814 – 1077 A.D.:

814 – 1077 A.D.:


Louis The Pious, a friend of women, priests and Jews, during a not undisputed reign of twenty-five years, did two things worth mentioning: unlike his father he did not have the Pope bestow the Imperial crown upon him but crowned himself at Aix – an act imitated by Stephen, the next Pope, who took the tiara without Imperial sanction – and he partitioned his empire between his three sons: Charles the Bald, subsequently ruler of France; Lothair, for whom a new realm was created consisting of a narrow strip of land from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, the future Lotharingia or Lorraine; and Louis the German, who got a German kingdom. A weak ruler, Louis the Pious set forces in motion that were to shape the whole future course of European history: the Franco-German conflict on the one hand and on the other the rivalry between the Papacy and the Imperial power which dominated medieval history. Not yet was there a conscious national feeling in either part of the Carolingian Empire Austrasia, the eastern, or Neustria, the western half of the Frankish realm; but between the brothers over their inheritance, and after having defeated Lothair, the French and the German kings met at Strassburg in 842, swearing an oath of friendship in two languages, so as to be understood by both their armies. That oath in ‘romano’ (old French) and ‘teudisca’ (the old German language) is the oldest existing document establishing the two different nationalities within the formerly united Empire.

A split in the ruling forces, between the spiritual and the temporal, was nothing new in history. It existed among the Arabs and the Chinese of the period; but in the Christian world the Bishop of Rome, originally only the first among the many Christian bishops, (The Bishop of Rome is first amongst equal Patriarchs, Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople and Alexandria. He was Western Rite Orthodoxy which the bishop broke from in 1054 and created the Roman Catholic Church and went to war against other churches who were different in Liturgy, example the Western Rite Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches, hence the Crusade/Conquest of England in 1066 and the Crusade/Conquest of Constantinople in 1204), on the strength of his pretension to the succession of St. Peter, laid claim as Pontifex Maximus to supremcy over the temporal ruler. For in ancient Rome the Caesar-Imperator had held that supreme spiritual office too, and the question whether the Emperor was to appoint the Pope, the Pontifex, or whether the Ponitfex, crowning and anointing the Emperor, was to be considered as his superior, could never be settled. Whichever of the two was the more powerful decided for the time being the interpretation of their relationship. The Empire itself, considered as universal in an age which knew the existence of only three continents and very little about two of them and their civilisation, was in any case the common sphere of action of both these powers, and oceans of blood were shed and valuable potential forces of civilisation wasted during the next five hundred years in repeated expeditions across the Alps undertaken with the object of establishing or securing German imperial supremacy in Italy as against the Pope.

After the Strassburg Oath the Franco-German understanding was confirmed first by a treaty concluded at Verdun in August 843 and later by the treaty of Meerson – near Maastricht – dated 8th August, 870, after the death of Lothair. This second treaty split the Carolingian Empire into two halves, approximately in accordance with the linguistic character of its inhabitants, and it created strong German realm that was to prevail for sometime over the weaker and less prosperous French kingdom. Lotharingia, divided between the two was to be resurrected later on as the Duchy of Burgundy which so long hampered the unification and centralisation of France.

The German successors of Louis the Pious, his active and strong-willed son Louis the German, his grandson Charles the Fat who was deposed by Arnulph of Carinthia and – after the death of Louis the Child, the last Carolingian – Conrad the Franconia held France in check and strengthened the Imperial power. They began the conquest of the eastern marches, fighting Slavonic and Hungarian tribes and expanding the frontiers of the Empire usually under the pretext of a religious and cultural mission, which they had to fulfil as the secular arm of the Christian Church.

In 884 the Magyars, who had migrated into the Danubian plains formerly inhabited by the warlike Huns, appeared on the eastern frontier of the Empire; subsequently they attacked Italy, which had previously been ravaged by the Saracens, now pushed back to Sicily. At the same time the Norsemen harried the coasts of Germany, France and England. It was a period of continuous fighting that forced the noblemen, especially those living near the borders, to strengthen their castles and always keep a number of men in training and under arms.

In this wat the knights and barons gained power over the smaller landowners and the peasantry who did homage to them; the monasteries were likewise strengthened, fortified and used as strongholds and treasure-houses, thereby acquiring wealth and influence and giving the Church a more warlike character. both these new powers within the Empire were later on to contribute largely to its disintegration.

It was some time, however, before the rivalry between the feudal lords and the higher clergy on the one hand and the central power on the other became visible. For the Carolingian dynasty was succeeded by a number of strong and gifted rulers of the Salian family, Saxon princes who held the sceptre for more than two hundred years, from 918 to 1125. The first of them, Henry the Fowler, was said to have been informed of his election as Emperor while he was bird-catching: he had to catch some more dangerous and elusive game before he could hand over to his successor a country once more strong and united as it had been under Charlemagne. For the dukes of Suabia, Bavaria, Franconia and Saxony fought him for their independence; and on his frontiers he had to subdue Wends – his Slavonic neighbours across the river Elbe – Lotheringians, Bohemians, Danes and Magyars. his son Otto the Great, who crowned himself at Aix, subdued the tribal Dukes and appointed Counts Palatine for each duchy, Counts of the Marches for every border-area, and, as the first of a long list of German emperors, marched into Italy, there to be acknowledged as overlord and to receive homage from the Pope who, on 2nd February, 962, bestowed Charlemagne’s crown upon him in ex-change for a confirmation of the grant of the Papal territories. The Emperor’s son Otto II, by marrying the Byzantine Emperor’s daughter Theophano, created a link between the Eastern and Western Empires of the time and strengthened the claim first established by his father to the rightful succession to the Roman Empire – henceforth the official name of the German realm.

Henry III and Otto III emphasised the close contact that had been established between Rome and Germany by investing their rule with a mystical character, claiming to be God’s chosen instruments to establish His rule on earth. A strong influence that spread from the many Benedictine monasteries established after the example of Cluny, the chief monastery of the West, founded in 911, contributed to that development, which was to reach its height when a reformist Pope, Hildebrand, under the name of Gregory VII, openly fought the Imperial claim to dispense ecclesiastical offices and appointments. When the Emperor Henry IV took up the glove and tried to depose him, he excommunicated the German ruler; and so strong by then was the moral influence of the Church that Henry submitted to the indignity of crossing the Alps and waiting, in the courtyard of the castle at Canossa, where the Pope was staying, for three days in snow and ice, suing for absolution. the consequences were disastrous for the Emperor. German dukes and noblemen who had disapproved of his attitude before his excommunication and after, now openly rebelled and set up anti-kings whom Henry only defeated after a long struggle and by enlisting the help of the peasants and townfolk against his nobles. The year 1077 was a fateful year indeed. For at Canossa the Church won its first striking triumph in a fight that was to dominate the whole of medieval history. Without it, the Reformation and the religious wars that were to destroy the political power, the wealth and the civilisation of Germany might never have been.

Not that civilisation had progressed very far at the time of the Salic rulers. Their law-book Lex Salica, still contains, characteristically, a prohibition of cannibalism for magic purposes; the life in monasteries and convents was by no means exemplary, as is shown by the report on a convent at Pernegg where a certain wealthy Count Ulric kept no less than twelve mistresses; and there was a regular tariff of rape, the price ranging from twelve solidi to forty-five or fifty shillings. Slavery existed in its worst form, the serfs being practically at the mercy of their masters and their daughters an easy prey to every ‘junker’ who could claim the jus primae noctis (rape) before granting them the right to marry. On the other hand the arts and crafts began to flourish, and many of the great German cathedrals owe their existence to the religious zeal of the Salian Emperors, during whose time the ‘Romanesque; style, similar to the French-Norman style in England, developed. But by making their own younger sons or other relatives bishops, and by treating the Church as a privileged institution of the Imperial power, they made it worldly, greedy and immoral; they furnished the Popes with the necessary grounds on which to break away from the tacit agreement entered into when Charlemagne had himself crowned by Pope Leo; and when the iron Gregory VII built up his own hierarchy enforcing celibacy upon the clergy all over the world, the Holy Roman Empire lost its strongest moral asset in the game for world domination, together with the ‘right of investiture,’ i.e., of appointing its own bishops and abbots.