Revolts and wars, corporations and leagues: remembering and communicating urban uprisings in the medieval Empire
Uprisings and depositions of urban governments were rather frequent occurrences in the medieval Empire, but for the German-speaking parts of the Empire, they should not be over estimated. The evolution of the highly urbanised Low Countries – for which Marc Boone and Maarten Prak speak of a ‘great’ and a ‘little’ tradition of revolt,1 but also of the impossibility of creating a network of city-states comparable to those of Northern Italy2 – was different. It was a logical consequence, that, in the long run, the Low Countries and the future Swiss Confederation (which also had different constitutional structures and already presented strong elements of a real confederation) eventually left the Empire and became independent states. In general, in the German-speaking parts of the Empire, the political landscape was extremely fragmented, but it was not dominated by urban settlements. The decisive political factors were rival territorial principalities and dynasties. Many towns developed their own legal system, but, in the end, only economically successful ‘big’ free and imperial cities like Nuremberg, Ulm, Frankfurt, Hanseatic towns like Hamburg, Lübeck, or Bremen, or powerful seigneurial towns like Brunswick managed to defend themselves in an effective way against powerful threats to their autonomy. Hamburg and Bremen still survive as federal states (Bundesländer) today. In the Middle Ages, many towns were able to govern themselves, but most of them were too little to have real, decisive influence outside their walls. According to estimates, at the end of the Middle Ages, Cologne, the biggest German town, had around 40,000-45,000 inhabitants; another nine cities had more than 20,000, and 16 towns more than 10,000. A total of 94.5 per cent of settlements had a population fewer than 2000.3 To defend their interests effectively, they had to unite their forces and to create coalitions. The forms of urban rebellions or protest that imperial towns experienced reflected the fragmentary constitutional structures of the medieval Empire. In contrast with more centralised states like England or France, the Empire was a composite state with an electoral monarchy. This meant that in the Empire, urban protest movements against princes and conflicts took place on a double level in the form of two different patterns to express discontent: individual urban uprisings and forms of extended collective actions of coalitions of towns. Collective conflicts sometimes had Empire-wide or at least supra-regional effects and involved urban leagues and coalitions.4 Such conflicts could even lead to war, as in the wars of the cities (Städtekriege),
1387-9 and 1449-50, when towns fought against territorial princes.5 The towns understood their actions not as revolt or rebellion but as legitimate war. The outcome of these wars, which they lost, was crucial and definitely weakened the urban position. As in other European countries, there were also urban revolts on the ‘individual’ level of single towns. In some regions, particularly in the southern and south-western German-speaking parts of the Empire, on which this chapter will be mainly focused, craft guilds overthrew urban governments dominated by elites and patricians (Geschlechter). In many cases it was only a short-lived victory. In the Middle Ages, ‘Germany’ in a modern sense did not exist; one region was very different from another. So it is impossible – or would at least lead to undue simplification – to give a general description that applied to all of them. This chapter looks at two levels of urban uprisings and collective protest/urban warfare in some parts of imperial German-speaking lands in the late Middle Ages. I will first outline some historical and constitutional factors that contributed to and affected urban revolts, before showing how the constitutional structure of the Empire itself favoured the development of specific forms of inter-urban protest movements. I then turn to look at intra-urban conflicts in a variety of constitutional contexts, comparing them to the situation in France, Spain, and Italian parts of the Empire. The second half of this essay is concerned with how people communicated about these events and the language in which they did so and about the way they were remembered and talked of by the people of the time and later historiography. Medieval revolts always passed through the filter of writers of their time who often supported one of the parties in conflict. When they belonged to town governments, they could be directly implicated in the events. Some of them wrote specifically commissioned ‘official’ urban chronicles. So we only know the ‘real’ events from their memories, or the image that they deliberately constructed. Sometimes authors deliberately chose to hide what had happened or even gave false information. It is important to scrutinise the terminology that they used. The patterns of revolt that we can observe in the medieval Empire were not simply ones of constitutional structure and social processes, but also reflected the communicative networks and semantic strategies available to contemporaries.