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Early Middle Ages (475-1000)

Political Arrangements in Europe towards the Second Millennium

End of the First European Order: Foreign Invasions, Carolingian Obsolescence, and Doorstep of the High Middle Ages (840s-950s)

Christianity, 325-650s: Conversion, the Papacy, and Monasticism I

Summary

By 990, the political map of France, Germany, and England were quite different. In France, the county structure reflecting Roman-era civitates became more prominent during the Carolingian decline of the Viking period. Counts became more independent, and expanded their territories. One clan had its start when Charles the Bald appointed Robert the Strong as missus in the Loire to hold off the Vikings. In the next thirty years, his family expanded to include the counties of Angers, Tours, Blois, Orleans, and most importantly, Paris. In the same years French feudal lords asserted elective rights to kingship. Rather than a Carolingian, in 887, they chose Odo (r. 888-898), the marquis of Neustria and son of Robert, as king. For the next 100 years, Carolingian claimants and Robert's dynasty, the Capetians, fought over the crown, allowing freedom to feudal lords. When the last West Frankish Carolingian, Louis V, died in 987, France's great men elected Hugh Capet (987-996) as 'Duke of France.' He soon had his son elected as associate and heir. Though supported by the church, his control did not extend far beyond his own duchy, Ile de France--Paris and its environs. The Capetian sovereign was the highest feudal lord in a land of loosely allied feudal princes.

After making peace with the Danes in England (885), Alfred the Great (r. 871-899) of Wessex reorganized Anglo-Saxon military levies and rose a navy. His son Edward the Elder (r. 899-925) and grandson Aethelstan (r. 925-939) conquered the Danelaw, ruling as far north as Edinburgh. Danish residents kept most of their own traditions and smallholder farming arrangements. In Wessex and conquered areas, shires were the administrative districts. Because of a lack of feudal fragmentation, monarch-election was kept to the Alfredian line. The king had estates in every region of the kingdom, and all Anglo-Saxon freemen owed him military service. Every shire had a centrally appointed agent to assure proper collection of revenue, provision of royal justice, and services. These were called shire-revees, or sheriffs. As well, the king appointed bishops and abbots himself, using their administrative skills. The sheriff, bishop, and an ealdorman--head local military leader-- would preside over a periodic court of a shire's free-men to establish and administer justice. It was a relatively centralized administration.

When later Carolingians had not been able to exert royal power or defend Eastern Francia against Magyars and Vikings, political units began to collapse on to pre-Charlemagne lines--Saxony, Franconia, Lorraine, Swabia, and Bavaria. Their leaders took the title of count and then duke, following the western custom. From the 870s, they usurped the royal demesne, patronized churches, made the king's officials dependent on them, and tried to appoint bishops. When the weak Louis the Child (899-911) died, they tried to leave the throne vacant. The Church, however, wanted a strong monarchy that would guarantee order and their privileges, as opposed to five warring dukes. Also, Magyar incursions required some coordinated response. Desiring a weak sovereign, the Dukes elected Conrad of Franconia (911-918). He was too weak though, not stopping the Magyars, and allowing Lorraine to fall to the French King, Charles the Simple.

Henry I of Saxony (r. 919-936) was next. The 'fowler', the founder of the Saxon dynasty allowed ducal leeway in their own regions, as long as they recognized his status as king. Defending Saxony against Magyars and Vikings, he re-annexed Lorraine, and built up a cavalry able to curtail Magyar excesses. His son Otto I (r. 936-973), insisted on strong kingship able to effect his will in all regions. A revolt immediately broke out. When the duke of Franconia died in the hostilities, Otto annexed it directly to his own Saxony. In the latter area, he granted much land to his ally Magnus Billung, but kept the ducal title, thus maintaining control of two of the basic German duchies. He was able to bring other dukes to heel by 938. Throughout, he relied on the Church to increase his power. He chose all the bishops and abbots, increasing their powers and lands, thereby gaining allies whose allegiance he required. They were also given count's rights over neighboring lands. Monarchy-oriented in any event, the clerics became a basis of Ottonian power, supporting him with troops when necessary.

Otto, as Charlemagne before him, was drawn into Italy. When Rudolph II of Burgundy died in 937, the Italian king Hugh of Arles had tried to occupy it, and was fought off by Otto. In 951, he established direct control over Lombardy, emplacing bishops in control of secular affairs in their dioceses, expanding the German model. He was not able to assume the crown himself, as a German revolt led by Swabian and Bavarian dukes required his attention. As well, he was facing renewed Magyar troubles and resoundingly defeated them in 955 at Lechfeld. Only in 962 did Pope John XII crown him emperor. The latter did this in a power play against a rival Roman noble-ecclesiastical faction, yet rebelled against Otto when the new Emperor indicated he meant to rule as well as reign. Upon hearing news of the revolt, Otto held a synod that deposed the Pope and appointed a new one. Around the same time, the German Emperor was able to come to terms with Constantinople regarding the imperial title, with Otto marrying Byzantine Princess Theophano. His son Otto II succeeded to the throne in 973.

Commentary

The events of this period are mostly transitional, equally a part of high medieval history. In brief terms, kings who were successful in this period had either not surrendered excessive powers to nobles--as in England--or knew how to accommodate local feudal powers while building up their own base, as was the case for Henry the Fowler. Of course, his son Otto was able to build upon the local Saxon power base to the point where he no longer needed to tread so carefully around his ducal colleagues. When they did revolt, he was willing to expend the resources to put them down, and was capable of seeing the struggle through. France shows another pattern, whereby counts secured the election of a king no more powerful than they. Only in ensuing generations would the French king be able to flex his muscles.

In this period, then, the eastern Frankish lands were still able to exercise dominance. This illustrates another aspect of the requirements of royal power at the millennium that are not too different from notions going back to the Merovingians. To succeed, the demonstrated ability to fight off foreign invaders was a necessity. Henry the Fowler and Otto were both able to defeat Magyars. Further, through patronage and commitment to ecclesiastical uplift, German kings were able to count on the Church to support them in a way not possible for French kings who had to compete with counts in patronizing the faith, and who had fewer resources in any event.

As had been the case in Pepin and Charlemagne's time, Italy continued to beckon German kings, who needed to secure their southern borders in any event. Further, demonstrating a trend that will continue well into the eleventh century, German sovereigns' involvement in Italy always caused revolt at home. Also a harbinger of future dynamics, German kings considered themselves the supreme patrons of Christianity, and were interested in purifying the Church while they used it to bolster their reign. In this respect, they were not to far off from a theocratic attitude so obvious in Byzantium. Assumption of this view by Otto's offspring, however, occurred during the same years that a Papacy under growing reformist influence would also articulate a view supporting theocracy, yet it was to be a Papal monarchy emanating from the Holy See. Conflict between these two views would animate the next years.

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