Religion and revolution in the Middle Ages

Issue: 147

Graham Mustin

In International Socialism 141 Roland Boer gives a fascinating account of how Luther Blissett’s novel Q is “a stunning reclamation of the revolutionary Christian tradition for a whole generation of anti-capitalist activists”.1 The novel concerns the period of the radical Reformation and Boer situates this within the Marxist tradition before discussing the book itself. In this article I would like to look at the revolutionary Christian tradition before the Reformation, during the Middle Ages. I believe that this period has, with the exception of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, been under-represented in discussions among Marxists about the history of revolution and rebellion. My aim in this article is to extend the discussion of the role of religion in pre-capitalist revolutionary movements to the medieval period by briefly examining some of the more significant revolts. I will attempt to address the role that religion played within the economic and social context that created the conditions for rebellion against the established authorities.

The Marxist tradition: Engels and Kautsky

Marxist attempts to analyse revolutionary Christian movements begin with Frederick Engels. In his very influential The Peasant War in Germany he covers many of the same events that are central to Q.2 Another work that demonstrates Engels’s interest in the history of religion is On the History of Early Christianity, described by Boer as “much sharper” than The Peasant War, in which he discusses in detail the biblical book known as the Revelation of St John or the Book of Revelation. He argues that Christianity was a movement of the oppressed and makes direct comparisons with the socialist movement of his time. Referring to the risings of “oppressed peasants and town plebians” in the Middle Ages, he claims that they were “bound to wear the mask of religion and appeared as the restoration of early Christianity from spreading degeneration”.3

As Roland Boer points out Engels does not argue that theology itself could be revolutionary or that religious ideas can provide a genuine expression of revolutionary social and economic aspirations. Instead he states that “in the popular risings of the Christian West…the religious disguise is only a flag and a mask for attacks on an economic order which is becoming antiquated”.4 This approach is one that other Marxists have adopted but is, I believe, an over-simplification of the complex inter-relationship between religious beliefs and social and economic revolt. While it is vital for Marxists to focus on the economic context in which religious movements occur, this approach underestimates the extent to which those who revolted against the social and economic order justified their revolt, and expressed their hopes for a more egalitarian society, through genuinely held, often millenarian, religious convictions. At a point in history in which religious belief was ubiquitous it would be surprising if those involved in popular movements of revolt did not justify their rebellion, to themselves and others, in religious terms. Their understanding of religion provided an ideological framework through which they perceived the social and economic situation in which they found themselves. Religion, in particular the apocalyptic prophesies in the Book of Revelation, also gave them hope in their conflict with the superior military forces they faced. Only a genuine belief in the intervention of God on their side could have encouraged such large numbers of the poor to risk revolt.

A more developed understanding of the role of religion in medieval communist movements can be found in the work of Karl Kautsky. Despite the justified criticisms that have been made of his role in the Second International and after, his work on religion is still useful. His Foundations of Christianity is a well-known and important work. However, for those studying pre-capitalist revolutionary movements Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation is of particular interest. In this work Kautsky analyses the antagonism between rich and poor in the Middle Ages. He identifies how the doctrine of voluntary poverty could be attractive to those who lived in poverty through no choice of their own. “Thus the primitive Christian doctrine…now fell on fertile soil; the doctrine that poverty is no crime, but rather a providential, God-given condition… Unveiled misery met the observer everywhere, in glaring contrast with wanton and excessive luxury”.5

Kautsky goes on to analyse communism in the Taborite movement, emphasising how religious radicalism justified social revolution: “All princes, nobles and knights were to be uprooted as weeds and utterly exterminated. Imposts, taxes and payments were to cease and all laws of princes, nations, towns, and peasants be abrogated as inventions of men and not of God”.6 Kautsky takes these religious revolutionaries much more seriously on their own terms than Engels does, as he does Thomas Müntzer, the German radical theologian and leader of the peasant revolt, and the Anabaptists. This acceptance that theological beliefs could motivate revolutionary movements is an important advance that Marxists studying medieval religious revolts can build on when studying popular movements of rebellion and revolt. In the process Kautsky points out some of the differences in the potential for revolution in the medieval period and under capitalism. In the medieval period religious belief was not only shared among all members of society but could inspire revolt against the powerful forces of the kings, emperors and bishops. In many cases it was only the hope of divine intervention, prophesied in the bible and preached by their leaders, that gave those who rose in rebellion a belief in the possibility of final victory.

Millenarianism and medieval revolt

Engels’s interest in the Book of Revelation is justified by the influence of this prophetic work on revolutionary movements including those in the Middle Ages. Norman Cohn’s book The Pursuit of the Millennium was the most influential historical work to draw attention to the importance of millennarian movements. He argued that it was vital to study what he described as “that subterranean revolutionary eschatology” that threatened the order of medieval society.7 Cohn focuses on the way that belief in the imminent second coming of Christ, who the Book of Revelation prophesied would defeat the Antichrist and rule on earth for 1,000 years in the period known as the Millennium, animated groups who were prepared to confront the existing spiritual and political powers. Cohn’s work is ­valuable in examining the range of such movements and the extent to which they threatened the established order. However, he did so from an explicitly anti-Marxist position that questioned the extent to which these revolts could be explained in terms of class struggle. Marxists need to build on the work of scholars such as Cohn who have taken these religious revolts seriously, and attempted to understand how genuinely held religious ideas motivated their participants, while situating them in the context of the economic crisis of feudalism and the class conflict that resulted.

What millenarian ideas did was to hold out the possibility of success to groups composed of the poor and disadvantaged who were taking on the powerful and well-armed forces of the medieval ruling class. Apocalyptic religious ideas gave rebels a belief that God would intervene to help them and punish their enemies who could be identified as the enemies of God by their wealth, luxury and oppression. Poor peasants needed to believe in divine intervention to be prepared to take on these forces. And again and again we see the rise of religious leaders who gave them this belief through radical preaching, often predicting the coming apocalypse. As Norah Carlin argues in her article “Medieval Workers and the Permanent Revolution” in this journal, in the Middle Ages “the material conditions for a socialist society were altogether absent and there was no revolutionary theory save the millenarian fantasies of some popular heretics”.8

Joachim of Fiore and the medieval prophetic tradition

The most influential figure in medieval apocalyptic prophecy was Joachim of Fiore. His influence spread very widely in the medieval period and can be seen as an important factor in popularising the analysis of the Book of Revelation and making it directly relevant to the present age. Joachim was born in Calabria in the 1130s and was working as an official in the court of the King of Sicily when he had a spiritual conversion. After a pilgrimage to the Holy Land he returned to Calabria and lived as a hermit before becoming a Cistercian monk. He writes that he was attempting to write a commentary on the Book of Revelation and was about to give up when on Easter morning he woke with a “spiritual understanding” of the meaning of the book. This was his idea of the three ages of history that he identified with the Christian idea of the trinity. The first age was the time of God the Father and the Old Testament, and the second age that of the Son, the New Testament. Joachim prophesied the imminent coming of a third age, that of the Holy Spirit. After the apocalypse, which he expected to happen in his own time, there would be a utopian age in which there would be an end to all class divisions.9 Joachim developed a far reaching reputation during his lifetime and was known as an adviser to popes and kings. His ideas spread widely and in the process popularised the idea of an imminent apocalypse that would overturn all existing authorities.

Joachim did not preach that believers should take action to bring about the coming millennium of perfect peace in a utopian, classless society. He did not tell his followers to take arms against the Antichrist and the forces of evil. Instead he believed that the good should suffer patiently and that God would defeat the Antichrist and usher in the new age. However, in the context of the Middle Ages, and in particular of the crisis of feudalism in the later period, the message of the persecuted suffering in silence and waiting for God to intervene could easily get lost. Those who wanted a more active form of millenarianism in which they took arms against their oppressors used the ideas popularised by Joachim but gave them a ­revolutionary interpretation.

One example of where these ideas could lead was the group known as the Fraticelli. They were Franciscans who broke with the Catholic Church over the doctrine of poverty, criticising the wealth of the church and the papacy in particular. Their letters clearly show how they used Joachite ideas to reach radical conclusions. If the church rejected their preaching and refused to accept them as the leaders of the new age then it could not be the true church. The pope, John XXII, who denied the poverty of Christ, was a heretic and to obey him was wrong. Some even identified him with the Antichrist. Among those who found these ideas attractive were the Ciompi, Florence cloth workers who were wage earners and excluded from the guild system and who referred to themselves as the “Popolo di Dio” (People of God).10 In 1378 they played a prominent part in a revolutionary uprising that burned down the palaces of some of the ruling elite and set up an alternative government.11 Thus, ideas of the coming of a classless utopia could lead to rejection of the existing religious and political authorities and, in a situation of social unrest, support for revolt against those authorities.

The shepherds’ crusade 1251

Popular involvement in crusading was one example of mass enthusiasm for a religious movement leading to a challenge to existing ideas of hierarchy and order. The crusading movement that had started with the ­extraordinary success of the First Crusade (1096-99) in winning territory in Syria and Palestine, was by the 13th century in a process of decline. The failure of crusades led by kings and nobles led to the rise of popular preachers who challenged the right of the rich and powerful to lead holy war against the infidel. The claim that God was now turning to the poor and dispossessed and that they would be given victory against his enemies because of their poverty became common. Although the aim of these preachers was to reclaim the Holy Land the movements that sprung up could lead their followers to confront the established authorities, particularly if these were seen to be opposed to them. In the context of the economic pressure caused by the rise in population and increasing rural discontent they could easily turn on the lords and the clerical authorities.

One of the best examples of this is the so called shepherds’ crusade of 1251. This started as a popular movement led by a charismatic leader, known as the “Master of Hungary”, who claimed to have been instructed by the Virgin Mary to lead the shepherds of France to rescue the French king Louis IX who had been captured while on crusade. According to the English chronicler Matthew Paris he preached that the Holy Land would not be delivered by the proud knights but by humble herdsmen. A large group of the peasantry and rural lower classes formed, reported as numbering 60,000 and including thieves, exiles, fugitives and other outcasts. It quickly became an anti-clerical movement with the orders of the church being denounced for their greed and wealth.

Matthew Paris, himself a Benedictine monk from the abbey of St Albans, reported them attacking the Cistercians as greedy amassers of flocks and land, the Benedictines for their pride and the bishops and their officials for their pursuit of money. He then reports, to his horror, that they were welcomed by the inhabitants of Paris who clearly shared these sentiments. They expelled the archbishop from Rouen, threw priests into the Seine and attacked monasteries in Tours, as well as attacking the Jews before the authorities managed to get together a large enough armed force to suppress them successfully.

The extent to which they were a socially radical movement is far from clear but they were a mass movement, mainly of the peasantry, who attacked the clergy as a pillar of the existing social order. It demonstrates that a popular movement inspired by religion could come to articulate and express in action the discontent felt by the mainly rural lower classes with the unfairness of the world they lived in and the hypocrisy of the church.12

The Peasants’ Revolt

The rebellion known as the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381 is an example of a peasant social movement that received its ideological leadership from the lower clergy. At least 20 clerics played a prominent enough role in the leadership of the rising to be mentioned in chronicles and official records. The participation of so many members of the clergy can be partly put down to the numbers of exploited, unbeneficed clergy who scraped by substituting for wealthy absentee rectors and saying masses for the dead as chantry priests. Juliet Barker points out that stipendiary priests and chaplains who had no benefice of their own were only paid a small wage but had ­suffered years of high taxation.13

One of the most significant leaders was John Wrawe, a chaplain who played a major part in bringing the county of Suffolk into the rebellion. According to his own confession he attended a meeting of rebels from Essex, Hertfordshire, Suffolk and Norfolk at the village of Liston before assembling supporters and leading the attack on the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, one of the wealthiest and most powerful in England.14 He was clearly a leader whose authority was respected by the rebels. Letters sent by Martin Mannyng instructing the return of a freehold to him were sent “ex parte Johannis Wraw” suggesting that his authority was sufficient to ensure compliance. When John Ikesworth broke into the rectory at Wickmere, Norfolk, taking goods valued at ten pounds, he did so “by the command and warrant of John Wrawe”.15

It is significant that in both of these cases the leaders and their victims were members of the church. The wealthy abbeys were often the most oppressive landowners and the revolt gave peasants and townspeople a chance to settle old scores. The higher clergy also played a prominent role in government. The two most famous victims of the revolt were both clergymen as well as privy councillors, Simon Sudbury the chancellor and Robert Hales the treasurer. It is relevant, however, that the literate lower clergy often provided the leadership and would have given the revolt its ideological justification.

The best known clerical leader is, of course, John Ball. Ironically there is much less evidence to link him to the major events of the revolt than others such as Wrawe. The text of the sermon he is alleged to have preached to the rebels at Blackheath, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”, is a common statement of the lack of divine support for inequality on Earth that could be found in various forms throughout Europe at this time and the speech itself was very likely invented by the monastic chronicler.16 Although there are differences among the sources as to how important he was as an organiser, Ball is particularly significant because we have, as well as reports of his preaching from hostile chroniclers, a collection of letters containing political verses attributed to him which give us a unique opportunity to hear the unmediated voice of the rebels. In one, allegedly found in the tunic of a man about to be hanged, he bids “Peres Ploughman go to his werk, and chastise wel Hobbe the Robbere”:

…Iohan the Mullere hath yground smal, smal, small
The Kynges sone of heavan schal pay for al.
Be war or be wo,
Knoweth your freend from your foo.

Thomas Walsingham, who quotes this in his chronicle, states that John Ball confessed that he had written this letter, and many others, and sent them to the commons.17 The letters give a sense of the way that religious ideas were integrated with anger at social injustice. Personifications of the common people such as “Jakke Carter” and “Jakke Trewmann” exhort the rebels to rise immediately and assure them of support from God “lokke that Hobbe Robbyoure be wel chastised for leyng of youre grace for ye have gret need to take God with yowe in alle youre dedes. For now is tyme to be war”.18 The phrase “now is the time” occurs again and again. There is an ambiguity about the letters, however, and they contain many popular aphorisms familiar from medieval preaching.19

It was the context in which they were sent that gives them a revolutionary meaning. John Ball was writing to communicate the urgency of the situation and using his religious authority to encourage his readers to join the rising. The fact that belief in divine support was such a common feature of these communications emphasises how important this was in encouraging the rebels to contemplate taking the action that they did. His letters and preaching may have encouraged them to go further than demanding the end of the poll tax, or even of serfdom, to question the whole basis of medieval class society. To do this required a belief system that used the common religious ideas of the age but reinterpreted them to condemn the powerful and wealthy and justify the rebellion of the oppressed.

The Hussite Revolution

Of all the heretical movements that challenged the Catholic church it was the Hussites of Bohemia who came closest to breaking the church’s monopoly of religion. Jan Hus was a priest who attacked the corruption of the church and called for the laity to be allowed to drink wine from the chalice at communion—traditionally restricted to the priest. This was known as “communion in both kinds” and became a major demand of the Hussite movement. Hus was condemned for heresy and executed at the Council of Constance in 1415, after having been promised a safe conduct. His followers reacted by rising up and driving the Catholic clergy from much of Bohemia. The Catholic authorities launched five crusades against the Hussites, each of which was driven back, before a peace agreement was reached in 1436.

The Hussite movement quickly divided with the moderate Utraquists, who were prepared to settle for communion in both kinds, ranged against a substantial radical movement. The radicals set up permanent settlements on hilltops in southern Bohemia where they attempted to imitate the communism of the original Christian communities as described in the Acts of the Apostles. The largest and most important settlement was named Mount Tabor and the radicals came to be known as Taborites.

The vast majority of the radicals came from the lower classes. Some were journeymen, indentured servants, unskilled workers and other marginal groups from Prague but many came from the peasantry. The 15th century in Bohemia saw a concerted attempt by landowners to deprive peasants of traditional rights, which gave them some level of independence, and to reduce them to the level of serfs bound to the soil and subject to increased feudal dues and services. There were also landless labourers and others with little to lose who were ready to support a movement that offered them hope and challenged a social order that promised them only oppression and poverty.20

In this environment there developed a group of former priests, led by Martin Huska, who began to preach an openly millenarian ideology. They announced that the wrath of God would be unleashed on those who did not join the Taborite strongholds. Taxes, rents and feudal dues would then be abolished and private property would cease to exist, ushering in a communist society with no earthly authority where “all shall live together as brothers, none shall be subject to another…the Lord shall reign and the Kingdom shall be handed over to the people of the earth”.21 This classless society would be achieved by massacres of lords, nobles and knights.

The use of religious ideology to justify class war was a response to the potentially revolutionary situation in Bohemia. The Taborite communities were mass movements of those who were increasingly radicalised by the successful armed resistance against the reactionary forces of the Catholic church. In this atmosphere of total war the millenarian preaching of Huska and his allies received a ready audience and helped inspire the extraordinary success of the Taborite armies. They were both social and religious radicals who could only envisage a successful revolution in millenarian terms. Only the intervention of God would allow the poor and dispossessed to sweep away the existing social order. The anarcho-communist utopia that they envisaged was the perfect society of peace and happiness that they saw prophesied in the Bible.22 In the end it was Jan Žižka, the son of a small squire, who led his troops to massacre the radicals in order to assert his military leadership of the Taborite movement.

The drummer of Niklashausen

The events of 1476 in the small German village of Niklashausen in the Tauber valley give another example of a religious movement that articulated ideas of social revolution. Hans Böhm was a shepherd who played the drum and pipes in the market place and inns, hence his nickname of the drummer of Niklashausen. In Lent of that year he burnt his drum in front of the parish church of Niklashausen. He then preached to the people that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him commanding all to repent, discard their unnecessary vanities such as golden necklaces and pointed shoes, and go on pilgrimage to Niklashausen. If enough people did this the virgin would be successful in her intercession with God who otherwise intended to punish mankind for their sins. Large numbers of common people, apparently from all over central and southern Germany, now began to head towards Niklashausen to join Böhm, hear the preaching of the holy youth and participate in the pilgrimage he had announced. The fact that so many peasants were prepared to go to Niklashausen without seeking permission was seen as threatening to the secular and ecclesiastical authorities.

The social situation in which Hans was preaching was one of increasing class conflict in the German countryside. In the period following the Black Death the decline in the population had strengthened the position of the peasantry against their lords. By the 1460s and 1470s the population had recovered and the lords were once again imposing their authority and implementing new income generating strategies that disadvantaged the peasants. The bitterness that this created led to a series of rebellions culminating in the great rising of 1525. In this context it is not surprising that Böhm’s preaching began to raise social and economic grievances and that his religious revelations gave the oppressed the hope that they could overcome their oppressors with divine aid. He began by criticising the clergy, stating that God was not prepared to tolerate their behaviour any more. The day of reckoning was coming when the clergy would attempt to cover their tonsures to escape retribution. Killing a cleric would be seen as an act that would acquire merit in the eyes of God and there would soon be no priests or monks left. Böhm called on his audience to refuse to pay all taxes and tithes and demanded that priests should give up their benefices and live only on what food people were prepared to donate to them.23

Eventually Hans shared a new revelation that threatened the existing social and economic order. The Virgin Mary had appeared to him and told him to “say to all the people that my son wishes and orders that all tolls, levies, forced labour, exactions, payments and aids required of the prelates, princes and nobles be abolished completely and at once. They shall oppress the poor no more”. He then received a further revelation that the woods and waters of the Earth should be held in common for the use and pleasure of all the faithful in Christ and not just for the rich.24 Everyone should live together as brothers enjoying the same freedom and doing the same work. He also attacked the Emperor and the Pope for their support for the lords. It was this combination of religious revelation of a perfect world on Earth with demands that directly addressed issues of dispute between the peasantry and the landlords that accounts for his success. As Cohn argues:

It was the prestige of the preacher himself, as a miraculous being sent by God, which drew the tens of thousands into the Tauber valley. The common people, peasants and artisans alike, saw in him a supernatural protector and leader…a saviour who could bestow on them individually the fullness of divine grace and who would lead them collectively into an earthly Paradise.25

The extent of the popular response to Böhm’s preaching clearly frightened the authorities. The fact that the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg sent soldiers to seize the prophet, after he had called on his followers to assemble with arms, shows how seriously he was seen as a threat to the social order. Even then thousands marched to Würzburg to release their leader, only being scattered by canon fire and mounted troops. After he was burnt at the stake every attempt was made to obliterate all trace of him, even demolishing the church at Niklashausen that was the site of pilgrimage.


The brief examples referred to above hopefully give a flavour of some of the ways in which religious enthusiasm could combine with social and economic grievances to create the potential for rebellion and revolt. Even commonly held ideas sanctioned by the Catholic church, such as the religious argument for crusading, could be used to justify attacks on clerical and secular authorities. This became even more powerful when economic crisis and class conflict created the conditions in which apocalyptic preachers could mobilise large numbers of followers. Belief in divine intervention, particularly when linked with millenarian expectations of the imminent apocalypse, could give peasants and the poor the hope that they could overturn the existing social and economic order. This allowed them to move beyond particular economic demands, often based on shared memories of customary practice, to challenge the very existence of classes and ranks within medieval society.

Again and again religious visionaries preached an agrarian communist utopia, often to be achieved by the massacre of the nobility and their clerical supporters. Of course not all rebels went as far as this and not all popular religious movements motivated their followers to confront the powers that be. However, the number of cases in which this did happen is significant. We cannot understand the way that groups of peasants, artisans and the marginalised within medieval society were prepared to confront the heavily armed and well trained troops of the ruling class without taking seriously their religious beliefs. The economic and social context determined what they were fighting for, and who they were fighting against, but it was the interpretation of religious ideas common in medieval Europe that gave them the vision of a classless society and the hope that they could achieve it.


1: Boer, 2014, p139.

2: Engels, 1927.

3: Engels, 1894, p2.

4: Boer, 2014, pp142-143, Engels, 1894, p2.

5: Kautsky, 1897, p1.

6: Kautsky, 1897, p3.

7: Cohn, 2004, pxv.

8: Carlin, 1978, p43.

9: Reeves, 1999, pp2-6.

10: Reeves, 1999, pp39-41.

11: Carlin, 1978, pp48-49.

12: Hilton, 1990, pp100-102.

13: Barker, 2014, p294.

14: Barker, 2014, pp295-304.

15: Barker, 2014, p306.

16: O’Brien, 2004, p27.

17: Dobson, 1988, p381. Thomas Walsingham was a Benedictine monk from St Albans Abbey who wrote chronicles including the Historia Anglicana< and Chronicon Angliae which give details about the rising. He was a witness to the rebels attack on St Albans Abbey and to the trial of John Ball.

18: Dobson, 1988, p382.

19: Barker, 2014, p433.

20: Cohn, 2004, p215.

21: Cohn, 2004, p215.

22: Kaminsky, 1967, p359.

23: Cohn, 2004, p228.

24: Wunderli, 1992, pp70-71.

25: Cohn, 2004, p229.


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