Stories from German History - Florence Aston

Manners and Customs


The law that governed Germany, and indeed all Western Europe in the Middle Ages, was the law of war. Might was right. The strong man could flourish so long as his strength remained, and the weak were obliged to creep under the protection of the strong to maintain their existence at all.

Under the later Roman Empire a freeman who owned no land would find it convenient to seek shelter with some powerful neighbour, who would feed, clothe and protect him from injury in return for faithful service.

The Germans had a custom which strongly resembled that of the Romans. Tacitus tells us that young German warriors used to seek some popular chieftain and live in his hall, fight his battles and do him personal service in return for his support.

The bond between lord and retainer was very sacred, and was strengthened by an oath.

With the invasion of barbarians the position of a small landowner became extremely dangerous, and many of them fled to the monasteries for protection. They would offer their estates to the monks, together with a small annual payment, on condition that the former owner was allowed to cultivate his fields as before. Thus, although he no longer owned the land, he could enjoy its products, and seek the protection of the abbot in time of danger.

Sometimes a small landowner would offer himself and his property to a more powerful neighbour in the same way. Large landowners often found it convenient to divide their estates and bestow them on vassals who would follow them to war, help to man their castles in time of siege or assist them in difficulty. Land granted on these terms was called a fief, and this system of exchange of protection and land in return for service was called feudalism.

Feudalism was not introduced in any definite way, but it grew up gradually because it was convenient and often necessary, and by the thirteenth century it had become a rule in Western Europe that there should be no land without its lord.

These fiefs seem to have been hereditary, and the new heir would come and pay homage due to his overlord to renew the contract for another lifetime. The great vassals would hold land directly from the King, who would demand fidelity and certain services, but the bulk of the nation owed little to the King directly, as they lived under the protection and within the jurisdiction of lesser lords.

In order to rank as a noble a man had to be the holder of so much land that he only needed to perform honourable service, such as that of warrior or attendant on his superior lord, and not to labour on the land like the serfs. The sons of noblemen were usually sent into the houses of other nobles that they might learn to serve their lords and be educated in the martial exercises of the time.


Whenever a convenient spot is found near the sea-coast, at the mouth of a river, or at the junction of two roads, population tends to gather together for convenience' sake. The presence of a community of people always attracts others, and to the fishermen or tillers of the soil are added artisans and merchants, until a town rises into existence.

From the earliest days, however, the Germans had had a natural antipathy to town life. In ancient times a man would deliberately choose a position for his homestead out of sight and beyond call of his neighbours, and those cities which were built by the Romans on the Rhine and the Danube, they laid in ruins. It was not until the reign of Henry the Fowler that the towns began to take any important place in the national life, but during the terrible Hungarian invasions he encouraged the people to live together for mutual protection against the enemy, knowing well that the Huns did not understand how to wage war against fortified cities.

He instructed the people to build walls and ramparts round their towns and to dig deep moats. Within the town itself he made them construct fortresses or burgs, from which the dwellers gained the name of 'Burghers.' Since the people were unwilling to live within the high walls, Henry used to make them cast lots, and every ninth man had to do service there in his turn, and one-third of the corn was stored there to be ready to withstand a siege in time of war. Moreover Henry decreed that all courts of law, assemblies and councils were to be held within city walls, and a square was to be cleared for the holding of markets. In this manner he accustomed the people to town life, and in his reign there grew up the cities of Quedlinburg, Goslar, Merseburg, Meissen, Magdeburg and many others.

Henry's policy in this respect was followed by his successors, notably the Ottos, who saw in the towns a sure refuge against the increasing powers of nobles of the Empire. For this reason they granted charters to the townspeople, which conferred rights of self-government, such as had only before been enjoyed by dukes and bishops.

So the towns grew in importance, and chose the chief of their men to govern them, and a mayor to be their leader. The citizens were armed in time of war, and displayed banners with the arms of their town, and they acquired the right of coining their own money and levying tolls and taxes. At first the artisans were looked down upon with scorn by the free burgesses of the town who composed its aristocracy. But as time passed, guilds were formed and the tradesmen themselves rose to a position of much importance in the life of the city.

The description of these early towns sounds scarcely attractive to modern people, for the streets were narrow and crooked, unpaved and uncleaned, and stepping-stones were often used, from one to another of which the people must spring if they wished to keep clear of the mud. The upper stories of the houses projected over the ground floor, thereby robbing the street of light and air. Towers were built as a protection over the town gates, which were shut at night, and those inhabitants who wished to stir abroad at such seasons carried a lantern with them to light their way. The houses were generally built of wood, and were small, with oriel windows and gables, and adorned on the outside with pious texts and proverbs and occasional carving. Such were the German towns, which progressed rapidly in wealth and culture, and became famous throughout Europe. The tradesmen in medieval towns not only manufactured their goods, but acted as merchants too. For mutual protection they formed guilds, some of which exist, in name at least, to this day, and had it not been for these guilds the workmen would have been defenceless in the hands of feudal lords.

Trade was most active in the south of Europe at such centres as Venice, Genoa, Barcelona and the southern French cities, but the Germans soon learnt to value the silks and porcelains of China, the Venetian glassware and Eastern carpets, and exchanged their own commodities for them. They traded usually with Venice, bringing the goods over the Brenner Pass and down the Rhine, or transporting them by sea to Flanders.



Hamburg, Lubeck and Bremen carried on considerable trade with England. Augsburg and Nuremburg in the south of Germany became important because of their situation on the trade route between Italy and the north. Pirates, however, were numerous in the North Sea, and were often members of the restless warlike aristocracy; variety of coinage caused confusion and loss, feudal lords demanded a share in the profits, and robbers of all kinds infested the roads. The rich merchants soon found that they were often robbed, and so, led by the great cities of Lubeck and Hamburg, they made a league together for mutual protection. Thus was formed the Hanseatic League. Lubeck was the leader, but many other cities joined, among which were Cologne and Brunswick, Dantzig and Bremen, as many as seventy being members of the league at a time.

This league controlled a settlement in London near London Bridge, and others at Bergen, Wisby and even Novgorod in Russia.

They levied an army of citizens and granted sufficient escort to travellers from one city to another, and even maintained a fleet to protect their merchants from pirates. A town was often strong enough to offer protection to a persecuted king, as Worms once opened her gates to Henry IV, and burghers ventured to risk life and limb in his defence.


We have already seen how large a part was played in medieval life by the Church. In an age when such institutions as workhouses, hospitals and schools did not exist, the influence of the Church on social life was extremely important. The monks and nuns were the friends of the poor and oppressed. They nursed the sick, gave alms to those in distress and cared for the serfs on their own estates. Their agricultural work was a great benefit to their country, for they drained the marshes, built roads and bridges, and chose out the most suitable sites for vineyards and gardens. Much of their time was spent in study and in copying old manuscripts, which have by this means been preserved. They also kept valuable records of the events of their own day. In an age of warfare they carried on schools where those who shrank from a life of violence might devote themselves to study.

Constant quarrels, it is true, took place between the nobles and the Church. A dying noble would frequently bequeath a portion of his property for the service of God, hoping by this means to obtain salvation for his guilty soul, and an undignified struggle would then take place between his heirs and the priests for the possession of the property. But nevertheless the Church served as a reminder to the man of the world of the existence of such virtues as forgiveness, mercy and humility.

Very important too was the influence of the parish priests. These men did not live in communities like the monks, nor in seclusion like anchorites, but they had the care of parishes or districts, and laboured among the inhabitants. The priest officiated in1the parish chump, where he baptized, married anti buried his parishioners, heard confessions and granted absolution.

The parish church was the centre of social life, and the priest a man of great influence among his people. He was the guardian of his people, and it was his duty to prevent bad characters from settling in his parish and to keep it free from heretics and sorcerers. He was also expected to take the necessary steps to prevent infection in times of plague and sickness, and to superintend the seclusion of lepers.

He was supported by the land belonging to his church, and by the tithes gathered from the parishioners, but sometimes these sources of income were in the hands of a neighbouring monastery or even some influential layman, and the poor parish priests often received a mere pittance, hardly enough to keep soul and body together.

Life must have been very monotonous then, for men had little chance of improving their position, and in the country the population was self-supporting, and so had little inducement to travel. The lords of the manors would give out long strips of land to their serfs, who might not own these fields, but could not be deprived of them so long as they served their lord and paid his dues. They generally worked a certain number of days each week on their lord's land, and spent the rest of their time in cultivating their own.

At certain seasons in the year these serfs would be called upon for tribute, which was generally paid in produce. A peasant would give his lord some sheaves of corn at harvest, eggs and fowls at Easter, and, if he sold his cattle for money, a small proportion of his profit was claimed. These peasants might not move from their land, but passed with it to the new owner when it changed hands. The wives and daughters of the peasants gave their services too, spinning, weaving, baking and brewing, and consequently the whole community was self-supporting, producing its own food and clothing.

Life was certainly monotonous, and often miserable. The houses of the peasants sometimes contained but one room, with no chimney, and ill lighted by a single small window. The larger farms had quarters for the family, cow-stalls and stables, granary and threshing-floor, all under the same roof.

Methods of agriculture were exceedingly crude, and the crops were consequently poor. The land was generally divided into long strips, two-thirds of which was cultivated, while the remaining third lay fallow. Thus all land rested for one in every time years, and recovered its vitality.

Obviously such methods could only exist in a country where land was plentiful. As soon as the population increased, the Germans were forced to cultivate their land more carefully, and study more scientific methods of agriculture, since the badly tilled soil could no longer produce enough food for their needs.