Reinhard Scholzen


The transitional period from the Middle Ages to the earlier modern times is commonly linked with more or less striking events and social changes, such as, for instance, the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492 and the conquest of Grenada in the same year. Moreover, the end of the East Roman Empire in 1495 was a turning point as well, and so were the Reformation – with Luther’s reputed putting up of pontifications in 1517 – and the Peasant’s Revolt 1524 – 1526. From the point of view of the turning point, the changes in the social structure of the German Empire having happened at the same time are often treated superficially. Such social changes were, on the one hand, the rise of the great German commercial towns with a rural migration discoverable in many territories, and on the other hand, the increase of the power of the territorial princes already beginning in the High Middle Ages as well as the decrease of power of the lower nobility discernible since the Late Middle Ages. In the following, the life of Franz von Sickingen – the last knight – is described, who represented an exception in certain respects in this time of crisis. In the middle of the 15th century, Franz von Sickingen was reputed to be a successful general and leader of the Rhenish-Swabian knighthood, standing for Reformation and secularisation of clerical estates. First Franz von Sickingen served Emperor Maximilian I., but after having instigated feuds in more and more towns in spite of the valid General Peace of 1495 he was outlawed by the emperor. In order to save his political influence, he began to serve the French King. On his order he conquered, among others, the Imperial City of Metz for France. Shortly before the Emperor Maximilian died, he summoned Franz von Sickingen back into his own camp, as he had become too dangerous in the service of France. In 1522 Sickingen, as the leader of the Rhenish-Swabian knighthood, tried to attack the electorate and archbishopric Trier. This attack of Trier started his “Knights’ War”. The siege of Trier, however, finally failed in the September of 1522. At the end of April 1523, in the course of the counter-attack of Trier, under the pressure of a strong armament, Franz von Sickingen had to entrench himself in his fortress of Nanstein. The fortress fell after severe fire. Only a short time later, he himself died because of a serious hurt he had received during the firing. Step by step, the hard conditions the victors had enforced upon his sons were loosened; so, for instance, in 1533 the House of Sickingen obtained the high royal castle in Alsace. In 1542, a final stroke was made in Heidelberg, and the sons were given back their properties. In the period following, the number of feuds decreased significantly at first, but then increased again, because the legal system had blatant flaws. For this reason, in 1532 the tribunal order of Charles V. – the Carolina – revived the feud, subclassifying it in justified and unjustified feuds. Bur for all that, the Eternal General Peace prevailed. This development finally ended in the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, which represents a feature of a state.