Almost two hundred years after the foundation of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH)under the auspices of Freiherr vom Stein's Gesellschaft für Deutschlands ältere Geschichtskunde, the project of editing the most important documents surviving from the "German" Middle Ages remains a work in progress--to the great benefit of scholars of almost every period of medieval European history. While its editors, now based at the eponymous institute in Munich, have largely shed the Romantic nationalist overtones that guided the project from its inception, they have retained its ambitious chronological and thematic scope. One of the largest ongoing sub-series is the Constitutiones et acta publica imperatorum et regum, which aims to edit the political and "constitutional" documents of all the kings and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, from the Ottonians to the fourteenth century. While this was relatively straightforward for earlier centuries --virtually every surviving source from each reign could be edited, allowing a capacious interpretation of constitutiones et acta publica --the editors for the fourteenth-century volumes have been forced to be more selective. Surviving sources increase exponentially in number as one moves forward through the medieval centuries. The late medieval imperial administration may have been diminutive compared to its Western European counterparts, and much of its output may now be lost, but difficult choices must nevertheless be made about what to edit from the mass of surviving Urkundenand Briefe (charters, treaties, and letters).
Even with increasing selectivity, the timespans encompassed by individual volumes of MGH Constitutiones et acta covering the fourteenth century are necessarily shrinking. This recent addition to the series is an extreme example. It covers a single year in the reign of Emperor Charles IV: 1360. The reason for this very narrow date range is the exceptional number of sources that survive from this moment in time. This half-volume (13,1) contains 463 documents, which is more sources per year than any other so far; a further 323 are expected in the forthcoming fascicule (13,2) for 1361. This uniquely high number is largely the result of the chance survival of a registry book ("Registrum imperiale") of outgoing documents from Charles's chancery, now kept in the Hauptstaatsarchiv Dresden. This is the only intact version of what were once presumably complete and continuous records of the chancery's issued documents, and it is the major source for the two fascicules that form volume 13 of MGH Constitutiones et acta. The editors naturally devote much of the introduction to this volume to a discussion of this registry, emphasizing the vast increase in yearly documents that it reveals compared to previous volumes that relied on survivals from recipients of Charles's charters and letters. Scholars of diplomatic and documentary culture will find this introduction especially valuable. We learn, for instance, that vellum still predominated over paper in charters issued by the imperial chancery in 1360. The analysis of the registry also offers a window into day-to-day chancery practices and vocabularies, including favored abbreviations in Latin and the German vernacular.
This contextualizing introduction reflects the high editorial standards that are the hallmark of recent MGH publications, and these standards are maintained through the volume: each entry contains extensive bibliographic information about previous editions, thorough summaries, and full editions of roughly half of the included documents. The rest of this review will examine the content of the sources contained in this volume, and consider how they contribute to our understanding of the Holy Roman Empire under Charles IV.
As an unusually rich twelve-month snapshot of Charles IV's writing-based activities, this edition opens onto a variety of themes. The ostensible goal of this series is to present material pertaining to political and constitutional history, and the fact that the bulk of the documents issued by Charles's chancery consists of charters of privileges, enfeoffments, and confirmations of legal and financial transactions will come as no surprise to any student of medieval monarchical administration. However, historians of cultural, diplomatic, religious, social, and gender history will also find plenty of interesting sources here, in documents ranging from letters to other European monarchs to judicial interventions in the petty real estate disputes of priests and burghers.
This is significant, since the dominant interpretations of Charles over the last 200 years have sought to explain him within a secular narrative focused on the success or failure of state formation in his European realms. In nineteenth-century German nationalist and statist historiography, Charles was sometimes viewed positively as one of the last emperors who seemed capable of keeping the German lands united, but also excoriated for his alleged alienation of the would-be German state's assets (the pledging and granting of imperial lands, offices, and resources), and for neglecting German interests--a charge substantiated by the attempt to make Prague his cultural and administrative center. For precisely the same reason, Charles has long been lauded in Czech historiography as a national hero. The subtler and better-researched but still essentially "constitutionalist" scholarship of the post-war period, exemplified by Peter Moraw, has portrayed Charles as an unusually ambitious emperor, who aspired to "hegemonic kingship" (hegemoniales Königtum). This shifted the focus to the late medieval social and geopolitical situation of the Empire: on the one hand, its fragmentation and decentralization, but also Charles's partially successful strategies to maintain some semblance of order in this context, through peripatetic sojourns across the regions most attuned to the monarchy (mostly in central and southern Germany), with Nuremberg in particular acting as a second capital of sorts, and through the exploitation of the Luxemburg dynasty's growing agglomeration of Central European lands and titles. As we shall see, all of these features are on display in the evidence from 1360, a moment when Charles seems to have been at the height of his powers within his makeshift system of government. Finally, it is only in recent years that historians such as Martin Bauch have begun to elucidate Charles's reign in terms of "cultural" factors: the deeply religious and ritualistic character of his persona and of some of his governmental practices. These elements are harder to detect in the formulaic records of his chancery, but we can see hints of Charles's blend of personal piety and sacral rule in acts such as his donation of half of the taxes from the Jews of Frankfurt to his recently-founded house of Canons Regular in Ingelheim, to the honor of the Virgin Mary and that of St. Charlemagne and St. Wenceslas--his and his unborn son's namesakes (no. 303).
Beyond the obvious point that Charles's modest imperial administration was, proportionately, in huge demand for day-to-day confirmations, concessions, and judgements, the most striking feature of his government detectable in this volume is the large geographical extent of his political and legal entanglements. We find dealings with actors at the margins of the Empire, from Sweden (no. 139) to Hungary (no. 87) to eastern France (nos. 110-118). Charles sought to intervene from afar with judgements and grants or transfers of fiefs, rights, and offices in imperial northern Italy, always at the request of local actors, in places such as Ravarano (nos. 103-5), Genoa (nos. 151-153, 185) and surrounding Liguria (nos. 107, 176), Treviso (no. 119), Feltre and Belluno (nos. 220-221), and--above all--Florence (nos. 219, 451, 454) and Milan (nos. 19, 136). Several Italians, mostly jurists, were formally inducted into Charles's court and showered with incomes and exemptions in the course of 1360 (nos. 37-38, 98, 121, 145, 153, 180). We also find various high-profile German actors seeking Charles's approbation to intervene in regions beyond the Empire's borders. In December 1360 the Teutonic Knights received Charles's blessing for their wars with the pagan Lithuanians, and exemptions from all services, taxes, and levies within the Empire (no. 428). The archbishops of Mainz and Cologne both received Charles's encouragement to intercede as mediators in the acute conflict between the kings of England and France (nos. 3, 26).
Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the chancery's dealings were with the princes, nobles, bishops, monasteries, cities, and burghers of the German lands within the Holy Roman Empire. Beyond the run-of-the-mill confirmations and judicial decisions noted above, Charles's relations with one group of south German powers stand out in the year 1360: the Habsburgs (or domus Austriae). The Austrian dukes maintained a close but tension-ridden and rivalrous relationship with Charles's own house of Luxemburg, especially in the wake of their exclusion from the Golden Bull of 1356, which had formalized the participants in the imperial election process. Charles issued several charters and treaties for and with Duke Rudolf IV of Austria, the monarch's son-in-law, together with Rudolf's three brothers and his various Austrian, Swabian, and Rhenish vassals, officers, and allies. These hint at the shaky relationship between the two men and their respective houses. A routine confirmation of the Austrian dukes' fiefs and privileges in May (nos. 90-92) had to be repeated, with additional assurances, in September (nos. 235-237). In the intervening time, Charles had been in open conflict with many members of the Habsburg affinity in Swabia, and both houses felt it necessary to issue a formal joint reconciliation (which included Charles's brother John, margrave of Moravia) in which they renounced claims on one another's titles in Austria, the German lands, and Bohemia, capped off by an alliance treaty (nos. 238-243). In December of that year Charles confirmed several more rights and titles for Rudolf (nos. 414-420), but crucially also produced a critical commentary (no. 412) on the so-called "Privilegium Maius," a series of partly forged charters allegedly issued by Julius Caesar, Nero, and various medieval emperors. These privileges were not among those that Charles confirmed in 1360.
At a lowlier level, we find petitioners from many walks of life making and receiving requests from the imperial chancery, offering small windows onto mid-fourteenth-century German society. Particularly noteworthy are Charles's many grants of legitimacy to bastard children, whether those of burghers (no. 93), priests (no. 120), or even nuns (no. 215). Charles's orders to his deputies sometimes offer insights into very specific local disputes. In October 1360 his chancery empowered the imperial bailiff (Landvogt) in Alsace to investigate detailed allegations against the abbess and certain named nuns in the Benedictine convent of Schönfeld. These included the accusation that they had forced an orphaned girl called Mechtild, who had been given into their care, to marry a relative of the abbess who had dishonored Mechtild through attempted rape (no. 295).
Many of Charles's communications with the denizens of the Empire related to his financial incomes and obligations. 1360 was a busy year for the collection of the taxes paid by imperial cities (Reichssteuer--nos. 39, 126, 127, 142, 223-224, 248-250, 269, 271, 301, 352, 355, 367, 369, 383, 452) and the levies paid by Jews directly to the emperor, such as the "golden penny" poll tax (no. 448). As these were the only reliable revenues that Charles could derive from the German lands of the Empire, he also borrowed extensively to run his household and government, largely in the form of loans collateralized through the transfer of assets (fiefs, offices, jurisdictions, regalian rights, etc.) that could later be redeemed (so-called "pledges"--pigni/pignorationes or Pfandschaften). An older generation of German scholarship saw this as a profligate alienation of "state" resources, but more recent studies have emphasized the sophisticated credit system that Charles's pledge policy entailed, and the ways in which it enabled the Luxemburg monarchs to maximize their influence despite the Empire's diminutive fiscal base. In this volume we see Charles acquiring or repaying loans with actors as varied as princes like the margraves of Baden (nos. 158-159) to modest lesser nobles and burghers (e.g. nos. 154, 163, 315, 322). The objects of pledges ranged from tax farms (no. 271) to judicial offices in imperial cities (no. 191). Toll rights and revenues, in particular, feature repeatedly as assets which Charles could pledge wholesale, or grant in lieu of cash to his creditors until his debts were repaid. The flexible nature of this expedient--and the extent to which it placed the onus on creditors to do the hard work of recouping their investment--is suggested by a recorded promise of 2,000 florins from the toll of St. Goar on the Rhine to one of Charles's courtiers. The chancery specified that this toll had already been granted to the count of Katzenelnbogen for a similar repayment, so if the courtier found the count unwilling to disburse the requested sum, he was authorized to move on to other tolls until it had been received in full (no. 24).
It is clear, however, that Charles did not indiscriminately alienate any imperial asset he could find. While some resources were evidently viewed as disposable, at least in the short to medium term, others were carefully husbanded. Thus, we find Charles transferring imperial fiefs to a cleric, on the explicit understanding that they should escheat to the Empire upon his death (no. 185). Charles also deliberately issued some imperial lands and titles as fiefs of the Bohemian crown (e.g. nos. 42, 372-373), the better to maintain these assets in the long term. Indeed, some of the records from 1360 involve Charles repurchasing pledged fiefs which he had previously declared to pertain to the Bohemian crown (e.g. no. 44), suggesting that making something in Germany into a Bohemian fief was a way of demarcating it as worthy of close control. That this was a deliberate strategy of control is further suggested by a judgement issued by Charles in December that no Bohemian fiefs could be alienated without the consent of the relevant liege-lord (no. 409).
Finally, perhaps the most revealing sources about Charles's system of government are those that pertain to peace-keeping and law-enforcement. The late medieval Empire was infamously fragmented and prone to endless constellations of local, regional, and even trans-regional conflicts and feuds. This has traditionally been viewed in a negative light--a sign of the degeneration of public life in late medieval "Germany," aided and abetted by idle and selfish monarchs. Even Peter Moraw regarded Charles's attempted "hegemonic kingship" as incommensurate to the task of consolidating the "open constitution" (offene Verfassung) of the Empire that accorded extensive regional autonomy to princes, prelates, nobles, and cities. What we see happening in the year 1360 does indeed confirm the view that Charles's modest administration could not hope to control events in the vast German localities directly, but at the same time it suggests that "imperial" priorities and those of local actors were by no means always opposed and distinct, and that the two could collaborate with surprisingly effective results. In practice, Charles seems to have gone "with the grain" of local power configurations to achieve the "imperial" goal of maintaining the public peace. Thus, we see him repeatedly authorizing and deliberating with customary peace-alliances (Landfrieden) from Brunswick (no. 199) to the Wetterau (no. 324) to the Swiss Alps (no. 455). The synergistic relationship between the crown and pre-existing local initiatives is exemplified by Charles's decision, upon hearing that the abbot of Fulda was leading peace-enforcement efforts, to grant this prelate the right to raise troops under "the Empire's banner" ("des reichs banyr") to enforce regional peace (no. 195).
One "peace-enforcement" exercise in particular stands out in 1360: Charles's expedition against Counts Eberhard II and Ulrich IV of Württemberg. The emperor successfully presented their recent alliances with the Habsburgs as a breach of the public peace in Swabia, and after traveling west from Prague he led a coalition of Rhenish and Swabian powers against the Württemberg affinity in July-August, with resounding success that swiftly forced the counts to the negotiating table (nos. 156, 174, 177, 190, 209, 213, 227). Of course, alliances that lacked monarchical sanction, like the Württemberg-Habsburg union that Charles dissolved by force, were also presented by their participants as legitimate means of upholding regional peace, and that side of the story is naturally imperceptible in the records of the imperial chancery. The fragmentary evidence of complicated conflicts like the summer war of 1360 in Swabia also reminds us that the imperial chancery, for all the fascinating material it contains, can only ever offer a partisan glimpse of the bigger, multi-layered picture of imperial politics.