Feudal Germany 936 -1250

THE WINTER of 1077 was one of the coldest on record in Italy. Ice and snow choked the mountain passages in the north and snowdrifts were piled high well into the south — as far south as the castle of Canossa, which was southeast of Parma. The fortified castle belonged to the countess of Tuscany and here Pope Gregory VII had taken refuge, fearing an attack by his enemies. On January 25, a man stood outside the Castle gate, barefoot in spite of the snow and cold. He was no ordinary penitent come to ask forgiveness of the pope. He was Henry IV of Germany, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He had made a long and perilous journey with his wife, his young son and a few followers. For three days the emperor waited for the pope to pardon him and lift the ban of excommunication. Excommunication was banishment from the Church and was the most terrible punishment that could be given to a believer of the Middle Ages. Excommunication meant that he was deprived of all the privileges of a Christian. He could not attend church services, he was denied the sacraments, he could not be buried in consecrated ground. In excommunicating Henry, Pope Gregory hoped to force him to acknowledge the pope’s authority to appoint his own bishops.


Henry knew that until the ban of excommunication was lifted his nobles would not accept him as king; he had little choice but to humiliate himself. Pope Gregory, for his part, knew that Henry would be a dangerous opponent once he was restored to the throne, but Gregory, too, had little choice; it was his Christian duty to take back into the Church anyone who begged so humbly for forgiveness. As Gregory later wrote, Henry “came in person to Canossa… bringing with him only a small retinue . . . He presented himself at the gate of the castle, barefoot and clad only in wretched woolen garments, beseeching us with fears to grant him absolution and forgiveness. This he continued to do for three days, while all those about us were moved to compassion at his plight and interceded for him with tears and prayers. . . . At length we removed the excommunication from him and received him again into the bosom of Holy Mother Church.”

The king’s pilgrimage to Canossa seemed like a triumph for the pope, but once he had been accepted back in the Church, Henry was able to return to his court and rally the nobles around him and in the end the victory was his.


The conflict between Henry and Gregory was part of a long struggle for power between the German monarchs and the papacy. The struggle began with Otto I — and yet, when Otto took the German throne in 936, he allied himself with the bishops and archbishops of the Church. Up to this time, the German kings had been as weak as the kings of France and England. They could not control the nobles, the powerful feudal dukes and princes who ruled their domains with a strong hand. Otto, who became known as Otto the Great, saw that the monarchy needed a strong, unified state. In such a state the nobles would be loyal vassals of the king, their lands would be royal fiefs and everyone would owe allegiance and service to the crown. As his first step in controlling the nobles, Otto allied himself with the Church.


The Church was willing to cooperate with Otto in order to improve its own position. In return for its support, it received grants for crown lands, special immunities and sovereign rights, such as the right to hold court, coin money and levy tolls. Church officials even gave Otto military aid, in exchange for the many benefits Otto gave them. Slowly, Otto made the churchmen his vassals, whom he appointed and controlled. In this way he laid the foundations of the strength which made Germany the mightiest state in Europe in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries.

After his alliance with the Church was cemented, Otto secured his eastern borders by sweeping victories over the Slavs and the Magyars. He then turned toward Italy. His aim was to forge one great European state — a Holy Roman Empire which would bring back the glory of ancient Rome, but with the cooperation of the Church. He married the beautiful widow Adelheid, whose husband had been a contender for the Italian throne, declared himself king of the Lombards‚ in north Italy and entering Rome on January 31, 962, had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor. As emperor, he tried to control the pope and when this did not work out to his satisfaction he tried to set up his own man in place of the pope.

The kings who followed Otto continued to carry out his policy of unification. Henry II, last of the line of Saxon kings, was succeeded by Conrad II of the Salian dynasty. Conrad put into action a clever plan. Whenever a dukedom fell vacant, instead of giving it to another noble, he bestowed it on his son and heir, Henry III. The result was that when Henry III took the throne in 1039, he was the duke of every German duchy except Lorraine and Saxony.

While the German kings were building a strong state and restoring the tradition of the Holy Roman Empire, a movement sprang up that would bring the Church into direct conflict with the monarchy. This movement originated in the famous monastery of Cluny in France and it was therefore known as the Cluniac program. The Cluniacs disapproved of the clergy becoming vassals to kings. Appealing to the pope, they called for many reforms. The pope was only too willing to support any movement that would free him from the dominance of the German kings and make him independent.


The conflict between church and state worsened during the reign of Henry III, who deposed three popes and created a succession of five German popes. His son, Henry IV, inherited the conflict and a formidable opponent as well, the autocratic and reform-minded Pope Gregory VII. Gregory had dedicated himself to the task of freeing the Church from German control. Henry finally reached the point where he declared Gregory an untrue pope, threatened to remove him from office and ordered his German bishops to denounce him. Pope Gregory’s answer was to excommunicate Henry from the Church — and it was then that Henry made his famous pilgrimage to Canossa.

The world marvelled at a penitent emperor standing barefoot in the snow and pleading with the pope, but after lifting the ban of excommunication from Henry, Gregory supported Duke Rudolph of Swabia, who revolted against the emperor. The enraged Henry returned to Italy, but this time he did not come as a humble penitent. He came as a warrior and he brought an army with him. He fought his way to the gates of Rome and drove out Gregory, who fled for his life and died in exile. Henry replaced him with a rival pope this time a pope who would obey the orders of the German emperor.

The struggle between the German kings and the popes went on until 1122, when the German princes met with papal delegates and members of the clergy in the city of Worms. They reached a compromise and drew up an agreement called the Concordat of Worms. It was signed by Henry IV’s son, King Henry V. The Concordat gave the Church the right to name its own bishops and archbishops, although the king kept the right to invest them with their lands and fiefs. It gave the pope more control over the clergy and so it was considered a defeat for the German kings.

The next few German emperors did little to challenge the pope, and then, in 1152, Frederick I of the Hohenstaufen dynasty came to the throne. He was a hearty, jolly man with great strength and an enormous appetite and his full red beard won him the name of Barbarossa, or Red-beard. The greatest German emperor of the twelfth century, he immediately set out to regain the power of the monarchy. His aims were the same as those of German kings in the past — to control the nobles, to make the bishops loyal to the king rather than to the pope and to extend German holdings in Italy and thus create a true Holy Roman Empire. He had to fight five separate Italian campaigns, but in the end he was victorious. The Lombard League, a union of independent cities in northern Italy, signed a treaty recognizing him as overlord. After that, Barbarossa married his son and heir, Henry, to Constance, heiress to the throne of the old Norman kings in southern Italy and Sicily. Through this marriage, southern Italy and Sicily were added to the lands of the empire.

Whatever Barbarossa did, he did in a grand and lavish manner. In 1184 he called a great gathering of German princes to Mainz to celebrate the knighting of his two oldest sons. Thousands of knights and nobles travelled to Mainz, coming from every important state in Europe. A special banquet hall was built for the occasion and two large warehouses were stocked with chickens, ducks, geese, deer, wild boar and huge barrels of Rhine wine. After the feasting, there was a tournament, in which the sixty-year-old emperor himself took an active part, while minstrels and troubadours sang his praises.

Four years later, Barbarossa joined England’s King Richard I in the Third Crusade. He never returned; he died while bathing in a river in Asia Minor, but the German people could not give up their red-bearded king so easily. A legend about him slowly grew and it would be told as late as the nineteenth century. Frederick Barbarossa was not dead. He was only asleep somewhere high in the mountains, under a magic spell. Some day he would awake and bring back the glory of Germany.

When Barbarossa died, Germany was still glorious. His son, Henry VI, inherited an empire at the height of its power. King of Germany and emperor of Rome, Henry was also crowned king of Sicily, Apulia and Calabria on Christmas Day of 1194. To make sure that his own son would succeed him, Henry had the child crowned king of the Romans at the age of two. The next year Henry died, leaving three-year-old Frederick II heir to the mightiest state in Europe.

Frederick II grew up to be the best educated and the most gifted monarch of the Middle Ages. He was called stupor mundi, the amazement of the world. He was a soldier, a statesman, an architect, a poet, a mathematician, a zoologist. He could speak half a dozen languages and was a patron of the arts. In spite of his brilliance, he could not hold together his empire; it was too

widespread, too much of a mixture. Throughout his reign he was troubled by uncooperative German princes, by rebellious communities in northern Italy and by an openly antagonistic pope who was determined to free Italy from German rule.

Although Frederick waged almost continuous warfare to keep his Italian lands, after his death the empire lost Sicily. Then Italy broke away and by the middle of the thirteenth century the Holy Roman Empire which Otto the Great had founded and which had reached its height under Barbarossa and Henry VI, was weak and almost powerless. France and England, rather than Germany, would dominate Europe.

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