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German cities in the late early modern era: some problems and prospects
Source: Urban History , May 1996, Vol. 23, No. 1 (May 1996), pp. 72-85
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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Urban History , vol 23, pt.l (May 1996). Copyright © Cambridge University Press
German cities in the late early
modern era: some problems and
Between about 1500 and 1800 the cities and town
inhabited by ten to twenty million human beings - t
all at the same time. We know a remarkable amount
these people. Germans then as now were scrupulous
a large proportion of the documents they generated
modern day. Many of these records, moreover, hav
bearing on the study of urban population dynamics
so when we focus our attention on what one might
modern era - the seventeenth and eighteenth centu
1600 to 1800 still counts to demographers as part of
era.1 But it was also the great age of the parish regis
with the increasing abundance of other sources,
modern era a highly promising epoch for the study o
Yet we are still a long way from anything like a c
of German urban demography for the early mod
number of explanations for this, some having as
abundance of sources as with the opposite. But a key
the tension between two very distinct and not
approaches to the entire subject.
* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conferen
Modem City at the Clark Library, University of California in
1993. The author is grateful to participants in that conference fo
first draft of the paper.
See for example, W.G. Rödel, '"Statistik" in vorstatistischer
Probleme der Erforschung frühneuzeitlicher Populationen',
Ehmer (eds), Bevölkerungsstatistik an der Wende vom Mittelalter
methodische Probleme im überregionalen Vergleich (Sigmaringen, 1
The admirable new survey of early modem German historical d
Bevölkerungsgeschichte und historische Demographie , 1500-180
Geschichte, 28; Munich, 1994) concedes that there is still no
satisfactory total picture of the urban demographic pattern' (p. 1
many urban examples but only briefly discusses urban demogr
105-7, 116-19).
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German cities in the late early modem era 73
One approach is comprehensive in its scope, or at least in its aim
is the attempt to establish valid estimates of the population of al
cities - or all cities over a certain size - at frequent intervals th
the early modern era. This undertaking is inspired by the assum
if one wants to understand the nature of the urban network, the
relationship between various cities, or the process of urbanization
modern Germany, then comparable data must be advanced for c
able cities. Yet this is difficult, for the data pertaining to d
communities may vary greatly in completeness or quality.
The second approach is precisely the opposite. This is the ca
method, which uses the intensive examination of demographic co
in a single community to address broader questions about th
which urban men, women and children lived and functioned
modern times. The communities selected for examination are no
those in which the quality of the data is especially good. But
study method is always bedevilled by one familiar question: how
or representative is the particular community being studied? So
case studies tend to acquire their meaning only through ex
implicit comparison with other communities.
Before considering what findings the study of German urban demo-
graphy can yield, it may be useful briefly to review the kind of source
materials on which these findings are primarily based. Inevitably one
must begin with the parish registers. Certainly well-maintained and wellpreserved parish registers represent the most valuable single source of
demographic data for the pre-statistical age. As elsewhere in Europe,
parish registers were introduced irregularly in Germany in the late
sixteenth century and became increasingly regular and reliable in the
course of the seventeenth. German parish registers are often of superb
quality, with levels of detail that vastly diminish the customary problems
of nominal linkage. But even the best parish registers still have their
omissions or imperfections. One can see this even in the generally
excellent parish registers of eighteenth-century Mainz which form the
basis for one of the most comprehensive projects in early modern
German urban demography. For there are gaps. Father Kurhumel of
St Christoph's church, for example, was apparently too distracted by his
alchemical experiments to give adequate attention to his other duties,
and for thirty-one years the baptisms in his parish were scarcely
recorded.3 Such cases were not unique.
There will always be some questions, moreover, which even the most
3 W.G. Rödel, Mainz und seine Bevölkerung im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert: Demographische
Entwicklung , Lebensverhältnisse und soziale Strukturen in einer geistlichen Residenzstadt
(Wiesbaden, 1985), 13.
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74 Urban History
flawlessly complete parish registers would not help us answer. Parish
registers by their very nature can never be used to determine the total
population of an entire community or even of a particular parish at any
given point in time. Strictly speaking, in fact, this information can only be
provided by or derived from census-type records: lists or head-counts of
most or all of the individuals resident in the community on a particular
date. Such records were by no means unknown in early modern
Germany, but when and where they were generated never followed
predictable patterns. A census or head-count was often produced to
provide specific information pertinent to a momentary concern or crisis as, for example, in anticipation of a provisioning crisis during a military
siege. Because they were drawn up in response to specific needs, such
records varied enormously in form and frequency. In Augsburg, for
example, five comprehensive censuses of all inhabitants were undertaken
in the early seventeenth century, before and during the Thirty Years War.
Thereafter, however, no censuses were taken again for over a century and
a half.4 About twenty enumerations of the population of Strasbourg were
ordered for various reasons by the magistrates of that city between 1600
and 1650 - yet only two of them are still extant.5
It is quite a different matter, however, when one turns from censuses of
an entire population to records which enumerated citizens, householders,
or taxpayers. For records of this type were often maintained year after
year on an ongoing basis. Perhaps the most important of these are the tax
registers which were kept in many cities, especially in southern Germany.
The value of such records for systematic studies in social, economic and
demographic history has, of course, long been recognized. Yet for many
cities records of this sort do not survive. In Nuremberg, for example,
citizens were expected as a matter of civic honour to submit the taxes they
owed without the amounts being recorded, so no tax registers were
maintained.6 In Frankfurt am Main, by contrast, impressively detailed tax
registers were carefully maintained and long preserved - until 1944,
when the Frankfurt archive was bombed and all the registers were
destroyed.7 Then there are cities in which the tax registers survive intact
but require complex feats of interpretation. Due to peculiarities in the
taxing formula, for example, the magnificent tax registers of Augsburg
can turn into a historian's nightmare.8
All of the sources mentioned so far have been used to address many of
4 E. François, Die unsichtbare Grenze: Protestanten und Katholiken in Augsburg, 1648-1806
(Sigmaringen, 1991), 33-4.
J.-P. Kintz, La société strasbourgeoise du milieu du XVIe siècle à la fin de la guerre de trente ans,
1560-1650: Essai d'histoire démographique, économique et sociale (Paris, 1984), 231-2, 523.
G. Strauss, Nuremberg in the Sixteenth Century (New York, 1966), 71-3.
The register for just one year, 1587, was published - in its entirety - in F. Bothe, Frankfurts
wirtschaftlich-soziale Entwicklung vor dem Dreissigjahrigen Kriege und der Fettmilchaufstand
(1612-1616): 2. Teil (Frankfurt am Main, 1920), 50-141.
Nobody dares to consult them today without first studying the 60-page user's manual by
C.-P. Ciasen, Die Augsburger Steuerbücher um 1600 (Augsburg, 1976).
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German cities in the late early modem era 75
the classic questions posed by students of urban demography. N
these sources, however, can adequately address the most elusive
in any demographic system: migration. Definitive information a
extent of immigration to and emigration from early modern
always sadly deficient. To be sure, certain types of movement a
recorded. Almost every town, for example, maintained a re
immigrants who were admitted to citizenship, and sometimes t
registers of journeymen permitted to work in the city. But what
those young men and women who drifted into every city - som
temporarily, sometimes permanently - to work as servants
labourers? They always represent the dark figure of urban dem
the social group whose members are most difficult to detect an
volume is most difficult to determine. Nor do the sources discl
much about emigration.
One can take some consolation from the fact that the extent and
direction of migration are always among the most difficult of demographic measures to determine; even today, after all, professional demographers have to determine the balance of migration betwen American
states by using such indirect evidence as moving-van rentals or driver's
licence address changes.9 It is scarcely surprising, then, that the extent
and impact of migration remains one of the least understood and most
debated aspects of the demographic history of the early modern city.10
The comprehensive approach
How many people actually lived in specific German cities of the early
modern era? To know or at least to be able to estimate the population of
specific cities at regular intervals has long been recognized as a fundamental starting-point for any overall discussion of urban demography in
early modern times. And certainly there is no shortage of available
figures. For many historians, the most familiar and accessible source of
information will be the population estimates provided by Jan de Vries for
almost 400 European cities - including about sixty German ones - at fiftyyear intervals between 1500 and 1800.11 De Vries' well-known list has
now been supplemented and extended by that of Paul Bairoch, which
9 S. McGuire and A. Murr, 'California in the rearview mirror', Newsweek, 72/3 (19 July
1993), 24-5.
Data from German cities play a central role in the debate on the 'Sharlin hypothesis',
which rejects the conventional argument that only by immigration were early modem
cities able to sustain population growth: A. Sharlin, 'Natural decrease in early modem
cities: a reconsideration', Past and Present, 79 (May 1978), 126-38; R. Finlay and
A. Sharlin, 'Debate: natural decrease in early modem cities', Past and Present, 92 (August
1981), 169-80.
J. de Vries, European Urbanization, 1500-1800 (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 269-78. De Vries'
list, which covers all cities believed to have had 10,000 inhabitants at some point in the
early modem era, includes 55 cities of Germany and another dozen or so cities from the
surrounding Germanic lands.
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76 Urban History
covers a total of 250 to 300 German cities, depending on how broadly one
defines 'Germany'.12
The figures provided by de Vries' 'data base' and Bairoch's 'data bank'
are impressively arrayed in tabular form and backed up in each case by
specific source references. But for just this reason they run the risk of
acquiring a canonical authority which they not only do not deserve but
which the authors themselves never intended them to have. Both de Vries
and Bairoch are scrupulous in warning their readers about the tentative
and approximate character of many of the figures they list. But to the
historian in a hurry, needing to know just how big Dresden or Düsseldorf
was in the mid-seventeenth century, the convenience of having these
figures at hand may outweigh any serious concern about their degree of
authority. Many historians have adopted de Vries' figures in particular
quite uncritically.13
For just this reason it is important to consider, at least briefly, the
basis for the figures which de Vries and Bairoch provide. Sometimes, of
course, the source being used is unimpeachably accurate, or at least as
accurate as any modern census is likely to be. Both de Vries and Bairoch,
for example, give the population of Salzburg in 1700 as 13,000.14 Their
source for this figure is a detailed head-count of all of Salzburg's
inhabitants undertaken in 1692, according to which the city had 12,371
persons living in households and another 629 living in monasteries,
convents and hospitals - for a total of precisely 13,000.15 This is surely
an admirably solid basis for suggesting that Salzburg eight years later
had 13,000 inhabitants.
But this is an extremely rare case. Most of the figures cited by de Vries
and Bairoch rest on a far less solid foundation. Consider, for example, the
origins of the figure which de Vries cites for the population of Cologne in
the mid-sixteenth century. There is firm evidence that around 1570 the
city had about 6,200 householders. To this figure, however, an entirely
arbitary coefficient of 5 was applied, to arrive at a total of 31,000 people
living in households. Then estimates for other groups - members of the
clergy, hospital inmates, students, prisoners and so on - were added. The
result was an estimated population of 37,150 inhabitants in the early
12 P. Bairoch, J. Batou and P. Chèvre, La population des villes européennes: Banque de données et
analyse sommaire des résultats , 800 à 1850 /The Population of European Cities: Data Bank and
Short Summary of Results (Geneva, 1988), esp. 4-9. Bairoch includes all cities with at least
5,000 inhabitants at some point before 1800.
See for example, H. Schilling, Die Stadt in der frühen Neuzeit (Enzyklopädie deutscher
Geschichte, 24; Munich, 1993), 9-16. Schilling acknowledges that de Vries' figures are
merely approximations, but reprints de Vries' estimates for German cities in their entirety
and bases his subsequent discussion upon them.
14 De Vries, Urbanization , 278; Bairoch, La population, 10.
15 F. Mathis, Zur Bevölkerungsstruktur österreichischer Städte im 17. Jahrhundert (Munich,
1977), 175-7. Mathis corrects the arithmetic mistakes of the Salzburg scribe, who listed
12,371 plus 629 names but gave the total as 12,994.
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German cities in the late early modem era 77
1570s.16 This figure, in turn, is the basis for de Vries' estimate
inhabitants of Cologne twenty years earlier.17
At least in this case we know the basis of the calculations. Often even
that much is lacking. For when all else fails, most compilers simply resort
to sources like the Deutsches Städtebuch. The Städtebuch is an encyclopedic
compendium of undigested information about all German cities, based
largely on data provided by local historians or archivists, and published
between 1939 and 1974.18 Section 6a of the entry for each city lists
'Population figures to the end of the eighteenth century'. Obviously every
respondent felt obliged to write down something, but these figures
should be regarded with extreme caution. For the important city of Ulm,
for example, modern authors routinely rely on the population figures
given in this source. Yet no hint is provided there about the basis on
which these numbers were arrived at.
Clearly the comparative study of the size of German cities in the early
modern era is still at a very preliminary stage. But a project has been
undertaken to replace the patchy existing estimates with an exhaustive
catalogue of reliable demographic data for all German cities before the
nineteenth century. Since 1981 the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft has
lent its support to a large-scale project to gather statistical data of many
types from the pre-statistical era, including the collection of urban
population figures. The casual and careless practices of the past will be
firmly superseded. Archivally-based data from censuses, tax registers,
lists of inhabitants and the like will be published for individual cities for
every available year. Once a city has been covered, nobody will ever dare
again to use the haphazard figures previously relied upon.
So far only one volume has been published.20 It covers forty-three
cities - including some very small ones - in the northern part of Lower
Saxony. The compilers' references to the secondary literature are not
necessarily comprehensive.21 But the heart of the project - the detailed
16 H. Kellenbenz, 'Wirtschaftsgeschichte Kölns im 16. und beginnenden 17. Jahrhundert', in
H. Kellenbenz and K. van Eyll (eds), Zwei Jahrtausende Kölner Wirtschaft , 2 vols (Cologne,
1975), vol. 1, 321-427, esp. 327.
17 De Vries, Urbanization , 273, 295.
18 E. Keyser (ed.), Deutsches Städtebuch: Handbuch städtischer Geschichte , 11 vols (Stuttgart,
19 E. Keyser (ed.), Württembergisches Städtebuch (Deutsches Städtebuch, 4/2: Teilband
Württemberg; Stuttgart, 1974), 264; de Vries, Urbanization , 273, 296; Bairoch, La
population , 9, 85. De Vries cites Keyser; for 1500 and 1600 Bairoch cites E. François, 'Des
republiques marchandes aux capitales politiques: remarques sur la hiérarchie urbaine du
Saint-Empire à l'époque moderne', Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine , 25 (1978),
587-603, citation 591; but Francois in fact cites Kevser as his source.
20 T. Schuler (ed.), Die Bevölkerung der niedersächsischen Städte in der Vormoderne: Ein Quellenund Datenhandbuch, vol. 1: Das nördliche Niedersachsen (St Katharinen, 1990).
It is puzzling that in listing previous works on the demography of Uelzen (ibid., 431, 436)
the authors make no reference to the influential study by E. Woelkens, Pest und Ruhr im
16. und 17. Jahrhundert: Grundlagen einer statistisch-topographischen Beschreibung der grossen
Seuchen, insbesondere in der Stadt Uelzen (Hanover, 1954).
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78 Urban History
and archivally-supported data base for all forty-three cities - appears to
be utterly definitive.
Certainly the value of this volume is indisputable, especially but not
only if one happens to be interested in the urbanization of northern
Lower Saxony. Yet this region was in fact one of the least densely
urbanized areas in Germany; only six of the forty-three cities covered
were even large enough to qualify for inclusion in Bairoch's data base.
The volume at hand took a team of ten collaborators seven years to
complete. To cover all of Germany on a comparable scale would require
something like sixty volumes. One may hope that the project will be
extended and completed, and if it is, we or at least our descendants will
surely benefit. But meanwhile, if we want to keep on learning about the
urban demography of early modern Germany, we cannot rely on projects
like this to provide all the answers.
The case study approach
Inevitably, then, our attention must turn to the case studies in which the
demographic records of individual cities are subjected to analysis. Of
course interest in the population history of individual cities is nothing
new. Serious investigations of the vital statistics of specific communities
have long been undertaken. Though such studies may just tabulate the
basic serial data and sometimes show little familiarity with the latest
trends in historical demography, they are generally based on meticulous
local research and yield very reliable results.22 There has also been a longstanding interest in the effects of warfare and the impact of the bubonic
plague on early modern German urban populations. Yet the systematic
application of modern methods of demographic analysis made a some-
what retarded appearance in Germany: the approaches pioneered in
French and British studies of the 1950s and 1960s only reached Germany
in the 1970s. This may at first seem surprising, especially in light of the
generally superb quality of German parish registers, the source par
excellence for modern historical demography. Actually, methods very
similar to the family reconstitution techniques devised by French demographers in the late 1950s were already being used by German researchers
22 For an admirable example of this genre, see E. Schraitle, 'Die Bevölkerungsentwicklung
Esslingens in der Spätzeit der Reichsstadt', Esslinger Studien, 10 (1964), 78-105.
Extensive information about population losses in various German communities during
the Thirty Years War was collated in rather unsystematic fashion by G. Franz, Der
Dreissigjährige Krieg und das deutsche Volk: Untersuchungen zur Bevölkerungs- und
Agrar geschickte, 3rd edn (Stuttgart, 1961), 5-51; an important critique of Franz'
methodology is provided in the still unpublished paper by J. Theibault, 'Beyond Franz:
death and destruction in the Thirty Years War revisited', presented at the Sixteenth
Century Studies Conference in St Louis, Mo., December 1993. The impact of the plague is
a central theme of Woelkens, Pest und Ruhr and of W. Kronshage, Die Bevölkerung
Göttingens: Ein demographischer Beitrag zur Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte vom 14. bis 17.
Jahrhundert (Göttingen, 1960).
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German cities in the late early modem era 79
a quarter of a century earlier. But while their methods were ir
able their motives were politically tainted, for most of these stu
undertaken in order to assemble Ortssippenbücher - exhaus
genealogies which Germans of the 1930s were encouraged to ass
that people could conveniently document their Aryan ancest
1945, of course, these projects became a profound source of em
ment and for decades there was a tendency to avoid all research
to do with population biology, eugenics or anything else that h
tones of the 'racial science' which lay behind the Nazi ideology.24
By the 1970s, however, the scholarly study of historical demo
had revived. A key role in the transmission and application o
and British methods of historical demography was played by
Imhof and his team of collaborators, who undertook a massive
tion of the demographic history of Giessen and its hinterland.25
efforts to introduce the norms of modern historical demog
Germany had a major impact. The most ambitious undertaking
mode was the massive investigation of population trends in sev
and eighteenth-century Mainz, whose findings were published by
Rödel in 1985. This huge project analysed, as the author noted w
pride, a quarter of a million entries in the surviving Main
registers. Methodological innovation was scrupulously avoi
Rödel argued that 'historical demography can only be carrie
accordance with internationally valid methods' and emphas
'exact adherence to the internationally recognized and utilize
methods' of demographic research.26 Rödel's massive projec
definitively that right until the end of the eighteenth century
continued to exhibit a typically pre-modern demographic syste
the high mortality and fertility rates characteristic of the ancien ré
In addition to his presentation of demographic findings in th
sense, Rödel and his team also attempted to use material from on
to explore aspects of social relations and patterns of migration. T
of the project, however, was crippled by the fact that for practic
the research was limited to the parish registers alone. As Rödel
conceded, even more might have been learned if it had been po
link these data with the potentially relevant material in list
citizens, tax records and other sources.27
Rödel's work, informative and indeed indispensable as it is
theless suggests one of the problems inherent in the systematic
German urban demography - a problem that is due, in a sen
very richness of the available sources. To confine one's atte
24 See for example, A.E. Imhof, 'Historische Demographie in Deutschland', in
(ed.), Historische Demographie als Sozialgeschichte : Giessen und Umgebung vom 1
Jahurhundert. 2 vols (Darmstadt and Marburg, 1975), vol. 1, 41-63, esp. 51-2.
25 Ibid., passim.
26 Rödel, Mainz, 23, 278.
27 Ibid., 298.
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80 Urban History
demographic questions in the narrow sense seems short-sighted indeed
when German urban sources offer so much information about such
matters as the distribution of wealth and occupations or membership
guilds and other communal organizations. Obviously it would be desirable to link all these data together. But can it really be done?
Almost twenty years ago Alan Macfarlane called for historians to mov
beyond the mere reconstitution of families to the 'total reconstitution'
entire communities, which could be achieved by linking together t
pertinent data from 'every single document concerning the selected ar
and individuals'.28 It was an admirable goal and one whose potential fo
explaining why people acted as they did in the past has been vivid
demonstrated in a handful of community studies, notably David Sabean
work on Neckarhausen.29 Certainly many German cities offer the kind
data that could make possible the type of 'total reconstitution' whi
Macfarlane envisaged. And who would not, in principle, welcome t
chance to undertake a nominal linkage of all the data from paris
registers, tax registers, guild records, council protocols, criminal record
and the like? But the size of such a task would be daunting. Macfarlan
himself argued that such an undertaking would be workable only for
community whose population at any given time amounted to less than
1,500. Neckarhausen, in fact, never had more than a thousand inhabitan
yet it occupied Sabean for twenty years.30 Even with a whole team of
scholars, one could scarcely hope to apply the 'total reconstitutio
method to a full-sized city.
Accordingly, every study of German urban demography of the early
modern era must involve certain compromises. One compromise is the
one made by Rödel and his collaborators: to confine their work to o
type of source, in this case the parish registers, and see how much can
learned from that single body of data. Alternatively, one might us
broader array of sources but confine the investigation to a single parish
neighbourhood. But one must always remember that most early moder
cities were characterized by a high degree of inter-neighbourhood mob
lity.31 This means that the prospect of reconstructing complete inform
tion about whole families or even about individuals from the records of a
single parish is never very strong.
It is also possible to isolate one aspect of demographic behaviour for
detailed analysis. Immigration is an obvious focus of attention, because
some aspects of immigration can be analysed without reference to other
trends. But generally only one category of immigrants can be adequately studied: those who were accepted as citizens and settled down
28 A. Macfarlane, Reconstructing Historical Communities (Cambridge, 19 77), 36-7.
29 D. Sabean, Property, Production , and Family in Neckarhausen, 1700-1870 (Cambridge, 1990).
Macfarlane, Communities, 3 4r-5; Sabean, Neckarhausen , 41.
R. Jütte, 'Das Stadtviertel als Problem und Gegenstand der frühneuzeitlichen
Stadtgeschichtsforschung', Blätter für deutsche Landesgeschichte, 127 (1991), 235-269, esp.
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German cities in the late early modem era 81
permanently in the city. Studies of immigration normally conce
the social and geographical origins of such immigrants as record
time of their admission. It is sometimes also possible, however,
the immigrants' degree of social integration in the years af
arrival.32 An exhaustive study of immigration to Göttingen in
eighteenth century compares in detail the different levels of soci
tion achieved by immigrants in various economic sectors. But th
of this study still emphasize that immigration can never be unde
isolation from the host community. Indeed, they note, 'the
immigration on the urban society of Göttingen can not be clear
precisely described, simply because too little is known about th
lished native population of Göttingen'.33
Another approach is to investigate a city so small that a total re
tion - or at least something approximating it - can reason
attempted. This is what Peter Zschunke did in his admirable
early modern Oppenheim.34 Though the records from before 1
patchy, the eighteenth-century sources are virtually comp
Zschunke has used them to produce an exceptionally well-in
examination of this community's life in the last century of th
regime. Running through Zschunke's work is one central th
differences and similarities between various religious groups. O
was one of those rare German cities in which members of different
Christian denominations lived side by side during the early modern era.3
Zschunke's data allowed him to address with authority the old question
of confessional differences in personal outlook and action. He was able,
for example, to show from birth-interval patterns that by the eighteent
century Protestant families were practising birth control while Catholic
continued to reject it. And since he was able to control for differences i
wealth between Catholics and Protestants in Oppenheim, Zschunke coul
argue convincingly that the practice or rejection of family limitation was
consequence of differences in religious outlook rather than a function of
economic status.36
But Oppenheim was a very small city; its population in the eighteent
century never exceeded 2,000. What about those historians who want to
32 C.R. Friedrichs, 'Immigration and urban society: seventeenth-century Nördlingen',
E. François (ed.), Immigration et société urbaine en Europe occidentale , XVIe-XXe siècle (Pari
1985), 65-77. See also C.R. Friedrichs, Urban Society in an Age of War: Nördlingen, 1580
1720 (Princeton, NJ, 1979), 53-64.
C. Brückner, S. Möhle, R. Prove and J. Roschmann, 'Vom Fremden zum Bürger
Zuwanderer in Göttingen, 1700-1755', in H. Wellenreuther (ed.), Göttingen, 1690-1755:
Studien zur Soziaheschichte einer Stadt (Göttingen, 1988), 88-174, quotation: 167.
34 P. Zschunke, Konfession und Alltag in Oppenheim: Beiträge zur Geschichte von Bevölkerun
und Gesellschaft einer gemischtkonfessionellen Kleinstadt in der frühen Neuzeit (Wiesbaden
Another city of this type is treated in the important new work by P. Wallace, Communities
and Conflict in Early Modern Colmar, 1575-1730 (Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1995).
Zschunke, Konfession und Alltag, 193-226.
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82 Urban History
understand the dynamics of a larger urban community? In fact the
historian who aspires to offer a broad examination of anything other than
the smallest of German towns must abandon all hopes of a total reconstitution and trust that greater breadth will compensate for less depth.
The selective use of demographic data can, of course, yield very
informative results. Jean-Pierre Kintz certainly made effective use of
specific demographic findings in developing his broad and rather gloomy
portrait of Strasbourg society between 1550 and 1650.37 Etienne François
draws on a small but crucial body of demographic data in his elegant
study of Koblenz in the eighteenth century.38 But the larger a city was in
early modern times, the more difficult it is for any modern historian, or
even any group of historians, to try to grasp its society as a totality. This
is well illustrated by the case of one of Germany's largest and most
intensively studied urban communities: the city of Augsburg.
Certainly the data base for Augsburg is exceptionally good. And
serious interest in Augsburg's demographic history goes unusually far
back. In fact, for every year from 1501 to the mid-eighteenth century the
city officials themselves tabulated the number of baptisms, weddings and
funerals in their community, and this well-known compilation attracted
the attention of political economists as early as the eighteenth century: the
Augsburg Bevölkerungstafel provided the stimulus for Johann Peter Siissmilch's famous attempt to establish the ratio between births, marriages
and deaths on the one hand and a city's total population on the other.39
The history of the city's overall demographic development has continued
to inspire interest and generate controversy down to the present day. But
the emphasis is almost always on overall trends. One valiant attempt has
been made to undertake family reconstitutions in two parishes of the
early seventeenth century, but ¿he results are unavoidably compromised
by the high degree of mobility between parishes.40
The Augsburg tax registers, despite the difficulties of interpretation
they present, have also long been identified as a major source for urban
social and economic history. The specific uses to which they have been
put, however, have changed over time to reflect the prevailing intellectual
concerns of the day. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century,
when the development of capitalism seemed to be the central historical
process of early modern times, the Augsburg Steuerbücher were used as
the basis for pioneering studies of capital formation.41 In the mid37 Kintz, Société strasbourgeoise.
E. François, Koblenz im 18. Jahrhundert: Zur Sozial- und Bevölkerungsstruktur einer deutschen
Residenzstadt (Göttingen, 1982).
B. Rajkay, 'Die Bevölkerungsentwicklung von 1500 bis 1648', in G. Gottlieb et al,
Geschichte der Stadt Augsburg von der Römerzeit bis zur Gegenwart (Stuttgart, 1984), 252-8,
esp. 252.
40 Ibid., 255-7.
J. Härtung, 'Die augsburgische Vermögenssteuer und die Entwickelung der
Besitzverhältnisse im 16. JahrhunderÅ¥, Jahrbuch für Gesetzgebung, Verwaltung und
Volkswirtschaft, 19 (1895), 867-933; idem, 'Die direkten Steuern und die
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German cities in the late early modem era 83
twentieth century, when social stratification seemed to be t
understanding communities of the past, the tax registers were
delineate the structure of Augsburg society.42
But how is the historian of a city like Augsburg to move f
broad level of analysis to the kind of micro-historical detail
illuminated our understanding of small communities? One w
isolate a particular sector of the population. This, for example,
Claus-Peter Ciasen did in his study of Augsburg weavers in
seventeenth century. A detailed head-count drawn up in co
with a planned distribution of grain made it possible for C
describe with precision the composition and organization of
households in 1601. Then tax registers were used to determ
distribution of wealth and the geographical location of weavers
holds. But this could only be done after a heroic exercise in
linkage.43 A comparable project, though on a more modest s
undertaken by Bernd Roeck in his study of Augsburg's bake
early seventeenth century.44
Yet another approach is to pose a specific question about the c
nity as a whole. This is well exemplified by Etienne François' rec
of the relations between Catholics and Protestants in Augsburg
1650 and 1800. The questions François posed were similar t
addressed by Zschunke in his study of Oppenheim, but the diff
scale between these two cities meant that entirely different mea
be used. To start with, François rejected, no doubt wisely, any at
undertake family reconstitutions. Thus, for example, his comp
marital fertility in Catholic and Protestant families relied on a
unsophisticated measure: the simple ratio between the number
riages and the number of legitimate births among member
confession.45 But the global data François presented and his sam
marriage registers proved sufficient to document what he s
major demographic trend of the times: a gradual decline in the d
and dynamism of the Lutheran community under the impact of
Catholic migration from the city's immediate hinterland.
There is also one recent attempt to produce something approx
an histoire totale of early modern Augsburg: Bernd Roeck's mo
Vermögensentwickelung in Augsburg von der Mitte des 16. bis zum 18. Jahr
ibid., 22 (1898), 1255-97; A. Mayr, Die grossen Augsburger Vermögen in der Zeit v
1717 (Auesbure, 1931).
42 F. Blendinger, 'Versuch einer Bestimmung der Mittelschicht in der Reichsstad
vom Ende des 14. bis Anfang des 18. Jahrhunderts', in E. Maschke and J. Sy
Städtische Mittelschichten (Stuttgart, 1972), 32-78.
43 C.-P. Ciasen, Die Augsburger Weber: Leistungen und Krisen des Textilgezver
(Augsburg, 1981), 17-69.
B. Roeck, Bäcker, Brot und Getreide in Augsburg : Zur Geschichte des Bäckerhandwer
Versorgungspolitik der Reichstadt im Zeitalter des Dreissigjährigen Krieges (Si
198 7), 162-83.
François, Die unsichtbare Grenze, 66-8.
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84 Urban History
study of the city in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century.46 All
the familiar statistical sources are used: Roeck offers a sketch of the city's
demographic development, a discussion of household size, and a detailed
analysis of the tax register for 1618. In his treatment of the distribution of
wealth and occupations by neighbourhood, Roeck's work also reflects the
growing interest among German historians in the study of social topography.47 Yet underlying all these sections of the work is a subtle but
persistent note of caution about the value of quantitative findings in
attempting to comprehend the character of the community he is studying.
'A critique of the appraisal of the tax registers and an analysis of the
imponderables in interpreting them', Roeck explains, 'was a central
question posed by this investigation, even if the results turned out more
"destructive" than otherwise. The methodological consequence was
above all an effort to find more flexible categories, in a sense to contrast
statistical truths with the implications of historical reality.'48 Despite all
the numbers in this sprawling work - and there are many - the author
sees them all as nothing more than one part of the evidence in his attempt
to grasp the 'historical reality' of an early modern city.
Of course no histoire will ever really be totale. Indeed, the more data ther
are, the less of the total we will ever know. Vastly more has been
published about Augsburg in the early modern era than about Oppen
heim, yet we still have a less comprehensive picture of the larger city tha
we do of the smaller one. For everything done so far in Augsburg simply
shows how much more could still be done. Comprehensive family
reconstitutions could be undertaken, and the data could, in turn, be
linked to that of the tax registers, muster rolls and other systematic
sources. The kind of network analysis which has, to date, been carried out
only for members of the patriciate could be extended to vastly larger
circles of ordinary citizens.49 The personal, economic and wealth history
of thousands of families could be followed through the generations. We
could know incredibly much about incredibly many people. But would
we really know much more about Augsburg? Probably not.
For the best case studies are always part of a dialectical process. What
we learn about one city always takes on meaning from what we know
46 B. Roeck, Eine Stadt in Krieg und Frieden: Studien zur Geschichte der Reichsstadt Augsburg
zwischen Kalenderstreit und Parität, 2 vols (Göttingen, 1989).
47 An outstanding work in this genre is B. Sachse, Soziale Differenzierung und regionale
Verteilung der Bevölkerung Göttingens im 18. Jahrhundert, 2 vols (Hildesheim, 1978). For
some useful references, see H. Walberg, 'Zur Sozialtopographie westfälischer Städte in
der frühen Neuzeit', in K. Krüger (ed.), Europäische Städte im Zeitalter des Barock: Gestalt,
Kultur, Sozialgefüge (Cologne/ Vienna, 1988), 209-21.
Roeck, Stadt in Krie? und Frieden , vol. 2, 976.
See K. Sieh-Burens, Oligarchie, Konfession und Politik im 16. Jahrhundert: Zur sozialen
Verflechtung der Augsburger Bürgermeister und Stadtpfleger, 1518-1618 (Munich, 1986).
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German cities in the late early modem era 85
about other communities, and simultaneously adds to what
about those other places as well. Sometimes the comparisons are
No historian who has laboriously calculated the average ag
marriage or the protogenetic interval in a particular commu
neglect to include a table comparing these new data with the co
figures from Geneva or Lucerne or Meulan or Giessen or M
many more comparisons are unstated and implicit. What we lea
one city becomes interesting because of what we already know -
we know - about other cities. Even the most painstaking st
particular community must never make us forget that the real
study should always be the demographic and social character of
modern European city as a whole. What we know about Oppe
Augsburg can teach us something about London or Geneva. But
learn about London or Geneva will also teach us something
Oppenheim or Augsburg.
University of British Columbia
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