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The Revolution of the Common Man and the Birth of Modern Legitimacy

Sun, September 3, 8:00 to 9:30am, Parc 55, Stockton


In 1524-1525, following decades of relatively minor uprisings, rebellions and struggles, approximately 300,000 ‘common men’ rose up against their lords in the popular uprising that has been mistakenly called ‘The German Peasants’ War of 1525’. This rebellion was unparalleled in the Middle Ages in its intensity, scale, scope and aims: fueled also by the epistemic breach provided by the Reformation, thousands of communities that had never before broken through their political boundaries rose up collectively to revolutionize the entire order of feudal domination. For nearly a full year almost all cities and villages of southern Germany and many more beyond were aflame with revolutionary fervor. Indeed, except for the obvious distinction of failing, in its significance for European history the 1525 uprising is arguably second only to the much later French Revolution (Blickle, 1979; 1981; 1992; 1997; 1998; Blickle et al., 1984; Cohn, 1979; Sabean, 1972; Scribner & Benecke, 1979; Scott, 1991; Bak, 1976; Scott & Scribner, 1991). By the time the army of the Swabian League – the vastly powerful lords’ alliance – took the field, dozens of cities from Frankfurt to Nuremberg to Memmingen and thousands of towns and villages were controlled by the revolutionaries. Where rebel armies took control parliaments and forums sprung up; villages and towns elected their chiefs, judges, priests, and even bishops; armies elected their leaders, officers, and banner bearers; city governments and councils were restructured on deliberative and representative principles, and property rights recast in communal terms. The privileges and special rights of nobility and clergy were supplanted with universal legal equality now extended to the burghers and the peasants. Political authority was displaced and rematerialized in communities which were re-imagined in stark contrast with the standing feudal world as self-governing, self-taxing, autonomous political associations established on popular interpretations of the Christian principles of common good, equality and brotherly love. The political principles of the Revolution consistently translated into democratic policies and values, embodying consent of the governed, universal equality before the law and political rights and widespread economic justice.
If the rebels’ attempt to reinterpret and radically redefine all major aspects of social, political, religious, and economic existence was a revolution, as I believe it was, then the eventual response from the lords, when it came, was nothing short of a counter-revolution with remarkably long lasting effects. The revolution did not fail so much as it was defeated in war. Following the violent defeat of the communities, the counter-revolution designed explicitly to prevent the recurrence of similar acts of disobedience succeeded in fundamentally shaping the political culture and practices, altering the socio-political foundations from which the absolutist European state was to emerge later on. In short, the counter-revolution reshaped the political landscape and radically redesigned the relationship between political authorities and the subjects beneath them. I argue this is here, in the counter-revolution of 1525, that we could find the origins of the modern conception of legitimacy.
The changes brought about by the counter-revolution can be broadly characterized by two intertwined factors: a new conception of subjects and a new mode of governance. Combined, these two factors amounted to a new conception of legitimacy which was to take over the European landscape over the next century and half. A central part of this new conception, immediately embraced by the traumatized lords and perpetuated by the counter-revolution of 1525, were Martin Luther’s notions of Christian freedom and human agency, key aspects of which the Reformer elaborated in direct response to the uprising. Neither Luther’s role as “a forerunner of the modern theory of state” (Waring, 1968: iii) or his political theory’s “vital role in helping to legitimate the emerging absolutist monarchies of northern Europe” (Skinner, 1978: 73) are novel insights. However, the revolution itself was almost completely missing from our accounts until very recently, just like the profound formative effect it has had on Luther’s political thought and theory. The rediscovery of this uprising for what it is, a genuine revolution, and the appreciation of the ensuing events as a counter-revolution allow us to revisit the very foundations of modern Western political thought and its major concepts with fresh eyes.