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High Middle Ages (1000-1200)

Germany, 920-1075: The Saxon Empire to the Investiture Controversy

Byzantium Triumphant, Byzantium Faltering: 960-1071

England from Saxon Kingdom to Norman Conquest: 925-1135


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, as he was the last Carolingian ruler in the East. 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, also known as Henry the Fowler (r. 919-936) was next. He was the first non-Frankish king of Germany. Henry the Fowler founded the Saxon dynasty and allowed dukes leeway in their own regions, as long as they recognized his status as king. He did insist, however, on three monarchical prerogatives: 1) as the king's generals, dukes were to recruit forces and bring an army to wherever the king was campaigning; 2) Henry gradually brought the nomination of counts, and especially bishops--the bases of local government--back into the king's hands; 3) he slowed or even turned back the alienation of the royal demesne from the king to the nobles. Lorraine, Swabia, and Bavaria proved recalcitrant. He annexed the latter and appointed an allied Franconian as duke in Swabia, yet Bavaria remained elusive. By 924, Magyar invasions had recommenced. Initially defending mostly Saxony, by 933 Henry felt ready to refuse further Magyar tribute demands. In the ensuing 933 Battle of Unstrut, Henry's forces utterly defeated a large Hungarian expedition, increasing the crown's prestige. Building up a cavalry, Henry also inflicted damage on the Danes before his 936 death.

Henry the Fowler's son, Otto I (r. 936-973), insisted on maintaining a strong monarchy, wanting to effect his will in all regions. A revolt immediately broke out on the parts of dukes wary of growing central power. 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 fundamental 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. In other areas, Otto relied on family members. In 947, he gave Bavaria's duchy to his brother, while Lorraine went to Conrad the Red, a brother in law. Continuing a German monarchical tradition, in the late 940s, Otto led conquest-conversion efforts among the Wends (Slavs) beyond the Elbe, establishing new bishoprics in all areas.

The German king was often unable to trust even his dukes. Thus, 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 949, the Duke of Bavaria seized Aquileia, and began to rival Otto's power. The next year, unexpected deaths resulted in the North-Central Italian Kingdom falling to Adelaide, a woman other dukes thought it possible to conquer. Thus in 950, Italian notable Berengar was elected King of the Lombards and captured Adelaide and her lands. At this point, Liudolf, Duke of Swabia, and Otto's own son crossed into Italy as her savior, challenging Otto's rule. To prevent further conflict and claims of dukes to prominence, in 951 Otto established direct authority over Lombardy, placing 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. His son in particular felt snubbed. As well, Otto faced renewed Magyar troubles and resoundingly defeated them in 955 at Lechfeld. The pope did not look unkindly at the Magyar incursions into Germany; he wanted to avoid too close a German embrace.

Yet in 962, as part of a power-play against a rival Roman noble ecclesiastical faction (the same Baerengar of Friuli who had made off with Adelaide), Pope John XII crowned Otto Holy Roman Emperor. Though the German king had sent forces to aid the Pope in 961, he rebelled against Otto when the new Emperor indicated he meant to rule as well as reign. Upon hearing news of the revolt--including John's appeal to Berengar and the Magyars, Otto held a synod which deposed the Pope and appointed a new one, Leo VIII. While Otto swore to uphold Papal authority in the Papal Sates, Leo in turn undertook that no Pope would be consecrated in the future before the Emperor's approval. As for the people and nobles of Rome, they refused Leo, requiring a further Ottonian intervention in 964-965. Around the same time, the German Emperor was able to come to terms with Constantinople regarding the imperial title, ending years of desultory combat in central-southern Italy. Having married the Byzantine Princess Theophano, Otto's son Otto II succeeded to the throne in 973.

Otto II was not exceedingly successful, though he did maintain his predecessors' internal policies. While attempting to supercede Byzantine power in southern Italy, he met Muslim opposition from Sicily and was defeated resoundingly by them in 982. Inspired, the Slavs beyond the Elbe were able to re-conquer all lands to the Oder, reinstituting paganism in the area and destroying the ecclesiastical administration by 983. When Otto II died that year, his son Otto III was elected, with two female regents. Not feeling threatened, and bound to the monarchy by familial or personal ties, the duchies did not revolt. Otto III died in 1002 at the age of twenty-two, thus ruling for only a short while as an adult. He was intensely spiritual, stewarding over monastic reform, and engaging the brightest clerics of the West as tutors. One, Gerbert of Aurillac, he nominated to be Pope Sylvester II (999-1003). Finally, when granted the title servus apostolorum, servant of the apostles, the German monarchy gained influence over the Christianizing populations of Poland and Hungary, who had accepted Papal authority. Having no son, Otto was succeeded by Henry II (r. 1002-1024), the head of a younger branch of the Saxon dynasty. With his lands and authority centered in Bavaria, Henry II was never able to assert total control over the Saxons, and continually dealt with mini-revolts during his time as king, in addition to Italian campaigns.

In 1024, the German monarchy passed to a new dynasty, the Salians, as the new King Conrad II of Franconia came from the original Salian Franks' ancestral homeland. As was custom, he was elected by the kingdom's prelates and secular nobility. A rising group among the latter were the fursten, or princes. Not necessarily familially related to the Saxon kings, they had been granted lands in different parts of the realm as yet another counterbalance to the dukes. They held lands in a non-feudal manner. Magnus Billung had been one such individual favored by Otto I and his family had expanded their possessions and powers to such a degree by 1024 that they were quasi-ducal in power. These fursten were important, necessary allies of the king. Conrad was able to deal with both them and the dukes, as a strong military leader and aggressive political opportunist. While he may have consented to inalienability of feudal fiefs and the heredity of vassalage, he took advantage of the vacancy of the Burgundy crown in 1033 to annex the region, becoming its king. He also scored victories over the Poles, requiring their recognition of his suzerainty. Finally, as a counterweight to dukes and fursten, Conrad inaugurated a new social class called ministeriales. Peasants of the royal domains from serf background, they were trained as knights or administrators, providing a body of support and civil servants linked to no one but the king. Conrad's son Henry III (r. 1039-1056) continued this process. Early in his reign, victories over Hungary and Bohemia established theses areas as German fiefs, where monarchical power was high. Also, along with the home possession of Franconia, Swabian lands slowly accrued to the crown. Henry wanted to assert control on southern Saxony and Thuringia, and chose as his method the construction of royal castles garrisoned by ministeriales. In this way, Billung power was encroached upon, as ducal power in Saxony began to revert to the crown. By 1046, Germany had been entirely pacified under the monarchy.

Unlike his rustic father, Henry was a Christian deeply concerned with the spiritual health of his domains as well as with that of the Papacy in Rome, still a German dependency. Regarding the latter, it was in a desperate state. Given the distance of the German Emperor from Rome, the city's nobility had taken to building urban castles from which they monopolized Church positions. The Tusculum family had produced Popes Benedict VIII (1012-24) and John XIX (1024-32). They also had Benedict IX installed, yet in 1045 a rival family, the Crescentii, rebelled, setting up an anti-pope, Sylvester III. The anti-pope was forced to flee, yet continued to call himself pope. In 1036, Benedict retired in favor of his godfather Gregory VI, but tried to reclaim the position soon after. At this time, Henry the German king decided to tidy up the mess, and held the 1046 synod of Sutri. All three popes were deposed, and a reforming German bishop was appointed as Clement II (1046-47). Though opposed by Italians as well as some pro-imperial prelates who felt that only God could judge a Pope, the Emperor was supported by many clerics, among whom reformers such as Cardinal Humbert numbered. Thus, from the late 1040s, with the Imperially supported enthronement of Pope Leo IX (1048-1054), the Papacy itself would turn to reforming the Church as a whole.

Henry IV (1056-1106) succeeded his father at the age of six, and a long regency ensued under his mother and the Cologne Archbishop. During this period, lay magnates tried to recoup losses to their power under his father and grandfather. Certain of the young king's officials even supported the nobles effort, to their own benefit. Upon reaching majority in 1065, Henry IV began to reacquire monarchical authority. In the process, he cultivated the ministeriales as well as the townsfolk of the emerging cities. Clerics were also important to him, yet growing Papal pretensions to secular power paved the way for a major imperial-papal confrontation in the mid 1070s. Henry's reassertion of kingly power did not go unopposed. The Saxons in particular resented the Franconian king's encroachments, and only at the Battle of Homburg in 1075 did they submit to him. At this point a major disagreement with Pope Gregory VII intersected with political jockeying in Germany.


The term "Ottonian System" has been used to describe the method of governance employed by kings of the Saxon dynasty, distinguishing it from the feudalism of the French type. In broadest terms, the German monarchical idea was that "the king should govern his kingdom through the clergy, and that he should appoint them himself." When German kings looked west to France, they saw a realm that was cut into regions controlled by secular feudal counts and dukes who were as powerful, or even more powerful, than the Capetian king. Duchies were hereditary, and the best the French King could hope for was to become a legitimate part of the feudal system, kept in place not by his own power, but through the system's own needs. German kings wanted none of this, and their desires coincided with their reality: the indigenous German nobility was not nearly as powerful as were the French dukes. Since Otto I and his successors held as their goal, in modern terms, a strong, independent executive able to exert his will on the local level through officers directly loyal to him, they found the Church as an ally. The Church had always supported a sovereign for the order he could provide, and German kings always valued the Carolingian model of state-church symbiosis, with monarchical control. Thus, Otto and his successors endowed churches and monasteries with great expanses of land and funds, and granted them 'immunity'-- they were now legally and fiscally off-limits to the dukes and counts the German Kings wanted to keep down. Thus, while Otto gave up rights of jurisdiction and tax gathering to abbots and bishops, what he relinquished in fact was very little. Had he bestowed these lands on counts and dukes 'acting in his name', it would be more than likely that the individual nobles would use them as tools to aggrandize their own power, making it hereditary, and reducing the reach of the king. Instead, because it was the German King who most often appointed the abbots and bishops, very rarely were these clerics able to establish anything like hereditary dynasties, since the Church as a whole was eliminating clerical marriage, with the crown's support. Capitalizing on the structures of the Church, and his own power in regard to it, Otto created a cadre of literate administrators loyal to him. The clergy, for their part, considered that support for the kingdom was in turn support for the Church--the king was liberal in his endowment of Christian works, and these clerics shared the ideal of a church-state symbiosis, where the king advocated for the clergy against rapacious nobles. In fact, the kings maintained most of the control--Churches could not dispose of lands granted to them as they saw fit, and could not sell them or alienate them without royal approval. Also, the kings did not give up tax revenues, in that the churches and abbeys in question paid a yearly tribute for their lands. Further, German kings also received military muscle in return, as they demanded that prelates at the least supply, and hopefully lead, armed contingents on royal campaigns. In exchange, conquests of Slav territories were accompanied by state-supported missionary efforts and the establishment of new bishoprics. The final step in all this was the German Emperor's assertion past the 950s that he could appoint popes. Otto I did this with Leo VIII in 963, and then went to Italy in force. The practice continued into the 1000s, when Otto III appointed Sylvester II, and extended to the 1050s, with Leo IX.

The relation of German King to the pope hints at the problematic aspect of the "Ottonian System." It would run into trouble at that point when the Papacy began to assert itself. When the prelates of the Church felt that they had the right to elect their leader, Imperial appointment of popes would cause friction with the German King. Further, as the German King supported the Church and allowed it to improve its central administration, Popes would become more insistent that they were better-equipped to appoint bishops and high abbots--the very officers the German kings needed to control for their administration to bypass the secular nobles. Any reforming clerical movement would come to insist on these prerogatives as a natural extension of a program of putting the Church's house in order. As a matter of fact, the Reform Movement in the Church, beginning with Cluny, and extending throughout the monasteries of Western and Central Europe, proceeded into the ranks of the 'secular' clergy by the 1000s, and invigorated the Papacy as well. It is no coincidence that popes such as Gregory VII made the claims they did when they did--it was a natural product of Church reform. Ironically, by supporting Church reform all over Germany as a way to undercut noble-clerical alliances and feudal localization of power, German kings encouraged the emergence of those very popes who came to challenge their rights of investiture so adamantly, as well as those bishops in Germany who would support their pope rather than their king in this contest.

Historians have seen two further problems in the "Ottonian System." First, as the Papacy was located in the Italian peninsula, the German kings' concerns seemed to always drag them south, into conflict, and away from focus on their German homeland. In the process, they left the arena open for noble revolts, a common feature of the period. Also, as they sometimes needed to delegate authority, especially in urban areas, during the king's absences a secular feudal nobility began to form. More importantly, a seemingly psychological disability of German kings was their tendency to attempt to extend sovereignty into Italy, as had Pepin and Charlemagne. In pursuit of the Imperial ideal, they often overextended themselves, and could not sustain control. It also brought them into conflict with Byzantium, as well as the Normans. Furthermore, Italian towns were totally unlike German ones, and were unlikely to submit to German authority.

The other criticism of the German kings' methods is that by avoiding feudal arrangements and the cultivation of a feudal hierarchy of nobles in support of the king, German rulers prevented the development of a political glue, or political technology, able to hold together a monarchical state when reliance on the Church was no longer an option. The argument is that while German kings could have established themselves as feudal monarchs of a much stronger sort than their French counterparts, their failure to take advantage of a system deemed legitimate by German nobles stunted political development, and would make German kings from the 1060s to 1120s much weaker, after the post-Investiture Controversy process of feudalization had taken place.

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