By David Eltis
Nottingham Medieval Studies, Vol.33 (1989)
Introduction: The future pope Pius II was astonished to discover how militarised a society urban Germany was. As he observed in 1444, ‘not only every noble, but even every burgher in the guilds has an armoury in his house so as to appear equipped at every alarm. The skill of the citizens in the use of weapons is extraordinary’. Molinet was equally struck by the military skill of the citizens of one of the smaller towns of the Empire, Neuss, which nonetheless defeated Charles the Bold’s siege in 1475.
Even in peacetime military expenditure accounted for 82 percent of Cologne’s civic spending in 1379, and between 76 and 80 percent of Rostock’s in 1437. Such figures ought to give the urban historian pause for thought. However since 1945 German historians have tended to shy away from military history. The military dimension of the urban societies of late medieval Germany cannot safely be ignored by students of their internal divisions, politics and society. War and preparation for war permeated much of civic life.
Military self-sufficiency was pursued with vigour. Each town housed a huge quantity of equipment, which in its turn required specialists to maintain and repair it. Johannes Cochlaeus paused in his description of Germany of 1512 to wonder at Nuremberg’s many towers, each a miniature arsenal. To meet their own needs the towns employed fletchers, smiths, stable-hands, crossbow-makers and even cannon-founders. Nuremberg supplied its own needs as well as those of Europe with a highly developed armaments industry.