German Culture Past and Present
by Ernest Belfort Bax
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- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation in the original document has been preserved. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text. For a complete list, please see the end of this document. -

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First published in 1915 [All rights reserved]















The following pages aim at giving a general view of the social and intellectual life of Germany from the end of the mediaeval period to modern times. In the earlier portion of the book, the first half of the sixteenth century in Germany is dealt with at much greater length and in greater detail than the later period, a sketch of which forms the subject of the last two chapters. The reason for this is to be found in the fact that while the roots of the later German character and culture are to be sought for in the life of this period, it is comparatively little known to the average educated English reader. In the early fifteenth century, during the Reformation era, German life and culture in its widest sense began to consolidate themselves, and at the same time to take on an originality which differentiated them from the general life and culture of Western Europe as it was during the Middle Ages.

To those who would fully appreciate the later developments, therefore, it is essential thoroughly to understand the details of the social and intellectual history of the time in question. For the later period there are many more works of a generally popular character available for the student and general reader. The chief aim of the sketch given in Chapters IX and X is to bring into sharp relief those events which, in the Author's view, represent more or less crucial stages in the development of modern Germany.

For the earlier portion of the present volume an older work of the Author's, now out of print, entitled German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages, has been largely drawn upon. Reference, as will be seen, has also been made in the course of the present work to two other writings from the same pen which are still to be had for those desirous of fuller information on their respective subjects, viz. The Peasants' War and The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists (Messrs. George Allen & Unwin).

German Culture Past and Present


The close of the fifteenth century had left the whole structure of mediaeval Europe to all appearance intact. Statesmen and writers like Philip de Commines had apparently as little suspicion that the state of things they saw around them, in which they had grown up and of which they were representatives, was ever destined to pass away, as others in their turn have since had. Society was organized on the feudal hierarchy of status. In the first place, a noble class, spiritual and temporal, was opposed to a peasantry either wholly servile or but nominally free. In addition to this opposition of noble and peasant there was that of the township, which, in its corporate capacity, stood in the relation of lord to the surrounding peasantry.

The township in Germany was of two kinds—first of all, there was the township that was "free of the Empire," that is, that held nominally from the Emperor himself (Reichstadt), and secondly, there was the township that was under the domination of an intermediate lord. The economic basis of the whole was still land; the status of a man or of a corporation was determined by the mode in which they held their land. "No land without a lord" was the principle of mediaeval polity; just as "money has no master" is the basis of the modern world with its self-made men. Every distinction of rank in the feudal system was still denoted for the most part by a special costume. It was a world of knights in armour, of ecclesiastics in vestments and stoles, of lawyers in robes, of princes in silk and velvet and cloth of gold, and of peasants in laced shoe, brown cloak, and cloth hat.

But although the whole feudal organization was outwardly intact, the thinker who was watching the signs of the times would not have been long in arriving at the conclusion that feudalism was "played out," that the whole fabric of mediaeval civilization was becoming dry and withered, and had either already begun to disintegrate or was on the eve of doing so. Causes of change had within the past half-century been working underneath the surface of social life, and were rapidly undermining the whole structure. The growing use of firearms in war; the rapid multiplication of printed books; the spread of the new learning after the taking of Constantinople in 1453, and the subsequent diffusion of Greek teachers throughout Europe; the surely and steadily increasing communication with the new world, and the consequent increase of the precious metals; and, last but not least, Vasco da Gama's discovery of the new trade route from the East by way of the Cape—all these were indications of the fact that the death-knell of the old order of things had struck.

Notwithstanding the apparent outward integrity of the system based on land tenures, land was ceasing to be the only form of productive wealth. Hence it was losing the exclusive importance attaching to it in the earlier period of the Middle Ages. The first form of modern capitalism had already arisen. Large aggregations of capital in the hands of trading companies were becoming common. The Roman law was establishing itself in the place of the old customary tribal law which had hitherto prevailed in the manorial courts, serving in some sort as a bulwark against the caprice of the territorial lord; and this change facilitated the development of the bourgeois principle of private, as opposed to communal, property. In intellectual matters, though theology still maintained its supremacy as the chief subject of human interest, other interests were rapidly growing up alongside of it, the most prominent being the study of classical literature.

Besides these things, there was the dawning interest in nature, which took on, as a matter of course, a magical form in accordance with traditional and contemporary modes of thought. In fact, like the flicker of a dying candle in its socket, the Middle Ages seemed at the beginning of the sixteenth century to exhibit all their own salient characteristics in an exaggerated and distorted form. The old feudal relations had degenerated into a blood-sucking oppression; the old rough brutality, into excogitated and elaborated cruelty (aptly illustrated in the collection of ingenious instruments preserved in the Torture-tower at Nuernberg); the old crude superstition, into a systematized magical theory of natural causes and effects; the old love of pageantry, into a lavish luxury and magnificence of which we have in the "field of the cloth of gold" the stock historical example; the old chivalry, into the mercenary bravery of the soldier, whose trade it was to fight, and who recognized only one virtue—to wit, animal courage. Again, all these exaggerated characteristics were mixed with new elements, which distorted them further, and which foreshadowed a coming change, the ultimate issue of which would be their extinction and that of the life of which they were the signs.

The growing tendency towards centralization and the consequent suppression or curtailment of the local autonomies of the Middle Ages in the interests of some kind of national government, of which the political careers of Louis XI in France, of Edward IV in England, and of Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain were such conspicuous instances, did not fail to affect in a lesser degree that loosely connected political system of German States known as the Holy Roman Empire. Maximilian's first Reichstag in 1495 caused to be issued an Imperial edict suppressing the right of private warfare claimed and exercised by the whole noble class from the princes of the empire down to the meanest knight. In the same year the Imperial Chamber (Reichskammer) was established, and in 1501 the Imperial Aulic Council. Maximilian also organized a standing army of mercenary troops, called Landesknechte. Shortly afterwards Germany was divided into Imperial districts called circles (Kreise), ultimately ten in number, all of which were under an imperial government (Reichsregiment), which had at its disposal a military force for the punishment of disturbers of the peace. But the public opinion of the age, conjoined with the particular circumstances, political and economic, of Central Europe, robbed the enactment in a great measure of its immediate effect. Highway plundering and even private war were still going on, to a considerable extent, far into the sixteenth century. Charles V pursued the same line of policy as his predecessor; but it was not until after the suppression of the lower nobility in 1523, and finally of the peasants in 1526, that any material change took place; and then the centralization, such as it was, was in favour of the princes, rather than of the Imperial power, which, after Charles V's time, grew weaker and weaker. The speciality about the history of Germany is, that it has not known till our own day centralization on a national or racial scale like England or France.

At the opening of the sixteenth century public opinion not merely sanctioned open plunder by the wearer of spurs and by the possessor of a stronghold, but regarded it as his special prerogative, the exercise of which was honourable rather than disgraceful. The cities certainly resented their burghers being waylaid and robbed, and hanged the knights wherever they could; and something like a perpetual feud always existed between the wealthier cities and the knights who infested the trade routes leading to and from them. Still, these belligerent relations were taken as a matter of course; and no disgrace, in the modern sense, attached to the occupation of highway robbery.

In consequence of the impoverishment of the knights at this period, owing to causes with which we shall deal later, the trade or profession had recently received an accession of vigour, and at the same time was carried on more brutally and mercilessly than ever before. We will give some instances of the sort of occurrence which was by no means unusual. In the immediate neighbourhood of Nuernberg, which was bien entendu one of the chief seats of the Imperial power, a robber-knight leader, named Hans Thomas von Absberg, was a standing menace. It was the custom of this ruffian, who had a large following, to plunder even the poorest who came from the city, and, not content with this, to mutilate his victims. In June 1522 he fell upon a wretched craftsman, and with his own sword hacked off the poor fellow's right hand, notwithstanding that the man begged him upon his knees to take the left, and not destroy his means of earning his livelihood. The following August he, with his band, attacked a Nuernberg tanner, whose hand was similarly treated, one of his associates remarking that he was glad to set to work again, as it was "a long time since they had done any business in hands." On the same occasion a cutler was dealt with after a similar fashion. The hands in these cases were collected and sent to the Buergermeister of Nuernberg, with some such phrase as that the sender (Hans Thomas) would treat all so who came from the city.

The princes themselves, when it suited their purpose, did not hesitate to offer an asylum to these knightly robbers. With Absberg were associated Georg von Giech and Hans Georg von Aufsess. Among other notable robber-knights of the time may be mentioned the Lord of Brandenstein and the Lord of Rosenberg. As illustrating the strictly professional character of the pursuit, and the brutally callous nature of the society practising it, we may narrate that Margaretha von Brandenstein was accustomed, it is recorded, to give the advice to the choice guests round her board that when a merchant failed to keep his promise to them, they should never hesitate to cut off both his hands. Even Franz von Sickingen, known sometimes as the "last flower of German chivalry," boasted of having among the intimate associates of his enterprise for the rehabilitation of the knighthood many gentlemen who had been accustomed to "let their horses on the high road bite off the purses of wayfarers." So strong was the public opinion of the noble class as to the inviolability of the privilege of highway plunder that a monk, preaching one day in a cathedral and happening to attack it as unjustifiable, narrowly escaped death at the hands of some knights present amongst his congregation, who asserted that he had insulted the prerogatives of their order. Whenever this form of knight-errantry was criticized, there were never wanting scholarly pens to defend it as a legitimate means of aristocratic livelihood; since a knight must live in suitable style, and this was often his only resource for obtaining the means thereto.

The free cities, which were subject only to Imperial jurisdiction, were practically independent republics. Their organization was a microcosm of that of the entire empire. At the apex of the municipal society was the Buergermeister and the so-called "Honorability" (Ehrbarkeit), which consisted of the patrician clans or gentes (in most cases), those families which were supposed to be descended from the original chartered freemen of the town, the old Mark-brethren. They comprised generally the richest families, and had monopolized the entire government of the city, together with the right to administer its various sources of income and to consume its revenue at their pleasure. By the time, however, of which we are writing, the trade-guilds had also attained to a separate power of their own, and were in some cases ousting the burgher-aristocracy, though they were very generally susceptible of being manipulated by the members of the patrician class, who, as a rule, could alone sit in the Council (Rath). The latter body stood, in fact, as regards the town, much in the relation of the feudal lord to his manor. Strong in their wealth and in their aristocratic privileges, the patricians lorded it alike over the townspeople and over the neighbouring peasantry, who were subject to the municipality. They forestalled and regrated with impunity. They assumed the chief rights in the municipal lands, in many cases imposed duties at their own caprice, and turned guild privileges and rights of citizenship into a source of profit for themselves. Their bailiffs in the country districts forming part of their territory were often more voracious in their treatment of the peasants than even the nobles themselves. The accounts of income and expenditure were kept in the loosest manner, and embezzlement clumsily concealed was the rule rather than the exception.

The opposition of the non-privileged citizens, usually led by the wealthier guildsmen not belonging to the aristocratic class, operated through the guilds and through the open assembly of the citizens. It had already frequently succeeded in establishing a representation of the general body of the guildsmen in a so-called Great Council (Grosser Rath), and in addition, as already said, in ousting the "honorables" from some of the public functions. Altogether the patrician party, though still powerful enough, was at the opening of the sixteenth century already on the decline, the wealthy and unprivileged opposition beginning in its turn to constitute itself into a quasi-aristocratic body as against the mass of the poorer citizens and those outside the pale of municipal rights. The latter class was now becoming an important and turbulent factor in the life of the larger cities. The craft-guilds, consisting of the body of non-patrician citizens, were naturally in general dominated by their most wealthy section.

We may here observe that the development of the mediaeval township from its earliest beginnings up to the period of its decay in the sixteenth century was almost uniformly as follows:[1] At first the township, or rather what later became the township, was represented entirely by the circle of gentes or group-families originally settled within the mark or district on which the town subsequently stood. These constituted the original aristocracy from which the tradition of the Ehrbarkeit dated. In those towns founded by the Romans, such as Trier, Aachen, and others, the case was of course a little different. There the origin of the Ehrbarkeit may possibly be sought for in the leading families of the Roman provincials who were in occupation of the town at the coming of the barbarians in the fifth century. Round the original nucleus there gradually accreted from the earliest period of the Middle Ages the freed men of the surrounding districts, fugitive serfs, and others who sought that protection and means of livelihood in a community under the immediate domination of a powerful lord, which they could not otherwise obtain when their native village-community had perchance been raided by some marauding noble and his retainers. Circumstances, amongst others the fact that the community to which they attached themselves had already adopted commerce and thus become a guild of merchants, led to the differentiation of industrial functions amongst the new-comers, and thus to the establishment of craft-guilds.

Another origin of the townsfolk, which must not be overlooked, is to be found in the attendants on the palace-fortress of some great overlord. In the early Middle Ages all such magnates kept up an extensive establishment, the greater ecclesiastical lords no less than the secular often having several castles. In Germany this origin of the township was furthered by Charles the Great, who established schools and other civil institutions, with a magistrate at their head, round many of the palace-castles that he founded. "A new epoch," says Von Maurer, "begins with the villa-foundations of Charles the Great and his ordinances respecting them, for that his celebrated capitularies in this connection were intended for his newly established villas is self-evident. In that proceeding he obviously had the Roman villa in his mind, and on the model of this he rather further developed the previously existing court and villa constitution than completely reorganized it. Hence one finds even in his new creations the old foundation again, albeit on a far more extended plan, the economical side of such villa-colonies being especially more completely and effectively ordered."[2] The expression "Palatine," as applied to certain districts, bears testimony to the fact here referred to. As above said, the development of the township was everywhere on the same lines. The aim of the civic community was always to remove as far as possible the power which controlled them. Their worst condition was when they were immediately overshadowed by a territorial magnate. When their immediate lord was a prince, the area of whose feudal jurisdiction was more extensive, his rule was less oppressively felt, and their condition was therefore considerably improved. It was only, however, when cities were "free of the empire" (Reichsfrei) that they attained the ideal of mediaeval civic freedom.

It follows naturally from the conditions described that there was, in the first place, a conflict between the primitive inhabitants as embodied in their corporate society and the territorial lord, whoever he might be. No sooner had the township acquired a charter of freedom or certain immunities than a new antagonism showed itself between the ancient corporation of the city and the trade-guilds, these representing the later accretions. The territorial lord (if any) now sided, usually though not always, with the patrician party. But the guilds, nevertheless, succeeded in ultimately wresting many of the leading public offices from the exclusive possession of the patrician families. Meanwhile the leading men of the guilds had become hommes arrives. They had acquired wealth, and influence which was in many cases hereditary in their family, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century they were confronted with the more or less veiled and more or less open opposition of the smaller guildsmen and of the newest comers into the city, the shiftless proletariat of serfs and free peasants, whom economic pressure was fast driving within the walls, owing to the changed conditions of the times.

The peasant of the period was of three kinds: the leibeigener or serf, who was little better than a slave, who cultivated his lord's domain, upon whom unlimited burdens might be fixed, and who was in all respects amenable to the will of his lord; the hoeriger or villein, whose services were limited alike in kind and amount; and the freier or free peasant, who merely paid what was virtually a quit-rent in kind or in money for being allowed to retain his holding or status in the rural community under the protection of the manorial lord. The last was practically the counterpart of the mediaeval English copyholder. The Germans had undergone essentially the same transformations in social organization as the other populations of Europe.

The barbarian nations at the time of their great migration in the fifth century were organized on a tribal and village basis. The head man was simply primus inter pares. In the course of their wanderings the successful military leader acquired powers and assumed a position that was unknown to the previous times, when war, such as it was, was merely inter-tribal and inter-clannish, and did not involve the movements of peoples and federations of tribes, and when, in consequence, the need of permanent military leaders or for the semblance of a military hierarchy had not arisen. The military leader now placed himself at the head of the older social organization, and associated with his immediate followers on terms approaching equality. A well-known illustration of this is the incident of the vase taken from the Cathedral of Rheims, and of Chlodowig's efforts to rescue it from his independent comrade-in-arms.

The process of the development of the feudal polity of the Middle Ages is, of course, a very complicated one, owing to the various strands that go to compose it. In addition to the German tribes themselves, who moved en masse, carrying with them their tribal and village organization, under the overlordship of the various military leaders, were the indigenous inhabitants amongst whom they settled. The latter in the country districts, even in many of the territories within the Roman Empire, still largely retained the primitive communal organization. The new-comers, therefore, found in the rural communities a social system already in existence into which they naturally fitted, but as an aristocratic body over against the conquered inhabitants. The latter, though not all reduced to a servile condition, nevertheless held their land from the conquering body under conditions which constituted them an order of freemen inferior to the new-comers.

To put the matter briefly, the military leaders developed into barons and princes, and in some cases the nominal centralization culminated, as in France and England, in the kingly office; while, in Germany and Italy, it took the form of the revived Imperial office, the spiritual overlord of the whole of Christendom being the Pope, who had his vassals in the prince-prelates and subordinate ecclesiastical holders. In addition to the princes sprung originally from the military leaders of the migratory nations, there were their free followers, who developed ultimately into the knighthood or inferior nobility; the inhabitants of the conquered districts forming a distinct class of inferior freemen or of serfs. But the essentially personal relation with which the whole process started soon degenerated into one based on property. The most primitive form of property—land—was at the outset what was termed allodial, at least among the conquering race, from every social group having the possession, under the trusteeship of his head man, of the land on which it settled. Now, owing to the necessities of the time, owing to the need of protection, to violence, and to religious motives, it passed into the hands of the overlord, temporal or spiritual, as his possession; and the inhabitants, even in the case of populations which had not been actually conquered, became his vassals, villeins, or serfs, as the case might be. The process by means of which this was accomplished was more or less gradual; indeed, the entire extinction of communal rights, whereby the notion of private ownership is fully realized, was not universally effected even in the West of Europe till within a measurable distance of our own time.[3]

From the foregoing it will be understood that the oppression of the peasant, under the feudalism of the Middle Ages, and especially of the later Middle Ages, was viewed by him as an infringement of his rights. During the period of time constituting mediaeval history, the peasant, though he often slumbered, yet often started up to a sudden consciousness of his position. The memory of primitive communism was never quite extinguished, and the continual peasant-revolts of the Middle Ages, though immediately occasioned, probably, by some fresh invasion, by which it was sought to tear from the "common man" yet another shred of his surviving rights, always had in the background the ideal, vague though it may have been, of his ancient freedom. Such, undoubtedly, was the meaning of the Jacquerie in France, with its wild and apparently senseless vengeance; of the Wat Tyler revolt in England, with its systematic attempt to envisage the vague tradition of the primitive village community in the legends of the current ecclesiastical creed; of the numerous revolts in Flanders and North Germany; to a large extent of the Hussite movement in Bohemia, under Ziska; of the rebellion led by George Doza in Hungary; and, as we shall see in the body of the present work, of the social movements of Reformation Germany, in which, with the partial exception of Ket's rebellion in England a few years later, we may consider them as virtually coming to an end.

For the movements in question were distinctly the last of their kind. The civil wars of religion in France, and the great rebellion in England against Charles I, which also assumed a religious colouring, open a new era in popular revolts. In the latter, particularly, we have clearly before us the attempt of the new middle class of town and country, the independent citizen, and the now independent yeoman, to assert supremacy over the old feudal estates or orders. The new conditions had swept away the special revolutionary tradition of the mediaeval period, whose golden age lay in the past with its communal-holding and free men with equal rights on the basis of the village organization—rights which with every century the peasant felt more and more slipping away from him. The place of this tradition was now taken by an ideal of individual freedom, apart from any social bond, and on a basis merely political, the way for which had been prepared by that very conception of individual proprietorship on the part of the landlord, against which the older revolutionary sentiment had protested. A most powerful instrument in accommodating men's minds to this change of view, in other words, to the establishment of the new individualistic principle, was the Roman or Civil law, which, at the period dealt with in the present book, had become the basis whereon disputed points were settled in the Imperial Courts. In this respect also, though to a lesser extent, may be mentioned the Canon or Ecclesiastical law—consisting of papal decretals on various points which were founded partially on the Roman or Civil law—a juridical system which also fully and indeed almost exclusively recognized the individual holding of property as the basis of civil society (albeit not without a recognition of social duties on the part of the owner).

Learning was now beginning to differentiate itself from the ecclesiastical profession, and to become a definite vocation in its various branches. Crowds of students flocked to the seats of learning, and, as travelling scholars, earned a precarious living by begging or "professing" medicine, assisting the illiterate for a small fee, or working wonders, such as casting horoscopes, or performing thaumaturgic tricks. The professors of law were now the most influential members of the Imperial Council and of the various Imperial Courts. In Central Europe, as elsewhere, notably in France, the civil lawyers were always on the side of the centralizing power, alike against the local jurisdictions and against the peasantry.

The effects of the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and the consequent dispersion of the accumulated Greek learning of the Byzantine Empire, had, by the end of the fifteenth century, begun to show themselves in a notable modification of European culture. The circle of the seven sciences, the Quadrivium, and the Trivium, in other words, the mediaeval system of learning, began to be antiquated. Scholastic philosophy, that is to say, the controversy of the Scotists and the Thomists, was now growing out of date. Plato was extolled at the expense of Aristotle. Greek, and even Hebrew, was eagerly sought after. Latin itself was assuming another aspect; the Renaissance Latin is classical Latin, whilst Mediaeval Latin is dog-Latin. The physical universe now began to be inquired into with a perfectly fresh interest, but the inquiries were still conducted under the aegis of the old habits of thought. The universe was still a system of mysterious affinities and magical powers to the investigator of the Renaissance period, as it had been before. There was this difference, however; it was now attempted to systematize the magical theory of the universe. While the common man held a store of traditional magical beliefs respecting the natural world, the learned man deduced these beliefs from the Neo-Platonists, from the Kabbala, from Hermes Trismegistos, and from a variety of other sources, and attempted to arrange this somewhat heterogeneous mass of erudite lore into a system of organized thought.

The Humanistic movement, so called, the movement, that is, of revived classical scholarship, had already begun in Germany before what may be termed the sturm und drang of the Renaissance proper. Foremost among the exponents of this older Humanism, which dates from the middle of the fifteenth century, were Nicholas of Cusa and his disciples, Rudolph Agricola, Alexander Hegius, and Jacob Wimpheling. But the new Humanism and the new Renaissance movement generally throughout Northern Europe centred chiefly in two personalities, Johannes Reuchlin and Desiderius Erasmus. Reuchlin was the founder of the new Hebrew learning, which up till then had been exclusively confined to the synagogue. It was he who unlocked the mysteries of the Kabbala to the Gentile world. But though it is for his introduction of Hebrew study that Reuchlin is best known to posterity, yet his services in the diffusion and popularization of classical culture were enormous. The dispute of Reuchlin with the ecclesiastical authorities at Cologne excited literary Germany from end to end. It was the first general skirmish of the new and the old spirit in Central and Northern Europe.

But the man who was destined to become the personification of the Humanist movement, us the new learning was called, was Erasmus. The illegitimate son of the daughter of a Rotterdam burgher, he early became famous on account of his erudition, in spite of the adverse circumstances of his youth. Like all the scholars of his time, he passed rapidly from one country to another, settling finally in Basel, then at the height of its reputation as a literary and typographical centre. The whole intellectual movement of the time centres round Erasmus, as is particularly noticeable in the career of Ulrich von Hutten, dealt with in the course of this history. As instances of the classicism of the period, we may note the uniform change of the patronymic into the classical equivalent, or some classicism supposed to be the equivalent. Thus the name Erasmus itself was a classicism of his father's name Gerhard, the German name Muth became Mutianus, Trittheim became Trithemius, Schwarzerd became Melanchthon, and so on.

We have spoken of the other side of the intellectual movement of the period. This other side showed itself in mystical attempts at reducing nature to law in the light of the traditional problems which had been set, to wit, those of alchemy and astrology: the discovery of the philosopher's stone, of the transmutation of metals, of the elixir of life, and of the correspondences between the planets and terrestrial bodies. Among the most prominent exponents of these investigations may be mentioned Philippus von Hohenheim or Paracelsus, and Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, in Germany, Nostrodamus in France, and Cardanus in Italy. These men represent a tendency which was pursued by thousands in the learned world. It was a tendency which had the honour of being the last in history to embody itself in a distinct mythical cycle. "Doctor Faustus" may probably have had an historical germ; but in any case "Doctor Faustus," as known to legend and to literature, is merely a personification of the practical side of the new learning.

The minds of men were waking up to interest in nature. There was one man, Copernicus, who, at least partially, struck through the traditionary atmosphere in which nature was enveloped, and to his insight we owe the foundation of astronomical science; but otherwise the whole intellectual atmosphere was charged with occult views. In fact, the learned world of the sixteenth century would have found itself quite at home in the pretensions and fancies of our modern theosophist and psychical researchers, with their notions of making erstwhile miracles non-miraculous, of reducing the marvellous to being merely the result of penetration on the part of certain seers and investigators of the secret powers of nature. Every wonder-worker was received with open arms by learned and unlearned alike. The possibility of producing that which was out of the ordinary range of natural occurrences was not seriously doubted by any. Spells and enchantments, conjurations, calculations of nativities, were matters earnestly investigated at Universities and Courts.

There were, of course, persons who were eager to detect impostors: and amongst them some of the most zealous votaries of the occult arts—for example, Trittheim and the learned Humanist, Conrad Muth or Mutianus, both of whom professed to have regarded Faust as a fraudulent person. But this did not imply any disbelief in the possibility of the alleged pretensions. In the Faust-myth is embodied, moreover, the opposition between the new learning on its physical side and the old religious faith. The theory that the investigation of the mysteries of nature had in it something sinister and diabolical which had been latent throughout the Middle Ages, was brought into especial prominence by the new religious movements. The popular feeling that the line between natural magic and the black art was somewhat doubtful, that the one had a tendency to shade off into the other, now received fresh stimulus. The notion of compacts with the devil was a familiar one, and that they should be resorted to for the purpose of acquiring an acquaintance with hidden lore and magical powers seemed quite natural.

It will have already been seen from what we have said that the religious revolt was largely economical in its causes. The intense hatred, common alike to the smaller nobility, the burghers, and the peasants, of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, was obviously due to its ever-increasing exactions. The chief of these were the pallium or price paid to the Pope for an ecclesiastical investiture; the annates or first year's revenues of a church fief; and the tithes which were of two kinds, the great tithe paid in agricultural produce, and the small tithe consisting in a head of cattle. The latter seems to have been especially obnoxious to the peasant. The sudden increase in the sale of indulgences, like the proverbial last straw, broke down the whole system; but any other incident might have served the purpose equally well. The prince-prelates were in some instances, at the outset, not averse to the movement; they would not have been indisposed to have converted their territories into secular fiefs of the empire. It was only after this hope had been abandoned that they definitely took sides with the Papal authority.

The opening of the sixteenth century thus presents to us mediaeval society, social, political, and religious, in Germany as elsewhere, "run to seed." The feudal organization was outwardly intact; the peasant, free and bond, formed the foundation; above him came the knighthood or inferior nobility; parallel with them was the Ehrbarkeit of the less important towns, holding from mediate lordship; above these towns came the free cities, which held immediately from the empire, organized into three bodies, a governing Council in which the Ehrbarkeit usually predominated, where they did not entirely compose it, a Common Council composed of the masters of the various guilds, and the General Council of the free citizens. Those journeymen, whose condition was fixed from their being outside the guild-organizations, usually had guilds of their own. Above the free cities in the social pyramid stood the Princes of the empire, lay and ecclesiastic, with the Electoral College, or the seven Electoral Princes, forming their head. These constituted the feudal "estates" of the empire. Then came the "King of the Romans"; and, as the apex of the whole, the Pope in one function and the Emperor in another, crowned the edifice. The supremacy, not merely of the Pope but of the complementary temporal head of the mediaeval polity, the Emperor, was acknowledged in a shadowy way, even in countries such as France and England, which had no direct practical connection with the empire. For, as the spiritual power was also temporal, so the temporal political power had, like everything else in the Middle Ages, a quasi-religious significance.

The minds of men in speculative matters, in theology, in philosophy, and in jurisprudence, were outgrowing the old doctrines, at least in their old forms. In theology the notion of salvation by the faith of the individual, and not through the fact of belonging to a corporate organization, which was the mediaeval conception, was latent in the minds of multitudes of religious persons before expression was given to it by Luther. The aversion to scholasticism, bred by the revived knowledge of the older Greek philosophies in the original, produced a curious amalgam; but scholastic habits of thought were still dominant through it all. The new theories of nature amounted to little more than old superstitions, systematized and reduced to rule, though here and there the later physical science, based on observation and experiment, peeped through. In jurisprudence the epoch is marked by the final conquest of the Roman civil law, in its spirit, where not in its forms, over the old customs, pre-feudal and feudal.

The subject of Germany during that closing period of the Middle Ages, characterized by what is known as the revival of learning and the Reformation, is so important for an understanding of later German history and the especial characteristics of the German culture of later times, that we propose, even at the risk of wearying some readers, to recapitulate in as short a space as possible, compatible with clearness, the leading conditions of the times—conditions which, directly or indirectly, have moulded the whole subsequent course of German development.

Owing to the geographical situation of Germany and to the political configuration of its peoples and other causes, mediaeval conditions of life as we find them in the early sixteenth century left more abiding traces on the German mind and on German culture than was the case with some other nations. The time was out of joint in a very literal sense of that somewhat hackneyed phrase. At the opening of the sixteenth century every established institution—political, social, and religious—was shaken and showed the rents and fissures caused by time and by the growth of a new life underneath it. The empire—the Holy Roman—was in a parlous way as regarded its cohesion. The power of the princes, the representatives of local centralized authority, was proving itself too strong for the power of the Emperor, the recognized representative of centralized authority for the whole German-speaking world. This meant the undermining and eventual disruption of the smaller social and political unities,[4] the knightly manors with the privileges attached to the knightly class generally. The knighthood, or lower nobility, had acted as a sort of buffer between the princes of the empire and the Imperial power, to which they often looked for protection against their immediate overlord or their powerful neighbour—the prince. The Imperial power, in consequence, found the lower nobility a bulwark against its princely vassals. Economic changes, the suddenly increased demand for money owing to the rise of the "world-market," new inventions in the art of war, new methods of fighting, the rapidly growing importance of artillery, and the increase of the mercenary soldier, had rendered the lower nobility, as an institution, a factor in the political situation which was fast becoming negligible. The abortive campaign of Franz von Sickingen in 1523 only showed its hopeless weakness. The Reichsregiment, or Imperial governing council, a body instituted by Maximilian, had lamentably failed to effect anything towards cementing together the various parts of the unwieldy fabric. Finally, at the Reichstag held in Nuernberg, in December 1522, at which all the estates were represented, the Reichsregiment, to all intents and purposes, collapsed.

The Reichstag in question was summoned ostensibly for the purpose of raising a subsidy for the Hungarians in their struggle against the advancing power of the Turks. The Turkish movement westward was, of course, throughout this period, the most important question of what in modern phraseology would be called "foreign politics." The princes voted the proposal of the subsidy without consulting the representatives of the cities, who knew the heaviest part of the burden was to fall upon themselves. The urgency of the situation, however, weighed with them, with the result that they submitted after considerable remonstrance. The princes, in conjunction with their rivals, the lower nobility, next proceeded to attack the commercial monopolies, the first fruits of the rising capitalism, the appanage mainly of the trading companies and the merchant magnates of the towns. This was too much for civic patience. The city representatives, who, of course, belonged to the civic aristocracy, waxed indignant. The feudal orders went on to claim the right to set up vexatious tariffs in their respective territories, whereby to hinder artificially the free development of the new commercial capitalist. This filled up the cup of endurance of the magnates of the city. The city representatives refused their consent to the Turkish subsidy and withdrew. The next step was the sending of a deputation to the young Emperor Karl, who was in Spain, and whose sanction to the decrees of the Reichstag was necessary before their promulgation. The result of the conference held on this occasion was a decision to undermine the Reichsregiment and weaken the power of the princes, by whom and by whose tools it was manned, as a factor in the Imperial constitution. As for the princes, while some of their number were positively opposed to it, others cared little one way or the other. Their chief aim was to strengthen and consolidate their power within the limits of their own territories, and a weak empire was perhaps better adapted for effecting this purpose than a stronger one, even though certain of their own order had a controlling voice in its administration. As already hinted, the collapse of the rebellious knighthood under Sickingen, a few weeks later, clearly showed the political drift of the situation in the haute politique of the empire.

The rising capitalists of the city, the monopolists, merchant princes, and syndicates, are the theme of universal invective throughout this period. To them the rapid and enormous rise in prices during the early years of the sixteenth century, the scarcity of money consequent on the increased demand for it, and the impoverishment of large sections of the population, were attributed by noble and peasant alike. The whole trend of public opinion, in short, outside the wealthier burghers of the larger cities—the class immediately interested—was adverse to the condition of things created by the new world-market, and by the new class embodying it. At present it was a small class, the only one that gained by it, and that gained at the expense of all the other classes.

Some idea of the class-antagonisms of the period may be gathered from the statement of Ulrich von Hutten about the robber-knights already spoken of, in his dialogue entitled "Predones," to the effect that there were four orders of robbers in Germany—the knights, the lawyers, the priests, and the merchants (meaning especially the new capitalist merchant-traders or syndicates). Of these, he declares the robber-knights to be the least harmful. This is naturally only to be expected from so gallant a champion of his order, the friend and abettor of Sickingen. Nevertheless, the seriousness of the robber-knight evil, the toleration of which in principle was so deeply ingrained in the public opinion of large sections of the population, may be judged from the abortive attempts made to stop it, at the instance alike of princes and of cities, who on this point, if on no other, had a common interest. In 1502, for example, at the Reichstag held in Gelnhausen in that year, certain of the highest princes of the empire made a representation that, at least, the knights should permit the gathering in of the harvest and the vintage in peace. But even this modest demand was found to be impracticable. The knights had to live in the style required by their status, as they declared, and where other means were more and more failing them, their ancient right or privilege of plunder was indispensable to their order. Still, Hutten was right so far in declaring the knight the most harmless kind of robber, inasmuch as, direct as were his methods, his sun was obviously setting, while as much could not be said of the other classes named; the merchant and the lawyer were on the rise, and the priest, although about to receive a check, was not destined speedily to disappear, or to change fundamentally the character of his activity.

The feudal orders saw their own position seriously threatened by the new development of things economic in the cities. The guilds were becoming crystallized into close corporations of wealthy families, constituting a kind of second Ehrbarkeit or town patriciate; the numbers of the landless and unprivileged, with at most a bare footing in the town constitution, were increasing in an alarming proportion; the journeyman workman was no longer a stage between apprentice and master craftsman, but a permanent condition embodied in a large and growing class. All these symptoms indicated an extraordinary economic revolution, which was making itself at first directly felt only in the larger cities, but the results of which were dislocating the social relations of the Middle Ages throughout the whole empire.

Perhaps the most striking feature in this dislocation was the transition from direct barter to exchange through the medium of money, and the consequent suddenly increased importance of the role played by usury in the social life of the time. The scarcity of money is a perennial theme of complaint for which the new large capitalist-monopolists are made responsible. But the class in question was itself only a symptom of the general economic change. The seeming scarcity of money, though but the consequence of the increased demand for a circulating medium, was explained, to the disadvantage of the hated monopolists, by a crude form of the "mercantile" theory. The new merchant, in contradistinction to the master craftsman working en famille with his apprentices and assistants, now often stood entirely outside the processes of production, as speculator or middleman; and he, and still more the syndicate who fulfilled the like functions on a larger scale (especially with reference to foreign trade), came to be regarded as particularly obnoxious robbers, because interlopers to boot. Unlike the knights, they were robbers with a new face.

The lawyers were detested for much the same reason (cf. German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages, pp. 219-28). The professional lawyer class, since its final differentiation from the clerk class in general, had made the Roman or civil law its speciality, and had done its utmost everywhere to establish the principles of the latter in place of the old feudal law of earlier mediaeval Europe. The Roman law was especially favourable to the pretensions of the princes, and, from an economic point of view, of the nobility in general, inasmuch as land was on the new legal principles treated as the private property of the lord; over which he had full power of ownership, and not, as under feudal and canon law, as a trust involving duties as well as rights. The class of jurists was itself of comparatively recent growth in Central Europe, and its rapid increase in every portion of the empire dated from less than half a century back. It may be well understood, therefore, why these interlopers, who ignored the ancient customary law of the country, and who by means of an alien code deprived the poor freeholder or copyholder of his land, or justified new and unheard-of exactions on the part of his lord on the plea that the latter might do what he liked with his own, were regarded by the peasant and humble man as robbers whose depredations were, if anything, even more resented than those of their old and tried enemy—the plundering knight.

The priest, especially of the regular orders, was indeed an old foe, but his offence had now become very rank. From the middle of the fifteenth century onwards the stream of anti-clerical literature waxes alike in volume and intensity. The "monk" had become the object of hatred and scorn throughout the whole lay world. This view of the "regular" was shared, moreover, by not a few of the secular clergy themselves. Humanists, who were subsequently ardent champions of the Church against Luther and the Protestant Reformation—men such as Murner and Erasmus—had been previously the bitterest satirists of the "friar" and the "monk." Amongst the great body of the laity, however, though the religious orders came in perhaps for the greater share of animosity, the secular priesthood was not much better off in popular favour, whilst the upper members of the hierarchy were naturally regarded as the chief blood-suckers of the German people in the interests of Rome. The vast revenues which both directly in the shape of pallium (the price of "investiture"), annates (first year's revenues of appointments), Peter's-pence, and recently of indulgences—the latter the by no means most onerous exaction, since it was voluntary—all these things, taken together with what was indirectly obtained from Germany, through the expenditure of German ecclesiastics on their visits to Rome and by the crowd of parasitics, nominal holders of German benefices merely, but real recipients of German substance, who danced attendance at the Vatican—obviously constituted an enormous drain on the resources of the country from all the lay classes alike, of which wealth the papal chair could be plainly seen to be the receptacle.

If we add to these causes of discontent the vastness in number of the regular clergy, the "friars" and "monks" already referred to, who consumed, but were only too obviously unproductive, it will be sufficiently plain that the Protestant Reformation had something very much more than a purely speculative basis to work upon. Religious reformers there had been in Germany throughout the Middle Ages, but their preachings had taken no deep root. The powerful personality of the Monk of Wittenberg found an economic soil ready to hand in which his teachings could fructify, and hence the world-historic result. The peasant revolts, sporadic the Middle Ages through, had for the half-century preceding the Reformation been growing in frequency and importance, but it needed nevertheless the sudden impulse, the powerful jar given by a Luther in 1517, and the series of blows with which it was followed during the years immediately succeeding, to crystallize the mass of fluid discontent and social unrest in its various forms and give it definite direction. The blow which was primarily struck in the region of speculative thought and ecclesiastical relations did not stop there in its effects. The attack on the dominant theological system—at first merely on certain comparatively unessential outworks of that system—necessarily of its own force developed into an attack on the organization representing it, and on the economic basis of the latter. The battle against ecclesiastical abuses, again, in its turn, focussed the ever-smouldering discontent with abuses in general; and this time, not in one district only, but simultaneously over the whole of Germany. The movement inaugurated by Luther gave to the peasant groaning under the weight of baronial oppression, and the small handicraftsman suffering under his Ehrbarkeit, a rallying-point and a rallying cry.

In history there is no movement which starts up full grown from the brain of any one man, or even from the mind of any one generation of men, like Athene from the head of Zeus. The historical epoch which marks the crisis of the given change is, after all, little beyond a prominent landmark—a parting of the ways—led up to by a long preparatory development. This is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the Reformation and its accompanying movements. The ideas and aspirations animating the social, political, and intellectual revolt of the sixteenth century can each be traced back to, at least, the beginning of the fifteenth century, and in many cases farther still. The way the German of Luther's time looked at the burning questions of the hour was not essentially different from the way the English Wyclifites and Lollards, or the Bohemian Hussites and Taborites viewed them. There was obviously a difference born of the later time, but this difference was not, I repeat, essential. The changes which, a century previously, were only just beginning, had, meanwhile, made enormous progress.

The disintegration of the material conditions of mediaeval social life was now approaching its completion, forced on by the inventions and discoveries of the previous half-century. But the ideals of the mass of men, learned and simple, were still in the main the ideals that had been prevalent throughout the whole of the later Middle Ages. Men still looked at the world and at social progress through mediaeval spectacles. The chief difference was that now ideas which had previously been confined to special localities, or had only had a sporadic existence among the people at large, had become general throughout large portions of the population. The invention of the art of printing was, of course, largely instrumental in effecting this change.

The comparatively sudden popularization of doctrines previously confined to special circles was the distinguishing feature of the intellectual life of the first half of the sixteenth century. Among the many illustrations of the foregoing which might be given, we are specially concerned here to note the sudden popularity during this period of two imaginary constitutions dating from early in the previous century. From the fourteenth century we find traces, perhaps suggested by the Prester John legend, of a deliverer in the shape of an emperor who should come from the East, who should be the last of his name; should right all wrongs; should establish the empire in universal justice and peace; and, in short, should be the forerunner of the kingdom of Christ on earth. This notion or mystical hope took increasing root during the fifteenth century, and is to be found in many respects embodied in the spurious constitutions mentioned, which bore respectively the names of the Emperors Sigismund and Friedrich. It was in this form that the Hussite theories were absorbed by the German mind. The hopes of the Messianists of the "Holy Roman Empire" were centred at one time in the Emperor Sigismund. Later on the role of Messiah was carried over to his successor, Friedrich III, upon whom the hopes of the German people were cast.

The Reformation of Kaiser Sigismund, originally written about 1438, went through several editions before the end of the century, and was as many times reprinted during the opening years of Luther's movement. Like its successor, that of Friedrich, the scheme attributed to Sigismund proposed the abolition of the recent abuses of feudalism, of the new lawyer class, and of the symptoms already making themselves felt of the change from barter to money payments. It proposed, in short, a return to primitive conditions. It was a scheme of reform on a Biblical basis, embracing many elements of a distinctly communistic character, as communism was then understood. It was pervaded with the idea of equality in the spirit of the Taborite literature of the age, from which it took its origin.

The so-called Reformation of Kaiser Sigismund dealt especially with the peasantry—the serfs and villeins of the time; that attributed to Friedrich was mainly concerned with the rising population of the towns. All towns and communes were to undergo a constitutional transformation. Handicraftsmen should receive just wages; all roads should be free; taxes, dues, and levies should be abolished; trading capital was to be limited to a maximum of 10,000 gulden; all surplus capital should fall to the Imperial authorities, who should lend it in case of need to poor handicraftsmen at 5 per cent.; uniformity of coinage and of weights and measures was to be decreed, together with the abolition of the Roman and Canon law. Legists, priests, and princes were to be severely dealt with. But, curiously enough, the middle and lower nobility, especially the knighthood, were more tenderly handled, being treated as themselves victims of their feudal superiors, lay and ecclesiastic, especially the latter. In this connection the secularization of ecclesiastical fiefs was strongly insisted on.

As men found, however, that neither the Emperor Sigismund, nor the Emperor Friedrich III, nor the Emperor Maximilian, upon each of whom successively their hopes had been cast as the possible realization of the German Messiah of earlier dreams, fulfilled their expectations, nay, as each in succession implicitly belied these hopes, showing no disposition whatever to act up to the views promulgated in their names, the tradition of the Imperial deliverer gradually lost its force and popularity. By the opening of the Lutheran Reformation the opinion had become general that a change would not come from above, but that the initiative must rest with the people themselves—with the classes specially oppressed by existing conditions, political, economic, and ecclesiastical—to effect by their own exertions such a transformation as was shadowed forth in the spurious constitutions. These, and similar ideas, were now everywhere taken up and elaborated, often in a still more radical sense than the original; and they everywhere found hearers and adherents.

The "true inwardness" of the change, of which the Protestant Reformation represented the ideological side, meant the transformation of society from a basis mainly corporative and co-operative to one individualistic in its essential character. The whole polity of the Middle Ages industrial, social, political, ecclesiastical, was based on the principle of the group or the community—ranging in hierarchical order from the trade-guild to the town corporation; from the town corporation through the feudal orders to the Imperial throne itself; from the single monastery to the order as a whole; and from the order as a whole to the complete hierarchy of the Church as represented by the papal chair. The principle of this social organization was now breaking down. The modern and bourgeois conception of the autonomy of the individual in all spheres of life was beginning to affirm itself.

The most definite expression of this new principle asserted itself in the religious sphere. The individualism which was inherent in early Christianity, but which was present as a speculative content merely, had not been strong enough to counteract even the remains of corporate tendencies on the material side of things, in the decadent Roman Empire; and infinitely less so the vigorous group-organization and sentiment of the northern nations, with their tribal society and communistic traditions still mainly intact. And these were the elements out of which mediaeval society arose. Naturally enough the new religious tendencies in revolt against the mediaeval corporate Christianity of the Catholic Church seized upon this individualistic element in Christianity, declaring the chief end of religion to be a personal salvation, for the attainment of which the individual himself was sufficing, apart from Church organization and Church tradition. This served as a valuable destructive weapon for the iconoclasts in their attack on ecclesiastical privilege; consequently, in religion, this doctrine of Individualism rapidly made headway. But in more material matters the old corporative instinct was still too strong and the conditions were as yet too imperfectly ripe for the speedy triumph of Individualism.

The conflict of the two tendencies is curiously exhibited in the popular movements of the Reformation-time. As enemies of the decaying and obstructive forms of Feudalism and Church organization, the peasant and handicraftsman were necessarily on the side of the new Individualism. So far as negation and destruction were concerned, they were working apparently for the new order of things—that new order of things which longo intervallo has finally landed us in the developed capitalistic Individualism of the twentieth century. Yet when we come to consider their constructive programmes we find the positive demands put forward are based either on ideal conceptions derived from reminiscences of primitive communism, or else that they distinctly postulate a return to a state of things—the old mark-organisation—upon which the later feudalism had in various ways encroached, and finally superseded. Hence they were, in these respects, not merely not in the trend of contemporary progress, but in actual opposition to it; and therefore, as Lassalle has justly remarked, they were necessarily and in any case doomed to failure in the long run.

This point should not be lost sight of in considering the various popular movements of the earlier half of the sixteenth century. The world was still essentially mediaeval; men were still dominated by mediaeval ways of looking at things and still immersed in mediaeval conditions of life. It is true that out of this mediaeval soil the new individualistic society was beginning to grow, but its manifestations were as yet not so universally apparent as to force a recognition of their real meaning. It was still possible to regard the various symptoms of change, numerous as they were, and far-reaching as we now see them to have been, as sporadic phenomena, as rank but unessential overgrowths on the old society, which it was possible by pruning and the application of other suitable remedies to get rid of, and thereby to restore a state of pristine health in the body political and social.

Biblical phrases and the notion of Divine Justice now took the place in the popular mind formerly occupied by Church and Emperor. All the then oppressed classes of society—the small peasant, half villein, half free-man; the landless journeyman and town-proletarian; the beggar by the wayside; the small master, crushed by usury or tyrannized over by his wealthier colleague in the guild, or by the town-patriciate; even the impoverished knight, or the soldier of fortune defrauded of his pay; in short, all with whom times were bad, found consolation for their wants and troubles, and at the same time an incentive to action, in the notion of a Divine Justice which should restore all things, and the advent of which was approaching. All had Biblical phrases tending in the direction of their immediate aspirations in their mouths.

As bearing on the development and propaganda of the new ideas, the existence of a new intellectual class, rendered possible by the new method of exchange through money (as opposed to that of barter), which for a generation past had been in full swing in the larger towns, must not be forgotten. Formerly land had been the essential condition of livelihood; now it was no longer so. The "universal equivalent," money, conjoined with the printing press, was rendering a literary class proper, for the first time, possible. In the same way the teacher, physician, and the small lawyer were enabled to subsist as followers of independent professions, apart from the special service of the Church or as part of the court-retinue of some feudal potentate. To these we must add a fresh and very important section of the intellectual class which also now for the first time acquired an independent existence—to wit, that of the public official or functionary. This change, although only one of many, is itself specially striking as indicating the transition from the barbaric civilization of the Middle Ages to the beginnings of the civilization of the modern world. We have, in short, before us, as already remarked, a period in which the Middle Ages, whilst still dominant, have their force visibly sapped by the growth of a new life.

To sum up the chief features of this new life: Industrially, we have the decline of the old system of production in the countryside in which each manor or, at least, each district, was for the most part self-sufficing and self-supporting, where production was almost entirely for immediate use, and only the surplus was exchanged, and where such exchange as existed took place exclusively under the form of barter. In place of this, we find now something more than the beginnings of a national-market and distinct traces of that of a world-market. In the towns the change was even still more marked. Here we have a sudden and hothouse-like development of the influence of money. The guild-system, originally designed for associations of craftsmen, for which the chief object was the man and the work, and not the mere acquirement of profit, was changing its character. The guilds were becoming close corporations of privileged capitalists, while a commercial capitalism, as already indicated, was raising its head in all the larger centres. In consequence of this state of things, the rapid development of the towns and of commerce, national and international, and the economic backwardness of the country-side, a landless proletariat was being formed, which meant on the one hand an enormous increase in mendicancy of all kinds, and on the other the creation of a permanent class of only casually-employed persons, whom the towns absorbed indeed, but for the most part with a new form of citizenship involving only the bare right of residence within the walls. Similar social phenomena were, of course, manifesting themselves contemporaneously in other parts of Europe; but in Germany the change was more sudden than elsewhere, and was complicated by special political circumstances.

The political and military functions of that for the mediaeval polity of Germany, so important class, the knighthood, or lower nobility, had by this time become practically obsolete, mainly owing to the changed conditions of warfare. But yet the class itself was numerous, and still, nominally at least, possessed of most of its old privileges and authority. The extent of its real power depended, however, upon the absence or weakness of a central power, whether Imperial or State-territorial. The attempt to reconstitute the centralized power of the empire under Maximilian, of which the Reichsregiment was the outcome, had, as we have seen, not proved successful. Its means of carrying into effect its own decisions were hopelessly inadequate. In 1523 it was already weakened, and became little more than a "survival" after the Reichstag held at Nuernberg in 1524. Thus this body, which had been called into existence at the instance of the most powerful estates of the empire, was "shelved" with the practically unanimous consent of those who had been instrumental in creating it.

But if the attempt at Imperial centralization had failed, the force of circumstances tended partly for this very reason to favour State-territorial centralization. The aim of all the territorial magnates, the higher members of the Imperial system, was to consolidate their own princely power within the territories owing them allegiance. This desire played a not unimportant part in the establishment of the Reformation in certain parts of the country—for example, in Wuertemberg, and in the northern lands of East Prussia which were subject to the Grand Master of the Teutonic knights. The time was at hand for the transformation of the mediaeval feudal territory, with its local jurisdictions and its ties of service, into the modern bureaucratic state, with its centralized administration and organized system of salaried functionaries subject to a central authority.

The religious movement inaugurated by Luther met and was absorbed by all these elements of change. It furnished them with a religious flag, under cover of which they could work themselves out. This was necessary in an age when the Christian theology was unquestioningly accepted in one or another form by wellnigh all men, and hence entered as a practical belief into their daily thoughts and lives. The Lutheran Reformation, from its inception in 1517 down to the Peasants' War of 1525, at once absorbed, and was absorbed by, all the revolutionary elements of the time. Up to the last-mentioned date it gathered revolutionary force year by year. But this was the turning point.

With the crushing of the peasants' revolt and the decisively anti-popular attitude taken up by Luther, the religious movement associated with him ceased any longer to have a revolutionary character. It henceforth became definitely subservient to the new interests of the wealthy and privileged classes, and as such completely severed itself from the more extreme popular reforming sects.

Up to this time, though by no means always approved by Luther himself or his immediate followers, and in some cases even combated by them, the latter were nevertheless not looked upon with disfavour by large numbers of the rank and file of those who regarded Martin Luther as their leader.

Nothing could exceed the violence of language with which Luther himself attacked all who stood in his way. Not only the ecclesiastical, but also the secular heads of Christendom came in for the coarsest abuse; "swine" and "water-bladder" are not the strongest epithets employed. But this was not all; in his Treatise on Temporal Authority and how far it should be Obeyed (published in 1523), whilst professedly maintaining the thesis that the secular authority is a Divine ordinance, Luther none the less expressly justifies resistance to all human authority where its mandates are contrary to "the word of God." At the same time, he denounces in his customary energetic language the existing powers generally. "Thou shouldst know," he says, "that since the beginning of the world a wise prince is truly a rare bird, but a pious prince is still more rare." "They" (princes) "are mostly the greatest fools or the greatest rogues on earth; therefore must we at all times expect from them the worst, and little good." Farther on, he proceeds: "The common man begetteth understanding, and the plague of the princes worketh powerfully among the people and the common man. He will not, he cannot, he purposeth not, longer to suffer your tyranny and oppression. Dear princes and lords, know ye what to do, for God will no longer endure it? The world is no more as of old time, when ye hunted and drove the people as your quarry. But think ye to carry on with much drawing of sword, look to it that one do not come who shall bid ye sheath it, and that not in God's name!"

Again, in a pamphlet published the following year, 1524, relative to the Reichstag of that year, Luther proclaims that the judgment of God already awaits "the drunken and mad princes." He quotes the phrase: "Deposuit potentes de sede" (Luke i. 52), and adds "that is your case, dear lords, even now when ye see it not!" After an admonition to subjects to refuse to go forth to war against the Turks, or to pay taxes towards resisting them, who were ten times wiser and more godly than German princes, the pamphlet concludes with the prayer: "May God deliver us from ye all, and of His grace give us other rulers!" Against such utterances as the above, the conventional exhortations to Christian humility, non-resistance, and obedience to those in authority, would naturally not weigh in a time of popular ferment. So, until the momentous year 1525, it was not unnatural that, notwithstanding his quarrel with Muenzer and the Zwickau enthusiasts, and with others whom he deemed to be going "too far," Luther should have been regarded as in some sort the central figure of the revolutionary movement, political and social, no less than religious.

But the great literary and agitatory forces during the period referred to were of course either outside the Lutheran movement proper or at most only on the fringe of it. A mass of broadsheets and pamphlets, specimens of some of which have been given in a former volume (German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages, pp. 114-28), poured from the press during these years, all with the refrain that things had gone on long enough, that the common man, be he peasant or townsman, could no longer bear it. But even more than the revolutionary literature were the wandering preachers effective in working up the agitation which culminated in the Peasants' War of 1525. The latter comprised men of all classes, from the impoverished knight, the poor priest, the escaped monk, or the travelling scholar, to the peasant, the mercenary soldier out of employment, the poor handicraftsman, of even the beggar. Learned and simple, they wandered about from place to place, in the market place of the town, in the common field of the village, from one territory to another, preaching the gospel of discontent. Their harangues were, as a rule, as much political as religious, and the ground tone of them all was the social or economic misery of the time, and the urgency of immediate action to bring about a change. As in the literature, so in the discourses, Biblical phrases designed to give force to the new teaching abounded. The more thorough-going of these itinerant apostles openly aimed at nothing less than the establishment of a new Christian Commonwealth, or, as they termed it, "the Kingdom of God on Earth."


[1] We are here, of course, dealing more especially with Germany; but substantially the same course was followed in the development of municipalities in other parts of Europe.

[2] Einleitung, pp. 255, 256.

[3] Cf. Von Maurer's Einleitung zur Geschichte der Mark-Verfassung; Gomme's Village Communities; Laveleye, La Propriete Primitive; Stubbs's Constitutional History; also Maine's works.

[4] It should be remembered that Germany at this time was cut up into feudal territorial divisions of all sizes, from the principality, or the prince-bishopric, to the knightly manor. Every few miles, and sometimes less, there was a fresh territory, a fresh lord, and a fresh jurisdiction.



The "great man" theory of history, formerly everywhere prevalent, and even now common among non-historical persons, has long regarded the Reformation as the purely personal work of the Augustine monk who was its central figure. The fallacy of this conception is particularly striking in the case of the Reformation. Not only was it preceded by numerous sporadic outbursts of religious revivalism which sometimes took the shape of opposition to the dominant form of Christianity, though it is true they generally shaded off into mere movements of independent Catholicism within the Church; but there were in addition at least two distinct religious movements which led up to it, while much which, under the reformers of the sixteenth century, appears as a distinct and separate theology, is traceable in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the mystical movement connected with the names of Meister Eckhart and Tauler. Meister Eckhart, whose free treatment of Christian doctrines, in order to bring them into consonance with his mystical theology, had drawn him into conflict with the Papacy, undoubtedly influenced Luther through his disciple, Tauler, and especially through the book which proceeded from the latter's school, the Deutsche Theologie. It is, however, in the much more important movement, which originated with Wyclif and extended to Central Europe through Huss, that we must look for the more obvious influences determining the course of religious development in Germany.

The Wyclifite movement in England was less a doctrinal heterodoxy than a revolt against the Papacy and the priestly hierarchy. Mere theoretical speculations were seldom interfered with, but anything which touched their material interests at once aroused the vigilance of the clergy. It is noticeable that the diffusion of Lollardism, that is of the ideas of Wyclif, if not the cause of, was at least followed by the peasant rising under the leadership of John Ball, a connection which is also visible in the Tziska revolt following the Hussite movement, and the Peasants' War in Germany which came on the heels of the Lutheran Reformation. How much Huss was directly influenced by the teachings of Wyclif is clear. The works of the latter were widely circulated throughout Europe; for one of the advantages of the custom of writing in Latin, which was universal during the Middle Ages, was that books of an important character were immediately current amongst all scholars without having, as now, to wait upon the caprice and ability of translators. Huss read Wyclif's works as the preparation for his theological degree, and subsequently made them his text-books when teaching at the University of Prague. After his treacherous execution at Constance, and the events which followed thereupon in Bohemia, a number of Hussite fugitives settled in Southern Germany, carrying with them the seeds of the new doctrines. An anonymous contemporary writer states that "to John Huss and his followers are to be traced almost all those false principles concerning the power of the spiritual and temporal authorities and the possession of earthly goods and rights which before in Bohemia, and now with us, have called forth revolt and rebellion, plunder, arson, and murder, and have shaken to its foundations the whole commonwealth. The poison of these false doctrines has been long flowing from Bohemia into Germany, and will produce the same desolating consequences wherever it spreads."

The condition of the Catholic Church, against which the Reformation movement generally was a protest, needs here to be made clear to the reader. The beginning of clerical disintegration is distinctly visible in the first half of the fourteenth century. The interdicts, as an institution, had ceased to be respected, and the priesthood itself began openly to sink itself in debauchery and to play fast and loose with the rites of the Church. Indulgences for a hundred years were readily granted for a consideration. The manufacture of relics became an organized branch of industry; and festivals of fools and festivals of asses were invented by the jovial priests themselves in travesty of sacred mysteries, as a welcome relaxation from the monotony of prescribed ecclesiastical ceremony. Pilgrimages increased in number and frequency; new saints were created by the dozen; and the disbelief of the clergy in the doctrines they professed was manifest even to the most illiterate, whilst contempt for the ceremonies they practised was openly displayed in the performance of their clerical functions. An illustration of this is the joke of the priests related by Luther, who were wont during the celebration of the Mass, when the worshippers fondly imagined that the sacred formula of transubstantiation was being repeated, to replace the words Panis es et carnem fiebis, "Bread thou art and flesh thou shalt become," by Panis es et panis manebis, "Bread thou art and bread thou shalt remain."

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