How was Germany governed in this critical and formative age?

The knights or lower nobility, who in former years had ruled the countryside as vassals of feudal seigneurs, were losing their miltary, economic, and political position. Mercenary troops hired by princes or cities, and equipped with firearms and artillery, were mowing down knightly cavalry helplessly brandishing swords; commercial wealth was raising prices and costs, and was outstripping landed property as a source of power; cities were establishing their independence, and princes were centralizing authority and law. The knights took some revenge by waylaying the commerce that passed their way; and when merchants and municipalities protested, the knights asserted their right to wage private wars. Comines described the Germany of this time as prickly with castles from which at any time “robber barons” and their armed retainers might pour forth to plunder merchant, traveler, and peasant alike.22 Some knights made it their custom to cut off the right hands of the merchants they robbed. Götz von Berlichingen, though he himself had lost his right hand in the service of his prince, substituted an iron hand, and led knightly bands to attack not only merchants but cities-Nuremberg, Darmstadt, Metz, and Mainz (1512). His friend Franz von Sickingen laid claims against the city of Worms, ravaged its environs, seized its councilors, tortured its burgomaster, resisted all attempts of Imperial troops to capture him, and was transiently subdued only by receiving an annual subsidy to serve the emperor. Twenty-two cities of Swabia—chiefly Augsburg, Ulm, Freiburg, and Constance—joined with some of the higher nobility to re-form the Swabian League (1488); these and other combinations checked the robber knights, and succeeded in having private war declared illegal; but Germany on the eve of Luther was a scene of social and political disorder, “a universal reign of force.”23

The secular and ecclesiastical princes who presided over the chaos contributed to it by their venality, their diverse coinages and customs dues, their confused competition for wealth and place, their distortion of Roman Law to give themselves almost absolute authority at the expense of the people, the knights, and the emperor. Great families like the Hohenzollerns in Brandenburg, the Wettins in Saxony, the Wittelsbachers in the Palatinate, the dukes of Württemberg, not to speak of the Hapsburgs of Austria, behaved like irresponsible sovereigns. If the power of the Catholic emperor over the German princes had been greater the Reformation might have been defeated or postponed. And the rejection of Rome by many of the princes was a further move toward financial and political independence.

The character of the emperors in this period accentuated the weakness of the central government. Frederick III (r. 1440–93) was an astrologer and alchemist who so loved the studious tranquillity of his gardens at Graz that he allowed Schleswig-Holstein, Bohemia, Austria, and Hungary to detach themselves from the Empire. But toward the end of his fifty-three-year reign he played a saving stroke by betrothing his son Maximilian to Mary, heiress to Charles the Bold of Burgundy. When Charles fought himself into an icy grave in 1477, the Hapsburgs inherited the Netherlands.

Maximilian I (r. 1493–1519), emperor-elect but never crowned, began his reign with every omen of success. All the Empire rejoiced in his good looks and good nature, his unassuming sensibility, his effervescent cheerfulness, his generosity and chivalry, his courage and skill in joust and hunt; it was as if an Italian of the High Renaissance had mounted a German throne. Even Machiavelli was impressed, calling him “a wise, prudent, God-fearing prince, a just ruler, a great general, brave in peril, bearing fatigue like the most hardened soldier... a pattern of many princely virtues.”24 But “Max” was not a great general, and he lacked the cynical intellect required for Machiavelli’s model prince. He dreamed of restoring the grandeur of the Holy Roman Empire by recapturing its former possessions and influence in Italy; he invaded the peninsula time and again in futile wars which the more practical Diet refused to finance; he allowed himself to think of deposing the doughty Julius II and making himself pope as well as emperor;25 and (like his contemporary, Charles VIII of France) he excused his territorial ambitions as necessary preludes to an overwhelming assault upon the Turks. But he was constitutionally and financially incapable of sustained enterprise; he was unable to will the means as well as to wish the ends; and at times he was so poor that he lacked funds to pay for his dinner. He labored to reform the administration of the Empire, but he violated his own reforms, and they died with him. He thought too much in terms of the Hapsburg power. After many disappointments in war he returned to his father’s policy of diplomatic marriages. So for his son Philip he accepted Ferdinand’s offer of Juana’s hand; she was a bit off-color mentally, but she brought Spain as her dowry. In 1515 he betrothed his granddaughter Mary and his grandson Ferdinand to Louis and Anne, son and daughter of Ladislas, King of Bohemia and Hungary; Louis was killed at Mohacs (1526), Ferdinand became King of Bohemia and (so far as the Turks would permit) of Hungary, and the Hapsburg power reached its widest range.

The most amiable facet of Maximilian was his love and encouragement of music, learning, literature, and art. He applied himself zealously to the study of history, mathematics, and languages; we are assured that he could speak German, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, Walloon, Flemish, and English, and that on one campaign he talked with seven alien commanders in their seven different tongues. Partly through his example and exertions, the dialects of South and North Germany merged into a gemeines Deutschwhich became the language of German government, of Luther’s Bible, and of German literature. Between wars he tried to be an author, and left compositions on heraldry, artillery, architecture, hunting, and his own career. He planned an extensive collection ofmonumenta—relics and inscriptions—from the German past, but again funds ran out. He proposed to the popes a calendar reform which they effected eighty years later. He reorganized the University of Vienna, established new professorships of law, mathematics, poetry, and rhetoric, and made Vienna for a time the most active seat of learning in Europe. He invited Italian humanists to Vienna, and empowered Conradus Celtes to open there an academy of poetry and mathematics. He favored humanists like Peutinger and Pirkheimer, and made the harassed Reuchlin a Count Palatine of the Empire. He gave commissions to Peter Vischer, Veit Stoss, Burgkmair, Dürer, and the other artists who flourished in his reign. He ordered at Innsbruck an ornate tomb to cherish his remains; it was left incomplete at his death, but it gave occasion for Peter Vischer’s fine statues of Theodoric and Arthur. If Maximilian had been as great as his plans he would have rivaled Alexander and Charlemagne.

In the Emperor’s last year Dürer painted an honest portrait of him—worn out and disillusioned, defeated by the maddening stinginess of time. “Earth possesses no joy for me,” said this once joyous soul, and he mourned, “Alas, poor land of Germany!”26 But he exaggerated his failure. He left Germany and the Empire (if only through economic developments) far stronger than he had found them. Population had risen, education had spread; Vienna was becoming another Florence; and soon his grandson, inheriting half ofWestern Europe, would become the most powerful ruler in Christendom.

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