MUNICIPAL PROBLEMS IN MEDI/EVAL
SERIES XXIII Nos. 11-12
JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY STUDIES
HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL SCIENCE
(Edited by H. B. Adams, 1882-1901)
J. M. VINCENT
J. H. HOLLANDER W. W. WILLOUGHBY
IN MEDIEVAL SWITZERLAND
JOHN MARTIN VINCENT
THE JOHNS HOPKINS PRESS
November- December, 1905
Copyright, 1906, by
THE JOHNS HOPKINS PRESS
THE FKIBDBNWALD COMPANY
MUNICIPAL PROBLEMS IN MEDIEVAL
By the end of the Middle Ages many European cities
had become almost sovereign states. This was not their
original condition but was the result of a process extending
over long periods of time. Each municipality had its par-
ticular history and reached its goal by its own route, con-
sequently none but the most general rules can be laid down
for the growth of civic life in this period. No two places
passed through exactly the same development. The con-
ditions of their life history were as various as the feudal
customs from which they sprang. The towns adapted their
courses to their environment and from their original posi-
tions of feudal subserviency won for themselves various
degrees of independence and self-government.
But, whether obtained by gift, or purchase, or by war-
fare, it is not the task of this paper to describe the earlier
processes of municipal development, but rather to review
the situation at the time when the goal of liberty had been
reached. It is a matter of considerable interest to observe
the conditions under which political and economic life were
possible during a period when the destiny of the city was
in the hands of its own governors. The task of govern-
ment was not as complex as it is in a modern municipality,
but the burden was by no means light, and the object of this
study is to enumerate some of the problems which con-
fronted the city authorities in certain typical towns.
In the first rank of importance stand the problems of
political sovereignty. The city which owed no allegiance to
a territorial overlord and had only a feeble attachment to
the Empire, must lookout for itself in the contest of powers.
6 Municipal Problems in Mediceval Switzerland. [662
It must either prepare to defend itself or make alliances
for mutual protection. Both of these measures were usu-
ally taken. The Rhine cities had their leagues for offense
and defense which at times had the importance of great
states. In Switzerland the chief cities were by this time
either component parts of the Confederation or in alliance
with it. Municipalities, therefore, entered into the borders
of the higher state-craft and of diplomacy. The political
horizon was larger than the circuit of the walls or the limits
of the immediate district, and the problem of political ex-
istence itself was imposed upon the authorities. It does not
follow from this that the governments necessarily rose to an
unselfish standard of cosmopolitan statesmanship. We see
at once that the authorities were at one moment engaged in
the highest forms of state activity, and at the next in the
most minute, if we may not call them the most trivial,
details of community life. The first glance at the subject,
therefore, shows that our modern conceptions of city admin-
istration under constitutional limitations must be laid aside
for the time and that this earlier municipal activity must be
studied in the light of its own day, and in the perspective
of its own landscape.
The principal cities of German Switzerland serve as in-
teresting subjects of study in this connection, because the
superior authority, both of territorial lords and of the
German Empire, were early neutralized and eventually re-
moved. The cities continued to be in contact with these
powers, but they met them as equals, not as subordinates.
Even the remote and theoretical subserviency to the Holy
Roman Empire was neglected and finally cast off, and the
neighboring countries were either allies or enemies.
Nor was there in the Swiss Confederation itself any
power which exerted a controlling authority over the cities
included in it. The union called for a certain amount of
common action and this was given in time of danger, but the
Confederation was too feeble to enforce an ordinance for
common government. The Swiss attained their political
663] Municipal Problems in Medieval Switzerland. 7
independence by united effort but in spite of their consti-
tution. There was no central power to enforce obedience,
much less any federal law-making body to determine the
form of municipal organization or to exert a control of its
Zurich, Bern, and Basel, notably, became city states. The
towns of those names were not only the chief places in their
territories but each governed the territory itself, and the
smaller communities within. The rural inhabitants were
in an inferior position and the government residing within
the walls spoke for the rest. Hence inwardly as well as out-
wardly the municipality was an independent organism and
held a controlling position for which there is no modern
In diplomatic relations the Confederation held no mon-
opoly. Each canton had the right to negotiate with foreign
governments, and even to enter into separate treaties and
capitulations. This was specially marked during the period
when mercenary soldiers were most in demand. A few selec-
tions from the documents will show the importance and
variety of the international correspondence of these small
The cities of Basel and Freiburg, in 1365, entered into
a defensive alliance agreeing to protect each other in case
of war on either party. 2 In November of the same year
these two take the city of Breisach into the agreement, and
in December, the three together accept Neuenburg as a
member of the company .**
In 1405, the cities of Strassburg and Basel mutually agree
to protect their respective liberties, rights, and customs. In
a document of the same date they promise not to enter into
1 A brief statement of the federal situation is given in Chapter I
of the author's study of " Switzerland at the Beginning of the
Sixteenth Century," J. H. U. Studies XXII. A more comprehensive
view in the introduction to his " Government in Switzerland," New
2 Basel, Urkundenbuch IV, No. 295.
2a Basel, Urkundenbuch, IV, Nos. 296, 297.
8 Municipal Problems in Mediaval Switzerland. [664
any alliance with Austria during the continuation of their
agreement. 8 This treaty was frequently renewed.
Not only alliances defensive and offensive were contin-
ually made and unmade, but the advantages of neutrality
were also well understood. For instance take the following
agreement on the part of one of the neighbors of Basel :
" I, Thiiring von Ramstein, Freiherr zu Zwingen and
Gilgenberg, make known to all men by this letter, that since
the wise and discreet, the Burgomaster, council and people of
Basel and their predecessors have always been true and good
neighbors to me and all my predecessors, and if God so will
shall ever remain so, therefore on account of mutual good
friendship, I have entered into an agreement with the people
of Basel and have promised that whether the people
of Basel during this time win in war or are conquered, in
whatever way it falls out, I shall neither receive their ene-
mies, nor aid, nor assist them neither secretly or openly in
any wise whatsoever, but shall be quiet during the war, and
toward both parties remain steadfast by my word and honor
without deceit." 4
Negotiations of larger scope are visible in the instructions
of the council of Zurich to its delegates to the federal Diet,
29 June, 1413 "we are unanimously agreed that
when our delegates and those of the Confederation come
together next Tuesday at Lucerne to make answer to the
Roman King, the delegates whom we shall send on that day
shall have full power to act and answer on behalf of our
city in whatever the confederates act and answer."
" But in case they are not unanimous in this answer, that
whatever the delegates of Bern and Solothurn answer and
enact, they shall on our behalf answer and act with them." !
Negotiations of like character were opened again in 1415,
beginning with the diet and then going directly to the king.
3 Basel, Urkundenbuch V, Nos. 331, 332.
4 Basel, Urkundenbuch V, No. 333, March 17, 1405. No. 347, July
20, 1406, is a neutrality treaty with the Margrave Rudolf von
'Zuricher Stadtbiicher, II, 12.
665] Municipal Problems in Medieval Switzerland. 9
The instructions for the embassy to King Sigismund in re-
gard to his demand for help against Duke Frederick of
Austria were passed by the council of Zurich, on April 3,
1415. The conditions under which they would lend aid in-
cluded guaranty of their rights and privileges and that peace
should not be made without their knowledge.
By the nth of April, 1415, the embassy had returned and
the council passed the following resolution. . . . " whereas
we had sent the upright and wise Heinrich Meisen, Alt-
burgomaster, Felix Maness, and Conrad Tascher, members
of our council to our lord the king as an embassy to demand
of the king the aforesaid act and articles, in order that if
the act prevailed then we should promise him our assistance.
As these our ambassadors have performed wisely and well
all that we had commanded and moved according to our
desires and have brought back the king's letter with his
majesty's seal unbroken, [resolved] that we have promised
our lord the king fair assistance and that we will give him
fair assistance in this war against the Duke of Austria." '
In a treaty between Count Hans von Tierstein, Austrian
governor of Ensisheim, and the cities of Basel, Freiburg
in Breisgau, Colmar, and Breisach, July 16, 1450, the parties
agree to the values to be accepted for the coins current in
their territories. 7
The cities of Basel, Bern, and Solothurn in 1441, entered
into a treaty for mutual defense and provide for the peaceful
settlement of disputes between their governments or be-
tween their citizens. The parties are not territorial princes,
but ''We, Arnold von Ratberg, knight, burgomaster, the
council and citizens in common of the city of Basel, and
we, the schultheiss, council and citizens in common of the
cities of Bern in Uechtland and Solothurn/"
In 1449, the city of Basel entered into an arbitration
treaty with the Duke of Austria. Just as any two nations
6 Zuricher Stadtbiicher, II, 22, 23.
7 Basel, Urkundenbuch, VII, No. 276.
8 Basel, Urkundenbuch, VII, No. 2.
io Municipal Problems in Mediaval Switzerland. [666
of to-day might agree to submit their difficulties to a court
of arbiters, so this territorial prince, and the mayor and
council of a city become parties to what is practically an
international agreement. 9
In 1461, a treaty was concluded between various princes
and cities, for resisting the encroachments of the Westphal-
ian law courts. The powers included were Frederic, Pfalz-
graf of the Rhine, duke of Bavaria, imperial arch-cupbearer
and elector, Rnprecht, bishop of Strassburg, and landgrave
of Alsace, Albrecht, archduke of Austria, etc., Charles,
margrave of Baden, Conrad, lord of Busnang and Montal,
Bartholomew, abbot of Murbach, Johann von Luppfen, land-
grave of Stullinger, etc., Jacob, count of Lichtenberg, and
Louis his brother, William, lord of Rappoldstein and Hohen-
ack, and finally, the Burgomaster and councils of Strassburg
and Basel, Hagenau, Colmar, Schlettstadt, Wissenburg,
Mulhausen, Kaiserberg, Ober-Ehenheim, Minister in St.
Gregorienthal, Rossheim, Duringheim, Offenburg, Gengen-
bach, Zelle, Freiburg, Breisach, Neuenburg, and Endingen. 10
In 1475, a treaty was entered into between Louis XI, of
France, and the Confederates in which military assistance
could be demanded of the Swiss. The stipulations were not
as clear as they should have been, so the city of Bern passed
an explanatory resolution, in which it took upon itself the
responsibility for the proper fulfillment of the treaty.
" And if at any time the aforesaid Confederates upon the
demand of the King, do not send the aforesaid number of
6000 men to his aid, we agree and promise to make this
number complete and make ourselves responsible to the
King therefor." 10a
From these few instances alone it is apparent that the
cities in question enjoyed the privileges of nations in certain
phases of their government. But their sovereign rights and
"Basel, Urkundenbuch, VII, No. 194.
10 Basel, Urkundenbuch, VIII, No. 177.
10a Eidgenossische Abschiede II, 921. Oechsli, Quellenbuch I,
667] Municipal Problems in Medieval Switzerland. n
duties had also their sovereign perils. If they might enter
wars in behalf of the powers about them, they must also
expect attack. This expectation was amply fulfilled during
the period in review, and notwithstanding alliances with
kings and adjacent commonwealths, the cities were obliged
in the last resort to depend upon their own defenses. In
fact, from the foundation of the towns to the beginning of
their modern history, the first requisite of independent ex-
istence was adequate defense of the immediate circuit of
habitation. At present, under large general governments,
only a few towns at important strategic points are fortified.
During the period under consideration every small center of
government must prepare for the worst.
The nature of that defense was a most important factor
in mediaeval municipal life. As everybody knows, the war-
fare of that day called for walls. Where natural cliffs were
lacking, masonry was called in to provide barriers against
hostile men and hostile artillery at close range. Hand to
hand conflicts were anticipated in which the possession of a
stone wall and a ditch was in question. As time went on
the machinery of destruction grew more powerful and the
masonry grew heavier. The municipal problem increased
at the same pace.
A city wall, in the first place, called for an original outlay
of a serious character, whatever the size of the town might
be. In a small place the burden would fall on fewer and
in large towns the circumference of the barricade would
be greater. In earlier days the fortification of towns was
sometimes assisted by the territorial lords. A market tax
or the proceeds of other contributions would be devoted to
the walls. Upon a foundation thus laid a town might main-
tain its fortifications a century or more by simply keeping
them in repair, but in the later mediaeval period it became
necessary to enlarge and the enclosure of a greater space
laid the burden of a new wall upon the citizens themselves.
In all cases there was a continual outlay for maintenance,
for the preservation of moats, and the prevention of decay.
12 Municipal Problems in Medieval Switzerland. [668
Walls, therefore, became one of the fixed charges of a city
financial budget, an element which no longer figures in the
problems of municipalities. Specific instances may be cited
to give a glimpse of the ways and means of maintenance.
The code of Zurich of 1304 devotes the fines for certain
offenses to the use of the fortifications. 11 The Emperor Sig-
mund granted to the city of Basel in 1431 the right to lay
taxes and excises on its citizens for the support of the
" walls, moats, bridges, and other building operations." 12
This corresponds to the grants for " murage and pavage "
made by English kings about this time, but before the close
of the fifteenth century the Swiss towns were independent of
such authorization to employ their own taxes.
The council must take oath never to give away the property
of the city or to permit the walls to be injured. They
must not permit strong houses to be built outside the walls
lest they be used to command the gates."
In the records of the city council of Zurich under date
of 1423, is a settlement of a disputed title to a piece of
property, and with it an order that the city wall which
abutted on this property should be kept in repair by the
owner without expense to the city." This obligation was
also laid upon the nuns of the cloister of Oetenbach when
they moved to a situation inside the gates. Under what
principle such a tax could be imposed is not explained, nor
can it be readily determined how much or little of the wall
was thus maintained.
The preservation of the moats and ditches demanded
continual watchfulness in order to prevent them from being
used as dumping places for all sorts of refuse. Penalties
were imposed for disregard of this important matter.
There were also people who wished to have private doors
in the wall for more convenient access to their properties
11 Richtebrief der Burger von Zurich, I, 35, IV, 10.
12 Urkundenbuch, Basel, Bd. VI, 285.
13 Richtebrief, II, 23, 24; III, 43, 44; Rechtsquellen, Bern, I, 75.
14 Ziiricher Stadtbiicher, II, 337.
669] Municipal Problems in Medieval Switzerland. 13
outside. In Zurich this privilege was granted to one or two
persons on condition that they close up the door with mas-
onry when notified by the city authorities."
One can safely imagine the variety of business imposed on
a city council in keeping up this portion of the public works,
however solidly the walls may have been built originally.
Yet, on the other hand, some of the most significant social
results are due to the fact that the fortifications were built
so permanently. It was so great a task to rebuild that the
walls would remain for one, two, or three generations on the
original outline. Cities were kept in the same framework
for fifty to one hundred and fifty years. The historical
maps of all these towns show successive enlargements, but
these are spread over long spaces of time.
Basel, for example, occupied in the thirteenth century a
space which now seems but a small semi-circle in the center
of the present city with a smaller piece on the other side
of the Rhine. The greater part of the line of fortification
in that period dated from the eleventh century, and it was
1626 before a new circuit was enclosed. This latter line
of wall remained until 1860, when it gave place to boulevards.
Bern was founded on a narrow peninsula in the Aare river
and was destined, like New York, to grow in one direction.
In 1191 the settlement received both a charter and a wall
of defense. The size of the first enclosure does not seem
large when examined now, but it was probably a liberal
space for the inhabitants at the time. A new wall was
built farther out about 1250. This sufficed for almost a
century, for the last wall was erected in 1345. Outlying
fortifications were added in the seventeenth century, but
these did not serve as city limitations in the way that the
earlier walls had done. The lines of successive expansion
can be easily traced in the present streets of Bern.
Strassburg starts with a diminutive Roman city which
expands first in 720. The next enlargement occurred be-
18 Zuricher Stadtbucher, I, 8, 1315.
14 Municipal Problems in Mediaval Switzerland. [670
tween 1202 and 1220. A third expansion culminated about
the middle of the fourteenth century and a fourth was com-
pleted in 1390. It took a half century to enclose the next
addition. The citadel which was added in 1684 had a mili-
tary rather than a social significance, hence the framework
of civic life in Strassburg remained fixed for long continuous
periods throughout the middle age and early modern times.
The city walls and other means of defense deserve greater
attention than they have received as a factor in the social
conditions and problems of the time. There was not only
a financial question to solve, but there was also a sanitary
problem to encounter. The latter may not have been appre-
ciated by the contemporary authorities, and it may be neces-
sary to call it rather a sanitary effect. The very choice of a
town site was in most cases determined by its defensibility.
If it was situated on high ground the chances for natural
drainage were favorable, but if in a low spot with a sluggish
moat about it, there was a distinct hindrance to health for
long periods of time.
We are amused at the narrow streets which may yet be
found in some of these old towns. But it is not surprising
when you consider the small area in which the community
was confined. Undoubtedly the middle ages were not suffi-
ciently aware of the value of air space either inside or out-
side of their houses, but the presence of the walls gave a
constant inducement to economy of ground. The con-
temporary views and plans of towns show very little room
for expansion. The pressure of population gradually pushed
the houses outside the gates but there was always some wall
to consider. At first the extra-mural inhabitants must be
able to get inside easily in time of attack. Later the bound-
aries of a new wall fixed once more the limits of expansion.
Consequently from the beginning to the end of the period
there was every inducement to confine both streets and
buildings to narrow space. The builder could expect a
change of boundary scarcely within a lifetime.
The problems of police regulation, sanitation, and crime
671] Municipal Problems in Medieval Switzerland. 15
were, therefore, largely dependent on the primary factor of
defense, a matter growing out of the spirit of the times and
for which the particular locality was not responsible. While
sitting in judgment on the activities of city authorities of
that period it would be well to consider the limitations, set
for them, both in space and scope of action. There will
be plenty left to condemn according to modern standards.
Turning to the larger questions confronting council and
magistrates within the boundaries of their town or territory,
one finds at an early date that the whole welfare and activity
of the citizen is in their control. The laws of property,
inheritance, and everything relating to commerce and ex-
change ; criminal law including the power of life and death ;
all the phases of private as well as public law are not only ad-
ministered, but the principles are established by the city au-
thorities. Undoubtedly the precepts of criminal procedure
grew up by degrees out of common custom and feudal .prac-
tice of Germanic peoples, but the codes followed in the later
middle age were not imposed by some superior state above
the city but in the case of the larger cities were formulated
by each city for itself. Likewise the laws of property and
inheritance in these various towns have a resemblance to one
another which shows their common derivation, but even in
these there are marks of individuality which would suggest,
if we did not otherwise know, that each town was autono-
mous in this respect.
It is not the purpose of this paper to describe the char-
acter of the criminal and commercial law, but it is of great
significance to know that the same magistrates that admin-
istered the minute regulations of streets, markets, and petty
misdemeanors, had also the power of banishment, mutilation
or death. These latter functions were not in the hands of
any superior general authority which would thus permit
the town government to devote its whole attention to local
affairs, but the whole thing, from the treaty with France to
the price of wine, from homicide to fire-buckets, is under-
taken by the local officials.
16 Municipal Problems in Medi&val Switzerland. [672
One might suppose that such a condition of things would
bring forth a succession of important men in places like
Basel, Strassburg, Zurich, or any of the South German
cities which enjoyed this sovereign liberty of action. As
a matter of fact the list of great statesman is not large,
Occasionally a man of large caliber comes to the front in
European politics, but for the most part the phenomena gave
birth to general vigorous citizenship. The towns had
reached their freedom in the first place through their own
efforts or shrewdness, hence they were in the mood to main-
tain and improve their advantages with energy. In Switzer-
land they were able to throw off all semblance of imperial
overlordship and to perpetuate their independence through
periods of greater danger. The Rhine cities did not main-
tain themselves so long but for a noteworthy period set an
example of manly self-sufficiency and preserved the seeds
of modern democracy.
After the fundamental facts of life and property, the
municipal authorities were occupied with the daily concerns