On the 21st or perhaps the 20th of May in 1525, the peasant rebel Jakob Rohrbach — more commonly known as Jäcklein (“Little Jack”) Rohrbach — was chained to a stake and burned alive as the nobility celebrated its victory in the German Peasants’ War.
Rohrbach was by history’s acclamation the most bloody-minded of the peasant revolutionaries — for Jakob perhaps had learned the lesson of the Jacquerie that rebels against the lords must vanquish or perish. (Jakob Rohrbach was literate.)
When the peasantry rose to shake Germany, Rohrbach was elected a leader in the environs of Weinsberg, in Baden-Wuerttemberg. It was here that Rohrbach’s band would author the rebellion’s most spectacular outrage, the Weinsberg Massacre, or Weinsberg Blood Easter — for on April 16, Easter Day, they overwhelmed the city and put its garrison to slaughter, collectively executing Count Ludwig von Helfenstein by forcing him to run a gantlet while peasants screamed their grievances at him.
“You thrust my brother into a dungeon,” one cried, “because he did not bare his head as you passed by.” “You harnessed us like oxen to the yoke,” shouted others; “you caused the hands of my father to be cut off because he killed a hare on his own field … Your horses, dogs, and huntsmen have trodden down my crops … You have wrung the last penny out of us.” (Will Durant)
As word of the blood rage went abroad, it not only horrified the respectable (Martin Luther turned his considerable vituperation upon the insurrection after hearing about it*) but split the rebellion itself between moderate and radical factions. We lack access to the peasant councils of war, but perhaps that was even intentional on Rohrbach’s part, to force the revolution towards its most extreme ends, much as French Jacobins would decapitate the king to cut off any hope of their moderate brethren making an accommodation.
If so, it failed in that objective. It would be the fragmented German polities that by dint of the danger made common cause and defeated the rebellion. For a special villain like Rohrbach, special treatment was reserved, yet his was only most exemplary among innumerable long-forgotten cruelties meted out. The lords returned stroke for stroke ten times over for every injury that Rohrbach and his kind had dealt them.
The total number of the peasants and their allies who fell either in fighting or at the hands of the executioners is estimated by Anselm in his Berner Chronik at a hundred and thirty thousand. It was certainly not less than a hundred thousand. For months after, the executioner was active in many of the affected districts. Spalatin says: “Of hanging and beheading there is no end”. Another writer has it: “It was all so that even a stone had been moved to pity, for the chastisement and vengeance of the conquering lords was great”. The executions within the jurisdiction of the Swabian League alone are stated at ten thousand. Truchses’s provost boasted of having hanged or beheaded twelve hundred with his own hand. More than fifty thousand fugitives were recorded. These, according to a Swabian League order, were all outlawed in such wise that any one who found them might slay them without fear of consequences.
The sentences and executions were conducted with true mediaeval levity. It is narrated in a contemporary chronicle that in one village in the Henneberg territory all the inhabitants had fled on the approach of the count and his men-at-arms save two tilers. The two were being led to execution when one appeared to weep bitterly, and his reply to interrogatories was that he bewailed the dwellings of the aristocracy thereabouts, for henceforth there would be no one to supply them with durable tiles. Thereupon his companion burst out laughing, because, said he, it had just occurred to him that he would not know where to place his hat after his head had been taken off. These mildly humorous remarks obtained for both of them a free pardon.
… Many places were annihilated for having taken part with the peasants, even when they had been compelled by force to do so. Fields in these districts were everywhere laid waste or left uncultivated. Enormous sums were exacted as indemnity. In many of the villages peasants previously well-to-do were ruined. There seemed no limit to the bleeding of the “common man,” under the pretence of compensation for damage done by the insurrection.
The condition of the families of the dead and of the fugitives was appalling. Numbers perished from starvation. The wives and children of the insurgents were in some cases forcibly driven from their homesteads and even from their native territory. In one of the pamphlets published in 1525 anent the events of that year, we read: “Houses are burned; fields and vineyards lie fallow; clothes and household goods are robbed or burned; cattle and sheep are taken away; the same as to horses and trappings. The prince, the gentleman, or the nobleman will have his rent and due. Eternal God, whither shall the widows and poor children go forth to seek it?”
** Luther wrote a Blood Easter of his own in Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.
they are starting a rebellion, and violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs, by which they have a second time deserved death in body and soul, if only as highwaymen and murderers. Besides, any man against whom it can be proved that he is a maker of sedition is outside the law of God and Empire, so that the first who can slay him is doing right and well. For if a man is an open rebel every man is his judge and executioner, just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is the best man. For rebellion is not simple murder, but is like a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the greatest disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you
a prince and lord must remember in this case that he is God’s minister and the servant of his wrath (Romans XIII), to whom the sword is committed for use upon such fellows, and that he sins as greatly against God, if he does not punish and protect and does not fulfil the duties of his office, as does one to whom the sword has not been committed when he commits a murder. If he can punish and does not — even though the punishment consist in the taking of life and the shedding of blood — then he is guilty of all the murder and all the evil which these fellows commit, because, by willful neglect of the divine command, he permits them to practice their wickedness, though he can prevent it, and is in duty bound to do so. Here, then, there is no time for sleeping; no place for patience or mercy. It is the time of the sword, not the day of grace.
hey may die without worry and go to the scaffold with a good conscience, who are found exercising their office of the sword. They may leave to the devil the kingdom of the world, and take in exchange the everlasting kingdom. Strange times, these, when a prince can win heaven with bloodshed, better than other men with prayer!