The German Peasants' War and the "Crisis of Feudalism." Reflections On a Neglected Theme

In: Journal of Early Modern History


The view that the Peasants' War stemmed from a "crisis of feudalism" has been principally advanced by Peter Blickle. His dominant interpretation of the War fuses the late medieval economic crisis and the struggle for territorial consolidation by means of a revived serfdom into a general crisis of feudalism. But this argument underplays the profound changes already underway in the social and economic structure of the main areas of revolt—the commercialization of agrarian production, the spread of rural crafts, the fragmentation of holdings, the penetration of urban capital through the putting-out system, and the mortgaging of lordships. The consequence was a triangular pattern of conflict, in which landlords and landless laborers, for instance, might combine against possessing peasants, or where rural craftsmen might be encouraged to undercut the urban guilds. The character of the War, therefore, was more a conflict over the appropriation of resources and the seizure of new economic opportunities than it was a "crisis of feudalism," a term which European comparison reveals to be highly problematic.

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