Hans Leonhard Schäufelein, Bundschuh woodcut engraving (c. 1520s) (all images via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The invention of the printing press broke the church’s monopoly on education and culture, allowing artisans to print cheap pamphlets and broadsheets combining image and text. Public readings of these works, and ensuing debates between Christians and Protestants, replaced recitations of Scripture. The precursor to newspapers, broadsheets were printed vertically and used for either dissemination or decoration. As Keith Moxey notes in his book Peasants, Warriors, and Wives (2004), their utility “depended on the fragility of the paper, the effect of sunlight on ink, and the speed with which their topical significance lost interest.”

Hans Sebald Beham, “Dispute Between Luther and a Catholic Theologian” (c. 16th century), woodcut

Martin Luther used print to his advantage, particularly with his 95 Theses opposing the sale of indulgences. As the princes aligned with the Pope, Luther advocated for secular reform by appealing to the downtrodden classes. In artworks, early Lutherans like Hans Holbein and Lucas Cranach lionized him as a Herculean savior against the church’s abuses of power. Early publications likewise portrayed Luther facing off with Christians, as in Hans Sebald Beham’s “Dispute Between Luther and a Theologian” (c. 16th century). Luther leads a crowd of artisans and farmers, representing working-class grievances.

Beham and his brother, Barthel, drew influence from master engraver Albrecht Dürer, who depicted peasants in scenes of celebration. Dürer’s engravings worked against classist stereotypes that associated poverty with sin, but he retained weathered facial features, exemplifying what Jürgen Müller calls “aesthetic subversion.” The Beham brothers went a step further, producing anti-church woodcuts in Nuremberg broadsheets, including The Pope’s Descent into Hell and Allegory of Monasticism, which shows a monk turning his back on the personification of poverty in favor of pride and luxury.

Albrecht Dürer, “Peasant Couple Dancing” (1517), engraving

The spread of humanist writing coincided with spontaneous uprisings of the Bundschuh (“Union Shoe”) movement, referring to leather boots worn by rural populations since the Middle Ages. An outpouring of Bundschuh pamphlets attacked privileges of upper estates in favor of the gemeinen mann, or common man. Peasants, artisans, and citydwellers represented common sense, religious devotion, and proud work, contrasting with orthodox critics of Luther working largely in satire. The Bundschuh symbol was painted and embroidered onto flags carried by rebels, often with the slogan “Lord, stand by Thy divine justice,” and appeared in pamphlets either promoting or condemning them.

Title page of Pamphilus Gengenbach’s The Bundschuh (1514), a pamphlet condemning the peasant uprisings around the Black Forest

Bundschuh literature garnered broad support from artisans, with Dürer even creating a woodcut of Black Forest insurgent leader Joss Fritz. The 1521 publication of the anonymous pamphlet Karsthans, or “Hans of the Hoe,” introduced the archetype of a commoner named Hans holding a two-pronged hoe. Subsequent publications show him carrying a flail beside the slogan Fryhans, or “Free Hans.” In woodcuts by Hans Weiditz and Hans Leonhard Schäufelein, peasants eschew their haggard appearance in battle scenes with armored knights. By 1525, when uprisings overtook Swabia and Franconia, popular depictions blurred the distinction between the peasants and the noblemen.

This aesthetic shift was due in part to revolutionary preacher Thomas Müntzer, an Anabaptist who rejected the Bible and seven sacraments. His pamphlets promoted the material creation of heaven on Earth and organizing unions. Based in Zwickau, Müntzer is believed to have inspired the 12 Articles of the Peasants, a widely distributed pamphlet listing demands of a worker parliament in Memmingen. Printed 25,000 times in two months, the articles called for an end to serfdom, as well as free election of pastors and restoration of public land use.

Title woodcut from Karsthans (1521)

To this day, the 12 Articles pamphlet is considered the first draft of human rights in Europe after the fall of Rome. Its popularity, which endangered the dominant social order, led Martin Luther to denounce the rebellion. In Luther’s pamphlet Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, he laments his responsibility and urges the princes to “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.” The aristocracy shuttered Müntzer’s printers and beheaded him while burning other leaders at the stake and punishing associated artisans, revealing how working-class mastery of new technologies pierced the highest rungs of power.

Until the French Revolution, the Peasants’ War was the largest uprising in Europe. Frederick Engels, in The Peasant War in Germany (1850), argued that its legacy as a religious conflict obfuscates its origins in class struggle. “By the kingdom of God, Müntzer understood nothing else than a state of society without class differences, without private property, and without superimposed state powers opposed to the members of society,” he wrote. In its aftermath, Dürer proposed a monument to the princes’ victory, perhaps ironically, drafting a shoeless peasant atop a tall column with a sword protruding from his back.

Heroic images of the working class eventually dissipated in popular culture; however, this aesthetic subversion has survived in radical printmaking traditions — from the 20th-century labor movement to contemporary zines. Meanwhile, state propaganda manifests in anti-union memes and social media posts condemning petty crime — promoted by corporate publications owned by the wealthiest wage thieves in history. As mainstream media continues to serve Western elites, this brief period of unrest exemplifies the true power of the press.

Barthel Beham, “Peasant Woman with Two Jugs” (1524), engraving
Title page of The Memmingen Federal Ordinance pamphlet (1525)
Albrecht Dürer, “Monument to the Vanquished Peasants” (1525), woodcut print

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.