Robber knights – historical lexicon of Bavaria


Raiding knights are understood to be nobles who allegedly had been in need in the late Middle Ages because of the general social change and the changed war technology and had therefore tried to secure their existence by robbery and plunder. The word "Raubritter" is well known in the German language since the end of the 18th century. In the course of the 19th century it established itself permanently, since it suited both the bourgeois as well as the socialist nobility criticism. For the scientific research of the Middle Ages, the term is useless.

Table of Contents

Meaning of the term

Robber knights were, according to popular belief, members of the lower, knightly nobility, who were in distress as a result of the increasing loss of military functions as well as profound changes in power, society and the economy in the late Middle Ages, especially as a result of the transition from natural to monetary were advised. Their precarious situation they tried – so the popular opinion – by street robbery and by looting in willfully instigated feuds and raids especially on cities and merchant trains to improve.

Origin and distribution

The term as such can indeed be detected as early as 1672 (Christian August Pfalz, Abominatio desolationis Turcicae, Prague 1672, 47 and the like), but found only since the later 18th century, a wider spread. However, much read romance novels and Enlightenment histories had already brought the figure of the predatory knight and placker under the people. The narrative, naturally largely partisan sources of the late Middle Ages usually speak in contexts in this context, in which, of course, it was not just a matter of arguments between landed nobility and the urban bourgeoisie "raptores", "predones", "latrones", "spoliatores" or "thieve" and sometimes refer to their castles as "raubheußer".

As the handy name "Raubritter" Once in the world, she found, not least because of their so popular in the German language alliterating character, rapid entry into the literature bourgeois literature. The "Staats-Lexikon" by Karl von Rotteck (1775-1840) and Karl Theodor Welcker (1790-1869) from 1835/48, Friedrich Christoph Schlossers (1776-1861) "World history for the German people" (1844/56), the widespread world history of Karl Friedrich Becker (1777-1806) (1867) and Spamer’s Illustrated World History (1893-1898) as well as many other works contributed to its popularization. Gustav Freytag (1816-1895) added the picture of the birds of prey swarming around the city walls (1859/67). The castle romance and the legends associated with it did the rest.

His suitability for political polemic proved the "Raubritter" first in the Vormärz and in the revolution of 1848/49, when, for example, Gustav Struve (1805-1870) complained: "We live in the 19th century; the castles of the robber barons have fallen, but the burdens which they lay on their foundations still persist" (1847). In the first instance, only the nobility was criticized and defamed. Meanwhile, however, opponents of all ideological tendencies have long insulted each other as robber barons when it comes to questioning the legitimacy of taxes, fees, rents, prices, wages and the like, thereby discrediting the political opponent.

Theoretical foundation by Marxism

Although Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) did not use the Begiff, but provided in the context of his work on the German peasants war (1850), the socio-economic rationale for the robber baron, which has since not only in the socialist, but – often thoughtless – also in the bourgeois camp and even into the later 20th century even in the scientific literature common cliché and only rarely critically reflected cliché was: "The lower aristocracy, the knighthood, quickly countered their decline. Much of it was already impoverished and lived only on the prince’s service in military or civilian offices; another was the fiefdom and command of the princes; the smaller one was rich immediacy. The development of the war, the increasing importance of the infantry, the training of the firearm eliminated the importance of their military services as heavy cavalry and at the same time destroyed the invincibility of their castles. Just like the Nuremberg craftsmen, the knights were made superfluous by the progress of industry. The knight’s need for money contributed significantly to their ruin. The luxury of castles, the glittering splendor of tournaments and festivals, the price of weapons and horses increased with the progress of social development, while the sources of income of knights and barons increased little or nothing. Feuds with obligatory looting and pillaging, highway camps and similar noble occupations became too dangerous over time." (Karl Marx / Friedrich Engels, Works 7, Berlin-East 1960, 333)

Scientific evaluation

In fact, both the leftist and bourgeois critics of feudalism, on the one hand, and a deep lack of understanding in dealing with the alien statehood of the late Middle Ages, on the other hand, are combined in the Raubritter term. Was it the "right feud" as the ultimate remedy and instrument of armed self-help, it is an undisputed element of the medieval constitution, but by no means an expression of degeneration or decay. In this respect, it is not justifiable to dismiss the sense of justice of feuding noblemen as a superficial spillover of material interests, much less as it has been proven by recent research that the economic and social premises of the common robber-knight image do not apply at all.

Although feudal law was undoubtedly misused many times, even by princes and cities, the assessment of so-called robber barons is ultimately less concerned with the ever-renewed question of right or wrong feud than with the restriction and elimination of the armed Self-help, especially the feud, in the course of the development and enforcement of the state monopoly on the part of the sovereigns as well as the large cities, which served the fight against the use of chivalrous force, not least as a means of enforcement and self-assertion in the general process of territorialization. After the unsuccessful efforts of the diverse high and late medieval peace efforts, the imperial land peace legislation since 1495 (Eternal Land Peace) and the Reich Execution Order (1512/55) led to the criminalization of the knight feud and the monopolization of the use of force on the part of the princely states in the course of the early modern times ultimately the prerequisite for the emergence of the term "Raubritter", which, of course, is unfit for use in scientific discourse.


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  • Peter Ritzmann, "Plackerey in Teutonic lands". Investigations on the Fehdetätigkeit of the Franconian nobility in the early 16th century and their fight by the Swabian League and the imperial city of Nuremberg, in particular the example of Hans Thomas von Absberg and his confrontation with the Earls of Oettingen (1520-1531), Diss. Phil. Munich 1995.
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  • Matthias Zender, Folk Tales as a Source for Living Conditions of the Past (1970), in: Matthias Zender (ed.), Gestalt und Wandel. Essays on Rhenish-Westphalian Folklore and Cultural Space Research, Bonn 1977, 414-454.
  • Hillay Zmora, state and nobility in early modern Germany. The knightly feud in Franconia. 1440 to 1567, Cambr > Further search

    External links

    Recommended citation

    Kurt Andermann, robber knight, published on 09.05.2011; in: Historical Dictionary of Bavaria, URL: (14.11.2019)

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