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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

Was the chapel of Our Lady at Niklashausen


to more distant parts, and chroniclers

declare that on some days he preached to audiences of from twenty to thirty thousand persons. His pulpit was a barrel set on end, or the window of a farmhouse, or the branch of a tree. He assured his hearers that the holiest spot on earth, holier by far than Rome, was the chapel of Our Lady at Niklashausen, and that true religion consisted in doing honour to the Blessed Virgin. He denounced all priests in unmeasured terms: they were worse than Jews; they might be converted for a while, but as soon as they went back among their fellows they were sure to become backsliders. He railed against the Emperor: he was a miscreant, who supported the whole vile crew of princes, over-lords, tax-gatherers, and other oppressors of the poor. He scoffed at the Pope. He denied the existence of Purgatory: good men went directly to heaven and bad men went to hell. The day was coming, he declared, when every prince, even the Emperor himself, must work for his day's wages like all poor people. He asserted that taxes of all kinds were evil, and should not be paid; that fish, game, and meadow lands were common property; that all men were brethren, and should share alike. When his sermon was finished the crowd of devotees knelt round the "holy youth," and he, blessing them, pardoned their sins in God's name. Then the crowd surged round him, tearing at his clothes to get some scrap of cloth to take home and worship as a relic; and the Niklashausen chapel became rich with the offerings of the thousands
of pilgrims.

The authorities, lay and clerical, paid little attention to him at first. Some princes and some cities (Nuernberg, for example) prohibited their subjects from going to Niklashausen; but the prophet was left untouched. He came to believe that his words ought to be translated into actions. One Sunday he asked his followers to meet him on the next Sunday, bringing their swords and leaving their wives and children at home. The Bishop of Wuerzburg, hearing this, sent a troop of thirty-four horsemen, who seized the prophet, flung him on a horse, and carried him away to the bishop's fortress of Frauenberg near Wuerzburg. His followers had permitted his capture, and seemed dazed by it. In a day or two they recovered their courage, and, exhorted by an old peasant who had received a vision, and headed by four Franconian knights, they marched against Frauenberg and surrounded it. They expected its walls to fall like those of Jericho; and when they were disappointed they lingered for some days, and then gradually dispersed. Hans himself, after examination, was condemned to be burnt as a heretic. He died singing a folk-hymn in praise of the Blessed Virgin.

His death did not end the faith of his followers. In spite of severe prohibitions, the pilgrimages went on and the gifts accumulated. A neighbouring knight sacked the chapel and carried away the treasure, which he was forced to share with his neighbours. Still the pilgrimages continued, until at last the ecclesiastical authorities removed the priest and tore down the building, hoping thereby to destroy the movement.

The memory of Hans Boehm lived among the common people, peasants and artisans; for the lower classes of Wuerzburg and the neighbouring towns had been followers of the movement. A religious social movement, purely German, had come into being, and was not destined to die soon. The effects of Hans Boehm's teaching appear in almost all subsequent peasant and artisan revolts.(60) Even Sebastian Brand takes the Niklashausen pilgrims as his type of those enthusiasts who are not contented with the revelations of the Old and New Testaments, but must seek a special prophet of their own:


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