Writer’s Deep Dive: The Black Hoffmann

Our third and final female warrior in this series is one that you have probably never heard of. Yet she played a small but vital role in a standoff of ideals in medieval Europe.

Now, let’s dive in!

The Basics

The life of a 16th century peasant was harsh, and this was especially true in Germany, which was then part have of the Holy Roman Empire. The Black Death had caused labor shortages in the second half of the 14th century that the peasants had leveraged into higher wages and higher prices for their products. [1] This had led to an improved standard of living and gains socially, economically, and legally. [2] Yet in the early 16th century, the nobility began cracking down. Lords took control of the common lands and had the right to use their peasants’ lands any way they wished. These restrictions meant peasants could no longer hunt, fish, or chop wood freely. They were also required to pay a tax to marry, and the lord helped himself to the best cattle, clothing, and tools after one of his peasants died. The justice system was also heavily weighted in favor of the nobility and clergy.

Then a voice began speaking out against the corruption of the clergy and the injustice imposed by the nobility. That voice belonged to Martin Luther, a Catholic priest and the leader of the Reformation in Germany that led to the rise of Protestantism. It all began when he nailed ninety-five theses or complaints against the Church to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517. [3] He began preaching that people didn’t need priests to act as intermediaries but could be saved by their own faith. This concept was a blow to the established hierarchy of the Church. But Luther didn’t stop there. Over time, he became more radical and began calling for the Church and all social hierarchy to be torn down. His views were cranked out in pamphlets on the new printing press and widely distributed. Discontent flared among the peasants, with many believing that Luther would support them if they attacked. [4]

A portrait of Martin Luther from 1529. Image source.

Revolts broke out in Franconia, Swabia, and Thuringia in 1524, then on February 16th ,1525, twenty-five villages in the city’s jurisdiction of Memmingen rebelled, demanding better treatment and less restriction. The German Peasants’ War had begun.

In April, a force of 5,000 peasants gathered in the village of Leipheim to assault the city of Ulm. They were challenged by Georg III Truchsess von Waldburg-Zeil, later given the name the Scourge of the Peasants. The peasant army forced him and his forces to retreat, but they took heavy losses.

Yet still their numbers swelled. It was at this critical point that two leaders emerged. The first was Jakob Rohrbach, better known as Jäcklein, which means “Little Jack.” He had a deep hatred for the nobility, fueled by the kidnapping, mistreatment, and rape of the village girl he loved.

Georg III Truchsess von Waldburg-Zeil. Image source.

Yet Jäcklein’s disgust paled compared to the savage hatred of the other leader, the Black Hoffmann. There is little we know about her, and her real name is lost to history. Hoffmann is a German title referring to the steward of property or a military commander. Said to be the bastard child of a gypsy woman, she had long black hair and usually wore a black hooded cloak and a red sash. She played an almost mystical role in the rebellion.

The Black Hoffmann rallying the troops.

With this leadership and the numbers of the peasant army swelling by the day, they assaulted the castle of Weinberg, capturing it and burning it down. [5] During the battle, the Black Hoffman stood on a nearby hill with outstretched arms, shouting, “Down with the dogs; strike them all dead! Fear nothing! I bless your weapons I, the black Hoffmann! Only strike! God wills it!” [7] The Count of Helfenstein, who was the Austrian Governor of Württemberg, was captured along with his wife, child, and several nobles and knights.

However, this was not enough for the Black Hoffmann. That night, she, Jäcklein, and their men dragged them from the mill where they had been imprisoned. She stabbed the count with her knife, killing him, and smeared his blood on the shoes and spears of the peasants. The nobles were forced to “run the gauntlet,” where the condemned passed between two rows of soldiers who struck him. [6]

The capture of Weinberg Castle was to be the last big victory for the peasants. The army splintered into separate bands that battled against several members of the Swabian League, an association of the Imperial Estates that defended its members and kept the peace. Ultimately, the better armed, better equipped, and better trained soldiers of the nobles, bolstered by a force of mercenary landsknechts, crushed the rebellion in June 1525. The nobles were merciless in their retribution. Many peasants were executed, including Jäcklein, who was burned to death. They also punished the families of the rebels, driving them from their homes and stealing their livestock and other goods. [8]

The execution of Jäcklein. Photo source.

Even the voice that had encouraged the rebellion with talk of the corruption of the clergy and the injustice of the nobility turned against them. In May 1525, Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet titled “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.” In it, he said this: “Besides, any man against whom it can be proved that he is a maker of sedition is outside the law of God and Empire, so that the first who can slay him is doing right and well. For if a man is an open rebel, every man is his judge and executioner, just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is the best man. For rebellion is not simple murder, but is like a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus, rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the greatest disaster. Therefore, let everyone who can smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.” [9]

Yet there is no written account of the fate of the Black Hoffmann, despite detailed writings of the executions of the other leaders. I like to think she escaped punishment.

The Write Angle

The Black Hoffmann is like Boudica, rallying the common people against their oppressors. Yet unlike the queen, her downfall wasn’t hubris but disorganization. Each of the peasant bands had a different leader, and the rebellion never had clear leadership or direction. They were more of a mob than an army.

She also let her blind rage and hatred overcome whatever reason or caution she might have had. Her murder of a count and mistreatment of the countess, who was also the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, drew the wrath of the nobles and led to brutality against the rebels and their families.

Yet, she played a mystical role in the army, blessing their weapons and predicting their victories. She also urged them to fight with a clear and hateful certainty.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Zagorín, Pérez (1984). Rebels and rulers, 1500–1660. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 187, 188, 190. ISBN 978-0-521-28711-1.
[2] Zagorín, Pérez (1984). Rebels and rulers, 1500–1660. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 187, 188, 190. ISBN 978-0-521-28711-1.
[3] Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950), p. 79.
[4] A.G. Dickens, The German Nation and Martin Luther, London: Edward Arnold, 1974, ISBN 0-7131-5700-3, 132–33. Dickens cites as an example of Luther's "liberal" phraseology: "Therefore I declare that neither pope nor bishop nor any other person has the right to impose a syllable of law upon a Christian man without his own consent".
[5] Miller, Douglas (2003). Armies of the German Peasants' War 1524–1526. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. pp. 4, 6–8, 10, 11, 13, 20, 21, 33–35.
[6] Miller, Douglas (2003). Armies of the German Peasants' War 1524–1526. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. pp. 4, 6–8, 10, 11, 13, 20, 21, 33–35.
[7] https://www.marxists.org/archive/bax/1899/peasants-war/ch04.htm
[8] Ernest Belfrt Bax, The Peasants’ War in Germany
[9] http://zimmer.csufresno.edu/~mariterel/against_the_robbing_and_murderin.htm

6 Comments on “Writer’s Deep Dive: The Black Hoffmann”

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