They were probably at this time the healthiest, strongest, most vital and exuberant people in Europe. As we see them in Wolgemut and Dürer, in Cranach and Holbein, the men were stout, thick-necked, massive-headed, lion-hearted animals ready to consume the world and wash it down with beer. They were coarse but jolly, and tempered their piety with sensuality. They could be cruel, as witness the awful instruments of torture that they used on criminals, but they could be merciful and generous, too, and rarely displayed their theological ferocity in physical ways; in Germany the Inquisition was bravely resisted and usually subdued. Their robust spirits made for bibulous humor rather than dry wit, dulled their sense of logic and beauty, and denied them the grace and subtlety of the French or Italian mind. Their meager Renaissance foundered in bibliolatry; but there was a steady persistence, a disciplined industry, a brute courage, in German thought that enabled them to break the power of Rome, and already gave promise of making them the greatest scholars in history.
By comparison with other nations they were clean. Bathing was a national passion. Every well-arranged house, even in rural districts, had its bathroom. As in ancient Rome, the numerous public bathhouses provided much more than baths; men could be shaved there, women could have their hair dressed, diverse forms of massage were offered, drinking and gambling were allowed, and relief could be found from monogamy. Usually the two sexes bathed together, chastely clothed; but there were no laws against flirtations, and an Italian scholar, visiting Baden-Baden in 1417, remarked that “no baths in the world are more fit for the fecundity of women.”27
The Germans of that age could not be accused of puritanism. Their conversation, correspondence, literature, and humor were sometimes coarse by our standards, but that went with their vigor of body and soul. They drank too much at all ages, and imbibed sexual experience lavishly in their youth; Erfurt in 1501 seemed to the pious Luther “nothing better than a brothel and beerhouse.”28 German rulers, ecclesiastical as well as secular, agreed with St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas that prostitution must be permitted if women are to be safe from seduction or assault. Houses of prostitution were licensed and taxed. We read of the bishops of Strasbourg and Mainz receiving revenues from brothels; and the bishop of Würzburg gave the municipal brothel to Graf von Hennenberg as a revenue-producing fief.29 Hospitality to valued guests included placing at their disposal the Frauenhaüser, or houses of women; King Sigismund was honored with this privilege at Bern (1414) and Ulm (1434), so heartily to his satisfaction that he publicly thanked his hosts for it.30 Unlicensed women sometimes set up Winkelhaüser—irregular houses; in 1492 the licensed prostitutes of Nuremberg complained to the burgomaster of this unfair competition; in 1508 they received permission to storm theWinkelhaus; they did. In the actual moral code of Europe in the later Middle Ages resort to a prostitute was condoned as a venial but normal sin. Perhaps the spread of syphilis after 1492 made it a mortal affair.
Marriage, as elsewhere, was a union of properties. Love was considered a normal result, not a reasonable cause, of marriage. Betrothal was as binding as matrimony. Weddings were ceremonious and luxurious in all classes; festivities might last for a week or two; the purchase of a husband was as expensive as the upkeep of a wife. The authority of the male was theoretically absolute, but was more real in deeds than in words; we note that Frau Dürer had much to say to her husband. The women of Nuremberg were undaunted enough to pull the half-naked Emperor Maximilian from bed, throw a wrap around him, and lead him in a merry nocturnal dance in the street.31 According to a hoary legend, some men of the upper classes in fourteenth-century Germany, when leaving for extended absences from home, locked an iron “chastity belt” around the waist and thighs of their wives, and took the key with them.32 Traces of the custom are found in medieval Venice and sixteenth-century France; but in the rare cases that seem authentic the belt was voluntarily donned by wife or mistress, and the key was given to husband or lover, as a guarantee of fidelity in marriage or sin.33
Family life flourished. An Erfurt chronicle reckons eight or ten offspring per couple as normal; households of fifteen children were not uncommon. These numbers included bastards, for illegitimate children, who abounded, were usually taken into the father’s home after his marriage. Family names came into use in the fifteenth century, often indicating ancestral occupation or place of origin, but now and then congealing a moment’s jest into the rigor of time. Discipline was firm at home and school; even the future Emperor Max received many a spanking, and no harm seems to have come from it except to parent or teacher. German homes were now (c. 1500) the most comfortable in Europe, with wide staircases, sturdy balustrades, massive furniture, cushioned seats, carved chests, windows of colored glass, canopied beds, tapestried walls, carpeted floors, bulging stoves, shelves crowded with books or flowers or musical instruments or silver plate, and kitchens gleaming with all the utensils for a German feast.
Externally the houses were mostly of wood, and fires were frequent. Overhanging eaves and windowed balconies shaded the streets. Only a few avenues in the larger towns were paved. Street lighting was unknown except on festival evenings; life was unsafe outdoors at night. Petty criminals were as numerous as the pigs and cows that strayed in the street. There was no organized police; severe punishments were relied upon to deter crime. The penalty for robbery was death, or, in mild theft, cutting off the ears. Blasphemers had their tongues torn out; exiles illegally returning to Nuremberg had their eyes gouged out. Women who had murdered their husbands were buried alive, or were tortured with red-hot tongs and then hanged.34 Among the mechanisms of torture formerly exhibited in the Schloss or Castle of Nuremberg were chests filled with sharp stones, against which the victim was crushed; racks for stretching his limbs; braziers to apply fire to the soles of his feet; sharp iron frames to dissuade him from sitting, lying, or sleeping; and die verflüchte Jungfer, or Cursed Maiden of iron, who received the condemned with arms of steel, enclosed him in a spiked embrace, and then, relaxing, let him fall, pierced and bloody and broken, to a slow death in a pit of revolving knives and pointed bars.35
Political morality accorded with the general moral laxity. Bribery was widespread, and worst at the top. Adulteration of goods was common, despite the live burial of two men at Nuremberg for adulterating wine (1456). Commercialism—the sacrifice of morals to money—was as intense as in any age; money, not man, was the measure of all things. Yet these same hustling burghers gave large sums to charity. “In papal times,” Luther wrote, “men gave with both hands, joyfully and with great devotion. It snowed alms, foundations, and legacies. Our forefathers, lords and kings, princes and other folk, gave richly and compassionately—yes, to overflowing—to churches, parishes, burses [scholarships], hospitals.”36 It was a sign of a secularizing age that many charitable bequests were left not to ecclesiastical bodies but to town councils, for distribution to the poor.
Manners became coarser—in France and England as well as in Germany—when the plutocracy of money superseded the aristocracy of birth in controlling the economy. Drunkenness was the national vice; both Luther and Hutten denounced it, though Hutten preferred it to “the deceit of the Italians, the thievery of the Spaniards, the pride of the French.”37 Some of the drinking may have been due to the sharp spices used in preparing meals. Table manners were rough and ready. Forks had come to Germany in the fourteenth century, but men and women still liked to eat with their fingers; even in the sixteenth century a preacher condemned forks as contrary to the will of God, Who “would not have given us fingers if He had wanted us to use forks.” 38
Dress was grandiose. Workmen were content with cap or felt hat, short blouse, and trousers overlapping—or tucked into—boots or high shoes. The middle classes added a vest, and an open coat lined and/or bordered with fur. But the possessors of pedigree competed feverishly with the collectors of guilders in the glory of their garb. In both these classes the hats of the men were spacious involutions of costly cloth, sometimes trimmed with feathers, ribbons, pearls, or gold. Shirts were often of silk. Outer garments, brightly colored, were lined with fur, and might be threaded with silver. Rich women wore crowns of gold, or gold-embroidered hoods, and braided gold thread into their hair; but modest maidens covered their heads with muslin handkerchiefs tied under the chin. Geiler von Kaisersberg alleged that smart women had wardrobes costing as much as 4,000 florins ($100,000?) .39 Men wore their chins shaved but their hair long; male curls were carefully fostered; note Dürer’s proud ringlets, and Maximilian’s fancy locks. Finger rings were a sign or pretense of class, as now. Conradus Celtes remarked that fashions in clothing changed more rapidly in Germany than elsewhere, and as often for men as for women. On festive occasions the men might outshine the women in magnificence.
Festivals were numerous, continuing the medieval spirit of make-believe and gay display, with a happy moratorium on labor and the Commandments. Christmas was still Christian, despite its pagan vestiges; the Christmas tree was to be a seventeenth-century innovation. Every town celebrated a Kermis (Dutch kerk, church, and mis, Mass) or feast of its patron saint; men and women would then dance together in the streets, merriment would be de rigueur, and no saint or preacher could abate the revel’s rough hilarity. Dancing sometimes became an epidemic mania, as in Metz, Cologne, and Aix in 1374, or at Strasbourg in 1412. In some such cases sufferers from St. Vitus’s dance would seek relief from what they thought to be demoniacal possession, by dancing themselves to exhaustion, as some young maniacs do today. Men found other outlets for their instincts in hunting, or in the dying sport of the joust. Thousands of men and women traveled, often using a distant shrine as an excuse. They moved in painful delight on horses or mules or in coaches or sedan chairs, bearing the discomforts of unpaved roads and unwashed inns. Sensible persons, when they could, journeyed by boat along the Rhine, the Danube, or the other majestic streams of Central Europe. By 1500 a postal service, open to all, united the major towns.
All in all the picture is one of a people too vigorous and prosperous to tolerate any longer the manacles of feudalism or the exactions of Rome. A proud sense of German nationality survived all political fragmentation, and checked supernational emperors as well as supernatural popes; the Reformation would defeat the Holy Roman Empire as well as the papacy. In the 1,500-year war between Teuton and Roman victory was once more, as in the fifth century, inclining toward Germany.