A Safe Conduct

by Peter Vansittart

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

A Safe Conduct by Peter Vansittart A Safe Conduct is a brilliant novel that not every reader will appreciate. It was inspired by the story of Hans Bohm, a fifteenth-century German peasant who had a vision of the Virgin Mary and began preaching on equality, insisting the earth's resources belonged to all, and no one should pay rents, taxes or forced labor to the nobility. His preaching sparked a peasant revolt, and he was burned as a heretic on July 19, 1476. The novel's Hans is not Hans Bohm but an apolitical dreamer, and the setting is closer to the year 1500. Still, the story explores the conditions which caused both the 1476 revolt and the more widespread 1525 revolt sparked by Martin Luther's teaching.

Written from a wryly distant omniscient point of view, A Safe Conduct offers a fly's-eye perspective of life among the peasantry and petty nobility, both brutishly ignorant. While evoking sympathy for the peasants' lot, it makes no attempt to create sympathetic individual characters. The orphaned shepherd Hans comes closest, dull-witted when not telling his strange stories, tearful when an animal is hurt, said to be the creation of an "unclean goddess ... not from honest-to-God spunk but from a mandrake, the man-shaped root growing from clay oozing beneath a gallows."

The aging graf in his crumbling castle seems to have starved his wife to death; he is deeply suspicious of writing. "Words, he mused, could mean both more or less than themselves, must be snared in their constant movement: each was susceptible to the past, was shadowed by the future." In the novel, it is not Hans who instigates the rebellion but an enigmatic young aristocrat who nudges the peasant children to turn a burned barn into a "Troy" to defend. Although not easy reading, A Safe Conduct immerses readers in Vansittart's grim but insightful view of fifteenth-century Germany. It offers a richness of ideas to ponder, couched in dense, lushly poetic, intricately crafted prose. (1995; 184 pages, including a brief preface about Hans Bohm)

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Other novels set in medieval and Reformation-era Germany:

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (2008), about a modern man severely burned in a car wreck and visited in the hospital by a mysterious woman claiming to have healed him before when she was a nun in fourteenth century Germany. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Witch’s Trinity by Erika Mailman (2007), about a witch persecution in a remote village in early sixteenth century Germany. See review or more info

Q by Luther Blissett (2000), about an idealistic radical and his enemy, a spy for the pope, during the 1525 Peasant Revolt in Germany. More info

Nonfiction about Germany before the Reformation:

Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen by Richard M. Wunderli (1992), about Hans Bohm and the 1476 peasant revolt. Readable and fascinating: highly recommended. More info

Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond by Caroline Walker Bynum (2006), about late medieval beliefs in Germany about Jesus's blood. More info

Society and Economy in Germany, 1300-1600 by Tom Scott (2002), a social and economic history of Germany from the time of the Black Plague to the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War. More info


Hans Bohm at Wikipedia

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