population estimates of the German territories range around 5 to 6 million by the end of Henry III’s reign in 1056 and about 7 to 8 million after Friedrich Barabarossa’s rule in 1190. The vast majority were farmers, typically in a state of serfdom under feudal lords and monasteries. Towns gradually emerged and in the 12th century many new cities were founded along the trading routes and near imperial strongholds and castles. The towns were subjected to the municipal legal system. Cities such as Cologne, that had acquired the status of Imperial Free Cities, were no longer answerable to the local landlords or bishops, but immediate subjects of the Emperor and enjoyed greater commercial and legal liberties. The towns were ruled by a council of the – usually mercantile – elite, the patricians. Craftsmen formed guilds, governed by strict rules, which sought to obtain control of the towns; a few were open to women. Society had diversified, but was divided into sharply demarcated classes of the clergy, physicians, merchants, various guilds of artisans, unskilled day labourers and peasants. Full citizenship was not available to paupers. Political tensions arose from issues of taxation, public spending, regulation of business, and market supervision, as well as the limits of corporate autonomy.
Cologne’s central location on the Rhine river placed it at the intersection of the major trade routes between east and west and was the basis of Cologne’s growth. The economic structures of medieval and early modern Cologne were characterized by the city’s status as a major harbor and transport hub upon the Rhine. It was the seat of an archbishop, under whose patronage the vast Cologne Cathedral was built since 1240. The cathedral houses sacred Christian relics and since it has become a well known pilgrimage destination. By 1288 the city had secured its independence from the archbishop (who relocated to Bonn), and was ruled by its burghers.
Towns and cities of the Medieval and Early Modern Holy Roman Empire
Cologne, around 1411
Munich, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
Regensburg, in 1572
Nordhausen, 17th century
Lübeck, 15th century
Bamberg, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
From the early medieval period and continuing through to the 18th century, Germanic law assigned women to a subordinate and dependent position relative to men. Salic (Frankish) law, from which the laws of the German lands would be based, placed women at a disadvantage with regard to property and inheritance rights. Germanic widows required a male guardian to represent them in court. Unlike Anglo-Saxon law or the Visigothic Code, Salic law barred women from royal succession. Social status was based on military and biological roles, a reality demonstrated in rituals associated with newborns, when female infants were given a lesser value than male infants. The use of physical force against wives was condoned until the 18th century in Bavarian law.
Some women of means asserted their influence during the Middle Ages, typically in royal court or convent settings. Hildegard of Bingen, Gertrude the Great, Elisabeth of Bavaria (1478–1504), and Argula von Grumbach are among the women who pursued independent accomplishments in fields as diverse as medicine, music composition, religious writing, and government and military politics.
Learning and culture
Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) wrote several influential theological, botanical, and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, poems, and arguably the oldest surviving morality play, while supervising brilliant miniature Illuminations. About 100 years later, Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170 – c. 1230) became the most celebrated of the Middle High German lyric poets.
Around 1439, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, used movable type printing and issued the Gutenberg Bible. He was the global inventor of the printing press, thereby starting the Printing Revolution. Cheap printed books and pamphlets played central roles for the spread of the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.
Around the transition from the 15th to the 16th century, Albrecht Dürer from Nuremberg established his reputation across Europe as painter, printmaker, mathematician, engraver, and theorist when he was still in his twenties and secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance.
The addition Nationis Germanicæ (of German Nation) to the emperor’s title appeared first in the 15th century: in a 1486 law decreed by Frederick III and in 1512 in reference to the Imperial Diet in Cologne by Maximilian I. By then, the emperors had lost their influence in Italy and Burgundy. In 1525, the Heilbronn reform plan – the most advanced document of the German Peasants’ War (Deutscher Bauernkrieg) – referred to the Reich as von Teutscher Nation (of German nation).
influential German speaking authors, artists and scholars of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance
Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), Benedictine abbess, philosopher, author, artist and visionary naturalist
Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170–1230), most celebrated Middle High German language Minnesänger
Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398–1468), pioneering user of the printing press with movable types
Albertus Magnus (c. 1193–1280), bishop, philosopher, theologian, Doctor of the Church
Georgius Agricola (1494–1555), metallurgist and ‘‘Father of mineralogy’’, author of De Re Metallica
Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), one of the most influential artists of the Northern Renaissance
Tilman Riemenschneider (c. 1460–1531), most accomplished sculptor, woodcarver and master in stone from the late Gothic to the Renaissance
Early modern Germany
German Empire, 1871–1918
Weimar Republic, 1919–1933
Nazi Germany, 1933–1945
Germany during the Cold War, 1945–1990