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Dr Ben Pope
University of Manchester
Early Career Fellowship

The oppression of the nobility: town, country and identity in medieval Germany

The funerary shield of Werner von Parsberg (†1455), a noble servitor and ally of the city of Nuremberg (St Laurence's church, Nuremberg).

Through what processes can two groups of people with a great deal in common come to see themselves as fundamentally opposed? This is the question which my Early Career Fellowship poses through a study of increasingly antagonistic and mutually exclusive ‘town’ and ‘noble’ identities in late medieval Germany. In particular, I will examine the relationships between this process of identity formation and discourses of oppression in fifteenth-century Upper Germany (the southern part of German-speaking Europe). Rural nobles in this period and region often accused the powerful, autonomous towns of the Holy Roman Empire of seeking to oppress them and to drive them out of their ‘natural lordship’; urban elites in turn accused nobles of arbitrary exactions and highway robbery. Yet wealthy townspeople and rural nobles in the later Middle Ages did not stand for opposing value systems as did their popular post-Enlightenment depictions: they shared a common elite culture whilst maintaining many constructive relationships. Their discourses of mutual hostility therefore demand careful investigation.

We know that members of a group with very little to distinguish it from another group can nonetheless display discriminatory behaviour towards that other group thanks to research by social psychologists which has shown that the categorisation of people into groups can in itself produce intergroup antagonism. But my research raises many questions which differ from those which can be addressed in psychological experiments. I will need to develop an approach informed by the study of identity formation in social psychology, sociology, social anthropology and other historical contexts in order to understand why townspeople and rural nobles in late medieval Upper Germany increasingly defined themselves against each other, and how a dichotomy of town and nobility became an ever more powerful and useful way of interpreting society as the fifteenth century progressed.

My project has two interlocking strands: I will trace the development of discourses of oppression and also study the patterns of direct political, economic and social interaction between townspeople and rural nobles at key places and times in the evolution of these discourses. Many source types provide insights on both levels, but especially valuable are collections of letters sent and received by civic authorities which are preserved in archives in southern Germany and Switzerland. Through these sources I will work to understand processes of identity formation in the intersections of relationships between townspeople and rural nobles as individuals and as groups.

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