|Rebel Tales: Michael Gaismair
|In late medieval German lands, the laws of inheritance created a situation where the farms were
divided among many male heirs, resulting in smaller and smaller farms. This led to shortages of food
and an explosive situation when many farmers, without enough acreage to survive, were forced to
work on pastures belonging to others, usually a nobleman or a monastery. At harvest time, the
farmer had to complete work on his master's farm before his own, and this sometimes resulted in a
great loss of his own crop and increased resentment.
Various rebellions formed in many regions and cities and by 1525, things went beyond small local
revolts. Initially, the farmers and peasants wanted to negotiate some sort of settlement which would
solve their problems and eliminate their hardships. However, in Swabia, after peasants met with the
nobility and were then betrayed and attacked, the movement become more radical. The farmers and
peasants were not well-armed and most had no fighting experience, but they were highly motivated.
The Farmers' or Peasants' War, which ran from 1524 to 1525 was bloody and did not really solve
the problems, although it led to some small compromises. During this time, several folk heroes came
into being, among them Goetz von Berlichingen, Florian Geyer and Michael Gaismair, while other
leading figures such as Martin Luther opposed their movement.
Michael Gaismair was born in South Tirol in 1490 to a successful farmer who also happened to own
a mining company. Gaismair, with a talent for writing, first became a writer for the mining industry,
then a scribe for the provincial governor, and finally a secretary to the Bishop of Brixen. He was
what one might call a "company man" and would normally have followed the company line.
However, a crucial turn in his life occurred in 1525 when a well-liked farmer named Peter Passler
was sentenced to death in May of that year after quarreling with authorities. Instead of negotiating
harshly with the revolting farmers as Gaismair was directed, sympathetic Gaismair joined them and
became captain of the general rebellion.
He and a group of farmers stormed the court and released Passler. Gasmair was arrested in August
and managed to escape in October to Switzerland where he formulated a Tyrolean legislation which
called for a complete restructuring of the political system and the prompt establishment of a republic.
He connected with the Swiss Confederation led by reformer Huldrych Zwingli, and soon planned for
a new order democratically re-shaping Tirol and also Salzburg into a republic in the interest of the
"common man". Far from the social ideals of the time, Gaismair's visions were similar to later
American and French aspirations: more justice for the citizens and farmer and less power for the
aristocracy, the separation of church and state, and elected officials and impartial judges.
In spring of 1526, he returned with his troops to assist the farmers and miners in Salzburg who had
rebelled. Their revolt had spread beyond the borders of Salzburg and into adjacent Carinthia and
Styria, and the rebels had taken control of the city of Salzburg as well as parts of Carinthia, Carniola
and Upper Austria. Archbishop of Salzburg Mattias Lang von Wellenberg negotiated an agreement
with the rebels by addressing several of the peasants' demands and when, in good faith, the peasants
broke off their siege of the bishop's fortress, the Archbishop had a number of rebel leaders executed.
The peasants resumed their revolt, now joined by Gaismair. A force of 10,000 soldiers, lead by
Georg von Frundsberg, moved into Salzburg together with forces of the Swabian League, Austrians
and the Archbishop's forces to join fight against them. Gaismair and his followers defeated them in a
number of engagements, but were finally defeated at Radstadt.
Gaismair and a small number of followers made their escape over the Alps into Venetian territory
and he later went to Tuscany, then Umbria where he hired out as a mercenary. He amassed enough
wealth to buy 42 pieces of real estate and raise horses and sheep, He ended up living in Padua with
his wife Magdalena and four children. On April 15, 1532, he was murdered by hired assassins on a
stairwell in Padua. It took 42 blows to kill him. There are no known pictures of Gaismair.