The Middle Ages
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.