Germany on the Eve of Luther



IN the final half-century before the Reformation all classes in German) prospered except the knights. Probably it was the rising status of the peasants that sharpened their resentment against surviving disabilities. A few were bondsmen, a minority were proprietors, the great majority were tenant farmers paying rent to feudal lords in produce, services, or money. The tenants complained of the lord’s exactions; of the twelve—in some cases sixty-days of labor which custom required them to give him yearly; of his withdrawal of land from the Allgemeine or commons in which tradition had allowed them to fish, cut timber, and pasture their animals; of the damage done to crops by the lord’s huntsmen and hounds; of biased administration of justice in the local courts which the landlords controlled; and of the death tax laid upon the tenant family when the passing of its head interrupted the care of the land. Peasant proprietors raged at the usurious rates they had to pay for loans to move their crops, and at the quick foreclosure of farms by clever money lenders who had made loans to owners obviously unable to repay. All classes of tillers grudged the annual tithe levied by the Church on their harvests and broods.

These discontents ignited agrarian revolts sporadically throughout the fifteenth century. In 1431 the peasants around Worms rose in futile rebellion. They chose as their standard a farmer’s shoe—actually a boot laced from ankle to knee; they stuck it on poles or painted its likeness on flags; and Bundschuh—the Bond of the Shoe—became the favorite title of rebel rural bands in the age of Luther. In 1476 a cowherd, Hans Böhm, announced that the Mother of God had revealed to him that the Kingdom of Heaven on earth was at hand. There should be no more emperors, popes, princes, or feudal lords; all men were to be brothers, all women sisters; all were to share alike in the fruits of the earth; lands, woods, waters, pastures, were to be common and free. Thousands of peasants came to hear Hans; a priest joined him; the bishop of Würzburg smiled tolerantly. But when Hans told his followers to bring to the next meeting all the weapons they could muster, the bishop had him arrested; the bishop’s soldiers fired into the crowd that tried to save him; and the movement collapsed.

In 1491 the peasants on the domain of the abbot of Kempten in Alsace attacked his monastery, alleging that they were being forced into serfdom by forged documents; the Emperor Frederick III effected a compromise. Two years later the feudatories of the bishop of Strasbourg proclaimed a Bundschuh; they demanded an end to feudal dues and ecclesiastical tithes, the abolition of all debts, and the death of all Jews. They planned to seize the town of Schlettstadt, whence they hoped to spread their power through Alsace. The authorities got wind of the plot, seized the leaders, tortured and hanged them, and frightened the rest into temporary submission. In 1502 the peasants of the bishop of Speyer formed a Bundschuh of 7,000 men pledged to end feudalism, to “hunt out and kill all priests and monks,” and to restore what they believed to have been the communism of their ancestors. A peasant revealed the scheme in the confessional; ecclesiastics and nobles joined in circumventing it; the main conspirators were tortured and hanged.1

In 1512 Joss Fritz secretly organized a similar movement near Freiburgim-Breisgau; God, the pope, and the emperor were to be spared, but all feudal ownership and dues were to be abolished. A peasant who had been constrained to join this Bund exposed it to his confessor; the authorities arrested and tortured the leaders; the revolt aborted, but Joss Fritz lived to join in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525. In 1517 a league of 90,000 peasants in Styria and Carinthia undertook to end feudalism there: for three months their bands attacked castles and slew lords; finally Emperor Maximilian, who sympathized with their cause but rebuked their violence, sent against them a small force of soldiery, which subdued them into sullen peace. But the stage was set for the Peasants’ War, and the Anabaptist communism, of Reformation Germany.

Meanwhile a more matter-of-fact revolution was proceeding in German industry and commerce. Most industry was still handicraft, but it was increasingly controlled by entrepreneurs who provided material and capital, and bought and sold the finished product. The mining industry was making rapid progress; great profits were drawn from mining silver, copper, and gold; gold and silver bullion now became a favorite means of storing wealth; and the royalties paid for mining rights to territorial princes—especially to the elector of Saxony who protected Luther 2—enabled some of them to resist both pope and emperor. Reliable silver coins were minted, currency multiplied, the passage to a money economy was almost complete. Silver plate became a common possession in the middle and upper classes; some families displayed tables or chairs of solid silver; monstrances, chalices, reliquaries, even statues, of silver or gold accumulated in the German churches, and inclined princes to a religious reform that allowed them to confiscate ecclesiastical wealth. Aeneas Sylvius, in 1458, marveled to see German innkeepers regularly serving drinks in silver cups, and asked; “What woman, not only among the nobility but among the plebeians, does not glitter with gold?—and shall I make mention of horse bridles embossed with the purest gold, of... armor and helmets sparkling with gold?” 3

The financiers were now a major political power. The Jewish moneylenders of Germany were displaced by the Christian family-firms of the Welsers, the Hochstetters, and the Fuggers—all of Augsburg, which, at the end of the fifteenth century, was the financial capital of Christendom. Johannes Fugger, a weaver’s son, became a textile merchant, and left at his death (1409) a small fortune of 3,000 florins ($75,000?). His son Jakob expanded the business; when he died (1469) his wealth ranked seventh in Augsburg. Jakob’s sons Ulrich, Georg, and Jakob II raised the firm to supremacy by advancing money to the princes of Germany, Austria, and Hungary in return for the revenue of mines, lands, or cities. From these speculative investments the Fuggers derived immense profits, so that by 1500 they were the richest family in Europe.

Jakob II was the culminating genius of the family, enterprising, ruthless, and industrious. He trained himself stoically by studying every phase of the business, every advance in bookkeeeping, manufacturing, merchandising, and finance. He demanded the sacrifice of everything but the family itself to the business, and the subordination of every individual Fugger to the family interest; he established the principle that none but a Fugger should have power in the concern; and he never allowed his political friendships to influence his loans. He formed cartels with other firms to control the price and sale of various products; so in 1498 he and his brothers entered into an agreement with Augsburg merchants to “corner” the Venetian market in copper and uphold the price.4 In 1488 the family lent 150,000 florins to Archduke Sigismund of Austria, and as security it received the entire yield of the Schwarz silver mines until the debt should be repaid. In 1492 the Fuggers intermarried with the Thurzos of Cracow in a cartel to work the silver and copper mines of Hungary, and to maintain the “highest possible prices” for the products.5 By 1501 the Fuggers were operating vast mining enterprises in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and Spain. In addition they imported and manufactured textiles; they traded in silks, velvets, furs, spices, citrus fruits, munitions, jewelry; they organized express transportation and a private postal service. By 1511, when Jakob II became sole head of the firm, its assets reached 196,791 guilders; by 1527 (two years after his death) its capital was reckoned at 2,021,202 guilders ($50,000,000?)—a profit of 50 per cent per year through sixteen years.6

Part of this profit came from the Fuggers’ relations with emperors and popes. Ulrich Fugger made loans to Frederick III; Jakob II became chief broker to Maximilian I and Charles V; the vast extension of the Hapsburg power in the sixteenth century was made possible by Fugger loans. Though Jakob rejected the ecclesiastical limitations on interest, and the attempts of churchmen to fix a “just price” for consumers’ goods, he remained a Catholic, made loans to clergymen to pay their promotion fees, and, with Ulrich, obtained (1494) the management of papal finances in Germany, Scandinavia, Bohemia, and Hungary.

In his final years Jakob Fugger was the most honored and unpopular citizen in Germany. Some Catholics attacked him as a usurer; some nobles for outbribing them in the pursuit of office or power; some merchants for his enviable monopolies; many workers for overriding medieval regulations of trade and finance; most Protestants for managing the export of German money to the popes. But emperors and kings, princes and prelates, sent envoys to him as to a ruler; Dürer, Burgkmair, and the elder Holbein painted his portrait as a stern and simple realist; and Maximilian gave him the title of Count of the Empire. Jakob tried to atone for his wealth by building 106 houses for the poor but Catholic of Augsburg.* For his bones he raised a pretty chapel in the church of St. Anna. He died in the odor of sanctity, leaving millions of guilders and no children; the greatest gift of all had been denied him.

From him we may date the capitalist era in Germany, the growth of private monopolies, the dominance of businessmen controlling money over feudal lords owning land. German mining and textiles were already organized on capitalist lines—i.e., controlled by providers of capital—by the end of the fifteenth century, following the lead of Flanders and Italy in textiles a hundred years before. The Middle Ages had thought of private property a in some measure a public trust: the rights of the owner were limited by the necessities of the group whose organization gave him opportunities, facilities, and protection. Perhaps under the influence of Roman law—which now overshadowed German jurisprudence—the property owner began to think of his ownership as absolute; he felt that he had a right to do what he liked with his own. It did not seem wrong to the Fuggers, the Hochstetters, and the other “merchant princes” to “corner” a product and then force up its price, or to form cartels for the limitation of output and the control of trade, or to manipulate investments so as to cheat small stockholders.7 In many instances a merchant placed his agents at the city gates with orders to buy for him all specified incoming goods, so that he might resell them at his own price in the town.8 Ambrose Hochstetter bought up all available quicksilver, then raised the retail price 75 per cent.9 A German company bought 600,000 guilders’ worth of pepper from the king of Portugal at higher than the usual price, on condition that the king would charge a still higher price to all other importers of pepper from Portugal into Germany.10 Partly through such agreements and monopolies, partly through growing wealth and an increase in the demand for goods, partly through a rising supply of precious metals from Central Europe and America, prices mounted between 1480 and 1520 with a celerity rivaled only in our century. “In a short time, because of usury and avarice,” Luther complained, “he that could formerly live on a hundred guilders cannot do so now on two hundred. “11 It is more than a twice-told tale.

The Middle Ages had seen great inequalities of political power; the new age of the Fuggers added such economic disparities as Europe had not known since the millionaires and slaves of Imperial Rome. Some merchant capitalists of Augsburg or Nuremberg were worth 5,000,000 francs each ($25,000,000?). Many bought their way into the landed aristocracy, sported coats of arms, and repaid highborn contempt with “conspicuous consumption.” Joachim Hochstetter and Franz Baumgartner spent 5,000 florins ($125,000?) on a single banquet, or gambled with 10,000 florins in one game.12 The luxuriously furnished and artistically decorated homes of rich businessmen aroused the resentment of nobility, clergy, and proletariat alike. Preachers, writers, revolutionaries, and legislators joined in fulminating against monopolists. Geiler von Kaisersberg demanded that they “should be driven out like wolves, since they fear neither God nor man, and breed famine, thirst, and poverty.” 13 Ulrich von Hutten distinguished four classes of robbers: merchants, jurists, priests, and knights, and judged the merchants to be the greatest robbers of them all.14 The Cologne Reichstag of 1512 called upon all civic authorities to proceed “with diligence and severity .... against the usurious, forestalling, capitalistic companies.”15 Such decrees were repeated by other diets, but to no effect; some legislators themselves had investments in the great merchant firms, agents of the law were pacified with shares of stock,16 and many cities prospered from the growth of unimpeded trade.

Strasbourg, Colmar, Metz, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Ulm, Vienna, Ratisbon (Regensburg), Mainz, Speyer, Worms, Cologne, Trier, Bremen, Dortmund, Hamburg, Magdeburg, Lübeck, Breslau, were thriving hubs of industry, commerce, letters, and arts. They and seventy-seven others were “free cities”—i.e., they made their own laws, sent representatives to the provincial and Imperial diets, and acknowledged no political obedience except to the emperor, who was too indebted to them for financial or military aid to attack their liberties. Though these cities were ruled by guilds dominated by businessmen, nearly every one of them was a paternalistic “welfare state” to the extent that it regulated production and distribution, wages and prices and the quality of goods, with a view to protecting the weak from the strong, and to ensure the necessaries of life to all.17 We should now call them towns rather than cities, since none of them exceeded 52,000 population; nevertheless they were as populous as at any time before the middle of the nineteenth century,18 and more prosperous than at any time before Goethe. Aeneas Sylvius, a proud Italian, wrote of them enthusiastically in 1458:

Never has Germany been richer, more resplendent, than today.... Without exaggeration it may be said that no country in Europe has better or more beautiful cities. They look as fresh and new as if they had been built yesterday; and in no other cities is so much freedom to be found.... Nothing more magnificent.. . can be found in all Europe than Cologne, with its wonderful churches, city hall, towers, and palaces, its dignified burghers, its noble streams, its fertile cornfields.... Nor is Augsburg surpassed in wealth by any city in the world. Vienna has palaces and churches that even Italy may envy.19

Augsburg was not only the financial center of Germany, it was the main commercial link with then flourishing Italy. It was chiefly Augsburg merchants who built and managed that Fondaco Tedesco, in Venice, whose walls were frescoed by Giorgione and Titian. So bound to Italy, Augsburg echoed the Italian Renaissance; its merchants supported scholars and artists, and some of its capitalists became models of manners and culture, if not of morals. So Konrad Peutinger, syndic or mayor in 1493, was diplomat, merchant, scholar, jurist, Latinist, Hellenist, and antiquarian as well as businessman.

Nuremberg was a center of arts and crafts rather than of large-scale industry or finance. Its streets were still medievally tortuous, and shaded by overhanging upper stories or balconies; its red-tiled roofs, high-peaked gables, and oriel windows made a picturesque confusion against its rural background and the Pegnitz’ turgid stream. The people were not as affluent here as in Augsburg, but they were joyous, gemütlich, and loved to disport themselves in such festivities as their annual carnival of mask, costume, and dance. Here Hans Sachs and the Meistersingers sang their lusty airs; here Albrecht Dürer raised German painting and engraving to their zenith; here the best goldsmiths and silversmiths north of the Alps made costly vases, church vessels, statuettes; here the metal workers fashioned a thousand plant, animal, and human forms in bronze, or wrought iron into handsome railings or screens; here the woodcutters were so numerous that we wonder how they could all make a living. The churches of the cities became repositories and museums of art, for every guild or corporation or prosperous family commissioned some work of beauty for the shrine of a patron saint. Regiomontanus chose Nuremberg as his home “because I find there without difficulty all the peculiar instruments necessary for astronomy; and there it is easiest for me to keep in touch with the learned of all countries, for Nuremberg, thanks to the perpetual journeyings of her merchants, may be counted the center of Europe.” 20 It was characteristic of Nuremberg that the most famous of her merchants, Willibald Pirkheimer, was also an enthusiastic humanist, a patron of the arts, and a devoted friend of Dürer’s. Erasmus called Pirkheimer “the chief glory of Germany.”21

The voyages of Da Gama and Columbus, the Turkish control of the Aegean, and Maximilian’s wars with Venice disturbed the trade between Germany and Italy. More and more German exports and imports moved along the great rivers to the North Sea, the Baltic, and the Atlantic; wealth and power passed from Augsburg and Nuremberg to Cologne, Hamburg, Bremen, and, above all, Antwerp. The Fuggers and Welsers furthered this trend by making Antwerp a chief center of their operations. The northward movement of German money and trade divorced northern Germany from the Italian economy, and made it strong enough to protect Luther from emperor and pope. South Germany, perhaps for opposite reasons, remained Catholic.

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