The disparity in income between the wealthy and working class in America continues to spark debates that will last long after the 2020 election. While income inequality is often cast as a current problem – the 1% vs. the 99%, Wall Street vs. Main Street – the gap between the haves and the have-nots has a long history.
Éric Vuillard’s The War of the Poor (translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti), is a slim volume that packs a punch. Vuillard takes us back to the sixteenth century after the Protestant Reformation successfully attacked privilege and the Catholic Church. Yet that Protestant promise of equality for the poor quickly established another bourgeois authority to protect those in power. Rising up to confront this new leadership were a number of theologians, including Thomas Müntzer.
While Vuillard attributes Müntzer’s early awakening when he was only 11 years old and witnessed his father being executed. Other accounts say there is no evidence that the elder Müntzer was killed. Still, something triggered outrage within Müntzer that set him on a path to oppose those in power. His mission kept him on the move, spreading his belief that the end of the world was on the horizon and those who believed in God would be entrusted with managing the journey to another realm.
Of course, Müntzer wasn’t the only one crusading and often those who rose up to fight did so on a smaller scale to protect their families. Often these encounters turned violent. Vuillard writes about a tax collector who raped a 15 year-old girl when she had no money to pay. Her father followed the collector’s coach and split the man’s skull with a mallet.
And while Müntzer believed he was sent by God, in Vuillard’s descriptions, there’s little of the “turn the other cheek” when confronted by enemies. “Something terrible inhabits him, agitates him,” Vuillard writes. “He is enraged. He wants the rulers’ skins, he wants to sweep away the church, he wants to gut all those bastards.”
While Müntzer had an impact and certainly emerged as a courageous historical figure, he met a brutal death. Vuillard’s narrative, beautifully written, follows the path of this brave rabble rouser, who continues to inspire others.
The War of the Poor
Translated by Mark Polizzotti