1. The Organization of Power
The Norse irruptions were the final phase of those barbarian invasions that had stemmed from Germany five centuries before, and had shattered the Roman Empire into the nations of Western Europe. What had become of the Germans who had remained in Germany?
The exodus of great tribes—Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, Franks, Lombards—left Germany underpopulated for a time; the Slavic Wends moved westward from the Baltic states to fill the vacuum; and by the sixth century the Elbe was the ethnic, as it is at present the political, frontier between the Slavic and the Western world. West of the Elbe and the Saale were the surviving German tribes: Saxons in north central Germany, East Franks along the lower Rhine, Thuringians between them, Bavarians (once Marcomanni) along the middle Danube, and Swabians (once Suevi) along and between the upper Rhine and upper Danube, and along the eastern Jura and the northern Alps. There was no Germany, only German tribes. Charlemagne for a time gave them the unity of conquest, and the essentials of a common order; but the collapse of the Carolingian Empire loosened these bonds; and until Bismarck tribal consciousness and local particularism fought every centralizing influence, and weakened a people uncomfortably shut in by enemies, the Alps, and the sea.
The Treaty of Verdun (843) had in effect made Louis or Ludwig the German, grandson of Charlemagne, the first king of Germany. The Treaty of Mersen (870) gave him additional territory, and defined Germany as the land between the Rhine and the Elbe, plus part of Lorraine, and the bishoprics of Mainz, Worms, and Speyer. Louis was a statesman of the first order, but he had three sons; and on his death (876) his realm was divided among them. After a decade of chaos, during which the Northmen raided the Rhine cities, Arnulf, illegitimate offspring of Louis’ son Carloman, was elected king of “East Francia” (887), and drove back the invaders. But his successor, Louis “the Child” (899-911), proved too young and weak to hold back the Magyars, who ravaged Bavaria (900), Carinthia (901), Saxony (906), Thuringia (908), and Alemannia (909). The central government failed to protect these provinces; each had to provide its own defense; the provincial dukes organized armies by giving lands in fief to retainers who paid in military service. The forces so raised gave the dukes virtual independence of the crown, and established a feudal Germany. On the death of Louis the nobles and prelates, successfully claiming the right of choosing the king, gave the throne to Conrad I, Duke of Franconia (911-18). Conrad spent himself in strife with Duke Henry of Saxony, but had the wit to recommend Henry as his successor. Henry I, called “the Fowler” because of his love of hunting, drove back the Slavic Wends to the Oder, fortified Germany against the Magyars, defeated them in 933, and prepared, by his patient labors, for the achievements of his son.
Otto I the Great (936-73) was the Charlemagne of Germany. He was twenty-four at his accession, but was already a king in bearing and ability. Sensing the value of ceremony and symbolism, he persuaded the dukes of Lorraine, Franconia, Swabia, and Bavaria to act as his attendants in his solemn coronation at Aachen by Archbishop Hildebert. Later the dukes rebelled against his growing power, and induced his younger brother Henry to join in a plot to depose-him; Otto discovered and suppressed the conspiracy, and forgave Henry, who conspired again and was again forgiven. The subtle King gave new duchies to his friends and relatives, and gradually subordinated the dukes; later monarchs would not inherit his resolution and skill, and much of medieval Germany was consumed in conflicts between feudalism and royalty. In this contest the German prelates sided with the King, and became his administrative aides and counselors, sometimes his generals. The King appointed bishops and archbishops as he named other officials of the government; and the German Church became a national institution, only loosely attached to the papacy. Using Christianity as a unifying force, Otto fused the German tribes into a powerful state.
On the urging of his bishops, Otto attacked the Wends, and sought to convert them to Christianity by the sword. He compelled the king of Denmark and the dukes of Poland and Bohemia to accept him as their feudal suzerain. Aspiring to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, he welcomed the invitation of Adelaide, the pretty widow of King Lothaire of Italy, to rescue her from the indignities to which she had been subjected by the new King Berengar II. Otto combined politics deftly with romance: he invaded Italy, married Adelaide, and allowed Berengar to retain his kingdom only as a fief of the German crown (951). The Roman aristocracy refused to acknowledge a German as emperor and therefore as master of Italy; now began a contest that would last for three centuries. The rebellion of his son Ludolf and his son-in-law Conrad called Otto back to Germany, lest in trying to become emperor he should cease to be king. When the Magyars again invaded Germany (954), Ludolf and Conrad welcomed them, and supplied them with guides. Otto put down the rebellion, forgave Ludolf, reorganized his army, and so decisively defeated the Magyars at the Lechfeld, near Augsburg (955), that Germany won a long period of security and peace. Otto now devoted himself to internal affairs—restored order, suppressed crime, and for a time created a united Germany, the most prosperous state of its time.
Imperial opportunity returned when Pope John XII appealed for his aid against Berengar (959). Otto invaded Italy with a strong force, entered Rome peaceably, and was crowned Roman Emperor of the West by John XII in 962. The Pope, regretting this action, complained that Otto had not fulfilled a promise to restore the Ravenna exarchate to the papacy. Otto took the extreme step of marching into Rome, summoning a synod of Italian bishops, and persuading it to depose John and make a layman Pope as Leo VIII (963). The papal territory was now confined to the duchy of Rome and the Sabine region; the rest of central and northern Italy was absorbed into a Holy Roman Empire that became an appanage of the German crown. From these events German kings would conclude that Italy was part of their inheritance; and the popes would conclude that no man could become Roman emperor of the West except by papal coronation.
Otto, nearing death, forestalled disorder by having his son Otto II crowned coemperor by Pope John XIII (967); and he secured as his son’s wife The ophano, daughter of Romanus II the Byzantine Emperor (972); Charlemagne’s dream of a marital union of the two empires was transiently made real. Then, old in deeds but still only sixty years of age, Otto passed away (973), and all Germany mourned him as its greatest king. Otto II (973-83) spent himself in efforts to add southern Italy to his realm, and died prematurely in the attempt. Otto III (983-1002) was then a boy of three; his mother Theophano and his grandmother Adelaide ruled as regents for eight years. Theophano, in her eighteen years of influence, brought something of Byzantine refinement to the German court, and stimulated the Ottoman renaissance in letters and arts.
At the age of sixteen (996) Otto III began to rule in his own name. Influenced by Gerbert and other churchmen, he proposed to make Rome his capital, and unite all Christendom under a restored Roman Empire, ruled jointly by emperor and pope. The nobles and populace of Rome and Lombardy interpreted the plan as a conspiracy to establish a German-Byzantine rule over Italy; they resisted Otto, and established a “Roman Republic”; Otto suppressed it, and executed its leader Crescentius. In 999 he made Gerbert Pope; but the twenty-two years of Otto’s life, and the four years of Gerbert’s papacy, proved too brief for the implementation of his policy. Half a saint but in some measure a man, Otto fell in love with Stephania, widow of Crescentius; she consented to be his mistress and poisoner; the young king, feeling death in his veins, became a weeping penitent, and died at Viterbo at the age of twenty-two.83
Henry II (1002-24), last of the Saxon line of German kings, labored to restore the power of the monarch in Italy and Germany, where the reigns of two boys had strengthened the dukes and emboldened neighboring states. Conrad II (1024-39), beginning the Franconian or Salian line of emperors, pacified Italy, and added to Germany the kingdom of Burgundy or Aries. Needing funds, he sold bishoprics for sums so large that his conscience irked him; he swore never again to take money for an ecclesiastical appointment, and “almost succeeded in keeping his oath.”84 His son Henry III (1039-56) brought the new empire to its zenith. On the “Day of Indulgence,” at Constance in 1043, he offered pardon to all those who had injured him, and exhorted his subjects to renounce all vengeance and hatred. For a decade his preaching and example—perhaps also his power—reduced the feuds of the dukes, and co-operated with the contemporary “Truce of God” to bring a brief golden age to Central Europe. He patronized learning, founded schools, and completed the cathedrals of Speyer, Mainz, and Worms. But he was no saint pledged to eternal peace. He warred with Hungary till it recognized him as its feudal suzerain. He deposed three rival claimants to the papacy, and appointed two successive popes. In all Europe no other power equaled his. In the end he pushed his authority to an extreme that aroused opposition among both the prelates and the dukes, but he died before the storm, and bequeathed to Henry IV a hostile papacy and a troubled realm.
Henry was four when crowned king at Aachen, six at his father’s death. His mother and two archbishops served as regents till 1065; then the fifteen-year-old boy was declared of age, and found himself vested with an imperial power that must have turned any youthful head. He came naturally to believe in absolute monarchy, and sought to rule accordingly; soon he was at odds or war with one or another of the great nobles who had in his helplessness almost dismembered his realm. The Saxons resented the taxes laid upon them, and refused to restore the crown lands that he claimed; for fifteen years (1072-88) he fought an intermittent war with them; when he defeated them in 1075 he compelled their whole force, including its proudest nobles and its martial bishops, to walk disarmed and barefoot between the files of his army, and lay their act of surrender at his feet. In that same year Pope Gregory VII issued a decree against lay investiture—the appointment of bishops or abbots by laymen. Henry, standing on the precedents of a century, never doubted his right to make such appointments; he fought Gregory for ten years in diplomacy and war, and literally to the death, in one of the bitterest conflicts in medieval history. The rebellious nobles of Germany took advantage of the quarrel to strengthen their feudal power, and the humiliated Saxons renewed their revolt. Henry’s sons joined the opposition; and in 1098 the Diet of Mainz declared Henry V king. The son took the father prisoner, and compelled him to abdicate (1105); the father escaped, and was forming a new army when he died at Liége, in the fifty-seventh year of his age (1106). Pope Paschal II could not grant Christian burial to an unrepentant excommunicate; but the people of Liége, defying Pope and King, gave Henry IV a royal funeral, and buried him in their cathedral.
2. German Civilization: 566–1106
Through these five centuries the labor of men and women tilling the soil and rearing children conquered Germany for civilization. The forests were fearfully immense, harbored wild animals, impeded communication and unity; nameless heroes of the woodland felled the trees—perhaps too recklessly. In Saxony the struggle against the self-regenerating forest and the infectious marsh went on for a thousand years, and only the thirteenth century gave man the victory. Generation after generation the hardy, hearty peasants pushed back the beasts and the wilderness, tamed the land with mattock and plow, planted fruit trees, herded flocks, tended vines, and consoled their loneliness with love and prayer, flowers and music and beer. Miners dug salt, iron, copper, lead, and silver from the earth; manorial, monastic, and domestic handicraft wedded Roman to German skills; trade flowed ever more busily over the rivers and into the North and Baltic Seas. At last the great campaign was won; barbarism still lurked in the laws and the blood; but the gap had been spanned between the tribal chaos of the fifth century and the Ottonian renaissance of the tenth. From 955 to 1075 Germany was the most prosperous country in Europe, rivaled only by that northern Italy which had received law and order from German kings. Old Roman towns like Trier, Mainz, and Cologne carried on; new cities grew around the episcopal seats at Speyer, Magdeburg, and Worms. About 1050 we begin to hear of Nuremberg.
The Church was the educator, as well as the administrator, of Germany in this age. Monastic schools—really colleges—were opened at Fulda, Tegernsee, Reichenau, Gandersheim, Hildesheim, and Lorsch. Rabanus Maurus (776?–856), after studying under Alcuin at Tours, became abbot of the great monastery at Fulda in Prussia, and made its school famous throughout Europe as the mother of scholars and of twenty-two affiliated institutions. He extended the curriculum to include many sciences, and reproved the super stitions that ascribed natural events to occult powers.85 The library at Fulda grew to be one of the largest in Europe; to it we owe Suetonius, Tacitus, and Ammianus Marcellinus. An uncertain tradition attributes to Rabanus the majestic hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus, which is sung at the consecration of popes, bishops, or kings.86 St. Bruno, who was both the Duke of Lorraine and the Archbishop of Cologne, and became imperial chancellor under Otto the Great, opened a school in the royal palace to train an administrative class; he brought scholars and books from Byzantium and Italy, and himself taught Greek and philosophy.
The German language had as yet no literature; nearly all writing was done by clerics, and in Latin. The greatest German poet of the age was Walafrid Strabo (809-49), a Swabian monk at Reichenau. For a time he was tutor to Charles the Bald in the palace of Louis the Pious at Aachen; he found an enlightened patron in Louis’ wife, the beautiful and ambitious Judith. Returning to Reichenau as its abbot, he gave himself to religion, poetry, and gardening; and in a delightful poem De cultura hortorum—On the Care of Gardens—he described one by one the herbs and flowers that he tended so fondly.
His greatest rival in the literature of Germany in these centuries was a nun. Hroswitha was only one of many German women who in this age were distinguished for culture and refinement. Born about 935, she entered the Benedictine convent at Gandersheim. The standard of instruction must have been higher than we should have expected, for Hroswitha became familiar with the poets of pagan Rome, and learned to write Latin fluently. She composed some lives of saints in Latin hexameters, and a minor epic about Otto the Great. But the works that make her memorable are six Latin prose comedies in the manner of Terence. Her purpose, she tells us, was “to make the small talent vouchsafed her by Heaven give forth, under the hammer of devotion, a faint sound to the praise of God.”87 She mourns the pagan indecency of Latin comedy, and proposes to offer a Christian substitute; but even her plays turn on a profane love that hardly conceals a warm undercurrent of physical desire. In the best of her brief dramas, Abraham, a Christian anchorite leaves his hermitage to care for an orphaned niece. She elopes with a seducer, is soon deserted, and becomes a prostitute. Abraham traces her, disguises himself, and enters her chamber. When she kisses him she recognizes him, and recoils in shame. In a tender and poetic colloquy he persuades her to abandon her life of sin, and return to their home. We do not know whether these dramatic sketches were ever performed. The modern drama developed not out of such echoes of Terence, but out of the ceremonies and “mysteries” of the Church, crossed with the farces of wandering mimes.
As the Church gave a home to poetry, drama, and historiography, so she provided subjects and funds for art. German monks, stirred by Byzantine and Carolingian examples, and helped by the patronage of German princesses, produced in this age a hundred illuminated manuscripts of high excellence. Bernewald, Bishop of Hildesheim from 993 to 1022, was almost a summary of the culture of his age: a painter, a calligrapher, a metalworker, a mosaicist, an administrator, a saint. He made his city an art center by assembling artists of diverse provenance and skills; with their help, but also with his own hands, he fashioned jeweled crosses, gold and silver candlesticks chased with animal and floral forms, and a chalice set with antique gems, one of which represented the three Graces in their wonted nudity.88 The famous bronze doors which his artists made for his cathedral were the first historiated metal doors of the Middle Ages to be solidly cast instead of being composed of flat panels affixed to wood. Domestic architecture showed no signs yet of the lovely forms that would grace German cities in the Renaissance; but church architecture now graduated from wood to stone, imported from Lombardy Romanesque ideas of transept, choir, apse, and towers, and began the cathedrals of Hildesheim, Lorsch, Worms, Mainz, Trier, Speyer, and Cologne. Foreign critics complained of flat timbered ceilings and excessive external decoration in this “Rhenish Romanesque”; but these churches well expressed the solid strength of the German character, and the spirit of an age laboriously struggling up to civilization.