The Twelve Articles were a response to the oppression of the peasants by the nobility and the Catholic Church.
By Dr. Joshua J. Mark
Professor of Philosophy
The Twelve Articles (1525) is a document written between 27 February and 1 March 1525 addressing grievances of the peasants of the Germanic regions of the Holy Roman Empire against the policies of their lords. The work was written to explain and justify the German Peasants’ War (1524-1525), which had been denounced by the nobility.
The Twelve Articles (full title: The Twelve Articles: The Just and Fundamental Articles of All the Peasantry and Tenants of Spiritual and Temporal Powers by Whom They Think Themselves Oppressed) were written by Sebastian Lotzer (l. c. 1490 to c. 1525), a furrier who had become secretary to one of the rebellious peasant groups, and the Reformed theologian Christoph Schappeler (l. 1472-1551), although it is also thought that the lesser noble Wendel Hipler (d. 1526, one of the rebel leaders) and another rebel leader, the theologian Thomas Müntzer (l. c. 1489-1525), also contributed. If Müntzer did not contribute directly, his religious convictions – as much as Schappeler’s – certainly inform the piece.
The German Peasants’ War and the Twelve Articles were a response to the oppression of the peasants by the nobility and the Catholic Church who levied exorbitant taxes on the lower class while depriving them of any semblance of autonomy. The work was rejected when it was presented to the nobles in March 1525 but has since come to be regarded as the first document concerning human rights in Europe in the Early Modern Period. The Twelve Articles are considered by some scholars the precursor to later revolutionary writs such as the American Declaration of Independence of 1776.
Background of the Text
The social hierarchy of the 16th-century Holy Roman Empire, as elsewhere, continued the model of the Middle Ages with the nobility at the top, followed by lesser nobility (those with fewer lands and less political power), the Church (some of whose clergy were more powerful than the lesser nobility), the merchant class, and the peasantry. The four upper classes all relied on the lowest for revenue, taxing them incessantly and frequently drafting new laws which impoverished them further and punished transgressions severely.
Peasants were prohibited from fishing or hunting on their own lands because, technically, these were owned by the lord, not the peasant, could not take wood for hearth fires from the surrounding forests, and in accordance with the inheritance tax, they were unable to even pass their tools or other artifacts to their children as these could be seized by the lord. Peasants were taxed when they got married and further taxes were levied whenever one of the upper classes could manage it. Further, the Church required a 10% tithe, in addition to other fees, which contributed to the grinding poverty of the peasant class.
In the late summer/fall of 1524, peasants in southern Germany rebelled after a countess ordered them to neglect their harvest in order to collect snail shells she required for use as thread spools. Their rebellion inspired others to follow suit until a large swath of the southern region was in revolt. The Swabian League (1488-1534), a military and political alliance of the nobles, was engaged in foreign wars at the time, and so the rebellion gained ground as there was, initially, no opposition, and more peasants were drawn to the cause.
It is thought that the first draft of the Twelve Articles was drawn up by Lotzer and Schappeler (possibly Hipler) in late February to early March, roughly 27 February to 1 March 1525, and was presented and modified on 6 March 1525 at an assembly of the peasants, to be presented to representatives of the Swabian League. The Twelve Articles, in summary, stated:
- Each community had the right to choose and dismiss its minister instead of having one appointed, and this minister should preach only from the Bible, not from church liturgy.
- The church tithe should be used to pay for a community’s minister, and any surplus used for the poor of that community instead of going elsewhere.
- Every peasant should be recognized as an autonomous being equal to any lord in the eyes of God.
- Peasants should be allowed to fish, hunt, and make use of their own land.
- Peasants should have access to the forests and be allowed to harvest wood for hearth fires or for their trade, such as carpentry.
- Daily labor should conform to the demands previously set for peasants prior to the enactment of new laws.
- Compulsory labor should be abolished as it is unchristian and was never agreed to by the peasantry.
- Excessive rent for fields should be abolished as many peasants wind up working only to pay rent.
- Laws should be made more equitable so that all are equal before it and no one gets harsher or more lenient treatment for the same crime.
- Fields and meadows previously owned by the community, which have been taken by nobles, should be returned.
- The ‘heriot’ – inheritance tax – should be abolished as it leads to the poverty and suffering of widows and orphans.
- If any of the above demands are not in accordance with scripture, they will be removed only after the scripture is explained clearly and the article is shown to be in error.
As all twelve of the articles favored the peasants at the expense of the nobility, they were rejected by the Swabian League representatives. This rejection was supported by the reformer Martin Luther (l. 1483-1546) who denounced the German Peasants’ War and sided with the nobles, many of whom had protected and supported him after the Catholic Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor issued the Edict of Worms against him in 1521, calling for his execution.
Thomas Müntzer, an early supporter of Luther’s, had denounced him as a fraud after he failed to support the peasantry and sided with the nobles against them. Müntzer’s Vindication and Refutation (1524), an open letter to Christ, Luther, and the Christian community, sharply criticized Luther for enjoying the favors of the princes while allowing the peasants to suffer under their unjust laws. Müntzer may have contributed to The Twelve Articles but, most likely, only inspired them in part if at all. A number of the articles do resonate with Müntzer’s vision, however.
The Text in Part
The Twelve Articles are given below only in part owing to the length of the document. The following translation is taken from A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions edited by Denis R. Janz, pp. 168-170.
To the Christian reader, peace and the grace of God through Christ.
There are many Antichrists who, on account of the assembling of the peasants, cast scorn upon the gospel, and say, “Is this the fruit of the new teaching, that no one obeys but all everywhere rise in revolt, and band together to reform, extinguish, indeed ill the temporal and spiritual authorities?” The following articles will answer these godless and blaspheming faultfinders. They will first of all remove the reproach from the Word of God and secondly give a Christian excuse for the disobedience or even the revolt of the entire peasantry…Therefore, Christian reader, read the following articles with care, and then judge. Here follow the articles:
The First Article: First, it is our humble petition and desire, indeed our will and resolution, that in the future we shall have power and authority so that the entire community should choose and appoint a minister, and that we should have the right to depose him should he conduct himself improperly. The minister thus chosen should teach us the holy gospel pure and simple, without any human addition, doctrine, or ordinance. For to teach us continually the true faith will lead us to pray God that through his grace his faith may increase within us and be confirmed in us. For if his grace is not within us, we always remain flesh and blood, which avails nothing; since the Scripture clearly teaches that only through true faith can we come to God…
The Second Article: Since the right tithe is established in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New, we are ready and willing to pay the fair tithe of grain. Nonetheless, it should be done properly. The Word of God plainly provides that it should be given to God and passed on to his own. If it is to be given to a minister, we will in the future collect the tithe through our church elders, appointed by the congregation, according to the judgment of the whole congregation. The remainder shall be given to the poor of the place, as the circumstances and the general opinion demand…
The Third Article: It has been the custom hitherto for men to hold us as their own property, which is pitiable enough considering that Christ has redeemed and purchased us without exception, but the shedding of his precious blood, the lowly as well as the great. Accordingly, it is consistent with Scripture that we should be free and we wish to be so. Not that we want to be absolutely free and under no authority. God does not teach us that we should lead a disorderly life according to the lusts of the flesh, but that we should live by the commandments, love the Lord our God and our neighbor…
The Fourth Article: In the fourth place, it has been the custom heretofore that no poor man was allowed to catch venison or wild fowl, or fish in flowing water, which seems to us quite unseemly and unbrotherly, as well as selfish and not according to the Word of God…Accordingly, it is our desire, if a man holds possession of waters, that he should prove from satisfactory documents that his right has been wittingly acquired by purchase. We do not wish to take it from him by force, but his rights should be exercised in a Christian and brotherly fashion…
The Fifth Article: In the fifth place, we are aggrieved in the matter of woodcutting, for our noble folk have appropriated all the woods to themselves alone…It should be free to every member of the community to help himself to such firewood as he needs in his home. Also, if a man requires wood for carpenter’s purposes, he should have it free, but with the approval of a person appointed by the community for that purpose…
The Sixth Article: Our sixth complaint is in regard to the excessive services demanded of us, which increase from day to day. We ask that this matter be properly looked into, so that we shall not continue to be oppressed in this way, and that some gracious consideration be given to us, since our forefathers served only according to the Word of God.
The Seventh Article: Seventh, we will not hereafter allow ourselves to be further oppressed by our lords. What the lords possess is to be held according to the agreement between the lord and the peasant…
The Eighth Article: In the eighth place, we are greatly burdened by holdings which cannot support the rent exacted from them. The peasants suffer loss in this way and are ruined. We ask that the lords may appoint persons of honor to inspect these holdings and fix a rent in accordance with justice, so that the peasant shall not work for nothing, since the laborer is worthy of his hire.
The Ninth Article: In the ninth place, we are burdened with the great evil in the constant making of new laws. We are not judged according to the offense but sometimes with great ill will, and sometimes much too leniently. In our opinion, we should be judged according to the old written law, so that the case shall be decided according to its merits, and not with favors.
The Tenth Article: In the tenth place, we are aggrieved that certain individuals have appropriated meadows and fields which at one time belonged to the community. These we will take again into our own hands unless they were rightfully purchased.
The Eleventh Article: In the eleventh place, we will entirely abolish the custom called “heriot” and will no longer endure it, nor allow widows and orphans to be thus shamefully robbed against God’s will…
Conclusion: In the twelfth place, it is our conclusion and final resolution, that if any one or more of these articles should not be in agreement with the Word of God, which we do not think, we will willingly recede from such article when it is proved to be against the Word of God by a clear explanation of the scripture. For this we shall pray God, since he can grant all this and he alone. The peace of Christ Jesus abide with us all.
The Twelve Articles were presented after the forces of the Swabian League had already defeated the peasants in engagements in early 1525 and these victories would become the model for every battle fought afterward. The peasants had no strong leadership, lacked unity, and were no match for the professional armies of the nobility and their superior weapons. In April 1525, over 3,000 peasants were killed at the Battle of Leipheim and another 3,000, or more, on 12 May at the Battle of Boblingen. The decisive engagement was the Battle of Frankenhausen on 15 May 1525 when the entire village of Frankenhausen was massacred by imperial troops after the defeat of the peasant army. Müntzer, who was leading the army, was arrested afterwards, tortured, and executed.
The war continued throughout the summer of 1525, ending in September with the complete victory of the nobility, leaving over 100,000 peasants dead and many of their fields and villages destroyed. The Twelve Articles were never raised again by a peasant delegation and seem to have been forgotten by the nobles who, if they gave the document any thought at all, considered it only another aspect of the doomed peasant revolt. In May 1525, Luther published his tract denouncing the uprising, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, which drew considerably more attention than the Twelve Articles in advocating for the wholesale slaughter of the rebels as “mad dogs” and “devils,” and, for a time anyway, the document was forgotten.
The demands of The Twelve Articles were entirely reasonable, however, as the peasants were only asking for basic human rights and personal dignity. Although the document was dismissed in its time, its insistence on the rights of all people to personal freedom has been cited as influencing the development of later egalitarian thought in the 18th century, notably in the British colonies that would become the United States and in France.
The document was noted by the German philosopher Friedrich Engels in his The Peasant War in Germany (1850) and later by Engels and Karl Marx in their Communist Manifesto as a proto-Communist declaration. The Twelve Articles has received more attention since then as one of the more important documents from the early days of the Protestant Reformation in depicting the life of the peasant class and their hope, which proved in vain, in the promise of the new teaching to free them from medieval secular and ecclesiastical oppression.
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- MacCulloch, D. The Reformation: A History. Penguin Books, 2010.
- Roper, L. Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet. Random House, 2017.
- Rublack, U. The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformations. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Originally published by the World History Encyclopedia, 02.11.2022, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.