Every reviewer knows the situation when we turn to a new book and read it as thoroughly as possible with like or dislike. When the argument is confusing, not very convincing, when the language and structure are hard to handle, etc., we struggle through the work and simply accept that this is important work that someone has to do. But there are other books that simply prove to be joyful both because of their excellent content and the wonderful presentation, which can also include first-rate illustrations, the publisher's efforts in producing the best possible book, and the true value of the author's research. Fortunately, the latter is the case with Stefan Frey's Zürich doctoral dissertation from 2016 (www.recherche-portal.ch), here presented in a paperback book publication. It grew out of a master's thesis that he had completed already in 2002/03 under the guidance of Roger Sablonier, and it now presents the results of comprehensive archival research in Zürich carried out since then.
Global theories about historical phenomena or events must be based on solid case or source studies that are, surprisingly, often simply missing, which tends to irritate historians the most. Tremendous generalizations by intellectual giants such as Norbert Elias or Michel Foucault have inspired generations of scholars, but their arguments have often not fully withstood a thorough examination based on primary material. The issue at stake here is the rise of the lower level urban elites to the rank of nobility in the late Middle Ages, and Frey illuminates this by way of studying the local archival materials, which allows him to reach very convincing conclusions about many different aspects relevant in this context. Despite all regular efforts by the nobility to close off their ranks to social classes below them, throughout the Middle Ages new individuals and entire groups constantly emerged that enjoyed enough social, political, symbolic, and financial capital (Pierre Bourdieu) to break the barrier and to gain noble status as well. We can observe this particularly impressively in late medieval cities such as Zürich, where the Patriziat and the Landadel (landed gentry) were not simply two distinct groups and actually often witnessed much interlacing. Frey hence suggests the alternative term Stadtadel (urban nobility) for those families that enjoyed the public esteem of being members of the aristocracy, lived in the city, assumed administrative posts, and commanded the necessary funds or capital to lead an aristocratic lifestyle (13), without being strictly divorced from the old aristocracy, normally residing in the countryside. Frey focuses for his study on the five major families in Zürich, the Escher, Göldli, Meiss, Meyer von Knonau, and Schwend.
The subsequent investigations prove to be the result of extensive examinations of the available archival material for those families. While trade and merchandising were good sources for the accumulation of money, those who aimed for the rank of nobility soon tried hard to distance themselves from those occupations and invested their wealth in land properties and concentrated on financial operations, thereby building a clear demarcation line between themselves and the merchant or lower-ranked administrative class. Increasingly, those new aristocrats relied heavily on royal, ducal, or episcopal salaries and income from government posts.
At first, Frey outlines systematically these major changes leading to a social paradigm shift in the late Middle Ages, both in Zürich and probably in many other major cities all over Europe. Then, he illustrates all the relevant points by means of careful case studies which represent the bulk of his investigation, beginning with the economic base for the growth of the new aristocrats, who made great efforts to purchase or build castles, to acquire large estates, to assume positions as high-ranking judges (Landvogt), and then to demonstrate their rank by means of coats of arms and certificates (Adelsbriefe) (41). It was also of great importance for them to create their appropriate urban residence and to establish a memorial culture for their own new dynasty. Specifically, these new knights (Junker) claimed dignity, social status, and ethos as the basis of their rank (67), and there were numerous opportunities to be knighted by their superiors at court, on the battlefield, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the end of a pilgrimage, or during a coronation event.
Next, Frey analyzes the ways how the new knights represented themselves, how they viewed themselves and the lower and upper classes. Only here does the author finally offer a historical overview of the development of the term Junker, which originally only meant "the young son of a nobleman" and later turned into an aristocratic rank (92-94), which was embellished with a number of specific adjectives to differentiate further. Here Frey also investigates how the new aristocrats had to demonstrate their worthiness in order to be accepted into clerical or noble orders and institutions. Only those who had solid proof of their noble ancestry, for instance, could participate in tournaments. Marrying into the older aristocracy was a very popular, but certainly not easy strategy to gain this status. However, once the necessary conditions were given, these Junker had many opportunities to assume governmental posts and to gain high-paying political and bureaucratic duties.
The involvement in war campaigns, either for Zürich or foreign powers such as the French king, proved to be a most profitable, though also not risk-free operation, through which many of these Junker secured huge funds, unless they were killed or convicted of criminal activities, as the many severe corruption charges illustrate. Altogether, as Frey concludes, this emerging class of young aristocrats successfully separated itself from the urban merchants, administrators, and intelligentsia and assumed a new social rank as Ritter or Junker on the basis of "aristocratic capital"; this, in turn, allowed them to utilize this highly respected status for the acquisition of political and economic power.
This excellent and very insightful study, which will have many implications for future research in a variety of fields far beyond the situation in Zürich, concludes with genealogical lists of the five families studied here and their marriage connections; the annotations; and the bibliography. Very impressively, the book is excellently illustrated, though there is no separate list of the images and where they originated from. The absence of an index, I am very sorry to say, is most deplorable.