«money: a promise?»

Tax rolls witnessing socio-economic change: Impoverishment, Plague and Decline of the formerly rich Trade Metropolis Augsburg during the Thirty Years‘ War

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War has not only human cost. It is also ruinous. The topic of this podcast is the rich imperial city of Augsburg, which sank into poverty due to the Thirty Years’ War, although its fortifications were never taken.


Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in the southern German imperial city of Augsburg. We are in the year 1641 A.D.

The powerful imperial city of Augsburg was one of the wealthiest metropolises of the Roman Empire.

 

How proud the citizens were of their grand churches and all the municipal buildings!

Between 1612 and 1618, so just before the Thirty Years' War, the citizens had invested a lot of money into making their town hall the most beautiful in Southern Germany. And since they were rebuilding, they also invested in an exceptional tower to go with it.

 

The newly raised Perlach Tower was 70 metres high. It also served as a watch tower. From here a lookout kept watch, day and night, for fire and enemies. He watched over the city's prosperity which was nowhere as magnificent as it was in the new town hall.

 

Money was no object to its construction. It was more important to amaze all the visitors with the luxuriance that Augsburg could afford. The Golden Hall, created by Elias Holl the city's master mason, still counts as one of the most beautiful interiors of the Southern German Rennaisance today.

 

They could afford it in Augsburg, as the city was wealthy, very wealthy. Trade had turned Augsburg into one of the wealthiest cities in Germany. There was the Fugger merchant family, there were the Welsers, the Endorfers and the Rehlingers and many, many more.

 

We can estimate how much money Augsburg must have had because we know some of the individual tax rolls. They tell us that in 1618, the 10 wealthiest families paid over 500 guilders in taxes. This was an incredible amount of money. Then there were another 118 very affluent families who paid the tax authorities between 100 and 500 guilders a year.

 

Even the 1717 families who paid at least one guilder were fairly well-off. These included, for example, the renowned Augsburg goldsmiths, the weapon makers, the printers. None of them had to worry about earning their daily bread.

 

For three quarters of the population, it was different.  They were living on the bread line. But even they were still doing relatively well. Because the city welfare provided sustenance for about 5000 people.

These figures are from 1618. That was the year that the great war broken out. Augsburg had made provisions and had allowed itself expensive fortifications.

 

The whole urban area was extravagantly protected by the most modern fortress structures. And Augsburg was in fact never stormed and conquered. But even the thickest of walls offered no protection against the implications of war. There were food price rises, inflation, the downturn in trade. Then came the plague. And financial contributions.

 

The Emperor demanded high contributions to the war expenditure from his imperial cities. And he forced the citizens of Augsburg to become catholic again. Yet protestants represented a large and economically influential part of the population.

 

That's why the Swedish King Gustav Adolf was enthusiastically received by the city's protestants when he drove the catholic army out of Augsburg in 1632.

 

A festive service of worship was discouraged. The citizens sang the Te Deum and made an oath of allegiance to the Swedish king. But this was not enough. He demanded a monthly contribution of 30,000 guilders from the city. Calculated on an annual basis, that was nearly five times the normal tax revenue. And because of the war, the tax revenue had dropped sharply!

 

It was a difficult time for the city. It didn't just cost money, but also cost many their lives. Before the war, the city fathers counted 8,438 households, after the 30 years' war only half that amount of families were left.

 

Most of the victims had belonged to the poor. Almost all of them had died of starvation or disease. Many of the former affluent ones had slipped into the group of 'have-nots', or lived in precarious conditions on the edge of the bread line. They could not count on getting any help.

 

Because the rich had stopped supporting the city's poor. The über-rich didn't exist any more. And those few remaining affluent families couldn't, and didn't want to, spend their shrunken wealth on the upkeep of the poor.

 

Victory or defeat, it was the same to Augsburg. Any peace was better than an extension of the war. When peace came to Westphalia in 1648, it seemed like salvation. But, because of the Thirty Years' War,  Augsburg had lost its status as the principal centre of trade in Southern Germany.