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Imperial Cities of the Holy Roman Empire

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

Imperial cities? Holy Roman Empire? What were those? Do I have ancestors from the Holy Roman Empire?

The Holy Roman Empire was Germany in the Middle Ages, Germany and Austria and some adjacent territories, from Charlemagne in the 800’s down till Napoleon in 1806.

The Czechs and Slovaks, for part of the time the Slovenes, the Dutch, the Swiss, Hungary, parts of Poland, Yugoslavia, a little of France and Italy came within its borders for centuries (which means that emigrants from the Empire were certainly not all German, though the majority were). For centuries, the Emperor was elected- by a handful of magnates, but his power increasingly became nominal outside of territories he directly owned. The various duchies and baronies, kingdoms and knighthoods and bishoprics gradually became de facto independent countries, but still members of what had become a confederation.

Genealogy of Central Europe before Napoleon generally involves the Holy Roman Empire, but documents usually refer to the particular country within the Empire, not the Empire. And there were at times as many as 360 Germanies in the Empire. What a mess. And as said, while a majority of the population was German or Dutch, a substantial minority was not.

The closest to democratic of these little countries were the cities, which fought to rule themselves, free of lords. Their democracy, like the ancient Greeks, excluded most of the population and was only for the propertied, but it still was more than most Germans or Europeans had.

Before clean water and sewers, more people died in cities overall than were born there; population growth came from the countryside migrating to opportunity in the cities, so immigration to the New World initially came more from villages; only with decent sanitation did cities start to have surplus population.

Still, some city-born came to the New World, and essentially all emigrants went through cities, so today, let’s look at a kind of city fairly specific to the Holy Roman Empire.

Growing towns fought to get the Stadtrecht, the rights of a self-governing city, and if possible, complete independence from the local lord, and the way to do that was to become a Reichsstadt. A Reichsstadt (“RIXE-shtaatt”) means an Imperial City, with Reichsfreiheit (“RIXE-fry-hite”) ‘imperial freedom’, a status that made them reichsumittelbarkeit (“RIXE-oon-MIT-tel-bar-kite”) ‘imperially immediate’, with no lord in the middle between city and Emperor. This was a handy arrangement, since the local lords couldn’t tax them and use them in their wars- and the Kaiser, the Emperor, was too far away to tax or rule them much either.

At various times, there were dozens of imperial cities, from towns of a few thousand people to some of the largest cities- but up to the advent of railroads, those still had populations numbering only in the tens of thousands. The largest concentration of imperial cities lay in the southwest and then in the northwest, with none in the eastern half.

Lindau was one example of a little town in Lake Constance with Reichsfreiheit. Lovely little Rothenburg shown at the top of this blog had all of six thousand inhabitants within its city walls, but was prosperous enough to win and hold its independence from 1274 to 1803. The thriving city of Nürnberg /Nuremberg, itself serving as the Imperial capital at times, had only some 30,000 inhabitants up until the railroads. Unlike most imperial cities, Nuremberg held a considerable amount of surrounding land and villages; if you have an ancestor from ‘Nuremberg’, they could easily have lived a day’s walk from the city.

Bit by bit, over centuries, the local lords got control of the Imperial Cities; after the consolidations of 1803 there remained only six: Nürnberg and Augsburg (only till 1806), Frankfurt am Main (till 1866); Lübeck remained at least a distinct province until 1937.

Yet to this day, Bremen and Hamburg remain Bundesländer, provinces unto themselves, the last of the free Imperial Cities, in a way. They and Lübeck are the final members and heirs of the Middle Age’s Hanseatic League - I’ll talk about the Hanseatic League in another blog soon, and the roll Hamburg and Bremen played in the transatlantic migration.

Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck license plates still start with H for Hansestadt still today.

All images are derived from Wikipedia: click on the image to see the original.


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