Supplications and Civic Rule in Sixteenth-Century Nuremberg

Our next post for the Addressing Authority Online Symposium comes from Hannah Murphy, a Junior Research Fellow at Oriel College, Oxford. Here she shows how early modern rulers could turn supplications into tools of governance by using the expectation of petitioning to monitor the activities of their subjects.

On 26 July 1550, the printer and painter Steffan Hamer was thrown in Nuremberg’s dreaded city jail, “because he had printed wonder-books without permission and against his oath.”[i] Although he was only incarcerated for two days (he was released on the 28th and had his tools returned to him), Hamer’s career never recovered. In September he was refused permission to print a broadsheet of conjoined twins, and had to watch the lucrative sale go to a competitor. [ii]  A year later, on 28 August, 1551, he was refused permission to print a figure of dancing children.[iii] On 25 September, 1551, he was allowed to print a portrait of the siege of Magdeburg, as long he refrained from adding his name.[iv] On 26 March 1552, he was refused permission to publish the ‘three suns and rainbow’ which had appeared over Antdorf.[v] Nuremberg’s council granted permission for something to be printed on average twice a week; but Hamer never again received permission. He disappeared from the city minutes and from Germany’s printing history without a trace.

Steffan Hamer had broken no written law in the way that we might understand it today. Rather, his silent transgression and punishment was indicative of a quiet development in Nuremberg’s city politics, one present only in the accumulated volumes of the council’s meetings, and the format in which they were recorded: the growth of supplications as a hidden tool in the management of people. His punishment was the result of his failure to seek permission from Nuremberg’s council, and his continued fall from grace demonstrates the city’s reliance on petitions as a mechanism of information-gathering and control.

If petitions, in the way that they are often understood, were directed upwards, my work looks at the way in which they could also ‘reach down’. I work on early modern Nuremberg, where the practical act of petitioning in person was a ubiquitous part of civic government. What I have found, by looking at the archives of the city council, is that most city decisions were made in response to a petition.  The city relied on citizens bringing requests to them, not just in order to enforce rules, but also as a means of information-gathering, literally to find out what rules needed enforcing in the first place.

Printed petitions and formal supplications are often linked to the origins of democracy, and other entries in this symposium show how writing petitions could empower subjects in many different ways. But in the face-to-face system of government that characterized early modern German cities, petitions were also a kind of governance. They permit us an insight into the kind of political practices that rulers engaged in when they governed, practices which I think often had to do with information and control and which weren’t necessarily articulated in political treatises, or even in written codes of law.

Nuremberg. Michael Wohlgemut & Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, View of Nuremberg, in Hartmann Schedel, Weltchronik. (Nuremberg Chronicle), Nuremberg. Anton Koberger, 1493 (Wikipedia Commons)

Nuremberg. Michael Wohlgemut & Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, View of Nuremberg, in Hartmann Schedel, Weltchronik. (Nuremberg Chronicle), Nuremberg. Anton Koberger, 1493 (Wikipedia Commons)

Early modern Nuremberg was one of the richest and most important cities in Europe. Jean Bodin called it ‘the best ordered’ of all Germany’s cities. Nuremberg was a ‘free city’, a self-governing city-state within the Holy Roman Empire. That meant that the thirty-two members of its most powerful governing body, its ‘Inner Council’, were responsible for a population of around 25,000. Every day, these men made their way to the town hall, where they met and made decisions. How they came to those decisions, however, is difficult to find out. The practice of politics was shrouded in secrecy. As William Smith, an Englishman who had lived for many years in Nuremberg lamented: ‘For that the noble and worthy senators of this cittie, are very jealouse, and will not suffer any description either of their cittie or countries.”[vi]

Smith’s dilemma anticipated the same problems we have today. However, one good source for getting to the heart of Nuremberg’s political practices survives, because beginning in the fifteenth century they kept records of the decisions they made, some 4,500 of which remain in the city archives. Responsibility for keeping and maintaining these records revolved monthly between the members of the Rat, and over the course of the sixteenth century their entries increased dramatically, both in number and in scope. As minutes became more narrative, more specific and more particular, they also included increasing detail about supplications and permissions.

Early city minutes, such as an entry in 1453 granting the goldsmith Peter Kraft permission to accept a commission from the Margrave Johann, must have been inspired by requests, although they made no explicit reference to their terms.[vii] In 1485, the council referred to a ‘supplication’ by name for the first time, when it considered, and refused, the request by plate-makers for the provision of a new ordinance.[viii]  Writing about supplications which were subsequently denied mirrored the way in which the council gathered information, specifically the way in which it gathered information about people.  From 1485, growing numbers of supplications entered the records as record of denials. In 1525 about 17% of entries were denied supplications, in 1544 almost 30%, and by the 1550s these supplications took up over half the minutes. They remained a constant presence throughout the early modern period.

Most of these were not ‘formal’ petitions, and none of them were printed. Rather, these were requests presented informally and – crucially – in person. Their appearance in the city minutes was a testament to the growing bureacratization of government – the growth of written forms, etc. But the written form of petitions, in this instance at least, should not be seen as more important than the act which it described. In a city like Nuremberg, the importance of personal knowledge and interpersonal communication was a key part of the political process.

The absence of prior supplication increasingly became grounds for censure over the course of the century. In 1582, the Brass-turner Jorgen Dibler was refused permission to move to Denmark, where he wished to join his brother, because he had “planned to do so dishonestly”, and because he had written about this publicly.[ix] In 1584, Lienharten Heussler the printer, and the Mathes Rauchen the Briefmaler were censured for failing to obtain permission to print a pamphlet.[x] And the importance of supplications was made manifest in general rulings, like the decree on 5 August, 1584 in which the Rat punished Hansen Taigern, a Parisian goldsmith for marrying without permission and Erhart Reiffen, the writer (Schreiber) for falsifying a supplication.[xi]

In ‘face-to face’ government, character was a grounds for making decisions about people. Personal knowledge of the petitioner likely affected the outcome of Senate decisions. This was certainly true for Hamer, but difficulties the Senate faced when it was not familiar with the petitioner also provide an example of this. On 29 April, 1562, the Nuremberg burgher Wolff Wilsam brought a supplication on behalf of his relatives Peter Villani, Marc Anthoni Villani and their extended family. A family acquaintance Agnes Plessin had died while responsible for ‘coffers’ belonging to the Villani brothers, and Philip of Hesse, through whose lands the woman had been travelling, was now refusing to send them to their original owners. Wilsam was looking for the Senate to act as an intermediary on behalf of his family. Not only did the council refuse, they drafted in a lawyer, Christoph Gugel, to assess whether, given that the Villanis were unknown to them, Wilsam was even entitled to make the supplication in the first place.[xii] The Senate’s question to Gugel reminds us that while Nuremberg’s supplications were practical parts of the day-to-day workings of customary city politics, they were also, subsequently, always in flux.

This is a very short overview of a long and complex development and obviously, any conclusions must remain limited. Nonetheless, what reading through Nuremberg’s council minutes has told me is that the role of supplications is crucial if we want to understand early modern political practices and the way in which early modern governments made decisions. The city came to rely on these supplications as a tool of governance, one which facilitated participation on the part of citizens, but also created a system of oversight in which an onerous contributive duty was laid on citizens as informants and objects of supplications, as well as petitioners and beneficiaries. This was not a principle of rule in the way that the modern sense of politics might suggest. We don’t find political treatises about petitions, or information gathering, in the same way that we find them about ‘just rulers’ or the ’causes of war’. But we all know that politics don’t always conform to the theoretical principles that political thinkers set forth.

What reading Nuremberg’s council minutes makes clear, to me, is that its government treasured its capability to make ad-hoc decisions and case-based rulings. In their view, this system worked.  In the way in which the Senate managed, maneuvered and mandated supplications, we can see the efficacy of rule and the exigency of its written form.


[i] Staatsarchiv Nürnberg (hereafter StA N), Rep. 60a, 1550 IV, 41r, 28 Juli, 1550.

[ii] StA N, Rep. 60 a, 3268, 1550, VI.3: 29 August, 1550, fol. 4r. “Steffan Hamer, dem prifmaler, das begert nachtrucken zweier aneinander gepornen kinder ableinen.”

[iii] StA N, 3337, 15a

[iv] StA N, 3341, 1551, VII 13b, 25 September, 1551

[v] StA N, 3377. 1551, 26 March, 1552.

[vi] Lambeth Palace Library, MS. 508.

[vii] StA N, Rep. 60a Ratsbuch 1b, 255r, (TH, 14),  4 October, 1453.

[viii] StA N, TH 309

[ix] StA N, Rep. 60a, 1582, V. 26r, 21 Aug, 1582.

[x] StA N, Rep. 60a, 1584 IV, 24v: 29 July, 1584.

[xi] StA N, Rep. 60a, IV, 36v: 5 August, 1584.

[xii] StA N, Rep. 60a, 1562:I, 47r, 29 April, 1562. The business of petitions was part of the civic role of such professionals in Nuremberg. Gugel’s role in this instance opens up another avenue by which authorities addressed their concerns about the problems of petitions – by drafting in an expanding circle of expert professionals, such as lawyers, physicians, school-teachers and even other rulers.

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4 thoughts on “Supplications and Civic Rule in Sixteenth-Century Nuremberg

  1. Great post! Continuing from Twitter, where I was thinking about how supplications were still used as a tool by the state in 18th century Franconia in relation to agriculture, especially the regulation of the commons. I’ve mostly researched on the Bishopric of Bamberg and the Margraviate of Ansbach, which directly neighbor Nuremberg to the north and east, respectively, and focused mostly on rural areas.

    I haven’t thought systematically about this at all, since it’s not my research goal, but reading this I was struck by similarities. My impression is that officials didn’t even try to monitor villages much, since it would have stretched resources very thin, but could rely on supplications to alert even the central government of problems. One of the most typical would have been in the administration and use of the commons, whether it was smallholders complaining about overuse (i.e. overgrazing) by peasants with larger properties, or well-to do peasants complaining about smallholders withholding their meager property from use by village herds. As the enclosure movement reached the area, special committees relied on petitions to find out which villages were ready to begin the process or not.

    Obviously, most petitioners had economic self-interest at stake, though sometimes relatives or friends with no direct stake petitioned. There are also cases of unaffected villagers petitioning about unpaid hay or grain tithes or refused grazing rights for state owned flocks, because they resented a neighbor not paying what they themselves paid. This was obviously quite useful to officials who found it hard to truly check all areas. I’ll have to think more about the balance between self-interest and usefulness to the administration. There are of course always cases of villages slowing things down by “overuse” of petitions.

  2. Thank you for this fascinating post, Hannah. Thinking about the petitions that I am most familiar with – supplications to local county or city magistrates of the sort described by Sharon Howard in her post on London petitions – I was struck by a notable similarity and a notable difference from the ones you describe.

    The Nuremberg and local English ones are similar in that they both seem to have been welcomed by the authorities. Although I’m sure some individual magistrates got annoyed with the number of requests they received, overall the magistracy appears to have liked the power (and information) that came from this culture of petition. In contrast, the national authorities in England sometimes attempted to discourage petitioning because the ones they received were more collective and ideological.

    However, I think the English petitions are somewhat different from Nuremburg ones where the ‘government treasured its capability to make ad-hoc decisions and case-based rulings’. Obviously English magistrates exercised a great deal of ‘discretion’ and took ‘character’ into account when responding to petitions. Yet my impression is that the English petitions were much more focused on seeking enforcement of specific written statutes rather than ‘ad hoc’ decisions. Although they usually didn’t cite chapter and verse, most petitioners’ claims were based on particular laws about entitlement to poor relief, officeholding, cottages or any number of other issues covered by national statutes. I wonder if this is partly due to the fact that sovereignty was much more local in the case of Nuremberg – which was a city-state – whereas English local magistrates ultimately drew their authority from the national sovereign in the form of ‘king in parliament’?

  3. Pingback: Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society | the many-headed monster

  4. Pingback: Addressing Authority: some concluding thoughts | the many-headed monster

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