History of Germany

Medieval Germany

The Merovingian Dynasty, ca. 500-751

In Gaul a fusion of Roman and Germanic societies occurred. Clovis, a Salian Frank belonging to a family supposedly descended from a mythical hero named Merovech, became the absolute ruler of a Germanic kingdom of mixed Roman-Germanic population in 486. He consolidated his rule with victories over the Gallo-Romans and all the Frankish tribes, and his successors made other Germanic tribes subjects of the Merovingian Dynasty. The remaining 250 years of the dynasty, however, were marked by internecine struggles and a gradual decline. During the period of Merovingian rule, the Franks reluctantly began to adopt Christianity following the baptism of Clovis, an event that inaugurated the alliance between the Frankish kingdom and the Roman Catholic Church. The most notable of the missionaries responsible for Christianizing the tribes living in Germany was Saint Boniface (ca. 675-754), an English missionary who is considered the founder of German Christianity.

The Carolingian Dynasty, 752-911

Charlemagne inherited the Frankish crown in 768. During his reign (768-814), he subdued Bavaria, conquered Lombardy and Saxony, and established his authority in central Italy. By the end of the eighth century, his kingdom, later to become known as the First Reich (empire in German), included present-day France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, as well as a narrow strip of northern Spain, much of Germany and Austria, and much of the northern half of Italy. Charlemagne, founder of an empire that was Roman, Christian, and Germanic, was crowned emperor in Rome by the pope in 800.

The Carolingian Empire was based on an alliance between the emperor, who was a temporal ruler supported by a military retinue, and the pope of the Roman Catholic Church, who granted spiritual sanction to the imperial mission. Charlemagne and his son Louis I (r. 814-40) established centralized authority, appointed imperial counts as administrators, and developed a hierarchical feudal structure headed by the emperor. Reliant on personal leadership rather than the Roman concept of legalistic government, Charlemagne's empire lasted less than a century.

A period of warfare followed the death of Louis. The Treaty of Verdun (843) restored peace and divided the empire among three sons, geographically and politically delineating the approximate future territories of Germany, France, and the area between them, known as the Middle Kingdom. The eastern Carolingian kings ruled the East Frankish Kingdom, what is now Germany and Austria; the western Carolingian kings ruled the West Frankish Kingdom, what became France. The imperial title, however, came to depend increasingly on rule over the Middle Kingdom. By this time, in addition to a geographical and political delineation, a cultural and linguistic split had occurred. The eastern Frankish tribes still spoke Germanic dialects; the language of the western Frankish tribes, under the influence of Gallo-Latin, had developed into Old French. Because of these linguistic differences, the Treaty of Verdun had to be written in two languages.

Not only had Charlemagne's empire been divided into three kingdoms, but the East Frankish Kingdom was being weakened by the rise of regional duchies, the so-called stem duchies of Franconia, Saxony, Bavaria, Swabia, and Lorraine, which acquired the trappings of petty kingdoms. The fragmentation in the east marked the beginning of German particularism, in which territorial rulers promoted their own interests and autonomy without regard to the kingdom as a whole. The duchies were strengthened when the Carolingian line died out in 911; subsequent kings would have no direct blood link to the throne with which to legitimate their claims to power against the territorial dukes.

The Saxon Dynasty, 919-1024

Because the dukes of the East Frankish Kingdom had wearied of being ruled by a foreign king, they elected a German to serve as their king once the Carolingian line expired. The election of Conrad I (r. 911-18), Duke of Franconia, as the first German king has been marked by some historians as the beginning of German history. Conrad's successor, Henry I (r. 919-36), Duke of Saxony, was powerful enough to designate his son Otto I (r. 936-73) as his successor. Otto was so able a ruler that he came to be known as Otto the Great. He overpowered other territorial dukes who rebelled against his rule and reversed the particularist trend for a time. But he failed to establish the principle of hereditary succession, and the German dukes continued to elect one of their number as king. But through military successes and alliances with the church, which had extensive properties and military forces of its own, Otto expanded the crown lands, thus laying the foundation of monarchical power. Henry, Otto, and the later Saxon kings also encouraged eastward expansion and colonization, thereby extending German rule to parts of the Slavic territories of Poland and Bohemia. The Magyars' westward expansion was halted by Otto in 955 at the Battle of Lechfeld in southern Germany.

In 962 Otto, who had also gained control of the Middle Kingdom, was formally crowned king of the Romans. The possessor of this title would, in time, be known as the Holy Roman Emperor. The coronation came to be seen as the founding of the Holy Roman Empire, an institution that lasted until 1806 and profoundly influenced the course of German history. The coronation of Otto was a moment of glory for the German monarchy, but its long-term consequences were not beneficial because as German kings sought to exercise the offices of the empire they became involved in Italian affairs, often to such an extent that they neglected the governing of Germany. Because German kings were so often in Italy, the German nobility became stronger. In addition, the presence of German kings in Italy as emperors soon caused them to come into conflict with the papacy, which did not hesitate to seek allies in Italy or Germany to limit imperial power. A last problem was that the succession to the German throne was often uncertain or was hotly contested because it was not inheritable, but could only be attained through election by the German dukes. This circumstance made the formation of an orderly or stable central government nearly impossible. In the opinion of some historians, Otto's triumph in Rome in 962 ultimately was disastrous for Germany because it delayed German unification by centuries.

The Salian Dynasty, 1024-1125

After the death of the last Saxon king in 1024, the crown passed to the Salians, a Frankish tribe. The four Salian kings--Conrad II, Henry III, Henry IV, and Henry V--who ruled Germany as kings from 1024 to 1125, established their monarchy as a major European power. Their main accomplishment was the development of a permanent administrative system based on a class of public officials answerable to the crown.

A principal reason for the success of the early Salians was their alliance with the church, a policy begun by Otto I, which gave them the material support they needed to subdue rebellious dukes. In time, however, the church came to regret this close relationship. The relationship broke down in 1075 during what came to be known as the Investiture Contest, a struggle in which the reformist pope, Gregory VII, demanded that Henry IV (r. 1056-1106) renounce his rights over the German church. The pope also attacked the concept of monarchy by divine right and gained the support of significant elements of the German nobility interested in limiting imperial absolutism. More important, the pope forbade church officials under pain of excommunication to support Henry as they had so freely done in the past. In the end, Henry journeyed to Canossa in northern Italy in 1077 to do penance and to receive absolution from the pope. However, he resumed the practice of lay investiture (appointment of religious officials by civil authorities) and arranged the election of an antipope.

The German monarch's struggle with the papacy resulted in a war that ravaged German lands from 1077 until the Concordat of Worms in 1122. This agreement stipulated that the pope was to appoint high church officials but gave the German king the right to veto the papal choices. Imperial control of Italy was lost for a time, and the imperial crown became dependent on the political support of competing aristocratic factions. Feudalism also became more widespread as freemen sought protection by swearing allegiance to a lord. These powerful local rulers, having thereby acquired extensive territories and large military retinues, took over administration within their territories and organized it around an increasing number of castles. The most powerful of these local rulers came to be called princes rather than dukes.

According to the laws of the German feudal system, the king had no claims on the vassals of the other princes, only on those living within his family's territory. Lacking the support of the formerly independent vassals and weakened by the increasing hostility of the church, the monarchy lost its preeminence. Thus, the Investiture Contest strengthened local power in Germany in contrast to what was happening in France and England, where the growth of a centralized royal power was under way.

The Investiture Contest had an additional effect. The long struggle between emperor and pope hurt Germany's intellectual life--in this period largely confined to monasteries--and Germany no longer led or even kept pace with developments occurring in France and Italy. For instance, no universities were founded in Germany until the fourteenth century.

The Hohenstaufen Dynasty, 1138-1254

Following the death of Henry V (r. 1106-25), the last of the Salian kings, the dukes refused to elect his nephew because they feared that he might restore royal power. Instead, they elected a noble connected to the Saxon noble family Welf (often written as Guelf). This choice inflamed the Hohenstaufen family of Swabia, which also had a claim to the throne. Although a Hohenstaufen became king in 1138, the dynastic feud with the Welfs continued. The feud became international in nature when the Welfs sided with the papacy and its allies, most notably the cities of northern Italy, against the imperial ambitions of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty.

The second of the Hohenstaufen rulers, Frederick I (r. 1152-90), also known as Frederick Barbarossa because of his red beard, struggled throughout his reign to restore the power and prestige of the German monarchy, but he had little success. Because the German dukes had grown stronger both during and after the Investiture Contest and because royal access to the resources of the church in Germany was much reduced, Frederick was forced to go to Italy to find the finances needed to restore the king's power in Germany. He was soon crowned emperor in Italy, but decades of warfare on the peninsula yielded scant results. The papacy and the prosperous city-states of northern Italy were traditional enemies, but the fear of imperial domination caused them to join ranks to fight Frederick. Under the skilled leadership of Pope Alexander III, the alliance suffered many defeats but ultimately was able to deny the emperor a complete victory in Italy. Frederick returned to Germany old and embittered. He had vanquished one notable opponent and member of the Welf family, Saxony's Henry the Lion, but his hopes of restoring the power and prestige of his family and the monarchy seemed unlikely to be met by the end of his life.

During Frederick's long stays in Italy, the German princes became stronger and began a successful colonization of Slavic lands. Offers of reduced taxes and manorial duties enticed many Germans to settle in the east as the area's original inhabitants were killed or driven away. Because of this colonization, the empire increased in size and came to include Pomerania, Silesia, Bohemia, and Moravia. A quickening economic life in Germany increased the number of towns and gave them greater importance. It was also during this period that castles and courts replaced monasteries as centers of culture. Growing out of this courtly culture, German medieval literature reached its peak in lyrical love poetry, the Minnesang , and in narrative epic poems such as Tristan , Parzival , and the Nibelungenlied .

Frederick died in 1190 while on a crusade and was succeeded by his son, Henry VI (r. 1190-97). Elected king even before his father's death, Henry went to Rome to be crowned emperor. A death in his wife's family gave him possession of Sicily, a source of vast wealth. Henry failed to make royal and imperial succession hereditary, but in 1196 he succeeded in gaining a pledge that his infant son Frederick would receive the German crown. Faced with difficulties in Italy and confident that he would realize his wishes in Germany at a later date, Henry returned to the south, where it appeared he might unify the peninsula under the Hohenstaufen name. After a series of military victories, however, he died of natural causes in Sicily in 1197.

Because the election of the three-year-old Frederick to be German king appeared likely to make orderly rule difficult, the boy's uncle, Philip, was chosen to serve in his place. Other factions elected a Welf candidate, Otto IV, as counterking, and a long civil war began. Philip was murdered by Otto IV in 1208. Otto IV in turn was killed by the French at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. Frederick returned to Germany in 1212 from Sicily, where he had grown up, and became king in 1215. As Frederick II (r. 1215-50), he spent little time in Germany because his main concerns lay in Italy. Frederick made significant concessions to the German nobles, such as those put forth in an imperial statute of 1232, which made princes virtually independent rulers within their territories. The clergy also became more powerful. Although Frederick was one of the most energetic, imaginative, and capable rulers of the Middle Ages, he did nothing to draw the disparate forces in Germany together. His legacy was thus that local rulers had more authority after his reign than before it.

By the time of Frederick's death in 1250, there was little centralized power in Germany. The Great Interregnum (1256-73), a period of anarchy in which there was no emperor and German princes vied for individual advantage, followed the death of Frederick's son Conrad IV in 1254. In this short period, the German nobility managed to strip many powers away from the already diminished monarchy. Rather than establish sovereign states, however, many nobles tended to look after their families. Their many heirs created more and smaller estates. A largely free class of officials also formed, many of whom eventually acquired hereditary rights to administrative and legal offices. These trends compounded political fragmentation within Germany.

Despite the political chaos of the Hohenstaufen period, the population grew from an estimated 8 million in 1200 to about 14 million in 1300, and the number of towns increased tenfold. The most heavily urbanized areas of Germany were located in the south and the west. Towns often developed a degree of independence, but many were subordinate to local rulers or the emperor. Colonization of the east also continued in the thirteenth century, most notably through the efforts of the Knights of the Teutonic Order, a society of soldier-monks. German merchants also began trading extensively on the Baltic.

The Empire under the Early Habsburgs

The Great Interregnum ended in 1273 with the election of Rudolf of Habsburg as king-emperor. After the interregnum period, Germany's emperors came from three powerful dynastic houses: Luxemburg (in Bohemia), Wittelsbach (in Bavaria), and Habsburg (in Austria). These families alternated on the imperial throne until the crown returned in the mid-fifteenth century to the Habsburgs, who retained it with only one short break until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.

The Golden Bull of 1356, an edict promulgated by Emperor Charles IV (r. 1355-78) of the Luxemburg family, provided the basic constitution of the empire up to its dissolution. It formalized the practice of having seven electors--the archbishops of the cities of Trier, Cologne, and Mainz, and the rulers of the Palatinate, Saxony, Brandenburg, and Bohemia--choose the emperor, and it represented a further political consolidation of the principalities. The Golden Bull ended the long-standing attempt of various emperors to unite Germany under a hereditary monarchy. Henceforth, the emperor shared power with other great nobles like himself and was regarded as merely the first among equals. Without the cooperation of the other princes, he could not rule.

The princes were not absolute rulers either. They had made so many concessions to other secular and ecclesiastical powers in their struggle against the emperor that many smaller principalities, ecclesiastical states, and towns had retained a degree of independence. Some of the smaller noble holdings were so poor that they had to resort to outright extortion of travelers and merchants to sustain themselves, with the result that journeying through Germany could be perilous in the late Middle Ages. All of Germany was under the nominal control of the emperor, but because his power was so weak or uncertain, local authorities had to maintain order--yet another indication of Germany's political fragmentation.

Despite the lack of a strong central authority, Germany prospered during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Its population increased from about 14 million in 1300 to about 16 million in 1500, even though the Black Death killed as much as one-third of the population in the mid-fourteenth century.

Located in the center of Europe, Germany was active in international trade. Rivers flowing to the north and the east and the Alpine passes made Germany a natural conduit conveying goods from the Mediterranean to northern Europe. Germany became a noted manufacturing center. Trade and manufacturing led to the growth of towns, and in 1500 an estimated 10 percent of the population lived in urban areas. Many towns became wealthy and were governed by a sophisticated and self-confident merchant oligarchy. Dozens of towns in northern Germany joined together to form the Hanseatic League, a trading federation that managed shipping and trade on the Baltic and in many inland areas, even into Bohemia and Hungary. The Hanseatic League had commercial offices in such widely dispersed towns as London, Bergen (in present-day Norway), and Novgorod (in present-day Russia). The league was at one time so powerful that it successfully waged war against the king of Denmark. In southern Germany, towns banded together on occasion to protect their interests against encroachments by either imperial or local powers. Although these urban confederations were not always strong enough to defeat their opponents, they sometimes succeeded in helping their members to avoid complete subjugation. In what was eventually to become Switzerland, one confederation of towns had sufficient military might to win virtual independence from the Holy Roman Empire in 1499.

The Knights of the Teutonic Order continued their settlement of the east until their dissolution early in the sixteenth century, in spite of a serious defeat at the hands of the Poles at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410. The lands that came under the control of this monastic military, whose members were pledged to chastity and to the conquest and conversion of heathens, included territory that one day would become eastern Prussia and would be inhabited by Germans until 1945. German settlement in areas south of the territories controlled by the Knights of the Teutonic Order also continued, but generally at the behest of eastern rulers who valued the skills of German peasant-farmers. These new settlers were part of a long process of peaceful German immigration to the east that lasted for centuries, with Germans moving into all of eastern Europe and even deep into Russia.

Intellectual growth accompanied German expansion. Several universities were founded, and Germany came into increased contact with the humanists active elsewhere in Europe. The invention of movable type in the middle of the fifteenth century in Germany also contributed to a more lively intellectual climate. Religious ferment was common, most notably the heretical movement engendered by the teachings of Jan Hus (ca. 1372-1415) in Bohemia. Hus eventually was executed, but the dissatisfaction he felt toward the established church was shared by many others throughout German-speaking lands, as could be seen in the frequent occurrences of popular, mystical religious revivalism after his death.

Germany History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress