By Josh Burson
Paper given at 6th Annual Conference at the German Historical Institute, London, United Kingdom (2009)
Introduction: In 1456, the records of the City Council of Constance memorialized a fight in a brothel. A certain Burk Brüd had drawn a knife (in itself a punishable offense within city limits) and wounded one Heinrich Appenzeller, for which he was fined four silver marks and sentenced to two months in jail. The source of the quarrel is not recorded, although given the multiple functions of houses of prostitution in the period (and the nature of their clientele in any age), it is likely that alcohol was involved. Such cases were very much the norm for the court, which sentenced participants in brawls and knife fights with some regularity. What makes this particular fight noteworthy is the light that it sheds on the subject of my own research: the many and varied ties that connected Constance to the countryside and the wider region around it. In this case, both participants in the fight were from out of town; and their appearance in the city’s criminal records — along with that of many of their contemporaries — gives us essential information about who came to Constance in the fifteenth century, and also hints at other aspects of the relationship between town and countryside.
Taken as a whole, my dissertation is nothing particularly out of the ordinary—in terms of German-language historiography. Since the 1970’s, historians influenced both by the Annales School and Germany’s long-standing tradition of local historical study have examined a large number of late-medieval German cities in their relationship with rural areas, just as I have now done for Constance. Particularly influential has been Rolf Kießling’s Die Stadt und ihr Land (1989), a study of four prominent Upper Swabian towns. Kießling focused on the different interactions of each town with the surrounding region—as city-state, as center of a rural cloth industry, as princely administrative center, and so forth. He emphasized the importance of the ownership of rural territory by the cities’ citizens and institutions, and also examined how civic policy affected the countryside and vice versa, and how the relationship changed as one got further away from the town. Subsequent scholarship in Germany has generally followed Kießling’s model, although some studies (notably by Juliane Kümmel and Tom Scott) have also addressed how rural residents saw and were affected by the cities. All of these studies have demonstrated that the relationships between regions and their cities played a key role in the history of late-medieval Germany. The region’s economy in particular was dominated by the cities and their role in finishing and exporting rural products, including finished products such as cloth and iron goods as well as raw materials. And in an age of political fragmentation, social, economic and ideological connections between city and countryside played an equally important role, and thus are key to understanding the politics of the period and in particular the background to the Reformation.