Book: Carsten. Princes and Parliaments in Germany

What does a fifteenth century German Diet have to do with American “no taxation without representation”? Quite a lot, actually. I present this discussion by way of a review of this book: F. L. Carsten. Princes and Parliaments in Germany: From the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Lib. of Cong. #JN 3250 .E7 C37 1959).

Here is the first sentence of the book:

Among the multitude of princes, lay and ecclesiastic, counts, noblemen, cities, abbots, and other minor potentates of south-western Germany, since the thirteenth century the counts, later dukes, of Württemberg occupied pride of place.

The vast majority of sentences in this 444 page book are very similar. So clearly, this is a book aimed at ivory tower specialists in the arcana of German history. That is certainly not me. However, the book brings forth important information that should be digested by us amateurs as well, as I will attempt to show.

The book is divided into chapters reflecting several of the political entities of the late Medieval and early modern period of Germany:

  • Würtemmberg
  • Hesse
  • Saxony
  • The Duchies on the Rhine
  • Bavaria

plus a concluding chapter.

I suspect most Americans do not know — for we Americans are an ignorant lot; even I have not known this more than a few decades, and I take an interest in these kinds of things — that the entity we refer to as “Germany” did not exist as a unified political nation until the late nineteenth century. Prior to that, “Germany” is a tribal designation that must, for political and historical purposes, be concretized into one of dozens or perhaps even hundreds of tribal branches occupying different regions, and often moving about. Indeed, Germanic history encompasses as one division the history of the Anglo-Saxons, i.e. England, America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The Angles and Saxons (and Jutes, who for some reason got left out of the name) were German tribes that settled in the british isles in the so-called Dark Ages. But I digress.

So, this is a history of a half-dozen or so of the more important Germanic settlements, from the particular focus of the so-called estates.

The estates were assemblies of nobles, clergy, and towns respectively. These were separate “corporations” that developed various powers, especially of raising funds through taxes, and are in distinction from the “princes” that held authority over a region but answered to the Empire, not to each other or to the other powers within their region.

A piece of the puzzle that Carsten does not address is the ultimate historical origin of the authority structures of the princes, lesser nobles, clergy and towns. However, Professor Richard Gawthrop of Franklin College has provided some interesting background information which I repeat (with minor edits) in the next section.

The Estates

1. Nobility

The nobility were originally feudal knights who were given land by kings/emperors in return for military service.  In addition to the land, they also received jurisdiction over their “domains,” which they were responsible to protect. So they were in effect the landlords, the security force, and the local justice system rolled into one. During times of emergency in the Empire as a whole, or in the territorial state in which they lived, the noble estates would donate tax money and military aid to the Emperor/territorial prince. Nobles also were subject to different laws from commoners and won the right to be tried juridically only by their peers.  They functioned therefore as a largely autonomous unit of society, whose rights and privileges were protected by both by law and custom.  This is what the terms “estate” and “corporation” (=lit. “body”) mean when applied to the nobility.

2. Clergy

In the medieval/Roman church there was a distinction between the religious orders of monks and friars—the so-called “regular clergy”—and the parish priests—the so-called “secular clergy.”  Bishops supervised the parish priests.

In Protestant lands, after the Reformation eliminated papal overlordship and the “regular clergy,” the pastoral clergy were still, like the nobility, a semi-autonomous corporation or estate. They were organized territorially under the secular ruler who appointed the leadership of the territorial church, which could be a single leader (often called a “superintendent”) or a committee/board (often called a “consistory” or, occasionally, a “synod’).  The next level down in the hierarchy from the leadership of the territorial church consisted of the top clergy of the cathedrals in the large towns, then came the remainder of the parish clergy.  Another important part of the clerical establishment was comprised of the theological faculties of the universities that lay within the boundaries of the territory.  The theological faculties were the arbiters of orthodox doctrine and, in effect, the spiritual leaders of the territorial churches.

Despite the partial control over the clergy exercised by the territorial ruler, the clergy had enough autonomy to be considered an estate/corporation.  They, too, were subject to a separate body of law; and they largely policed themselves.  The rulers in 17th Germany were dependent on whatever confessional church was dominant in their territories for legitimacy as “Christian princes” and, often, for the network provided by the church through which the rulers could communicate important official information to the people at the village level through the pulpits of the parish clergy.  The clergy were also responsible for nearly all pre-university schooling that took place, so the prince was dependent on them to produce the educated personnel the state needed to survive.  Finally, the Protestant churches still retained lands and independent revenue sources (endowments), though these had been dramatically reduced during the depredations of the Thirty Years’ War.   As a result, the churches after 1648 had a difficult time in meeting their traditional charitable obligations of taking care of the homeless, disabled veterans, and the sick.  This left an opening for the territorial state to begin to take over some of these functions and thereby extend its power over society.

3. The towns

The burghers or town residents included artisans and merchants.  They were organized by guilds, i.e. corporate bodies, which were characteristic not only of artisans but also of bankers, gold smiths, and other wealthy urban vocational groups. In some urban centers, even wage laborers had their guild. The guilds had the power to regulate prices, wages, entry into the trade/profession, and to provide safety-net benefits to their members.  They acquired their power and legal independence during the Middle Ages when all the residents of a town would band together and demand a charter from either the local lord, the territorial prince, or the Emperor–that is, from whoever had jurisdiction over them.  The charters granted autonomy and self-government to the town in return for a large initial payment and the promise of regular tax payments.   As this practice spread and trade expanded, the towns developed powerful legal defenses from outside jurisdiction.  They, too, organized collectively as an estate, opposing any efforts by would-be absolutist territorial princes to diminish their “liberties.”

Carsten’s Book (continued)

The princes, by the end of the Middle Ages, often found their power waning, by virtue of consuming their lands and prerogatives in the course of wars and self-maintainance. To raise further funds, it became necessary to request them from these categories of persons, who then met in Diets or parliamentary assemblies, to negotiate. Funds would be raised by consent of the body raising the funds. Often, conditions would be laid down, and the princes forced to take oaths constraining themselves.

The vicissitudes of each region, its relative character, commercial advantages, and susceptibiliy to wars from neighboring states, gave each region a unique path of development, that is, a unique history. But common patterns also emerge.

Obviously, only a specialist is going to be able to sit down and read a book like this cover to cover. So far, I have read the chapter on Saxony closely, and skimmed many dozen pages from the other chapters. I hope to go back and tackle each section in detail as it becomes more prominent in my thinking and travels. I will summarize the information as that happens.

One lesson that emerges, however, is that the common American belief that we invented the notion of “no taxation without representation” is just another ignorant American conceit. On the contrary, this principle was a standing one throughout Anglo-Germanic history. The American colonists were protesting that a long-standing principle was being usurped. The American Revolution was a reactionary one.

Indeed, the network of interweaved authorities gives the impression that the early modern inheritor of the Medieval system had far more freedom in many ways than the contemporary American. What is particularly exhiliarating is the example of the different factions not rolling over and playing dead before encroachments on their rights and property, as our current preacher class teaches us to do on the basis of “Romans 13.” Hint: the estates also knew about Romans 13, and feared God. Yet their insistence on ancient rights was also not merely special interest warfare such as modern factions often represent: there was also a sense of communal responsibility to the entire nation or region.

This could be a worthwhile book to consider perusing. It may be that one reason so few Americans read history is because we have had the Pilgrims and Jamestown drilled into us to the point that the eyes glaze over. By breaking out the mold and exploring uncharted territories that are yet still very relevant to our story, history may take on a new life.

8 thoughts on “Book: Carsten. Princes and Parliaments in Germany

  1. Do you view the subject’s demand for power in exchange for money to be a good thing?

    I think if we asked an 18th century Bostonian whether his ideas of the link between representation/taxation were original, the Bostonian would point us to Runnymeade within the Anglo-Saxon tradition.


  2. TF — the estates often agreed with the reasoning behind the prince’s request, such as regional defense, and even reasonable courtly expenses. But he had to make his case. His mere word did not make law. And that is a very good thing.

    Often, corporate rights were not so much derived from demanding rights in exchange for money so much as vice versa: cash-starved princes “making an offer they couldn’t refuse.” I have no problem with that either.

    I was about to illustrate the way the modern preachers worship dictators with a story involving OPC missionaries, guns and cows in east Africa, but actually it is interesting enough to relegate to its own post– coming soon.

  3. I do eagerly await the illustration.

    Nevertheless, I guess perhaps my question was unclear.

    Are you saying that a weak central government is good in general, or that coersion of the central goverment in its moment of weakness is laudable?

    In a sense, this may distinguish between the Germanic situation and the American situation. The former appears to be a de facto weak central authority, which was weak as a matter of course, and the latter seems to have been subjects exploiting the difficulty of their sovereign to rule them from across an ocean.


  4. I’m not saying that either of those choices is good simpliciter.

    Western Christendom evolved a model of civil government that involves networks of wider and narrow magistrates that jointly hold power, and negotiate the boundary by covenant. Given that one needs a civil magistrate at all (which I grant of course), this is a beautiful and rich way for it to occur.

    This is in sharp contrast to, say, the oriental despotic model.

    American “conservatives” since Lincoln seem to have gradually adopted the oriental despotic model, taking Lincoln as the paradigm.

    I find it exciting to discover that the early American attitude was not some unique flash-in-the-pan phenomenon of the New World, but a commonplace in other parts of Christendom as well — mutatis mutandis, of course.

  5. Dear Tim,

    You said:

    American “conservatives” since Lincoln seem to have gradually adopted the oriental despotic model, taking Lincoln as the paradigm.

    May the name of the ungodly perish!

    The powers that exist are appointed by God, even when they are evil. That is no excuse, however, for the ungodly president’s betrayal of his own nation, his unjust invasion of the Confederate States of America, and his coersion of the CSA at the bloody hands of the likes of Grant and Sherman, which is a shame that will likely never be erased.

    There certainly are those who fail to see the evil in what he did, but be careful not to assume that everyone who thinks a powerful central government better for the people than a webbed monstrosity is a fan of that man.


  6. Well, people tell me that I’m a conservative, yet I don’t look to Lincoln for my paradigm. That’s why I put the word in quotes.

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