Recent research has turned its attention to the maybe surprising phenomenon of free communities, cities, peoples, and also territories already in the Middle Ages. The better-known examples are Iceland, part of modern-day Switzerland, Frisia, Pomerania, Bohemia, and so forth (see now Albrecht Classen, Freedom, Imprisonment, and Slavery in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Time, 2021). But there were also numerous Reichsdörfer (imperial villages) scattered primarily throughout Swabia, Alsace, Bavaria, and Hesse which enjoyed a long-term form of political, legal, and social freedom, i.e., freedom from the surrounding territories, including bishoprics, dukedoms, and other political entities. As Beat Kümin here discusses, there were ca. 300 in existence since the high Middle Ages, and many of them survived in their political independence until 1803, when most lost their freedom upon the collective decision of the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss.
In many respects, those villages truly enjoyed independence from local princes and often could refer to legal papers confirming their privileges granted by the king or emperor, often in return for financial or political and military support. That freedom, however, often faced considerable contestation and had to be defended, which many villages managed by presenting relevant documents and arguing publicly for their old privileges. Kümin observes that many of those villages commanded an excellent representational structure, with a high percentage of the population constantly involved in the political process and their leaders well educated about their own traditional rights and privileges.
This book pursues its goal by focusing on a small selection of representative imperial villages and by tracing their historical development as far as 1803, when much radically changed just before the collapse of the first Reich. The author has carried out extensive archival research, which might overwhelm the unsuspecting reader, but which carries plenty of evidentiary weight, taking us mostly from the thirteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. As a result of his detailed study of the documents, he refers to many historical individuals and their efforts to defend the freedom of their villages throughout the various centuries, which makes it a little difficult to follow his argument.
Kümin focuses on the following imperial villages as representative samples: Sulzbach and Soden in the Taunus region north of Frankfurt a. M., Gochsheim and Sennfeld just east and southeast of the city of Schweinfurt in Franconia, today northern Bavaria, and Gersau in the Forest District of Switzerland near Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden on Lake Lucerne. But many other imperial villages are also mentioned, which makes it somewhat difficult to follow the narrative and to gain a clearer picture. Kümin notices that not only did those villages very often have a political organization, but that numerous women were involved in those as well, representing their communities to the outside world. All this means, as he summarizes, that "the complex framework of the Holy Roman Empire allowed a remarkable extent of rural autonomy, above all in the Middle Ages" (45).
The second section of the book examines the various types of cooperation and conflicts, which the author has also illustrated graphically, but those figures and one map are so small that they are virtually illegible. The many different legal and political negotiations soon entered the world of writing and then printing, but this leads us a bit too far out in the early modern age. Nevertheless, the history of these imperial villages can only be fully understood if we follow the development well beyond the 1500 marker. Ironically, however, this also means that a vast majority of those villages seem to have enjoyed a higher degree of freedom during the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries than in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. History does not automatically progress forward. Another valuable insight proves to be that the world of peasantry was much more complex than we might have assumed, with various social class levels and political conditions. This could also entail considerable conflicts within the rural communities particularly at the end of the Middle Ages when increasingly separate representative political bodies developed, replacing the traditional role of the avoyers and mayors, for instance.
Some villages proved to be highly independent and proud of their freedom, consistently insisting, almost petulantly, on their privileges at political assemblies, such as Kochendorff in the Neckar valley (today: Bad Friedrichshall, north of Heilbronn). Others, such as Sulzbach, reached out to major cities nearby, in this case Frankfurt a. M., establishing an agreement of mutual protection and help in 1282. Oddly, these imperial villages tended to stay away from the riotous peasants during the Peasant War of 1525/1526 and aligned themselves more with free cities, probably because they regarded themselves as being of a higher social status. Gorchheim and Sennfeld established such agreements with the Bishop of Würzburg in 1575, which was subsequently approved by Emperor Rudolf II in 1578. Not surprisingly, many of those imperial villages went to the Reichskammergericht (Imperial Court) in case of grievances.
Subsequently, Kümin also examines religious life in those imperial villages, focusing on "Communal Christianity," as recent research has called it, and on culture and literacy (very low, of course, hence the great emphasis on visual representation in the churches and village halls), but he continues to highlight the political pursuit of freedom despite many attempts by neighboring cities (Lucerne vs. Gersau, e.g.) to swallow up those independent communities. Whether we could agree with the author that hence the Holy Roman Empire actually worked remarkably well "commanding much loyalty and prestige" (197, cf. also 215), might be an overstatement because those villages operated mostly by themselves and also found enough support on their own, without any significant help coming from the emperor. They normally had their own court
The appendices prove most valuable: 1. names of imperial villages until 1803; 2. the names and dates of senior officials and clerics in the five selected villages; 3. the bibliography, and, 4., very welcome, the index. The only criticism I have is the somewhat lacking organization, with comments about many other villages coming flying in all the time and about historical references being mixed from the thirteenth to the early nineteenth centuries in a rather confusing manner. With Kümin, we can now conclude that there was much more rural freedom in the pre-modern era than we have traditionally expected.