Government In Germany And Italy

The Middle Ages

Date: 1992

Government In Germany And Italy

When the Carolingian kingdom of the East Franks proved incapable of

coping with the attacks of Magyar horsemen in the late ninth and early tenth

centuries, the task was taken over by the tribal leaders (or dukes) of the

Saxons, Bavarians, Swabians, and Franconians. These dukes - along with the

duke of Lorraine - usurped the royal power and crown lands in their duchies

and also took control over the church.

When the last Carolingian, Louis the Child, died in 911, the dukes

elected the weakest among them, Conrad of Franconia, to be their king. The new

monarch ruled just eight years and was incapable of meeting the menace of the

Magyar raids. On his deathbed he recommended that the most powerful of the

dukes, Henry the Fowler, duke of Saxony, be chosen as his successor. Henry,

who ruled as Henry I (919-936), was the first of the illustrious Saxon

Dynasty, which ruled until 1024 and under which Germany became the most

powerful state in western Europe. Henry exercised little authority outside of

his own duchy, and his kingdom was hardly more than a confederation of

independent duchies. Against Germany's border enemies, he was more successful.

He pushed back the Danes and established the Dane Mark as a protective buffer.

He also made inroads against the Slavs to the east, and further to the

southeast, in Bohemia, forced the Slavic Czech to recognize his overlordship.

Otto The Great And The German Empire

Realizing that the great hindrance to German unity was the opposition of

the dukes, Henry's son and heir, Otto I, the Great (936-973), initiated a

policy of gaining control of the unruly duchies by setting up his own

relatives and favorites as their rulers. As an extra precaution he appointed

as supervising officials counts who were directly responsible to the king.

Through an alliance with the church, Otto constructed a German monarchy.

The king protected the bishops and abbots and granted them a free hand over

their vast estates; in return the church leaders furnished the king with the

officials, income, and troops that he lacked. Otto appointed bishops and

abbots, and since their offices were not hereditary, he could be sure that

their first obedience was to the king. This alliance of crown and church was a

natural one at the time. At his coronation at Aachen, Otto had insisted on

being anointed rex et sacerdos ("king and priest").

Otto also put an end to the Magyar invasions, thereby enhancing his claim

that the king, and not the dukes, was the true defender of the German people.

In 955 Otto crushed the Magyars at Lechfeld, near Augsburg. The surviving

Magyars settled in Hungary, and by the year 1000 they had accepted


Otto the Great wanted to establish a German Empire, modeled after the

Roman and Carolingian examples. The conquest and incorporation of Italy into

that empire was one of Otto's primary objectives. In 951 he crossed the Alps

and proclaimed himself king of Italy.

On his second expedition to Italy in 962, Otto was crowned emperor by the

pope, whose Papal States were threatened by an Italian duke. No doubt Otto

thought of himself as the successor of the imperial Caesars and Charlemagne;

and, in fact, his empire later became known as the Holy Roman Empire. But Otto

also needed the imperial title to legitimize his claim to Lombardy, Burgundy,

and Lorraine, which had belonged to the middle kingdom of Lothair, the last

man to hold the imperial title. Otto's coronation brought Italy and Germany,

pope and emperor, into a forced and unnatural union.

The adverse effects of the German pursuit of empire in Italy are apparent

in the reign of Otto III (983-1002), who promoted his grandiose scheme for

"the renewal of the Roman Empire." Ignoring Germany, the real source of his

power, he made Rome his capital, built a palace there, and styled himself

"emperor of the Romans." As the "servant of Jesus Christ," another of his

titles, Otto installed non-Italian popes in Rome and conceived of the papacy

as a partner in ruling an empire of Germans, Italians, and Slavs. But

notwithstanding Otto's love for Italy, the fickle Roman populace revolted and

forced him to flee the city. He died a year later while preparing to beseige


Despite the distractions in Italy, the Saxon rulers were the most

powerful in Europe. They had permanently halted Magyar pillaging and, by

utilizing the German church as an ally, had limited tendencies toward

feudalism in their homeland. They had also fostered economic progress. German

eastward expansion had begun, and the Alpine passes had been freed of Muslim

raiders and made safe for the Italian merchants.

[See Germany About 1000]

The Salian Emperors

The Saxon kings were succeeded by a new royal line, the Salian House,

which ruled from 1024 to 1125 and whose members tried to establish a

centralized monarchy. To the dismay of many nobles, a body of lowborn royal

officials was recruited; and the power of the dukes was weakened further when

the crown won the allegiance of the lesser nobles.

The reign of Henry IV (1056-1106) was a watershed in German history. The

monarchy reached the height of its power, but it also experienced a major

reverse. For a century the Ottonian system, by which the king had governed his

kingdom through the clergy, whom he appointed, had functioned smoothly. Under

Henry IV, however, the revival of a powerful papacy led to a bitter conflict,

centering on the king's right to appoint church officials who were also his

most loyal supporters. This disagreement between state and church culminated

in Henry himself suffering the humiliation of begging the pope's forgiveness

by dressing as a penitent and standing in the snow at Canossa, the papal

winter residence. This conflict, known as the Investiture Controversy,

resulted in the loss of the monarchy's major sources of strength: the loyalty

of the German church, now transferred to the papacy; the support of the great

nobles, now openly rebellious and insistent on their "inborn rights"; and the

chief material base of royal power, the king's lands, which were diminished by

grants to nobles who would stay loyal only if such concessions were made.

The real victors in the Investiture Controversy were the German nobles,

many of whom allied themselves with the papacy and continued to defy the

monarchy long after the reign of Henry IV. From the time of Henry's death in

1106 until the accession of Frederick Barbarossa in 1152, the Welfs of Bavaria

and the Hohenstaufens of Swabia, along with the other noble factions, fought

over the throne, which they made elective rather than hereditary.

Italy, The Hohenstaufen Emperors, And The Papacy

Italy was even less unified than Germany. Jealous of one another and of

their independence, the properous city-states in northern Italy joined the

struggle between the German emperors and the papacy. A brilliant civilization

also flourished on the island of Sicily. The kingdom of Naples and Sicily,

under the able rule of Roger II (1130-1154), was one of the strongest and

wealthiest states in Europe. Intellectuals from all over the East and Europe

traveled to Roger's court, which ranked next to Spain's in Arabic scholarship.

Life and culture in the Sicilian kingdom, which included Norman, Byzantine,

Italian, and Arabic elements, was diverse and colorful.

The second Hohenstaufen emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa ("Red-beard"),

who reigned from 1152 to 1190, realistically accepted the fact that during the

preceding half century Germany had become thoroughly decentralized; his goal

was to give himself the supreme power by forcing the great nobles to

acknowledge his overlordship. Using force when necessary, he was largely

successful, and Germany became a centralized feudal monarchy.

To maintain his hold over Germany Frederick needed the resources of Italy

- particularly the income from taxes levied on wealthy north Italian cities,

which, encouraged by the papacy, joined together in the Lombard League to

resist him. Frederick spent about twenty-five years fighting intermittently in

Italy, but the final result was failure; the opposition from the popes and the

Lombard League was too strong. Frederick did score a diplomatic triumph,

however, by marrying his son to the heiress of the throne of Naples and


Frederick Barbarossa's grandson, Frederick II (1194-1250), was able to

meet the pope's challenge to the threat of Hohenstaufen encirclement. Orphaned

at an early age, Frederick was brought up as the ward of Innocent III, the

most powerful medieval pope. With the pope's support, Frederick was elected

emperor in 1215, one year before Innocent's death.

The papacy and the north Italian cities successfully defied Frederick II

throughout his reign, and in the end he experienced the same failure as had

Frederick Barbarossa. Frederick also clashed with the papacy in another

sphere. Embarking on a crusade at the pope's insistence, he fell ill and

turned back. For this, he was promptly excommunicated. When Frederick resumed

the crusade a few months later, he was again excommunicated, this time for

crusading while excommunicated. When Frederick acquired Jerusalem by

negotiation and agreed to allow Muslims to worship freely in the city, the

pope excommunicated him a third time, describing the emperor as "this scorpion

spewing poison from the sting of its tail."

Frederick sacrificed Germany in his efforts to unite all Italy under his

rule. He transferred crown lands and royal rights to the German princes in

order to keep them quiet and to win their support for his Italian wars. Born

in Sicily, he remained devoted to the southern part of his empire. He shaped

his kingdom in Sicily into a vibrant state. Administered by paid officials who

were trained at the University of Naples, which he founded for that purpose,

his kingdom was the most centralized and bureaucratic in Europe. Economically,

too, it was far in advance of other states; Frederick minted a uniform

currency and abolished interior tolls and tariffs, and his powerful fleet

promoted and protected commerce.

As long as he lived, this brilliant monarch held his empire together, but

it quickly collapsed after his death in 1250. In Germany his son ruled

ineffectively for four years before dying, and soon afterward Frederick's

descendants in Sicily were killed when the count of Anjou, brother of St.

Louis of France, was invited by the pope to annihilate what remained of what

he called the "viper breed of the Hohenstaufen."

The victory of the papacy over the Hohenstaufen was more apparent than

real, for its struggle against the emperors lost it much of its prestige.

Popes had used spiritual means to achieve earthly ambitionsby preaching a

crusade against Frederick II and his descendants, for example. More and more,

popes acted as though they were Italian princes, playing the game of diplomacy

amid shifting rivalries.

The Holy Roman Empire never again achieved the brilliance it had enjoyed

during the reign of Frederick Barbarossa. Later emperors usually did not try

to interfere in Italian affairs, and they ceased going to Rome to receive the

imperial crown from the pope. In German affairs the emperors no longer even

attempted to assert their authority over the increasingly powerful nobles.

After the fall of the Hohenstaufens, Germany lapsed more and more into the

political disunity and ineffectual elective monarchy that remained

characteristic of its history until the late nineteenth century.

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