Skip over navigation

High Middle Ages (1000-1200)

Germany in the Hohenstaufen Era: 1137-1250

France, 1226-1270: Louis IX

Christianity: Expansion, Monastic and Papal Reform, Clash with Secular Rulers (910-1122)


After the Investiture Controversy of the 1170s-1180s, the power of the King in Germany was greatly weakened. Internal revolts and the lack of strong kings had allowed feudalism to spread without the monarchy being able to keep control of it. The agricultural expansion of the late tenth century in Germany had increased the wealth of the princes and counts, and during the controversy they had begun to encroach on the crown lands and prerogatives, such as hospitality dues, and advocacies. These latter were the secular and military administration of clerical estates in German territory. This allowed German nobles to take over monasteries for their own benefit and acquire clerical allies. As well, the nobles took advantage of urban growth in the duchies to make new cities their protectorates. With a more powerful and wealthy territorial base, the dukes' power vis-a-vis the king was much increased. As regards Italy, at the end of the Investiture Controversy, the German monarch's power had all but evaporated. North Italian bishops who supported the King were unable to maintain power over the burgeoning and increasingly liberated cities, which were often papal in sympathy.

During the period of the last Salian King Henry IV (r. 1056-1106) and Henry V (r. 1106-1126), two key ducal families emerged in Germany. They were the Welf (Geulf) of Bavaria, and the Hohenstaufen (Ghibelline) of Swabia. The Welfs were pro-papal, and were behind most of the noble revolts during 1100-1126, along with the western archbishops. The Hohenstaufens of Swabia, on the other hand, were the one great family upon whom the German monarch could rely. Problems emerged in 1126, when Henry died with no heir. He had nominated Frederick of Swabia, and Hohenstaufen, but the noble, pro-clerical electors instead chose Lothaire of Saxony (r. 1126-1137), assuming that he was weaker and therefore more malleable, especially as he too had no son and no dynasty would emerge. When Frederick was not allowed access to Henry's lands, he revolted. This revolt was put down, but the Welf-Hohenstaufen rivalry was by this time spreading into north and central Italy, with different cities supporting one or the other family. As he had received Welf support, Lothaire married his daughter to the Duke of Bavaria, Henry the Proud. Any male issue would thus become Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, and this alarmed the other nobles who did not want a supreme monarch. Thus, when Lothaire died in 1138, the noble electors passed over Henry the Lion and chose Conrad III of the Hohenstaufens, who ruled until 1152. He was a weak king, yet his principle achievement was to keep Henry the Lion out of Bavaria, though he did not prevent increasing Welf strength or the eastern duchies' expansion to the east outside of the crown's control. Conrad died while away on the second Crusade in Syria in 1152. He had nominated as his successor his brother Frederick of Swabia's son, Frederick.

Frederick I, "Barbarossa"--the red-bearded--was the most important twelfth- century German king. He sought to revive power of the German monarchy both at home as well as in Italy. He thus had to develop policies towards 1) Germany and its nobles; 2) the Italian cities, and 3) the Papacy.

Domestically, Frederick I recognized that the greatest challenge to royal authority were the allodial counts--those who had acquired their lands and power by other than feudal means. These had to be linked to the crown legally and contractually. Basically, Frederick wanted to rule as a powerful monarch based on feudal ties. Thus, in the 1150s, he began with a disarming policy. First, he favored the growth of towns, as centers of royal administration and monitoring of the crown domain. This allowed him to build the demesne back up, and conveyed to him revenues, as urban centers began to exert control over the rural surroundings. Directly regarding the rising noble classes, Frederick opted not to challenge their usurpations. Instead, he sold them charters, legitimizing their illegal seizures of power and lands. The German nobles were quite ready to buy legitimacy in such a way, and more cash came to the crown. Nobles were also required to provide troops for royal campaigns. Frederick thus created feudal ties, to his benefit. He also attempted to reduce tensions with the Welf, allowing Henry the Lion control of Bavaria, opening the way for more eastern expansion.

Between 1158 and 1180, Frederick undertook six expeditions into Italy, either in support of or in order to discipline the pope. At this time northern and central Italy was dominated by independent cities--communes. In Rome, the commune was lead by Arnold of Brescia, considered heretical for his anti- Papal attitude and desire to secularize all Church property. From 1145 he had been able to keep popes out of Rome, so when Adrian IV came to the throne (1154- 1159), the Pope was ready to call on external support. Frederick was equally desirous of clipping the Italian communes' wings. By 1156, Frederick had defeated and executed Arnold, restoring the Popes to Rome, and had laid siege to and razed Tortona, an ally of the independence-minded Milan commune. In 1158, Frederick went south again, and forced Milan to recognize Imperial overlordship. At Roncaglia, he announced the revival of al imperial rights going back to Carolingian times. He was to have the power to appoint dukes and communal consuls, to collect tolls and hospitality dues, as well as to be the sole general arbiter in Lombard regions. Though he guaranteed Milan's territorial integrity, he returned in 1160-1162 to lay siege to the city. Ultimately he razed it with the aid of other conmunes Milan had oppressed in the past.

At this point the Hohenstaufen embrace started to worry other Italian towns and the papacy. In 1159 Adrian had died. Two papal claimants emerged. While Frederick called a council to appoint the pope, most European leaders supported his opponent, Alexander III, thinking that the German king no longer had the right to appoint pontiffs. By 1165 Alexander had been able to occupy Rome; Frederick returned to drive him out, and Alexander was forced to flee to the Normans. When the German army became infected with Malaria, Frederick called off the expedition to the south. Shortly thereafter, thirty-six Lombard region towns formed the Lombard League. Spurred on by Alexander, their goal was to prevent the German authority from suffocating their liberties. In 1174 Barbarossa came south yet again, yet without Welf contingents, his army was outnumbered by league troops. On 28 May 1176 the two sides met at Legnano, and the Italians scored a resounding victory. In 1177, Barbarossa was forced to recognize Alexander as the legitimate Pope, after which a six-year truce was made with the Lombard League. He then went north to fight the Welf Henry the Lion, who had deserted him before the battle. This further exhausted the German crown, and required Barbarossa to make concessions to the feudalized nobles, though he did remain the uncontested overlord. In 1183, by the Terms of the Peace of Constance, he was made to guarantee the independence of the Italian towns. Finally, Frederick undertook one last expedition to Italy. The Norman William II in Sicily was entangled with the Byzantines, and Pope Lucius II (1181-1185) wanted to restore amicable Papal-German relations. He approved a Sicilian-German alliance, which was secured by the marriage of William's daughter Constance to Frederick's son Henry VI. A few years later, Frederick turned the crown over to Henry and went on the Third Crusade, drowning in an Anatolian river in 1190.

Already confirmed as German king, Henry focused on Sicily, based on Constance's claim to inheritance. In 1194 he went south to conquer Sicily and the Norman kingdom of southern Italy. His goal then became securing the election of his son Frederick II as king of both Germany and Sicily. Though he convinced the German princes to accept him, the Papacy and Italian towns feared an over- powerful sovereign to their north and south. A difficult Sicilian revolt in 1197 was harshly repressed, after which Henry died. His brother Philip of Hohenstaufen then rushed to Germany and acted as Frederick's regent, but the young age of the sovereign encouraged the Welfs, under Otto, to make a play for kingship. Otto was supported by Pope Innocent III. He convinced a group of princes to elect him as king in 1198, so Germany was returned to civil war.

Conflict raged for the next ten years, until Philip was murdered. The pope then crowned Otto emperor, but lost interest in him, and began to favor Frederick II, under his protection. The Pope thought he had extracted a promise from Frederick that once crowned, he would give up Sicily. In 1214, Otto was humiliated along with John of England ant the Battle of Bouvines, so that Frederick could become master of Germany, in addition to Sicily, in whose kingship he had already been confirmed. Innocent died shortly thereafter, so Frederick kept both regions. Like his father, Frederick II (1215-1250) was concerned mostly with Sicily. He had gown up there and was not quite German in character. Through 1220 he saw to the disposition of his northern domains. He basically allowed princes free reign in their domains, continuing his grandfather's policies. Fiefs were made fully hereditary, and princes acquired complete powers of jurisdiction, with the crown even allowing them increased urban authority.

During the 1220s, Frederick II was concerned with out-maneuvering the Papacy. Relations were full of distrust. He had gained Honorius III's support by promising to go on Crusade, yet kept putting it off year after year, blaming the delay on lack of funds, or insufficient manpower or transportation. Honorius was ultimately duped into crowning Frederick Emperor without first requiring him to relinquish Sicily. Gregory IX (1227-1241), however, was a hard-nosed Pope interested in reining in Frederick's snobbery. He excommunicated the Emperor for failing to Crusade, whereupon Frederick did indeed go east. His conduct disappointed the Pope mightily: after tooling around Palestine with his army and avoiding serious hostilities with the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, he was able by 1229 to negotiate a conditional return of Jerusalem to Christian control. While Frederick received Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, he allowed Muslims to reside and practice their religion in these areas, and undertook to support no Crusade against the Sultan. Thus, while he was able to obtain Jerusalem for the first time since 1188, his entire crusade, and the Holy City itself, were put under Papal interdict. Gregory IX went on to invade Frederick's Italian lands with a papal army. Frederick defeated it by 1230, then summoned a great council to Melfi, which promulgated a new code of Law for Sicily. Unlike Germany, the king's total authority as legislator and adjudicator was underscored. In the Constitution of Melfi, nobles saw their prerogatives limited, and all major cases were assigned to royal courts. Sicily was administratively divided into provinces, and local officials were supervised by the central government's bureaucrats. To encourage trade, customs duties were decreased. In 1232 Frederick held an imperial assembly at Ravenna, where he proceeded to apply a similar governance system upon the Lombard cities, while the 1232 constitutium in favor princeps conceded even more sovereign rights to German princes.

With a tradition of independent towns, Lombardy resented its new status. As well, Gregory IX harbored much ill will for him. He excommunicated the Emperor, then supported the revival of the Lombard League. The next strong Pope, Innocent IV (1243-1254), went even further. Excommunicating Frederick yet again, he revoked the title of Emperor. It was of little immediate consequence though. German princes had nothing to lose from supporting an absentee king, and the English Henry III was quite weak, and could not gain from continental adventure. Similarly, St. Louis of France was pious but did not favor an imperial papacy. Still, the last decade of Frederick's reign was disappointing. He had to face small revolts in Germany, and combat against the Lombard league was indecisive, with both sides winning as well as losing battles, though German forces fared poorly. By his death in 1250, he had not definitively restored German authority in northern Italy, though Sicily was in his firm control.


If the "Ottonian System" was the abjuration of feudal relations, then a notional "Frederickian System" was the espousal of feudal relations for the sake of something apparently larger--the lasting German dominion in northern and central Italy. Only in Germany would feudal nobles be willing to pay for rights they had usurped anyway. Yet, as realistic and accommodating as the Fredericks were in Germany, they were just as ambitious, and perhaps unrealistic, in Italy. They, as their Saxon and Salian predecessors, have been judged harshly for their descent into Italy. It did, indeed, enervate them on the whole, and it did require them to make compromises with German princes that they may not have had to make otherwise. Of course to say this is to assume that the fursten were not sufficiently powerful on their own to require such policies. Also, to condemn German monarchs for Italian aspirations is to discount the importance in their mind of the Charlemagne ideal of European unity under the Emperor's control. As well, given northern Italy's control of the Alpine passes into southern Germany ands its rebellious duchies such as Swabia and Bavaria, any sensible German monarch would want to be supreme at least in the Milan region. Finally, Italy was this period's most wealthy and industrious area in commercial and urban terms. Tax revenues, customs, and a certain standard of living would be attractive to any leader living to the north. These Italian towns, however, were unique in political technology as well, in a way to make them especially difficult to control.

The initial spur for Italian Towns' growth was the relearning of Ancient Rome's agricultural lessons. 1) They re-terraced the hills; 2) dyked the rivers; and 3) drained the swamps. With the resulting financial surplus towns were able to form. At this stage, in the mid to late 1000s, a new type of government formed, the commune. A sworn association, members pledged to care for each other and terrorize common enemies. They possessed an elected assembly and two consuls as a government. At this stage they went out to surrounding countryside and forced nobles into the towns. Three things permitted this: 1) economically, they survived based on the town-country exchange of wares for food. 2) Independent city-states were only possible in a post-investiture Controversy Northern Italy when German imperial power was at low-ebb; indeed, there was no challenging power until 1158, when Barbarossa came south. Thus, no tradition of control from above existed, and even popes had to tread carefully there. Indeed, it was in the communes that anti-sacerdotalism emerged. 3) Italian nobility never adopted primogeniture, but kept dividing inheritances between the sons, so there were no large domains, and very little power. Also, unlike Northern European nobles, they would often move into towns, unless forcibly brought in. When commune leaders did this, it only increased their powers, allowing alliances between stronger towns, such as Milan, and lesser ones.

Another factor behind Italian town growth was the trans-Mediterranean trade of Pisa, Genoa, Venice, and Amalfi. By 1123, the Mediterranean was an Italian lake: the Egyptian navy was destroyed , and Levantine trade brought funds and self-sufficiency. Thus, the Crusades had a central role in changing the political balance of power in Europe itself, and helped new political as well as commercial technologies to survive--indeed, survive longer than those of surrounding states.

However, the towns' early governments failed, because when nobles entered the towns, so did feuds. In towns, noble alliances fought a lot, reducing the areas to urban battle zones. Towns could not maintain mutually friendly relations, as the post-1176 Lombard league collapse indicates, and this was too much urban strife to support further growth. At this stage, all attempts to secure inter- city amity failed when they were not under external threat, and only the coming of a second German specter, in the from of Frederick II, could bring them together, and then for a short period.

Having said this, what seems to emerge from Frederick II's measures in Sicily and Italy as compared to his policies in Germany is that he prioritized his southern possessions. In addition to their wealth, there are other reasons for this. Frederick II was a unique kind of Sicilian-cultured monarch. He grew up there, and imbibed totally its Muslim-Christian culture of political coexistence and cultural flowering. He spoke Arabic, and was a patron of the sciences coming west from the Middle East. He was also quite prepared to negotiate with Muslim leaders, as his 'Crusade' indicates. He has been called stupor mundi--the wonder of the world--by some who have admired his eclecticism, pragmatism, and openness to the cultures around him. The same conduct, though, earned him accusations of heresy and papal excommunication. In reference to his German and Italian policies, it seems that he was prepared to allow German princes as much autonomy as possible, as long as they recognized him as feudal sovereign and undertook certain responsibilities associated with this position. In Italy, though, he was looking for a much more centralized administration which he could use to assure him of direct control--politically as well as economically. Some historians have seen this as an encouraging foreshadowing of centralized Renaissance-period states, combined with a local delegation in the North. All of these initiatives--regarding Germany, the Pope, and Italy--were indeed too delicate to sustain. In an era of burgeoning Papal monarchy--when Innocent III could in effect be the one to assure the German king's own accession to the throne as his supposed lord, perhaps Frederick II combined too much, too early in Europe's political development.

The time of Frederick's death does, however, gives us a good vantage point on Europe. By 1250, the map of Europe was as follows: England up to Scotland was ruled by Henry III of the Norman-Angevin line. Most of Spain had been reconquered for the Christians. Portugal held the west coast, while Castile dominated the large central region. A small Navarre and a much larger Aragon were in the East, while a small Emirate of Grenada held on to the southern coast as the last Muslim state in Andalusia. France was under the unified feudal rule of St. Louis. The Holy Roman Empire of Frederick II comprised a Germany stretching from the North Sea to and including northern Italy, while the Papal States were wedged between German lands in the north and the south, in the form of Sicily. German princes had expanded into Bohemia, Austria, and had moved into Poland, converting the residents to Catholicism. Hungary had also Christianized, while to its east the looming Mongol Empire occupied much of Central Asia and Russia. They were stopped in their onslaught through the Middle East only by the Egyptian Mamluks outside of Palestine in 1260, at the Battle of Ayn Jalut. Latin Crusaders had usurped Byzantium's Thracian lands. The city-state of Venice was the prime commercial power in the region, followed by Amalfi, Pisa, and later Genoa. Finally, in 1261, the Byzantine Emperor of Nicaea Michael VIII Palaeologus was able to retake Constantinople, and held western Anatolia as well. Turkic tribes pushed west by the Mongol invasions had settled all of Anatolia up to the coastal areas and were thoroughly Islamicizing it. One of these tribal principalities to emerge in the next generation was that of Osman, the ancestor of the Ottoman Sultans.

More Help

Previous Next

Follow Us