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constitution. With the cities, the knighthood was continually on the war path; it owed them
money, it fed on plundering their territory, on robbing their merchants, on the ransom paid
for prisoners captured in conflicts. The struggle of the knighthood against all these estates
became more vehement as the estates themselves began to realise that the money question
was a life problem for them.
The clergy, representatives of the ideology of mediaeval feudalism, felt the influence of
the  historic  transformation  no  less  acutely.  The  invention  of  the  art  of  printing,  and  the
requirements of extended commerce, robbed the clergy not only of its monopoly of reading
and writing, but also of that of higher education. Division of labour was being introduced
also into the realm of intellectual work. The newly arising class of jurists drove the clergy
out  of  a  series  of  very  influential  positions.  The  clergy  was  also  beginning  to  become
largely  superfluous,  and  it  acknowledged  this  fact  by  growing  lazier  and  more  ignorant.
The  more  superfluous  it  became,  the  more  it  grew  in  numbers,  thanks  to  the  enormous
riches which it still kept on augmenting by fair means or foul.
The  clergy  was  divided  into  two  distinct  groups.  The  feudal  hierarchy  of  the  clergy
formed the aristocratic group – bishops and archbishops, abbots, priors and other prelates.
These high church dignitaries were either imperial princes themselves, or they reigned as
vassals of other princes over large areas with numerous serfs and bondsmen. They not only
exploited their subjects as recklessly as the knighthood and the princes, but they practised
this in an even more shameful manner. They used not only brutal force, but all the intrigues
of  religion  as  well;  not  only  the  horrors  of  the  rack,  but  also  the  horror  of
excommunication, or refusal of absolution; they used all the intricacies of the confessional
in order to extract from their subjects the last penny, or to increase the estates of the church.
Forging  of  documents  was  a  widespread  and  beloved  means  of  extortion  in  the  hands  of
those  worthy  men,  who,  receiving  from  their  subjects  feudal  payments,  taxes  and  tithes,
were still in constant need of money. The manufacture of miracle-producing saints’ effigies
and  relics,  the  organisation  of  praying-centres  endowed  with  the  power  of  salvation,  the
trade in indulgences was resorted to in order to squeeze more payments out of the people.
All this was practised long and with not little success.
The prelates and their numerous gendarmerie of monks which grew with the spread of
political and religious baiting, were the objects of hatred not only of the people but also of
the nobility. Being directly under the empire, the prelates were in the way of the princes.
The fast living of the corpulent bishops and abbots with their army of monks, roused the
envy  of  the  nobility  and  the  indignation  of  the  people  who  bore  the  burden.  Hatred  was
intensified by the fact that the behaviour of the clergy was a slap in the face of their own
The Peasant War in Germany
– 20 –

The  plebeian  faction  of  the  clergy  consisted  of  preachers,  rural  and  urban.  The
preachers  were  outside  the  feudal  hierarchy  of  the  church  and  participated  in  none  of  its
riches. Their activities were less rigorously controlled and, important as they were for the
church,  they  were  for  the  moment  far  less  indispensable  than  the  police  services  of  the
barracked  monks.  Consequently,  they  were  paid  much  less  than  the  monks,  and  their
prebends  were  far  from  lucrative.  Being  of  a  middle-class  or  plebeian  origin,  they  were
nearer  to  the  life  of  the  masses,  thus  being  able  to  retain  middle-class  and  plebeian
sympathies,  in  spite  of  their  status  as  clergy.  While  the  participation  of  the  monks  in  the
movements of their time was the exception, that of the plebeian clergy was the rule. They
gave the movement its theorists and ideologists, and many of them, representatives of the
plebeians  and  peasants,  died  on  the  scaffold.  The  hatred  of  the  masses  for  the  clergy
seldom touched this group.
What the emperor was to the princes and nobility, the pope was to the higher and lower
clergy. As the emperor received the “common penny,” the imperial taxes, so the pope was
paid  the  general  church  taxes,  out  of  which  he  defrayed  the  expenses  of  the  luxurious
Roman  court.  In  no  country  were  his  taxes  collected  with  such  conscientiousness  and
rigour  as  in  Germany,  due  to  the  power  and  the  number  of  the  clergy.  The  annates  were
collected with particular severity when a bishopric was to become vacant. With the growth
of the court’s demands, new means for raising revenues were invented, such as the traffic
in  relics  and  indulgences,  jubilee  collections,  etc.  Large  sums  of  money  were  thus  yearly
transported from Germany to Rome, and the increased pressure fanned not only the hatred
towards the clergy, but it also aroused national feelings, particularly among the nobility, the
then most national class.
In the cities, the growth of commerce and handicraft produced three distinct groups out
of the original citizenry of medieval times.
The city population was headed by the patrician families, the so-called “honourables.”
Those were the richest families. They alone sat in the council, and held all the city offices.
They  not  only  administered  all  the  revenues  of  the  city,  but  they  also  consumed  them.
Strong  in  their  riches  and  their  ancient  aristocratic  status,  recognised  by  emperor  and
empire,  they  exploited  in  every  possible  way  the  city  community  as  well  as  the  peasants
belonging  to  the  city.  They  practised  usury  in  grain  and  money;  they  secured  for
themselves monopolies of various kinds; they gradually deprived the community of every
right  to  use  the  city  forests  and  meadows,  and  used  them  directly  for  their  own  private
benefit. They imposed road, bridge and gate payments and other duties; they sold trade and
guild privileges, master and citizen rights; and they traded with justice. The peasants of the
city  area  were  treated  by  them  with  no  more  consideration  than  by  the  nobility  and  the
The Peasant War in Germany
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