Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen / Edition 1

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"... lively and intellectually stimulating... " —Speculum

"Wunderli... has lucidly reconstructed a controversial conflict in 15th-century south-central Germany.... this engaging narrative takes off from Hans Behem—the peasant who claimed to see the Virgin and gained followers until crushed by the established church—to explore larger forces at work in Germany on the eve of the Reformation... Wunderli also attempts to sort out the violent conflict that ensued and Hans's subsequent trial. His scrupulousness and sensitivity make for a small but valuable book." —Publishers Weekly

"Fascinating and well written, this is highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries."—Library Journal

"Richard Wunderli... deftly tells the story in 'Peasant Fires, finding in it a foreshadowing of peasant uprisings in the 16th century."—New York Times Book Review

"... a stimulating read... an engaging synthesis."—Central European History

In 1476, an illiterate German street musician had a vision of the Virgin Mary and began to preach a radical social message that attracted thousands of followers—and antagonized the church. The drummer was burned at the stake. This swiftly moving narrative of his rise and fall paints a vivid portrait of 15th-century German society as it raises important questions about the craft of history.

"A gem of a book.... It has a plot, good guys and bad buys, it opens up a ‘strange’ world, and it is exceptionally well written." —Thomas W. Robisheaux

Indiana University Press

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780253207517
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/1992
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 370,473
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

RICHARD WUNDERLI is Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and author of London Church Courts and Society on the Eve of the Reformation.

Indiana University Press

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Peasant Fires

The Drummer of Niklashausen

By Richard Wunderli

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1992 Richard Wunderli
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-36725-9


Enchanted Time

Hans Behem's sheep were settled down for the night. Across the meadow Hans could see the black silhouetted hills of the Tauber Valley against an overcast shy faintly aglow from a full moon. Small, lumpy bundles that were his sheep huddled in groups of eight or ten in brown dirt patches where they had nosed through the snow to find meager shoots of grass. Hans was a young man, perhaps in his early twenties although he probably could not have given his exact age. He was a peasant, a serf, a common herdsman over sheep belonging to other peasants and lords from the village of Niklashausen in the Tauber Valley of south-central Germany.

It was Saturday evening during Lent in 1476. Perhaps early April. The winter had keen especially hard and long this year. Deep drifts of snow covered the ground throughout Carnival and Lent, and would continue even through Easter an d May Day. Hans, like everybody else, had suffered through the intense, unrelenting cold, and had feared for spring fodder for his animals. He and other peasants faced the coming starvation; the hungry time of Lent might not end unless the weather changed. It seemed as if God had turned his full wrath upon mankind.

During that cold spring night in the common meadows, young Hans huddled under his sheepskin cloak and played on his shepherd's pipe the mournful tunes of the kills of the Tauber Valley. Earlier during the day he had also beat on the little drum that kung about his neck, practicing songs that he performed on the streets of Niklashausen.

From out of the black kills a light appeared, shimmering above the ground, at first faint but then glowing radiantly bright. It gradually formed into the shape and countenance of a young woman, with hands extended, wearing a white gown, and on her head a thin crown wrought with delicately formed crosses. She called to Hans by name as one of her chosen shepherds, and told him to fear not. Hans recognized immediately that she was the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, to whom he was especially devoted. He had worshipped before her picture many times at her shrine in the little parish church in Niklashausen. He had knelt before the shrine, staring into her serene, wise face, beseeching her as the Queen of Heaven to intercede with God the King and with her Son for mercy. Now she appeared to him, just as he had always seen her, with the same crown, the same extended hands, the same radiantly white dress appropriate for her absolutely pure state of virginity, and the same serene, wise face.

With a gentle voice that softly echoed through the night and over the light bleating of the sheep, the Mother of God spoke to Hans. She told him that both God and her Son were angry with mankind and were chastising all peoples with the dreadful cold and snow. People were consumed by their vanities, she said, and did not worship the Heavenly Family as was their due. Vanities. Evil mankind was obsessed by their vanities, even in this Lenten season of self-sacrifice. Henceforth, she said to the young shepherd, Hans was to convey to the world the wishes of God through her, the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Mary. Hans was ordered to preach to God's people. But first he must strip himself of his own vanities: Hans was ordered to go to the portal of the village church of Niklashausen, the Frauenkirche, the church dedicated to the Virgin, and there publicly he was to hum his drum and his shepherd's pipe. Then he was to preach in Niklashausen, and the Mother of God would instruct him what to say.

The Virgin appeared to Hans many times after that Saturday evening. Just as Hans had made a bonfire of his vanities—his drum and his pipe—so must his listeners discard and burn their vanities, she said, in order to avoid the hammer blows of God's anger: women were to take off their fancy neckerchiefs and their wigs of braided hair; men were to discard their fashionable doublets with slit sleeves and their abominable pointed shoes. All such vanities were to he consumed in the public bonfires of the vanities. God's wrath could he terrible, as the fierce winter had shown. Rebellious mankind must seek voluntary poverty and cry out to God for mercy for their sins. Disobedience could only bring more cold, pestilence, and hunger.

God was angry with mankind, the Mother of God told Hans, and most of all He was angry with the clergy for their sins. "Preach to my faithful people at my shrine at Niklashausen," she instructed, "and tell them that my Son neither is able nor wishes to endure any longer the avarice, pride, and luxury of the clergy and priests. Unless they amend themselves immediately, the entire world will he endangered by their wickedness."

The Virgin often spoke to Hans and instructed him as he preached. His voice in reality was her voice from heaven. She told him to cry out to her faithful people to make a pilgrimage to her shrine at Niklashausen, and there—and only there—would they find full forgiveness of their sins. The Virgin promised that those who lived in luxury with their privileges—the clergy, the nobility, the knights, yea, even the pope and the emperor—would lose their privileges and wealth and live like poor peasants. Nobody would hunger anymore because the forests and the waters of the earth would be held in common. And as for the clergy: for their pride, insolence, and greed, and for their oppression of the poor, they should all he killed. This is what the Virgin, with her gentle voice and wise smile, told Hans to preach: her message was a call to revolution and bloodshed.

I made up most of that. What the records in fact say is that Hans Behem—"the Drummer" as he was contemptuously called—claimed to have had visions or experienced apparitions of the Virgin. Evidence for the cold weather comes from one of Hans; sermons, and the words of the Virgin come from a historical account many years later, in 1514, Johann Trithemius. Beyond that we know very little except what Hans' enemies—the clergy whom Hans said ought to be killed—chose to tell us. The details of the apparition can only exist in our imaginations: we do not know whether he really thought he saw the Virgin or made it up. And if he did experience something, we do not know where it took place, or when (a casual comment by one of his enemies said it was during Lent), or how many visions he had. We do not know how old Hans was, or what his social position as a shepherd was, or even what kind of animals he herded. What may be gleaned from our sparse records is that the followers of Hans believed he conversed regularly with the Mother of God, and that her message was a call to social revolution.

What follows is Hans' story, from its misty, mysterious beginnings, through the great pilgrimage to Niklashausen that rocked all of southern Germany for a few months in 1476, to its violent conclusion.

* * *

The great French medievalist Marc Block once said that the "good historian is like the giant of the fairy tale. He knows that wherever he catches the scent of human flesh, there his quarry lies." Bloch meant more than that, of course. He also argued that we should root around anywhere and everywhere for useful information that will help us understand what it means to he human. No harriers, no preconceived notions should stop us. We must comprehend the material world of climate, disease, production, and reproduction, as well as the mental world of myth, religion, fantasy, stories, and dreams. And, like all good historians, Bloch was fascinated by the thought processes of the historian thinking about history. To find the human of the past is to find the historian of the present; they are inseparable.

What I am about to tell is Hans' story, hut it is also about how we think about Hans and history, how we make sense of the historical forces that shaped and molded his existence. I have used the story of Hans Behem, the Drummer of Niklashausen, to expose some of the great historical forces, both material and mental, that shaped much of Germany on the eve of the Reformation. The young shepherd boy appears to me as a roughly cut jewel on which a beam of light is concentrated: its irregular facets break up the light to illuminate the surrounding darkness in beautiful and unexpected ways.

Today we have little evidence with which to reconstruct the story of Hans Behem and his pilgrimage to Niklashausen: a few documents and scattered bits of indirect information which were prepared by people with their own peculiar notions of reality. And we have modern historians with their own assumptions about reality who try to make sense of the evidence by using reason, knowledge, and imagination. Historians interpret the documents; historians interpret each other; historians interpret themselves as a factor in other interpretations.

Throughout this book I have quoted extensively from the surviving documents in order to force readers to join with me in making sense of them, that is, to become inquisitive of the documents and of my interpretations.

The process of making sense out of the past is like describing an image as seen through a series of distorted mirrors: each mirror reflects the image into another distorted mirror as each mirror reshapes "reality." Out of the puzzling set of reflections and refractions, we construct an idealized, coherent picture of what happened. To change the metaphor, we construct a narrative or melody line of events, joined with analytical accents or accompaniment to give the narrative depth and texture. The narrative, then, becomes our past reality. We impose coherence on chaos.

Muck descriptive background must necessarily precede Hans' story if we are to comprehend what happened in Niklashausen in 1476. Both the melody and the accompaniment of the story make up its thesis: that Hans and his peasant-pilgrims reacted to their changing material conditions (over which they had no control or understanding) by making an appeal to supernatural forces to find justice for their discontent and meaning for their misery; they expressed their discontent, anger, and resentment in their own peculiar language of guilt, longing for salvation (material and spiritual), and a desire for peasant, village justice. That is, they constructed their own narratives of their past—kased on powerful Christian social myths—to understand their material present. They were not peculiar in their narrative-mytk-kistory making: in our own time we have experienced two other powerful social myths, National Socialism and Marxist Communism, that have appealed to a past "narrative" to explain the material present.

So, when we hear the wondrous fantasies and angry songs of Hans Bekem—the narratives of peasant Christianity—we hear voices of those people, the German peasantry, whose voices had been lost to history, muffled by the incessant hum of literate elite-culture. We must accustom our ears to strangely haunting sounds of peasant dissonance.

What do we know about Hans Behem? Very little. In 1476 he was described as a boy or a "youth"—der jüngling. It is difficult to know what this means. Calling him a youth had less to do with his biological age than with his social position. Nevertheless, Hans perhaps was in his late teens or early twenties. We may be quite certain that he was a herder of animals, but what sort of animal is a mystery. The earliest accounts refer sometimes to his "sheep" and other times to his "brute beasts," which may be cows. Later accounts from a generation after Hans' death—accounts that especially reveal a mean-spirited, mocking hostility to Hans—call him a swineherd or a "pastor of pigs."

Hans spent much of his time alone in the fields and meadows, alone with his fantasies and dreams, composing songs and brooding, we are told, on the unseen spirits that assailed him. Periodically he went to his nearby village of Niklashausen, and perhaps to other villages as well, where he earned a few pennies as a musician, again we are told, playing in taverns. He may have gone as far away as Wertheim or Bischofsheim, about ten miles in either direction from Niklashausen along the Tauber River, or even to Würzburg, about fifteen miles away; and there during Carnival and festivals Hans may have played his drum and pipe for the wild festivities of song and dance.

It was Hans' musical talent that chroniclers and writers singled out; they called him "the Drummer" or, less often, "the Piper." One suspects that calling him the Drummer was the most degrading thing his enemies could think of: not the Peasant, or the Serf, or the Shepherd, or the Boy—but the Drummer. For what could be more foolish during the folk festivals of Carnival than the boy who beat a drum? Perhaps Hans; drumming summed up for his enemies the monotony and simplicity of his message. Boom, boom, boom, he struggled to articulate ... ba boom. So Hans' enemies also called him (in German) a spieler, a player, and his pilgrimage to Niklashausen (in Latin) a joculus, a game or the silliness of Carnival; in other words, he was even lower than a peasant because he was a mere player, and merely a child, in society rather than a worker.

Hans the Drummer, chroniclers tell us, banged his drum and sang his songs in the village of Niklashausen. He was a local folk singer. Like any other entertainer, he knew his audience well: the peasants, the poor folk, and the pilgrims who drifted in and out of Niklashausen to go to market or to visit the shrine of the Virgin Mary at the Frauenkirche. Hans had to know their hopes and pain and humor in order to sing their songs and collect his few pennies. He spoke their language.

Hans was born in a region of south-central Germany that we call Franconia, in the small village of Helmstadt, which is not far from Niklashausen on the Tauter River. Hans belonged to the Tauber Valley, to Niklashausen. Niklashausen still exists as a cluster of houses, nestled at the confluence of the Lauersbach stream and the slow-moving Tauber. The Tauber River flows north past Bischofsheim and Niklashausen and empties into the Main River at Wertheim. During the Middle Ages it carried no important traffic in goods, people, or ideas. There is nothing we know about medieval Niklashausen to distinguish it from any other village—except for Hans' preaching and pilgrimage during a few astonishing months in 1476.

Hans and Niklashausen belonged to three separate jurisdictions. Niklashausen was in the secular jurisdiction of the Grafschaft (county) of Graf (count) Johann III of Wertheim. It belonged also to the spiritual jurisdiction of the archbishop of Mainz. But Hans as a person, because be was from Helmstadt in the diocese of Würzburg, came under the authority of the bishop of Würzburg. Thus, in my story there will be three authorities (and their many helpers) who will have to confront Hans and deal with his incendiary call for social egalitarianism and the murder of all priests: Count Johann of Wertheim, Archbishop Dieter von Isenberg of Mainz, and Bishop Rudolph von Sherenberg of Würzburg.

Hans Behem lived in an enchanted world. So did his contemporaries, including his enemies among the clergy who were university educated. The natural world for them was bounded by a mere translucent, porous barrier that led to the more powerful realm of spirits, devils, angels, and saints. The "other" realm was "real." It was in the "other" realm that the inexplicable became explicable: here, weather was formed, pestilences decreed or abated, the fertility of crops and animals and humans decided upon. The temporal, workaday world was a sort of illusion, beyond which was the reality of the spiritual world.

At certain periods during the year or at certain places, people could come especially close to that sacred other-realm. These were the feast days, or holy days, that were dedicated to specific saints or to Christ. These were sacred times. So, for Hans and his contemporaries, time did not run relentlessly forward, as it does for us who are bound by clocks, so much as it pulsated like shafts of heavenly light. Periodically the shafts of time-light flooded the earth or were concentrated on a specific place. Then time came to a standstill. Medieval people measured the year in pulsations of timeless states. Sometimes the pulses appeared only in a local parish church during the celebration of a particular saint, sometimes they lasted only a day, sometimes several days. For Hans Behem in Niklashausen in 1476, sacred time lasted for almost three months.

Time between the pulses existed as a mere interlude, as either a memory of the last sacred time or an anticipation of the next one. It was during the first half of the calendar year, from Advent to Mid-summer's Day, that is, from December to late June, that the pulsations of radiant timelessness were strongest and most frequent. Below are some of the major festivals which organized the sacred half of 1476—and which organize this hook:

Advent (December 3, 1475—December 24, 1475)

Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas to Epiphany (December 25, 1475—January 6, 1476)

Carnival, to Shrove Tuesday (January—February 26, 1476)

Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Easter Eve (February 27—April 13, 1476)

Easter Day (April 14, 1476)

Easter week to Pentecost (April 14—June 2, 1476)

Walpurgisnacht (April 30, 1476)

Corpus Christi (June 13, 1476)

Nativity of John the Baptist, Midsummer's Day (June 24, 1476)

Mingled among the major festivals throughout the calendar year were many saint's days. Some were major holidays, some minor and local, but all brought heaven and earth closer together: the workaday world briefly came to resemble—if only by analogy and often through irony—the enchanted realm.


Excerpted from Peasant Fires by Richard Wunderli. Copyright © 1992 Richard Wunderli. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Author’s Note

I Enchanted Time

II Carnival

III Lent

IV Walpurgisnacht

V The Feast of Corpus Christi

VI The Feast of the Visitation of Mary

VII The Feast of St. Margaret

VIII Historical Time


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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2012

    this book

    I never did received this book from Barnes and Noble. I had to cancel my order due shipping it until Sept. 17. First your screw my order - with the wrong book. Very disappointed with your services. My son needs this book this week. I had to order it somewhere else.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2002


    Despite the lack of footnotes (can't help it, I'm a grad student) this is a great contribution to a little explored subject, popular piety in 15th century Germany. Highly reccomended.

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