Germany History: Late Middle Ages Part III

By | October 30, 2021

Leading sovereigns and estates

In addition to royalty, it was the sovereign territories that had a decisive influence on the history of the empire in the late Middle Ages. In addition to the Habsburgs, the leading regional princes included: the Wittelsbachers, since 1180 dukes of Bavaria, since 1214 count palatine near Rhine (Electoral Palatinate); the Ascanians, 1134–1319 Margraves of Brandenburg and 1180–1422 Dukes of Saxony-Wittenberg; the Wettins, margraves of Meissen, since 1247/64 also landgraves of Thuringia and since 1423 dukes (electors) of Saxony; the Guelphs, dukes of Brunswick since 1235; the Hohenzollern, since the late 12th century burgraves of Nuremberg, since 1415/17 margraves (electors) of Brandenburg.

An internal counterbalance to the princely power developed in the estates. By the end of the Staufer period, many cities had won their freedom in mostly fierce battles against the episcopal, princely or royal city lords (free cities, imperial cities). Divorced into a commercial, but also knightly patriciate and a craftsman’s body mostly divided into guilds, they tried to pursue their interests in the late Middle Ages by merging into city federations (e.g. Rhenish city federation from 1254 and 1381, Lusatian six cities federation from 1346, Swabian city federation from 1376) v. a. to protect against the princely territorial powers. The Hanseatic League emerged from an association of long-distance traders in the 12th century emerged, whose members expanded the North and Baltic Sea area to an economic empire ruled by them by the 14th century. Learn more about Germany and Europe, please click

Population, economy and culture

Even after the fall of the Staufer, the German eastern settlement experienced further expansion in the northeast. It was not until the 15th and early 16th centuries that the Teutonic Order succumbed to the Polish-Lithuanian Empire. In the south-west, the Swiss Confederation, which arose in the struggle against Habsburg rule, gradually separated from the Holy Roman Empire: In 1495 it refused to recognize the imperial laws. However, the crisis of the monarchy did not significantly affect either economic or cultural development. The plague epidemics (especially the years 1348–52 and the following decades), in the course of which the population decreased by at least a quarter, led to a dramatic shortage of human labor, a greatly reduced demand for food and thus to a long-lasting agricultural depression, which in turn with the abandonment of previously agriculturally used areas, a desolation of many settlements (desolations) entailed; nevertheless, society as a whole was affected by this to very different degrees. While the farmers and landlords who were dependent on the sale of grain in particular suffered heavy losses, on the other hand, large parts of the v. a. of the urban population to have benefited from the new situation (increased purchasing power, high wages with low food prices, more intensive trade).

Since 15./16. In the 19th century major changes in the agricultural structure became apparent in the east of the empire. While the manorial system generally stabilized in the rest of the empire, lordship began here in the 16th century. This was not only characterized by the economic facts of a larger farm with the associated labor constitution, the position of the landlord as the authority (patrimonial justice, police rights) was more important. Such privileged possession was a small territory.

The bourgeoisie of the big cities, especially the merchants, also had a decisive influence on economic events. While the decline of the Hanseatic League had already begun in the north with the increased competition between the Dutch and English in the Baltic Sea area, v. a. the south of the empire in the 15th and 16th centuries under the sign of extensive long-distance trade that encompassed the entire world known at the time. Trade fairs, stock exchanges, bills of exchange, credit facilities, the double-entry bookkeeping emerged or was introduced according to foreign models (especially Italy). The news and transport system was further developed. Huge accumulations of assets, monopolies and power struggles characterize this period, especially in the Upper German cities (Fugger in Augsburg, Welser in Augsburg and Nuremberg).

The influence of the Italian Renaissance and humanism caused art and science to flourish in Germany (including the spread of Roman law), which was not least promoted by the developing university system. The first German university was founded by Charles IV in Prague in 1348; Numerous other foundations followed (Vienna 1365, Heidelberg 1386, Cologne 1388, Leipzig 1409). This gradually alleviated the empire’s considerable cultural and scientific deficits in relation to the much more developed west and south.

One of the characteristic epoch features of German history in the late Middle Ages was the empire’s function as a bridge between the innovative landscapes of the West and East Central Europe, which, due to German influences, increasingly opened up to European balancing tendencies.

For a long time the empire and reference to Rome offered points of contact for a special self-confidence in world and salvation history, which of course had long since detached itself from the real political and economic divide in Europe.

Germany History - Late Middle Ages 3