Jonathan Salem Baskin

Resisting Change

Today, a community rejected new owners.

The peasants of Dithmarschen, located on the left side of Germany along the North Sea, had been defying the ownership claims of neighboring princes since the 12th century, choosing instead to use their tax money to enrich their own lives and repel repeat invasions intended to change their minds. They thrived, organizing into a peasants republic in the 15th century to extend their prosperous agricultural trade to the Netherlands. This proved too much (i.e. created too much money) for Denmark’s King Johann I or his brother, Duke Friedrich I of Schleswig, to resist. They raised a formidable army of 13,000 professional soldiers, cavalry, and mercenaries. Ditmarschen’s 6,000 farmer militia prepared yet another defense.

The Battle of Hemmingstedt, fought on this day in 1500, was a rout, thanks to the military strategy of the Dithmarscher leader named Wulf Isebrand. 800 mercenaries were slain, as were many of the aristocrats who’d shown up to help lay claim to the land. Thousands of horses, cannons, covered wagons, and other supplies were left behind, perhaps because of the Dithmarscher battle cry of, “kill the man and leave the horse!” King Johann’s reputation was so sullied that his kingship was renounced a year later. Dithmarschen would stay independent until losing to an even bigger army in 1559 and get divvied up here and there before becoming a part of Prussia in 1864 (and, subsequently, Germany). Its coat of arms features a conquering knight on his horse, though few alive today remember how much of an insult this is.

Resisting change is something communities need to do sometimes.