How the First “Viral” Media Spawned a Peasant Uprising in Germany

Barthel Beham, “Peasant Woman with Two Jugs” (1524), engraving

The Protestant Reformation was a period of religious and political upheaval spawned by corruption in the Roman Catholic church. With the dissolution of medieval feudalism in the early 16th century, newly proletarianized workers and peasants experienced many of the same inequalities. In German-speaking regions of Central Europe, former serfs flocked to burgeoning cities while poor farmers faced taxation and criminalization to increase ruling-class revenues. As Pope Leo X and the aristocracy tightened their financial grip over Germany’s underclasses, a revolutionary peasant uprising dealt a significant blow, fueled by the first mass media of the Modern era.

The German Peasants’ War overtook Saxon states across Germany, Alsace, and Austria. While smaller uprisings occurred in earlier decades, a decentralized movement organized around the propaganda of secular pamphleteers in the 1520s. Rebels armed with farming tools stormed castles and burned churches, threatening not just the clergy but also land-owning princes and aristocrats. It was such a shock that they responded with a violent counterinsurgency, executing thousands of rioters in broad daylight.

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