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.

Popular pages: High Middle Ages (1000-1200)