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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

Where the patrician burghers had their public dances


Egypt and Syria, the only remaining channels by which the merchandise from the East reached Europe. The great commercial problem of the times was how to get some hold of the direct trade with the East. It was this that inspired Bristol skippers, familiar with Iceland, with the idea that by following old Norse traditions they might find a path by way of the North Atlantic; that sent Columbus across the Mid-Atlantic to discover the Bahamas and the continent of America; and that drove the more fortunate Portuguese round the Cape of Good Hope. Young Vasco da Gama reached the goal first, when, after doubling the Cape, he sailed up the eastern coast of Africa, reached Mombasa, and then boldly crossed the Indian Ocean to Calicut, the Indian emporium for that rich trade which all the European nations were anxious to share. The possibilities of a world commerce led to the creation of trading companies; for a larger capital was needed than individual merchants possessed, and the formation of these companies overshadowed, discredited, and finally destroyed the gild system of the mediaeval trading cities. Trade and industry became capitalised to a degree previously unknown. One great family of capitalists, the Welser, had factories in Rome, Milan, Genoa, and Lyons, and tapped the rich Eastern trade by their houses in Antwerp, Lisbon, and Madeira. They even tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a German colony on the new continent--in Venezuela. Another, the Fuggers of Augsburg, were interested in all kinds of trade, but especially in the mining industry. It is said that the mines of Thuringia, Carinthia, and the Tyrol within Germany, and those of Hungary and Spain outside it, were almost all in their hands. The capital of the family was estimated in 1546 at sixty-three millions of gulden. This increase of wealth does not seem to have been confined to a few favourites of fortune. It belonged to the mass of the members of the great trading companies. Von Bezold instances a "certain native of Augsburg" whose investment of 500 gulden in a merchant company brought him in seven years 24,500 gulden. Merchant princes confronted the princes of the State and those of the Church, and their presence and power dislocated the old social relations. The towns, the abodes of these rich merchants, acquired a new and powerful influence among the complex of national relations, until it is not too much to say, that if the political future of Germany was in the hands of the secular princes, its social condition came to be dominated by the burgher class.

? 3. Increase in Wealth and luxurious Living.

Culture, which had long abandoned the cloisters, came to settle in the towns. We have already seen that they were the centres of German Humanism and of the New Learning. The artists of the German Renaissance belonged to the towns, and their principal patrons were the wealthy burghers. The rich merchants displayed their civic patriotism in aiding to build great churches; in erecting magnificent chambers of commerce, where merchandise could be stored, with halls for buying and selling, and rooms where the merchants of the town could consult about the interests of the civic trade; in building _Artushoefe_ or assembly rooms, where the patrician burghers had their public dances, dinners, and other kinds of social entertainments; in raising great towers for the honour of the town. They built magnificent private houses. AEneas Sylvius tells us that in Nuernberg he saw many burgher houses that befitted kings, and that the King of Scotland was not as nobly housed as a Nuernberg burgher of the second rank. They filled these dwellings with gold and silver plate, and with costly Venetian glass; their furniture was adorned with delicate wood-carving; costly tapestries, paintings, and engravings decorated the walls; and the reception-room or _stube_ was the place of greatest display. The towns in which all this wealth was accumulated were neither populous nor powerful. They cannot be compared with the city republics of Italy, where the town ruled over a large territory: the lands belonging to the imperial cities of Germany were comparatively of small extent. Nor could they boast of the population of the great cities of the Netherlands. Nuernberg, it is said, had a population of a little over 20,000 in the middle of the fifteenth century. Strassburg, a somewhat smaller one. The population of Frankfurt-on-the-Main was about 10,000 in 1440.(49) The number of inhabitants had probably increased by one-half more in the decades immediately preceding the Reformation. But all the great towns, with their elaborate fortifications, handsome buildings, and massive towers, had a very imposing appearance in the beginning of the sixteenth century.


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