Commune (middle ages)

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The term commune or township denotes an organizational principle of the medieval city that emerged mainly between the 11th and 13th centuries (in German cities mainly between 1250 and 1300) . It consists in the union of the city citizens to a jointly acting political corporation , which is in a contractual relationship with the city lord and takes over more and more of his rights (either through financial / material or through military means). The formation of a commune thus means a change in the legal status of the townspeople, who are no longer unfree of the town lord or free merchants , but instead become citizens of a town. The municipality only includes full citizens of the city, not the politically inferior city residents without citizenship . Citizenship is mostly tied to property .

The economic level theory interprets the urban economy of the municipalities historically and structurally as an intermediate level from domestic economy to national economy .

Origins and Formation

The background to the emergence of urban communes was mainly

  1. the demographic upswing as a result of a (primarily economic) growth phase,
  2. the increasing rural exodus , which in turn resulted in demographic changes in the city,
  3. the amalgamation of free merchants and unfree ministerials to form a so-called "city nobility" and
  4. the disputes between city lords and the urban population.

The origin of the communal movement was always the struggle of the city dwellers for more independence. Up until the 13th century there was a period in which cities were founded in the High Middle Ages and estates were formed in poorly organized countries or as a result of a successful defensive struggle against the centralistic attempts to rule by leading princes. To this end, they often formed an oath association . The German emperors like Friedrich I and II issued edicts against these communiones , conspirationes , conjurationes . The demographic upswing was based on a general improvement in living conditions, that is, above all, the economic upturn in agriculture and a decline in epidemic diseases. Among other reasons, this development led to a gradual differentiation between urban and rural areas.

The emergence of a city nobility from merchants and ministerials was preceded by the rule of the city lord with the help of the ministerial as an administrative instrument: Originally, the unfree ministerials of the city lord administered his sovereign rights in the city . As toll collectors and minters they succeed in attaining a certain wealth; When the administration is transferred from the city lord to the city, the ministerials belong to the city's economic upper class. The financial wealth of the city merchants also grants them the right to a leadership role within the city, and a city patriciate is formed through merging with the ministerials. The families formed from this patriciate will later remain the only ones "capable of counseling", ie they elect the city council and provide its members.

The prerequisite for the formation of municipalities in this context is the transfer of the administrative organs of the city lord to the urban upper class. This "transfer" could happen either by the fact that the city acquired the rights of the city lord from the latter or that they were wrested from him by military means. Independence from the city lord is a central background of the communal movement, especially where the fortified seat of the city lord causes discomfort to the citizens. The central point of contention in the disputes was the “council” as the organ of administration and a symbol of the autonomy achieved by the municipality vis-à-vis the lord of the city ( Worms and Strasbourg in particular are exemplary here ). The goals of the communal movement as an oath association were often based on concern for the peace threatened by the city lord and the nobility of the area; Merchants in the city were particularly dependent on protection from feuds. The city's oath therefore committed itself under oath to mutual aid against injustice and strife in the form of attacks and acts of violence. From this later developed the claim of the city councils to the jurisdiction as sovereign right, which was to fall to civil institutions and to enable city judges to judge the citizens. Since it was the task of the urban jurisdiction that was created in this way to enforce city law, the cities ultimately strived to develop their own city law. In contrast to the “wrestling” of the sovereign rights of the city lord through the communal movement, it was also possible in the 13th century for the residents to constitute themselves as a community when a new city was founded .

Township and Council

The Bremen Roland as a symbol of the independence of the citizens from the city lord

The establishment of the commune is generally equated with the first appearance of certain offices - namely the "consules" ( councilors ), who are to be regarded as a new part of the city regiment. While "consules" appeared in Italy as early as the end of the 11th century, such council bodies did not appear in German cities until the 13th century. The council of a city was a representative body legitimized by a cooperative and consisted of a number of councilors, which differed depending on the city, and who usually came from a certain group of families to which the right to vote in the council was limited; these were called "councilors" or "gentlemen of the council" (therefore "councilors" are to be distinguished from citizens of the city) and often saw themselves as nobles. In the beginning the council members were ministerials and merchants (city patriciate): sources often name councilors the "wise", "most useful", "wealthiest" men; Craftsmen and common people were therefore excluded from membership in the council. Later other groups of citizens (especially craftsmen) fought for access to the council regiment; the late bourgeois opposition movement thus resulted in a “social expansion” of the city council. The term of office of the councilors was usually one year; The election could either be made by the entire citizenry of the city ( Lippstadt ), by cooperative craft guilds, merchants' guilds or political organizations of the citizens ( Dortmund ), by councilors / mayors ( Hildesheim ), by the electors from the previous year or a combination of these variants . With the growing administrative work of the city, colleges could also be set up alongside the council, which could, for example, monitor financial policy.

Importance of the municipality

The communal movement, in conjunction with other factors in the emergence of a more or less autonomous township, led to the constitution of a town bourgeoisie, to the achievement of urban freedoms and finally to the formation of a town council (which continues to have an effect to the present day) . In this process, the urban bourgeoisie became a social force of its own in medieval society, and urban bourgeois judicial and administrative bodies emerged; the subversive character of the communal movement ultimately represented the dawn of Central and Western European society. As a result of the city ​​law, which was tailored to the interests of trade and industry , it ultimately brought about an economic upswing in the cities. According to Max Weber , the "institutionally socialized, with special and characteristic organs" equipped citizens' association makes the city of the Occident a special phenomenon compared to "all other areas of law", in which the central feature is the "class urban citizenship". In this way, this unified body of the city becomes a special object of occidental history.


  • Bernd-Ulrich Hergemöller (Hrsg.): Sources on the constitutional history of the German city in the Middle Ages. (Freiherr vom Stein Memorial Edition, Vol. 34), Darmstadt 2000.


  • Hartmut Boockmann : Introduction to the history of the Middle Ages. 3rd edition Munich 1988.
  • Karl Bosl: State, Society, Economy in the German Middle Ages (= Gebhardt, Handbook of German History, Vol. 7). Munich 1973.
  • Bernhard Diestelkamp: Freedom of the citizen's freedom of the city. In: Johannes Fried (ed.): The occidental freedom from the 10th to the 14th century (lectures and research 39). Sigmaringen 1991, pp. 485-510.
  • Gerhard Dilcher: Citizenship and City Constitution in the European Middle Ages. Cologne / Weimar / Vienna 1996.
  • Evamaria Engel: The German city in the Middle Ages. Munich 1993.
  • Edith Ennen: The European city of the Middle Ages. 4th edition, Göttingen 1987.
  • Eberhard Isenmann: The German city in the late Middle Ages, 1250–1500. City structure, law, city government, church, society, economy. Stuttgart 1988.
  • Ulrich Knefelkamp : The Middle Ages. 2nd edition Paderborn 2003.
  • Christian Meier (Ed.): The occidental city according to Max Weber. Historical magazine, supplement 17, Munich 1994.
  • Frank Rexroth : German History in the Middle Ages. Munich 2005.
  • Felicitas Schmieder : The medieval city. Darmstadt 2005.
  • Ernst Schubert : Introduction to the basic problems of German history in the late Middle Ages. Darmstadt 1992.
  • Max Weber : Economy and Society. The economy and the social orders and powers. Estate. Volume 5: The City, ed. v. Wilfried Nippel ( Max Weber Complete Edition 22–5), Tübingen 1999 ( (partly with errors) online text ).

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. The first great centuries of urban development in Europe led to an “unconditional victory of the city, at least in Italy, Flanders and Germany” (Fernend Braudel: Social history of the 15th – 18th century. Der everyday life. Munich 1985, special edition 1990, p. 560).
  2. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels in Manchester, July 27, 1854, MEW 28, p. 381ff., Where he discusses Augustin Thierry's Histoire de la formation et du progrès du Tiers État .
  3. s. Hartmut Boockmann : Introduction to the history of the Middle Ages. 3rd ed. Munich 1988, pp. 47-51.
  4. ^ Karl Bosl: State, Society, Economy in the German Middle Ages (= Gebhardt, Handbook of German History, Vol. 7). Munich 1973, p. 200.
  5. Ulrich Knefelkamp : The Middle Ages. 2nd edition Paderborn 2003, p. 210.
  6. s. Frank Rexroth : German History in the Middle Ages. Munich 2005, pp. 103/106.
  7. s. Hartmut Boockmann : Introduction to the history of the Middle Ages. 3rd edition Munich 1988, p. 51.
  8. See for the details of the council election: Evamaria Engel: The German city in the Middle Ages. Munich 1993, pp. 56-57, 61-62.
  9. s. Karl Bosl: State, Society, Economy in the German Middle Ages (= Gebhardt, Handbook of German History, Vol. 7). Munich 1973, p. 194.
  10. s. Max Weber : Economy and Society. The economy and the social orders and powers. Estate. Volume 5: The City, ed. v. Wilfried Nippel (Max Weber Complete Edition 22-5), Tübingen 1999, p. 100.