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clergy. On the contrary, the city magistrates and bailiffs, mostly patricians, brought into the
villages, together with aristocratic rigidity and avarice, a certain bureaucratic punctuality in
collecting  duties.  The  city  revenues  thus  collected  were  administered  in  a  most  optional
fashion;  city  bookkeeping  was  as  neglectful  and  confused  as  possible;  defraudation  and
treasury  deficits  were  the  order  of  the  day.  How  easy  it  was  for  a  comparatively  small
caste,  surrounded  by  privileges,  and  held  together  by  family  ties  and  community  of
interests, to enrich itself enormously out of the city revenues, will be understood when one
considers  the  numerous  frauds  and  swindles  which  1848  witnessed  in  many  city
The patricians took care to make dormant the rights of the city community everywhere,
particularly as regards finance. Later, when the extortions of these gentlemen became too
severe, the communities started a movement to bring at least the city administration under
their control. In most cities they actually regained their rights, but due, on the one hand, to
the eternal squabbles between the guilds and, on the other, to the tenacity of the patricians
and  their  protection  by  the  empire  and  the  governments  of  the  allied  cities,  the  patrician
council members soon restored by shrewdness or force their dominance in the councils. At
the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, the communities of all the cities were again in the
The city opposition against the patricians was divided into two factions which stood out
very clearly in the course of the peasant war.
The  middle-class  opposition,  the  predecessor  of  our  modern  liberals,  embraced  the
richer  middle-class,  the  middle-class  of  moderate  means,  and  a  more  or  less  appreciable
section  of  the  poorer  elements,  according  to  local  conditions.  This  opposition  demanded
control over the city administration and participation in the legislative power either through
a  general  assemblage  of  the  community  or  through  representatives  (big  council,  city
committee).  Further,  it  demanded  modification  of  the  patrician  policy  of  favouring  a  few
families which were gaining an exceptional position inside the patrician group. Aside from
this, the middle-class opposition demanded the filling of some council offices by citizens
of  their  own  group.  This  party,  joined  here  and  there  by  dissatisfied  elements  of
impoverished patricians, had a large majority in all the ordinary general assemblies of the
community and in the guilds. The adherents of the council and the more radical opposition
formed together only a minority among the real citizens.
We shall see how, in the course of the Sixteenth Century, this moderate, “law-abiding,”
well-off and intelligent opposition played exactly the same role and exactly with the same
success  as  its  heir,  the  constitutional  party  in  the  movements  of  1848  and  1849.  The
The Peasant War in Germany
– 22 –

middle-class opposition had still another object of heated protest: the clergy, whose loose
way  of  living  and  luxurious  habits  aroused  its  bitter  scorn.  The  middle-class  opposition
demanded  measures  against  the  scandalous  behaviour  of  those  illustrious  people.  It
demanded  that  the  inner  jurisdiction  of  the  clergy  and  its  right  to  levy  taxes  should  be
abolished, and that the number of the monks should be limited.
The plebeian opposition consisted of ruined members of the middle-class and that mass
of  the  city  population  which  possessed  no  citizenship  rights:  the  journeymen,  the  day
labourers, and the numerous beginnings of the lumpenproletariat which can be found even
in  the  lowest  stages  of  development  of  city  life.  This  low-grade  proletariat  is,  generally
speaking, a phenomenon which, in a more or less developed form, can be found in all the
phases  of  society  hitherto  observed.  The  number  of  people  without  a  definite  occupation
and  a  stable  domicile  was  at  that  time  gradually  being  augmented  by  the  decay  of
feudalism  in  a  society  in  which  every  occupation,  every  realm  of  life,  was  entrenched
behind  a  number  of  privileges.  In  no  modern  country  was  the  number  of  vagabonds  so
great as in Germany, in the first half of the Sixteenth Century. One portion of these tramps
joined the army in war-time, another begged its way through the country, a third sought to
eke out a meagre living as day-labourers in those branches of work which were not under
guild jurisdiction. All three groups played a role in the peasant war; the first in the army of
the  princes  to  whom  the  peasant  succumbed,  the  second  in  the  conspiracies  and  in  the
troops of the peasants where its demoralising influence was manifested every moment; the
third, in the struggles of the parties in the cities. It must be borne in mind, however, that a
large portion of this class, namely, the one living in the cities, still retained a considerable
foundation  of  peasant  nature,  and  had  not  developed  that  degree  of  venality  and
degradation which characterise the modern civilised low-grade proletariat.
It  is  evident  that  the  plebeian  opposition  of  the  cities  was  of  a  mixed  nature.  It
combined  the  ruined  elements  of  the  old  feudal  and  guild  societies  with  the  budding
proletarian elements of a coming modern bourgeois society; on the one hand, impoverished
guild citizens, who, due to their privileges, still clung to the existing middle-class order, on
the  other  hand,  driven  out  peasants  and  ex-officers  who  were  yet  unable  to  become
proletarians.  Between  these  two  groups  were  the  journeymen,  for  the  time  being  outside
official  society  and  so  close  to  the  standard  of  living  of  the  proletariat  as  was  possible
under  the  industry  of  the  times  and  the  guild  privileges,  but,  due  to  the  same  privileges,
almost  all  prospective  middle-class  master  artisans.  The  party  affiliations  of  this  mixture
were, naturally, highly uncertain, and varying from locality to locality. Before the peasant
war,  the  plebeian  opposition  appeared  in  the  political  struggles,  not  as  a  party,  but  as  a
shouting, rapacious tail-end to the middle-class opposition, a mob that could be bought and
The Peasant War in Germany
– 23 –


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