The Empire’s dense urban networks consisted mainly of middling, small, and very small towns. In 1500, only twenty-seven of these towns had more than 10,000 inhabitants, and more than half of these towns lay in the Low Countries. Otherwise, the size gradient plunged quickly from the largest cities of about 40,000 inhabitants (Cologne and Prague) to middling cities of 10,000, and more than half of the Empire’s townsfolk lived in cities smaller than that. Degrees of urban liberty varied considerably. The sixty or so Imperial cities, including nearly all of the major commercial entrepôts, enjoyed extensive rights of self-governance. Most cities, however, were territorial, in other words, ruled by princes, though they routinely possessed some rights of self-administration. In most places, the major urban institutions had been created and installed at some point between the thirteenth and fifteenth century. The social character of the urban regimes varied from exclusive rule by merchant and mixed merchant oligarchies (the Hanseatic cities, Nuremberg) to mixed merchant and noble oligarchies (Strasbourg, Frankfurt, Ulm) to broad representation of middling folk and artisans (Basel). In Strasbourg, with its 20,000 or so inhabitants, the constitution of 1482 codified the distribution of offices, fixed the procedures for the election or cooptation of magistrates, required the annual renewal of the communal oath, and proclaimed the traditional burghers’ obligation to the common good. Strasbourg possessed a full panoply of civic institutions: a commune of adult male citizens organized into guilds and nobles’ societies, a large council of 300 guild officials, a small council of nobles and guild representatives, and privy councils for internal and external affairs.
The self-governing guilds and managed crafts found in most cities watched over production and competition as well as the situation, training, and social lives of journeymen and apprentices. They also performed social and religious functions (prayer, burials, hospitality). These collegial elements are missing from the craft ordinances enacted for territorial towns by their princes, most of which dealt principally with economic regulation.