Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, urban centers everywhere in Europe declined dramatically. By the beginning of the 11th century, however, trade revived and towns began a three-century growth spurt. A few, such as Trier and Cologne, were based on Roman settlements, but the majority were new centers, some connected to nearby castles or monasteries. In eastern Germany, cities such as Breslau (modern Wrocław, Poland) and Königsberg (modern Kaliningrad, Russia) developed as part of deliberate colonization. Cologne and Frankfurt prospered greatly because they were on the routes that traders traveled between Germany and the large merchant fairs of Champagne, in what is now northeastern France. Mainz grew because it lay on the trade route across the Alps to Italy. Of the 3,000 German towns established by 1300, almost all were small, with populations under 1,000. Cologne, the largest city in medieval Germany, had a population of 30,000 at its peak in the early 14th century.
As their economic power grew, the cities’ demands for freedom from attack and from feudal tolls often led to war with neighboring nobles. Shrewd town magistrates were able to use the ongoing struggle between German emperors and princes to their own benefit.
Beginning with Frederick Barbarossa in 1183, emperors granted some cities complete political autonomy and the right to form alliances in exchange for tax revenues. These were called imperial cities. Most were located in southern Germany and formed defensive unions such as the Swabian League.
Meanwhile, in the north, several German and Scandinavian towns—particularly Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen—combined forces to form the powerful trade association of the Hansa, or the Hanseatic League. At its peak in the early 15th century, the league monopolized all trade on the Baltic and throughout northern Europe. The league constructed canals and roads, arranged commercial treaties, and even waged war. In Switzerland, eight city-states, or cantons, won their independence from the Habsburgs in the 13th century.
They were eventually joined by others in the Helvetic (Swiss) Confederation, which has endured to this day. As befitted a decentralized empire, no one city gained undisputed prominence, although Prague served as the imperial capital during the 14th and 15th centuries.
During the later Middle Ages, the cities became increasingly important in an expanding money economy. In the south, the imperial cities of Nürnberg and Augsburg, home of the Fugger Bank, thrived on mining and trade with Italian city-states. The growth of trade was accompanied by a marked increase in production of finished goods beginning in the 12th century. Throughout Germany, skilled artisans organized themselves into guilds devoted to a particular specialty, for example weaving. The guild was a local monopoly that held complete power over production quality and quantity, prices, and admission into its ranks. By the late Middle Ages, guilds had gained for their members the most powerful economic and political positions in the cities.
The medieval city was dominated by a few powerful people, just as the countryside was. The key difference was that in the cities, the various merchant and craft guilds (both virtually hereditary by the 15th century) struggled with one another for political power. Those who were successful dominated the town councils. Beginning in the 12th century, these councils legislated on a variety of matters, including safety, hygiene, and social behavior. The majority of the urban population—artisans, shopkeepers, day laborers, and the destitute—had no say in governing the city. Many German cities included Jews who in theory were under the special protection of the emperor, but in fact they endured countless organized attacks, or pogroms, throughout the Middle Ages. By the end of the 13th century, most German cities required all Jews to live within an enclosed district (ghetto), supposedly for their own safety, but sporadic persecutions persisted. "Germany" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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