Social Classes in Germany at the End of the 18th Century 1

Social Classes in Germany at the End of the 18th Century Part I

At the end of the century. XIII the social structure of Germany can be considered firmly fixed in certain essential lines.

At the top was the feudal nobility, divided into classes, between which a rigid hierarchical separation created barriers that were difficult to cross. The first class was summed up in the person of the sovereign, the top of the hierarchy. In the second and third the princes of the Empire were distributed, as well as those who received feudal investitures directly from the sovereign. Starting from 1180 the title is attributed to the archbishops (six), to the bishops (about twenty); to some abbots; to the dukes of Saxony, Swabia, Bavaria, Austria, Carinthia, Styria, Bohemia, Lorraine and Brabant; to the palatine counts of the Rhine and Saxony; to the Margraves of Brandenburg, Misnia and Lusatia; to the Landgrave of Thuringia, to the Count of Anhalt. Ecclesiastical princes were placed in the second class; the laity, in that they could find themselves in the condition of vassals of ecclesiastical princes, in the third. The princes had the really effective part in the works of the diets of the Empire (Reichstage), in comparison with the representatives of the other classes. Among them constituted a separate caste those who had become de facto, while waiting to be so by right, the depositories of the faculty to elect the sovereign, in theory still pertaining to the general assembly of the people in arms. From the middle of the century. XIII the number and quality of electoral principles do not change; seven, three clergymen (archbishops of Mainz, Cologne, Trier), four lay people (count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Saxony, Margrave of Brandenburg, King of Bohemia). In the fourth class were the vassals of the princes, counts of lesser importance, burgraves, who were counts with lordship of a castle or a fortified city, knights of free origin. The fifth included the ministeriales, who, of non-free origin, had in fact risen to equalize themselves with the knights of free origin, acquiring the ability to have investiture of fiefdoms; in the sixth and last class were the vassals of the ministeriales, of chivalrous rank, but not of free standing, and those among the ministeriales, which, despite having risen to the knighthood, however, had not been able to leave the unfree state. All these knights form a separate and closed class in the small nobility, because no one who is not the son of a knight enters it. Mainly men of arms, the knights formed the backbone of the armies of the crown in the wars fought by the Hohenstaufen against their enemies. With the fall of the Swabian monarchy, they lost the main source from which they drew the means of living. The majority had no other resource than the craft of arms, and continued to exercise it, when they did not take part in private wars, in the form of a real systematic banditry, which was for many centuries among the greatest plagues of Germany, and from which the cities especially suffered, which had ruthless enemies in their knights

In the rural population, according to LOVERISTS.COM, the migratory currents that occurred outward towards the east during the course of the century. XIII, as well as those recalled inland towards the cities from their higher standard of living, determined a shift in the classes from the bottom up. Personal and serfdom tend to disappear. To the members of the servile class, from which the ministeriales have already escapedto enter the small nobility, it is given the opportunity to rise to the class of the semi-free. The latter, in turn, succeed in replacing the benefits due to their lords with rent, when they fail to fully redeem their funds from any form of feudal dependence, and swell the class of small free owners, especially of rural aristocracy. The phenomenon had its maximum development in the second half of the century. XIII, and a resumption after the massacres produced by the plague of 1348. Subsequently, there was an involutionary process.

But the really new element, in the Germanic social structure, is given by the city bourgeoisie, which results from the confusion, in the urban centers, by the particular living conditions of the latter, of the residents, originally of various conditions with respect to the state of freedom, in a community of members, unlike the rural population, all free despite the inevitable various gradations of ranks and classes. Also in Germany the historical task of the bourgeoisie was first of all that of breaking the rigidity of the feudal economy, based on static real estate wealth, in order to create the most varied and elastic forms of movable wealth. Already in the century. XI, and even more in the following centuries, the entry of Germany into European economic life, as an intermediary in the longitudinal and transversal sense of the Mediterranean and Atlantic countries with the countries of the North Sea and the Slavic-Baltic East, it had determined an awakening of activity, which was naturally more felt in the urban centers, were of distant Roman origin, as in the regions of the Rhine and the upper Danube, or, here and in the rest of old and recent Germany, newly founded. But the conditions favorable to the development of more properly municipal activities in German cities were posed, in the XI-XIII centuries, above all by the internal situation created in Germany by the struggles between the Papacy and the Empire, between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The leaders of the opposing forces were drawn to provoke, by virtue of immune concessions in matters of markets, duties, money, justice, finances, a more rapid increase of the new city forces, which they intended to provide effective support against their adversaries. Thus, the bonds that originally subjected all the cities to the lords of the territory on which they were located and stood, were gradually released, so they were either imperial, if directly dependent on the sovereign, or feudal, if dependent on a prince or ecclesiastical lord or layman.

Social Classes in Germany at the End of the 18th Century 1

About the author