Hans Böhm, often known as the Drummer of Niklashausen, was born in the small village of Helmstadt, which lies in the south-central region of Germany known as Franconia. The year of his birth is unknown, for peasants such as Böhm living during the 15th century, were not considered significant contributions to the written historical record. However, Böhm's inconspicuous existence changes things abruptly.
One night in 1476, in the German town of Niklashausen, the village where Böhm was a shepherd and street entertainer, he had a vision of the Virgin Mary. Böhm's conversations with one of the most powerful and beloved saints, inspired him to burn his drum in a medieval ritual, the Bonfire of the Vanities; a public demonstration in which people threw their possessions, their vanities, into a communal bonfire to signify their dependency on God and adherence to the cult of poverty. More importantly the Virgin's apparition told him to preach the virtues of life. Her message was that of social equality.
Specifically, Böhm was to preach on the sins of the clergy; peasants and pilgrims should not pay rents to them and Böhm eventually called for their deaths. Furthermore, Böhm was to promote the abolition of forced labor, tolls, levies and other payments to the nobles. The woods and waters of the earth were to be held in common for the use of people, not just the rich. Böhm's sermons, to level society, were radical in a highly structured hierarchical society and were deemed by the power brokers of the time, the clergy and nobles, to be dangerous. Thus, when in short time, tens of thousands of peasants from all over Germany converged on Niklashausen to hear the "Drummer Boy's" speeches, the authorities sensed a real and imminent threat. The resulting peasant revolt began in early May 1476 and culminated with the heresy trial and execution of Böhm on July 19, 1476.
Böhm's story represents the dissatisfaction and resentment of peasants for their physical condition and only avenue to which they could voice their frustrations, through structuring of religious or spiritual paradigms. Historian Richard Wunderli in his book Peasant Fires provides a detailed study of Böhm and the Nilkashausen peasant revolt of 1476 and is a great resource for understanding the abstruse peasant mentality.
What little is known about Böhm is obtained from surviving historical documentation of his enemies, namely the clergy and nobles, such as Count Johann of Wertheim, Archbishop Dieter von Isenberg of Mainz, and Bishop Rudolf von Scherenberg of Würzburg. The story was chronicled in 1514 by Johannes Trithemius.
- Variously spelled as Bohm, Behem, Böheim, Böham
- The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. II: Basilica - Chambers.
- Hans Böhm und die Wallfahrt nach Niklashausen im Jahre 1476, C. A. Barack, Würzburg, 1858;
- Reformers before the Reformation, i, 377–392. C. Ullmann, Edinburgh, 1877
- Politische und religiöse Volksbewegungen vor der Reformation, pp. 10 sqq., E. Gothein, Breslau, 1878
- Die religiösen Sekten in Franken vor der Reformation, pp. 57 sqq., H. Haupt, Würzburg, 1882.
- Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen, Richard Wunderli, Indiana University Press