Freiburg was founded by Konrad and Duke Bertold III of Zähringen in 1120 as a free market town; hence its name, which translates to "free (or independent) town". Frei means "free", and Burg, like the modern English word "borough", was used in those days for an incorporated city or town, usually one with some degree of autonomy. The German word Burg also means "a fortified town", as in Hamburg. Thus, it is likely that the name of this place means a "fortified town of free citizens".
This town was strategically located at a junction of trade routes between the Mediterranean Sea and the North Sea regions, and the Rhine and Danube rivers. In 1200, Freiburg's population numbered around 6,000 people. At about that time, under the rule of Bertold V, the last duke of Zähringen, the city began construction of its Freiburg Münster cathedral on the site of an older parish church. Begun in the Romanesque style, it was continued and completed 1513 for the most part as a Gothic cathedral. In 1218, when Bertold V died, the counts of Urach assumed the title of Freiburg's count. The city council did not trust the new nobles and wrote down their established rights in a document. At the end of the 13th century there was a feud between the citizens of Freiburg and their lord, Count Egino II of Freiburg. Egino raised taxes and sought to limit the citizens' freedom, after which the Freiburgers used catapults to destroy the count's castle atop Schloßberg, a hill that overlooks the city center. The furious count called on his brother-in-law the Bishop of Strasbourg, Konradius von Lichtenberg, for help. The bishop answered by marching with his army to Freiburg.
According to an old Freiburg legend, a butcher named Hauri stabbed the Bishop of Strasbourg to death on July 29, 1299. It was a Pyrrhic victory, since henceforth the citizens of Freiburg had to pay an annual expiation of 300 marks in silver to the count of Freiburg until 1368. In 1366 the counts of Freiburg made another failed attempt to occupy the city during a night raid. Eventually the citizens were fed up with their lords, and in 1368 Freiburg purchased its independence from them. The city turned itself over to the protection of the Habsburgs, who allowed the city to retain a large measure of freedom. Most of the nobles of the city died in the battle of Sempach (1386). The patrician family Schnewlin took control of the city until the guildsmen revolted. The guilds became more powerful than the patricians by 1389.
The silver mines in Mount Schauinsland provided an important source of capital for Freiburg. This silver made Freiburg one of the richest cities in Europe, and in 1327 Freiburg minted its own coin, the Rappenpfennig. In 1377 the cities of Freiburg, Basel, Colmar, and Breisach entered into an alliance known as the Genossenschaft des Rappenpfennigs (Rappenpfennig Collective). This alliance facilitated commerce between the cities and lasted until the end of the 16th century. There were 8,000-9,000 people living in Freiburg between the 13th and 14th centuries, and 30 churches and monasteries. At the end of the 14th century the veins of silver were dwindling, and by 1460 only around 6,000 people still lived within Freiburg's city walls. A university city, Freiburg evolved from its focus on mining to become a cultural center for the arts and sciences. It was also a commercial center. The end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance was a time of both advances and tragedy for Freiburg.
In 1457, Albrecht VI, Regent of Further Austria, established Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, one of Germany's oldest universities. In 1498, Emperor Maximilian I held a Reichstag in Freiburg. In 1520, the city ratified a set of legal reforms, widely considered the most progressive of the time. The aim was to find a balance between city traditions and old Roman Law. The reforms were well received, especially the sections dealing with civil process law, punishment and the city's constitution.
In 1520, Freiburg decided not to take part in the Reformation and became an important center for Catholicism on the Upper Rhine. In 1536, a strong and persistent belief in witchcraft led to the city's first witch-hunt. The need to find a scapegoat for calamities such as the Black Plague, which claimed 2,000 area residents (25% of the city population) in 1564, led to an escalation in witch-hunting that reached its peak in 1599. A plaque on the old city wall marks the spot where burnings were carried out.
The 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were turbulent times for Freiburg. At the beginning of the Thirty Years' War there were 10,000-14,000 citizens in Freiburg; by its end only 2,000 remained. During this war and other conflicts, the city belonged at various times to the Austrians, the French, the Swedish, the Spanish, and various members of the German Confederacy. Between 1648 and 1805, it was the administrative headquarters of Further Austria, the Habsburg territories in the southwest of Germany, when the city was not under French occupation. In 1805, the city, together with the Breisgau and Ortenau areas, became part of Baden.