"Never in all my life did I see such fun" - the Weinsberger Bluttat

16 April 1525, on a Easter Sunday during the German Peasants' War in Swabia, Count von Helfenstein and 80 others were executed by Jäcklein Rohrbach, the Schwarze Hofmännin and the “Bright Band” of peasants after Castle Weinsberg was overwhelmed in an event known as the Weinsberger Bluttat, the Weinsberg Massacre.

“Link. …. Whence come you ?
Metzler. From Weinsberg. There was a jubilee.
Link. How so?
Metzler. We stabbed them all, in such heaps, it was a joy to see it ! … Then we brought out Helfenstein, Eltershofen, thirteen of the nobility, — eighty in all. They were led out on the plain before Heilbronn. What a shouting and jubilee among our lads as the long row of miserable sinners passed by! They stared at each other ; and, heaven and earth ! We surrounded them before they were aware, and then despatched them all with our pikes.
Link. Why was I not there ?
Metzler. Never in all my life did I see such fun.” (Goethe, “Goetz von Berlichingen”)

“Die Ermordung des Grafen Helfenstein“, the murder of Count Helfenstein (sic.!) by the German history painter Fritz Neuhaus (1852 – 1922) from 1879

The Modern Age had already dawned in earnest upon the peasants of Europe who were no longer willing to accept their fate of being downtrodden by their self-proclaimed betters since the first revolts flared up all across Europe from mid-14th century onwards all across Europe. Originally enough, it was the clergy’s crumbling monopoly on education and of being educated that provided the peasants and their clerical and knightly sympathisers the requisite know-how of giving the revolution the necessary ideological superstructure. With translations of the Bible itself into the mother tongues of hoi polloi, the identification and definition of the general bad state of affairs of the medieval manorial system was possible by means of exegesis. “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty,” John Ball, an English Lollard priest wrote in 1381. A hundred years later, with an increase of literacy, the burghers in the free cities gaining more and more influence over the nobility, the printing press having already produced more than twenty million books in Western Europe and the Reformation picking up pace, Martin Luther wrote: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” The peasantry of the Holy Roman Empire took him at his word. The German Peasants’ War began in 1524.

Rudolf Schiestl (1878 - 1931): "Bauernhaufen" (Peasant Band, 1931)

Neither the clergy nor the Empire’s nobility were of a mind to say good-bye to their privileges and the counter-revolution, as usually, fielded the better equipped, better trained and better paid troops. Near Ulm, at Leipheim, on April 8th 1525, the Landsknechte, the mercenaries of the Swabian League with their guns and pikes and armour and cavalry beat the living daylights out of the local peasant army and the mopping up in the aftermath got especially ugly for the survivors at home in the peasant villages of Swabia. With the news from Leipheim just becoming public, the Heller Lichter Haufen, the Bright Band of 5,000 peasants under Jäcklein (little jacket) Rohrbach, something of a Swabian Jack Cade, and Margarete Renner, the Schwarze Hofmännin (Black Villeiness) marched on the weakly-defended Castle Weibertreu at Weinsberg. Thel burgrave, Count Helfenstein, married to the illegitimate daughter of the ex-emperor Maximilian and of some importance to House Habsburg, was known as an especially loveable specimen of local aristocracy and endeared himself to the peasants with his raids on scattered groups and the treatment of his prisoners. Chivalric rules of war were valid for equals only, or so Helfenstein thought, but 5,000 irate peasants were not exactly a scattered group and after sending to Stuttgart for help, he chased away a deputation of the Bright Band who asked for an honourable surrender, threating the whole lot with burning them. He bit off more than he could chew, though. The castle was taken in a coup de main by the peasants, Helfenstein and his henchmen dragged out and forced to run the gauntlet, back then a rather ugly capital punishment, while his wife pleaded with Jäcklein and Margarete in a vain for his life. Jäcklein Rohrbach spared her life and that of Helfenstein’s three years old child, put the two on a dung cart and sent them off to Heilbronn, while Margarete advised the men of the Bright Band to grease their pikes and forks with Helfenstein’s belly fat.

Matthäus Merian the Elder's imagination of the Countess Helfenstein pleading for her husband's life (1629)

The Bloody Easter of Weinsberg was too much for most of the supporters of the Peasants and Martin Luther, first and foremost, publicly rowed back. Already in May he published his polemic “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasant” under the immediate impression of the day the lights went out in Weinsberg and the deeds of Rohrbach’s Bright Band. Aristocratic and clerical resistance began to form in earnest and the Peasant’s War was over by the end of the year, with several severe repercussions being unleashed on the peasants and about 70,000 people dead, belligerents and non-combatants. It was the last major uprising in Europe before the French Revolution, more than 250 years later. Jäcklein Rohrbach and the Schwarze Hofmännin were captured after the Battle of Böblingen in May, Jäcklein was indeed burned to death while Margarete was released after her former landord interceded on her behalf and the judges decided that the only crimes she had committed were done with her “onverhutten mont”, her untended mouth. She died in 1535 and Luther’s quote from Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities”, the leitmotif of “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasant”, became the writing on the wall of German history.

And more about the German Peasants' War of 1525 and the Weinsberg Massacre on: