Germany in the Middle Ages

History - Middle Ages




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During the Middle Ages, Franks conquered the West Germanic Tribes after the fall of Roman Empire. The Frankish Empire of Germany was divided in 843 among the heirs of Charlemagne. In 962, Otto I became the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire which established itself as an important political force of Medieval Europe.

Unification of Germany in the Middle Ages

After Charlemagne, Germany was divided and the eastern part of Germany became East Francia. East Francia was under the Carolingian kingdom but after the death of last Carolingian emperor, Louis the Child in 911, the dukes of East Francia chose the weakest among them and made him the new emperor. This new emperor also failed to protect people against the Magyar attacks. On his deathbed, he recommended Henry the Fowler, the duke of Saxony, to be the new emperor. Henry was the strongest duke of his times and he became the first Saxon emperor. Henry I was successful in protecting Germany against the invaders as he successfully pushed back the Danes and created the Dane mark which acted as a protective buffer for Germany. He also drove Slavs away in the east and forced Slavic Czech to accept his domination. However, Henry I was unsuccessful in controlling the other dukes of Germany and he had little power as the emperor of Germany.

The Holy Roman Empire of Germany

Otto I was the heir of Henry the Fowler and he realized that in order to unite Germany, he will have to deal with the opposing dukes. Otto I, the Great (936-973) began a policy through which he gained control over the unruly duchies. He started setting up his own relatives and confederates as the rulers of these duchies. In order to ascertain success, he also appointed supervising officials to the rulers of duchies. These official counts were required to report to the king Otto I directly. As a result, Otto I established the feudal system in Germany to a successful degree.

He also used religious movements for the unification of Germany. He made alliances with the Church and helped them in constructing a German monarchy. The king vowed to protect the bishop, abbots and monks. In return, he got trustworthy and well-educated officials, income and troops from the Monastery. Otto I had direct intervention in appointing bishops and abbots. Since the offices of Church were not bound with hereditary system, all members of the Church were loyal to the king. During that time, this alliance of the Church and feudal king seemed natural as it was necessary for the unification of Germany and for the protection of German people. Otto I declared him as a priest and at his coronation at Aachen, he insisted on being anointed as ‘rex et sacerdos’ (king and priest).

Just like his father, Henry I, Otto I was successful to protect Germany against invaders and he crushed Magyars at Lechfeld, near Augsburg in 955. By effectively ending any danger of Magyar invasion, he succeeded in claiming among the masses that the king was the true defender of German people and the dukes couldn’t protect them. Otto the Great had a desire to establish a German Empire and to make it as strong as the Roman Empire. His main objective was the conquest of Italy as he wanted to add Italy in his empire. In 951, He crossed the Alps and tried to establish himself as the king of Italy. However, he had to wait till 962 when the pope crowned him as the emperor of Italy. The pope helped Otto I because of the threat to his Papal States by an Italian duke. Otto I was hugely inspired by the history of Roman Empire and since he was crowned by the pope of Roman Catholic Church, his empire later became known as the Holy Roman Empire. This title also made it easy for him to claim his rule over Lombardy, Burgundy, and Lorraine.

However, Otto I’s coronation as the emperor of Italy and Germany forced an unnatural union of the Pope and the Emperor. The aftermath of this unnatural union became known in coming years. During the reign of Otto III (883-1002), Otto III promoted his extravagant policy of ‘the renewal of Roman Empire.’ While his real source of power was Germany, he ignored his homeland and chose Rome as his capital. He built a grandiose palace in Rome and started living as the ‘emperor of Romans.’ He was also known as the ‘servant of Jesus Christ.’ Otto III installed non-Italian popes in Rome and along with these new non-Italian popes, he started ruling over Germans, Italians and Slavs. Otto III loves Italy truly; however, Roman people still considered him as an outsider and soon he faced public revolts which forced him to run away from Italy. He again tried to besiege Rome, but he died before succeeding in doing anything about it.

Despite all these escapades in Italy, the Saxon rulers arouse as the most powerful kingdom in Europe. They permanently protected Germany against Magyar invaders and they utilized German church as an ally which restricted the establishment of feudal system in Germany.

The Salian Emperors of Germany

The Salian House was a new royal line of the Saxon Kings of Germany. They ruled from 1024 to 1125. Members of the Salian House tried to establish a centralized monarchy in Germany. In order to weaken the other dukes, the Salian House appointed a lowborn person as a royal official. Gradually, the Salian Kings gained allegiance of lesser nobles.

Henry IV (1056-1106) successfully led the Salian Empire to its height of power. However, he failed to sustain that power and the empire suffered huge loss. The Ottonian system of allegiance of German Church and the King ruled over Germany successfully for more than a century. However, Henry IV gave way for the revival of a powerful Papacy. The increased power of Church created bitterness and conflicts. The Papacy revolted against the king’s right to appoint the officials of monastery and church. Henry IV succumbed to pressure and he suffered humiliation and was forced to beg forgiveness of the Pope through penitence. This whole conflict is known as the Investiture Controversy. At the end, the monarchy lost its power to appoint officials of the Church and it also lost the major source of strength, the loyalty of German Church towards the king, which was transferred to the papacy as the pope gained the power to appoint the officials of the Church. Many other nobles of Germany also helped the papacy and openly revolted against the monarchy.





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