Barbara Studer Immenhauser. Verwaltung zwischen Innovation und Tradition: Die Stadt Bern und ihr Untertanengebiet 1250-1550. Mittelalter-Forschungen. Ostfildern: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 2006. 500 pp. EUR 78.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-7995-4270-8.
Reviewed by Beat Kümin
Published on H-German (November, 2008)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Growth and Administration of a Late Medieval City-state
How did a relatively late urban foundation, established in 1191 in an inconspicuous location, acquire the largest territory of any town north of the Alps? How did five thousand burghers come to rule over more than one hundred thousand subjects in an area of nine thousand square kilometers? These are the questions addressed in Barbara Studer Immenhauser's 2005 dissertation, written at the University of Bern. As part of a larger research project on innovation in late medieval society, her study seeks to establish whether Bern's success rested on particularly new and original government techniques. Her work illuminates a neglected area of late medieval political life and makes a major contribution to the growing body of new work on administrative history.
Following some introductory remarks on historiography and method, in which she defines administration (following Dietmar Willoweit) as a "Mittel und Weg zur Herrschaftsverwirklichung und -erhaltung" (p. 6), Studer Immenhauser structures her analysis into two main parts: a survey of the government and officials of the city itself and a panorama of the various units that came under Bernese control between the mid-thirteenth and mid-sixteenth centuries. In the first part, Studer notes the relatively weak position of craftsmen and guilds within the city constitution (which allowed wealthy patricians to pursue a "noble" campaign of territorial expansion); the high levels of burgher participation in the large council (which accommodated up to one in four of all male householders); the ever-expanding number of offices (approximately 150, which ranged from executioners to the ruling Schultheissen); and the periodic administrative advances prompted by "foreign" city scribes like Thüring Fricker (who initiated the keeping of council minutes in 1465) and Peter Cyro (whose mid-sixteenth-century tenure coincided with the emergence of legislative compilations and detailed financial accounts for the numerous separate entities of the territory).
In the second part of the book, Studer Immenhauser distinguishes areas of indirect control (thirty-eight manors owned by patricians, twenty monastic lordships, and the territories of nine dependent towns) and units immediately subject to the city (four parishes outside the city gates; four Landgerichte serving as umbrellas for the fragmented lordships in the immediate vicinity of Bern; dozens of districts ruled by a Bernese governor, several semi-autonomous valleys in the Oberland; thirteen urban communities; and a number of condominiums jointly administered with other members of the Swiss Confederation). She then subjects twenty-four sample districts to detailed scrutiny, an exercise that allows her to arrive at general conclusions regarding the composition and administration of the Bernese lands. In the vast majority of all these heterogeneous units--ranging from expansive alpine landscapes like Frutigen to the tiny city of Unterseen with a mere 150 inhabitants--Bern simply took the place and residence of previous owners, endorsed existing government structures (based on locally appointed mayors and a few court officials), and intensified government to a much lesser extent than other Swiss cities and especially German princes. One exception was the originally monastic territory of Interlaken, where a combination of changes during the Reformation and risings of the local peasantry prompted Bern to revise the local law code and to compile a new register of its landed properties.
It is difficult to do justice to the wealth of information in this book. The combination of documentary research and prosopographical analysis (based on a database of some seven thousand officials) yields fascinating insights into the world of late medieval government. The Hasli valley, which controlled access to important mountain passes, managed to keep its own mayor and legal-financial institutions under Bernese overlordship. After an early predominance of minor nobles, mayors were increasingly drawn from among the commoners (starting with Claus ab der Furen in 1376). A particularly striking character was Hans im Sand, who served in numerous functions: for example, as scribe from 1487-92, arbitrator/treasurer in 1509, and member of the jurors' court in 1528. Yet, like almost half of his male compatriots (as revealed by a survey at the time of the Reformation), this pillar of self-government opposed Bern's decision to adopt the new religion and participated in a series of resistance activities supported by neighboring Swiss Catholic cantons. The city authorities reacted by executing Hans as a ringleader on May 15, 1530, and conspicuously displayed his head on the Brünig pass (where, in a daring act of insubordination, insurgents replaced it with that of a cat!).
Specialists in Bernese history will welcome the volume's meticulous documentation--including six maps and twenty-eight tables--as an invaluable resource. Readers with more general interests may find the sheer volume of detail and the evaluation of countless minor debates (on the dating of property transfers, the reasons for certain administrative changes, the length of service of individual officeholders, and so on) a little overwhelming. In a reflection of its mainly normative source base, the book concentrates on constitutional developments and political structures rather than the study of administration as a communicative process. Throughout, Studer Immenhauser stresses the prevalence of oral procedures and the very limited use of script, compared to the much more detailed accounts kept for the lordship of Grasburg by officials of the Counts of Savoy as early as the fourteenth century. In contrast to the recent work of Michael Jucker on the Swiss Diet, however, cultural issues such as the interplay between oral and written forms of exchange and the symbolic meanings of documents are not the center of attention. The author's (understandable) decision to exclude the vast areas of military and church affairs from her investigation, furthermore, may lead to an underestimation of communal structures outside the semi-independent alpine valleys of the Oberland. Here, as elsewhere in Europe, the ecclesiastical parish (Kilchhöri) provided an alternative basis for local identity and initiatives, even outside the field of religion. Post-Reformation efforts to charge parishioners with statutory moral, educational, and other tasks instrumentalized a long-standing and effective unit of local government.
The concluding section answers the initial research questions in a differentiated manner. Bern benefited from the early extinction of its founding dynasty (the Dukes of Zähringen), its subsequent status as an imperial free city, and the advantageous political constellation in an area with several rivaling powers and plenty of opportunities for westward expansion. In addition, it bolstered its position with an apparently concocted charter of fundamental rights (the Goldene Handfeste of 1218), the firm subordination of manorial lords under the city state (in the Twingherrenstreit of 1471), and the takeover of ecclesiastical lands in the Reformation of 1528. Bern can be seen as innovative in the acquisition of its territory, chiefly because the governing elite treated prospective subjects as allies and respected their established customs (some paid large sums to become Bernese), but appears highly traditional in administrative practice, which hardly ever transcended the simple structures of late medieval noble estates. The treaties and agreements that brought the various lordships and valleys under Bernese control effectively prevented the sustained intensification of rule associated with the process of territorialization. Overall, the city authorities adapted time-honored patterns in a pragmatic rather than original fashion. The twin consequences were long-lasting local autonomy and rudimentary state building stopping short of a bureaucracy, standing army and ever-growing taxation: "Da die Stadt Bern ihre Vogteien noch bis weit ins 16. Jahrhundert hinein ... mehr oder weniger vollständig sich selbst überliess, verfügten diese einerseits zwar über ein Mass an Selbstverwaltung, wie es wohl in kaum einem anderen städtischen Territorium im Alten Reich zu beobachten ist. Andererseits bewirkte dies aber auch, dass die Verwaltungsprozesse hier selbst in der Reformationszeit noch ausgesprochen archaisch waren" (p. 418). Existing peasant rights were upheld, but not actively enhanced. Whenever subjects pressed for improvements in personal status, Bern took an uncompromising line, using the smallest degree of assertiveness as an opportunity to tighten customary arrangements. It consulted districts on selected policy decisions, but prevented any sort of supra-regional organization, fearing that the emergence of representative assemblies (along the lines of German Landstände) might endanger the city's ability to control the vast mass of its provincial population.
Studer Immenhauser's work is an impressive tour de force of an enormously varied administrative landscape. It focuses on structures and offices rather than political theory and communication processes, but offers a very clear picture of Bern's governing philosophy and its remarkably accommodating attitude towards the territories it acquired. Throughout the ancien régime, the patrician elite liked to be addressed as "gracious lords." This study suggests that the phrase was more than mere propaganda. The book joins a remarkable stream of recent publications which make the Swiss city state one of the best-researched administrative units of the Holy Roman Empire.
. Ferdinand Kramer, "Verwaltung und politische Kultur im Herzogtum und Kurfürstentum Bayern in der frühen Neuzeit: Aspekte der Forschung," Zeitschrift für Bayerische Landesgeschichte 61 (1998): 33-43; and Christian Hesse, Amtsträger der Fürsten im spätmittelalterlichen Reich: Die Funktionseliten der lokalen Verwaltung in Bayern-Landshut, Hessen, Sachsen und Württemberg 1350-1515 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2005).
. Michael Jucker, Gesandte, Schreiber, Akten: Politische Kommunikation auf eidgenössischen Tagsatzungen im Spätmittelalter (Zürich: Chronos Verlag, 2004).
. See also Roland Gerber, Gott ist Burger zu Bern: Eine spätmittelalterliche Stadtgesellschaft zwischen Herrschaftsbildung und sozialem Ausgleich (Weimar: Böhlau, 2001); and the multi-volume series Berner Zeiten, a large-scale collaborative project surveying all aspects of Bernese history from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century.
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Beat Kümin. Review of Studer Immenhauser, Barbara, Verwaltung zwischen Innovation und Tradition: Die Stadt Bern und ihr Untertanengebiet 1250-1550.
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