The novel is set in Germany towards the end of the 15th century, a period of change throughout Europe. In Germany the feudal system had broken down. The rise of the cities had led to a decline in the economic importance of the countryside. Power resided in the cities and in the hands of the great nobles. Successive emperors, unwilling to be mere figureheads like their predecessors, were attempting to impose their authority on their subjects. A noted figure was the Emperor Maximilian (ruled 1495 - 1516) who tried to unify and pacify the empire, but with limited success, as he wasted his great energy and abilities on too many other objects. However, efforts were being made to combat lawlessness and end the private warfare that had ravaged the countryside. At the same time the influence of the Church was being undermined by a perception of its great power, wealth and corruption.