The term robber baron is the name given to unscrupulous and despotic nobility of the medieval period in Europe. It has slightly different meanings in different countries. In modern US parlance, the term is used to describe unscrupulous industrialists.
For one thousand years, from 800 AD to 1800 AD, tolls were collected from ships sailing on the Rhine River in Europe. During this time, various feudal lords, among them archbishops who held fiefs from the Holy Roman Emperor, collected tolls from passing cargo ships to bolster their finances.
Only the Holy Roman Emperor could authorize the collection of such tolls. Allowing the nobility and Church to collect tolls from the busy traffic on the Rhine seems to have been an attractive alternative to other means of taxation and funding of government functions.
They abused their positions by stopping passing merchant ships and demanding tolls without being authorized by the Holy Roman Emperor to do so. Often iron chains were stretched across the river to prevent passage without paying the toll, and strategic towers were built to facilitate this.
The Holy Roman Emperor and the various noblemen and archbishops who were authorized to levy tolls seem to have worked out an informal way of regulating this process.
Among the decisions involved in managing the collection of tolls on the Rhine were:
- how many toll stations to have,
- where they should be built,
- how high the tolls should be,
- and the advantages/disadvantages.
While this decision process was made no less complex by being informal, common factors included the local power structure (archbishops and nobles being the most likely recipients of a charter to collect tolls), space between toll stations (authorized toll stations seem to have been at least five kilometers apart), and ability to be defended from attack (some castles through which tolls were collected were tactically useful until the French invaded in 1689 and leveled them).
Tolls were standardized either in terms of an amount of silver coin allowed to be charged or an "in-kind" toll of cargo from the ship.
In contrast, the men who came to be known as robber barons (German: Raubritter) violated the structure under which tolls were collected on the Rhine either by charging higher tolls than the standard or by operating without authority from the Holy Roman Emperor altogether.
Writers of the period referred to these practices as "unjust tolls," and not only did the robber barons thereby violate the prerogatives of the Holy Roman Emperor, they also went outside of the society's behavioral norms, since merchants were bound both by law and religious custom to charge a "just price" for their wares.
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