The Oppression of the Nobility: Town, Country and Identity in Medieval Germany

Benjamin Pope, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow

This Leverhulme Trust funded project examines an important process of identity formation in the southern German-speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire in the later Middle Ages (c.1380–1525).

Urban and rural elites in this time and place had much in common and many constructive relationships, but they were increasingly represented as mutually exclusive and inherently opposed groups under the labels ‘the towns’ and ‘the nobility’.

The arms of a number of noble German families
The arms of the noble Parsberg family (middle row, on the right), John Rylands Library, German MS. 2, p. 195 (detail, © University of Manchester)


In order to address questions of how and why this happened, the project examines a particular discourse associated with this process. The powerful, largely autonomous towns of Upper Germany were repeatedly accused of seeking to ‘oppress’ the rural nobility and to ‘drive out’ nobles from their ‘natural lordship’.

These accusations were made by a range of actors with various motives but drawing on a stock of common tropes. By tracing the evolution of this discourse, we can both map the development of binary ‘town’ and ‘noble’ identities and analyse the mechanisms which created and sustained this dichotomy.

The project thus aims to advance our understanding in three main areas: the particular social structures and ideals of the highly decentralized late medieval Holy Roman Empire; the formation of a powerful dialectic of ‘town’ and ‘nobility’, which long remained an especially marked feature of the German social imagination; and the processes through which particular identity markers and discourses can become more significant over time and within changing structures of social identity.