Tuesday, February 28, 2023

James M. Stayer - The German Peasants' War and the Anabaptist Community of Goods

The Anabaptist movement was a significant break with established Christianity that began during the Reformation. The early Anabaptists consolidated their faith in the statement known as the Schleitheim Confession made in 1527 in Switzerland. However Anabaptists of various different shades had been around for some years, sharing at root the idea that baptism has to be a conscious declaration of faith and not something imposed by another. The date of 1527 closely links the Anabaptist movement with the German Peasant War of 1524-1525 and various historians have argued for close links or no links at all between the two movements. James M. Stayer's book argues for a more nuanced position, as he explains:

Only a small minority of the participants in the Peasants' War became Anabaptists (and many early Anabaptists did not participate in the Peasants' War)... Early Anabaptism was a fringe phenomenon in a few regions of the Peasants' War. Still... the Peasants' War was a formative experience for many, if not most, of he major leaders of the original, non Melchiorite Anabaptism of the south. Although Anabaptism is not important for understanding the Peasants' War, the Peasants' War is very important for understanding Anabaptism.

Stayer's book expands on these key points. In part it is a study of the links between the Peasants' War and various individual Anabaptists - explaining their involvement and how the War shaped their beliefs. But as the title of the book suggests the key discussion point for Stayer is the question of the Anabaptist "Community of Goods" and how this plays out in the War. The Community of Goods is the belief among some sections of Anabaptists that Christians should live like the participants of the early Church, and share all wealth and belongings among themselves and with those in need. The importance of this to the Peasant War is not that such Communal beliefs were particularly common, though they were significant in later events in Munster, but rather that such radical ideas had a place both in the Reformation and the Peasant War. As Stayer puts it, "the Peasants' War was the expression of the Reformation in the countryside" and if the Reformation in the city was generating radical ideas, then they would have their echoes in rural areas.

But Stayer emphasises a second factor. The Anabaptists were suppressed by their enemies who "regarded the Anabaptists of the 1520-s as a continuance of the commoners' resistance of 1525. Certainly the nonconformist religiosity of the Anabaptists continued to deny deference to the rich, the rulers and the professionally learned".

The book opens with a very useful and interesting summary of the Peasants' War itself told via the histography of the War. Stayer engages most of the key writers on the subject, including several books that I've reviewed earlier on this blog. This is followed by a fascinating study of the "Radicalization of the Social Gospel" during the Reformation. This looks at how activists and writers like Thomas Müntzer interpreted the Bible during the War and what this meant for other religious thinkers. Stayer argues that it was the defeat of the Commoners that allowed religious radicals to further develop their ideas - hence the importance he places on the role of the War in "understanding Anabaptism":

It was only coincident with the final defeat of the commoners that an unreconciled minority trusted to God to break down the hierarchy of estates entirely, and the order of property together with it. In the historical circumstances of 1526 and afterwards they had to abandon military self-defence; but their conception of the social meaning of the law of God was not moderated by military defeat; instead it underwent a further stage of radicalisation.

This radicalisation was true of some existing religious thinkers, and of some who became Anabaptists. Stayer emphasises that "in most regions affected by the 1525 uprising, after an interval of some months or years, former peasant rebels became Anabaptists". 

The second half of the book explores how the idea of the "community of goods" played out for Anabaptists and others during the War itself. Here there's a useful discussion of Müntzer's ideas, though Stayer makes a strange analogy between Müntzer's alleged "blankness of his social imagination, once the cataclysmic destruction of the present order was concluded" which he says "reminds one of Marx". It is ironic that both enemies of Marx and some followers of Marx seem equally keen to see Marx, before Marx hidden in the Peasant War.

Such crudities aside, this section has some interesting insights into early radical thought. In particular we learn that Munster's radical experiment with the Community of Goods was not as radical as is often described.

Stayer's book is well written, intriguing and very readable. It's an excellent introduction to the subject and helped me understand the dialectic between the rural rebellion of 1525 and the wider Reformation. For students of the period there is a wealth of material in the footnotes, some great illustrations and a couple of fascinating translations of documents relating to Anabaptism in the appendices. This is a must read for those interested in the Peasant War.

Related Reviews

Bax - The Peasants War in Germany
Blickle - The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants' War from a new perspective
Baylor - The German Reformation & the Peasants' War: A Brief History with Documents
Engels - The Peasant War in Germany

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