Middle Europe



SINCE man lives by permission of physical geography, it is his fate to be divided by mountains, rivers, and seas into groups that develop, in semi-isolation, their diverging languages and creeds, their climatically conditioned features, customs, and dress. Driven by insecurity to suspect the strange, he dislikes and condemns the alien, outlandish looks and ways of other groups than his own. All those fascinating varieties of terrain—mountains and valleys, fiords and straits, gulfs and streams—that make Europe a panorama of diverse delight, have broken the population of a minor continent into a score of peoples cherishing their differences, and self-imprisoned in their heritage of hate. There is a charm in this mosaic of originalities, and one would deprecate a world of people confined in identical myths and pantaloons. And yet, above and beneath these dissimilarities of costume, custom, faith, and speech, nature and man’s needs have forced upon him an economic uniformity and interdependence that become more visible and compelling as invention and knowledge topple barriers away. From Norway to Sicily, from Russia to Spain, the unprejudiced surveying eye sees men not so much as diversely dressed and phrased, but as engaged in like pursuits molding like characters: tilling and mining the earth, weaving garments, building homes, altars, and schools, rearing the young, trading surpluses, and forging social order as man’s strongest organ of defense and survival. For a moment we shall contemplate Middle Europe as such a unity.

In Scandinavia man’s prime task was to conquer the cold, in Holland the sea, in Germany the forests, in Austria the mountains; agriculture, the ground of life, hung its fate on these victories. By 1300 the rotation of crops had become general in Europe, multiplying the yield of the soil. But from 1347 to 1381 half the population of Central Europe was wiped out by the Black Death; and the mortality of men arrested the fertility of the earth. In one year Strasbourg lost 14,000 souls, Cracow 20,000, Breslau 30,000.1For a century the Harz mines remained without miners.2 With simple animal patience men resumed the ancient labors, digging and turning the earth. Sweden and Germany intensified their extraction of iron and copper; coal was mined at Aachen and Dortmund, tin in Saxony, lead in the Harz, silver in Sweden and the Tyrol, gold in Carinthia and Transylvania.

The flow of metals fed a growing industry, which fed a spreading trade. Germany, leader in mining, naturally led in metallurgy. The blast furnace appeared there in the fourteenth century; with the hydraulic hammer and the rolling mill it transformed the working of metals. Nuremberg became an ironmongers’ capital, famous for its cannon and its bells. The industry and commerce of Nuremberg, Augsburg, Mainz, Speyer, and Cologne made them almost independent city-states. The Rhine, Main, Lech, and Danube gave the South German towns first place in the overland traffic with Italy and the East. Great commercial and financial firms, with far-flung outlets and agencies, rose along these routes, surpassing, in the fifteenth century, the reach and power of the Hanseatic League. The League was still strong in the fourteenth century, dominating trade in the North and Baltic seas; but in 1397 the Scandinavian countries united to break this monopoly, and soon thereafter the English and Dutch began to carry their own goods. Even the herring conspired against the Hanse; about 1417 they decided to spawn in the North Sea rather than the Baltic; Lübeck, a pillar of the League, lost the herring trade and declined; Amsterdam won it and flourished.

Underneath this evolving economy class war seethed—between country and city, lords and serfs, nobles and businessmen, merchant guilds and craft guilds, capitalists and proletarians, clergy and laity, Church and state. In Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland serfdom was going or gone, but elsewhere in Middle Europe it was taking on new life. In Denmark, Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania, and Brandenburg, where peasants had earned their freedom by clearing the wilderness, serfdom was restored in the fifteenth century by a martial aristocracy; we may judge the harshness of these Junkers from a proverb of the Brandenburg peasants, which wished long life to the lord’s horses, lest he should take to riding his serfs.3 In the Baltic lands the barons and the Teutonic knights, at first content to enserf the conquered Slav inhabitants, were induced, by the labor shortages that followed the Black Death and the Polish war of 1409, to impress into bondage any “idlers who roam on the road or in the towns”;4 and treaties were made with neighboring governments for the extradition of fugitive serfs.

The mercantile bourgeoisie, favored by the emperors as a foil to the barons, ruled the municipalities so definitely that in many cases the city hall and the merchants’ guildhall were one. Craft guilds were reduced to subjection, submitted to municipal regulation of wages, and were prohibited from united action;5 here, as in England and France, proud craftsmen were turned into defenseless prolétaires. Now and then the workers tried revolt. In 1348 the artisans of Nuremberg captured the municipal council and ruled the city for a year, but the Emperor’s soldiers restored the patrician merchants to power.6 In Prussia an ordinance of 1358 condemned any striker to have an ear cut off.7 Peasant rebellions flared up in Denmark (1340, 1441), Saxony, Silesia, Brandenburg, and the Rhineland (1432), in Norway and Sweden (1434); but they were too laxly organized to achieve more than a passing cathartic violence. Revolutionary ideas circulated through cities and villages. In 1438 an anonymous radical wrote a pamphlet expounding an imaginary “Kaiser Sigismund’s Reformation” on socialistic principles.8 The stage was slowly prepared for the Peasants’ War of 1525.

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