“Youth is endless, the secret of our equality immortal, and solitude wonderful,” proclaims the voice of the narrator in The War of the Poor as radical preacher and theologian Thomas Müntzer (1489–1525) is led off to execution. “Martyrdom is a trap for the oppressed. Only victory is desirable. I shall tell of it.” Spinning execution into victory is the ultimate trick French writer Éric Vuillard pulls off in this novel about Müntzer’s life, death, and revolutionary path, which was translated by Mark Polizzotti and has been shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize. Müntzer led a peasant revolt and a number of urban uprisings across central Europe, from Zwickau to Mülhausen, commonly known as the German Peasants’ War. In spite of the defeat of the revolt, Vuillard wants us ultimately to find hope in Müntzer, not despair.
More than a century later—and in the hands of two historians, Italian Carlo Ginzburg and American Bruce Lincoln—a different trial takes place. The book Old Thiess, a Livonian Werewolf tells the story of a Livonian man known as Thiess of Kaltenbrun, tried as a werewolf in 1691 in the town of Jürgensburg (then a part of the Swedish Empire, currently the village of Zaube in Latvia). Accused of heresy, the werewolf denies not the accusation of being a werewolf, which he admits. Instead, he denies the idea that werewolves worship Satan. In fact, according to his deposition, werewolves travel deep into hell to fight Satan in order to protect the harvest. In the end, Thiess is sentenced to lashing and banished from the town.
What do these two stories have in common? Why excavate these characters, Müntzer and Thiess, the preacher and the werewolf, now? What do they have to teach us about past struggles and lost historical opportunities? How do they speak to us in our time about the connection between forms of individual and collective resistance? If the decade following the 2008 financial crisis was what the wheel of history turning back into motion again felt like, and the year 2020 felt as if somebody had strapped a cinder block to the gas pedal and different forms of social conflict become impossible to ignore, it seems important to interrogate both these past stories and how we have been telling them to ourselves.
Vuillard starts with what little is known about Müntzer’s childhood: the execution of his father and the years of childhood and poverty. The young Müntzer had a voracious appetite for books, which—thanks to the printing press—at the time had multiplied across Western Europe. After studying at the University of Leipzig, Müntzer was named preacher at Zwickau, where he began delivering rousing sermons to the weavers and miners of the parish of St. Katherine’s. He preached against inequality in the radical language of the gospel. He encourages his parishioners “to study the living word of God out of God’s own mouth.”1 Later, in Allstedt, people “flock from miles around … to hear the word of God,” that is, to hear Müntzer preach the gospel in German.
The book places him in the lineage of defenders of vernacular religion and plebeian political rebels: John Wycliffe, Wat Tyler, Jan Hus. The first was a 14th-century English theologian who advocated for a vernacular translation of the Bible; the second was the leader of the 1381 British peasants’ revolt against unjust taxation and for social equality; the third was a radical Czech church reformer. In keeping with that lineage, Müntzer uses the prophetic imagination embedded in biblical language to politically empower his parishioners so they would demand to worship in their language and to fight for a fairer society.
The “war of the poor” of the title, the Peasants’ War, starts in Swabia, today in Southern Germany, during the harvest months of 1524. Vuillard describes it as a heterogeneous “succession of revolts, not only among peasants but also in the city, among workers.” Müntzer had admonished Catholic nobleman Count von Mansfeld to “humble himself before the lowly.” Yet, when met with clearly articulated popular demands aimed toward redistribution, the princes inevitably made recourse to repression by military force.
Müntzer addresses invectives to the princes and to Martin Luther. Even though Luther had initiated a revolution in faith and ideas, he opposed calls for the popular overthrow of political institutions. Thus, Luther had rapidly shifted from being an agent of social change to becoming a reactionary voice, as Karl Marx would point out in his famous line: “[Luther] freed the body from chains because he enchained the heart.”2
At the beginning of spring in 1525, in the region of Thuringia, in Central Germany, the cities of Mülhausen and Nüremberg rose up. On May 15 of that year, a joint army of Philip I of Hesse and George, Duke of Saxony, defeated the peasants at Frankenhausen. According to some estimates, “there were four thousand casualties.”3 Twelve days later, following torture and confession, Müntzer was executed, along with his collaborator Heinrich Pfeiffer.
This is the story as Vuillard tells it. But that story has its holes. Idiosyncratically, the book combines some historical documentation with editorial choices accorded to writing fiction. Even while admitting on the last page that the head of Müntzer “will be impaled,” Vuillard doesn’t tell us that it was on display for years outside the walls of Mülhausen to deter future agitators. As pointed out at the beginning of this essay, The War of the Poor portrays Müntzer’s death as an exultant moment, one of identification between the preacher and the crowd witnessing his beheading.
The question that the book leaves unanswered is that of the articulation of the collective voice. For Vuillard, the charismatic individual, Müntzer, represents this collective subject: the “poor” of the title. Müntzer himself emerges from the popular classes, articulates their discontent, organizes them, and suffers with them in defeat.
And yet, it seems fair to ask oneself as a reader whether the kind of representation the book offers does not efface the role of the people in this historical picture. In other words, to tell the story of a prophetic leader could be understood as a betrayal of the ethos of the German Peasants’ War. The solution to this impasse is inextricable from what kind of fiction this book is and how it relates to history. Like other contemporary French authors such as Laurent Mauvignier, Alice Zeniter, or Leila Slimani, Vuillard splits the difference between literature and history, and he seeks often to evoke rather than tell.4 In an unfavorable review of Vuillard’s Goncourt Prize–winning book The Order of the Day, historian Robert O. Paxton found this promiscuity between history and fiction problematic and even misguided.5
In its best moments, however, Vuillard’s fictional approach to history in The War of the Poor brings to life historical commonplaces such as the scene of Wat Tyler’s death or the adoption of the vernacular in sermons. Müntzer is really more of a stand-in for a larger historical moment than a character. With this, Vuillard uses the mirror of literature to make us think about how societies narrate their own past to themselves, with that mirror reflecting collective forms of historical agency through the symbolic elevation of the singular character: thus Müntzer’s martyr-like, exultant death scene.
The way these books interrogate the past, as a messy, open-ended conversation, can lead us to collectively imagine different futures.
The War of the Poor portrays a world distant from ours in a way that mixes the poetic, the conversational, and the impressionistic. Vuillard wants to revive Müntzer and make this world appear before our eyes, in part because he sees the task of reviving the preacher as a writer’s intervention in the political present. Vuillard has declared that he wrote the book as a means to reflect on the French popular revolt of his time: the yellow vests (gilets jaunes).
In this respect, Vuillard himself participates in a long tradition of holding the mirror of the Peasants’ War up to current struggles. In an electrifying application of historical materialism, Friedrich Engels wrote The Peasant War in Germany in 1850 with the February Revolution of 1848 in mind. Ernst Bloch channeled the despair in the immediate aftermath of the crushing defeat of the Spartakusbund, culminating in the assassinations of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, into his Thomas Müntzer, Theologian of the Revolution. In the Mexican state of Chiapas, the municipality of Ocosingo is home to an extension of land where all the members of the community have usufruct rights rather than property, an ejido, that is called Tomás Muntzer.
Vuillard self-consciously places himself vis-à-vis this genealogy. He evidently disagrees with Engels’s reduction of the religious dimension of Müntzer’s speeches to an ideological “veil.” The War of the Poor does not patronize his main character’s prophetic language as if it constituted the seed of a form of secular class consciousness that had not yet fully emerged. Instead, Vuillard seems closer to Bloch, according to whom the language of Müntzer’s sermons fully identifies prophecy and utopia.
In this way, sermons allow the poor not only to recognize their suffering as unjust and their anger as righteous, but also to articulate a sense of transcendence in their struggle. Far from being identified with the afterlife, Müntzer, Vuillard’s book shows, aims to fortify the bonds of solidarity that come from confronting a shared injustice. Solidarity and collective agency can build a world based on communal ownership of resources.
Prophecy, thus, is tied not to some naive eschatology but to a belief that by virtue of this solidarity everything is possible: “As for us, what will be impossible?” Ultimately, in Müntzer’s vision, a great societal transformation is inevitable: “A momentous, invincible, future reformation is very necessary and must be brought about.”6
The question that Carlo Ginzburg and Bruce Lincoln debate in their book Old Thiess, a Livonian Werewolf is to an extent similar to the one arising in Vuillard’s historical fiction: What are the tools that we can use to consider the life of a single individual coming from the archive? How can the stories of either Müntzer or Thiess stand for the struggles of the oppressed? What are the limits of making their tales about much more than themselves, in both epistemological and moral terms? The result of their collaborative effort is a rare thing, a joyous academic book. It takes the form of a dialogue between Ginzburg and Lincoln around the real-world trial of the werewolf Thiess.
The volume includes Bruce Lincoln’s interpretation of this case focused on Thiess as a figure of resistance against religious authority. It contains classic, previously published interpretations like those of Nazi scholar Otto Höfler and of Ginzburg himself (in his Night Battles and Ecstasies). In different public lectures compiled in this volume, Ginzburg and Lincoln debate each other’s position. Ginzburg insists on the possibility of finding a relation of “morphological proximity” that would link Thiess to creatures described in Petronius’s Satyricon and the works of the Swedish writer and ecclesiastic Olaus Magnus. Furthermore, he thinks it is possible to read in this character, dormant in the archive, the fragment of a longer thread representing a repressed pagan religiosity. Lincoln is skeptical about this rather conjectural interpretation of the trial.
The organization of Ginzburg and Lincoln’s book functions almost like the polar opposite of The War of the Poor. While the latter smooths the edges of archival research and methodological debate to present the story of a historical character, the former displays a collection of different interpretations so the reader can be a third wheel of sorts in the conversation between two historians with diverging opinions on the trial. At times, the book opens windows onto questions that are impossible to solve entirely because they go beyond the available sources, as Ginzburg, for instance, notes on the relation between oral culture and written sources: “One could say that maybe the same standards of proof cannot be valid for historians working on oral cultures as for those who work where textual evidence is available.”
In a way, this is the question at the center of the book. If Müntzer emerges as Vuillard’s main figure, the symbolic embodiment of collective demands, Thiess emerges as the embodiment of the tension between possibilities and limits of identifying popular culture as acts of resistance existing in the archive. Since there is no definitive question to this answer, the conversation around the evidence—in this case, the trial—is all we have.
According to the transcript of his confession under torture, Müntzer established with his followers a common principle according to which “all property should be held in common [Omnia sunt communia] and should be distributed to each according to his needs, as the occasion requires.”7 The political audacity of this moment, its revelatory simplicity, still haunts us. The origin of this formulation is attributed to Thomas Aquinas, who argued that all property be made common, but only in cases of extreme societal necessity. The Allstedt revolutionaries took an existing theoretical formulation and strove to elevate it to a form of social organization. For them, enacting justice meant that the exception had to become the rule. That might be what the history unburied in The War of the Poor has to convey to us: how much suffering, audacity, and organizing it would require to realize Müntzer’s unfulfilled ideal. It is clear that neither Vuillard nor his book can summon the social forces that would make such a leap possible or even imaginable. If a book wasn’t able to lift that kind of weight in the 16th century, it would be less able to do so now.
Ultimately, we can recognize ourselves and our present struggles in the mirror of past stories. There are, however, limits to that recognition. In his debate with Ginzburg, Lincoln clearly points out the pitfalls of establishing easy historical comparisons that “fill the gaps in our knowledge by imagining an originary state.” Comparisons between different historical phenomena must take into account the constant motion of the wheel of history. To focus on the specific circumstances of every act of resistance is the only way to learn its lessons, from Müntzer’s beheading to Thiess’s trial.
As the cinder block remains strapped to the pedal of our present, the question about what is collectively possible remains open. The exceptional is situated not in some nebulous future but right here in our present. It takes the form of ecological crises, pandemics, mass population displacements, scarcity, and immiseration. Such a predicament has led us to state-sponsored violence, resource wars, and refugee crises, but it didn’t need be this way. It still doesn’t. The way these books interrogate the past, as a messy, open-ended conversation, can lead us to collectively imagine different futures.
I wish to thank Lexie Cook, Annick Louis, Miguel Martínez, Bécquer Seguín, Joe Stadolnik, Anne-Laure Timon, Louis Watier, and the editors at Public Books for their contributions to this article.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.
- Thomas Müntzer, Sermon to the Princes, translated from the German by Michael G. Baylor (London: Verso, 2010), p. 10. ↩
- Karl Marx, introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843; accessed June 7, 2021). ↩
- In the introduction to his classic study on the German Peasants’ War, Peter Blickle calls it “the mightiest mass movement in European history before 1789.” See Peter Blickle, The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants’ War from a New Perspective (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), p. xi. ↩
- In this regard, perhaps a disclaimer is due: The War of the Poor is a very specific kind of narrative artifact. It could be called a novel, but definitely one that asks for some stretching of the boundaries of the genre. For readers looking for a novel about the Peasants’ War, the Anabaptists, and Müntzer, their best bet might still be Q, published in 1999 by the Italian writing collective known then as Luther Blissett (now Wu Ming). It is a rich and dense tapestry that builds distinct portraits of complicated historical figures and processes while following a fictional main character with an eventful life that leads him from the Battle of Frankenhausen all the way to Venice many years later. Instead, through a series of narrative sketches that follow Müntzer, Vuillard seeks to animate both a historical period, the Age of Reformation, and a historical problem, the articulation of popular demands countered through the display of repressive political violence by a self-preserving order. ↩
- Robert O. Paxton, “The Reich in Media Res,” New York Review of Books, December 6, 2018. ↩
- Müntzer, Sermon to the Princes, pp. 27–28. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 96–97. ↩