If you’re anything like me, the overwhelming majority of your education about the Middle Ages while in school was about England. Maybe a smidgen about France. But even in high school I always wondered what was going on in Germany and Eastern Europe. I mean, they were there, weren’t they? And there are amazing and breathtaking castles all over the place to prove it. But my secondary school education about Germany ended with “And then, after Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire broke into smaller parts” and picked up again with “What we know as modern Germany was made up of a whole mess of tiny duchies and principalities that joined together in the Early Modern Era”. Yeah, not a lot of information there.
And so, I set out to discover the story of what happened to Germany after the Holy Roman Empire and how it became the political state that shaped modern Europe….
Step One: The rules of inheritance in the time of Charlemagne dictated that kingdoms be divided between all of a man’s sons. Therefore, the mass of Europe, what we think of as France, Italy, Germany, Austria, all that, spent the century of the 800s being divided, recombined, divided again, conquered by warring family members, and generally changing sides so many times that it makes my head spin. All that was finally settled by the very end of the 880s when Charlemagne’s empire was divided into the Western Francia and Eastern Francia. By that point the northern and western regions were having trouble with Vikings, the southern regions were dealing with Mediterranean threats, and family feuds were still rampant everywhere else. Within a few decades Eastern Francia didn’t bother to identify or consult with its Western brother. Step Two: Around 900, Eastern Francia reverted to its stem duchies. What exactly does that mean? It means that power decentralized to the five more or less autonomous duchies of Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia, Saxony and Lotharingia. There was still an overall king of this conglomerate of territory, but he didn’t have a capital. Instead he traveled from place to place, conducting business where he needed to. Unlike France or England, the kingship of the amalgam of these duchies was not hereditary, it was elected.In 936 Otto I was elected as king. Otto was a great warrior, keeping the various barbarian hoards at bay. But his fortunes and those of the whole loose kingdom changed when he came to the rescue of the widowed queen of Italy. He smashed her enemies, and in return she married him, a prize which brought Italy with it. The grateful Pope then crowned Otto as Holy Roman Emperor. Voila! The Holy Roman Empire existed again … and it would continue to exist until the early 19th century.
Step Three: Great, so now we’ve got a Holy Roman Empire taking up the whole middle section of Europe. What now? Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that the Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages was an elected monarchy, not a hereditary monarchy. Each of the duchies that made up the empire were ruled by princes who would then, in turn elect the king. Sometimes it was a son or relative of the former king and sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes the election was obvious and ran smoothly and sometimes it brought on war. In addition, each of the duchies and kingdoms and families held more or less power that they grappled with each other to maintain. And that explains why there are so many medieval castles spread all throughout this territory.
Another important point to consider is the efforts that were made in this time to expand Germanic settlements and to create new cities. By this point the Germanic people were the civilized ones. They took the “Roman” in their Holy Roman Empire seriously. This meant forming settlements in the lands of the Slavs to the east and intermarrying with them. It also meant that they butted heads with the old remnants of Byzantium (remember them?).The High Middle Ages in the Holy Roman Empire were marked by the ascendance of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. These men, beginning with Conrad III and his successor Frederick I “Barbarossa”, were strong leaders who made their mark on both Europe and the Middle East. Frederick Barbarossa was instrumental in the lead-up to the Third Crusade. His son, Henry VI, first helped and then later captured Richard I of England, and then turned him over to Leopold of Austria, who held him for ransom. The ransom money he got for Richard ended up financing the founding of the city of Wiener Neustadt. Medieval “Germany” was all about building.
So in a nutshell, the High Middle Ages was a time of relative stability and growth for the folks in the Holy Roman Empire. Central power was consolidated and the Holy Roman Emperor at any given time was a super strong ally of the Pope.
And then, of course, all that changed.
Step Four: The shift began in 1250 with the death of Frederick II. When it came time to elect a new king there was no clear winner. What’s more, the same changes that were happening in the rest of the medieval world were happening in the Holy Roman Empire. Life was good, peasants were prosperous, and the rules of feudalism were relaxing to the point of falling apart. Just like everywhere else in Europe, peasants were beginning to pay fees to their lords instead of giving service. In some cases they were lending money to their lords to finance their wars. The basic structure of the economy shifted.
By the 14th century central authority in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire was subject to the much stronger local power of the duchies. Individual families and their allies steered politics. Strangely enough, the territory of these duchies resembled the modern states of Europe (more or less). But it was still difficult to elect a king. The process changed with the Golden Bull of 1356. This decree was something of a constitution for electing leaders, giving that power to seven prince-electors. And as it happened, by 1438 all of those prince-electors came from one family, the Hapsburgs.
Step Five: Yep, I’ve totally glossed over a thousand years of really complicated history here. But the final step in situating what was once loosely-joined fragments of Charlemagne’s kingdom into a powerful Germanic empire came with the emergence of the House of Hapsburg.
The Hapsburgs had been counts of a much smaller territory in what is now Austria from the 10th century. But in 1273 Rudolph I was elected Holy Roman Emperor. Aside from being strong rulers, the Hapsburgs set out to solidify their supremacy through the good old fashioned medieval practice of arranged marriages. They made marrying for political advantage an art form, spreading the family through Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, and beyond.
When Frederick III was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1452 he began an imperial Hapsburg dynasty that would remain more or less unbroken until 1806. In the meantime, through the marriage of Phillip the Handsome to Joan the Mad (you gotta love the names!) in 1497, the Hapsburgs ended up inheriting all of Spain, southern Italy, the Low Countries, and the Spanish colonies in the New World. The Hapsburgs were the first true world power.The story of the Hapsburgs continues well out of the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance, and into the Modern Era, but I’ll save that for another day. The key thing to take away from this exploration of “Germany” in the Middle Ages is the unique character that the confederation of duchies had and the kind of thought patterns it developed. Power was something that was both shared and coveted. Expansion and settlement were deeply ingrained into the German character. And individualism was prized in a way that it wasn’t in the hereditary monarchies of France and England.
So to me it’s no surprise that revolutions in thought and technology, like Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses or Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press, would come out of this environment. The collective spirit of this dynamic empire put it in the perfect position to enter the modern world with just the right mix of determination and innovative thought.