Renaissance and Reformation Maximilian I, Emperor
Paula Fichtner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0143


Ambitious and imaginative to a fault, Maximilian I (1459–1519) was the son of German Emperor Frederick III and Eleanore of Portugal. It was Emperor Frederick who arranged the son’s marriage to Duchess Mary of Burgundy I in 1477 that gave the Austrian house of Habsburg its first political footing in western Europe, thus making it a major player in European dynastic affairs. It was Maximilian, however, who in 1495 negotiated the marital unions with Spain that made the Habsburgs rulers over substantial parts of the known world. As a territorial ruler of the Habsburg Austrian patrimony and as German emperor after 1493, Maximilian aspired to reform the legal and fiscal administration of both polities. Though much of what he accomplished either did not meet his goals or failed to last, he is now thought to have created a model for the governance of the Austrian lands that his successors institutionalized. He also brought a welcome domestic peace to the German Holy Roman Empire, which territorial feuding had rent asunder throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. Maximilian spent much of his career defending his dynasty’s vast territorial presence militarily. He also tried to expand Habsburg holdings to Hungary and smaller principalities to the southeast. In the case of Hungary he failed. Nevertheless, this and many other setbacks did not discourage him from working to develop the vision of his house that guided its policies and its image of itself in European state relations until the Habsburg monarchy collapsed in 1918. As part of his program of dynastic self-representation, Maximilian took a deeply engaged interest in the arts, sciences, and practical scholarship, such as establishing a linguistic norm in his imperial and court chancellery for early modern high German. He played a crucial role in developing the reputation of his house as a generous and discerning patron of major musicians, composers, writers, and artists, especially at his favorite residence in Innsbruck. He supported luminaries of the German Renaissance such as like the authors Sebastian Brant and Ulrich von Hutten and artists such as Albrecht Altdorfer, Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Burgkmair, whom he employed as illustrators for his autobiographical texts and numerous graphic projects. Maximilian was also keen to identify experts who would study and write about artisanship and sports. Hunting, fishing, and weaponry were among his favorite topics. The following bibliography has been selected to give a researcher some guidance to approaching the dominant issues of Maximilian’s career.


Maximilian’s self-publicizing ways, the soaring and recognizably modern nature of his territorial and administrative ambitions, and the complex cultural environment that shaped him and that he in turn helped to shape have made him an attractive subject for scholarly and popular biographers since the 18th century. Some of their products, however readable, are of questionable value. Good examples are Größing 2002, Schreiber 2008, and Wies 2003. For more serious academic historians, the study of Maximilian’s career began in the late 19th century with Heinrich Ullmann’s two-volume work (Ullmann 1967) that reflected German national concerns of the time (see also Maximilian Imagined in Posterity). Following the end of World War II, Austrian historians, beginning with Heinrich Fichtenau (Fichtenau 1959), have looked at all aspects of Maximilian’s life, career, and behavior. The massive work Wiesflecker 1971–1986 (abridged in Wiesflecker 1991) remains the preeminent account, though the recent contribution Hollegger 2005 is an accessible and worthy introduction. In England Benecke 1982 has approached the emperor and his court from the societal perspective.

  • Benecke, Gerhard. Maximilian I, 1459–1519: An Analytic Biography. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

    A highly critical treatment of Maximilian that stresses the impact of his person and his court on those around him. Though the work should be viewed as an early and sincerely intended contribution to the larger field of court history as social history, the book’s presentation of Maximilian as an insensitive agent of exploitation says more about the author’s political agenda than it does about his subject.

  • Fichtenau, Heinrich. Der Junge Maximilian (1459–1482). Munich: Oldenbourg, 1959.

    Taking into account Maximilian’s character and family relations, Fichtenau believed that more remained to be said about Maximilian as a man and a ruler than had been said by historians in the 19th century who had studied the emperor as a figure in German imperial history. The remarks about the influence of Burgundy on Maximilian’s cultural and political outlook are still worth a rereading.

  • Größing, Sigrid-Maria. Maximilian I: Kaiser, Künstler, Kämpfer. Vienna: Amalthea, 2002.

    More detailed documentation is needed to validate some of the author’s views of Maximilian as a man and as a ruler that do not conform to professional opinion. The author never explains why she ends some chapters with pictures taken from a horoscope that the emperor had cast for himself. Absent a link to the preceding text, they seem to be there for aesthetic effect alone.

  • Hollegger, Manfred. Maximilian I. (1459–1519). Herrscher und Mensch einer Zeitenwende. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2005.

    An unsentimental presentation of the significant sides of the emperor’s complex character that blended ruthlessness with sociability, aesthetic sensitivity, calculated ambition, and self-indulgent whimsy. An excellent bibliography concentrates on scholarship done since 1986. It also has a separate category for doctoral dissertations that have been the basis for larger work on Maximilian.

  • Schreiber, Hermann. Ritter, Tod und Teufel. Kaiser Maximilian I. und seine Zeit. Gernsbach, Germany: Casimir Katz, 2008.

    A self-consciously idiosyncratic account, written by a man who wants to tell a story about an emperor with whom he shared a hometown—Wiener Neustadt in Lower Austria. Though its use is limited by the absence of footnotes, the work is obviously based on extensive reading and addresses some features of Maximilian’s life that other biographers mention cursorily—the emperor’s speech difficulties as a child among them.

  • Ulmann, Heinrich. Kaiser Maximilian I. 2 vols. Vienna: Geyer, 1967.

    Originally published in 1884. The author skipped lightly over the emperor’s childhood and experiences as territorial overlord of Burgundy. The focus of intense archival research is on the political and administrative history of Germany during Maximilian’s reign between 1486 and 1519. Maximilian’s failure to compromise productively on imperial reform with the German estates and concentration on dynastic interests is heavily criticized.

  • Wies, Ernst W. Kaiser Maximilian I. Ein Charakterbild. Munich: Bechtle, 2003.

    A breezy popular history that respects few conventions of scholarship. There are neither footnotes nor endnotes. The overwhelming bulk of the forty-two entries for secondary literature consists of material published before 1990.

  • Wiesflecker, Hermann. Kaiser Maximilian I. 5 vols. Vienna: Verlag für Geschichte und Politik, 1971–1986.

    Based on prodigious quantities of secondary literature and archival material from all over Europe, these volumes remain an indispensable source of authoritative information on almost every aspect of Maximilian’s life and career.

  • Wiesflecker, Hermann. Maximilian I. Die Fundamente des habsburgischen Weltreiches. Vienna: Oldenbourg, 1991.

    The author’s abridgement of his much larger work mentioned above. Though not as detailed as its predecessor, it still is very informative for readers who have to know something about Maximilian quickly. There is a good timeline as well. The book also shows off Wiesflecker’s vigorous German prose style.

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