THE MEDIEVAL SCENE
Parallel with the strengthening of the dynastic power of the German Emperors, the House of Habsburg, went a flowering of municipal civilisation, which left a deep impress on the character of German development. The German towns one after another took advantage of the recent invention of fire-arms – unknightly weapons the use of which the barons and feudal powers tried to suppress – while the towns established their own powder-mills and taught their clerks and mercenaries the use of these up-to-date means of warfare. Had the movement for a general federation of towns after the pattern of the Hansa been successful, the whole future development of Germany might have been built upon her cities, as was that of Italy and the Low Countries. Even as it was, they grew rich by their flourishing trade – all international routes of importance leading through German territory – and by their mining enterprises. Silver, salt, iron ore and other minerals were mined successfully to the profit of urban traders who soon became financiers on a large scale, competing with the most successful bankers of the age, the Lombards. About the year 1400 Cologne, Bruges and Basle had between 100,000 and 200,000 inhabitants each, and it needed the epidemics and the wars of the following centuries to reduce them to the level far below those figures at which they remained until the nineteenth century.
In the medieval towns the Jews played an important role. Although religious fanaticism such as the Crusades had let loose and the Black Death, a plague probably introduced from the East for which the Jews were wrongly held responsible, gave rise to cruel persecutions and mass-murders, nevertheless Jewish moneylenders, often acting as agents for princes of the Church and noblemen who wished to avoid the blame for taking usurious interest, Jewish physicians and Jewish men of learning continued to be in demand. Jewish refugees, who had fled from their torturers into Poland and other eastern countries where they found asylum, contributed largely to the spreading of the German language and civilisation and preserved through the coming centuries the dialect of the Older German language that had been spoken along the Rhine at the time of the minstrels. These minstrels – originally walking newspapers carrying from castle to castle the news of the land and, as welcome guests, diverting their hosts by playing the harp and singing their self-composed songs – were soon supplanted in the towns by the master-singers, organisation of craftsmen learning and teaching the art of singing and instrumental music according to their own strict rules.
Other arts and crafts followed. The towns became the patrons of architecture and painting, investing patrician wealth in impressive Gothic cathedrals and in secular buildings of great beauty and variety – town halls, guildhalls and private dwellings. Inventions such as the Nuremburg watch and the printing-press, and the universities, owe their existence to the development of the cities and towns during the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. On the other hand the particular ‘orderliness’ of the German character – in which there was always a strong element of narrow mindedness and subservience to anyone who was sufficiently boastful and arrogant – brought about an increasing suppression of any liberal movement or free spirit within the municipal guilds, and kept sincere and progressive men powerless while cliques, sets and families monopolised all power. In the sadistic cruelty of their penal system which included torture as the main form of criminal investigation, the industrious craftsmen of wealthy and powerful towns vied with the feudal lords, and their treatment of peasants and serfs became more and more unjust, more and more revolting brutal, in an age that might have been expected to witness a growth of liberalism and tolerance.
The result was the Peasants Wars which devastated half Germany for half a century, destroying human life and wealth to an extent unheard of before and not exceeded even by the attacks of the Turks who began to menace the Empire towards the end of the fourteenth century. These were to last for three hundred years and to cost the house of Habsburg the better part of their Hungarian and Balkan dominions and outposts. By 1403 the Ottoman hordes had advanced as far as the frontiers of Styria. Subsequently they devasted Hungary and, after another century of sporadic fighting, conquered it completely, together with Servia, Wallachia and Greece, after they had overthrown the Byzantine Empire and made Constantinople their capital. this conquest was to have far-reaching consequences, not only in the political field. For the Turkish occupation of the ancient trade-routes gave a strong impetus to the efforts of seafaring nations to find an outlet in new directions, which led to many discoveries. The dispersal of Byzantine scholars and libraries brought fresh knowledge of the classics, especially the Greek, to Western countries and paved the way for the Renaissance – the ‘rebirth.’ As far as Germany is concerned, it was an intellectual and artistic rebirth, not a political one; for the central power, for a time reasserted by the first Habsburg ruler, Rudolf, was again in decay and more or less confined to a sort of suzerainty, stronger or weaker according to the dynastic power of the holder at the moment. The struggle against the Turks started during the reign of Sigismund, who rules from 1410 to 1437. Besides that dangerous new enemy, he had to struggle for twenty years against the Hussites, a warlike, rebellious Bohemian sect that took its name from Wycliffe’s Czech successor, John Huss – forerunner of the Reformation burnt at the stake during the Council of Constance in 1415 – and devasted important parts of the Empire. Religious and pseudo-religious movements were particularly apt to disturb the ever-shadowy Landfriede – internal peace – of a nation composed of heterogeneous elements whose rulers strove mainly for an increase of their family possessions, either by marriage, or by vast business transactions involving the life, freedom, religion and personal rights of whole populations, or finally by wars waged on the flimsiest pretexts. Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, is responsible for the famous distich which begins Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube and means that while others had to fight for the increase of their dominions the House of Habsburg managed to enlarge and stablilise its power by its marriages. In theory that power extended over the whole territory of the Empire, including the Low Countries, Luxemburg, Lorraine, the Franche-Comte’, Savoy, Piedmont, Provence, Northern Italy, Austria, Moravia and Silesia; the eastern Marches were Brandenburg and Pomerania, and Habsburg dukes ruled over Styria, Carinthia and Carniola within the Empire, and over Hungary and Bohemia outside it.
there were rivals, however, for that power. the Margraves of Brandenburg, of the House of Hohenzollern that had obtained Brandenburg by purchase from Sigismund, the Dukes of Saxony and the Wittelsbach dynasty in the Palatinate, and later in Bavaria, were influential as electors; several Archbishops, the Hansa cities of Bremen, Hamburg and Lubeck, even after the dissolution of the once international Hanseatic League had begun, and the Teutonic Knights on colonial soil in the East, all held sway within their own territories practically without interference by the Emperors. Every count, baron or knight, however small his domain, tried to follow their example, and after the public peace proclaimed several times, especially in 1495, the depredations of the robber-knights, freebooters of the highways, were resumed, and murder and robbery went on by day and by night everywhere.
The Teutonic Knights and their fraternity, the Knights of the Sword, had sinned particularly grossly against the Christian spirit they pretended to uphold. they had started their conquest of heathen Prussia and the Baltic provinces in 1200 and had prospered for two centuries, paving the way for and backed by the Hanseatic League and its commercial imperialism. they had fought against Lithuanians and Poles, made alliances with other ‘crusaders’ and built strong castles against the surrounding heathens, whom they had slaughtered wholesale if they could not bring them into subjection. All the time they had prospered, and the Marienburg, their mighty stronghold on the Vistula, was a centre of political influence and intrigue. But in 1440 they provoked an alliance of the awakening cities against themselves as the result of having, as an old chronicle says, ‘permitted too many inexcusable things, used false money and measure, beheaded many knights and other noblemen without judgement, having drowned them or poisoned them during banquets, having stolen the inheritances and raped the wives and daughters of many men.’ They seem, indeed, to have been anything but defenders of the Faith, and when, by the Treaty of Thorn, 1466, West Prussia and Ermeland reverted to Poland, they only managed to save their existence by accepting their remaining territories in East Prussia as a fief from Lithuanian-Polish Grand Dukes.
The age of the Knights altogether – not only the original religious orders, like the Teutonic Knights, the Knights of the Sword, of St. Mary, or even the Templars and the Knights of Malta – was fast coming to an end. The invention of gunpowder had deprived their castles and armour of nearly all their protective value. The manorial system inevitably decayed, together with feudalism. The towns had become strong, and individual capitalists like the houses of the Fuggers and Welsers in Augsburg, by strengthening the system of money economy versus the older system of barter, had hastened the downfall of the landed nobility. On the other hand, knowledge had become cheap: the printing press was to bring it within the reach of everybody and thereby to promote unrest, dissatisfaction, a consciousness of the multitudinous wrongs inflicted by the few upon the masses. It is typical of the German mentality that the great revolutions to come took the form, not of social, economic or moral demands, but of religious controversy, and started, not with revolts of suffering serfs, peasants or city rabble, ut with scholastic Biblical discussions between a number of more or less famous humanists. They were as dry as dust, and their arguments appear to us trifling and pedantic, their problems petty and futile; yet they were to blow to pieces not only what had survived of the unified German Empire but, in the end, the whole world. Satirical books such as Sebastian Brandt’s Narrenschiff or Ulric von Hutten’s Epistole obscurorum virorum exercised a profound influence; Erasmus of Rotterdam and Johann Reuchlin of Pforzheim forced their contemporaries to think and to criticise.
At the same time social unrest, such as England had seen during Wat Tyler’s rebellion and France during the Jacqquerie revolt, began to ferment among the peasant population all over Germany, where the masses were living in dire misery, oppressed and exploited by their masters. The slogans calling for complete abolition of existing rights, the murder of Emperor, Pope and clergy and the enforcing of journeyman’s work and pay upon princes and noblemen strongly resemble the Bolshevism and Anarchism of our days. Armed revolt, beginning in 1476near Wurzburg and spreading all over southern and central Germany, was crushed with much bloodshed; but the ideas spread, and the more or less unorganised slaughtering and plundering that history records as the Peasant Wars went on for half a century. Some of the demands of the peasant leaders, sometimes former priests or teachers, were only too justified, and it is characteristic that even some noble knights, like the famous Gotz von Berichingen and Florian Geyer, espoused the cause of the revolutionaries. There was in most cases a strong Christian, and sometimes a nationalist, undercurrent in these movements. Unorganised and ill-equipped, the peasants always suffered defeat in the end; they were put to death when captured or subjected to unimaginable tortures, but their catchwords have lived on to this day and shown their power once more in modern Communist and Nazi versions of the same ideas. the largest and most lasting of these movements of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries took the Bundschuh, the peasant’s sandal, as its symbol. All these revolts had very serious grievances at the bottom of them, but they rapidly degenerated into senseless destruction of artistic and other treasures; religious madness supervened in many cases, as with the Anabaptists of Munster in Westphalia who established for years the ‘Kingdom’ of a former tailor, Johann von Leiden, who ruled like a Sardanpalus to the accompaniment of polygamy, mass executions and the utmost luxury.
General conditions in Germany, round the turn of the century, had become intolerable and revolting in many respects. The persecution of witches, the sadistic development and general use of torture, the degeneration of religious institutions exemplified by such abuses as the sale of indulgencies, had paved the way for that fundamental revolution that was to be brought about by the Reformation. The Imperial power had become merely nominal while the feudal rulers, to all intents and purposes the absolute owners of thier duchies, including the inhabitants, committed every kind of misdeed with impunity. a new wave of anti-Semitism spreading from Spain, where the Inquisition had begun to rage, furnished the feudal lords and the rabble alike with pretexts to rob, plunder and murder east victims. In many respects the period around 1500 A.D. resembled that immediately following the Great War of 1914-18 and goes to prove that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ and that the peculiar characteristics of the modern Germans are not the products of a particular new creed or new leadership but are to a large extent deep-rooted in the national character.