German Society at the Close of The Middle Ages. Belfort Bax

Chapter V
The German Town

From what has been said the reader may form for himself an idea of the intellectual and social life of the German town of the period. The wealthy patrician class, whose mainstay politically was the Rath, gave the social tone to the whole. In spite of the sharp and sometimes brutal fashion in which class distinctions asserted themselves then, as throughout the Middle ages, there was none of that aloofness between class and class which characterises the bourgeois society of the present day. Each town, were it great or small, was a little world in itself, so that every citizen knew every other citizen more or less. The schools attached to its ecclesiastical institutions were: practically free of access to all the children whose parents could find the means to maintain them during their studies; and consequently the intellectual differences between the different classes were by no means necessarily proportionate to the difference in social position. So far as culture and material prosperity were concerned, the towns of Bavaria and Franconia, Munich, Augsburg, Regensburg, and perhaps above all Nürnberg, represented the high-water mark of medieval civilisation as regards town-life. On entering the burg, should it have happened to be in time of peace and in daylight, the stranger would clear the drawbridge and the portcullis without much challenge, passing along streets lined with the houses and shops of the burghers, in whose open frontages the master and his apprentices and gesellen plied their trades, discussing eagerly over their work the politics of the town, and at this period probably the theological questions which were uppermost in men’s minds, our visitor would make his way to some hostelry, in whose courtyard he would dismount from his horse, and, entering the common room, or Stube, with its rough but artistic furniture of carved oak, partake of his flagon of wine or beer, according to the district in which he was travelling, whilst the host cracked a rough and possibly coarse jest with the other guests, or narrated to them the latest gossip of the city. The stranger would probably find himself before long the object of interrogatories respecting his native place and the object of his journey (although his dress would doubtless have given general evidence of this, whether he were a merchant or a travelling scholar or a practiser of medicine; for into one of these categories it might be presumed the humble but not servile traveller would fall. Were he on a diplomatic mission from some potentate he would be travelling at the least as a knight or a noble, with spurs and armour, and moreover would be little likely to lodge in a public house of entertainment.

In the Stube he would probably see drinking heavily, representatives of the ubiquitous Landsknechte, the mercenary troops enrolled for imperial purposes by the Emperor Maximilian towards the end of the previous century, who in the intervals of war were disbanded and wandered about spending their pay, and thus constituted an excessively disintegrative element in the life of the time. A contemporary writer[1] describes them as the curse of Germany, and stigmatises them as “unchristian, God-forsaken folk, whose hand is ever ready in striking, stabbing, robbing, burning, slaying, gaming, who delight in wine-bibbing, whoring, blaspheming, and in the making of widows and orphans “.

Presently perhaps a noise without indicates the arrival of a new guest. All hurry forth into the courtyard, and their curiosity is more keenly whetted when they perceive by the yellow knitted scarf round the neck of the new-comer that he is an itinerans scholasticus, or travelling scholar, who brings with him not only the possibility of news from the outer world, so important in an age when journals were non-existent, and communications irregular and deficient, but also a chance of beholding wonder-workings, as well as of being cured of the ailments which local skill had treated in vain. Already surrounded by a crowd of admirers waiting for the words of wisdom to fall from his lips, he would start on that exordium which bore no little resemblance to the patter of the modern quack, albeit interlarded with many a Latin quotation and great display of medieval learning. “Good people and worthy citizens of this town,” he might say, “behold in me the great master ... prince of necromancers, astrologer, second mage, chiromancer, agromancer; pyromancer, hydromancer. My learning is so profound that were all the works of Plato and Aristotle lost to the world, I could from memory restore them with more elegance than before. The miracles of Christ were not so great as those which I can perform wherever and as often as I will. Of all alchemists I am the first, and my powers are such that I can obtain all things that man desires. My shoebuckles contain more learning than the heads of Galen and Avicenna, and my beard has more experience than all your high schools. I am monarch of all learning. I can heal you of all diseases. By my secret arts I can procure you wealth. I am the philosopher of philosophers. I can provide you with spells to bind the most potent of the devils in Hell. I can cast your nativities and foretell all that shall befall you, since I have that which can unlock the secrets of all things that have been, that are, and that are to come."[2] Bringing forth strange-looking phials, covered with cabalistic signs, a crystal globe and an astrolabe, followed by an imposing scroll of parchment inscribed with mysterious Hebraic-looking characters, the travelling student would probably drive a roaring trade amongst the assembled townsmen in love-philtres, cures for the ague and the plague, and amulets against them, horoscopes, predictions of fate and the rest of his stock-in-trade.

As evening approaches, our traveller strolls forth into the streets and narrow lanes of the town, lined with overhanging gables that almost meet overhead and shut out the light of the afternoon sun, so that twilight seems already to have fallen. Observing that the burghers, with their wives and children, the work of the day being done, are all wending toward the western gate, he goes along with the stream till, passing underneath the heavy portcullis and through the outer rampart, he finds himself in the plain outside, across which a rugged bridlepath leads to a large quadrangular meadow, rough and more or less worn, where a considerable crowd has already assembled. This is the Allerwiese, or public pleasure ground of the town. Here there are not only high festivities on Sundays and holidays, but every fine evening in summer numbers of citizens gather together to watch the apprentices exercising their strength in athletic feats, and competing with one another in various sports, such as running, wrestling, spear-throwing, sword-play, and the like, wherein the inferior rank sought to imitate and even emulate the knighthood, whilst the daughters of the city watched their progress with keen interest and applauding laughter. As the shadows deepen and darkness falls upon the plain, our visitor joins the groups which are now fast leaving the meadow, and reprises the great embrasure just as the rushlights begin to twinkle in the windows, and a swinging oil-lamp to cast a dim light here and there in the streets. But as his company passes out of a narrow lane debouching on to the chief market-place their progress is stopped by the sudden rush of a mingled crowd of unruly apprentices and journeymen returning from their sports, with hot heads well beliquored. Then from another side street there is a sudden flare of torches borne aloft by guildsmen come out to quell the tumult and to send off the apprentices to their dwellings, whilst the watch also bears down and carries off some of the more turbulent of the journeymen to pass the night in one of the towers which guard the city wall. At last, however, the visitor reaches his inn by the aid of a friendly guildsman and his torch; and retiring to his chamber with its strawcovered floor, rough oaken bedstead, hard mattress, and coverings not much better than horse-cloths, he falls asleep as the bell of the minster tolls out ten o'clock over the now dark and silent city.

Such approximately would have been the view of a German city in the sixteenth century as presented to a traveller in a time of peace. More stirring times, however, were as frequent, times when the tocsin rang out from the steeple all night long, calling the citizens to arms. By such scenes, needless to say, the year of the Peasant War was more than usually characterised. In the days when every man carried arms and knew how to use them, when the fighting instinct was imbibed with the mother’s milk, when every week saw some street brawl, often attended by loss of life, and that by no means always among the most worthless and dissolute of the inhabitants, every dissatisfaction immediately turned itself into an armed revolt, whether it were of the apprentices or the journeymen against the guild-masters, the body of the townsmen against the patriciate, the town itself against its feudal superior, where it had one, or of the knighthood against the princes. The extremity to which disputes can at present be carried without resulting in a breach of the peace, as evinced in modern political and trade conflicts, exacerbated though some of them are, was a thing unknown in the Middle Ages, and indeed to any considerable extent until comparatively recent times. The sacred right of insurrection was then a recognised fact of life, and but very little straining of a dispute led to a resort to arms. In the subsequent chapters we have to deal with the more important of those outbursts to which the ferment due to the dissolution of the mediaeval system of things, then beginning throughout Central Europe, gave rise, of which the religious side is represented by what is known as the Reformation.

1. Sebastian Franck, Chronica, ccxvii.

2. Cf. Trittheim’s letter to Wirdung of Hasfurt regarding Faust. J Trittheimii Epistolarum Familiarum, 1536, bk.ii., ep.47; also the works of Paracelsus.