Road Trip Through History, Nuremberg, Pt. 3: Merchant Houses

My Own True Love and I spent three afternoons touring museums in three merchant houses from slightly different periods: the Albrecht Dürer house from the early sixteenth century,(1) the Tucher house from the mid-16h century and the Stadtmuseum in the Fembo house, which dates from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Together they tell the story of a wealthy merchant and industrial city that both benefited from its relationship with various Holy Roman emperors and was at odds with them.

Here’s the big picture:

  • Nuremberg was a free imperial city, which meant that it owed allegiance only to the Holy Roman Emperor, not to a feudal overlord. Because it had no feudal overlord, the town ruled itself, and made its own laws. Which is not the same thing as being a democracy. A small number of patrician families—limited by law to 43—held the power—so tightly that they did not allow the formation of craft guilds.
  • Nuremberg was one of the wealthiest and most powerful cities states in Europe from the late medieval period until well into the seventeenth century. Its wealth was based trade, both in the goods produced by Nuremberg’s renowned craftsmen and in spices. (2) Nuremberg was specially known for its metalwork, armor, and weapons production.—If the Stadtmuseum is to be believed, Nuremberg craftsmen invented both the wheel lock and the rifled gun barrel. (I was able to verify the invention of the wheel lock. My sources places the invention of the rifled gun barrel in Augsburg but allow that an armorer in Nuremberg improved it. Then I stopped myself from going further down the rabbit hole. )
  • Nuremberg’s acceptance of the Protestant Reformation in 1525 put the city at odds with its Catholic Hapsburg rulers, even though it remained a free imperial city and held the imperial insignia until Napoleon moved it to Vienna.
  • And speaking of Napoleon, Nuremberg finally lost its glory as a free city in 1806, when Francis II dissolved the Holy Roman Emperor following a serious defeat by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerliz. (He did not give up the Austrian empire, which held on until the end of World War I.)  Nuremberg was incorporated into the newly-created kingdom of Bavaria and became no more than a provincial industrial city.

These museums focused on Nuremberg’s glory days, but there was an underlying theme of destruction and reconstruction.  One of the ironies of Nuremberg’s history is that the city remained untouched by fire or war until World War II, when it was largely destroyed. Tough stuff.

(1) As those of you who get my newsletter know, I don’t have any notes from our afternoon in the Dürer house because I dropped my pen behind the radiator in the ladies room and couldn’t get it out. (If you’re interested in getting the newsletter, you can sign up here: You’ll not only get different content than I post here on the Margins, but a very cool downloadable timeline of the Roman emperors and the women who fought against them.)

(2)The idea of Nuremberg as a center of the spice trade surprised me. When I think spice trade I think Venice, Portugal, the Netherlands, and finally Britain. Once home, I turned to one of my favorite resources on trade in early modern Europe, Fernand Braudel’s three-volume Civilization and Capitalism.(3) Braudel did not fail me. Nuremberg stood at the meeting point of a dozen major trade routes, but its direct trading activities were limited to Europe. But, and this is a huge but, the city stood almost exactly in the geometric center of European economic life in the early sixteenth century—note the date in reference to the merchant house museums that we visited. It was halfway between Venice, most recent ruler of the ancient trading zone of the Mediterranean, and Antwerp, one of the capitals of the new trade routes of the Atlantic. Pepper arrived in Nuremberg from both directions, and Nuremberg goods travelled back to both trading centers and from them to the larger world. >Gingerbread!

(3) I do not recommend reading Civilization and Capitalism from front to back. I did that when I first bought it as a foolish graduate student in 1981 and came out the other end of the experience dazed, overwhelmed, and with no memory of anything I read.. Dipping into the volumes in search of something specific, however, is a joy. In addition to allowing you (or at least me) to focus on a single subject, it also gives me (and hopefully you) the room to savor the precision and elegance of sentences like this one: “With beer we will still stay in Europe—if we leave out the American maize beer which we have mentioned in passing, and the millet beer which for the black peoples of Africa filled the ritual role of “bread and wine with Westerners,” and also if we do not inquire too much into the distant origins of this very old beverage.” (Vol. I, p. 238)

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