The Holy Roman Empire in the Twelfth and Thirteenth centuries II

Art by Graham Turner

What gave the impulse to a new growth or a new founding of cities was the establishment of markets and the bestowal of privileges in connection with them. Markets might be founded at first only by express permission of the kings, who received in return certain tolls or taxes. A large symbol, usually a cross that was erected at the time of each yearly or weekly market, signified to all that the gathering was under the king’s especial peace.

Such markets were held already in Carolingian times, towards the end of which period, too, the places where they were held were often granted immunities! The people within certain limits were not to be subject to the usual financial burdens, but were to enjoy for themselves the revenues accruing from their pastures and fields, and from judicial fines and penalties. They were to be exempt, too, from the jurisdiction of the count or centenar and to have their own official, the advocatus or defensor.

The only duties which these and other districts enjoying immunity were obliged to fulfil were hospitality to the king when he came in their midst, the building of fortresses and the keeping of watch and ward, the building of streets and bridges, and the obeying of a summons to the army.

It is no mere chance that the market place in all older German towns occupies so important a position. It was the nucleus of the city which spread out from it in all directions. Mints and other necessary institutions were established in the neighbourhood; fortifications were erected so that the place should not be disturbed; merchants, and especially Jews, began to settle themselves comfortably round their place of exchange. Judicial courts that began with settling differences relating to market affairs, and that were under a special market judge, developed into the chief judicial bodies of the cities.

The land, for which a small rent was paid to the lord of the town, was already by the end of the eleventh century technically free, and could be willed away or sold. At first the administration as a whole was in the hands of the community in general, and records remain, for Magdeburg, for instance, to show that mass meetings were called for the transacting of ordinary affairs. A chosen few naturally soon gained the ascendancy, and the institution of city councils was evolved.

The old market cross, which was erected and taken down as occasion demanded, was replaced in the twelfth century by a monumental stone cross, to which often a glove, a hat, a sword, or a shield was attached as symbol of the king’s protection. This protection implied that offences committed during market time were to be punished with the royal ban of sixty shillings in addition to the usual penalty. In the fourteenth century the stone crosses gave place in many towns to the Rolands — huge stone figures bearing the sword of justice.

Already in the tenth century Mayence, the Aurea Maguntia as it was called, had begun to be an important centre. One by one the cities along the Rhine now rose into prominence. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries Cologne possessed the commercial supremacy, carrying on a large trade with England and other countries.

The twelfth century, as a result of the constant intercourse kept up with the Orient by crusaders, saw a vast increase of commerce all over Europe. Eastern wares were landed on the English and Flemish coasts, and were transferred from there to all parts of Germany, especially to the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic. Bremen and Lubeck quickly became large and flourishing.

The needs of commerce had meanwhile given rise to those great and important associations, the Merchant Gilds. Trade was originally carried on by wandering merchants who went with their wares from place to place, and bought, sold, or exchanged at the different markets. For their own protection on the way, a number of traders would unite themselves into caravans. Rich and poor, men of high degree and men of low united into such societies, and chose a leader or alderman for themselves, whose duty it was to arrange for the safety of the expedition.

Such temporary associations for mutual convenience soon led to more lasting unions. The Gild took a name to itself, chose a patron saint, and arranged festivals and banquets. The actual meaning of the word gild is a sacrificial feast — convivium was the common translation for it later in Saxony — and this social and festal element was never wanting.

The earlier alderman becomes a regular official; a number of gild brothers form an advisory committee. The gilds undertook the improvement of intercourse between commercial centres, introduced new scales and weights, and developed new codes of commercial usage. They strove for and obtained the monopoly of trade in certain branches, and they formed sub-gilds in far-off places, thus assuring their members of a good reception and of proper protection. Cologne had a gild in London, Groningen had gilds in Cologne and in Utrecht.

In the cities of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there were thus three factors, the gilds, the city councils, and the lesser or local tradesmen, if we may call them so. The gilds themselves became more and more associations of greater merchants, who in many towns formed a regular oligarchy, securing for their members the chief positions in the city council. They often came into conflict with the other members of the community, but the great struggles between the classes and the masses belong to the history of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The cities were now proud corporations with a great sense of their own importance, their inhabitants are addressed even in royal charters as “distinguished citizens.” More and more did they strive for freedom and for complete emancipation from the rule of the lords to whose territory they belonged.

By the end of the Hohenstaufen period there were comparatively few of these market cities still remaining under the direct jurisdiction of the crown. They had for the most part been deeded away to great nobles, to bishops and abbots.

It was Otto I. who had commenced making such grants of markets and of the jurisdiction over them; by the time of Henry IV. nine-tenths of the markets were subject in the last instance to members of the clergy.

When the markets developed into regular cities, which they did chiefly in the eleventh century, the princes to whom they had been granted retained their authority, drew their revenues from taxes and judicial fines, coined their own money, and saw to the maintenance of peace.

It was not long, however, before the cities tried to throw off the authority of their lords. Already, under Henry IV. and in his favour, Cologne had risen against the Archbishop Anno; many other cities, too, took the part of the unfortunate king, who rewarded them with grants of tolls and jurisdictions.

Later, as we have seen, the territorial princes, supported by Frederick II., made strenuous efforts to prevent the growing autonomy of the cities; a decree of 1231 categorically forbade them to elect their own authorities. The result was a fiercer conflict than ever; the laws passed were disregarded, and in the end the burghers had their way. The cities gradually became little republics, drew the inhabitants of the surrounding districts under their influence and made leagues and confederations with each other.

In the struggle between the Hohenstaufens and the anti-king, Henry Raspe, the cities played an important part — all the more so as the greater lay princes maintained an unworthy neutrality. Sought after by both parties they drew all the profit possible from the condition of affairs. Frederick II. and Conrad IV. were not chary in promising privileges, and were able to win over Aix, Treves, Augsburg, Worms, Ulm, and many other towns.

The Archbishop of Mayence, on the other hand, gained over for himself his own capital by granting it practical autonomy; the Bishop of Strasburg followed suit, while Cologne accepted favours from the papal as well as the Hohenstaufen side and remained neutral.

The disorders consequent upon the fall of the Hohenstaufens gave the cities an opportunity to complete their emancipation. Already in 1254, as we have seen, it had become possible for an organization like the Rhine Confederation to spring into being and to become for a moment the most important political factor in the land.

At the time when the colonization of the Slavic lands by the Germans was making such progress and the German cities were growing so rapidly in importance, in wealth, and in independence, another development was reaching its climax, a development no less interesting and wonderful.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries are the period when the feudal system flourished in Germany in its greatest completeness. This system may be said to have begun at the time when Charles Martel confiscated the lands of the Church, and parcelled them out among his nobles. His object was to enable the latter to support the heavier expenses of military duty contingent on the extension of the use of cavalry.

In distributing these lands among his followers Charles Martel stipulated that the holders should pay a certain rent to the especial church to which the property belonged — a stipulation which was confirmed and repeated under Pippin.

The “benefices,” as they were called, proved for the Carolingian kings a powerful factor in controlling their nobles. Whoever fell under the royal displeasure was likely to forfeit lands which had been given him, not only as a reward for past services but as a pledge for services to come.

The services in question were mostly of a military nature, and the man to whom the land was lent was obliged to subdivide a certain part of it and lend it in turn to those who were willing to be his followers in the army. What the kings did on a large scale they, the nobles, were compelled to do on a smaller one.

Those to whom they sub-granted their land were obliged to swear loyalty or fealty, and this oath, or homage as it was called, came to be incumbent on the original holders themselves as regarded the king. They became his vassals, and aided him with an army of sub-vassals of their own. These holders-in-chief, or seigneurs, were the men who, towards the end of the Carolingian period, answered the call to arms, and not, as up to the time of Charlemagne, the whole body of freemen.

The feudal system gradually invaded the whole of Europe, although in Germany especially, in addition to fiefs, there were always private landed possessions or allods. These latter, indeed, in order to fit them into the prevalent scheme of land-holding, were often designated as “fiefs of the sun!”

For centuries, fiefs were not hereditary. They lapsed to the crown at the death of every holder; at every change of monarch or of lord there had to be a renewal of the grant. When the time came, as it did in the thirteenth century, that they could descend regularly from a father to his son, or daughter, or even to his collateral relations, the power of the king as a feudal monarch was at an end.

Not only land, but offices and privileges could be granted out as fiefs in return for certain services. These, too, were at first withdrawable at the will of the crown and in time became hereditary.

The result of the spread of vassalage was to ruin the state in its old form. The land became subject to many masters, the monarch wasted the greater part of his time in reckoning with this or that aspiring noble. We no longer find kings issuing general laws or capitularies for all of their subjects just as we no longer find them directly commanding those subjects to fight their battles.

By the twelfth century, feudalism had invaded everything; even the episcopal sees were looked upon as fiefs which were to be withdrawn and held for a while after every vacancy. Rulers of foreign lands hastened to become vassals of the emperors and also of the popes; Henry VI. and Innocent III. claimed homage from nearly all the kings of Europe.

Among the vassals of the higher nobles in Germany the so-called ministeriales or serving men came to form a class of high importance, a class by themselves of men who, originally not free and without land of their own, raised themselves in rank and formed a sort of lesser nobility. In a royal charter of 1134 they are spoken of as the ordo equestris minor. Their advancement was owing to the fact that the services demanded of them were of a military nature, and that they could thus make themselves indispensable on occasion. Many free knights, seeing the rewards that the ministeriales were entitled to, voluntarily gave up their own rank and privileges and entered into this connection.

It was the ministeriales who made up the kernel of the armies of the Hohenstaufens; they it was who helped those kings in their struggles with the princes, with the popes and with the Lombards.

By the time at which we have arrived the knights themselves, ordo equestris major, had come to form a class so distinct and so exclusive that no outsiders could enter it except in the course of three generations or by special decree of the king. Only to those whose fathers and grandfathers were of knightly origin could fiefs now be granted; only such could engage in judicial combat, in knightly sports, and above all in the tournament or joust.

One of the chief duties of a blameless knight was to be a true vassal to his liege lord, and at once to repair to that lord’s court when summoned, even if the object were only to assist at festivities. He was to be ready to aid in the administration of justice or to take part if need be in a war or a feud. He was obliged to swear on receiving his fief to be “faithful, devoted and willing;” he laid his hands in the hands of his master, and in many cases sealed the compact with a kiss.

Feudalism did much to awaken a moral sentiment; fidelity, truth, and sincerity were the presuppositions upon which the whole system rested, and a great solidarity of interests came to exist between the lord and his vassals. The latter might bring no public charges against their master in matters affecting his life, limb, or honour; on three grand occasions, in case of captivity, the knighting of his son, the marriage of his daughter, they were obliged to furnish him with pecuniary aid.

Knightly honour and knightly graces come in the twelfth century to be a matter of fashion and custom; a new and important element, too, the adoration of woman, is introduced. A whole literature arises that has to do almost exclusively with knightly prowess and with knightly love. Altogether we see the dawn of a new social life. Money begins to circulate more freely, we find an increased luxury in the matter of clothing and of household arrangements. The streets become more secure and more passable, and visitors move to and fro from one castle to another. A number of minor courts begin to flourish besides that of the king; the Wartburg, for instance, becomes a centre for the musical and intellectual life of the times. A regular code was finally established of the rules of conduct considered suitable and becoming, the German words “hubsch” (from hofisch = courtly) and “hoflich” are a legacy of these days, and serve to remind us of what was considered good style in such courtly circles.

Just as certain classes of society to-day adopt by preference the garb and the customs of a foreign country, so already in the twelfth century French influence made itself felt in Germany in many directions. The names that refer to the tourney and to knightly sports at this time are all French, so are those which refer to the more elaborate dishes at the table. In fact everything that had to do with festivities or with luxury in general seems to have been taken from France. We have French names for dress-materials, for the costumes themselves, for various dances, and the love-poems of the time are overflowing with French expressions.

The formalism and etiquette, too, of German chivalry was a direct legacy from France. Men troubled themselves about their manners as in other ages they did about their sins; great stress, for instance, is laid on the forms to be observed when entering or when leaving a room, when addressing persons or when parting from them. Godfrey of Strassburg weaves a long discussion into his “Tristan” concerning the different ways of greeting; should one only bow, or should one speak? A conventionalism not only of action and expression, but also of feeling, developed itself. It became the custom to sink oneself in one’s love, to discuss and to analyze the emotions of the soul.

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