Full Cups, Full Coffers: Tax Strategies and Consumer Culture in the Early Modern German Cities

B. Ann Tlusty, Bucknell University


During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the excise taxes (Ungeld) paid by town residents on the consumption of beer, wine, mead and brandy represented the single most important source of civic revenue for many German cities. In a crisis, these taxes could spike to 70–80% of civic income. This paper examines civic budgets and ‘behind-the-scenes’ deliberations in a sample of towns in southern Germany in order to illuminate how decisions affecting consumer taxes were made. Even during the sobriety movements of the Reformation and post-Reformation period, tax income from drinkers remained attractive to city leaders because the bulk of the excise tax burden could easily be shifted away from privileged members of society and placed on the population at large. At the same time, governments had to maintain a careful balance between what they needed in order to govern and what the consumer market could bear, for high taxes on drinks were also targeted in many popular revolts. This led to nimble politicking by those responsible for tax decisions. Drink taxes were introduced, raised, lowered and otherwise manipulated based not only on shifting fashions and tastes but also on the degree of economic stress faced by the community. Where civic rulers were successful in striking the right balance, the rewards were considerable. The income from drink sales was a major factor in how the cities of the Empire survived the wars and other crises of the early modern period without going into so much debt that they lost their independence.