Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/330

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.


it within the limits of local and precarious conditions. The lack of imperial justice brought about such grave evils that the Estates sought to provide some sort of substitute for it by private agreements (Austäge) referring disputed matters to arbitration, and by that quaint etiquette which made it a breach of propriety for a prince to prefer the solemn judgment of his suzerain to such arbitration of his neighbours. The beginnings of an economic revolution threatened the ancient rude prosperity of the peasant, and embittered the relations of class and class within the towns.

The need for reform was patent. From what source however was the improvement to come? Little was to be expected from the Emperors. Yet even the careless Wenceslas of Bohemia had prepared the way for better things when he not only renewed once more the publication of a universal Landfriede, but also invested with imperial authority the local assemblies representative of the various Estates that were entrusted with its execution. Things were worse under Sigismund (1410-37), who could find no middle course between fantastic schemes for the regeneration of the universe and selfish plans for the aggrandisement of his own house. When his inheritance passed to his son-in-law Albert II of Austria (1438-9), the union of the rival houses of Habsburg and Luxemburg at least secured for the ruler a strong family position such as was the essential preliminary for the revival of the imperial power. Albert IPs device for securing the general Public Peace of Germany rested upon an extension and development of the local executive authorities, and thus contained the germ of the future system of dividing the Empire into great territorial circumscriptions known as Circles (Kreise), destined ultimately to become one of the most lasting of imperial institutions. But Albert passed away before he was so much as able to visit the Empire, and in the long reign of his kinsman and successor Frederick III (1440-93) the imperial authority sunk down to its lowest point. A cold, phlegmatic, slow and unenterprising prince, Frederick of Austria busied himself with no great plans of reform or aggression, but seemed absorbed in gardening, in alchemy, and in astrology rather than in affairs of State. Under his nerveless rule the Luxemburg claims over Bohemia and Hungary passed utterly away. A large proportion of the Habsburg hereditary lands, including Tyrol and the scattered Swabian estates, were ruled by a rival branch of the ruling house represented by the Archduke Sigismund, while Austria itself fell into the hands of Matthias Corvinus. Yet in his cautious and slow-minded fashion Frederick was by no means lacking in ability and foresight. If he were indifferent to the Empire, he looked beyond the present distress of his house to a time when politic marriages and cunningly devised treaties of eventual succession would make Austria a real ruler of the world. Even for the Empire he did a little by his proclamations of a general Landfriede, while his settlement of the ecclesiastical relations of Germany