Ministerialis (plural ministeriales); a post-classical Latin word, used in English, meaning originally servitor, agent, in a broad range of senses. In Germany, in the High Middle Ages, the word and its German translations, Ministeriale(n) and Dienstmann, came to describe those unfree knights who made up a large majority of German knighthood during that time.

The origin of the ministerial pedigree is obscured by time. A mediaeval chronicler reported that Julius Caesar defeated the Gauls and rewarded his Germanic allies with Roman rank. Princes were awarded senatorial status and their lesser knights (‘minores…milites’) received Roman citizenship. He assigned these ‘knights’ to princes but urged the princes “to treat the knights not as slaves and servants but rather to receive their services as the knights’ lords and defenders. ”Hence it is,” the chronicler explained, “that German knights, unlike their counterparts in other nations, are called servants of the royal fisc and princely ministerials.” In England there was no group of knights referred to as ministeriales, though the tight grip that English lords held upon their knights gave them less freedom than their German counterparts who had codified (and well-defended) rights.

Ministeriales (or “ministerials”, as Anglicized by Benjamin Arnold) of the post-Classical period were at first bondsmen or serfs taken from the servi proprii, or household servants (as opposed to the servi casati who were already tilling the land on a tenure.) These servants were entrusted with special responsibilities by their overlords, such as the management of a farm, administration of finances (chancery) or of various possessions. Free nobles (Edelfreie) disliked entering into servile relationships with other nobles, so lords of a necessity recruited bailiffs, administrators and officials from among their unfree servants who could also fulfill a household warrior role. From the 11th century the term came to denote functionaries living as members of the knightly class with either a lordship of their own or one delegated from a higher lord as well as some political influence (inter alia the exercise of offices at court).

Kings placed military requirements upon their princes, who in turn, placed requirements upon their vassals. The free nobles under a prince may have a bond of vassalage that let them get out of serving, so kings, princes, bishops and archbishops were able to recruit unfree persons into military service. Such a body made up the group called ministeriales.

The ministeriales were not legally free people, but held social rank. Legally, their liege lord determined who they could or could not marry, and they were not able to transfer their lords’ properties to heirs or spouses. They were, however, considered members of the nobility since that was a social designation, not a legal one. Ministeriales were trained knights, held military responsibilities and surrounded themselves with the trappings of knighthood, and so were accepted as noblemen.

There were two sorts of ministerials: casati, who administered lands and estates for a liege and were paid from the proceeds of the land and non-casati, who held administrative and military positions but were paid in either a fixed amount of coin or by a portion of the proceeds of mills, road or bridge tolls, or ferry fees or port taxes.

As the need for such service functions became more acute (as for example during the Investiture Controversy), and their duties and privileges, at first nebulous, became more clearly defined, the ministeriales developed in the Salian period (1024–1125) into a new and much differentiated class. They received fiefs, which to begin with were not heritable, in return for which they provided knightly services. They were also allowed to possess, and often did hold, allods: ownership of real property (land, buildings and fixtures) that is independent of any superior landlord, but it should not be confused with anarchy as the owner of allodial land is not independent of his sovereign. Ministerials were found holding the four great offices necessary to run a great household: seneschal, butler, marshal and chamberlain. They were vidames (vice dominus, or runners of estates) or castellans, having both military and administrative responsibilities. Conrad II of Kuchl was the financial adviser to four archbishops over the course of 40 years.

From the reign of Conrad II (1024–1039) they were employed as stewards (Vögte), castellans (Burggrafen) and judges in the administration of the imperial territories, and in the lay principalities. As Imperial ministerials (Reichsministerialen) they upheld the Salian, and particularly the Hohenstaufen, imperial polity.

In the Archbishopric of Salzburg the ministerials and clergy together elected Archbishop Gebhard in 1060, as well as every archbishop from 1147 to 1256 save for Conrad III (r. 1177–83).

Ministerials could be drawn from different occupational groups. In Salzburg, Austria a Timo appears in 1125/47 in the traditionsbuch (book of traditions) as a miles (knight) of the archiepiscopal ministerialage who functioned as burgrave and also as a merchant.

By the 12th century a distinction was made between greater ministerials (ministeriales maiores) who had their own vassals and lesser ministerials (ministeriales minores) who had no vassals of their own.

By the end of the 12th century the term miles—theretofore reserved for free warriors—was also being applied to ministerials. Over the course of the 13th century their status was slowly assimilated to that of the free nobility, or vassals. The remaining traces of the taint of servility gradually faded, and the “fiefs for service” turned into proper hereditable fiefs, partly also because impoverished free nobles, while reserving their personal free status, voluntarily became ministeriales.

Both women and men held the ministerial status, and the laws on ministerials made no distinction between the sexes in how they were treated.

By the 13th century Bavarian law held that the ministeriales (or Dienstmann) held a position higher than the ordinary milites, and only the monarchy and princes were permitted to maintain ministeriales. By the 13th and 14th centuries the ministeriales formed an intrinsic part of the lower nobility, and in the 15th century formed the core of the German knightly class (Ritterstand). Other regions were not as open, for as late as the fifteenth century the documents of the Dutch province of Gelderland continued to distinguish between knights of noble and of ministerial birth.

As with all medieval terms of vassalage, the duties, obligations and benefits varied by region and even individual negotiation or tradition. These are often recorded in the Holy Roman Empire in a document named a Dienstrecht, or “service code.” One constant is that all arrangements included a duty owed to the lord for military service. This could take the form of actual personal service by the ministeriales or a payment to fund others who went to war. The monastery of Maurmunster records the following:

When a campaign (profectio) of the king is announced to the bishop (of Metz, in this case) the bishop will send an official to the abbot, and the abbot will assemble his ministeriales. He will inform them of the campaign, and they will assemble the following men and equipment…: one wagon with six cows and six men; one packhorse with saddle and equipment and two men, the leader and the driver…If the king moves the army to Italy, all the peasant farms shall contribute for that purpose their usual taxes (that is, probably an entire annual rent as an extraordinary tax). But if the army moves against Saxony, Flanders or elsewhere on this side of the Alps, only half that amount will be given. From these additional taxes the wagons and pack animals will be loaded with rations and other items necessary for the journey.

In Bamberg the Carolingian method of providing for a campaign remained in effect. Ministeriales were grouped into threes; one went on campaign while the other two were responsible for equipping and victualing him.

Ministerial marriage was subject to review or approval of the liege, as in Salzburg:

   In July 1213 Archbishop Eberhard II of Salzburg (1200–1246) and Bishop Manegold of Passau (1206–1215) asked King Frederick II at the imperial court held at Eger (today Cheb in the Czech Republic) to confirm the marriage contract that Gerhoch II of Bergheim-Radeck, an archiepiscopal ministerial, had made with Bertha of Lonsdorf, a Passau ministerial. The couple had agreed, presumably with their lords’ consent, that their first two children were to belong to Salzburg and the third to Passau, and that any remaining children would be divided equally between the two churches. Gerhoch and Bertha could confer their allods on each other, and their children would share their paternal and maternal inheritances equally.

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