The rural folk of German farmers and stockmen depended for survival and success on communal institutions and values, and the old-settled lands of the south, center, and west comprised one of Europe’s great zones of communally organized agrarian life. The villagers’ rights of self-administration, which had developed since the thirteenth century in place of the direct seigneurial exploitation of earlier times, reached their limit of intensification before 1500, when the economic recovery was inspiring some lords to introduce new kinds of serfdom. In the newer lands of the northeast, where the farmers had once been very free, such pressures grew with little resistance and eventually produced what is called “the Second Serfdom.” Where rural communes were strong, relations between peasants and lords depended on a rich mixture of struggle and negotiation. This was notably true in territories ruled by prelates. In some small territories, a stable level of tenant participation in governance developed. In other regions, new exactions and modes of servility gave rise to a culture of simmering resentment punctuated by revolts. Yet the Imperial Reform did not leave village life untouched. Even villagers had the right to appeal to the new Imperial Chamber Court [Reichskammergericht]. Such cases, even if rare, modify the impression that the communally organized village was a closed society. They also provide insight into the judicialization of peasant grievances that followed the Peasants’ War of 1525.
There were places where the devolution of self-government to the communes was common, even general, but outside of certain parts of the Swiss region, these rights were always limited to very local matters. Still, territorial villages often possessed some administrative powers, as can be seen in the Bavarian village of Ingenried, whose communal officers oversaw the livelihood of both its parish priest and a bathhouse attendant. The routinization of relations between villagers and lords tended to integrate the communes into the territorial state. The instruments of integration sometimes included a communal oath of loyalty and the reduction of customary law to writing, which permitted the villagers to cite written law and compelled territorial officials to check their claims.
The multiple layers of governance that formed in the German lands – Imperial, princely-territorial, civic, and rural – remained more or less intact until the abolition of the Empire in 1803. To some degree, the strengthening of Imperial judicial authority (“judicialization”) and the ability of the emperor’s officials to intervene in territorial and local conflicts may have slowed, but in the long run could not prevent, the territorial principalities’ growth into true states in the European mold. On the other hand, the Empire knew no real absolutist rule of the western kind until the eighteenth century, and then only in a handful of the largest territorial states. Measured by the standards of absolutist rule in England, France, Spain, Denmark, and Sweden, the Empire remained to the end a zone of mediate, limited powers of governance.