Header and above: The famous painting at the town hall of Landshut, Lower Bavaria, depicting scenes of the “Wedding of Landshut” in 1475 between the Bavarian Duke Georg der Reiche (George the Rich) and Hedwig Jagiellonica, daughter of the Polish King Kasimir IV. Andreas. The wedding is quadrennially re-enacted as a magnificent spectacle (last in 2017). Painted by August Spieß, Rudolf Seitz, Ludwig Löfftz and Konrad Weigand.


Preceding Post: Fontenoy – The Rise of Germany


The two basic tools of statecraft for the Kings of Eastern Franconia after the division of Charlemagne’s Empire were war and marriage, and both influenced the royal exchequer. If the annual campaign was successful, the lion’s share of the newly acquired territories was the king’s to bestow upon a faithful liege, perhaps with some cash as well. If a war was lost, the hand of a royal daughter might mitigate the conditions of peace. At length the more or less classical feudal system developed, wherein liege lord and vassal were bound to mutual assistance by the bilateral oath of fealty; yet in reality an often incessant series of battles, marriages, exchange, barter and trade obscured the lines and enhanced the volatility of the political landscape. War was ubiquitous and unremitting, miring states in feuds that lasted, sometimes, for centuries: England and France fought three hundred years, with intermissions, over the erstwhile Normannic possessions in western and northern France. …

By the end of the ninth century AD, the centre of political gravity in the East moved to Bavaria, where Arnulf of Carinthia [r.AD 887-899] and his, rather ineffective, son Louis the Child [r.AD 900-911] represented the last of the Carolingians. Between AD 896, when Arnulf fell seriously ill, and AD 911, there was “a power vacuum in the Eastern kingdom. It was filled by new regional rulers, called “‘Dukes’ – of Bavaria … of Alemannia (now increasingly called Swabia) … of Saxony … of Lotharingia … and even of the East Frankish heartland, which seems to have crystallized as a duchy under Gebhard’s nephew Conrad around 906.” (16)

It was not really an Empire in AD 1000, and certainly not “Holy” …

There is a temptation to see the emergence of these regional princes as the beginning of German particularism, but for the time being these were only transient structures, albeit developing their own political consciousness. They could be relatively mature, as in Bavaria, or chaotic, as in Saxony, but it “is a sign of the power of the duchy as a political concept that they too had more or less hegemonic dukes by Louis the Child’s death. The Frank Conrad, ruler of the most ‘royal’ duchy, was a natural successor to Louis, as Conrad I (911-18), but he failed to gain the respect from his ducal ex-peers that he hoped for,” and “when he died, the magnates of ‘Francia et Saxonia’ chose Henry of Saxony as the new king (Henry I, “the Fowler”, 919- 36).” (17)

It was a momentous occasion, and a risk, too: for the first time since Chlodwig, a man was king of the Franks who was not a Frank himself. It was perhaps an accidental bout of wisdom that had influenced the decision, for the Saxonian dukes and their armies were the leading edge in the border wars in the East, against the Slays and in particular against the Magyars or Hungarians, the latest semi-nomadic issue from the Asian steppe. Henry defeated them in 933, to his credit and popularity. (18) The basis for the wealth of Henry’s family, the Liudolfingians, later called the Ottonians, was slave trade, a most profitable business which benefited from the Saxons’ proximity to the border. They sent grab commandos on kidnapping sprees into the East, to abduct the children of the Slavs [the name “Slav” indeed comes from this business], and to sell them, especially young boys, blondes at a premium, into the Turkish and Arabian brothels of the Levant.

The hazard of Henry’s election for the Franks was that the Saxons well remembered Charlemagne’s slaughter of 4,500 of their kin, and no one would have been surprised had they sought revenge. But Henry publicly announced to forego retribution, and this message gave rise to the hope that the vicious circle of intertribal slaughter and retribution might be broken. At the occasion of the succession of his father and his formal coronation and anointment as emperor at Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital, Henry’s son Otto [Otto I, r.AD 936-973] promoted equality between the tribes, by inviting all the eastern dukes and being publicly supported by them, in an attempt to strengthen the governmental consensus he hoped to establish.

From left to right: 12th-century stained-glass depiction of Otto I, Strasbourg Cathedral, Henry the Fowler, Henry II, Henry IV at Canossa, Frederick II.
From left to right: 12th-century stained-glass depiction of Otto I, Strasbourg Cathedral, Henry the Fowler, Henry II, Henry IV at Canossa, Frederick II.

In some respects it was easier for the aristocracy to entertain notions of collegiality than it was for the peasants; for the Aleman farmer or Saxonian shepherd, fancies of being a “German” were still part of a distant future. The annals kept in churches describe fiendish prejudices: chronicles portray the Swabians as stupid, the Hessians as overbold, and call the Saxons simply “wild”. Awful was the reputation of the Bavarians; rapists and robbers, gluttons and drunkards.

[* The terminology of the age was volatile; the summary below is provided by Chris Wickham: “The separate concepts “France” and “Germany” did not yet exist; nor even, except occasionally, did “West” and “East” Francia, the terminology historians currently use; both were normally just Francia, or Francia et Saxonia in the case of the eastern kingdom, to reflect the Saxon origins and political base of the Ottonians. (‘France” is of course simply the French for Francia; by contrast in the German lands, the Frankish heartland was only one region among the old ethnic territories of Saxony, Alemannia, Bavaria, and so a new inclusive name eventually appeared, the regnum Teutonicum, though not until the eleventh century.) But the lack of interest of the historians reflects a slow cultural separation. For Flodoard and Richer, Francia was „really“ (northern) France; the East Franks were Transrhenenses, from over the Rhine, or else the inhabitants of Germania, the old Roman geographic term. For Widukind, similarly, West Francia was Gallia, proto-French the Gallic lingua, and Francia was seen as “really” being in the East.”] (19)

Yet the instruments of civil governance, as opposed to war, remained few and crude, hampered by the sluggishness of communications. For the most part, Otto and his successors still governed ambulatory: they moved, with a long trek of wagons and horses, counsellors and courtiers, bodyguards and jesters, ladies chaste and not so chaste, through the country. Wherever the trek halted, royal duties were performed as long as circumstances permitted it: when the local host ran out of victuals, the wagons moved on. Many parts of the realm would not behold the king ever; the royal visits concentrated upon the old Roman settlements and the newer Imperial towns, mostly sees of bishops: Mainz, Speyer, Cologne, Trier, Worms, Nuremberg and Regensburg, the former “Castra Regina”, i.e. “Fortress by the Regen River”.

The Imperial Throne in the Cathedral of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle)

All in all it was a somewhat haphazard affair Otto found himself king of, when, by a stroke of luck or fate, in AD 951, the opportunity arose to marry the widow of the king of the Lombardy, and thus to secure the Lombardian succession, which included most of northern Italy, for his family, their successors, and the Regnum Teutonicum. In the pursuit of this lucky break Otto happened to set his eyes on Rome as well. The former capital of the world had sunken deeply; the times of her grandeur were a fading memory. Economically and militarily without importance, the city, at perhaps a tenth of her former one million inhabitants, managed a meagre subsistence on a diminished flow of pilgrims visiting the seat of St. Peter. One possibility, however, attracted Otto’s attention, regarding the city’s most venerable resident, Pope John XII. In compensation for a contribution to the bishop’s stressed finances, the king as well as his successors would like to propose their ideas on the future bearers of the greatest Catholic dignity to the people of Rome, and would expect the wisdom of their choice to be honoured in perpetuity. Edward Gibbon reports on another shady deal:

Otho [Otto] the First imposed a treaty on the senate and the people [of Rome], who engaged to prefer the candidate most acceptable to his majesty: his successors anticipated or prevented their choice: they bestowed the Roman benefice, like the bishoprics of Cologne or Bamberg, on their chancellors or preceptors; and whatever might be the merit of a Frank or Saxon, his name sufficiently attests the interposition of foreign power.

Such mutual compliments also caused difficulties in cooperative warfare, for in the meetings of the presumed allies, it could happen too easily that jokes were told, catcalls flew, one word gave the other, and in a minute the hypothetical confederates went at each other’s throats. Only when the kingdom was confronted with a true danger, the wild hordes of the Hungarians, did the amalgamated troops display a semblance of orderly conduct. When the intruders were beaten by Henry in AD 933, and later, decisively, by Otto in AD 955, and thus ceased to remain a threat to the lives and possessions of the tribes, it was probably the first time that a collective “German”* sigh of relief swept through the land.

These acts of prerogative were most speciously excused by the vices of a popular election. The competitor who had been excluded by the cardinals appealed to the passions or avarice of the multitude; the Vatican and the Lateran were stained with blood; and the most powerful senators, the marquises of Tuscany and the counts of Tusculum, held the apostolic see in a long and disgraceful servitude. The Roman pontiffs of the ninth and tenth centuries were insulted, imprisoned, and murdered by their tyrants; and such was their indigence, after the loss and usurpation of the ecclesiastical patrimonies, that they could neither support the state of a prince nor exercise the charity of a priest.

The influence of two sister prostitutes, Marozia and Theodora, was founded on their wealth and beauty, their political and amorous intrigues: the most strenuous of their lovers were rewarded with the Roman mitre, and their reign may have suggested to the darker ages the fable of a female pope. The bastard son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of Marozia, a rare genealogy, were seated in the chair of St. Peter, and it was at the age of nineteen years that the second of these became the head of the Latin Church. …

[But] we read with some surprise that the worthy grandson of Marozia lived in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran palace was turned into a school for prostitution, and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the tomb of St. Peter lest in the devout act they should be violated by his successor. The Protestants have dwelt with malicious pleasure on these characters of Antichrist; but to a philosophical eye, the vices of the clergy are far less dangerous than their virtues. (20)

Painting – by some ascribed to show Marozia (890 – 937) – the alleged mistress of Pope Sergius III. She was given the unprecedented titles senatrix (“senatoress”) and patricia of Rome by Pope John X. Corner: The Wedding of Marozia and Hugh of Italy, from Francesco Bertolini, Historia de Roma.

Otto’s Italian job had not only secured him the possession of the Lombardy and the connubial attentions of the widow, but his financial health as well. A number of prosecutions for treason which notably reduced the number of John’s creditors, had removed much of the pope’s secular distress, and, in a solemn ceremony, the grateful bishop decorated Otto with the crown and the royal insignia of Charlemagne; since this day Otto referred to himself as Augustus, Caesar, and Emperor. The good-neighbourly relations, once established, persuaded John and Otto to adjudicate two future principles of Imperial ballots: that the candidate who was elected emperor by the German princes would thereby obtain, instantly, the kingdom of Italy as his personal domain, but he was not to assume the Imperial titles until he was crowned in Rome, by the pope himself. The vacant Roman titles were resurrected by the sword of the Barbarians and the authority of a religion; and it was the claim of the new dignity that it bestowed superiority over all the other monarchs of the West.

With so many labours of love and duty on his hands, Otto did not find much time to tend to his “German” affairs. He could have returned over the Alps and collected affirmations of his new rank from the dukes, but the new possessions, and perhaps the widow’s attentions, required his continued presence in the newly acquired territories. It was the Italians, who now had the frequent opportunity to host the new emperor’s court, who were the first to come up with a single appellation covering all the pale folks from the north: they called them “Teutonici”, in remembrance of Gaius Marius’s victory over the Teutones a millennium ago. The Italians thought that all these tribes whose tongues they could not understand, could understand each other, which was, unfortunately, not the case. But since one Germanic dialect sounded just as unintelligible to them as the next one, they were all called “Teutonic”, ‘German’.

Now that the Regnum Teutonicum also included Italy and a new Imperial dignity, the question was what would happen at the founder’s death. Yet, surprisingly enough, the Ottonians were able to form a relatively stable dynasty, despite some smaller emergencies, and after the deaths of Otto II [r.AD 973-983] and Otto III [r.AD 98310021, the German dukes elected “Henry IV of Bavaria (Henry II, 1002-24), who was Otto I’s brother’s grandson and Otto III’s male line heir. There was no doubt at any of these royal accessions that East Francia was a single political system, which by now included Italy as well.” (21)

Medieval Costumes
Medieval Costumes

When trouble arose, it came from an unanticipated direction. It had been early recognized by Otto and his successors that the princes of the Church were relatively more eager to support Imperial business than the secular nobility, whose interests were dominated by dynastic issues. Ever since the harmonious understanding between Pope John and Otto I, the bishops and cardinals of the Catholic Church could be counted on to be found on the side of the emperor, until the cosy relations suffered a setback over the right of investiture.

Conflicts over the authority to appoint bishops were as old as the Church, dating back to AD 337, when Emperor Constantine (on his deathbed, not a minute earlier) accepted Christianity as one permissible religion of the Imperium Romanum and his own. Six centuries later, Otto and his successors claimed the right of investiture as an Imperial prerogative, and for a hundred years or so the popes were too weak to challenge the emperor’s licence. Under the auspices of Pope Gregor VII, however, a reform movement usurped the clerical hierarchy and reclaimed the privilege for the Holy See. After prolonged arguments and a few rounds of cross-excommunications, the Church won, and the current emperor Heinrich IV had to undertake a journey to Canossa and beg forgiveness from the pope.

The crown was thus forced to abandon the former Imperial privileges in clerical affairs, but the triumph of the Church had consequences that far outreached the rather limited issue of investiture. Since Canossa, the Holy Roman Emperor was a lay Christian like any of his subjects, and this transition of power the Church promptly used to claim the secular authority, that is, the political control, over her properties. The number of administrative entities in the Regnum Teutonicum was much augmented by the addition of clerical domains; three hundred years later approximately ninety German bishops and cardinals, with all the rights of secular lords, joined the thirty or forty leaders of the nobility in the actual governance of the realm.

The Knight, Death and the Devil - Albrecht Dürer (The Scourges of the Middle Ages)
The Scourges of the Middle Ages – Knight, Death and Devil – by Albrecht Dürer

The main consequence of the tug-of-war between clergy and nobility was that it further hampered the emergence of a “German” consciousness, compared with, say, France. The French ethnogenesis developed more rapidly not only because central governance was instituted earlier, it was also centred on an all-important capital. In a perfect antithesis, the possessions of secular and clerical princes in the Holy Roman Empire, as it was called from the fourteenth century on, were divided and subdivided again, and a quilt of dozens of tiny-to-medium-sized dominions alongside the great duchies emerged, and existed until the early nineteenth century. The absence of a great capital contributed to the maturative sluggishness; great towns reflect culture and culture reflects identity.

Without the benefits of a unified language or political centre, the German national birth pangs continued, for attractors of social cohesiveness, a “national” consciousness, were disfavoured by the princes, who saw them as threats to their sovereignty. Otto’s Imperial claim of superiority over the rest of the continental princes, whether they called themselves kings or not, remained a theoretical exercise; de facto, the medieval emperor was not more than primus inter pares. Not that the Imperial designs ever were too modest: one of Otto’s eventual successors from the House of Hohenstaufen [flor. AD 1138-1254], Heinrich IV, allowed his modesty to claim all the lands in Africa and the Levant, between Gibraltar and the Hellespont, as his personal domain, on the argument that they, as former provinces of the Imperium Romanum, be restored to his authority as the universal heir of Romulus and Hadrian. He also proclaimed his desire to conquer Baghdad and the Caliphate.

It probably saved the Regnum Teutonicum respectively Holy Roman Empire a lot of needless slaughter, when the good man died in AD 1197, at only thirty-three, and his extensive plans remained stillborn. Perhaps it was a family trait: his father, Friedrich I, called “Barbarossa” for his prodigious red facial hairdo, had not allowed the pages of the family book to remain unturned, either: to combine the useful with the sacred, he partook in the Third Crusade but had the misfortune to fall off his horse into a Turkish river and, for his armour, drowned on the road to glory [AD 1190). At least he did not need to witness the subsequent slaughter of his army by the heathen Saracens. Crusades were much in fashion at the time, and in the family, and Barbarossa’s grandson Friedrich II experienced a good amount of the Holy Quest when he became, successively, the pupil, an enemy, and a victim of the Church. (22)

Piazza Federico II at Jesi, Frederick II's birthplace
Piazza Federico II at Jesi, Frederick II’s birthplace

In his minority, Friedrich had been a ward of Pope Innocent III and had been married, as quickly as it might appear proper, to the heiress of the short-lived Kingdom of Jerusalem, thereby to instil in the young emperor a desire for the reacquisition of the Holy City. Friedrich dutifully delivered the town once again from Arab occupation [AD 1229] but soon tired of the essential stupidity of religious fanaticism. Being a man of religious tolerance, he began to negotiate with the sultan, to establish actual freedom of worship. The scandalous undertaking did not meet with the pope’s applause, as Edward Gibbon assures us:

The enemy of the church [Friedrich) is accused of maintaining with the miscreants an intercourse of hospitality and friendship unworthy of a Christian; of despising the barrenness of the land, and of indulging a profane thought, that if Jehovah had seen the kingdom of Naples he never would have selected Palestine for the inheritance of his chosen people.

Yet Friedrich obtained from the sultan the restitution of Jerusalem, of Bethlehem and Nazareth, of Tyre and Sidon; the Latins [Europeans] were allowed to inhabit and fortify the city; an equal code of civil and religious freedom was ratified for the sectaries of Jesus and those of Mohammed; and while the former worshipped at the holy sepulchre, the latter might pray and preach in the mosque of the temple whence the prophet undertook his nocturnal journey to Heaven.

The clergy deplored this scandalous toleration; and the weaker Moslems were gradually expelled; but every rational object of the crusades was accomplished without bloodshed; the churches were restored, the monasteries were replenished; and in the space of fifteen years, the Latins of Jerusalem exceeded the number of six thousand. (23)

Medieval view of Lucerne by Martin Martini 1597
Medieval view of Lucerne by Martin Martini 1597

Peaceful coexistence was not a fashion of life the Catholic Church was prepared to tolerate, and in a short time the natural passions of hatred and ferocity were restored to the treasure of Christian virtues. Friedrich was excommunicated not only once but twice, and at length retired to his beloved refuge of Sicily. The island had inherited, over the last two millennia, a veritable melting pot of Mediterranean cultures: Greek, Phoenician and Roman influences had existed in fruitful competition for centuries, and the results pleased the emperor’s eyes. Sicily became Friedrich’s pet project of a “modern state”, and on account of his good relations to the sultan, he obtained the assistance of Arabian scientists, civil servants, doctors and clerks; his court was the most developed institution in contemporary Europe.

Germany was of lesser importance to him, and he only crossed the Alps twice to inspect his titular possessions. He had surrendered a few of the old Imperial privileges, the imposition of tariffs or duties, for example, to the major German princes, in return for their electoral support of his son’s succession to the Imperial dignity. Such deals were common and the most compelling factor in the gradual diminishment of the Imperial authority. They were called Capitulations, and the name correctly describes their contents. Perhaps comparable to the way the English aristocracy had gained, in the development of the four centuries between the Magna Charta of AD 1215 and the Bill of Rights in AD 1689, more and broader limitations of the powers of the crown, the capitulations of the German emperors decreased their executive powers. Friedrich’s attempt to secure his son’s succession was the last effort to establish a hereditary line on the thrown of the Occident until the usurpation of the office by the House of Habsburg three centuries later.

The form of the actual Imperial election was reformed in AD 1356 with the publication of the “Golden Bull”, which delegated the franchise upon the shoulders of the seven Electors, whose majority vote would ennoble the successful candidate. The original bull named three men of the cloth and four members of the nobility: the three clerical electors were the archbishops of Mainz, Cologne and Trier, of whom the gentleman from Mainz officiated as Imperial Arch Chancellor and primus inter pares: he was the chairman of the election board, voted last, and supervised the coronation ceremonies. The four secular electors were the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Marquis of Brandenburg and the Duke of Bavaria, replaced later by the King of Bohemia.

The convoluted design effectively prevented the establishment of dynasties for more than two centuries; no single family was permitted to accumulate undue influence by too long a reign. Therefore, at a time when England was ruled by the Plantagenets and their descendants, the Yorks and Lancasters, and France governed by a succession of Capets, Orleans, Valois and Bourbons, no German dynasty was allowed to leverage a unifying influence upon the German people. This absence explained, to a degree, the differences between the national consciousness of France and Germany: the French perspective was early formed by territorial, that is, increasingly possessive motivations, while the German outlook was restricted to the vagaries of ever-changing and frequently shifting political coalitions.

The project “Germany” had a long way ahead.


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

(16) (17) (18) (19) (21) Chris Wickham, “The Inheritance of Rome“, Viking Books 2009 ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, pp. 430, 431, 431, 429

(20) (22) (23) Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“, Modern Library 2003-5, ISBN 0-345-47884-3 , pp. 1043 (889), 1276 (1088), 1278 (1090) [First Page Number: Mass Market Edition 2005; Second Page Number: 4th Edition 2003-4]

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