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The early Reformation pamphlets could serve as reminders that the broad public debate of the 1520s does not permit Luther studies, Anabaptist studies, urban studies, peasant studies, etc., to be neatly distinguished. The pamphlets addressed a variety of issues and presented a plethora of views. Illustrated broadsheets appealed beyond the literate to the common people, thus foreshadowing the function of the modern mass media. Colporteurs read pamphlets aloud in the marketplace while literate lay people read to friends and relatives at home. Even herdsmen on Alpine pastures were caught up in the trend. They sent for capable readers. The word had become print, reading a social event, and the study of Scripture a passionate pastime. Without pamphlets there would have been no Reformation, and this despite the fact that only about 10 percent of the people could read.

Many of the earliest Anabaptist leaders (e.g., Bünderlin, Dachser, Denck, Entfelder, Freisleben [[[Eleutherobios, Stoffel and Leonhard (16th century)|Eleutherobios]]], Haetzer, Hoffman, Hubmaier, Marpeck, Salminger) were themselves pamphleteers. Two colporteurs, Andreas Castelberger and Hans Hut, played significant roles in the beginnings of Swiss and (south) German-Austrian Anabaptism respectively. A number of printers such as Balthasar Beck of Strasbourg, Valentin Kobian of Hagenau, Hans Hergot of Nürnberg, Philip Ulhart of Augsburg, and Simprecht Sorg-Froschauer of Nikolsburg appear to have been sympathetic to the radical cause. While some of these times have been noted in marginal comments, Anabaptist scholarship has paid little attention to the pamphlet phenomenon as a whole. As a consequence, scholars lost sight of the public debate within which the early Anabaptist protest was born. Too much ink has been spilled judging the religious content of the lay movement in the light of scholastically honed theologies of the magisterial reformers.

A broad survey of the pamphlet literature suggests that many of the original issues agitating the Anabaptists were aired by the pamphleteers prior to 1525. Not surprisingly, artisans-turned-authors brought a practical agenda to the discussion of reform. Anticlerical feelings nourished by economic, social, or moral grievances provided the leitmotif for much of the pamphlet literature. Clergy, it must be remembered, functioned as landlords and as wardens over bondsmen and collected tithes, rent, and interest while claiming immunity from the laws and duties that bound ordinary lay people. The pamphleteers denounced clerics as usurious, parasitic manipulators, alcoholics, adulterous fornicators, and hypocrites; they decried Gelehrten (the learned) as the Verkehrten (the perverted). In contrast the pamphleteers featured the commoner, whether artisan or peasant, as a devotee of the simple gospel, thereby articulating and encouraging lay people to throw off clerical tutelage. They demanded the right for the local community to appoint God-fearing pastors. Some sang the praises of lay preachers who supported themselves by the labor of their hands. Obviously such views had implications for the payment of church taxes (tithe), the taking of interest (usury) on church endowment investments, and the welfare of the poor (common chest), issues inextricably interwoven with early Anabaptist concerns. Calls for a return to the apostolic practice of community of goods (Acts 2) or mutual aid, the strong moral-ethical teaching on discipleship (Nachfolge), and the apocalyptic mood could be singled out as other pamphlet themes pertinent to Anabaptist piety. While the identification of such themes does little to explain Anabaptist beginnings or peculiarities, it does delineate the broader climate of opinion out of which the Anabaptist vision emerged.

Modern classifications of the pamphlets are largely irrelevant to Anabaptist studies. Marxists (H. Entner and W. Lenk) distinguished three groups: (1) catholic-feudal, (2) bourgeoisie-reformed and (3) peasant-plebeian. A. Laube and W. Seiffert distinguished further between a moderate orientation and a radical orientation in pamphlets relating to the "revolutionary peoples' movement" of 1525. Non-Marxist classifications seem hardly more imaginative. H. Scheible classified the pamphlets under (1) reform, (2) reformation and (3) revolution. At best, such designations help classify authors and content; but contemporary readers did not make such distinctions. The known facts about Anabaptists in Zürich and about Hans Hut's circle may illustrate the point.

Evidence suggests that the founding members of Zürich Anabaptism were familiar with a wide spectrum of pamphlet literature cutting diagonally across modern classifications from moderate to radical. They read Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli, and some of the other reformers (e.g., Oecolampadius). In a letter to Vadian, dated 15 July 1523 Grebel cited a pamphlet by Jacob Strauss of the same year, a tract by Erasmus which appeared one month previously and a work by Ulrich von Hutten which had appeared in Augsburg only two weeks previously. He also cited "Balaam's Ass" with the revealing subtitle "Concerning the Ban That It Dare Not Be Imposed in Payment of Money Debts and Similar Slight Matters and That the Clergy Are Responsible to Obey the Worldly Authorities If They Desire to be Christian" by Mathis Wurm of Geydertheim. As tension between the radicals and Zwingli increased, the reading menu shifted to Karlstadt, Westerburg, Müntzer, Stiefel, Ziegler and Hätzer. The pamphlets of these authors ranged from discussions of usury to images, purgatory, mass for the dead, the nature of the sacraments including baptism, and questions of tarrying for the weak in matters of reform. The radicals were interested in content with a direct application to their situation. In his Bible school for commoners, Castelberger functioned as both a supplier and interpreter of the literature as well as a guide to Scriptural study. We learn that within a week of the appearance of Zwingli's "Little Book on Baptism" (Taufbüchlin) in 1525, Castelberger read and refuted the same before peasant visitors. Without question then, the original Anabaptists were not closeted readers of the Bible, but avid students of current affairs who kept abreast of the latest press releases. Further research may identify other reading materials pertinent to understanding their development.

The literature read by Hans Hut and his inner circle is more difficult to determine. Evidence suggests that from 1521 on he bought, bound, and sold books and pamphlets in an area that stretched from Wittenberg to Salzburg and from Würzburg to Nikolsburg. He dealt in works by Luther, Karlstadt, Müntzer, and others. He brought one of Müntzer's invectives against Luther to the press of Hans Hergot in Nurnberg and must have known Heinrich Pfeiffer's manuscripts. He had dealings with three other pamphleteers, Jorg Haug, Johannes Landsperger, and Wolfgang Vogel, and was probably familiar with the pamphlets of Hans Greiffenberger. Hut knew the Anabaptist pamphleteers Hubmaier, Denck, Langenmantel, Dachser, Salminger, and possibly the Freisleben brothers. Future studies of the literature circulating in the geographic area of Hut's activity may shed further light on the religious-social concerns of his followers.

The above examples illustrate that the first generation of Anabaptists heartily embraced a relatively new form of communication to inform themselves and others. They were anything but disinterested bystanders in a broad public debate. 

See also Peasants' War


"Sixteenth-Century Pamphlets in German and Latin, 1501-1530," ed. by Hans-Joachim Köhler et al. Microform edition by the Interdocumentation Company, Zug, Switzerland.

The best biography is still:

Kuczynskis, Arnold. Thesaurus Libellorum Historiam Reformations Illustrantium. Verzeichniß einer Sammlung von nahe zu 3000 Flugschriften Luthers und seiner Zeitgenossen. Reprint, Nieuwkoop, 1969.

Among useful published editions are the following:

Berger, Arnold E., ed.. Die Sturmtruppen der Reformation. Ausgewählte Flugschriften der Jahre 1520-1525. 3 volumes. Leipzig, 1935-36.

Clemen, Otto, ed. Flugschriften am den ersten Jahren der Reformation. 4 volumes. Reprint, Nieuwkoop, 1967.

Götze, A. and L. E. Smitt, eds. Flugschriften der Reformationszeit: Aus dem sozialischen und politischen Kampf. Cologne, 1953.

Laube, Adolf and Hans-Werner Seiffert, eds. Flugschriften der Bauernkriegszeit. Cologne, 1978.

Schade, Oskar, ed. Satiren und Pasquillen am der Reformationszeit. 3 volumes. Reprint, Hildesheim, 1966.

Secondary publications on the pamphleteers, presses, printers, and pamphlets are voluminous. A sampling follows:

Entner, H. and W. Lenk. "Literatur and Revolution im 16 Jahrhundert." Weimarer Beiträge 16 (1970): 139-162.

Köhler, Hans-Joachim, ed. Flugschriften als Massenmedium der Reformationszeit. Stuttgart, 1981.

Lenk, Werner. "Frühbürgerliche Revolution und Literatur." Weimarer Beiträge 21 (1975).

Oyer, John S. "The Influence of Jacob Strauss on the Anabaptists: A Problem in Historical Methodology." The Origins and Characteristics of Anabaptism. Marc Lienhard, ed. The Hague, 1977: 62-82.

Packull, Werner. 'The Image of the 'Common Man'" in the Early Pamphlets of the Reformation (1520-1525)." Historical Reflections 12 (1985): 253-277.

Russell, Paul. Lay Theology in the Reformation: Popular Pamphleteers in Southwest Germany, 1521-1525. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Scheible, Heinz. "Reform, Reformation, Revolution: Grundsätze zur Beurteilung der Flugschriften." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 65 (1974): 108-43.

Schottenloher, Karl. Philip Ulhart: Ein Augsburger Winkeldrucker und Helfershelfer der `Schwärmer' und `Wiedertäufer.' 1523-1529. Reprint, Nieuwkoop, 1967.

Seibt, Ferdinard. "Johannes Hergot: The Reformation of the Poor Man." Profiles of Radical Reformers. Hans-Jürgen Goertz, ed. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1982: 97-106.

Author(s) Werner O Packull
Date Published 1987

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Packull, Werner O. "Pamphleteering." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 16 Sep 2019.

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Packull, Werner O. (1987). Pamphleteering. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 16 September 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 669-671. All rights reserved.

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