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

Chapter VII
Country and Town at the End of the Middle Ages.

FOR the complete understanding of the events which follow it must be borne in mind that we are witnessing the end of a distinct historical period; and, as we have pointed out in the Introduction, the expiring effort, half conscious and half unconscious, of the people to revert to the conditions of an earlier age. Nor can the significance be properly gauged unless a clear conception is obtained of the differences between country and town life at the beginning of the sixteenth century. From the earliest periods of the Middle Ages of which we have any historical record, the Markgenossenschaft, or primitive village community of the Germanic race, was overlaid by a territorial domination, imposed upon it either directly by conquest or voluntarily accepted for the sake of the protection indispensable in that rude period. The conflict of these two elements, the mark organisation and the territorial lordship, constitutes the marrow of the social history of the Middle Ages.

In the earliest times the pressure of the overlord, whoever he might be, seems to have been comparatively slight, but its inevitable tendency was for the territorial power to extend itself at the expense of the rural community. It was thus that in the tenth and eleventh centuries the feudal oppression had become thoroughly settled, and had reached its greatest intensity all over Europe. It continued thus with little intermission until the thirteenth century, when from various causes, economic and otherwise, matters began to improve in the interests of the common man, till in the fifteenth century the condition of the peasant was better than it has ever been, either before or since within historical times, in Northern and Western Europe. But with all this, the oppressive power of the lord of the soil was by no means dead. It was merely dormant, and was destined to spring into renewed activity the moment the lord’s necessities supplied a sufficient incentive. From this time forward the element of territorial power, supported in its claims by the Roman law, with its basis of private property, continued to eat into it until it had finally devoured the old rights and possessions of the village community. The executive power always tended to be transferred from its legitimate holder, the village in its corporate capacity, to the lord; and this was alone sufficient to place the villager at his mercy.

At the time of the Reformation, owing to the new conditions which had arisen and had brought about in a few decades the hitherto unparalleled rise in prices, combined with the unprecedented ostentation and extravagance more than once referred to in these pages, the lord was supplied with the requisite incentive to the exercise of the power which his feudal system gave him. Consequently, the position of the peasant rapidly changed for the worse; and although at the outbreak of the movement not absolutely in extremis, according to our notions, yet it was so bad comparatively to his previous condition and that less than half a century before, and tended so evidently to become more intolerable, that discontent became everywhere rife, and only awaited the torch of the new doctrines to set it ablaze. The whole course of the movement shows a peasantry not downtrodden and starved, but proud and robust, driven to take up arms not so much by misery and despair as by the deliberate will to maintain the advantages which were rapidly slipping away from them.

Serfdom was not by any means universal. Many free peasant villages were to be found scattered amongst the manors of the territorial lords, though it was but too evidently the settled policy of the latter at this time to sweep everything into their net, and to compel such peasant communes to accept a feudal over-lordship. Nor were they at all scrupulous in the means adopted for attaining their ends. The ecclesiastical foundations, as before said, were especially expert in forging documents for the purpose of proving that these free villages were lapsed feudatories of their own. Old rights of pasture were being curtailed, and others, notably those of hunting and fishing, had in most manors been completely filched away.

It is noticeable, however, that although the immediate causes of the peasant rising were the new burdens which had been laid upon the common people during the last few years, once the spirit of discontent was aroused it extended also in many cases to the traditional feudal dues to which until then the peasant had submitted with little murmuring, and an attempt was made by the country side to reconquer the ancient complete freedom of which a dim remembrance had been handed down to them.

The condition of the peasant up to the beginning of the sixteenth century, that is to say, up to the time when it began to so rapidly change for the worse, may be gathered from what we are told by contemporary, writers, such as Wimpfeling, Sebastian Brandt, Wittenweiler, the satires in the Nürnberger Fastnachspielen, and numberless other sources; as also from the sumptuary laws of the end of the fifteenth century. All these indicate an ease and profuseness of living which little accord with our notions of the word peasant. Wimpfeling writes: “The peasants in our district and in many parts of Germany have become, through their riches, stiff-necked and ease-loving. I know peasants who at the weddings of their sons or daughters, or the baptism of their children, make so much display that a house and field might be bought therewith, and a small vineyard to boot. Through their riches, they are oftentimes spendthrift in food and in vestments, and they drink wines of price.”

A chronicler relates of the Austrian peasants, under the date of 1478, that “they wore better garments and drank better wine than their lords”; and a sumptuary law passed at the Reichstag, held at Lindau in 1497, provides that the common peasant man and the labourer in the towns or in the field “shall neither make nor wear cloth that costs more than half a gulden the ell, neither shall they wear gold, pearls, velvet, silk, nor embroidered clothes, nor shall they permit their wives or their children to wear such”.

Respecting the food of the peasant, it is stated that he ate his full in flesh of every kind, in fish, in bread, in fruit, drinking wine often to excess. The Swabian, Heinrich Müller, writes in the year 1550, nearly two generations after the change had begun to take place: “In the memory of my father, who was a peasant man, the peasant did eat much better than now. Meat and food in plenty was there every day, and at fairs and other junketings the tables did well-nigh break with what they bore. Then drank they wine as it were water, then did a man fill his belly and carry away withal as much as he could; then was wealth and plenty. Otherwise is it now. A costly and a bad time hath arisen since many a year, and the food and drink of the best peasant is much worse than of yore that of the day labourer and the serving man.”

We may well imagine the vivid recollections which a peasant in the year 1525 had of the golden days of a few years before. The day labourers and serving men were equally tantalised by the remembrance of high wages and cheap living at the beginning of the century. A day labourer could then earn, with his keep, nine, and without keep, sixteen groschen[1] a week. What this would buy may he judged from the following prices current in Saxony during the second half of the fifteenth century. A pair of good working shoes cost three groschen; a whole sheep, four groschen; a good fat hen, half a groschen; twenty-five cod fish, four groschen; a waggon-load of firewood, together with carriage, five groschen; an ell of the best homespun cloth, five groschen; a scheffel (about a bushel of rye, six or seven groschen. The Duke of Saxony wore grey hats which cost him four groschen. In Northern Rhineland about the same time a day labourer could, in addition to his keep, earn in a week a quarter of rye, ten pounds of pork, six large cans of milk, and two bundles of firewood, and in the course of five weeks be able to buy six ells of linen, a pair of shoes, and a bag for his tools. In Augsburg the daily wages of an ordinary labourer represented the value of six pounds of the best meat, or one pound of meat, seven eggs, a peck of peas, about a quart of wine, in addition to such bread as he required, with enough over for lodging, clothing, and minor expenses. In Bavaria he could earn daily eighteen pfennige, or one and a half groschen, whilst a pound of sausage cost one pfennig, and a pound of the best beef two pfennige, and similarly throughout the whole of the States of Central Europe.

A document of the year 1483, from Ehrbach in the Swabian Odenwald, describes for us the treatment of servants by their masters. “All journeymen,” it declares, “that are hired, and likewise bondsmen (serfs, also the serving men and maids, shall each day be given twice meat and what thereto longith, with half a small measure of wine, save on fast days, when they shall have fish or other food that nourisheth. Whoso in the week bath toiled shall also on Sundays and feast days make merry after mass and preaching. They shall have bread and meat enough, and half a great measure of wine. On feast days also roasted meat enough. Moreover, they shall be given, to take home with them, a great loaf of bread and so much of flesh as two at one meal may eat.”

Again, in a bill of fare of the household of Count Joachim von Oettingen in Bavaria, the journeymen and villeins are accorded in the morning, soup and vegetables; at mid-day, soup and meat, with vegetables, and a bowl of broth or a plate of salted or pickled meat; at night, soup and meat, carrots, and preserved meat. Even the women who brought fowls or eggs from the neighbouring villages to the castle were given for their trouble — if from the immediate vicinity, a plate of soup with two pieces of bread; if from a greater distance, a complete meal and a cruise of wine. In Saxony, similarly, the agricultural journeymen received two meals a day, of four courses each, besides frequently cheese and bread at other times should they require it. Not to have eaten meat for a week was the sign of the direst famine in any district. Warnings are not wanting against the evils accruing to the common man from his excessive indulgence in eating and drinking.

Such was the condition of the proletariat in its first inception, that is, when the mediaeval system of villeinage had begun to loosen and to allow a proportion of free labourers to insinuate themselves into its working. How grievous, then, were the complaints when, while wages had risen either not at all or at most from half a groschen to a groschen, the price of rye rose from six or seven groschen a bushel to about five-and-twenty groschen, that of a sheep from four to eighteen groschen, and all other articles of necessary consumption in a like proportion![2]

In the Middle Ages, necessaries and such ordinary comforts as were to be had at all were dirt cheap; while non- necessaries and luxuries, that is, such articles as had to be imported from afar, were for the most part at prohibitive prices. With the opening up of the world-market during the first half of the sixteenth century, this state of things rapidly changed. Most luxuries in a short time fell heavily in price, while necessaries rose in a still greater proportion.

This latter change in the economic conditions of the world exercised its most powerful effect, however, on the character of the mediaeval town, which had remained substantially unchanged since its first great expansion at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries. With the extension of commerce and the opening up of communications, there began that evolution of the town whose ultimate outcome was to entirely change the central idea on which the urban organisation was based.

The first requisite for a town, according to modern notions, is facility of communication with the rest of the world by means of railways, telegraphs, postal system, and the like. So far has this gone now that in a new country, for instance America, the railway, telegraph lines, etc., are made first, and the towns are then strung upon them, like beads upon a cord. In the mediaeval town, on the contrary, communication was quite a secondary matter, and more of a luxury than a necessity. Each town was really a self-sufficing entity, both materially and intellectually. The modern idea of a town is that of a mere local aggregate of individuals, each pursuing a trade or calling with a view to the world-market at large. Their own locality or town is no more to them economically than any other part of the world-market, and very little more in any other respect. The medieval idea of a town, on the contrary, was that of an organisation of groups into one organic whole. Just as the village community was a somewhat extended family organisation, so was, mutatis mutandis, the larger unit, the township or city. Each member of the town organisation owed allegiance and distinct duties primarily to his guild, or immediate social group, and through this to the larger social group which constituted the civic society. Consequently, every townsman felt a kind of esprit de corps with his fellow-citizens, akin to that, say, which is alleged of the soldiers of the old French “foreign legion,” who, being brothers-in-arms, were brothers also in all other relations. But if every citizen owed duty and allegiance to the town in its corporate capacity, the town no less owed protection and assistance, in every department of life, to its individual members.

As in ancient Rome in its earlier history, and as in all other early urban communities, agriculture necessarily played a considerable part in the life of most mediaeval towns. Like the villages they possessed each its own mark, with its common fields, pastures, and woods. These were demarcated by various landmarks, crosses, holy images, etc.; and “the bounds” were beaten every year. The wealthier citizens usually possessed gardens and orchards within the town walls, while each inhabitant had his share in the communal holding without. The use of this latter was regulated by the Rath or Council. In fact, the town life of the Middle Ages was not by any means so sharply differentiated from rural life as is implied in our modern idea of a town. Even in the larger commercial towns, such as Frankfurt, Nürnberg or Augsburg, it was common to keep cows, pigs, and sheep, and, as a matter of course, fowls and geese, in large numbers within the precincts of the town itself. In Frankfurt in 1481 the pigsties in the town had become such a nuisance that the Rath had to forbid them in the front of the houses by a formal decree. In Ulm there was a regulation of the bakers’ guild to the effect that no single member should keep more than twenty-four pigs, and that cows should be confined to their stalls at night. In Nürnberg in 1475 again, the Rath had to interfere with the intolerable nuisance of pigs and other farmyard stock running about loose in the streets. Even in a town like München we are informed that agriculture formed one of the staple occupations of the inhabitants, while in almost every city the gardeners’ or the winegrowers’ guild appears as one of the largest and most influential.

It is evident that such conditions of life would be impossible with town-populations even approaching only distantly those of to-day; and, in fact, when we come to inquire into the size and populousness of mediaeval cities, as into those of the classical world of antiquity, we are at first sight staggered by the smallness of their proportions. The largest and most populous free imperial cities in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Nürnberg and Strassburg, numbered little more than 20,000 resident inhabitants within the walls, a population rather less than that of (say) Gloucester at the present time. Such an important place as Frankfurt-am-Main is stated at the middle of the fifteenth century to have had less than 9,000 inhabitants. At the end of the fifteenth century Dresden could only boast of about 5,000. Rothenburg on the Tauber is to-day a dead city to all intents and purposes, affording us a magnificent example of what a mediaeval town was like, as the bulk of its architecture, including the circuit of its walls, which remain intact, dates approximately from the sixteenth century. At present a single line of railway branching off from the main line with about two trains a day is amply sufficient to convey the few antiquarians and artists who are now its sole visitors, and who have to content themselves with country-inn accommodation. Yet this old free city has actually a larger population at the present day than it had at the time of which we are writing, when it was at the height of its prosperity as an important centre of activity. The figures of its population are now between 8,000 and 9,000. At the beginning of the sixteenth century they were between 6,000 and 7,000. A work written and circulated in manuscript during the first decade of the sixteenth century, “A Christian Exhortation” (Ein Christliche Mahnung), after referring to the frightful pestilences recently raging as a punishment from God, observes, in the spirit of true Malthusianism, and as a justification of the ways of Providence, that “an there were not so many that died there were too much folk in the land, and it were not good that such should be lest there were not food enough for all”.

Great population as constituting importance in a city is comparatively a modern notion. In other ages towns became famous on account of their superior civic organisation, their more advantageous situation, or the greater activity, intellectual, political, or commercial, of their citizens.

What this civic organisation of mediaeval towns was, demands a few words of explanation, since the conflict between the two main elements in their composition plays an important part in the events which follow. Something has already been said on this head in the Introduction. We have there pointed out that the Rath or Town Council, that is the supreme governing bode of the municipality, was in all cases mainly, and often entirely, composed of the heads of the town aristocracy, the patrician class or “honorability” (Ehrbarkeit), as they were termed, who on the ground of their antiquity and wealth laid claim to every post of power and privilege. On the other hand were the body of the citizens enrolled in the various guilds, seeking, as their position and wealth improved, to wrest the control of the town’s resources from the patricians. It must be remembered that the towns stood in the position of feudal over-lords to the peasants who held land on the city territory, which often extended for many square miles outside the walls. A small town like Rothenburg, for instance, which we have described above, had on its lands as many as 15,000 peasants. The feudal dues and contributions of these tenants constituted the staple revenue of the town, and the management of them was one of the chief bones of contention.

Nowhere was the guild system brought to a greater perfection than in the free imperial towns of Germany. Indeed, it was carried further in them, in one respect, than in any other part of Europe, for the guilds of journeymen (Gesellenverbande), which in other places never attained any strength or importance, were in Germany developed to the fullest extent, and of course supported the craft-guilds in their conflict with the patriciate. Although there were naturally numerous frictions between the two classes of guilds respecting wages, working days, hours, and the like, it must not be supposed that there was that irreconcilable hostility between them which would exist at the present time between a trades union and a syndicate of employers. Each recognised the right to existence of the other. In one case, that of the strike of bakers towards the close of the fifteenth century, at Colmar in Elsass, the craft-guilds supported the journeymen in their protest against a certain action of the patrician Rath which they considered to be a derogation from their dignity.

Like the masters the journeymen had their own guild-house, and their own solemn functions and social gatherings. There were, indeed, two kinds of journeymen-guilds: one whose chief purpose was a religious one, and the other concerning itself in the first instance with the secular concerns of the body. However, both classes of journeymen-guilds worked into one another’s hand. On coming into a strange town a travelling member of such a guild was certain of a friendly reception, of maintenance until he procured work, and of assistance in finding it as soon as possible.

Interesting details concerning the wages paid to journeymen and their contributions to the guilds are to be found in the original documents relating exclusively to the journeymen-guilds, collected by Georg Schanz.[3] From these and other sources it is clear that the position of the artisan in the towns was in proportion much better than even that of the peasant at that time, and therefore immeasurably superior to anything he has enjoyed since. In South Germany at this period the average price of beef was about two denarii [4] a pound, while the daily wages of the masons and carpenters, in addition to their keep and lodging, amounted in the summer to about twenty, and in the winter to about sixteen of these denarii. In Saxony the same journeymen-craftsmen earned on the average, besides their maintenance, two groschen four pfennige a day, or about one-third the value of a bushel of corn. In addition to this, in some cases the workman had weekly gratuities under the name of “bathing money”; and in this connection it may be noticed that a holiday for the purpose of bathing once a fortnight, once a week, or even oftener, as the case might be, was stipulated for by the guilds, and generally recognised as a legitimate demand. The common notion of the uniform uncleanliness of the medieval man requires to be considerably modified when one closely investigates the condition of town life, and finds everywhere facilities for bathing in winter and summer alike. Untidiness and uncleanliness, according to our notions, there may have been in the streets and in the dwellings in many cases, owing to inadequate provisions for the disposal of refuse and the like; but we must not therefore extend this idea to the person, and imagine that the mediaeval craftsman or even peasant was as unwholesome as, say, the Roumanian peasant of to-day.

When these wages received by the journeymen artisans are compared with the prices of commodities previously given, it will be seen how relatively easy were their circumstances; and the extent of their well-being may be further judged from the wealth of their guilds, which, although, varying in different places, at all times formed a considerable proportion of the wealth of the town. The guild system was based upon the notion that the individual master and workman was working as much in the interest of the guild as for his own advantage. Each member of the guild was alike under the obligation to labour, and to labour in accordance with the rules laid down by his guild, and at the same time had the right of equal enjoyment with his fellow-guildsmen of all advantages pertaining to the particular branch of industry covered by the guild. Every guildsman had to work himself in propria persona, no contractor was tolerated who himself “in ease and sloth doth live on the sweat of others, and puffeth himself up in lustful pride”. Were a guild-master ill and unable to manage the affairs of his workshop, it was the council of the guild, and not himself or his relatives, who installed a representative for him and generally looked after his affairs. It was the guild again which procured the raw material, and distributed it in relatively equal proportions amongst its members; or where this was not the case, the time and place were indicated at which the guildsman might buy at a fixed maximum price. Every master had equal right to the use of the common property and institutions of the guild, which in some industries included the essentials of production, as, for example, in the case of the woollen manufacturers, where wool kitchens, carding rooms, bleaching houses and the like were common to the whole guild.

Needless to say, the relations between master and apprentices and master and journeymen were rigidly fixed clown to the minutest detail. The system was thoroughly patriarchal in its character. In the hey-day of the guilds, every apprentice and most of the journeymen regarded their actual condition as a period of preparation which would end in the glories of mastership. For this dear hope they were ready on occasion to undergo cheerfully the most arduous duties. The education in handicraft, and, we may add, the supervision of the morals of the blossoming members of the guild, was a department which greatly exercised its administration. On the other hand, the guild in its corporate capacity was bound to maintain sick or incapacitated apprentices and journeymen, though after the journeymen had developed into a distinct class, and the consequent rise of the journeymen-guilds, the latter function was probably in most cases taken over by them. The guild laws against adulteration, stamped work, and the like, were sometimes ferocious in their severity. For example, in some towns the baker who misconducted himself in the matter of the composition of his bread was condemned to be shut up in a basket which was fixed at the end of along pole, and let down so many times to the bottom of a pool of dirty water. In the year 1456 two grocers, together with a female assistant:, were burnt alive at Nürnberg for adulterating saffron and spices, and a similar instance happened at Augsburg in 1492. From what we have said it will be seen that. guild life, like the life of the town as a whole, was essentially a social life. It was a larger family, into which various blood families were merged. The interest of each was felt to be the interest of all, and the interest of all no less the interest of each.

But in many towns, outside the town population properly speaking, outside the patrician families who generally governed the Rath, outside the guilds, outside the town organisation altogether, there were other bodies dwelling within the walls and forming imperia in imperiis. These were the religious corporations, whose possessions were often extensive, and who, dwelling within their own walls, shut out from the rest of the town, were subject only to their own ordinances. The quasi-religious, quasi-military Order of the Teutonic Knights (Deutscher Orden), founded at the time of the Crusades, was the wealthiest and largest of these corporations. In addition to the extensive territories which it held in various parts of the Empire, it had establishments in a large number of cities. Besides this there were, of course, the Orders of the Augustinians and Carthusians, and a number of less important foundations, who had their cloisters in various towns. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the pomp, bride, and licentiousness of the Teutonic Order drew upon it the especial hatred of the townsfolk; and amid the general wreck of religious houses none were more ferociously despoiled than those belonging to this Order. There were, moreover, in some towns, the establishments of princely families, which were regarded by the citizens with little less hostility than that accorded to the religious Orders.

Such were the explosive elements of town life when changing conditions were tending to dislocate the whole structure of mediaeval existence. The capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 had struck a heavy blow at the commerce of the Bavarian cities which had come by way of Constantinople and Venice. This latter city lost one by one its trading centres in the East, and all Oriental traffic by way of the Black Sea was practically stopped. It was the Dutch cities who inherited the wealth and influence of the German towns when Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the Cape route to the East began to have its influence on the trade of the world. This diversion of Oriental traffic from the old overland route was the starting point of the modern merchant navy, and it must be placed amongst the most potent causes of the break-up of mediaeval civilisation. The above change, although immediately felt by the German towns, was not realised by them in its full importance either as to its causes or its consequences for more than a century; but the decline of their prosperity was nevertheless sensible, even now, and contributed directly to the coming upheaval.

1. One silver groschen = 11/2d.

2. The authorities for the above data are to be found in Janssen, i., vol. i., bk. iii., especially pp.330-346.

3. Zur Geschichte der deutsrhen Gesellenverbande, Leipz., 1876.

4. C. (d. The denarius was the South German equivalent of the North German pfennig, of which twelve went to the groschen.