The Empire and Social History

Holy Roman emperors have often proved strange figures in European history. They do not seem to ‘belong’ anywhere. They are constantly moving about, appearing here and there, only to disappear again, often for decades at a time. It is thus scarcely surprising that the relationship between the Empire’s governance and the lives of its inhabitants has remained the largest gap in its history. This relationship has often been overlooked, because it was widely assumed throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century that the Empire was irrelevant to its inhabitants’ daily existence.1 The Empire’s transnational character has not helped, since much social history takes the nation state as its framework, with, for example, medieval and early modern ‘German’ population calculated according to 1930s frontiers and omitting political units like Burgundy that subsequently disappeared. Local and regional history also often focuses on later boundaries as if earlier political structures had little or no impact, while the recent fashion for micro-studies has added to the difficulties of drawing general conclusions over time and space. A full social history is beyond the scope of this book. The following will not claim that the Empire was some kind of cradle of European civilization deriving from a Frankish legacy. Difference and divergence are major themes, because the Empire never constituted a single, homogeneous society, nor did it have a unified economy. Instead, the next three chapters will argue that the Empire’s political institutions and practices were rooted in society and shared its strengths and weaknesses.

Political structures both expressed and conserved a society that became stratified hierarchically and structured horizontally along corporate lines. The Empire held and retained meaning as the framework protecting political and social diversity. Spatial and chronological variations in the political order reflected social and economic differences. One example is the higher concentration of lords in south-west Germany and old Carolingian heartlands along the Rhine. Another example is illustrated in the differences between east and west, which owe much to the timing of migration and settlement beyond the Elbe, and the relative weakness of the intermediary level of princely authority at the point of demographic and economic change in the fifteenth century. Variations in the emergence of towns also relate to regional differences in political authority, as well as the readiness of emperors and lords to grant privileges. The timing of political changes was often influenced by socio-economic factors, such as the demographic growth and economic innovation facilitating the shift from extensive to intensive lordship around 1200.

The Empire and Society

Throughout, the social role of political authority was to legitimate and regulate access to and control of resources as well as the interaction between individuals and groups. As we shall see, how this was done changed considerably during the Empire’s existence. The key difference between the Empire and European countries was that the former emerged as multicentred, not just politically, but also socially, economically and culturally. This left a lasting legacy, especially in the German lands, where these developments reached their fullest extent with imperial reform and its consequences at the local and territorial level. The result was the idea that a proper social order was composed of distinct groups and communities, each with local and specific rights. The role of authorities was to protect and nurture this society and to resolve its difficulties.

The most potent form of authority in the Empire was lordship (Herrschaft). Like ‘feudalism’ (see pp. 328–31), ‘lordship’ is a highly contentious term with almost as many definitions as there are historians.2 The debate reflects the real problems of the sources, which reveal that medieval and early modern Europeans used a variety of words for what historians call ‘lordship’, and did so in multiple ways. The term remains useful, provided it is understood as a set of powers that could be concentrated in the hands of a single lord, but equally might become distributed between several lords, or exercised by corporate institutions or groups like city councils, religious houses and even peasant communes.3 The following offers a brief chronological survey of the main socio-economic developments throughout the Empire into the eighteenth century, while the remainder of the chapter examines the tensions between the hierarchical and associational aspects of the Empire’s socio-political order.

Carolingian and Ottonian Society

We have already seen (pp. 179–99) how the Empire encompassed more Romanized areas to the south and west, as well as large regions that had escaped incorporation within the ancient Roman empire. Information on the latter regions is sparse, but it seems unlikely that what became the German kingdom was inhabited by a free warrior people holding the land in common.4 The majority of people during late antiquity lived in hamlets, with the few towns and larger villages restricted to the more Romanized areas like Italy. Isolated farms existed, but they belonged to the elite rather than crofters. The population relied on stock-rearing. Fields were tilled individually, because land was plentiful, while the small, dispersed population rendered common ownership unnecessary. The few large estates worked by dependent labour were mainly in Italy. Markets were underdeveloped compared to later eras, with most activities concentrating on subsistence rather than exchange. Social difference was expressed legally in terms of free or unfree populations, rather than primarily economically.

Europe’s population grew by a third in the fifty years before 700 to reach 24 million, providing a powerful factor promoting the rise of the Franks, who developed a system known as ‘villication’, establishing the manorial economy to harness the greater labour power. This coincided with the development of more coherent, centralized political structures, since these could draw on the surplus production to sustain larger numbers of warriors and clergy freed from the necessity to feed themselves. In turn, these structures provided the legal framework to command and coordinate dependent labour, since market forces alone were too weak to achieve this.5 Villication involved a shift to a three-field system. Instead of rotating fields annually between grass and grain, the Franks introduced a three-year cycle of winter planting, summer planting and laying fallow. This enabled the still-small population to exploit the land more intensively, because they could work on different fields throughout the year. The manor developed to coordinate the workforce. Manors could be crown possessions (villae) entrusted to stewards (villici or maiores), or could be granted as a benefice to a lay or spiritual lord, or they might be developed by lords on their own property.6

Each manor was centred on the lord’s house, including barns and assets like mills, or specialist workshops on large manors like that at Staffelsee abbey employing 24 female textile workers in the early ninth century. The lord or his steward lived in the house together with servile domestics (servi dominici, or Gesinde), who were maintained at the lord’s expense from produce from the manor and were employed to maintain it and work the ‘domains’, or land reserved for the lord. A typical Carolingian manor might also have 50 tenants or ‘live-out servants’ (servi casati) with farmsteads known as ‘hides’ (mansi, or Hufe), each with 30 ‘rods’ or ‘yokes’ (Morgen) of land.7 The exact size of hides varied with soil quality, but each one generally encompassed 24 to 26 hectares. The tenants used this land to support themselves and their families, whilst also working three days a week to assist the domestics farming the domains (see Plate 27). Common land (Allmende) formed the third part of the system, consisting of meadows, ponds and woods used by all the manor’s inhabitants. The manorial system thus rested on the medieval concept of lordship and usage: the lord retained jurisdiction over all land associated with the manor, but only worked the domains directly, allowing tenants and others varying access to the remainder.

This system spread through Carolingian conquest into Germany and, to a lesser extent, parts of Italy. Developments were interrupted by Viking, Slav and Magyar incursions, but resumed during the late tenth century and consolidated across the next, when they also spread eastwards amongst the Slavs and Magyars through interaction with Ottonian society. Even in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the bulk of production was consumed locally, with trade limited primarily to imports. Political needs remained broadly constant, as the Ottonians continued to require a socio-economic order able to supply sufficient mounted warriors for them to fight their enemies and campaign in Italy.

The manorial system eroded sharp distinctions between free and unfree, creating a more complex social structure. The peasantry emerged as a hybrid group with rights associated with hides, but still dependent on a lord. Given the small population, lords were keen to retain workers and granted hereditary tenure to their peasants, but they also imposed restrictions on the sale or partition of hides to maintain them as viable subunits of the manor. Domains remained important, for example producing four times the income derived from tenures at Cluny abbey in the mid-twelfth century.8 Live-in domestics remained slaves into the eleventh century, their numbers sustained partly by slave-raiding until the late tenth century, together with requisitioning children from tenants whose own family growth remained constrained by the number of hides available. The earlier free peasantry survived better in Saxony (especially Westphalia) into the Ottonian era, but declined elsewhere in Germany with the spread of dependency, and by 1100 perhaps only 10 per cent of the population remained legally free.9 The military obligations established by the Carolingians might take free men away from their farms for months. Accepting dependency offered a way to escape this. The church was especially keen to attract labour for its large construction projects, as well as to work its lands, and frequently extended protection in return for service and a share in produce.

A functional division gradually emerged to structure society into Estates, or corporate social groups. The clergy and nobility were exempt from manual labour, performing spiritual and military tasks instead. The commons, or third Estate, comprised the bulk of the population providing society’s material needs. Society stratified along lines of protection and service, with a clearly lordly elite sustained by peasant production. Lordship continued to develop as the legal framework to regulate this relationship through structures like manors, law courts, dioceses and parishes.

Salian and Staufer Society

The mid-eleventh century marks a significant watershed, ending the expansion and consolidation of Frankish-Ottonian socio-economic forms, and the emergence of more diversified patterns. One reason was the success of the manorial economy in raising productivity. Hunger crises persisted into the eleventh century, but not on the scale of those in the ninth century, or again during the twelfth. Bread had become the staple food, as evidenced by the rapid spread of water mills during the eleventh century after their slow development since the Carolingian era. The more intensive field use allowed for the cultivation of more diverse crops, including vegetables that improved diet. Already the invention of the deep-bladed plough had allowed the Franks to work the heavier northern European soil. New forms of harnessing draught animals, together with the invention of the horseshoe, improved ploughing in the eleventh century, while iron axes and scythes now replaced wooden implements.10

Change not only came ‘from below’, but was also stimulated by lordly pressures, such as the building of stone castles and cathedrals like that at Paderborn under Bishop Meinward. The bishop had peasants beaten for laziness, and once had one woman dragged on her bottom across her garden until it was clear of weeds.11 Most lords, including counts, found the rising costs of military service could not be met from existing means, and not only pushed their peasants to be more productive but also sought privileges like market and mint rights to help develop their lands and to gain access to cash as well as produce and labour.

Europe’s population rose from 38.5 million in 1000 to 73.5 million in 1340, experiencing the fastest growth in France, England and Germany. The population of the German kingdom tripled between 1000 and 1237, rising even faster in some areas like eastern Saxony, which saw tenfold growth.12 The German population grew from 8 million in the twelfth century to peak at 14 million around 1300, while the number of Italians rose from around 5 million in 950 to between 7 and 8 million by 1300, at which point Hungary and the Slav areas to the east had perhaps 9.5 to 13 million inhabitants. For the most part, population growth encouraged a virtuous circle, providing more labour to boost production further. Forests were cleared in the Vosges, south-west Germany, the Palatinate, Franconia, Thuringia, Bohemia and other upland areas during the eleventh century. Improved drainage and dyke construction reclaimed land along the Elbe and North Sea coasts around the early twelfth century, thanks largely to the influx of migrants to these regions.13

Despite this, population growth increased pressure on land and so fuelled urban growth, initially in Italy where the former Roman settlements had revived already in the tenth century, and it encouraged the foundation of new towns north of the Alps after 1100 (seepp. 504–8). Towns stimulated more specialized production and market networks, including expanding long-distance trade. More stable relations between the Empire and Denmark and other Baltic powers encouraged such trade and contributed to a north–south division in Germany. The north was integrated within Baltic and North Sea networks through new towns founded on the coasts and along major rivers, while the south remained linked through more established towns to Mediterranean trade. Expanding markets meanwhile yoked north Italian towns closer to their immediate hinterlands, contributing substantially to their growing political supremacy over rural lords. In turn, towns acted as catalysts for their surrounding area, which developed market gardening and viticulture to serve the urban population, many of whom were not primarily engaged in food production. Growing commercialization increased the demand for secular, vernacular literacy, as well as sharper divisions of labour and a shift from subsistence to profit.14

Producing for the market required new divisions of labour and more sophisticated land management than could be provided through the manorial economy. Migration to towns and further east across the Elbe caused temporary labour shortages. This added pressure on lords to offer their peasants better terms so as to encourage them to remain on their land. The process began first in Italy where the manorial economy was never as widespread as north of the Alps, and where greater urbanization and better roads had facilitated commercialization already in the tenth century. The trend spread north during the eleventh century, accelerating after 1100 and peaking around 1300.15 Lords moved from taking income in the form of peasants’ labour to extracting it as shares of their produce through varieties of sharecropping. Italian lords soon revised this to extracting cash rents, because their tenants had greater access to urban markets to sell their produce. This became widespread during the twelfth century, transforming hides into leaseholds. Meanwhile, most of the lordly domains were broken up to create additional tenancies. Short-term leases developed in Italy from the twelfth century, often only lasting until the next harvest. Major operators like Cistercian monasteries, which had worked their land directly with dependent labour, also converted to leaseholds by the fourteenth century. Meanwhile, many peasants sublet parts of their plots to cottagers.16

Combined, these developments propelled further social stratification. The need for slaves evaporated with the dwindling domains, consolidating peasants as a social group commanding their own labour. However, new distinctions emerged between the rural and urban population, as well as within both. Other variations emerged through different inheritance patterns, themselves anchored in agreements with lords. Partible inheritance remained the dominant form in the German south-west, Rhineland and parts of Franconia, but primogeniture spread elsewhere, protecting peasants from the impoverishment that often followed multiple partitions, but also distinguishing them from new groups of land-poor or landless inhabitants. More fortunate peasants used their relative wealth to buy further exemptions, for example by paying lords with candle wax rather than their labour. Lords frequently encouraged the commutation of labour services into cash dues and rents. Meanwhile, peasants acquired an incentive to develop their plots, because they were free to keep any surpluses once they had paid their fixed obligations to their lord.

Rents allowed more flexible forms of lordship. The lord’s presence was no longer required to coordinate manorial labour, enabling him not merely to be absent, but to draw income from scattered possessions not grouped into manors. Manors became centres of lordly jurisdiction rather than economic production. Jurisdictions themselves fragmented after 1300 with the general commercialization of fiefs, since individual elements could be sold or transferred. One important element was mastery of serfs (Leibherrschaft), which declined with the contraction of directly worked estates, but persisted in some areas as the power to command labour. Even tenants and leaseholders usually remained subject to some kind of residual obligation, such as maintaining walls and roads, or providing a few days’ portage each year. Other feudal elements also persisted, such as lordly restrictions on individual choice, for example marriage or freedom of movement.

A second important element of lordship comprised seigniorial authority deriving from the dominium directum, or underlying ownership of land used by tenants and leaseholders. This ensured that lord–peasant relations were never entirely dictated by economic factors. Seigniorial authority provided the legal framework to negotiate the terms of the lease, determining how far peasants could control and use their plots, as well as their protection from eviction. These powers were increasingly articulated from the thirteenth century as ‘landlordship’ (dominus fundi, Grundherrschaft).17 This aspect was far more significant north of the Alps than in Italy, which largely bypassed this form through a shift directly to private written contracts with leaseholders. These contracts remained asymmetrical, especially as cities acquired jurisdiction over their rural hinterlands and imposed restrictions on the rights of leaseholders to renounce their contracts. Political interests drove these changes, because magistrates recognized that their own power depended on their ability to ensure that sufficient food reached their city’s market.

Judicial authority (Gerichtsherrschaft) constituted the third major form of lordly power. Population growth and economic commercialization brought overall benefits, but often at considerable individual cost, straining customary legal arrangements.18 The longer feudal hierarchy and the shift to patrilinear families and more territorially based power all added to the need to demarcate jurisdictions more clearly. Jurisdiction stratified up and down the lordly hierarchy into higher and lesser authority, with important cases reserved for the former (see pp. 622–3). Jurisdiction also allowed lords to maintain military authority over a population that was often no longer economically dependent upon them directly, for example enabling senior lords to summon their vassal tenants to help fulfil their own obligations, including those to the emperor.

The Fourteenth-Century Crisis

The trends of the Salian and Staufer eras continued into the early fourteenth century, further underscoring the point made earlier (pp.66–7 and 377–9) that the Staufers’ demise was personal rather than structural. Nonetheless, high politics continued to make a social impact. The rivals for the German crown after 1250 granted immunities and privileges to lords and towns to win their support, while relative royal weakness provided more scope for local initiatives in revising existing legal and social arrangements. Meanwhile, economic growth slowed during the late thirteenth century as rising lordly demands on peasants combined with the still-growing population to encourage renewed subdivision of tenancies in many areas. Between half and three-quarters of peasant farms in northern Burgundy and south-west Germany were reduced to only 3–5 hectares.19

Unfortunately, adverse climatic conditions set in with colder, wetter weather around 1300, damaging harvests and causing famine in parts of Germany between 1309 and 1311, with further problems thereafter.20 All normal activities and concerns were suspended as the malnourished population fell victim to the Black Death, which killed around 60 per cent of inhabitants from 1348 to 1350. This was not a solitary cataclysm. The plague returned with virtually every subsequent generation into the fifteenth century, with some outbreaks actually even worse, such as that in Bohemia in 1379–80. This slowed the recovery, so that the total population around 1470 was still a quarter below that in 1347. The mortality crisis triggered the fourteenth-century recession, characterized by the rapid contraction in settled areas, with, for example, 1,000 square kilometres lost to the North Sea where flood defences were no longer maintained. Less fertile or accessible areas were either abandoned or given over to meadows, pasturage, or the steady spread of reforestation. Those areas with better soil were now worked even more intensively, since this offered the best returns on the available labour.

The result was accelerated market specialization and exchange, since localities were less able to provide all their needs directly. A more diversified economic landscape emerged. Mixed husbandry and arable farming predominated, because animal manure increased and prolonged soil fertility. Such areas often clustered around towns, which provided markets for meat. Meanwhile, population decline reduced the demand for grain and left more for animal feed. Viticulture expanded along the Moselle, Rhine, Main, Saale, Unstrut, Rhône and Po rivers, and in other parts of Italy. The population recovery accelerated this by providing the labour required by viticulture. Some areas developed crops for manufacturing, notably wool in Saxony and flax in Swabia. Rural industry also grew where there were good mineral deposits, notably salt mining in Austria, Bavaria and parts of the Alps, as well as silver and other ore extraction in the Tirol, Harz and parts of Saxony. Bohemian glass manufacture also acquired an international reputation in this period.21

The relative rapidity of these changes proved deeply disturbing, though their exact connection with heightened violence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries remains controversial.22 Lordship was certainly hard hit as land values crashed, for instance falling in the county of Namur by between a quarter and a half. Population decline increased labour’s scarcity and bargaining power. Tenants negotiated lower rents and dues, while those in Bavaria and Franconia secured hereditary tenure. The trend towards a landless proletariat was now reversed as former day labourers gained access to tenancies. The few lords still farming with dependent serfs now stopped this practice, while wages became more widely available to attract and retain workers. Weaker lords generally fared worst, like the knights and mediate vassals with small fiefs, who often sought alternative employment as princely retainers and administrators, thereby consolidating both the longer lordly hierarchy and the territorialization of princely power. Where possible, lords used existing elements of servitude to invent new taxes, such as emigration fees, marriage licences and death duties, though their overall burden eased with the economic recovery after 1470.23

Thanks to accumulated capital, towns and individual burghers were often well placed to profit in these conditions, buying land or investing in viticulture around their town. Urban artisans also benefited from higher wages. Towns and burghers bought or mortgaged lordly rights, accelerating the fragmentation of lordship into different kinds of jurisdiction that could be shared or held by multiple owners. Overall, this process prevented the development of a uniform society of subjects sharing a common relationship to authority in the Empire.

Growth and Diversity in Early Modernity

The initial recovery paradoxically produced the ‘late medieval agrarian depression’ around 1350 until 1470.24 Land was slowly reoccupied after 1370 and production increased, especially as harvest yields also improved. Despite periodic famine years like 1437–8, grain prices fell to a long-term low in the mid-fifteenth century. Social and geographic mobility resumed in the mid-fourteenth century, but slowed again around 1400 until the rapid and sustained demographic recovery between 1470 and 1530. By 1560 the population in most areas matched early fourteenth-century levels, and in some places continued to rise until a renewed slowdown around 1580 with the onset of the renewed colder, wetter weather of the ‘Little Ice Age’. The Thirty Years War (1618–48) reduced the Empire’s population by a fifth, primarily by magnifying the impact of renewed plague.25 The rate of recovery was slowed by renewed warfare after 1672 but restored to 1618 levels around 1710, while renewed and sustained growth set in around 1730. Middling principalities like Brunswick and Württemberg now saw annual growth rates of 6 to 7 per cent, rising to 10 per cent in Brandenburg. Bavaria was the only major territory to experience marginal population decline across the eighteenth century. The total for the Empire (including Burgundy, but excluding imperial Italy) rose from around 20 million in 1700 to over 29 million in 1800, with perhaps another 5 million in imperial Italy. Population density was far higher than in Habsburg and Hohenzollern territory outside the Empire, which together held another 12.6 million people in 1800.26

Food prices rose 250 per cent across 1500–1800, whereas real wages fell by up to a half. The discrepancy worsened in the second half of the eighteenth century when rising population caused food prices to rise up to six times faster than wages. Crop failures precipitated serious subsistence crises during 1755–62, 1770–74 and 1787–9. Systemic underemployment set in by the later eighteenth century, with a quarter of the population living precariously and 5 to 10 per cent displaced to a life on the roads.27

The extent to which development diverged along the river Elbe remains one of the most controversial aspects of European history, since it lent itself to ideological distinctions between western democracy and eastern autocracy.28 It is clear that different trends set in during the fifteenth century, producing what has been labelled a ‘second serfdom’ east of the Elbe. This entailed the re-emergence of bonded, dependent labour working large manorial estates. Its roots lay in the impact of the fourteenth-century crisis, which proved far more serious in the east, because peasants had fewer opportunities to profit from their temporarily increased labour value. There were fewer towns and market networks were less well developed compared to those in the west. As grain prices continued to fall, only large-scale production remained profitable, especially where it had access along rivers to ports able to ship bulk cargoes to feed the more urbanized markets of north-western Europe. Lesser lords in the east were also better placed relative to princes than their western counterparts, given the less dense and flatter lordly hierarchy. Princes east of the Elbe relied on knights and mediate vassals to govern the more dispersed rural population and had granted more land as mediate fiefs. Compared to that in the west, the imperial church was a smaller and more recent creation east of the Elbe and less able to provide alternative employment to lesser lords, or to act as a possible support for princes. Altogether, the eastern regions remained distant from the king, who played a less significant role in promoting local developments through charters and immunities.

Consequently, knights in the east of the Empire had greater opportunities to acquire concentrated and extensive jurisdictions. In particular, they were often able to use the institutions of the nascent territorial administrations to their advantage, for example through imposing wage limits and tighter supervision of the rural population.29 Mastery of serfs was revived to secure labour for a new form of manorial economy (Gutswirtschaft) based on a large, landed estate (Gut) operating a monoculture of grain production for export. This developed in Schleswig, Holstein, Mecklenburg, Pomerania, Brandenburg, Bohemia, and to a lesser extent in parts of Austria, as well as outside the Empire in Poland and Hungary. In fact, relatively few eastern lords truly fit the model of the Junker‘agrarian capitalist’, while perhaps only 10 per cent of grain production was exported through long-distance Baltic trade. Other forms of production and land use continued. Nonetheless, the development of the new manorial economy helped to distinguish regions east of the Elbe as one of several major socio-economic areas in the early modern Empire.

Likewise, political as well as economic factors provided particular characteristics in the western Empire. As we shall see (pp. 534–8), territorial authorities expanded their regulation of daily life in the interest of moral, religious and fiscal agendas. Farms became fiscal as well as economic units, with mid-fifteenth century Bavarian edicts already distinguishing core plots that could not be partitioned at inheritance.30 Leases generally became hereditary, while labour service continued to decline relative to cash rents and increasingly also taxes. Sharecropping persisted in Italy, though better conditions emerged in the Po valley. In contrast to France and elsewhere, German lords west of the Elbe retained very little land under their direct control, allowing peasants access to the bulk of the cultivated area. Princely domains already only accounted for 15 per cent of cultivated land in Austria and Lower Bavaria in the later Middle Ages. The proportion in Bavaria shrank to 13.2 per cent by the late eighteenth century, while nobles owned 34 per cent, clergy 56 per cent, urban corporations 0.4 per cent and freeholding peasants only 4 per cent. However, these rates refer to underlying dominium directum, not rights of usage that allowed Bavarian peasants access to over 90 per cent of land through leases. Even east of the Elbe the situation was not wholly unfavourable. The Prussian king held only 4.5 per cent of the agricultural land, with nobles owning and directly managing 11 per cent, and cities and foundations a further 4.5 per cent. Peasants had access to the remaining 80 per cent as plots tied to manors or through leases. Control remained political, rather than immediately economic. The Bavarian elector was direct lord of only 10.6 per cent of peasants, but held lesser as well as superior legal jurisdiction over a further 55.9 per cent, while the clergy and nobility were lords of the rest.31


Fellowship and Lordship

The social changes around 1100 contributed to the slow emergence of horizontal associational fellowship (Genossenschaft) alongside vertical lordship. These two forms of social organization need to be treated carefully as it is easy to assign them clear ideological distinctions. Much of German history has been seen as a struggle between the two before (depending on the viewpoint) either their synthesis in modern society or the triumph of authoritarianism.32 The Empire often takes the blame for the outcome, as apparently weak central power supposedly allowed the population to be oppressed by a multitude of petty princes (Duodezfürsten), who were already satirized in the eighteenth century: Friedrich Schiller’s play Kabale und Liebe depicts a prince selling his subjects as mercenaries to fund a luxurious lifestyle. The standard contrast with powerful monarchs like Louis XIV or Prussia’s Frederick II ‘the Great’ makes these princes appear even more ridiculous. The polemical potential was not lost on nineteenth-century German liberals, who regarded the principalities surviving beyond 1806 as the primary obstacles to national unification.

We need to remove the moral signs, and not simplify the situation as a clash between progressive, proto-democratic fellowship and reactionary lordship. Associational and communal forms were not exclusive to peasants and burghers, but were important to clergy and nobles, as we shall see (pp. 553–62), while communes could also be lords (pp. 516–18 and 579–91). Lordship and fellowship did not merely co-exist but were closely interdependent. Above all, the ideology of the common good, like government techniques, was not simply pioneered by citizens only to be stolen later by princes. Instead, hierarchical and horizontal forms worked in ‘creative tension’,33 producing new ideas and practices.

Communities contained associational and hierarchical elements, and not all inhabitants regarded lords as outsiders. Most recognized that communities require leaders. These were not temporary ‘faces in the crowd’, striding forward at the right moment, but were generally established figures with the social and political capital necessary for leadership.34 Arguments rarely divided people purely according to wealth, and instead provided an extensive political vocabulary employed across the social spectrum. What united rulers and ruled was their engagement in the same debate over the ideal community.

Core values like peace, justice and harmony were related to morality and Christianity, and were thus considered timeless and ‘authentic’.35 Although all three were contested in practice, a fourth, Notdurft, proved the most controversial. Its ambiguities are revealed by its two possible translations of ‘sustenance’ and ‘necessity’. The former implied entitlement to the material means of existence, potentially including social levelling to ensure at least minimum shares for all. This could operate as a kind of ‘moral economy’ criticizing exploitation, hoarding and price rigging, thereby providing a basis to reject ‘excessive’ lordly demands. However, it also suggested a moral obligation to ensure sustenance, adding force to the idea of necessity overriding established arrangements in the name of the greater good.

The distinction between ‘common good’ (salus publica, or Gemeinnutz) and ‘self-interest’ (Eigennutz) was already well established during the early Middle Ages, and it sharpened with the wider appreciation of the contribution of the third Estate to general well-being. The term ‘common man’ emerged by 1280 as a largely positive appellation, while ordinary folk were celebrated in illuminated manuscript books and cathedral carvings and windows, all depicting the Christian ideal of serving the community. The basic antithesis between common and private good persisted into the late eighteenth century and in many ways beyond, despite subtle changes in how it was expressed. The development of Natural Law from the seventeenth century argued that authority rested on a social contract in which the population surrendered some of their ‘natural’ freedoms in return for the benefits of living in an orderly society.36

Questions of Authority

The crucial question remained who was entitled to define the common good and thus to set the normative measures intended to foster and preserve it? Additionally, what limits could be imposed on that authority and what recourse did the subordinate population have against its abuse? Medieval writers remained fixed on the person of the king, rather than princes or lesser lords, but the articulation of good kingship was easily transferable to other authorities, especially as these acquired clearer public functions during the period of imperial reform. Numerous texts identified the prince as responsible for the bonum commune. These retained the earlier moral emphasis, but now devoted more space to judging policies rather than personal characteristics. They contributed to the growing articulation around 1500 of the imperial Estates as authorities (Obrigkeiten) governing subjects (Untertanen).37 Attempts during the Reformation to re-theologize the language of the common good failed, especially as the political outcome expanded the powers of imperial Estates to supervise church and religious life.

The Peace of Westphalia and subsequent political discussion defined the imperial Estates more clearly as possessing ‘territorial sovereignty’ (Landeshoheit), which became the collective term for the bundle of accumulated rights sanctioned by imperial law.38Clearer ideas of authority gained ground with the fiscal and military needs of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which encouraged further intervention in daily life to promote thrift, obedience and productivity. It was accompanied by a change in style, most noticeable among the princes, but also apparent in the imperial cities, where the magistrates became more patrician and aristocratic. Already around the mid-sixteenth century, princes remodelled their castles or built new residences to present carefully crafted images of power. Whereas the castles of medieval lords might suggest they feared attack from their subjects, the unfortified baroque palace exuded confident authority. Language changed too, as the word ‘common’ became more ambiguous. ‘Common man’ lost its positive associations in the wake of the violence of the Peasants War (1524–6) and became the antithesis of ‘noble’ (Edel), while ‘common woman’ denoted a prostitute.39 The language of consensus persisted into the sixteenth century, with rulers being ‘gracious’ (gnädig) in negotiating with their ‘loyal subjects’ (getreue Untertanen). However, these terms were increasingly displaced in the ruler’s discourse by words emphasizing his power to command: Befehl, Gehorsam, Respekt, Hoheit,Autorität. Princes simultaneously stressed their personal ‘honour’ and ‘reputation’, which were now measured by the prince’s place in the imperial hierarchy and his international standing.40

The experience of the Thirty Years War allowed princes to employ the argument of necessity to justify emergency measures. The official commemoration of the war through annual religious services and processions gave thanks for deliverance from horror, but simultaneously blamed the calamity on the sins of the pre-war population, who had allegedly incurred God’s wrath. Religious services and government mandates repeatedly admonished subjects to be pious, dutiful, thrifty and obedient, all as means to ensure the horrors of war would not return.41 The cumulative result was a more absolutist style and conception of rule, elevating the prince above his subjects. Only he, it was claimed, could see beyond individual selfish interests to govern in the common good. Thanks to its roots in the public functions defining the status of imperial Estate, absolutism developed at this level, including for Austria and Prussia, rather than for the Empire overall in the person of the emperor. ‘Imperial absolutism’ remained only a spectre conjured through the rhetoric of ‘German liberties’ to oppose tighter Habsburg management of the Empire.42 Absolutism was distinguished from arbitrary rule by the restriction of absolute authority to within certain limits. All discussions of princely power acknowledged imperial law and the Empire as part of these limits (see pp. 538–46).

The spread of Enlightened ideas provided new arguments to support official direction of public life, especially through the utilitarian critique of received traditions, adding weight to the language of necessity to disregard existing arrangements if deemed obsolete. Historians dispute how far such ideas actually changed princely rule.43 Style certainly changed, as rulers consciously distanced themselves from the Renaissance and baroque celebration of the prince as a semi-divine, heroic ruler, in favour of appearing more modestly as the state’s ‘first servant’, signally by the fashion for wearing simple military uniform rather than the pearl-buttoned silk coats and giant wigs of the recent past. In some respects rule became even more personal than before. Despite presenting himself as Prussia’s first servant, Frederick the Great tried to master all business himself, conducting government from his ‘cabinet’ or writing desk, rather than like other princes through formal meetings with councillors. Overall, however, government became more impersonal. Emperor Joseph II, himself a near parody of the pre-Revolutionary cult of the ‘first servant’, established in his law code of 1787 that crimes were now understood to be ‘against the state’, allowing the authorities to prosecute even if no plaintiff came forward.

Individual Interest

This opened possibilities for a new relationship between rulers and ruled, whereby an impersonal state related equally to individual inhabitants regardless of rank. Changes in theology, science and art had articulated new ideas of the individual since the later thirteenth century. Moral hostility to ‘singularity’ persisted and was reinforced by the Reformation, which emphasized confessional conformity, including lifestyle as well as belief. Nonetheless, well before anglophone writers like Bernard Mandeville or Adam Smith, Germans expressed positive interpretations of self-interest. Leonhart Fronsperger, a military clerk and noted writer, argued in 1564 that divergent individual needs actually created harmony by encouraging mutual interdependence.44 The development of imperial taxation meanwhile encouraged the relaxation of earlier restrictions on private wealth creation, since this could help meet obligations to the Empire.

However, German discussions took a different path from those among English-speaking philosophers like John Locke who developed the idea of rights relating directly to individuals, rather than deriving indirectly through association with a household, community or other corporate group. Adam Smith subsequently extended this into liberal economic theory by arguing that individual wealth creation would add to overall prosperity, rather than simply representing the theft of someone else’s share of supposedly finite wealth. The market, not the state, should regulate society. The state was reduced to being a ‘night watchman’ guaranteeing only minimal order and security. The position remained reversed in most discussions in the Empire, where territorial authority was itself a product of corporate rights and could not be so easily disentangled from the social order. The state, not the individual, retained the initiative. In practice, new ideas of individualism simply added to existing arguments for state intervention to micro-manage lives and make people happy, if necessary by force. Attempts by writers like Heinrich Justi to reduce the state’s role, merely envisaged the ideal of a well-oiled machine entangling rather than liberating individuals.45 The basic contradictions in these arguments carried over into nineteenth-century German liberalism: the state was to remove barriers to individual happiness by dismantling protectionism and facilitating a free market, yet to do so required ever greater powers to overcome the considerable popular opposition to such measures.



The continued identification of the individual with collective happiness owed much to the strength of communal social organization. This developed in Scandinavia, France and elsewhere, so the differences between these countries and the Empire are a matter of degrees rather than absolutes, but their specific expression in a corporate socio-political order was nonetheless significant.46 Communal political forms emerged relatively early in the Empire as a defining element alongside lordship. They were weakest during the early Middle Ages, but grew stronger around the eleventh century, expanding rapidly during the fourteenth century to peak around 1500. If their subsequent development was checked by the expansion of princely governments, both urban and rural communes remained generally stronger than in other countries, and persisted well beyond 1806.

The vast majority of the Empire’s inhabitants lived in scattered hamlets into the tenth century. The 200–300 people living on a typical Carolingian manor were described as a single familia, but their structure was not communal since important decisions were reserved for the lord or his steward, while a significant proportion lived segregated as slaves. The few, more genuine communities that existed were all religious houses like monasteries and convents, though again these usually also contained subordinate dependents. Several different kinds of settlement might be combined in one place, notably royal palaces that also functioned as farms and often had attached religious houses.47

True villages only emerged with the economic changes of the mid-eleventh century, coupled with the contraction of domains and the disappearance of the entirely servile population. They were given focus through the spread of church-building and incorporation of more rural areas into parishes. Parishes were not corporations, because they depended on the church hierarchy, but their development helped forge communal identity, especially as Gregorian reform stressed their role in selecting clergy. Even if clerical appointments remained largely in the control of lords and (later) patricians, other subsequent theological developments periodically reinforced parish identity, notably the spread of more formalized communal worship after 1215. Various forms of village developed, but nucleated settlements were fairly typical and consisted of houses grouped around a church, surrounded by gardens and often an outer perimeter demarcated by an earth wall or wooden palisade to protect against strangers and wild animals. Beyond this lay land organized in the three-field system, plus common assets like meadows and woods.48


Towns contracted in the Romanized areas during late antiquity as the dwindling population could no longer defend settlements that remained tempting targets for raiders. Many bishops abandoned their diocesan towns to escape the Vikings during the ninth century, further hastening urban decline. In Italy, this process accelerated the incastellamento, or construction of castles in more defensible sites, proliferating the fortified places that made it so difficult for later emperors to establish firm control there.49Nonetheless, all 107 Italian episcopal towns in the twelfth century could claim continuous occupation since ancient Rome, while the presence of a bishop also ensured continuity in Germany’s oldest urban settlements: Mainz, Trier, Cologne, Worms, Speyer and Strasbourg. Kings and lords often appear in annals as ‘founders’ of medieval towns, though of course the real work was done by the inhabitants. Nonetheless, political factors need to be added to purely materialist and functionalist explanations for urban development: for example, Pavia, Ravenna and Rome all owed their importance in part to continuous favour by the Lombards, Byzantines and Carolingians respectively.

Thanks to their continuous existence, Italian towns already enjoyed considerable advantages over their equivalents north of the Alps, especially once their populations began to grow during the tenth century after four centuries of stagnation. These towns were both larger and had a higher proportion of legally free inhabitants, who were able to use their relative wealth to acquire rights and property in the surrounding countryside. Politics also favoured this process, because Carolingian rule had established fewer powerful lords, compared to Germany. This established a lasting distinction between the town and its surrounding area, now identified as the ‘count’s land’ (contado). The extension of urban control over the hinterland was checked during the reign of Hugo of Arles, who won the support of the Italian episcopate by selling them many of the counts’ rights over both town and countryside around 940. Although bishops generally held both jurisdictions for the next century, the upper strata of the urban population were emerging as their lesser vassals. Gregorian reform accelerated this trend by reinforcing this group’s claims to participate in selecting bishops and generally to exercise greater influence over their own affairs.

Carolingian expansion saw the foundation of new towns north of the Alps around important monasteries to serve as bases for the expanding ecclesiastical structure. The new settlements formed around a cathedral, sometimes with other religious buildings sited to structure the town in the shape of a cross. Defensive palisades and ditches demarcated town from country by the tenth century. Ottonian patronage provided an additional spur with the grant of toll and market rights to many bishops, enabling episcopal towns to develop as regional economic centres. This trend peaked in the mid-eleventh century as the Salians granted exemptions from servitude to attract additional inhabitants. The Salians and especially their Staufer successors also increasingly favoured towns on their royal progresses rather than rural palaces or monasteries. Towns expanded to incorporate a market square with merchants’ and artisans’ houses within an expanded fortified ring. Speyer, for instance, already grew tenfold during the Ottonian era, while in total 130 new market towns developed along the Rhine and Danube across this period.50

Although generally newer than Italian towns, those north of the Alps were often more advanced economically at this point. Middle and Lower Rhenish towns engaged in long-distance trade, while those in Flanders and Brabant were already centres of cloth manufacturing from 1020. Most Italian towns remained only regional centres into the twelfth century, apart from Genoa and Venice, which grew rapidly through the trade opportunities opened by the Crusades after 1096. Meanwhile, a new type of urban foundation spread east from Lorraine in the twelfth century as secular lords now also established towns endowed with immunities directly from their foundation in a deliberate attempt to attract wealth and labour by offering an attractive new settlement. The Zähringer founded Freiburg (literally ‘free town’) in the Breisgau in 1120, while other early examples include Lübeck (1143), Munich (1158) and Leipzig (1161). Whereas there were only 200 German towns in 1025, there were over 600 by 1150, and 1,500 by 1250; of these, 150 were in royal lands, 38 controlled by bishops and the rest under lordly jurisdiction. By contrast, very few new towns were founded in Italy, with the most famous being Alessandria, established collectively by the Lombard League in 1168 and named after their ally Pope Alexander III. This is not surprising, since Italy already had around 300 large towns, whose population was expanding four times faster than anywhere else in Europe. By 1300, there were 20 cities in north and central Italy with at least 20,000 inhabitants, while Florence had 100,000 and Milan 175,000.51

By contrast, rural settlements expanded in numbers, but rarely significantly in size across 1000–1300. Colonization and migration transformed the east European countryside from scattered hamlets to villages during the twelfth century, when many Slavic villages were also reorganized through new legal codes. Migration drew off population from the west, where settlement size and numbers stabilized both overall and in the relation between the number of people and the area of land that could be worked without having to travel too far each day. Less favourably sited settlements were now abandoned, though lords continued to offer inducements to attract migrants to more difficult areas like the Black Forest. The number of new towns peaked along with eastern colonization in the period 1220–1320, with the foundation of Berlin, Frankfurt an der Oder, Breslau, Gdansk and Königsberg. Many of the towns established at this point were not entirely new, like Stuttgart, which expanded from a village under the patronage of the Württemberg counts. New foundations continued across 1320–1450, but on a much reduced scale.

Early towns often encountered significant difficulties through being endowed with insufficient land or access to water. Later efforts granted more land to enable the first settlers to grow their own food. Twelfth-century foundations also addressed social questions through charters regulating relations to lords. Many of the new towns beyond the Elbe deliberately copied charters from so-called ‘mother towns’ to the west. Although new itself, Lübeck served as the exemplar for 100 other towns after the thirteenth century, while Magdeburg law was used from east central Europe to Russia, and Nuremberg and Vienna were copied across Bohemia, Moravia and the Balkans. Elsewhere, cities like Frankfurt served as models for smaller towns in their region.

Growth ended abruptly with the Black Death. The total number of German settlements fell by 40,000 to 130,000 across 1340–1470, with contraction reaching 40 per cent in upland areas like Hessen, Thuringia and the Austrian Alps, compared to 10 per cent in more favourable lowland regions, especially between the Lower Rhine and Weser and on the middle Elbe. Around 4,500 settlements were also abandoned in Bohemia and Moravia. Yet losses in Italy were only 10 to 25 per cent.52 Towns suffered badly during the plague itself, but fared better overall in retaining their size. By 1450, the Empire had around 2,500 towns, including 88 Swiss and 150 Austrian ones, but excluding those in Italy. Whereas there was one town per 400 square kilometres in south-west Germany, the ratio in the north-east was one per 1,000 square kilometres. Most had fewer than 2,000 inhabitants, while only 5 per cent had over 5,000 and just 30 towns had more than 10,000. Cologne was the largest with 40,000 inhabitants. Pre-modern urban settlement was now essentially complete, with only 200 more towns added by 1800, largely as princely residences, garrisons or refugee settlements like Mannheim, Potsdam and Erlangen. The urban proportion of the population also remained broadly constant, rising only from 20 to 25 per cent across 1300–1800, with the highest density in Holland and Brabant, where the proportion was already 40 to 50 per cent in 1514. Further development remained constrained by agricultural productivity: a medium-sized village produced only sufficient surplus to feed 25 town dwellers in the late sixteenth century, meaning that at least 10,000 villages were required to sustain the German urban population.53 Despite differences between Germany, Italy and the Low Countries, urban development in the Empire broadly conformed to a western and central European pattern influenced by how politics and agriculture were organized. Growth during the high Middle Ages had created a multitude of individually modest towns, compared to the pattern in south-east Europe and the Islamic world, which was dominated by far fewer but individually larger cities: fourteenth-century Cairo already had 600,000 inhabitants, a figure not reached in Germany or Italy until well into the nineteenth century.

The Emergence of the Household

More obviously communal self-government only emerged from the eleventh century, beginning in Italian towns and becoming general by 1200. This complex process frequently pitted lords and commons against each other, and many of the concessions were only won through violent protest. However, civic emancipation was never a singular, glorious act, but instead developed incrementally, often over several centuries, with some rights acquiring new meaning with changed circumstances. Most privileges were intended to promote a town’s development, not free its inhabitants, while lords often retained residual rights.54 The new freedoms were never equal or universal Liberty, but instead local and particular liberties that bound the community and its inhabitants within the wider web of rights constituting the Empire’s legal order. Communal government in rural areas involved the transfer of decision-making power from a lord or steward to villagers, especially through the demarcation of access rights to specific resources. The village assumed an identity as a collective actor, but not all its inhabitants could participate in decisions.

Communal government rested on households, which became the fundamental socio-political unit in the Empire and the primary site for production, consumption and (for non-clerical houses) reproduction. Households originated in the Frankish development of the hide as a family package of rights and resources. Villages developed around these households by 1200, manifest by the spread of more solid house-building techniques employing a sturdy timber-frame or even stone construction. The house assumed a semi-sacred character with special rituals surrounding its construction and especially in setting the roof.55 Door keys symbolized the power to control entry. Biblical examples encouraged a potent household ideology resting on the ideal of a married couple. This ideal underwent subtle shifts, especially in how gender roles were defined, as well as the rediscovery during the Renaissance of ancient ideas of good farm management (oeconomia), and later this received heightened religious-moral emphasis with the Reformation.56

Throughout, the household was celebrated as a place of safety and warmth, symbolized by its hearth, now solidified with stone or brick chimneys. The household was supposed to provide materially for all its members, hence the internal moral economy. However, it was also hierarchical under the patriarchal pater familias or Hausvater, responsible for economic coordination and maintenance of the ‘peace of the house’ (Hausfrieden). It is scarcely surprising that the household became a potent political metaphor and a key element in the debates over the common good from the high Middle Ages. Household members were expected to behave responsibly, so as not to damage their collective reputation and, with that, access to valuable resources. External peer pressure encouraged this, through criticism of drunken and other ‘bad’ householders as undermining overall communal well-being. Marriage remained restricted until at least one of the prospective partners could inherit or otherwise obtain the property necessary for a viable autonomous existence. The development of taxation increased the emphasis on maintaining individual household viability, since the most usual way to collect direct levies was to apportion quotas to towns and villages, which were expected to find the money themselves by requiring all householders to contribute. Moreover, as we have seen (pp. 245–8, 367–9 and 427–31), households featured at all levels of society from humble peasants to the Casa d’Austria. Although households were also sites for ‘private’ emotions, it was their public aspect that was idealized until the emergence in the 1770s in some places of the ‘bourgeois family’ as a private domestic sphere.57

Rural Self-Government

The development of communal government involved enfranchising male householders according to their property value in towns, or whether they leased or owned larger farms in villages. This established a link between taxation and representation, but at the communal level rather than higher up in any representative assembly. Those who were not economically independent were generally excluded from enfranchisement in the communal institutions: cottagers, landless labourers, unmarried younger men and generally the entire female population, though widows were allowed to represent households in some areas.

Rural self-government initially emerged around 1130 on the Empire’s periphery in areas where there were both fewer lords and fewer people generally: along the Lower Austrian frontier and in the North Sea marshes and those of the Weser and Elbe.58 These were all areas of recent settlement where pioneers were rewarded with corporate rights. Subsequent waves of migrants carried these arrangements across the Elbe, as well as into upland areas. The problems of starting a new life in often difficult circumstances undoubtedly contributed to a more collaborative approach, at least initially. Meanwhile, existing Alpine communities along transit routes bargained better terms by cooperating to keep passes free from obstacles by clearing rocks and maintaining bridges.

Many lords were happy to promote self-government, because this freed them from having to manage local affairs, which were now handled by village mayors assisted by selected householders. Criminal jurisdiction usually remained in the lord’s hands, while the inhabitants generally still leased his land. Territorialization extended other forms of jurisdiction during the fourteenth century, including powers to levy taxes and later also militiamen and conscripts. Thus, the process through which communes acquired rights was part of the wider development of the Empire and territories, and not in opposition to this. The commune ‘was at one and the same time a corporate association of agrarian producers and an instrument of feudal lordship to ensure the functioning of feudal exploitation and maintenance of feudal order’.59

These developments continued in the west into early modernity, and though interrupted by ‘second serfdom’ east of the Elbe, villages remained important in that region too. Hereditary mayors developed in Brandenburg villages by the fourteenth century under the margrave’s jurisdiction. The margrave transferred his supervisory rights to his nobles around 1500 in return for tax grants collected by the communes at their inhabitants’ expense. As the old mayoral families died out, lords replaced them with their own appointees. Saxony and other areas east of the Elbe saw similar developments. However, even mayors appointed by lords were still members of their village community. Lords relied on them and the family patriarchs to organize serf labour from the village’s younger sons. Inhabitants retained rights of appeal to princely courts and successfully challenged excessive lordly demands, because princes wanted to protect households as their primary tax unit. Princely intervention rarely lightened the overall burden, but did generally shift it from lordly exactions to territorial taxes.

Brandenburg-Prussia went further by 1733 and established the state’s right to conscript peasants as soldiers, only releasing them back as agricultural labourers on its own terms. The Hohenzollerns converted their own domains into hereditary leases in 1702, allowing their new tenants to elect village officials. Many Junkers subsequently commuted labour service into paid employment, recognizing this as more productive. Some Brandenburg communities benefited from rising grain prices, accumulating sufficient wealth to buy their own knight’s fiefs by the late eighteenth century. The Prussian General Law Code of 1794 confirmed communal autonomy, integrating villages as the lowest echelon of state administration.60

The situation was different in Bohemia, where the areas under Czech law gave fewer rights to communal institutions like village headmen and courts. Although the actual implementation of Czech law converged with German practice during early modernity, this was not always for the better. In practice, Bohemian lords were able to remove troublesome headmen, despite their hereditary tenure of office, in those parts of Bohemia under German law, such as Friedland (Frydland). Headmen remained heavily dependent on lords for their economic livelihoods, since their incomes derived from lordly privileges like brewing rights, rather than wages. Nonetheless, communal institutions were just too useful for lords to ignore. As elsewhere, most lords were absentees and relied on the headmen chairing village courts to keep order and ensure the smooth running of the manorial economy. This necessitated a flexible response to peasant complaints, effectively granting headmen wide discretionary powers. The primary difference with the rest of the Empire is instructive as it demonstrates how local legal arrangements elsewhere were connected to the wider constitutional framework. Bohemia approximated more closely to the western unitary kingdoms with a flatter hierarchy of jurisdictions. Its villages remained largely outside state administration, which depended heavily on the noble-dominated provincial Estates to raise taxes and recruits. Unlike most of Germany, Bohemian villagers did not have access to a separate hierarchy of princely and imperial law courts to obtain independent redress prior to Joseph II’s emancipation patent in 1781.61

Civic Emancipation

The trend towards civic self-government resumed in Italy around 1000 after its interruption by the royal sponsorship of bishops during the previous century. As with its rural equivalent, towns often acquired greater autonomy through cooperation rather than conflict with lords, including the emperor. None of the Empire’s medieval royal families pursued a coherent policy of favouring towns to win burghers as alternative political partners to balance the lords. The royal families did not think in class terms but instead responded to local circumstances, their main concern being to match general expectations for royal justice and morality. Their thinking also remained hierarchical, with senior lords already known to them personally as their ‘natural’ partners. The emergence of the civic communal movement thus represents the failure not just of the monarch, but of all lords to widen the Empire’s consensual politics to accommodate new socio-economic forces. Imperial favour remained purely tactical. For example, Henry IV generally supported the Italian episcopate, not least because his Gregorian opponents usually backed those in episcopal towns who were already trying to unseat local bishops. However, Henry sided with the communal movement in Tuscan towns, because these generally opposed Matilda of Canossa.62 Meanwhile, most burghers had no desire to assert their voice in managing the realm, but instead simply wanted more control over their own lives.

The crucial step in civic emancipation was the acquisition of the count’s rights over a town when these had passed into the hands of the local bishop. Some bishops were happy to be free from the responsibility of protecting their town and becoming dragged into the innumerable problems arising from rapid urbanization. Towns thus ‘communalized’ these jurisdictions by assuming responsibility for protecting themselves and handling internal justice and other public functions. This explains why civic autonomy began earlier in Italian than in German towns, which were generally smaller and so more dependent on lordly protection. It also explains why relations quickly soured in many Italian towns as citizens discovered that the bishop’s or count’s continued presence conflicted with their internal self-regulation. Cremona’s inhabitants ejected their bishop in 1036 and extended the city walls to enclose the episcopal compound. Likewise, towns resented the presence of royal palaces and garrisons as extra-territorial enclaves disrupting their jurisdiction. As we have seen (pp. 45–6), the Pavians famously tore down the royal palace for this reason in 1024. Over the next two centuries, citizens used their growing collective wealth to buy out royal rights to exercise justice or demand accommodation in their city.

Gregorian reform stimulated civic emancipation through its sustained critique of allegedly corrupt and immoral senior clergy and the secular lords accused of protecting them. Burghers increasingly asserted themselves as morally superior to both lords and clergy, notably in Milan, where the urban Patarenes movement temporarily expelled the archbishop between 1042 and 1044. The Patarenes had specific local roots, but also exemplified a general belief amongst townsfolk that self-government was essential to ensuring a peaceful, godly community.63 The ideal of the sworn godly community was often central to many towns’ myth of origins – that they had been founded as a single collective act of the population gathering together to pledge a ‘solemn association’ (coniuratis) (seePlate 28). For example, Bremen’s city hall is supposedly the size of its original inhabitants standing in a solid rectangle.

This process was well under way before the Investiture Dispute gave it a significant impetus by the fragmentation of local power through the presence of schismatic bishops, as well as the higher-level contest between emperor and pope. The competing authorities often granted concessions in return for financial and military backing from cities. Henry IV and his son renounced claims for accommodation (albergaria) to persuade Mantua and Verona to abandon Matilda of Canossa. The success of north Italian towns in freeing themselves from such obligations is demonstrated by the fact that none of their imperial palaces survived the high Middle Ages.64

A similar pattern set in north of the Alps, though a few decades later. Worms was the first German town to expel its bishop, when it sheltered Henry IV from his Saxon opponents in 1073. Henry rewarded it by exempting it from royal tolls in January 1074 in a move that was significant since he gave this privilege to the inhabitants collectively rather than just to favoured individuals or merchants.65 As with all royal privileges in this era, it is important not to misconstrue this as simply the dissipation of central authority. Through his action, Henry demonstrated to his opponents that only he had the power to make such changes. Nonetheless, the corrosive impact of the Investiture wars accelerated the grant of further privileges, increasingly also by other senior lords. Mainz’s archbishop rewarded his burghers for rescuing him from Henry V in 1115 by granting them management of their own city. Other important episcopal towns emancipated themselves around the same time, including Cologne, Trier, Speyer, Cambrai and Valenciennes.66

Changing legal practice gave civic autonomy a firmer shape. The twelfth century saw a change from economic privileges associated with market rights (Marktrecht) to more general civic rights (ius civitas, or Stadtrecht), making the town and its inhabitants a legal corporation. For example, Strasbourg’s bishop granted his city a 112-article civic law around 1131.67 An important element was the power to raise the taxes and labour needed to sustain self-rule and carry out tasks ranging from street cleaning to building new city walls. Towns could now make up their own rules without reference to a lord, even if he might retain some elements of jurisdiction or, as was often the case in German episcopal cities, still possessed his own enclave around the cathedral, such as in Strasbourg and Bremen. Towns could also own property and assets, like a city hall, brewery, mills, smithy, poorhouse, plus land and woods beyond their walls. Increasingly, a town was called a Stadt, rather than a Burg (burgh, borough), the latter deriving from the word for their lord’s castle, though its inhabitants were still called ‘burghers’ (burgenses, or Bürger). The term ‘commune’ (Gemeinde) had emerged already during the twelfth century as an abstract of its individual members, enabling them to interact in a world of lords as if they were a collective person.

The initial transition to self-government after 1080 saw the establishment of consular regimes in which individuals were enfeoffed with lordly rights on behalf of the commune, for example in Asti and Milan. Consuls were drawn from the urban elite and were often already vassals of the local bishop or count, making the transfer of power easier since they were men whom the lord trusted. Consular government had spread to many Italian cities by 1130 and was adopted north of the Alps around 1200, for example in Cologne, Lübeck and Utrecht.68

Consuls were soon counterbalanced by broader-based councils to stop what Napoleon, as consul of the French Republic, would do much later when he made himself dictator. A two-tier system emerged as the basic form of councils both sides of the Alps. Government was headed by a senior council (Rat) of 12 members or multiples thereof, led by one or often two mayors simultaneously as a further check on personal rule. Members served fixed periods, usually with a prohibition on an immediate second term, and assumed the functions previously performed by the consul or the lord’s steward. The second tier was intended to control the first and consisted of a much larger citizens’ assembly.

Italian and German Cities Compared

The process of emancipation accelerated under the Staufers, coinciding with feudalization and thus forming part of a more general development of autonomous management of more clearly defined local jurisdictions. However, the specific form of emancipation took different directions in Germany and Italy thanks to the interaction of these countries with imperial politics, as well as their social and economic conditions. Whereas Italian towns pre-dated the Empire, most of those north of the Alps were not founded until after 1120 and were consequently much more closely tied to lordly jurisdictions precisely at the time when these were being redefined along feudal lines. This highlighted some specific instances of the process of German civic emancipation. Some towns owed their freedoms to the privileges granted to attract their first inhabitants as settlers, such as Freiburg in the Breisgau. In other cases, lords lost control, because their jurisdiction was over the land where the town was built, not the houses within it. Although the inhabitants initially paid ground rent, the value of their buildings soon outstripped that of the land. It became impossible for the lord to recover the ground, because he could not compensate the inhabitants for their ‘improvements’ to it. This helped establish the rule that residence in a town for a year and a day made a person free, greatly encouraging further immigration.69

The larger Italian and German towns shared a common experience as episcopal seats, and hence their connection to the imperial church and its accommodation of emperors touring the Empire. In Italy this accelerated the transfer of regalia to major cities as the Staufers hoped to secure these against often pro-papal bishops from the 1150s. Frederick Barbarossa received 2,000 silver marks annually from the Lombard League cities in the late twelfth century.70 Commutation of royal regalia into taxation or sale transformed a relationship based on protection and subordination into a more commercial arrangement. Renewed imperial weakness with the civil war between 1198 and 1214 provided more opportunities to wring concessions, while the dense urban landscape made it hard for either of the contending kings to find a firm footing in northern Italy. One consequence was that most cities escaped from the obligation to continue paying regular taxes.

Another was that the emperor’s efforts to win allies accelerated the differentiation amongst Italian cities as the larger ones increasingly dominated their smaller neighbours. Whereas in Germany towns generally fought against the influence of princes, large Italian centres like Milan, Cremona, Florence and Siena competed to assert influence not only over their own hinterlands, but over smaller towns further afield. This helps explain the volatility of north Italian politics, as cities changed sides, while leagues formed and fragmented depending on the prevailing military balance and the arrival and departure of imperial armies. Larger cities also benefited from the collapse of land prices following the Black Death when their citizens were able to buy more land and rights in thecontado(the region surrounding a city). Thus, political centralization and the extension of a city’s political control over its hinterland served many of its inhabitants’ economic interests by protecting their investments and increasing the favourable trade relations with surrounding small towns and villages. By the late fourteenth century, Siena’s citizens owned over 70 per cent of the land around their city. Venice and Genoa were exceptional in enjoying secure, protected locations with good access to the sea, allowing them to refrain initially from competition for land, and instead engage in long-distance trade with their eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea partners.71

Many German episcopal towns also acquired self-government in the twelfth century, but their bishops still controlled their hinterlands, unlike in Italy, where these had already passed under civic jurisdiction. Well served by ministeriales, German bishops had no need to enfeoff richer townsmen as mediate vassals. Moreover, the German episcopate retained closer ties to the emperor. The Staufers and their immediate successors had no need to turn to burgher lawyers like the French kings, because the imperial church continued to supply literate clergy for royal service. The proportion of non-nobles as recipients of royal charters rose only from 2 per cent in the twelfth century to 10 per cent by about 1250. Having temporarily favoured some cities in the early thirteenth century, the Staufers swung more consistently behind lay and spiritual princes with their general charters in 1220 and 1231.72 Thereafter, the bishops of Würzburg, Bamberg, Passau and Halberstadt reasserted more direct authority over their towns, stunting their economies in the process.

This explains the growing division between territorial towns and those that the Staufers had developed on their own lands, which ultimately became imperial cities (civitae imperialis, or Reichsstädte). Episcopal towns only acquired the lesser status of ‘free’, obliging their bishop, sometimes after considerable violence, to move to a palace outside their walls.73 This promoted the development of some smaller towns as episcopal residences, for example Bruchsal (for Speyer), Brühl (for Cologne), Eutin (for Lübeck) and Meersburg (for Konstanz). Bishops retained legally protected compounds in their episcopal towns, these themselves often leading to tension, and explaining why these towns played a prominent role in the German civic leagues of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (see pp. 570–79). Cologne managed to secure full immediacy as an imperial city in 1288, though its shut-out archbishop continued to contest this for some time. The situation remained fluid into the later fifteenth century, because monarchs frequently pawned imperial cities, some of which slid under princely jurisdiction, such as Dortmund and Regensburg, until their status was stabilized through imperial reform and representation in the Reichstag.

Nonetheless, imperial patronage enabled many German towns to achieve their primary goal of safe access to the outside world for trade and food. They had less incentive to conquer or acquire territory, unlike in Italy, where around 25 cities each controlled at least 1,000 square kilometres, with Florence possessing 12,000 square kilometres by 1400, while Venice amassed nearly three times that across 1339–1428. By contrast, only Nuremberg came close, with 1,650 square kilometres, while Ulm had 930 square kilometres and all other German towns only 100 square kilometres or less.74 Despite the disparity in size between Italian and German towns, the process of asserting dominance broadly followed a similar pattern. Economic influence generally preceded political control, but was always assisted by manipulation of lordly jurisdictions and other legal privileges. For example, Nuremberg bought the castle and jurisdictions of its former imperial castellan in 1427, and within 15 years controlled 442 dependent villages and hamlets.75 Townsfolk also used their self-government to assert lordship over their hinterland. Affluent Italian citizens exploited their control of consular positions and city councils after 1200 to raise resources and build roads, canals and new suburbs, thus further revising relations with the countryside in their favour. They also extended credit to surrounding peasants and lords, thereby establishing an ‘informal empire’ similar to that created by nineteenth-century European financiers in Latin America, North Africa and Asia. All this was generally followed by establishing the right to name or confirm village officials and to levy taxes and recruits.

German towns did this on a smaller scale, for example extending influence by granting citizenship to people living outside their walls to create networks of dependants to rival those of the lords. The princes persuaded the emperor to prohibit these so-called ‘false citizens’ (cives falsi, or Pfahlbürger) in 1231, though the ban had to be renewed in 1356. The generally sparser rural population made territorial acquisition a less attractive proposition in Germany, where it could often be controlled commercially instead, for example by persuading the surrounding area to adopt the city’s currency and weights and measures. Rather than control space, German towns concentrated on securing access routes, for example buying castles guarding important roads or river crossings.

The Growth of Oligarchy

Italian, Burgundian and German cities shared the same tendency towards oligarchy, which was also manifest in villages to a lesser degree. The communal slogan was freedom, not equality. Freedoms were acquired as ‘immunities’, meaning exemptions from lordly exactions and jurisdictions. The commune emerged as a collective, corporate ‘lord’. Its members were personally free, but only through their association with a specific community. Their freedoms vanished if they emigrated or were expelled. Status was guarded jealously, and citizens had little incentive to extend it to others outside, except as a means of extending their own security and economic dominance. For example, in 1256–7 Bologna paid 379 masters to renounce jurisdiction over 6,000 of its inhabitants, who had to pay new taxes to the city instead.76 Access to citizenship remained closely controlled by each city’s council, just as equivalent bodies restricted the franchise in villages. The authorities in power remained concerned for their community’s viability, and tried to exclude those who it was felt exhausted communal resources such as meadows. This often provided another source of friction with lords, who sometimes promoted the interests of the poor or landless as a useful pool of cheap labour, whereas richer inhabitants feared them as a potential burden. Urban populations were thus highly stratified, consisting of a group of enfranchised citizens, who did not necessarily form the majority, together with an intermediary layer of tolerated ‘residents’ without full privileges, and a proletariat with few rights. All three groups were further divided, for example between established families and newcomers.

Cologne’s government was already in the hands of the ‘guild of the rich’ (Richerzeche) by the 1130s.77 Oligarchy emerged ‘naturally’ through the growing complexity and volume of business that communal institutions had to handle. Office-holding had become time-consuming and often difficult by the twelfth century, obliging towns to revise their constitutions and allow longer terms of office. Their administrations became divided between lower functionaries who were now paid and higher posts that remained honorific, supposedly in line with the public ideal of self-sacrifice, but in practice a way of restricting them to men of means. Cooption increasingly replaced direct election in selecting councillors, partly because those in power saw their friends as ‘safe pairs of hands’, but also to discourage populism, which so often led to violence, especially in Italy. Growing social stratification and economic diversification encouraged faction and ‘party’ interests during the thirteenth century.78 Rival groups competed for power, attempting to exclude their rivals if they held it. Florence contained 150 fortified towers in 1200, reflecting the sense of anxiety amidst often bloody violence and vendettas. In part, the greater strife in Italian towns derived from the larger number of nobles holding property both inside their walls and outside in the contado, who transferred their feuds to civic politics. German nobles had fewer economic or political interests in towns and their urban mansions remained unfortified. However, the violence also reflected the more advanced state of Italian communal development where the stakes were often higher, as well as the greater distance from external agencies who might mediate or defuse tension, such as the emperor and imperial courts.

The trend towards oligarchy in Italian and German towns was periodically checked by popular revolts in the late thirteenth century and again during the fourteenth. Constitutions were rewritten to widen participation, especially through guilds as new corporate interest groups. Oligarchy generally soon returned, because towns remained legally as well as economically stratified, and their enfranchised population generally refused to extend citizenship to residents or the proletariat. There was little further change after the mid-sixteenth century, with most German and Swiss towns now controlled by a few families related by kinship and business interests. By the end of the eighteenth century, only 250 families in Bern were still eligible for senior public office, while just 13 held half the seats on Zürich’s city council. The pattern was generally repeated in the countryside: 29 peasants in one Swabian village held 143 public offices between them around 1580. Wealth, rank and power had become concentrated in the hands of small elites whose cooperation was sought by lords and princes.79

The situation in Italy was more extreme, as a few ruthless families rose from urban despots to become a new princely elite. The trend towards aristocracy was always more pronounced here than north of the Alps. Richer Italian burghers advanced towards noble status by becoming the subvassals of bishops and counts by the early eleventh century, continuing to serve as mounted retainers into the thirteenth century, when they were increasingly subjected to taxation by more powerful city councils. Paradoxically, because rural lords posed less of a threat to civic liberties than in Germany, Italian cities found it easier to accept them within their walls. Intermarriage with richer burghers further blurred distinctions, creating an elite known as the signori, who used vassalage and control of small rural fiefs to underpin their power in both the city and its contado. Constitutions were rewritten allowing signori to hold positions as civic captains and other offices for life. Holding on to power often proved difficult in this violent, highly competitive environment, and most signori were content with dominating their own city, though the Visconti in Milan continued that city’s expansion at the expense of weaker neighbours. As we have seen (pp. 193–4 and 393–4), successful despots secured their authority by trading support for Roman expeditions in return for the emperor’s grant of hereditary princely status. Florence was relatively exceptional as one of the few large cities retaining a more republican regime, largely because its wealth allowed for a more elaborate bureaucracy and for the mercenaries necessary to defend its regional influence.80 Venice and Genoa likewise remained republics, but with relatively large yet exclusive patriciates that in any event assumed the outward symbols of nobility such as coats of arms.

No German or Burgundian burgher rose from councillor to become the prince of his home town. The only German principality based directly on a town was Brunswick, created under the special circumstances of the Welfs’ reconciliation with the Staufers in 1235 (see p. 361). Nobles and lords were part of urban life, but did not merge to the same extent with patriciates, which instead were distinguished from their fellow citizens by lifestyle, marriage patterns and, from the fourteenth century, a self-conscious projection of themselves as their community’s leading families. Unlike in Italy, the presence of so many powerful princes offered sufficient employment opportunities for knights and other lesser nobles, together with a route to social mobility for burghers, who could rise through employment in the expanding princely territorial administrations rather than serve their home town. All German and Burgundian cities already had lords, being either their bishop, prince or the emperor, who was a much closer presence for the imperial cities than for Italian towns. Additionally, the tendency towards oligarchy was checked by imperial intervention. Although Charles V revised numerous civic constitutions to strengthen patrician powers, he nonetheless ensured these remained communal rather than princely regimes.

The Empire’s Bourgeoisie

The relatively small size of most German towns was a further factor ensuring oligarchy did not develop into despotism. For example, the Württemberg territorial town of Wildberg comprised 1,328 inhabitants in 300 households in 1717. These shared 95 public offices, including the three mayoral positions, 15 members of two councils, and 25 inspectors of roads, buildings, bread, fish, cattle and meat.81 One fifth of male householders thus held at least one public office, ensuring that authority remained fairly well distributed and a significant proportion of the population retained a meaningful stake in communal affairs. Towns retained a vitality and cohesion based on fairly broad daily interaction between people who generally knew each other well.

This point has wider significance, given the general impression of German towns as declining economically and politically after 1648. This negative interpretation rests on a contrast with their cultural and economic dynamism around 1500, as well as unfavourable comparisons with cities in other countries, especially those in western Europe that benefited from colonial trade and early industrialization during the eighteenth century. Whereas cities like Nuremberg had been at the forefront of the German Renaissance and Reformation, and had played a major role in institutionalizing the Reichstag, they appear sleepy backwaters by the late eighteenth century, when most had static or even declining populations and all were hemmed in by principalities that outweighed them culturally as well as politically. Eighteenth-century Germany appears a land of princely courts, dotted with small ‘residence towns’ (Residenzstadte) dominated by imposing baroque palaces, opera houses and court theatres. The general impression is that princes and nobles dominated German society, retarding both economic development and the emergence of a politically conscious bourgeoisie. This situation has been blamed for the lack of a genuine revolution and the late start for German industrialization.82 In short, the imperial cities and, by extension the Empire, appear backward because they failed to develop as industrial and commercial centres like London or Amsterdam.

Things look different when viewed from the perspective of the Empire’s urban population. Political conditions were far more stable in the eighteenth century than in the urban heyday around 1500. The last imperial city to be deprived of its autonomy was Donauwörth, annexed by Bavaria in 1607, while in 1671 Brunswick became the last territorial town bombarded into accepting greater princely control.83 Both cases were exceptional. Although individually small, German towns were numerous and fairly evenly distributed, at least west and south of the Elbe. Their inhabitants already represented 13.5 per cent of the German population in 1450, remaining roughly at this level for 250 years before doubling by 1800. Only Vienna, Berlin and Hamburg had over 100,000 inhabitants and so did not compare to London, which at around 1 million contained a tenth of England’s population. However, there were only two other English towns with over 15,000 inhabitants, whereas this size was exceeded by 7 imperial cities and 27 territorial towns, indicating that the Empire’s experience was not unduly at variance with supposedly more progressive parts of Europe.84

The relatively even distribution of the German urban population in multiple, middle-sized centres persisted well into modernity, while the country still today lacks a single, dominant metropolis. This has brought economic and cultural benefits. Certainly, most early modern imperial cities succeeded on their own terms by providing stable and safe environments for the majority of their inhabitants. Most cities had relatively high levels of small-scale manufacture and commerce, with even fairly minor cities like Heilbronn and Lindau serving as regional economic centres. Wealth discrepancies were indeed very considerable, but urban growth did not produce large slums, while inhabitants remained cohesive and identified strongly with their ‘home town’ and with the Empire.85

The majority of the Empire’s most passionate advocates came from the urban elite, like Johann Jacob Moser, who grew up in Herrenberg and Stuttgart in Württemberg. After graduating from Württemberg’s local university of Tübingen, Moser eventually entered the duchy’s civil administration, then spent four years as a law professor at his alma mater. After that, he successively worked in the Reichskammergericht, the Württemberg civil service (again), the Prussian university of Frankfurt an der Oder, as a freelance legal consultant to Emperor Charles VII, and director of the Hessen-Homburg privy council. Finally, and tumultuously, he served the Württemberg Estates during their long dispute with their duke.86 Moser’s career demonstrates the relative ease with which educated burghers moved between civic, princely and imperial employment. The Empire’s multicentred politics thus offered numerous chances for social mobility largely independent from broader economic developments.


Princely Administrations and their Staff

Medieval kingship was primarily about the morality rather than the scope of action. Social engagement was limited to largely symbolic acts like helping individual widows and other ‘defenceless’ inhabitants. According to the chronicler Wipo, Conrad II brushed aside his courtiers’ advice to hasten to his coronation and instead stopped to listen to petitions from a peasant, an orphan and a widow, and thereby ‘prepared himself that day the way to the remaining affairs of government’. Wipo stressed that Conrad ‘responded like a vicar of Christ’, yet there was nothing particularly ‘imperial’ about his actions.87 Similar stories are recounted for other medieval kings. However, subjects increasingly expected their kings to respond to their concerns in a more sustained and systematic way. Through petitions, protests and representation in parliaments, subjects compelled monarchs to legislate and eventually to develop centrally directed institutions to ameliorate society’s concerns.

At first sight, the Empire appears to move in the opposite direction as its central authority seemingly becomes more distant from the lives of ordinary inhabitants after the mid-thirteenth century. However, the difference is less pronounced when all layers of authority are viewed together. Social and economic regulation developed at the level of princely territories and imperial cities, rather than through central institutions, in a process that remained mutually interdependent into the eighteenth century and that established additional layers of representation within most of the Empire’s component territories, complementing the representation of the imperial Estates in the Reichstag.

These provincial and territorial Estates (Landstände) were the princes’ allies and rivals. Their ambiguous role explains why historical interpretations have often diverged widely, with some regarding the Estates as champions of popular liberty against princely despotism, whereas others condemned them as vested interests frustrating beneficial changes.88 The Estates were a product of the general changes within the Empire from the late Middle Ages into early modernity as local and territorial authorities expanded their functions to cope with rising population, economic change, and the growing complexity of daily life.

Princely administration remained rudimentary into the fourteenth century compared to the towns, but also to some other European authorities, notably the papacy. Towns were the first to be confronted by the complexities of mass communal living and developed new methods to cope, including adopting writing in routine administration. However, the contrast with princely and imperial administration should not be pushed too far. Lords and kings benefited from their long association with the church, whose monasteries and abbeys also pioneered new techniques early on, while manorial administration could also be quite complex, especially as jurisdictions fragmented and economic relations were commercialized. Italian and later also German and Burgundian lords were perfectly able to master the requirements of commercial leases and new forms of asset management.

Nonetheless, princely and royal administration remained small, because outside war-making its primary tasks were limited to demonstrative acts of justice and good kingship. The growing hierarchy of vassalage enabled those higher up the social scale to concentrate on these affairs, considered their ‘proper’ business, whilst devolving more mundane issues to their inferiors. These continued the existing face-to-face methods, because as the population grew, it supported more lordships whose authority remained restricted to roughly the same number of people. The overarching imperial framework continued to legitimate princely and lordly authority through the charters associated with feudalization, and new coordinating legislation like that of the public peace (pp. 402–3and 620–27). Meanwhile, princes and cities increasingly assumed greater responsibilities as their jurisdictions coalesced into more distinct territories.

Territorial administration acquired a firmer institutional footing in the fourteenth century, several centuries after the establishment of the imperial chancellery that undoubtedly provided a model. Clergy predominated, given the scarcity of educated literate staff, which persisted due to the paucity of university graduates. Clerics were also cheaper, since they lived off their benefices, whereas laity required salaries. Cologne’s chancellery employed 12 clerics in the 1340s, while its Palatine equivalent still managed with just four to five scribes some ninety years later. Most administration was handled by lesser nobles, either directly as vassals or as paid officials, for example serving as castellans and bailiffs as the district structure took shape. Princes meanwhile followed the emperor’s example, touring their lands with a cavalcade of servants, baggage wagons, kitchen utensils and carpets to make each stopover more comfortable. After the mid-fourteenth century, they began camping for longer periods near good resources, like lucrative toll posts, or copying Staufer practice by staying in their territorial towns. The focus on fewer but increasingly substantial palaces accelerated in the fifteenth century and developed into the norm during the next century when each principality became firmly associated with a residence town. The significance of such towns is illustrated by the way that Hanover gave its name to an entire territory originally formally known as the duchy of Calenberg. The greater stability increased the pressure on resource management, since supplies were no longer consumed close to source, but had to be provided in a form capable of sustaining what had become a permanent princely court at a fixed location. This coincided with imperial reform, which itself placed additional demands on the princes and cities.

Princely administration expanded to cope, and its staff acquired higher social status. Commoners regarded councillors and other senior staff as effectively nobles, opening a new route to social mobility alongside the church. Even comparatively small principalities and imperial cities founded universities and grammar schools to meet the growing demand for suitable candidates. Huge differences in pay persisted between noble and ‘learned’ officials into the late eighteenth century, though education became a prerequisite for many posts.89 Overall numbers remained modest. A typically middling principality in the eighteenth century might have 100–300 officials from senior councillors to messengers in its central agencies, and up to 800 officials of all ranks in its districts, together serving 200,000–400,000 inhabitants. Even in Prussia, the central agencies grew from 300 officials in 1680 to 640 by the 1750s, by which point there were still only 14,000 officials altogether, of whom 4,500 were excise collectors. Many officials were employed by the localities or the Estates, rather than directly by the prince. For example, in 1762 Austria and Bohemia had 7,421 public officials employed by the Habsburgs, 1,494 by the provincial Estates, and 11,669 by nobles and towns.90

The emergence of princely administrations generated demands to share in the benefits of social mobility, wealth, status and influence. Criticism of ‘foreign advisors’ (fremde Räte) had already surfaced in the fourteenth century as locals accused their prince of unduly favouring outsiders to their disadvantage. Late examples include Dr Wolfgang Günther in Hessen-Kassel and Joseph Süss Oppenheimer (who was Jewish as well as an outsider) in Württemberg, who were both blamed for unpopular policies and executed as soon as their princely patrons died.91 The insistence on Indigenatsrecht, or binding requirements only to employ ‘natives’, was a major factor behind the coalescence of territorial elites, thereby contributing to the multilayered identities we have already encountered (pp. 252–4). The latter was also promoted by the growth of territorial Estates.

The Emergence of Territorial Estates

The Empire’s culture of seeking consensus to legitimate action was a major influence on the development of representation at the provincial and territorial level. The 1231 statute not only granted princes greater powers in their jurisdictions, but obliged them to consult ‘the better and greater men’ (meliores et majors  ) to help them carry out their responsibilities. This provided the basis for Estates in the Austrian and Bohemian provinces.92 Homage ceremonies offered another impulse by providing opportunities for leading subjects to bargain for corporate rights and press grievances. In most cases, Estates emerged well ahead of their first actual plenary diet (Landtag). For example, those in Bavaria were already involved in the duchy’s financial affairs in the late fourteenth century, but only held their first diet in 1453. The presence of cathedral chapters could inhibit developments in ecclesiastical territories, because the clerical elite already found these effective platforms for their interests and had little incentive to include lay nobles or urban magistrates in negotiations with their prince-bishop. However, the latter often wanted to include his secular vassals and towns, either to balance his chapter politically or to harness their resources as well. The meeting of the Magdeburg diet in 1400 is generally accepted as the first to convene in a German territory. This also highlights a more fundamental point that territorial Estates could be actively promoted by rulers, rather than simply emerging in opposition to them.

Estates existed in virtually every German, Bohemian and Burgundian territory and province by 1500, but not in Italy, where political development at this level had diverged, with the formation of territorial states based on the dominance of large cities over their hinterlands. Representation in Italy remained restricted to city councils, which denied their rural subjects a voice. Only Savoy followed the pattern elsewhere in the Empire, again underscoring the significance of its origins in Burgundy and subsequent association with the German kingdom. Village assemblies emerged together with Estates for the various Savoyard provinces by the late fourteenth century, though these lost significance after 1560, except in outlying areas.93

Estates represented corporate status groups, not inhabitants as equal citizens. Clergy were usually represented through mediate religious houses, which sent their abbots or priors. In some cases, like Salzburg, the cathedral chapter formed part of the territory’s Estates.94 Nobles participated on the basis of their mediate fiefs, provided rulers recognized that these qualified. In some territories, like Saxony, holders of all such fiefs could attend, even where these were held by towns. Elsewhere, nobles elected representatives from those holding qualifying property. Town magistrates and village headmen had already gained representation in the Tirolean Estates in 1363, and soon in many other Alpine territories, including Salzburg, Basel, Chur, Brixen, Sitten and Vorarlberg, as well as across parts of the south-west like Baden and a few other special cases like East Frisia. In most cases, the commons were restricted to the mayors of leading territorial towns. The tripartite division into clergy, nobles and commons was relatively rare: Bavaria, Upper Palatinate, Breisgau, Sundgau, Cologne, Salzburg, Basel, Liège, and the Ernestine and Welf duchies. North and east German Estates generally had two noble curia of lords and knights, alongside one for the leading territorial towns: electoral Saxony, Brandenburg, and most of the Habsburg provinces.

All representatives claimed to speak on behalf of their wider communities. In the case of nobles, this meant their tenants or serfs. Like envoys at the Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies, representatives held imperative mandates binding them to instructions agreed in advance within their communities. This inhibited the development of more ideological factions or parties by limiting the opportunities for representatives to appeal to others beyond their own constituents. Also like the Empire’s higher assemblies, the Estates followed late medieval practice in taking decisions by majority vote in corporate groups and then bargaining to reach an overall consensus. Meetings thus provided opportunities to assert social, corporate and (later) confessional status, as well as decide material issues.95

The Estates in Austria and Bohemia owed their relative strength to emerging between the late thirteenth and mid-fourteenth centuries, well ahead of other parts of the Empire.96 They also represented large provinces that developed taxation relatively early, thanks to economic assets such as silver mines and a vigorous transit trade, and especially because their rulers needed to fund defence against external threats, notably the Hungarians and Turks from the fifteenth century. In line with their territorially based imperial management, the Habsburgs dealt with their provincial Estates directly, and ensured that leading nobles and towns did not gain representation in the Reichstag. The Habsburgs also negotiated with each in turn on the basis of divide and rule. This proved difficult for them in Bohemia, where general diets of all five provinces together remained relatively common into the seventeenth century and, indeed, provided the institutional underpinning of the Bohemian Revolt (1618–20). The Burgundian dukes actively promoted general diets, called States General, in the 1430s to integrate the provinces accumulated through their rapid expansion since the 1380s. The Habsburgs were obliged to retain the States General when they acquired most of the Burgundian provinces after 1477, especially as the States General had become indispensable to raising taxes. The States General convened on average twice a year until the 1570s, when they split, with those in the seven northern provinces meeting separately in what eventually became the Dutch Republic.97Maximilian I experimented with a similar General Diet for his Austrian provinces, but as in Bohemia this never developed as a permanent body, unlike the Burgundian States General. His successors largely eschewed general meetings, but the fundamental restructuring of the Habsburg nobility in the 1620s removed the need for substantial revisions to the Estates, since these were now dominated by families who owed their status and wealth to having backed the emperor in the Thirty Years War.98 The Hohenzollerns, Wettins and Hanoverian Welfs also refrained from establishing General Diets as they accumulated additional imperial fiefs, each with their own Estates.

Estates without any noble representatives were known as Landschaften, literally ‘the countryside’. These are often interpreted as emerging more democratically ‘from below’ in contrast to Estates that appear more as an outgrowth of elite politics.99 In fact, the Zweibrücken and Palatine Landschaften were initially convened on the initiative of their princes. Others emerged because nobles opted out of territorial politics to secure immediacy as imperial knights, reducing representation to clergy and commons, for instance in Württemberg, Würzburg, Bamberg, Bayreuth, Ansbach, Trier and Fulda. Around 20 Swabian and Franconian territories developed full Landschaften composed only of mayors and village headmen, but these were all bishoprics, counties and lordships without indigenous nobles other than their lord. A few imperial cities also created similar institutions in order to negotiate more effectively with their dependent villages. There was no clear correlation between political vitality and social composition: the noble-dominated Mecklenburg assembly survived until 1918, whereas those assemblies in Bamberg and Würzburg that lacked nobles largely ceased functioning in the eighteenth century.

Provincial and territorial Estates adopted broadly similar rhetoric, as in the Reichstag, with their members presenting themselves as loyal subjects whose role was to assist in ensuring moral governance, peace, justice and the common good. Like the emperor, princes held the initiative, choosing if and when to summon their Estates and to set the agenda. A few Estates claimed the right of self-assembly, but this was formally prohibited in 1658. Estates responded with petitions and lists of grievances, using these to bargain collective rights entrenching their position within each territory. However, Estates could also become vehicles for sectional interests, as in the Habsburg lands, where Protestants used them in the 1560s and 1570s to secure limited toleration despite the opposition of Catholic members. Towns and nobles frequently clashed over economic questions and relative shares of taxation. Negotiations were characterized by greater proximity between ruler and ruled than discussions in the Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies. Moral questions were expressed more openly, including criticism of princes’ personal failings, of their mistresses and courtly extravagance. A major reason for the difference in style from Reichstag proceedings was that territorial taxes paid for the prince’s household and his other policies, whereas imperial taxation funded only a narrow range of activities more clearly related to peace and justice.

The Estates’ criticism had real force, because the self-interest of their members frequently converged with the moral conviction that the established social order should be preserved and that any changes were to restore an idealized harmony by addressing perceived abuses rather than altering essentials. The Estates consciously distanced themselves from the princely court and administration, claiming they alone offered impartial advice, not the servile flattery of courtiers and hired lackeys. However, the Estates did not seek to replace princes with republics, or to extend political participation to ordinary inhabitants. Even Johannes Althusius, one of the Empire’s more radical early modern thinkers, saw the Estates’ chief function as a check on monarchical power, rather than its replacement.100

Most Estates established standing committees of selected members to represent their interests between full diets. Rulers often found these more congenial to deal with, especially as their smaller membership was more open to the usual forms of princely patronage involving honours, favours and bribes. Many territories held their last plenary diet between the 1650s and 1680s, though a few reconvened, sometimes after many decades. This trend towards oligarchy certainly restricted representation to a narrow elite that often acquired close ties to princely administrations, even where plenary diets continued to meet intermittently, as in Württemberg.101 However, this was not simply a case of princely absolutism muzzling the people’s representatives, but rather reflected a consensus amongst influential sections of society that good governance rested on orderly administration and the rule of law, rather than democracy.

Territorial Taxation

Most Estates owed their origins to the financial problems of late medieval territories. Like the emperor, princes found that traditional means of resource extraction were unable to sustain either their ambitions or the new understanding of their proper function. They had also dissipated their domains and now derived most of their income from the jurisdictions and privileges originally granted by past monarchs, such as toll, market and tariff rights. Tolls could be significant if a prince possessed land across a major transit route. Mainz raised as much from its Rhine levies in 1400 as from dues paid by 30 territorial towns. Silver-mining provided three-quarters of Tirolean and half of Saxon revenue in the first half of the sixteenth century. However, these were all exceptional cases and the general picture was one of rising debt (Table 14).102

Estates emerged partly through the protest of those affected by the expedients that princes adopted to cope, for example townsfolk who did not want to be pawned to another lord. Rulers also appreciated that broader consultation would allow them to draw on their own subjects’ personal resources. The result was to create a new set of taxes alongside those deriving from privileges and feudal dues. These new levies became known as ‘territorial taxes’ (Landsteuer) since they applied more broadly to most or all inhabitants and were raised for an agreed common purpose. Such taxes were already levied ten times in Bavaria in the fourteenth century, and were introduced in the Palatinate after 1395. Rulers found that cooperation with Estates not only reduced opposition, but was essential for tax collection. This explains why community leaders and leading clergy and nobles were summoned in the first place, since these were often the same people overseeing collection in the absence of any other local administration. The Münster Estates helped their bishop collect taxes after 1359, while a joint ducal-Estates tax commission was established in Upper Bavaria in 1396. By the sixteenth century, Estates taxes provided half to four-fifths of most territories’ revenue. Estates were so useful that those princes who lacked them often now tried to form them, for example in Baden in 1558.

Table 14. Revenue and Debt in Selected Principalities c.1500 (in florins)


  Annual Revenue  


   Austria and Tirol   



   Bavaria (both branches)   



   The Palatinate   



   Electoral Cologne   






   Saxon Duchies   



   Electoral Saxony   





















   Swabian cities (combined)   



   Swabian counts, prelates, knights   



Estates used their power of the purse to influence policy. As leading property owners themselves, their representatives had a lot to lose from reckless actions, notably war. This provided a major break on violence and helped ensure that the growth of princely power did not produce an endless series of inter-territorial wars. For example, the Württemberg Estates forced their duke to agree to consult them after 1514 on major issues affecting the duchy. However, the Empire’s fiscal structure meanwhile identified princes along with the magistrates of imperial cities as responsible for collecting imperial taxes (see pp. 403–6). Imperial taxes immediately assumed the status of higher obligations overriding local concerns. Princes excluded their own territorial Estates from any say in the matter beyond helping to decide how to raise the money. Many deliberately concealed the true scale of their official obligations in order to demand far higher sums than they actually owed the Empire, hoping to keep the balance.103 Imperial legislation strengthened the princes’ hand, for example by ruling in 1566 that subjects failing to pay imperial obligations could be fined twice the amount. Military expenditure could also be presented as an imperial obligation, because all princes were obliged to assist upholding the public peace and defending the Empire. The almost continual imperial mobilization after 1672 ended any peace dividend following the Thirty Years War and established military taxation as permanent in virtually all territories, especially as the smaller ones decided to maintain their imperial contingents in peacetime after 1714. This process also helps explain the decline of plenary diets, since rulers now usually only consulted Estates’ standing committees on tax levels, not their existence or purpose, which had become fixed.

As a result, Estates assumed the character of a branch of territorial administration with their own infrastructure of officials, treasuries and account books. Estates’ members frequently sat with princely officials on joint commissions overseeing the management and repayment of territorial debts. The Estates’ credit-worthiness was closely tied to that of their prince, who benefited from lower interest rates thanks to his ability to borrow against future taxes. Debt amortization opened up large areas of princely policy to the Estates’ scrutiny, if only retrospectively. Their officials also jointly audited military and other accounts. Of course, actual practice was far from perfect. One duke of Württemberg deliberately presented false accounts to his Estates to conceal the fact that he was receiving French subsidies, with the extent of the deception only becoming clear over two centuries later. Another duke was deceived by an envoy he sent to The Hague who spun out his time at government expense by sending misleadingly optimistic reports on his negotiations. Meanwhile, the envoy’s brother in the Württemberg administration altered a ducal decree, doubling his salary, without this being discovered for 14 years.104 Nonetheless, while Estates were scarcely representative in a modern democratic sense, they did encourage greater probity and discourage venality in a manner similar to that noted for Britain’s Parliament.105 All this contrasted with France, where the monarchy’s reluctance to consult its subjects after 1614 undermined its credit-worthiness and ultimately frustrated financial reform.

Police Measures and Social Discipline

Like taxation, social regulation is usually associated with the rise of centralized states. In the standard account, states first disciplined their own staffs and then used these to encourage the ideal of obedient, pious and thrifty subjects. In doing so, it is claimed, this instilled the work ethic that made the Industrial Revolution possible, as well as allegedly instilling Germanic subservience to militarized authority.106 Social regulation in the Empire was known as ‘police measures’ (Policey, Polizei), from the thirteenth-century translation of Aristotle’s Politeia. This meant both ‘polity’, or state, and good order, suggesting that the authorities had both the right and duty to regulate social behaviour in the interests of the common good. The Reformation certainly influenced how these ideas were implemented in the Empire. Lutheranism in particular contributed to the belief that all moral and rational action should be judged according to its capacity to promote personal happiness and well-being. Humans, it was widely believed, would naturally incline towards sin, unless checked by a properly informed clergy, good education and a strong secular authority.

It is important not to simplify police regulation as state repression. Police measures emerged to fill a legal void by ordering aspects of life not already governed by customary law and traditional rights, such as the new problems arising from urbanization and economic changes in the high Middle Ages. These measures attempted to prevent competing interests from disrupting social harmony. For example, rural producers wanted high prices to maximize profits, whereas townsfolk wanted cheap food. Growth in both settlement size and overall population rendered traditional means like church charity ineffective against problems such as famine and plague.

The French monarchy responded to similar difficulties by assuming new powers and functions centrally and issuing royal legislation from the 1370s. Central legislation in the Empire remained restricted to providing a framework for public order prior to early modernity. Instead, police measures were allowed to develop from within communities from the thirteenth century onwards. Most of the early measures tried to control access to scarce resources, for example by setting criteria for membership of an urban or a rural commune, and by regulating marriage and inheritance. Others measures included food-safety inspections, building regulations, fire safety, rubbish collection, sanitation, public health, and Bavaria’s famous 1516 purity law that was really an attempt simply to control beer prices.

Regulation increased the importance of writing in public life. Before the twelfth century, books were usually only about religion. Thereafter, others appeared on law and as bound volumes of parchment used to record accounts, marriages, property ownership, licences and a host of other secular matters.107 This emerged broadly simultaneously at all levels of what would become territorial administration, from the village to the prince’s chancellery, during the thirteenth century. It laid the basis for the modern ‘surveillance society’ as local authorities increasingly recorded their inhabitants’ lives in detail, and began issuing them with identification papers and passes that could be checked as they moved across the territory and beyond.

Higher lords and princes played relatively minor roles in these agendas before the emergence of their own self-consciousness as public authorities in the fifteenth century. Imperial reform accelerated this process by charging princes and other territorial authorities with a wider range of public functions relating to peace, justice, security and mobilization of resources to discharge these tasks. The Reichstag issued a wide range of general legislation between about 1500 and 1577, including the economic measures we have already seen (pp. 462–9) and three imperial police ordinances (1530, 1548, 1577). These reinforced the distinctions between imperial Italy, where they did not apply, and the rest of the Empire. They provided general guidelines that could either be implemented directly or modified to suit local laws and circumstances. Imperial legislation directly stimulated territorial activity: the number of territorial police ordinances doubled in the 52 years after the 1548 imperial ordinance, compared to the previous century and a half.108The quality of territorial measures also changed as existing codes and measures were rewritten, rationalized and standardized along imperial guidelines.

Many of the measures reflected the heightened morality and anxieties of the Reformation era in which they were issued. The imperial police ordinances targeted card-playing, gambling and drinking, both to curb these as potential public-order issues and to encourage greater thrift and productivity. Other clauses were aimed at spies, arsonists, witches, conspirators and subversives in general. The aim was to achieve a well-regulated society by eliminating or at least minimizing risks and threats, thus shifting the ideal from peace to security. Later measures targeted beggars and vagrants for similar reasons. Overall, territorial legislation moved in the seventeenth century from stabilizing measures that simply corrected immorality towards those intended actively to change attitudes and behaviour. Some of the accompanying rhetoric was genuinely heartfelt, and many measures were in direct response to perceived changes and new ‘problems’, such as the population growth and costly wars from the 1730s to early 1760s.109However, a ruthless fiscal drive was there from the sixteenth century, and it grew with the new arguments of cameralism in the seventeenth century that productivity could be raised by punishing ‘idleness’ and encouraging thrift. Measures that could be classed as ‘economic’ formed 40 per cent of all police regulation in eighteenth-century Baden-Durlach, whereas regulation involving social order, including religion, now formed only 25 per cent, with 15 per cent covering public order and safety, 12 per cent health, education and culture, and 8 per cent land and building regulations.110

Innovation remained within limits set by corporate social and political structures, as all authorities were reluctant to take steps that might disturb public order or disrupt established revenue streams. For example, many territories did promote the commercialization of common assets, either for sale or by taking them into central state control, but none adopted the wholesale ‘enclosures’ that broke up common lands in early modern England. Instead, the authorities sought to stabilize existing households by giving farms access to commons in proportion to their existing size, not according to their need or the requirements of a commercial land market.111 In short, the Empire’s authorities disadvantaged both the poor and the enterprising.

Cameralism remained very much a ‘baroque science’, often creating additional problems through contradictory, inadequate and unnecessary measures.112 Cameralist writers were certainly frequently self-serving, obscuring defects and advancing their careers by peddling panaceas or visions of utopian, benevolent, impartial states. However, the Empire’s territorial authorities were far from all-powerful. Numerous measures were unenforceable, or were only implemented with difficulty, because they contravened popular values or expectations. Official regulation was also adapted to popular pressure and often originated in demands for action from ordinary inhabitants.113 The result was an ‘empowering interaction’ in which engagement with ordinary people allowed the latter at least some chance to shape policy.114 Paradoxically, this encouraged acceptance of established authority by ensuring the territorial state served genuine needs. Throughout, the authorities retained the upper hand. Although governance at the local level still relied heavily on the cooperation and compliance of community leaders and ordinary people, overall direction remained reserved to higher levels. Petitions and protests might achieve meaningful specific changes, but usually only if they conformed to official norms. For example, wives might secure court verdicts against violent spouses by convincing the judges their husbands were bad householders rather than male abusers.115

The process developed its own logic and momentum through centre–local interactions and through the administration’s ‘inner dynamism’ as officials continually expanded their remit.116 For example, Württemberg village courts increasingly referred cases over access to forests to the ducal superior court; the latter thereby became the ultimate authority in such matters, in which it previously had no great interest. In short, the state unintentionally encouraged its inhabitants to widen its functions and responsibilities. Regulation of one aspect of life frequently prompted intervention in another, especially as individual mandates often served multiple goals. Both the governed and governing came to see the authorities’ role no longer as merely divinely ordained stewardship of humanity, but as a body duty-bound to promote positive improvements. Overall, the integration of society and authority reinforced the belief that the common good was best advanced by benevolent administration and the adherence to agreements and laws, rather than through expanding forms of direct representation.


Absolutism and its Limits

These developments are usually interpreted as measures that sustained more absolutist princely power, which is the flipside of the customary presentation of the Empire as a loose federation after 1648. This section will argue that not only were the territories still formally within the Empire, but that they and imperial institutions remained entangled in a common corporate social order that persisted beyond 1806. Contemporaries were well aware of the growth in princely power and pretensions. Johann Jacob Moser observed in 1773:

More and more the desire to be sovereign is mastering electoral and princely courts: how many soldiers does one have? As many as one wants; how many taxes does one decree? As many as one wants; how many excises and other duties does one impose? As many as one wants. In short, one does what one wants, and the territorial Estates and subjects, if they are still alright, can howl; or one brooks no contradiction . . . [and] they are driven to numerous crimes, disobedience and rebellion.117

Moser wrote from bitter personal experience, having been consigned to a dungeon for five years after protesting at the duke of Württemberg’s illegal taxation during the Seven Years War.118 However, he owed his eventual release to a case brought by the duchy’s Estates, who successfully prosecuted the duke in the imperial courts, culminating in the imposition of tight fiscal constraints in 1770.119 Thus, Moser was also able to remind princes that their powers ‘did not make their land into their own free state, but only part of the entire state-body of the German Empire’.120 Some princes agreed wholeheartedly. Max Franz, Emperor Joseph II’s younger brother and archbishop-elector of Cologne and prince-bishop of Münster, regarded his cathedral chapters and Estates as guardians of his territories’ constitutions, quite properly preventing him from interfering with the rule of law. The laws that bound Max Franz’s subjects applied equally to himself and his officials.

Most historians have remained sceptical, doubting how far imperial institutions could constrain Austria and Prussia, whilst also noting how territorialization invested ideological power in princely governments to act on their own initiative. To some, the late eighteenth century saw a growing tension between dynamism at the territorial level and a rigid and seemingly increasingly irrelevant imperial framework.121 The most obvious manifestations of dynamism were the ‘enlightened’ reforms implemented in Austria, Prussia and many middling and even smaller secular and ecclesiastical territories after about 1770.122 These measures changed the substance and not just the style of territorial governance. Promotion of the common good expanded more explicitly to include subjects’ happiness, as well as security and order. Happiness was now defined by material welfare and physical well-being, rather than in moral-religious terms. Practical examples included the secular-inspired welfare measures and the changed and expanded provision of education. A second area of activity entailed the dismantling of the confessional state through greater toleration, widening the individual and corporate liberties already provided through imperial law since 1648. In the late eighteenth century, Catholic territories such as Austria expropriated huge quantities of ‘useless’ church property in the manner of the earlier Protestant secularization, but they used the resources obtained to support state-controlled welfare and education, rather than to improve clerical instruction or advance religious goals. Such changes were legitimated by reference to the concept of utility central to much Enlightened thought and which supported the alteration or removal of ‘traditional’ privileges in the name of the common good.

The contradictions inherent in the reforms were most obvious in efforts to codify territorial laws, because these entailed rationalization and systematization at odds with the fudges critical to sustaining the Empire and its corporate social order.123 Codification accelerated trends already present in cameralist regulation by levelling social distinctions in the name of common progress. Society was being pushed from an order based on legally distinct corporate Estates and towards one composed of legally equal individuals sharing a uniform relationship to the state. Socio-legal distinctions gave way to stratification defined more obviously economically by class. The ultimate direction of these developments was still far from clear in the late eighteenth century, while the authorities lacked a coherent plan beyond a still largely traditional concern for the common good and fiscal efficiency. Codification and other efforts at standardization proceeded quite slowly. It took 52 years to dismantle the tariff barriers between Austrian provinces after 1775, while even after the impact of Napoleon, Baden in 1810 still used 112 different measurements of length, 92 measurements for square measures, 65 for dry goods, 163 for fruit, 123 for liquids, 65 for alcohol, and 80 separate definitions of a pound weight.124

Public Debt

The real problem was not any sclerosis in imperial institutions, but the general reluctance to tamper with the corporate socio-political order. This is best illustrated by the growing problems of debt as the Empire’s larger and smaller territories emerged from the wars of 1672–1714. Unlike the aftermath of the Thirty Years War (see pp. 464–5), the imperial Estates did not work through the Reichstag to tackle this problem collectively. Some territories were able to reduce their liabilities, but all suffered from renewed costly warfare between 1733 and 1763. The Habsburgs alone spent 404.85 million florins fighting three wars from 1733 to 1748. Significant administrative and fiscal reforms from the mid-1740s enabled the monarchy to weather the Seven Years War, which cost around 40 million florins a year. Further post-war measures helped boost net annual revenue to 65 million by 1790, around three times higher than that in 1740. However, debts rose almost as fast, from 118 million (1756) to 291 million florins (1781), while the Turkish War of 1787–91 cost 220.4 million, pushing total liabilities to over 400 million by the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792.125

No other territory matched the Habsburgs’ revenue, expenditure or debts. While their exposure to debt varied, abstinence from warfare was no guarantee for healthy finances since princely expenses were often proportionately far higher in smaller than larger territories. Maintenance of a princely court consumed one-fifth to one-quarter of peacetime expenditure in most medium-sized and smaller territories compared to 1.7 per cent of Habsburg outgoings in 1784. Minor princes often lived well beyond their means, compensating for their relative lack of real political influence by spending lavishly to assert their status. Ernst Friedrich III of Sachsen-Hildburghausen dined daily with 100 guests while his debts piled up, reaching an astonishing 1.3 million florins by 1769, equivalent to 23 years of his principality’s revenue.126 Prussia’s freedom from state debt was misleading, because this derived from ruthless parsimony, while in all other respects the Hohenzollern monarchy shared the same structural problems common throughout the Empire.

By the later eighteenth century, all German (and also Italian) principalities found themselves with fiscal structures that had failed to keep pace with demographic and economic growth. Practicalities partly explain this. Despite improved surveillance and accounting procedures, it remained difficult to assess individual wealth accurately. Since their inception in the fourteenth century, general taxes attempted to target individuals rather than households or communities, but efforts were frustrated by the desire to fix assessment rather than accept that change itself was inevitable and devise more flexible methods instead. Reluctance to divulge details also hindered the compilation of reliable tax registers, while officials entrusted with this task were obliged to respect corporate immunities, though these were never as extensive nor as extreme as in Spain or Hungary. For instance, clergy and nobles rarely possessed complete exemption, even from direct taxes. Indirect taxes proved so attractive because they could be levied on goods in flow without requiring detailed registers of individual or communal wealth. This explains the reluctance to dismantle internal and frontier tolls and tariffs. However, indirect levies were only really lucrative in countries with expanding economies and substantial long-distance, external trade, like Britain and the Dutch Republic.

Consequently, German governments relied on quota systems similar to the Empire’s matricular register, apportioning tax burdens amongst communities and in turn within these to households. Quotas generally reinforced corporate distinctions, with clergy, nobles and commons being assigned distinct shares, especially in the case of taxes agreed by territorial Estates. For example, the bishopric of Paderborn used a land tax called the Schatzung (Assessment), levied in multiples of a basic quota that was worth about 6,800 talers in 1590. The cathedral canons and the territorial nobles were exempt, leaving the basic quota to be divided amongst the remaining status groups, with the lesser clergy paying about 10 per cent of it, the burghers of the bishopric’s 23 towns 40 per cent, and the peasants the remaining half. Subsequent adjustments altered this distribution, notably through the extension of exemption to all clergy by 1700. This reduced the value of a basic quota to only 5,000 talers, obliging the authorities to increase the number of multiple quotas levied each time to maintain overall revenue.127

Naturally, favoured groups lobbied hard to defend their corporate advantages. The most significant event in crown–noble relations in Brandenburg-Prussia after 1648 and prior to the emancipation of serfs in 1807 was the widespread protest in 1717 against the king’s attempt to commute his vassals’ personal military service into taxation. The nobles’ appeal to the Reichshofrat only increased the determination of the Hohenzollerns to secure further exemption from imperial jurisdiction. However, the Hohenzollerns’ Pomeranian nobles only accepted conversion of their fiefs into allodial property in 1787, thus opening them to taxation, long after Brandenburg-Prussia secured exemption from the jurisdiction of the imperial courts around 1750.128 Despite securing considerable autonomy, the Hohenzollerns refrained from tampering with the composite character of their monarchy, which remained composed of different provinces still defined by their formal boundaries as imperial fiefs. Each province had its own Estates, even if these now rarely met in plenary diets. While the basic fiscal structure was uniform across the monarchy, its actual implementation rested on agreements with these Estates that no Hohenzollern king dared to disturb.

More fundamentally, throughout the Empire both rulers and ruled refused to accept the true cost of government. Virtually every territorial government, except Prussia’s, regularly overspent, with the Habsburg annual deficit fluctuating between 4 million and 80 million florins across 1787–1800.129 Borrowing had long become an established part of government finance, further illustrating how backward Prussia was in still hoarding a reserve of coins packed into barrels in the palace vault. Princely and civic finances were geared to debt servicing and repayment, rather than tapping rising wealth. Accounting remained primarily legal rather than fiscal, recording liabilities and obligations between governments, their subjects and creditors, rather than attuned to administering budgets.130Even though cost estimates and planning had become routine aspects of financial management by the early eighteenth century, governments still operated along late medieval lines by tying individual revenue streams to specific purposes like maintaining the princely household or military expenditure. Each major branch of government had its own treasury, receiving revenue, making expenditure and contracting debts. Money could be switched between accounts, but clear oversight generally remained elusive. The desire to conceal military expenditure from the Estates in some territories simply added to this problem.

Debts were modernized in the sense of becoming eternal, attached to an impersonal state, rather than extinguishing at each ruler’s death. However, they remained legal contracts and were personal rather than commercial. The state and the urban and rural corporations comprising it acted like individuals, linked by a multitude of separate contracts to their creditors. Default was difficult, especially as most credit was raised through personal connections between individual officials and lenders. Borrowing on international money markets remained limited, as did attempts in Austria, the Palatinate and elsewhere to establish state banks, especially as these were invariably undercapitalized. Thus, territorial nobles and religious houses remained the principal lenders. Church and charitable institutions owned two-thirds of Bavarian state debt in 1790, compared to only a tenth held by private individuals.

The problem was so intractable because it affected all levels of public institutions, except, ironically, the Empire, which was virtually debt-free (see pp. 405–6). Towns and villages contracted debts not simply for their own purposes, but to meet tax quotas imposed by princes and territorial Estates. Inhabitants also fell into debt as tax arrears were often converted into local debts while their community paid on their behalf. The 6,000 subjects of Ochsenhausen abbey in Swabia owed 584,000 florins in tax arrears by the end of the eighteenth century.131 Unlike those of Britain and the Dutch Republic, German governments did not make the transition to commercialized debt by issuing tradable bonds. Indeed, most governments were lagging behind their subjects. Before 1618, landlords extended credit to tenants without requiring interest, instead extracting ‘payment’ in the form of continued subordination. The experience of the Thirty Years War encouraged many to commercialize these arrangements, shifting from social investment and material reward to purely monetary transactions despite official cameralist measures intended to preserve peasants as taxpayers.132

Stability and Reluctance to Change

Continued membership of the Empire cushioned territories against the need for radical change by providing a safety value for popular protest through judicial arbitration and administrative review (see pp. 631–7). Imperial institutions also intervened directly to stabilize smaller territories when they got into difficulties. The Reichshofrat handled at least 131 cases involving debts of the imperial knights during the eighteenth century, as well as intervening in imperial cities, counties and small principalities. Württemberg alone acted as imperial debt commissioner in 120 cases in Swabia between 1648 and 1806. Commissioners could be tough: those in Sachsen-Hildburghausen called in military assistance from neighbouring territories in 1769 when the local prince refused to accept their reforms, which included disbanding the principality’s oversized army. Moreover, commissions achieved real successes. That sent to the imperial city of Nördlingen reduced its debt from 696,176 florins in 1750 to 84,408 in 1793.133

Such action sustained weaker micro-territories like Waldeck-Pyrmont, which Prince Friedrich Karl August was forced to pawn to Hessen-Kassel in 1784 for 1.2 million talers just to cover his most pressing debts, after his own Estates refused to accept further liabilities. With Hessen-Kassel already the prince’s main creditor along with the Dutch Republic, it seemed likely that the next step would be full annexation, but Waldeck’s autonomy was saved by intervention from the Reichshofrat in 1804, which appointed Prussia as its commissioner. Even at this late stage in the Empire formal processes still functioned. In January 1805 the prince abdicated in favour of his younger brother, who accepted drastic economies proposed by Prussia, which refrained from abusing its position to annex Waldeck itself. The commission dissolved along with the Empire in August 1806, but Waldeck saved itself by joining Napoleon’s new Confederation of the Rhine, weathering the subsequent storms of German political history to survive as a separate entity until 1922.134

These examples could be multiplied, but the general point is that intervention stabilized cities and principalities by adjusting existing constitutional and fiscal arrangements. Further, more radical changes were considered not merely undesirable but unnecessary. The overriding impression gained from reading accounts of these individual cases is that those involved did not believe that their socio-political order was ‘broken’. While one-third of Mainz knights were involved in debt cases, they remained wealthy as a group, especially the Catholics, who enjoyed access to plum positions in the imperial church. Whereas the imperial city of Wimpfen was crippled by the 1770–72 famine, others like Aalen and Zell am Hammersbach remained debt-free despite their small size and other problems. The imperial prelates on average held only 138 square kilometres with 2,400 subjects each – some had no taxpayers at all. They deliberately avoided modernization by keeping their administration simple to reduce overheads, yet they were hugely successful on their own terms, and able to embark on costly baroque church-building using income from donations and pilgrims. Some were even able to purchase autonomy, like Neresheim abbey, which bought out Öttingen’s protectorate rights to join the ranks of Swabian prelates in 1764.135

There was likewise no sense of impending crisis in the larger territories. Despite its rocketing debts, interest payments consumed only 30 per cent of Habsburg expenditure, as opposed to 60 per cent in France. The resilience of the existing order was further demonstrated by its ability to manage the renewed burden of major war after 1792. Baden raised 13 loans totalling 8 million florins between 1794 and 1805, against a pre-war debt of just 65,000 florins, whereas Bavaria, despite 20 million florins of debts, was still able to raise 31 loans totalling 14 million across the same period.136 The Empire’s political components and corporate groups generally achieved what mattered to them: preserving their autonomy and sustaining their material existence. While the Empire’s constitutional order did not prevent adjustments, it certainly made radical changes less likely.

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