Institut für Stadtgeschichte 
Karmeliterkloster, Frankfurt am Main

Chronology: Free Imperial City 1219-1806 (2)

Free Imperial City 1219-1806 (2)

Between 1350 and 1366 the city was shaken by conflict between the patrician council and the various guilds seeking a share in political power.

From the early 14th century onwards the city council consisted of three benches, of which the first two were occupied by lay judges and the „municipality“, and the third bench by a number of guilds (though by no means all) that were deemed worthy of serving on the council. However, as the lay judges and the „municipality“ consisted entirely of a small number of patrician families who were all related by marriage, the influence of the guilds was rather limited. Whenever a councillor died or resigned, he was replaced by someone co-opted by the others, so that the election of new members was in the hands of the council itself.

After some initial success, the guilds were finally defeated by a coalition between parts of the patriciate and the imperial government. In 1366 Charles IV withdrew all constitutional changes that had been made and reinstated the council in its original form. This meant that the guilds continued to play only a minor role in city politics.

In 1405 the council purchased the house Zum Römer (The Roman), which it combined with the adjoining Zum Goldenen Schwan (The Golden Swan), to form a town hall. The construction of the cathedral tower started in 1415, designed by Madern Gertener.

From 1461 to 1465 the council set up a ghetto next to the Wollgraben (Wool Moat), outside the Staufen Wall, where Frankfurt's Jewish population was resettled at the insistence of the church and at the order of Emperor Frederick III. Relations between the city and its Jews were specified in regulations called Stättigkeiten. From now on every Jew had to wear a special ring whenever he or she left the ghetto.

Frankfurt coat of arms
Frankfurt coat of arms: Drawing, with watercolour, 1583.

The constituent convention of the Imperial Supreme Court took place at Braunsfels House in 1495. However, due to resistance among the council, the court did not settle in Frankfurt, but moved several times until it found a permanent venue in Wetzlar.

The Swabian painter Jerg Ratgeb (around 1480, executed in 1526) started decorating the Carmelite monastery in 1514. Covering 107 metres (351 ft) of length within the cloister, he depicted the story of Christ's life and suffering as well as parallels from the Old Testament. This cycle of murals is the biggest north of the Alps. He also decorated the refectory of the monastery. These murals and other works of art were funded through donations from rich Frankfurt citizens.

From 1520 the Reformation began to win more and more adherents in the city. In 1521 Martin Luther spent a night in Frankfurt on his way to the Imperial Diet in Worms and then again two nights on the way back. By 1523 the Reformation had become a mass movement.

Despite its affinity towards the new doctrine, the city council decided to yield to pressure from the Archbishop of Mainz and to the threat of losing its trade fair privilege. This led to a religiously, socially and politically motivated revolt by the guilds in 1525. The revolt was directed not only against the orthodox clergy, but also against the patrician regime in the city. The insurgents formulated their demands in 46 articles, which were initially accepted by the council, though, after the suppression of the peasants' revolts, the paper had to be withdrawn and the original system of rule was re-established. To ease the situation, the council did, however, employ two Protestant clergymen.

In 1533, after much manoeuvring and a survey among the citizens of Frankfurt, the council officially introduced the Reformation and prohibited all traditional Roman Catholic church ceremonies. To resist pressure from its Roman Catholic opponents, Frankfurt joined the Schmalkaldic League in 1536, though after its defeat the city rejoined the emperor's camp again in 1546/47, and St. Bartholomew's Church (the cathedral) had to be returned to the Roman Catholic clergy. In 1552 the city resisted a siege by the emperor's allied princes.

Urgent Assistance
Two "Urgent Assistance" travellers from Frankfurt on their way
to Vienna, to help with the defence against the Turkish siege.
Pen drawing. 1529.

One important result of the Reformation was the General Alms Box in 1531, which was established as a municipal welfare institution to fulfil the tasks previously performed by the Roman Catholic orders.

The reinstatement of Roman Catholic rites in autumn 1548 made Frankfurt a permanently mixed Catholic/Protestant city, a situation which was legally endorsed in the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555. As a result, Frankfurt also became a safe haven for religious refugees, and a Dutch Reformed contingent arrived as early as 1554. Dutch Protestants soon formed a fifth of the city's population and began to be a decisive factor in its economy.

Although refugees were at first welcomed with great openness, a number of clearly defensive tendencies could be observed by the 17th century. All French Reformed church services, for instance, were prohibited as early 1595. From 1628 onwards the council refused to grant citizens' rights to Calvinists.

In 1562 Maximilian II became the first emperor not only to be elected in Frankfurt, but also to be crowned there. Frankfurt continued to be the preferred venue for coronations until the end of the ancient empire (with a total of ten coronations by 1792).

From 1546, Frankfurt was forced to take out increasingly higher loans to pay for the Schmalkaldic War and for other conflicts between Roman Catholic and Protestant estates of the empire. By 1548 the city had run up a debt of over 180,000 guilders. Further loans and ruinous speculations in the Mansfeld copper trade had pushed up the city's debts to a million guilders by the year 1575. With an average municipal revenue of about 50,000 guilders per year, Frankfurt, with a population of approx. 12,000 at the time, had to spend 44,600 guilders on interest alone.

The enormous debts led to a steadily growing tax burden, which particularly affected the poor among the population. At the same time, the presence of the Dutch immigrants was causing competitive pressure, and these two factors caused both economic and social tension in the city. In 1613 a revolt broke out, called the „Fettmilch Rebellion“ after the gingerbread maker Vincenz Fettmilch. The revolt was directed against the high-handed rule of the city council as well as against „foreigners“ and Jews. Although it was kept in check by means of a citizens' treaty in 1613, it flared up again in 1614.

Execution of Vincenz Fettmilch
Execution of Vincenz Fettmilch on February 28, 1616.
Contemporary pamphlet (detail)

Although the revolt failed, partly because of the intervention of imperial troops, it nevertheless curbed the powers of the ancient patrician families on the city council. From 1614 the council also comprised numerous representatives of the merchant class as well as lawyers and physicians. However, the guilds themselves were largely stripped of their powers and placed under the supervision of the city council. Fettmilch and six of his fellow-conspirators were publicly beheaded on the Rossmarkt (Horse Market) in 1616, in the presence of Frankfurt's citizens. As a deterrent, their heads were placed on iron spikes next to the bridge tower, where they could still be seen in Goethe's day.

As so often, the main victims of the revolt were the Jews. The Judengasse (Jews' Lane) was looted and ravaged in 1614. The 1,380 Jews had to leave the city but returned again in 1616, at the emperor's command. New regulations were issues for the Jewish population, limiting the number of its households in the ghetto to 500 and the number of its annual weddings to twelve.

© Helmut Nordmeyer, Translation: Hugh Beyer

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