The victor in the historic contest over lay investiture was the aristocracy of Germany—the dukes, lords, bishops, and abbots, who, after the defeat of Henry IV, controlled a weakened monarchy, and developed a centrifugal feudalism that in the thirteenth century deposed Germany from the leadership of Europe.
Henry V (1106–1125), having overthrown his father, continued his father’s struggle against barons and popes. When Paschal II refused to crown him emperor except on surrender of the right to lay investiture, he imprisoned Pope and cardinals. When he died the nobility overthrew the principle of hereditary monarchy, ended the Franconian dynasty, and made Lothair III of Saxony king. Thirteen years later Conrad III of Swabia began the Hohenstaufen dynasty, the most powerful line of kings in German history.
Duke Henry of Bavaria rejected the electors’ choice, and was supported by his uncle Welf, or Guelf; now flared up that strife between “Guelf” and “Ghibelline” which was to have so many forms and issues in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.* The Hohenstaufen army besieged the Bavarian rebels in the town and fortress of Weinsberg; there, says an old tradition, the rival cries “Hi Welf!” and “Hi Weibling!” established the names of the warring groups; and there (says a pretty legend), when the victorious Swabians accepted the surrender of the town on the understanding that the women alone were to be spared, and were to be allowed to depart with whatever they could carry, the sturdy housewives marched forth with their husbands on their backs.20 A truce was called in 1142, when Conrad went on crusade; but Conrad failed and returned in disgrace. The House of Hohenstaufen seemed stamped with disgrace when its first outstanding figure reached the throne.
Friedrich (“Lord of Peace”) or Frederick I (1152–90) was thirty when chosen king. He was not imposing—a small, fair-skinned man with yellow hair, and a red beard that won him in Italy the name of Barbarossa. But his head was clear and his will was strong; his life was spent in labors for the state; and though he suffered many defeats, he brought Germany again to the leadership of the Christian world. Carrying in his veins the blood of both the Hohenstaufens and the Welfs, he proclaimed a Landfried, or Peace of the Land, conciliated his enemies, quieted his friends, and sternly suppressed feuds, disorder, and crime. His contemporaries described him as genial, and ever ready with a winning smile; but he was a “terror to evildoers,” and the barbarism of his penal laws advanced civilization in Germany. His private life was justly praised for decency; however, he divorced his first wife on grounds of consanguinity, and married the heiress of the count of Burgundy, winning a kingdom with his bride.
Anxious for papal coronation as emperor, he promised Pope Eugenius III aid against the rebellious Romans and the troublesome Normans in return for the imperial ointment. Arrived at Nepi, near Rome, the proud young king met the new pontiff, Hadrian IV, and omitted the customary rite by which the secular ruler held the pope’s bridle and stirrup and helped him to dismount. Hadrian reached the ground unaided, and refused Frederick the “kiss of peace,” and the crown of empire, until the traditional ritual should be performed. For two days the aides of Pope and King disputed the point, hanging empire on protocol; Frederick yielded; the Pope retired and made a second entry on horseback; Frederick held the papal bridle and stirrup, and thereafter spoke of the Holy Roman Empire in the hope that the world would consider the emperor, as well as the pope, the vicegerent of God.
His imperial title made him also King of Lombardy. No German ruler since Henry IV had taken this title literally; but Frederick now sent to each of the northern Italian cities a podesta to govern it in his name. Some cities accepted, some rejected, these alien masters. Loving order more than liberty, and perhaps anxious to control the Italian outlets of German trade with the East, Frederick set out in 1158 to subdue the rebellious towns, which loved liberty more than order. He summoned to his court at Roncaglia the learned legists who were reviving Roman law at Bologna; he was pleased to learn from them that by that law the emperor held absolute authority over all parts of the Empire, owned all property in it, and might modify or abrogate private rights whenever he thought it desirable for the state. Pope Alexander III, fearing for the temporal rights of the papacy, and citing the donations of Pepin and Charlemagne, repudiated these claims, and, when Frederick insisted on them, excommunicated him (1160). The cries of Guelf and Ghibel-line now passed into Italy to denote respectively the supporters of the Pope and those of the Emperor. For two years Frederick besieged obdurate Milan; capturing it at last he burned it to the ground (1162). Angered by this ruthlessness, and galled by the exactions of the German podestas, Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Treviso, Ferrara, Mantua, Brescia, Bergamo, Cremona, Piacenza, Parma, Modena, Bologna, and Milan formed the Lombard League (1167). At Legnano, in 1176, the troops of the League defeated Frederick’s German army, and forced him to a six years’ truce. A year later Emperor and Pope were reconciled; and at Constance Frederick signed (1183) a treaty restoring self-government to the Italian cities. These in return recognized the formal suzerainty of the Empire and magnanimously agreed to provision Frederick and his retinue on his visits to Lombardy.
Defeated in Italy, Frederick triumphed everywhere else. He successfully asserted the imperial authority over Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary. He reasserted over the German clergy, in practice if not in words, all the rights of appointment that Henry IV had claimed, and won the support of that clergy even against the popes.21 Germany, glad to woo him from Italy, basked in the splendor of his power, and gloried in the knightly pageantry of his coronations, his marriages, and his festivals. In 1189 the old Emperor led 100,000 men on the Third Crusade, perhaps hoping to unite East and West in a Roman Empire restored to its ancient scope. A year later he was drowned in Cilicia.
Like Charlemagne he had drunk too deeply of the Roman tradition; he had exhausted himself in the effort to revive a dead past. Admirers of monarchy mourned his defeats as victories for chaos; devotees of democracy celebrate them as stages in the development of freedom. Within the limits of his vision he was justified; Germany and Italy were sinking into a licentious disorder; only a strong imperial authority could put an end to feudal feuds and municipal wars; order had to pave the way before a rational liberty could grow. In the later weakness of Germany, loving legends formed about Frederick I; what the thirteenth century imagined of his grandson was in time applied to Barbarossa: he was not really dead, he was only sleeping in the Kyffhauser Mountain in Thuringia; his long beard could be seen growing through the marble that covered him; some day he would wake up, shrug the earth from his shoulders, and make Germany again orderly and strong. When Bismarck forged a united Germany a proud people saw in him Barbarossa risen triumphantly from the tomb.22
Henry VI (1190–7) almost realized his father’s dream. In 1194, with the help of Genoa and Pisa, he conquered southern Italy and Sicily from the Normans; all Italy but the Papal States submitted to him; Provence, Dauphiné, Burgundy, Alsace, Lorraine, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, and Poland were united under Henry’s rule; England acknowledged itself his vassal; the Almohad Moors of Africa sent him tribute; Antioch, Cilicia, and Cyprus asked to be included in the Empire. Henry eyed France and Spain with unsated appetite, and planned to conquer Byzantium. The first detachments of his army had already embarked for the East when Henry, aged thirty-three, succumbed to dysentery in Sicily.
He had made no provision for so ignominious a revenge by the climate of his conquest. His only son was a lad of three; a decade of disorder ensued while would-be emperors fought for the throne. When Frederick II came of age the war of empire and papacy was resumed; it was fought in Italy by a German-Norman monarch become Italian, and will be better viewed from the Italian scene. Another generation of turmoil followed the death of Frederick II (1250)—that herrenlose, schreckliche Zeit (Schiller called it), that “masterless, frightful age” in which the electoral princes sold the throne of Germany to any weakling who would leave them free to consolidate their independent power. When the chaos cleared the Hohenstaufen dynasty had ended; and in 1273 Rudolf of Hapsburg, making Vienna his capital, began a new line of kings. To win the imperial crown Rudolf signed in 1279 a declaration recognizing the complete subordination of the royal to the papal power, and renouncing all claims to southern Italy and Sicily. Rudolf never became emperor; but his courage, devotion, and energy restored order and prosperity to Germany, and firmly established a dynasty that ruled Austria and Hungary till 1918.
Henry VII (1308–13) made a final effort to unite Germany and Italy. With scant support from the nobles of Germany, and a small following of Walloon knights, he crossed the Alps (1310), and was welcomed by many Lombard cities tired of class war and interurban strife, and anxious to throw off the political authority of the Church. Dante hailed the invader with a treatise On Monarchy boldly proclaiming the freedom of the secular from the spiritual power, and appealed to Henry to save Italy from papal domination. But the Florentine Guelfs won the upper hand, the turbulent cities withdrew their support, and Henry, surrounded with enemies, died of the malarial fever with which Italy now and then repays her importunate lovers.
Turned back in the south by natural barriers of topography, race, and speech, Germany found outlet and recompense in the east. German and Dutch migration, conquest, and colonization reclaimed three fifths of Germany from the Slavs; fertile Germans expanded along the Danube into Hungary and Rumania; German merchants organized fairs and outlets at Frankfort on the Oder, Breslau, Prague, Cracow, Danzig, Riga, Dorpat, and Reval, and trading centers everywhere from the North Sea and the Baltic to the Alps and the Black Sea. The conquest was brutal, the results were an immense advance in the economic and cultural life of the border.
Meanwhile the absorption of the emperors in Italian affairs, the recurrent need of enlisting or rewarding the support of lords and knights with grants of land or power, and the weakening of the German monarchy by papal opposition and Lombard revolts, had left the nobility free to engross the countryside and reduce the peasantry to serfdom; and feudalism triumphed in thirteenth-century Germany at the very time when it was succumbing to the royal power in France. The bishops, whom the earlier emperors had favored as a foil to the barons, had become a second nobility, as rich, powerful and independent as the secular lords. By 1263 seven nobles—the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, the dukes of Saxony and Bavaria, the count palatine, and the margrave of Brandenburg—had been entrusted by the feudality with the authority to choose the king; and these electors hedged in the powers of the ruler, usurped royal prerogatives, and seized crown lands. They might have acted as a central government and given the nation unity; they did not; between elections they went their several ways. No German nation existed yet; there were only Saxons, Swabians, Bavarians, Franks…. There was as yet no national parliament, but only territorial diets, Landtage; a Reichstag, or Diet of the Commonwealth, established in 1247, languished feebly in the Interregnum, and acquired prominence only in 1338. A corps of ministeriales—serfs or freedmen appointed by the king—provided a loose bureaucracy and continuity of government. No one capital centered the country’s loyalty and interest; no one system of laws governed the realm. Despite the efforts of Barbarossa to impose Roman law upon all Germany, each region kept its own customs and code. In 1225 the laws of the Saxons were formulated in the Sachsenspiegel, or Saxon Mirror; in 1275 the Schwabenspiegel codified the laws and customs of Swabia. These codes asserted the ancient right of the people to choose their king, and of the peasants to keep their freedom and their land; serfdom and slavery, said the Sachsenspiegel, are contrary to nature and the will of God, and owe their origin to force or fraud.23 But serfdom grew.
The age of the Hohenstaufens (1138–1254) was the greatest age of Germany before Bismarck. The manners of the people were still crude, their laws chaotic, their morals half Christian, half pagan, and their Christianity half a cover for territorial robbery. Their wealth and comforts could not compare, city for city, with those of Flanders or Italy. But their peasantry was industrious and fertile, their merchants enterprising and adventurous, their aristocracy the most cultured and powerful in Europe, their kings the secular heads of the Western world, ruling a realm from the Rhine to the Vistula, from the Rhone to the Balkans, from the Baltic to the Danube, from the North Sea to Sicily. Out of a virile commercial life a hundred cities had taken form; many of them had charters of self-government; decade by decade they grew in wealth and art, until in the Renaissance they would be the pride and glory of Germany, and be mourned in our day as a beauty that has passed from the earth.