In 1592 the tiny state of Pfalz-Zweibrücken became the first in the world to introduce compulsory schooling for boys and girls. Johann I, Count Palatinate of Pfalz Zweibrücken, the ruler who ordered this, died #Onthisday, August 12th, 1604 in Germersheim.

He was one of these innumerable little princes that litter the story of the Holy Roman empire in the 14th to 18th century. He inherited his small duchy through a division of his father’s estates. His inheritance was so poor, that for the first 8 years he could not even afford to live there. He had to lodge with his brother who he despised.

He had a deep interest in history, religion and education. In 1592 he followed Luther’s appeal for general schooling which he introduced for girls and boys. Württemberg had already introduced compulsory schooling in 1559, but only for boys. In 1593 he welcomed Hugenot immigrants from France who were fleeing religious persecution and civil war. Politically he engaged in regular disagreements with his brothers and neighbours, mainly over religious questions, which however did not result in military action.

The House of Pfalz Zweibrücken by some coincidence would later provide the kings of Sweden, including the legendary Charles XII.

This little vignette shows both the weakness and the strength of the Holy Roman Empire. Yes, it created tiny essentially non-viable political entities that engaged in petty squabbling. However, it also provided a framework that allowed individual princes and cities to experiment with far reaching concepts like general schooling, religious freedom or a free press. The commonly held view is that these little princes suppressed their citizens, creating the famous German obedience to their betters. I am not sure this is true. Compared to their contemporaries in France or England, a 16th century German could escape religious or other persecution by simply moving across the nearby border. French and English objectors had to grin and bear it or go underground.

If you want to hear more about this and other topics, why not listen to the History of the Germans Podcast, available for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and many other providers of fine audio entertainment. Or go here