The history of the Holy Roman Empire, as Germany was then known, differed quite markedly from France and England. Whereas those two countries were well on their way to developing national monarchies by 1300, Germany was disintegrating into feudal anarchy. This was largely the result of Germany being tied to the ancient and somewhat outdated concept of a universal Roman Empire that claimed dominion over all of Europe. This put it into conflict with the Catholic Church, which had its own claims to universal dominion. The ensuing centuries long struggle between popes and emperors would exhaust the empire, destroy most of the emperors’ authority in Germany, and leave it in the power of independent princes and church prelates. Also, the quickly emerging nation states had little room for the idea of a universal empire interfering in their affairs. The concept of such an empire may have had some appeal in the time of Charlemagne. Five hundred years later the luster of such claims was tarnished and starting to rust.
The Saxon Dynasty
The breakup of the Frankish Empire in the ninth century created two main states: West Frankland, which would become France, and East Frankland, which would become Germany. The death of Louis the Child in 911 put an end to the German branch of the Carolingian dynasty, forcing the German nobles to choose a new ruler. Largely because they recognized the need for a strong monarchy to protect them against the nomadic Magyars to the East, the nobles chose the rulers of Saxony as their king. In the following century, the Saxon dynasty (919-1024) established one of the strongest of the early medieval monarchies. The Saxons based their power, as most monarchs then did, on the twin pillars of holding land and an alliance with the Church.
In addition, the Saxon rulers did two other things to strengthen their alliance with the Church. For one thing, they supported the spread of the Cluniac reforms into Germany, largely as a means to weakening the power of local nobles. Secondly, in 961 the pope and Italian bishops called in the Saxon ruler, Otto I, to defend them against their enemies. In return for this favor, the pope crowned Otto Roman Emperor. From this time until 1806, the imperial dignity would belong to the rulers of Germany, known afterwards as the Holy Roman Empire.
The Salian Dynasty (1024-1106), which succeeded the Saxons, also depended on controlling Church officials and large amounts of land to maintain and build its authority. In addition, the rising power of the nobles made it even more mandatory that they form a more efficient administration. In the absence of towns at this early date, the Salians used a peculiar institution known as ministeriales. These were originally non-free peasants whom the Church would use for knight service to the emperor. The bishops and abbots would give the ministeriales use, but not possession of land to pay for these services. The Salian emperors used ministeriales for various military and civil services, since their low social status kept them dependent on the emperor. They also drew silver from the mines in the Hartz Mountains, which gave them still more power.
Their power and policies made the Salians unpopular in Germany, especially with the nobles. However, by 1075, the emperor Henry IV seemed well on his way to building the strongest monarchy in Western Europe. He had extensive lands, a permanent capital at Goslar, money revenues, and a body of servants loyal to the king. Unfortunately, as we have seen, the emperors’ support of the Church reforms had also raised the power and status of the popes who then challenged the emperors’ control of Church elections in Investiture Struggle (1075-1122). When pope Gregory VII excommunicated Henry, the German nobles seized the opportunity to rebel against their emperor and elect a new ruler. Rebellions, civil war, and anarchy tore through Germany and Italy. Pope Gregory VII died in exile, but his successors continued the struggle. When Henry IV died, his successor, Henry V, finally managed to reach a compromise settlement, but the damage was already done.
The anarchy and wars of the past half a century had allowed the German nobles to assert their independence. Great nobles became virtually independent princes, while the lower nobles became their vassals. Bishops and abbots also granted fiefs in return for military service. The free peasants virtually disappeared. Even the ministeriales were forced to break their bonds of service to the empire and become other nobles’ vassals as the empire started to fragment.
What ensued was a vicious cycle whereby German emperors, seeing Germany as increasingly hopeless and themselves as Roman emperors, would neglect Germany and concentrate on building their power in Italy. As a result, Germany would disintegrate into worse anarchy. This would encourage the emperors to concentrate further on Italy while ignoring Germany, and so on.
This process especially accelerated under the Hohenstauffen dynasty, starting with its first emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa (1152-1190). Frederick I first tried to reassert imperial power in the rich cities of Lombardy in north Italy. After some initial successes, he was defeated by the combined forces of the Lombard League in 1176. Although they acknowledged him as their emperor and paid some money, they remained virtually independent. Frederick did manage to seal a marriage alliance of his son to a Norman princess of Southern Italy and Sicily. Frederick also had some success in controlling the cities in Central Italy. This had the effect of alarming the popes who became the avowed enemies of the Hohenstauffen emperors surrounding them.
Frederick Barbarossa died while on Crusade in 1190. His son and successor Henry VI, being married to Constance of Sicily was even more involved in Italian politics. For one thing he had to spend several years putting down a rebellion of Norman nobles who did not want a German ruler. Although Sicily brought the empire a very well organized and wealthy state, it also kept the emperors out of Germany even more, allowing it to disintegrate further. The acquisition of Sicily also further alienated the popes who were now surrounded with an even tighter noose.
The last great “German” emperor, Frederick II (1196-1250) came to the throne as a baby. After a stormy childhood, during which pope Innocent III was his guardian against more threatening German nobles, he came to the throne in high own right. Frederick was one of the most fascinating medieval characters, keeping Muslim advisors, a harem, and a menagerie of exotic animals. His irreligious ways shocked contemporaries. Even his crusade where he gained Jerusalem through negotiation rather than fighting with the Muslims did not seem quite Christian.
Frederick grew up in Sicily and considered Germany too cold and bleak for a home, spending only two years of his reign there. His policy there was to keep it quiet so he could concentrate on building his power in Italy and fighting the popes. As a result, he was willing to grant further privileges to the German nobles in order to pacify them. The last vestiges of imperial control fell into the hands of nobles who were now granted full powers of government in their individual lands. The popes added to the confusion as they stirred up rebellions against Frederick in both Italy and Germany. Although Frederick maintained his power in Italy, he never succeeded in breaking the popes’ power. Even after his death in 1250, the emperors’ fight with the popes continued.
The popes finally emerged victorious in their struggle with the German emperors. They broke the ring of enemies surrounding them by inciting rebellions in the cities to the north and bringing in the French royal prince, Charles of Anjou, to overthrow Frederick’s son in Sicily and Southern Italy. The pope even forced loans out of the Italian bankers by threatening to ruin them with a decree absolving all debtors from their obligations to the bakers. The means that the popes used to defeat the emperors also served to tarnish their own reputations and that of the Church.
In 1350, the German monarchy became purely elective, further weakening the power of the emperors. By 1500 Germany would be a patchwork of some 300 independent states nominally united under the empire. For centuries, Germany, too weak and divided to defend itself, would be a constant battleground for other powers’ wars. Even after its unification in 1871, the memory of these humiliations would largely determine Germany’s foreign policy and be an underlying cause of the two world wars in this century.