A robber baron or robber knight (German : Raubritter) was an unscrupulous feudal landowner who, protected by his fief's legal status, imposed high taxes and tolls out of keeping with the norm without authorization by some higher authority. Some resorted to actual banditry. The German term for robber barons, Raubritter (robber knights), was coined by Friedrich Bottschalk in 1810.
Some robber barons violated the custom under which tolls were collected on the Rhine either by charging higher tolls than the standard or by operating without authority from the Holy Roman Emperor altogether. During the period in the history of the Holy Roman Empire known as the Great Interregnum (1250–1273), the number of such tolling stations exploded in the absence of Imperial authority.
Medieval robber barons most often imposed high or unauthorized tolls on rivers or roads passing through their territory. Some robbed merchants, land travelers, and river traffic—seizing money, cargoes, entire ships, or engaged in kidnapping for ransom.
Tolls were collected from ships sailing on the River Rhine in Europe for one thousand years from around 800 AD to 1800 AD. During this time, various feudal lords (among them archbishops who held fiefs from the Holy Roman Emperor) collected tolls from passing cargo ships to bolster their finances.[ citation needed ] Only the Holy Roman Emperor could authorise the collection of such tolls. Allowing the nobility and Church to collect tolls from the busy traffic on the Rhine seems to have been an attractive alternative to other means of taxation and funding of government functions.[ citation needed ]
Iron chains were often stretched across the river to prevent passage without paying the toll, and strategic towers were built to facilitate this.[ citation needed ]
The Holy Roman Emperor and the various noblemen and archbishops who were authorised to levy tolls seem to have worked out an informal way[ vague ] of regulating this process.[ citation needed ] Among the decisions involved in managing the collection of tolls on the Rhine were how many toll stations to have, where they should be built, how high the tolls should be, and the advantages/disadvantages.[ citation needed ] While this decision process was made no less complex by being informal, common factors included the local power structure (archbishops and nobles being the most likely recipients of a charter to collect tolls), space between toll stations (authorized toll stations seem to have been at least five kilometres apart)[ citation needed ], and ability to be defended from attack (some castles through which tolls were collected were tactically useful until the French invaded in 1689 and levelled them).[ citation needed ] Tolls were standardized either in terms of an amount of silver coin allowed to be charged or an "in-kind" toll of cargo from the ship.
The men who came to be known as robber barons or robber knights (German : Raubritter) violated the structure under which tolls were collected on the Rhine either by charging higher tolls than the standard or by operating without authority from the Holy Roman Emperor altogether.
Writers of the period referred to these practices as "unjust tolls," and not only did the robber barons thereby violate the prerogatives of the Holy Roman Emperor, they also went outside of the society's behavioural norms, since merchants were bound both by law and religious custom to charge a "just price" for their wares.
During the period in the history of the Holy Roman Empire known as the Great Interregnum (1250–1273), when there was no Emperor, the number of tolling stations exploded in the absence of imperial authority. In addition, robber barons began to earn their opprobrium by robbing ships of their cargoes, stealing entire ships, and even kidnapping.
In response to this organized, military lawlessness, the "Rheinischer Bund," or Rhine League was formed by 100 Cities, and from several princes and prince-prelates (lords of the Church), all of whom held large stakes in the restoration of law and order to the Rhine.
Officially launched in 1254, the Rhine League wasted no time putting robber barons out of business by the simple expedient of taking and destroying their castles. In the next three years, four robber barons were targeted and between ten and twelve robber castles destroyed or inactivated.
The Rhine League was not only successful in suppressing illicit collection of tolls and river robbery, they also took action against other state aggression. For example, they are documented as having intervened to rescue a victim of abduction by the Baron of Rietberg.
The procedure pioneered by the Rhine League for dealing with robber barons – to besiege, capture and destroy their castles – survived long after the League self-destructed from political strife over the election of a new Emperor and military reversals against unusually strong robber barons.
When the Interregnum ended, the new king Rudolf of Habsburg applied the lessons learned by the Rhine League to the destruction of the highway robbers at Sooneck, torching their castles and hanging them. While robber barony never entirely ceased, especially during the Hundred Years' War, the excesses of their heyday during the Interregnum never recurred.
The reign of King Stephen of England (1096–1154) was a long period of civil unrest commonly known as "The Anarchy". In the absence of strong central kingship, the nobility of England were a law unto themselves, as characterised in this excerpt from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle :
When the traitors saw that Stephen was a mild good humoured man who inflicted no punishment, then they committed all manner of horrible crimes. They had done him homage and sworn oaths of fealty to him, but not one of their oaths was kept. They were all forsworn and their oaths broken. For every great man built him castles and held them against the king; they sorely burdened the unhappy people of the country with forced labour on the castles; and when the castles were built they filled them with devils and wicked men. By night and by day they seized those they believed to have any wealth, whether they were men or women; and in order to get their gold or silver, they put them into prison and tortured them with unspeakable tortures, for never were martyrs tortured as they were. They hung them up by the feet and smoked them with foul smoke. They strung them up by the thumbs, or by the head, and hung coats of mail on their feet. They tied knotted cords round their heads and twisted it until it entered the brain. They put them in dungeons wherein were adders and snakes and toads and so destroyed them. Many thousands they starved to death.
Michael Heller refers to the original robber barons to illustrate his tragedy of the anticommons in his 2008 book.The tragedy of the anticommons is a type of coordination breakdown, in which a single resource has numerous rightsholders who prevent others from using it, frustrating what would be a socially desirable outcome.
In Ken Follet's historical novel The Pillars of the Earth , taking place in England during The Anarchy, the main villain is a vicious and ruthless earl who behaves as described in the quote above.
The tragedy of the anticommons is a type of coordination breakdown, in which a commons does not emerge, even when general access to resources or infrastructure would be a social good. It is a mirror-image of the older concept of tragedy of the commons, in which numerous rights holders' combined use exceeds the capacity of a resource and depletes or destroys it. The "tragedy of the anticommons" covers a range of coordination failures, including patent thickets and submarine patents. Overcoming these breakdowns can be difficult, but there are assorted means, including eminent domain, laches, patent pools, or other licensing organizations.
A prince-bishop is a bishop who is also the civil ruler of some secular principality and sovereignty. Since 1951, the sole extant prince-bishop has been the Bishop of Urgell, Catalonia, who has remained ex officio one of two co-princes of Andorra, along with the French President.
Christian II was a Scandinavian monarch under the Kalmar Union who reigned as King of Denmark and Norway, from 1513 until 1523, and Sweden from 1520 until 1521. From 1513 to 1523, he was concurrently Duke of Schleswig and Holstein in joint rule with his uncle Frederick.
Graf is a historical title of the German nobility, usually translated as "count". Considered to be intermediate among noble ranks, the title is often treated as equivalent to the British title of "earl".
Swabia is a cultural, historic and linguistic region in southwestern Germany. The name is ultimately derived from the medieval Duchy of Swabia, one of the German stem duchies, representing the territory of Alemannia, whose inhabitants interchangeably were called Alemanni or Suebi.
An Imperial State or Imperial Estate was a part of the Holy Roman Empire with representation and the right to vote in the Imperial Diet. Rulers of these Estates were able to exercise significant rights and privileges and were "immediate", meaning that the only authority above them was the Holy Roman Emperor. They were thus able to rule their territories with a considerable degree of autonomy.
Imperial immediacy was a privileged constitutional and political status rooted in German feudal law under which the Imperial estates of the Holy Roman Empire such as Imperial cities, prince-bishoprics and secular principalities, and individuals such as the Imperial knights, were declared free from the authority of any local lord and placed under the direct authority of the Holy Roman Emperor, and later of the institutions of the Empire such as the Diet, the Imperial Chamber of Justice and the Aulic Council.
Patricianship, the quality of belonging to a patriciate, began in the ancient world, where cities such as Ancient Rome had a social class of patrician families, whose members were initially the only people allowed to exercise many political functions. In the rise of European towns in the 12th and 13th century, the patriciate, a limited group of families with a special constitutional position, in Henri Pirenne's view, was the motive force. In 19th century Central Europe, the term had become synonymous with the upper Bourgeoisie and cannot be interchanged with the medieval patriciate in Central Europe. In German-speaking parts of Europe as well as in the maritime republics of the Italian Peninsula, the patricians were as a matter of fact the ruling body of the medieval town. Particularly in Italy, they were part of the nobility.
Robber baron is a derogatory term of social criticism originally applied to certain wealthy and powerful 19th-century American businessmen. The term appeared as early as the August 1870 issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. By the late 19th century, the term was typically applied to businessmen who purportedly used exploitative practices to amass their wealth. These practices included exerting control over natural resources, influencing high levels of government, paying subsistence wages, squashing competition by acquiring their competitors to create monopolies and raise prices, and schemes to sell stock at inflated prices to unsuspecting investors. The term combines the sense of criminal ("robber") and illegitimate aristocracy.
Several leagues of cities became influential in the history of the Holy Roman Empire. Military alliance and mutual assistance strengthened the position of imperial cities, especially during the interregnum period of the 13th to 14th century.
The Knights' Revolt was a short-lived revolt by several German Protestant, imperial knights, led by Franz von Sickingen, against Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. It has been called the "Poor Barons' Rebellion" as it inspired the bloody German Peasants' War of 1524–1526.
The Prince-Bishopric of Münster was a large ecclesiastical principality in the Holy Roman Empire, located in the northern part of today's North Rhine-Westphalia and western Lower Saxony. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, it was often held in personal union with one or more of the nearby ecclesiastical principalities of Cologne, Paderborn, Osnabrück, Hildesheim, and Liège.
The Free Imperial knights were free nobles of the Holy Roman Empire, whose direct overlord was the Emperor. They were the remnants of the medieval free nobility (edelfrei) and the ministeriales. What distinguished them from other knights, who were vassals of a higher lord, was the fact that they had been granted Imperial immediacy, and as such were the equals in most respects to the other individuals or entities, such as the secular and ecclesiastical territorial rulers of the Empire and the Free Imperial cities, that also enjoyed Imperial immediacy. However, unlike all of those, the Imperial knights did not possess the status of Estates (Stände) of the Empire, and therefore were not represented, individually or collectively, in the Imperial Diet. They tended to define their responsibilities to the Empire in terms of feudalized obligations to the Emperor, including personal service and strictly voluntary financial offerings paid to the Emperor himself.
An imperial vicar was a prince charged with administering all or part of the Holy Roman Empire on behalf of the emperor. Later, an imperial vicar was invariably one of two princes charged by the Golden Bull with administering the Holy Roman Empire during an interregnum.
Aggstein Castle is a ruined castle on the right bank of the Danube in Wachau, Austria. The castle dates to the 12th century. Aggstein Castle is 480 metres (1,570 ft) above sea level.
The German–Polish War consisted of a series of struggles in 1003–1018, between the Ottonian king Henry II of Germany and the Polish Piast ruler Bolesław I the Brave. The locus of conflict was the control of Lusatia, Upper Lusatia, as well as Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. The fighting ended with the Peace of Bautzen in 1018, which left Lusatia and Upper Lusatia as a fief of Poland, and Bohemia became a duchy in the Holy Roman Empire.
A toll castle is a castle that, in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era, guarded a customs post and was intended to control it. They were typically found in the Holy Roman Empire. Toll castles always stood in the vicinity of an important long-distance trade route over, for example, the Alpine passes or the Middle Rhine. Such castles were usually placed at strategic locations, such as border crossings, river crossings or mountain passes, and were manned by armed guards. The actual toll-collecting point lay below at the road or river and was often linked by walls to the castle itself.
Count Frederick IV of Oettingen was archbishop of Eichstätt from 1383 until his death.
The road toll was a historical fee charged to travellers and merchants in return for permission to use the roads and waterways of the country or state concerned. It was reinforced in the Holy Roman Empire by the law of Straßenzwang which meant that traders in certain goods had to use specified roads. In return, they were usually guaranteed safe passage under the right of escort or Geleitrecht. The road toll was widespread especially in medieval times, and, in addition to the payments from the staple rights, was an important source of income.
In the Holy Roman Empire, the Great Interregnum was a period of time following the death of Frederick II where the succession of the Holy Roman Empire was contested and fought over between pro- and anti-Hohenstaufen factions. Starting around 1250 with the death of Frederick II, conflict over who was the rightful emperor and King of the Romans would continue into the 1300s until Charles IV of Luxembourg was elected emperor and secured succession for his son Wenceslaus. This period saw a multitude of emperors and kings be elected or propped up by rival factions and princes, with many kings and emperors having short reigns or reigns that became heavily contested by rival claimants.