A gripping and disturbing black comedy about a brutal episode in history, not as commonly known as other popular uprisings, such as the French Revolution, this is a slim but powerful work whose caption aptly reads “the fight for equality begins in the streets”.
The book is set during the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe. In around 1500, German preacher and theologian Thomas Muntzer was 11 years old when his father was executed on the orders of the Count of Stolberg for reasons unknown. At the age of 15, Muntzer formed a secret league to oppose the Archbishop of Magdeburg and the Church of Rome. After enrolling as a student in Leipzig, Muntzer became a priest and a provost, and in 1520, he was named a preacher in Zwickau.
A passionate idealist, Muntzer was a controversial figure who sided with neither Martin Luther King nor the Roman Catholic Church. He believed in a pure, authentic Christianity, exhorting to the destitute weavers and miners of Zwickau about “why the God of the poor was so strangely on the side of the rich”. Inciting against oppression, he spoke of a world without privilege, property or government. “He cries out that, princes or servants, rich or poor, God moulded us from the same gutter mud, whittled us from the same sandalwood.”
About two centuries earlier, John Wycliffe, who similarly spoke about the equality of all human beings, was condemned and exhumed. One of Wycliffe’s disciples, a farmer called John Ball, advocated against the powerful around 1370. A decade later, peasants revolted against a new poll tax—which challenged hierarchies far and wide. Ball was finally arrested and hanged, and other rebels after him—Wat Tyler and Jack Cade—were also killed. Thereafter, a certain Jan Hus began agitating, and was burnt alive.
After having been forced to leave Zwickau after less than a year, Muntzer went to Bohemia, where he drafted his Prague Manifesto in German and translated it into Czech. He then settled in Allstedt, where he wrote his Protestation, all the while expressing his ideas and appealing to public opinion with his fiery rhetoric. He went against Latin, and said the Mass in German—which caused an uproar.
In 1525, Muntzer took to the streets with three hundred men. Utter chaos and pandemonium followed, and many bodies fell. Finally, at the age of 35, he was chained amidst a crowd of hundreds, his body shackled and mangled—and ultimately, beheaded. It is said that Muntzer’s wife was a nun who had embraced his cause. She was pregnant, beaten and molested. He is also believed to have had children, who had to change their names to avoid persecution.
The book has been translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, who has translated more than 50 books and is the author of 11 books of his own. Born in Lyon in 1968, Eric Vuillard is a writer and filmmaker who has written nine award-winning books, including Sorrow of the Earth and The Order of the Day, which won the 2017 Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. Vuillard describes Muntzer as somewhat of a complex character—sectarian, messianic, intolerant and bitter. The book also provides a stark insight into the history of inequality, and the prose paints vivid pictures of several epochal events.