Social Classes in 16th Century Holy Roman Empire

In the 16th century the structure of social classes in Germany changed significantly, as did their relationship to one another. These classes were the princes, the lesser nobles, the prelates, the patricians, the burghers, the plebeians and the peasants.

The Princes
The princes served as the main centralizers of their territory. They were nearly autocratic in their reign and barely recognized any authority that the estates attempted to assert. Princes had the right to levy taxes and borrow money as they needed it. The growing costs of administration and military upkeep forced the princes to continually raise the cost of living for their subjects. The lesser nobility and the clergy paid no taxes and were often in support of the prince.

Many towns had privileges that protected them from taxes and so the bulk of the burden fell on the peasants. Princes often attempted to force freer peasants into serfdom through increasing taxes and by introducing Roman Civil law. Roman Civil law was more conducive to their drive for power because it reduced all lands to their private ownership and wiped out the feudal concept of the land as a trust between lord and peasant involving rights as well as obligations. In maintaining the remnants of the ancient law which gave the princes their force of legitimacy, they not only heightened their wealth and position within the empire (through the confiscation of all property and revenues) but also their dominion over the peasant subjects.

Under this ancient law, the peasants could do little more than passively resist. Even then, the prince now had absolute control over all his serfs and their possessions and could punish them as he saw fit. The putting out of eyes and the chopping off of fingers were not uncommon practices. Until Thomas Müntzer and other radicals like him would reject the legitimizing factors of ancient law and employ Godly Law as a means to rouse the people, uprisings would remain isolated, unsupported and easily put down.

Lesser Nobility
The progress of late medieval industry was enough to render the lesser nobility of knights obsolete. The introduction of military science and the growing importance of gunpowder and infantry diminished their role as heavy cavalry while reducing the strategic importance of their castles. Their luxurious lifestyle drained what little income they had as prices continued to rise. They exercised their ancient right of plundering the countryside through highway robbery, extortion, and ransoming in order to wring what profits they could out of their territories.

The knights became embittered from being progressively impoverished and increasingly under the jurisdiction of the princes. Thus the two classes were in constant conflict. They also regarded the clergy as an arrogant and superfluous estate. The knights envied their privileges and masses of wealth secured by church statutes. In addition, the knights and the town patricians were incessantly quarreling. They were often in debt to the town. The knights plundered their territory, robbed their merchants and held prisoners in his tower for ransom.

The Clergy
The clergy or prelate class was to lose its place as the intellectual authority over all matters within the state. The progress of printing and extended commerce as well as the spread of renaissance humanism raised literacy rates throughout the Empire. Thus the Catholic monopoly on higher education was also reduced. The passage of time had seen regional Catholic institutions slip into mass corruption. Clerical ignorance and the abuses of simony and pluralism (holding several offices at once) were rampant.

Some bishops, archbishops, abbots and priors exploited their subjects as ruthlessly as the regional princes did. The Catholic institution employed the ostensible authority of religion as their main device to extort their riches from the people. In addition to the sale of indulgences, they fabricated miracles, set up prayer houses and directly taxed the people. Increased indignation over Church corruption would eventually lead the Roman Catholic Priest Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517 and to impel other reformers to radically rethink Church doctrine and organization.

The Patricians
As guilds grew and urban populations rose, the town patricians were confronted with increasing opposition. The patricians were wealthy families who sat alone in the town councils and held all administrative offices. Thus they made all administrative decisions and used finances as they pleased. Similar to the power of the princes, they could gain revenues from their peasants in any way possible. Arbitrary road, bridge and gate tolls could be instituted at will.

They gradually revoked the common lands and made it illegal for a farmer to fish or to log in what was once land held by all. Guild taxes were exacted. All revenues collected were not formally administered and accounts in town books were neglected. Thus embezzlement and fraud were commonly practiced and the patrician class, bound by family ties, became continually richer and ever more exploitative.

The Burghers
The town patricians became progressively more criticized by the growing burgher class. The burgher class was made up of well-to-do middle class citizens who often held administrative positions in guilds or worked as merchants themselves. To the burghers, their growing wealth was reason enough for their claim to the right of control over town administration. They openly demanded a town assembly made of patricians and burghers or at least a restriction of simony with several seats going to burghers.

The burghers also opposed the clergy who it felt had overstepped its bounds and failed to uphold its religious duties. The opulence and laziness of the clergy aroused ill will within the burgher class. They demanded an end to the clergy’s special privileges such as freedom from taxation and a reduction in their number. The burghers altered the guilds from a system of artisan and journeyman apprentice to that of capitalist management and proletariat.

The burgher “master artisan” owned his workshop and its tools. He allowed the apprentice use of the shop and tools as well as providing the materials needed in order to complete the product in exchange for pay according to a synthesis of the length of labor as well as quality and quantity of the product. Journeymen no longer had the opportunity to rise in the guild ranks and were thus held in a position deprived of civic rights.

The Plebeians
The plebeians were the new class of urban workers, journeymen, and vagabonds. Ruined petty burghers also joined their ranks. Urban workers and journeymen resembled the modern working class which necessarily takes shape in any capitalist system. The journeymen, although technically potential burghers, were barred from higher positions by the wealthy capitalist families that ran them. Thus their position as “temporarily” outside the bounds of civic rights become much more of a permanent installment of early modern industrial production. The plebeians did not even have property that ruined burghers or peasants held.

They were landless, rightless citizens and a testament to the decay of feudal society. It was in Thuringia that the revolution centered around Müntzer would give the plebeian working faction the greatest expression. Their demands were of complete social equality as they began to recognize, with the aid of Müntzer, that their bourgeoning society was driven by them and from below and not the other way around. The existing hierarchical authorities of the time were quickest to put down such explosive ideals, which did after all pose the greatest threat to their traditional authority.

The Peasants
The lowest strata of society remained the peasant. The peasant supported all other estates of society not only through direct taxation but in the production of agriculture and the keeping of livestock. The peasant was the property of whomever he was subject to. Be it bishop, prince, a town or a noble, the peasant and all things associated with him were subject to any whim whatsoever; the lord could take the peasant’s horse and ride it as he pleased (or the peasant’s wife if he so desired).

Countless taxes were exacted on the peasant, forcing more and more of his time to be spent working on his lord’s estate. Most of what he produced was taken in the form of a tithe or some other tax. The peasant could not hunt, fish or chop wood freely in the early 16th century as the lords had recently taken these commonly held lands for their own purposes. The lord had rights to use the peasant’s land as he wished; often the peasant could do nothing but watch idly by as his crops were destroyed by wild game and nobles on the chivalric hunt.

When a peasant wished to marry, he required the lord’s permission as well as having to pay a tax. When the peasant died, the lord was entitled to his best cattle, his best garment and his best tool. The justice system, staffed by the clergy or wealthy burgher and patrician jurists, would not provide the peasant any solace; the upper classes survived by exploiting the peasant and plebeian classes and saw the danger in offering them any sort of equality or real justice.

Generations of submission to servitude and the autonomous nature of the provinces limited peasant insurrections to local areas. The peasant’s only hope was a unification of ideals across provincial lines. Müntzer was to recognize that the more recently diluted class structures provided the lower stratum of society with greater force of legitimacy in their revolt as well as more room for political and socio-economic gains.

Class Struggle and Reformation
The newer classes and their respective interests were enough to soften the authority of the old feudal system. Increased international trade and industry not only confronted the princes with the growing interests of the merchant capitalist class but widened the base of lower class interests (the peasants and now the urban workers) as well. The interposition of the burgher and the necessary plebeian class weakened feudal authority as both classes opposed the top while naturally opposing each other. The introduction of the plebeian class strengthened lower class interests in several ways. Instead of the peasantry being the sole oppressed and traditionally servile estate, the plebeians added a new dimension which represented similar class interests without a history of outright oppression.

Similarly, the dilution of the class struggle brought fiercer opposition to the Catholic institution. Whether it was sincere or not, the Catholic Church came under heavy fire from every one of the classes within the new hierarchy of the late medieval age. Once made aware of it, the lower classes (plebeian and peasant alike) could no longer stand the outright exploitation they had suffered from the upper classes, the clergy being among the most guilty. The burghers and nobles despised the laziness and looseness of clerical life. Being of the more privileged classes by entrepreneurship and tradition respectively (and both by exploitation), they felt that the clergy was reaping benefits (such as those from tax exemption and ecclesiastical tithes) to which they had no right. When the situation was propitious even the prince would abandon Catholicism in favor of political and financial independence and increased power within their territory.

After thousands of articles of complaints were compiled and presented by the lower classes in numerous towns and villages to no avail, the revolution broke. The parties split into three distinct groups with inexorable ties to the class structure. The Catholic camp consisted of the clergy, patricians and sincere princes who opposed all opposition to the order of Catholicism. The moderate reforming party consisted mainly of the burghers and princes. Burghers saw an opportunity to gain power in the urban councils as Luther’s proposed reformed church would be highly centralized within the towns and condemned the common patrician practice of nepotism by which they held a firm grip on the bureaucracy. Similarly, the princes could gain further autonomy not only from the Catholic emperor Charles V but also from the burdensome needs of the Catholic Church in Rome. The plebeians, peasants and all those sympathetic to their cause made up the third revolutionary camp led by preachers such as Müntzer. This camp desired to break the shackles of late medieval society and forge a new one entirely in the name of God.

Peasants and plebeians all over Germany compiled countless lists of articles outlining their complaints. The famous 12 articles of the Black Forest peasants were ultimately adopted as the definitive set of grievances. The articles’ eloquent statement of social, political and economic grievances in the increasingly popular Protestant thread unified the population in the massive uprising that initially broke out in Lower Swabia in 1524 and quickly spread to other areas of Germany.

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