working primarily in satire. the Bundschuh The symbol was painted and embroidered on flags carried by rebels, often with the slogan “Lord, uphold your divine justice” and appeared in brochures promoting or condemning them.

Pamphilus Gengenbach title page The Bundschuh (1514), a pamphlet condemning the peasant uprisings around the Black Forest

Bundschuh literature garnered wide support from artisans, with Dürer even creating a woodcut of the insurgent leader of the Black Forest Joss fritz. The 1521 publication from the anonymous brochure Karsthans, or “Hans of the Hoe”, featured the archetype of a commoner named Hans holding a two-tine hoe. Subsequent publications show him carrying a flail next to the slogan Fryhans, or “Hans free”. In the woodcuts of Hans weiditz and Hans Leonhard Schäufelein, peasants avoid their haggard appearance in battle scenes with knights in armor. In 1525, when the uprisings overtook Swabia and Franconia, popular representations blurred the distinction between peasants and nobles.

This aesthetic change was due in part to the revolutionary preacher Thomas Müntzer, an Anabaptist who rejected the Bible and seven sacraments. His pamphlets promoted the material creation of paradise on Earth and the organization of trade unions. Based in Zwickau, Müntzer is said to have inspired the 12 Peasants’ Articles, a widely distributed brochure requests of a workers’ parliament in Memmingen. Printed 25,000 times in two months, the articles called for an end to serfdom, as well as the free election of pastors and the restoration of public land use.

Woodcut title of Karsthans (1521)

To date, the 12 items The brochure is considered the first draft of human rights in Europe after the fall of Rome. Its popularity, which endangers the dominant social order, leads Martin Luther to denounce the rebellion. At Luther’s brochure Against the hordes of peasant murderers and thieves, he laments his responsibility and urges the princes to “let all who can strike, kill and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or evil than a rebel.” It’s like when you have to kill a mad dog. The aristocracy shut down Müntzer’s printers and beheaded him while burning other rulers at the stake and punishing associated artisans, revealing how the mastery of new technologies by the working class broke through the highest echelons of power .

Until the French Revolution, the Peasant War was the biggest uprising in Europe. Frédéric Engels, in The peasants’ war in Germany (1850), argued that its legacy as a religious conflict masks its origins in the class struggle. “By the kingdom of God, Müntzer meant nothing other than a state of society without class differences, without private property and without superimposed state powers opposed to members of society,” he wrote. In the process, Dürer proposed a monument to the victory of the princes, perhaps ironically, writing a shoeless peasant on top of a tall column with a sword protruding from his back.

The heroic images of the working class eventually dissipated into popular culture; however, this aesthetic subversion has survived in radical printmaking traditions – from the 20th century labor movement to contemporary fanzines. Meanwhile, state propaganda manifests itself in anti-union memes and social media posts condemning petty crime – promoted by corporate posts possesses by the richest salary thieves in history. As the mainstream media continue to serve Western elites, this brief period of unrest illustrates the true power of the press.

Barthel Beham, “Peasant Woman with Two Jars” (1524), engraving
Title page of The Federal Ordinance of Memmingen brochure (1525)
Albrecht Dürer, “Monument to the Vanquished Peasants” (1525), woodcut

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