In September 1989, with spectacularly bad timing, East Germany opened a museum to house a vast panoramic painting of the 16th-century rebel leader Thomas Müntzer and the campaigns he led. Within weeks, the state that honoured him as a chosen ancestor (he even appeared on banknotes) had collapsed.

Artist Werner Tübke’s monster work, catchily titled “Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany”, was just one of many bids to recruit the shadowy preacher and his cause to the service of modern ideology. Left and right alike have claimed his legacy: Friedrich Engels hailed the uprisings of 1524-25 in his book The Peasant War in Germany; yet the Nazis named a brutal SS cavalry division after one of Müntzer’s chief military allies, Florian Geyer.

After 1517, Martin Luther’s Reformation helped ignite a brush-fire of insurrection across the Holy Roman Empire. Poor and marginal protesters, the itinerant priest Müntzer among them, went far beyond Luther’s call for top-down church reform to demand much wider social and political redress. Scores of thousands died as nobles and other landlords massacred the rag-tag rebels, executed their leaders (Müntzer was beheaded after torture in May 1525) and entrenched their power.

These upheavals left behind a smoke of rumour and legend that still intrigues posterity. Even the radical Italian fiction collective once named “Luther Blissett” (part of which is now known as “Wu Ming”) in 1999 published a novel — a thoroughly gripping one — about these events titled Q.

Now French author Éric Vuillard, who won 2017’s Prix Goncourt for his collage-style portrait of the 1930s, The Order of the Day, has enlisted Müntzer and his comrades. He salutes them as avatars of a pure spirit of revolt. This brief, ardent book, half-historical essay and half-revolutionary tract, mingles swift-moving tableaux from the preacher’s life and age with Vuillard’s pulpit homilies on oppression and resistance. He treats the firebrand priest and his followers as icons of every movement of the poor to seek “the equality of all human beings” and fight (in Müntzer’s own words) for “the downfall of the strong and godless tyrants”.

Vuillard begins with Müntzer’s forerunners in medieval England: John Wycliffe, known for translating the Bible into English, his Lollard disciples, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The eternal flame of popular insurgency moves on to the radical reformer Jan Hus in Bohemia, and then to a Germany shaken by social and confessional unrest.

At its best, The War of the Poor feels urgent, breathless — as “molten” as the lead type in the new printing presses that stoked dissent and accusations of heresy. Don’t read it as balanced history — although Vuillard has plunged deep into the era’s scholarship — or as simple historical fiction. Rather, Müntzer’s rise from wandering Protestant ultra who berated Luther as a spineless sellout, to figurehead for revolution becomes a mirror for our own convulsive times. Vuillard took inspiration from the gilets jaunes anti-establishment protests that erupted in France in 2018. His prose evokes the sputtering uncertainty of spontaneous revolt, free of doctrine and hierarchy, as “the hinges of old thinking burst off the doors”.

This fizzing squib, its incendiary prose well served by Mark Polizzotti’s translation, has scenes of firecracker intensity. We feel Thomas’s grief for his hanged father, and witness the pitiless slaughter of the outgunned rebels at Frankenhausen while a rainbow — the sign on the peasants’ banners — shines in the sky.

Yet Vuillard views hero and epoch through a very secular (indeed, Jacobin) French lens. Müntzer’s apocalyptic theology, and the end-times anxiety that swept his forces, interest him little. For Vuillard, socio-economic injustice explains all, and “In reality, quarrels about the Beyond have to do with the world here-below”. In reality, the 16th-century — from Papists to Anabaptists — would have told him to repent, or go to hell.

Vuillard, the secularist know-all, with his finger-wagging hindsight, can distract and annoy. Still, the novelist in him knows how to channel the millenarian mindset. Müntzer’s visionary fervour smoulders as he pursues the “authentic suffering” of the purged soul that “must scratch its knees on brambles, have its cheeks whipped by branches, its lungs flayed by the cold wind”. His dream of redemptive equality has both a utopian and a masochistic face. Perhaps his heirs share that division too.

The War of the Poor, by Eric Vuillard, translated by Mark Polizzotti, Picador, RRP£9.99/Other Press, RRP$17.99, 80 pages

Boyd Tonkin is the author of ‘The 100 Best Novels in Translation’ (Galileo)

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