At the end of March, I decided that I was going to read the entire International Booker Prize 2021 longlist before the end of the year. These posts, like some of my WHM posts, are going to be a strange hybrid of book reviews and research posts.
The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard (translated by Mark Polizzotti)
Note: The War of the Poor has been shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize.
For the most part, I didn’t enjoy this book but let’s focus on the good parts first. I thought the subject matter was very interesting. The book follows the life of Thomas Müntzer, a preacher who lived during the German Reformation, and it focuses on the lead up to the German Peasants’ War of 1525. I’ve never read a novella (novel? short story? book?) set during this particular event.
However, the writing style and the way the book was presented really threw me off. The only way I can describe the style and form is fictionalised non-fiction. It isn’t non-fiction, despite what Goodreads says, but it isn’t really historical fiction either. Or maybe it is historical fiction presented as non-fiction. I’m not sure. I have no idea what Vuillard was trying to do here. Some of the reviews I read after reading the book (you know, while I was trying to figure out what the book was trying to do) even referred to it as an ‘academic’ text but I can promise you that it is not an academic text. There are no footnotes, for a start, and there’s a complete absence of real research. That is not a bad thing at all and I’d never expect historical fiction to function in the same way as academic research but I just wanted to point that out.
It was also very short. Too short, perhaps, to fully explore the subject matter in any depth. I just feel like this book could have been an interesting historical novel about an important part of Germany’s history but it just failed to do anything more than skim over the details of Müntzer’s life.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this book but if the subject matter intrigues you then you may enjoy it.
For anyone that doesn’t know, one of my research interests is the religious reformations of Europe. I mainly focus on the English Reformations but I found myself intrigued by the subject of this book even though I didn’t enjoy the book itself. I ended up reading a few academic articles about Thomas Müntzer so I thought I’d share my readings here too.
Thomas Müntzer (c.1489 – 1525) was a German preacher and theologian of the early Reformation. He became a leader of the German peasant and plebeian uprising of 1525 which is commonly known as the German Peasants’ War. As most reformers did during this time, Müntzer opposed the Catholic Church and its teachings but he also opposed Martin Luther. Luther (with his 95 theses) is probably the most famous figure of the early Reformation and Michael G. Baylor states that Müntzer ‘accused Luther and his colleagues of offering Christians a cheap, “honey-sweet” but “counterfeit” version of the faith, one in which Christ had endured all the suffering, and the believer could continue to enjoy a life of comfort and ease.’1 Müntzer had a very different view of Christianity from his contemporaries.
Müntzer also believed that the end of the world was nigh. His approach to Christianity was apocalyptic and he truly believed that he was ushering his followers into a new age of God. An expectation of the Apocalypse loomed in his writing and his teachings but he did not fear the end of the world, he embraced it and his supposed role in it. He viewed the uprising in 1525 as an apocalyptic act brought on by God and he happily took his place as the leader in the war against the Godless.
Andrew Bradstock wrote about Müntzer’s belief that ‘God still spoke to men and women through dreams and visions, and that he, Müntzer, had been enlightened as to the present corrupt state of both the world and the church, and the inevitability of their impending judgment.’2 This was another point of diversion from Luther’s thinking but Bradstock notes that Müntzer’s references to dreams and visions in his sermons place him alongside, if not within, the ‘German mystical tradition in which he was steeped’.3 It seems as though academics cannot agree on the links between ‘German mysticism’ and Müntzer’s views but Müntzer’s teachings clearly differed from the other well-known reformers of his time.
His also writing emphasised that he believed in faith guided by spiritual experience rather than the written word. One common idea that you see across reformations is that normal people could not access or understand their own faith because they couldn’t understand the Bible. Muntzer argued that the German people could not understand true faith if the Latin Bible was upheld above spiritual experience and he offered an alternative: suffering. Müntzer’s true believers, who were known as the Elect, thought that they were capable of reaching faith through personal suffering, guided by ‘true servants of God’, rather than following Catholicism or Lutheranism. Suffering, either physical or spiritual, was essential to Müntzer’s teachings and he also taught his follows to truly fear God and have no fear of man.
Müntzer‘s teachings about suffering once again return us to ideas of mysticism as Louise Sundararajan and Chulmin Kim argue that Muntzer’s ‘approach to suffering fails to meet, the two requirements of mysticism—experience-near processing and self-reflexivity’ because he emphasises, as Sundararajan and Kim categorise it, ‘external’ suffering rather than ‘internal suffering’ as he is focused on the actions and consequences of external forces rather than self-contemplation.4
As a radical thinker, Müntzer became a social reformer as well as a theological reformer. Alongside radical Reformers and Anabaptists, Thomas Müntzer instigated and supported a revolt that is now known as the German Peasants’ War. Between 1524 and 1525, around 300,000 farmers and peasants revolted for economic and religious reasons in Europe’s most widespread popular uprising before the French Revolution of 1789. The revolt failed which resulted in the death of approximately 100,000 people and many of the survivors were fined by the aristocracy they were revolting against.
Martin Luther condemned the revolt in a piece entitled Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Due to his role in the revolt, Friedrich Engels and Karl Kautsky claimed Müntzer as a precursor of the revolutionaries of their own time.
I think it’s clear that I found Thomas Müntzer to be a fascinating figure and I’m glad that reading The War of the Poor prompted me to read more about him, his teachings, and his role in the revolt of 1525.
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1. Michael G. Baylor, ‘The Abyss, Detachment and Dreams: Thomas Müntzer’s Reception of Medieval German Mysticism‘, Medieval Mystical Theology, 29.2 (2020), 93-108 (100)
2. Andrew Bradstock, ‘Thomas Müntzer: Mystic and Apocalyptic Revolutionary?‘, Reformation, 5.1 (2000), 27-53 (32)
3. Bradstock, 31
4. Louise Sundararajan and Chulmin Kim, ‘Spiritual Suffering from Medieval German Mysticism to Mother Teresa: A Psycholinguistic Analysis’, The Humanistic Psychologist, 42.2 (2014), 172–198 (175)
1. Title page of The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, trans by Mark Polizzotti (London: Picador, 2021)
2. Contemporary portrait of Thomas Müntzer by Christoph van Sichem (c. 16th century)
3. Title page of Deutzsch Kirchen Ampt, vorordnet, auffzuheben den hinterlistigen Deckel by Thomas Müntzer (1523) – MurdoMondane CC BY-SA 4.0
4. Title page of the Memmingen Articles of War drawn up in March 1525, during the German Peasants War. It shows armed peasants with an assortment of weaponry (1525)