German Reform: princes, patricians, and peasants

In a previous post we introduced the dynamic of taxation as one element of the German Reformation. But who was specifically the target of Imperial and Papal fund raisers? To answer that one needs to consider the social strata of all who would be caught in the taxing nets of the “outsiders” – the Pope and his ostensibly all-Italian Curial mafia, or, the gapping maw of the Holy Roman imperial court.

Princes. Many rulers of Germany’s various principalities functioned as autocratic rulers who recognized no other authority within their territories. Princes had the right to levy taxes and borrow money as they saw fit. The growing costs of administration and military upkeep impelled them to keep raising demands on their subjects. The princes also worked to centralize power in the towns and estates. Accordingly, princes tended to gain economically from the ruination of the lesser nobility, by acquiring their estates. This ignited the Knights’ Revolt that occurred from 1522 through 1523 in the Rhineland. The revolt was suppressed by both Catholic and Lutheran princes who were satisfied to cooperate against a common danger”.

To the degree that other classes, such as the bourgeois, might gain from the centralization of the economy and the elimination of the lesser nobles’ territorial controls on manufacture and trade, the princes might unite with the burghers on the issue

Lesser nobility. The evolving military technology of the Late Medieval period began to render the lesser nobility (the knights) militarily obsolete. The introduction of military science and the growing importance of gunpowder and infantry lessened the importance of heavy cavalry and of castles. Their luxurious lifestyle drained what little income they had as prices kept rising. They exercised their ancient rights in order to wring income from their territories.

The knights became embittered as their status and income fell and they came increasingly under the jurisdiction of the princes, putting the two groups in constant conflict. The knights also regarded the clergy as arrogant and superfluous, while envying their privileges and wealth. In addition, the knights’ relationships with the patricians in the towns was strained by the debts owed by the knights. At odds with all other social classes in Germany, the lesser nobility was the least disposed to change. In general this group would side with the Princes.

Clergy. The clergy were the intellectuals of their time. Not only were they literate, but in the Middle Ages they had produced most books. Some clergy were supported by the nobility and the rich, while others appealed to the masses. However, the clergy was beginning to lose its overwhelming intellectual authority. The progress of printing (especially of the Bible) and the expansion of commerce, as well as the spread of renaissance humanism, raised literacy rates. The Catholic monopoly on higher education was accordingly reduced.

Over time, some Catholic institutions had slipped into corruption. Clerical ignorance and the abuses of simony and pluralism (holding several offices at once) were rampant. Some bishops, archbishops, abbots and priors were as ruthless in exploiting their subjects as the regional princes. In addition to the sale of indulgences, they set up prayer houses and directly taxed the people. The clergy that did not follow Luther tended to be the aristocratic clergy, who opposed all change, including any break with the Roman Church.

The poorer clergy, rural and urban itinerant preachers who were not well positioned in the church, were more likely to join the Reformation. Some of the poorer clergy sought to extend Luther’s equalizing ideas to society at large.

Patricians. Many towns had privileges that exempted them from taxes, so that the bulk of taxation fell on the peasants. As the guilds grew and urban populations rose, the town patricians faced increasing opposition. The patricians consisted of wealthy families who sat alone in the town councils and held all the administrative offices. Like the princes, they sought to secure revenues from their peasants by any possible means. Arbitrary road, bridge, and gate tolls were instituted at will. They gradually revoked the common lands and made it illegal for peasants to fish or to log wood from these lands. Guild taxes were exacted. No revenues collected were subject to formal administration, and civic accounts were neglected. Thus embezzlement and fraud became common and the patrician class, bound by family ties, became wealthier and more powerful.

Burghers. The town patricians were increasingly criticized by the growing burgher class, which consisted of well-to-do middle-class citizens who held administrative guild positions or worked as merchants. They demanded town assemblies made up of both patricians and burghers, or at least a restriction on simony and the allocation of council seats to burghers. The burghers also opposed the clergy, who they felt had overstepped and failed to uphold their principles. They demanded an end to the clergy’s special privileges, such as their exemption from taxation, as well as a reduction in their numbers. The burgher-master (guild master, or artisan) now owned both his workshop and its tools, which he allowed his apprentices to use, and provided the materials that his workers needed.

Plebeians. The plebeians comprised the new class of urban workers, journeymen and vagabonds. Ruined burghers also joined their ranks. Although technically potential burghers, most journeymen were barred from higher positions by the wealthy families who ran the guilds. Thus their “temporary” position devoid of civic rights tended to become permanent. The plebeians did not have property like ruined burghers or peasants.

Peasants. The heavily taxed peasantry continued to occupy the lowest stratum of society. In the early 16th century, no peasant could hunt, fish, or chop wood freely, as they previously had, because the lords had recently taken control of common lands. The lord had the right to use his peasants’ land as he wished; the peasant could do nothing but watch as his crops were destroyed by wild game and by nobles galloping across his fields in the course of chivalric hunts. When a peasant wished to marry, he needed not only the lord’s permission, but had to pay a tax. When the peasant died, the lord was entitled to his best cattle, his best garments and his best tools. The justice system, operated by the clergy or wealthy burgher and patrician jurists, gave the peasant no redress. Generations of traditional servitude and the autonomous nature of the provinces limited peasant insurrections to local areas.

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