1077-1338 A.D

1077-1338 A.D.


The influence of Rome, of the Church, showed itself in music, painting and architecture. Yet the style called Roman, or Romanesque, all over the continent was originally oriental and came to Germany by way of Ravenna and other Italian cities where Byzantine influence had prevailed. The Imperial Palace at Gelnhausen, the cathedrals of Mayence, Speier, Worms and Bamberg are monuments of that equally non-German Gothic style exemplified in many of the most famous German churches, e.g., at Freiburg, Ulm and Cologne. There are but two types representing a typically German development: the nobleman’s castle and the peasant’s dwelling. Later on, the development of the German town, with its small, winding streets and gabled houses, added a third element of German origin to the two more striking ones.

Characteristically this development coincides with that of German poetry and literature. The minstrels, who helped to divert and amuse the princes and feudal lords by their songs, and later the master-singers of the cities, were the precursors of the author and historian destined to give the German people the consciousness of a national character. It was around 1200 A.D. that the Song of the Nibelungs, Germany’s national epic, was first put into writing. Much admired as a poem and a cardinal document of German literature, it compares none too favourably with the national epics of other peoples such as the Odyssey and Iliad of the Greeks, the Aeneid of the Romans, the Indian Mahabharata, the Spanish Poema de Cid and the French Chanson de Roland. Though not lacking in rhythmic and poetic beauty it is fundamentally an unsavoury take of murder, betrayal, cruelty, savage fighting and greed, the whole story turning around the treasure of the Nibelung dwarfs stolen by Siegfried, the German national hero, who is himself assassinated at the instigation of Brunhild, a former Valkyrie he has helped his brother-in-law, Gunther, to win by struggling with the divine maiden in Gunther’s stead, invisible in the dwarf’s cap. Later poets and historians like to see in Siegfried the typically German hero, adventurous, courageous, slightly naive; yet he too lends his hand to treacherous dealings, to trickling a royal virgin into an undesired marriage in order to win for himself a king’s sister and a high position, while his bravery rests upon his unvulnerability won by bathing in the blood of a slain dragon. For real poetry the songs of such minstrels as Walther von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Eschenbach and others are much to be preferred.

Fighting against Arabs and Byzantines, eternally longing for southern shores with a sunnier climate and more fertile plains, deeply conscious of the spiritual if not political supremacy of Rome to which they looked as their intellectual home, the Germans of the Middle Ages were open to every suggestion that offered a chance to follow that southward urge. It is not surprising, therefore, that Peter the  Hermit found a ready response when about 1100 A.D. he preached the first Crusade to free the Holy Sepulchre from the hands of the Mahometan ‘infidels.’ The Emperor Henry V himself at first did not support that movement, for like his father he was still in conflict with the Pope and in fact, in 1110, marched into Italy and finally obtained a compromise over the main issue, the investitures. Even so the princely house of Babenberg financed a Crusade in 1101, and the Imperial power supported all the later ones from 11047 onwards, including the extremely silly and tragic Children’s Crusade. The benefit Germany, like other European countries, derived from these adventurous enterprises lay in the acquisition of many valuable arts, crafts and sciences of oriental origin and in a wider knowledge of the world of their day, but the price was enormous, including not only the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the sands of the desert or through the swords of the Saracens but the importation of disastrous plagues and epidemics.

It was a craze, a mass-hypnosis such as the Germans seem to have been prone to at all times. As the Mahometan Turks set out for the Holy Cities of their religion, Mecca and Medina; as the Russians has been clamouring, ever since SS. Methodius and Cyril brought them the Greek gospel, for Constaninople; so the occidental peoples, the French and the Germans above all, felt the urge to conquer the birth-place of their religion, the Holy City of Jerusalem. For a short time at least this common aim seemed to engender a European spirit and open up a prospect of unification for the Continent. Home politics and dynastic rivalries soon destroyed that glimpse of a better future: a German battle-cry that was to be heard for centuries far from its place of origin destroyed what solidarity adventures and hardships experienced in common might have created. It was, at first, the battle-cry of two rivals for the German crown: the Bavarian Duke Henry, a member of the Welf family, and Conrad of Franconia, called after one of his villages Waiblingen. The Italian form of their names, ‘Guelf’ and ‘Ghibelline,’ became, like the English White and Red Roses and the later Whigs and Tories, the names of two political parties, whose struggles took place mainly on Italian soil but involved international forces after “Guelf” had come to denote the party of the Pope. After Conrad had prevailed over his rival. taken part in the Second Crusade and died shortly after returning from the Holy Land, the Imperial crown fell to Frederick of Suabia, of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, who was to be famous under the nickname of ‘Barbarossa.’ He tried to settle the Guelf-Ghibelline conflict by exploiting his mother’s descent from the House of Bavaria and supported the British-born Pope Adrian IV, but came into conflict with him over the question whether the Empire was held directly from God or only indirectly through the Papal authority. In a number of expeditions against his Italian adversaries and their numerous allies, Frederick in the main suffered defeat, but he made up his quarrel with several successive Popes when the Saracens retook Jerusalem and went on Crusade in 1189. He died from bathing in the cold waters of the river Calycadnus, near the old town of Tarsus. His romantic career took hold of the German imagination, and he became a legend soon after his death. He was supposed to be asleep in a cave below the Kyffhauser mountain, where his beard had grown through the table; every hundred years he was awakened by ravens which came to tell him whether the Empire was still in existence, and to call him and his sleeping knights to its defence.

The comparatively short period of the Hohenstaufen Emperors, which lasted from 1126 to 1254 and coincides with that of the Plantagenets, whose most romantic figure, Richard Coeur-de-Lion, went on crusade with Barbarossa and was held a prisoner by Frederick’s successor Henry VI, brought a second period of universal power for the Holy Roman Empire. In spite of civil wars, with an unruly enfeoffed knighthood at home and enriched and strengthened cities, especially in Lombardy, the acquisition of Italian and other southern lands of superior civilisation and greater wealth gave the Empire a backing of great importance. Germans counts and barons were appointed rulers in many formerly Latin lands and germanised their populations. Rich booty and other foreign monies such as Richard-de-Lion’s ransom helped to conquer such territories as the former Norman kingdom of Sicily and southern Italy; and when the most brilliant figure of the Middle Ages, Frederick II, the Stupor Mundi, received the crown in 1209, Germanism had already conquered large territories east, north and south of the former frontiers. Barbarossa had pushed back the Slavonic neighbours of Germany and consolidated his hold on the ‘March’ that was to play such a role in modern German history; the Teutonic Knights, an ecclesiastical brotherhood originally founded for the conquest of the Holy Land, had established themselves within the borders of the heathen Prussians; and the warlike German merchants of the Hansa, a federation of trading cities most of them situated on the coasts, had extended their influence all over the Baltic and the North Sea, from London to Riga and into Russia as far as Nishni Novgorod. All this had not been achieved without bloodshed and violence.

Needless to say that the system led to corruption and crime. Frederick’s own son-in-law and lieutenant, Ezzelino da Romano, in the course of trying to stabilise his rule, became a mass-murderer, thief and criminal of the most infamous repute, and there is no doubt that the age of the most modern, the most brilliant, the most learned of the medieval German Emperors – who had been born and brought up in Apulia in southern Italy – ranks with the most depraved periods of history anywhere. Several times excommunicated by the Pope, probably a complete agnostic himself, Frederick nevertheless, for political reasons, went on crusade twice and obtained by negotiation the cession of Jerusalem and Bethlehem from the Sultan of Egypt. For political reasons also he reversed at home the policy pursued in Sicily by granting comparatively large powers to the German dukes and ecclesiastical princes. After he had armed a strong force of Saracens in order to crush the Pope and the anti-kings set up against the Emperor under anathema, he suddenly died in 1250. His successors, Conrad IV and, after his early death the young Conradin, were unable to make headway against the numerous adversaries, at home and abroad, that raised their heads as soon as the brilliant figure of Frederick disappeared, and for nearly twenty years, from 1254 to 1273, there was the Great Interregnum, a period of lawlessness and decay during which no German Emperor was elected, while foreign princes, Richard of Cornwall and Alphonso of Castile, unsuccessfully laid claim to the crown.

It was one of those periods, frequent in German history, when the feudal magnates saw their chance of throwing off the Imperial yoke and ruling uncontrolled within their own domains. Half a dozen of these smaller dynasties, from which the Emperor would have to be chosen in the event of the extinction or deposition of a ruling house, were the leading powers, rebels against or allies of the Imperial house according to their varying dynastic or personal interests. Originally but feudal tenants of a power that belonged to the Emperor, Counts Palatine or Margraves entrusted with the administration of a province or a smaller area, all these petty rulers had managed to become hereditary owners of their lands and titles. They were to prove useful in their rivalry with each other as patrons of arts and science, as builders of larger or smaller capitals and as promoters of trade and agriculture. But their luxurious courts, their bodyguards and their frequent military enterprises were a heavy charge on the population, and prevented a greater degree of centralisation such as Britain and France were to experience to their great advantage. The character of the population, too, was to suffer from this multiplicity of loyalties demanded from it. It was impossible to develop a national feeling in an Empire where a step across the border of one of the feudal states might mean having to fight against the Emperor though he was supposed to be supreme Lord and though one’s previous overlord had been all for his anointed master. No man could be truly loyal to anybody under such conditions.

It was a natural consequence of this state of affairs that the towns developed a strength they had lacked so long as a strong central power, and regional government backed by it, had held the reins. Not that the merchants and craftsmen of medieval Germany were warlike by nature or out for conquest; but in order to protect themselves against robber knights who exacted arbitrary tolls from the merchants who passed their castles, and against feudal lords who plundered them under the guise of taxation, they had to keep mercenary troops and fortify their homes. As international trade progressed with the slow but permanent improvement of roads, ships and foreign contacts, the townsfolk gained wealth. Along the two great trade-routes of Germany – the one leading from Britain and Flanders along the river Rhine, through the towns of Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Aix, Cologne, Mayence, Frankfort, Freiburg and Basle into Italy, and the other from Scandinavia and the sea ports of Hamburg, Lubeck and Bremen via Hanover, Hildeheim, Wurzburg, Bamberg, Nuremburg, Regensburg and Vienna into the Balkans and the Near East – came and went precious goods: silks and velvets from France and Flanders, watches and goldsmiths’ work from Nuremberg, Venetian glass and lace, oriental swords and spices. Navigation improved with international trade, and the Hanseatic League, originally a sort of co-operative organisation of merchants, became a most powerful alliance of important towns and cities. The establishment of their depot in London, the ‘Stahlhof,’ dates back to the twelfth century.

As a political power the Hansa goes back to the Rhenish Federation of townships, established in 1251. With the co-operation of Lubeck in 1259, the Federation widened its scope to such an extent that soon afterwards the German trading settlements in Russia, Sweden and elsewhere had to submit to this organisation, which made the whole of northern Europe tributary to its interests. For more than a century they had to be taken into account wherever the interests of predominant great powers were involved, and the Hansa dealt with kings and emperors on a footing of equality. Although under strong German or at least Germanic influence, the Hansa was a markedly super-national, European institution. Yet its zenith coincides with the first marked triumph of German national feeling, with the ‘Konigstuhl’ at Rense, an old building on the river Rhine where, on 16th July, 1338, the seven electoral princes of Germany took an oath to have the German ruler henceforth put on the throne – as King – without interference by the Pope, leaving it to the successful candidate himself to decide whether he wished also to be anointed as Emperor in Rome or not.

The decision of the seven electors, temporal and ecclesiastical rulers of German countries, was taken after they had won a decisive influence in choosing the head of the Empire. When, after the Interregnum, Rudolph of Habsburg, a minor Suabian ruler and one not likely to disturb the almost independent position of the feudal magnates who had increased their authority during the period of lawlessness, was made Emperor, he lost their favour by showing independence and decision himself, and they refused the crown to his son Albert. He won the crown, however, from his elected adversary Adolf of Nassau, who was killed in battle, and by concentrating upon Germany and abstaining from Italian adventures, hitherto a fatal tradition of the German rulers, he strengthened the power of his house, which was afterwards to rule for five centuries. his brother and successor Frederick had to fight again for his throne, and lost it to the Bavarian Duke Lewis. This Emperor deserves mention for two reasons; he established close contact with the English kingdom and, at an Imperial diet at Coblenz on 31st August, 1338, received King Edward III, with whom he concluded an alliance against Philip VI of France and thus contributed towards the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War; and he attracted the Pope’s wrath and excommunication upon himself by sanctioning the bigamous marriage of his son with the ‘ugly duchess’ of Tyrol.

His successor, Charles IV, by promulgating a law called the Golden Bull determined the exact procedure for future Imperial elections, and tried to secure sufficient lands to make the Imperial dignity an heirloom of his dynasty, the house of Habsburg-Luxemburg. As a matter of fact he rather strengthened the centrifugal powers: soon afterwards the Empire lost the precious province of Brabant and the Swiss cantons, who founded an independent confederation of their own. Within Germany meanwhile the first ‘proletarian’ movements developed: in many towns the privileged classes, the guilds and their masters were attacked by the lower population, revolts and armed attacks upon patrician property occurred, and the frequent feuds between barons and cities became complicated by alliances of the municipal and rural nobility against the commoners.