It was largely this fact that gave them power. When, therefore, from about the 15th century the princely territories came to be better organized, much of the raison d’être for the exceptional position held by the towns disappeared. The towns from an early date made it their policy to suppress the exercise of all handicrafts in the open country. On the other hand, they sought an increase of power by extending rights of citizenship to numerous individual inhabitants of the neighbouring villages (Pfalbürger, a term not satisfactorily explained). By this and other means, e.g. the purchase of estates by citizens, many towns gradually acquired a considerable territory. These tendencies both princes and lesser nobles naturally tried to thwart, and the mediate towns or Landstädte were finally brought to stricter subjection, at least in the greater principalities such as Austria and Brandenburg. Besides, the less favourably situated towns suffered through the concentration of trade in the hands of their more fortunate sisters. But the economic decay and consequent loss of political influence among both imperial and territorial towns must be chiefly ascribed to inner causes.
Certain leading political economists, notably K. Bücher (Die Bevölkerung von Frankfurt a. M. im 14ten und 15ten Jahrhundert, i., Tübingen, 1886; Die Entstehung der Volkswirtschaft, 5th ed., Tübingen, 1906), and, in a modified form, W. Sombart (Der moderne Kapitalismus, 2 vols., Leipzig, 1902), have propounded the doctrine of one gradual progression from an agricultural state to modern capitalistic conditions. This theory, however, is nothing less than an outrage on history. As a matter of fact, as far as modern Europe is concerned, there has twice been a progression, separated by a period of retrogression, and it is to the latter that Bücher’s picture of the agricultural and strictly protectionist town (the geschlossene Stadtwirtschaft) of the 14th and 15th centuries belongs, while Sombart’s notion of an entire absence of a spirit of capitalistic enterprise before the middle of the 15th century in Europe north of the Alps, or the 14th century in Italy, is absolutely fantastic. The period of the rise of cities till well on in the 13th century was naturally a period of expansion and of a considerable amount of freedom of trade. It was only afterwards that a protectionist spirit gained the upper hand, and each town made it its policy to restrict as far as possible the trade of strangers. In this revolution the rise of the lower strata of the population to power played an important part.
The craft-gilds had remained subordinate to the Rat, but by-and-by they claimed a share in the government of the towns. Originally any inhabitant holding a certain measure of land, freehold or subject to the mere nominal ground-rent above-mentioned, was a full citizen independently of his calling, the clergy and the lord’s retainers and servants of whatever rank, who claimed exemption from scot and lot, to use the English formula, alone excepted. The majority of the artisans, however, were not in this happy position. Moreover, the town council, instead of being freely elected, filled up vacancies in its ranks by co-optation, with the result that all power became vested in a limited number of rich families. Against this state of things the crafts rebelled, alleging mismanagement, malversation and the withholding of justice. During the 14th and 15th centuries revolutions and counter-revolutions, sometimes accompanied by considerable slaughter, were frequent, and a great variety of more democratic constitutions were tried. Zürich, however, is the only German place where a kind of tyrannis, so frequent in Italy, came to be for a while established. On the whole it must be said that in those towns where the democratic party gained the upper hand an unruly policy abroad and a narrow-minded protection at home resulted. An inclination to hasty measures of war and an unwillingness to observe treaties among the democratic towns of Swabia were largely responsible for the disasters of the war of the Swabian League in the 14th century. At home, whereas at first markets had been free and open to any comer, a more and more protective policy set in, traders from other towns being subjected more and more to vexatious restrictions. It was also made increasingly difficult to obtain membership in the craft-gilds, high admission fees and so-called masterpieces being made a condition. Finally, the number of members became fixed, and none but members’ sons and sons-in-law, or members’ widows’ husbands were received. The first result was the formation of a numerous proletariate of life-long assistants and of men and women forcibly excluded from following any honest trade; and the second consequence, the economic ruin of the town to the exclusive advantage of a limited number. From the end of the 15th century population in many towns decreased, and not only most of the smaller ones, but even some once important centres of trade, sank to the level almost of villages. Those cities, on the other hand, where the mercantile community remained in power, like Nuremberg and the seaboard towns, on the whole followed a more enlightened policy, although even they could not quite keep clear of the ever-growing protective tendencies of the time. Many even of the richer towns, notably Nuremberg, ran into debt irretrievably, owing partly to an exorbitant expenditure on magnificent public buildings and extensive fortifications, calculated to resist modern instruments of destruction, partly to a faulty administration of the public debt. From the 13th century the towns had issued (“sold,” as it was called) annuities, either for life or for perpetuity in ever-increasing number, until it was at last found impossible to raise the funds necessary to pay them.
One of the principal achievements of the towns lay in the field of legislation. Their law was founded originally on the general national (or provincial) law, on custom, and on special privilege. New foundations were regularly provided by their lord with a charter embodying the most important points of the special law of the town in question. This miniature code would thenceforth be developed by means of statutes passed by the town council. The codification of the law of Augsburg in 1276 already fills a moderate volume in print (ed. by Christian Meyer, Augsburg, 1872). Later foundations were frequently referred by their founders to the nearest existing town of importance, though that might belong to a different lord. Afterwards, if a question in law arose which the court of a younger town found itself unable to answer, the court next senior in affiliation was referred to, which in turn would apply to the court above, until at last that of the original mother town was reached, whose decision was final. This system was chiefly developed in the colonial east, where most towns were affiliated directly or indirectly either to Lübeck or to Magdeburg; but it was by no means unknown in the home country. A number of collections of such judgments (Schöffensprüche) have been published. It is also worth mentioning that it was usual to read the police by-laws of a town at regular intervals to the assembled citizens in a morning-speech (Morgenspraehe).
To turn to Italy, the country for so many centuries in close political connexion with Germany, the foremost thing to be noted is that here the towns grew to even greater independence, many of them in the end acknowledging no overlord whatever after the yoke of the German kings had been shaken off. On the other hand, nearly all of them in the long run fell under the sway of some local tyrant-dynasty.
From Roman times the country had remained thickly studded with towns, each being the seat of a bishop. From this arose their most important peculiarity. For it was largely due to an identification of dioceses and municipal territories that the nobles of the surrounding country took up their headquarters in the cities, either voluntarily or because forced to do so by the citizens, who made it their policy thus to turn possible opponents into partisans and defenders. In Germany, on the other hand,
- G. v. Below, Der Untergang der mittelalterlichen Stadtwirtschaft; Über Theorien der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung der Völker; F. Keutgen, “Hansische Handelsgesellschaften, vornehmlich des 14ten Jahrhunderts,” in Vierteljahrsschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, vol. iv. (1906).
- On this whole subject see Richard Schröder, Lehrbuch der deutschen Rechtsgeschichte (5th ed., Leipzig, 1907), § 56, “Die Stadtrechte.” Also Charles Gross, The Gild Merchant (Oxford, 1890), vol. i. Appendix E, “Affiliation of Medieval Boroughs.”