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Four Flags Examined (part 2)

The flag of the Bundschuh movement

Woodcut by Francesco Petrarca

The Bundschuh was a series of popular uprisings in the Rhine lands of the Holy Roman Empire in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.  It was a series of secret societies and conspiracies focussed around Joss Fritz, a peasant who took the millenarian phantasies of The Book of One Hundred Chapters and tried to make them into reality:  ‘All authority was to be overthrown, all dues and taxes abolished, all ecclesiastical property distributed amongst the people; and all woods, waters and pastures were to become communal property.’ [Cohen p.234]

This movement fitted into a wider tradition of similar movements that periodically appeared throughout late medieval Europe (for example the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in south east England) but I have singled it out as it took it’s name from, and cohered around, a symbol.  The bundschuh was a type of peasant shoe common in southern Germany, consisting of a wooden sole and leather upper that was bound round with puttees.  The banner of the movement consisted of one of these sometimes, according to Cohen, incorporating the words ‘Nothing but God’s justice!’ and ‘Christ crucified with on one side a praying peasant, on the other the peasant clog’.  The woodcut of a group of Bundschuh accosting a knight by Francesco Petrarca shows a banner consisting of just the shoe with its puttee curving down the fly like a scroll or a serpent.

Prior to this point the congregation of humble folk headed by a charismatic individual holding a banner of the crucifixion was relatively common place but this is the first instance that I have found of the investiture of symbolic power in a humble object by the uprising poor.  I do not know why the shoe was taken as an example, perhaps it was its absolute humbleness – the symbol of the worker that cut across other divisions of labour, and an acknowledgement of the point of absolute destitution – to not to be able to afford shoes was to be truly wretched.

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