A history of Europe from the end of Imperial Rome to the Renaissance.

Upon the decline of Roman imperial power, Germanic tribes from the east took over vast lands once ruled from Rome.

One of the most important were the Franks who settled Gaul.  (Modern France)

In addition to the Germans, even more terrifying peoples from Asia came to roam the lands once controlled by Rome.  They were the Mongols. 

Their leader, Attila, would come to be known as "the Scourge of God" and Europe would be plunged into a dark, violent age.

Yet out of these barbarians would emerge the Renaissance and the modern European nation state.

The Battle of Hastings





The Franks



Holy Roman Empire

Medieval Culture

Middle Ages



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A history of Europe from the end of Imperial Rome to the Renaissance.

The Barbarian West

Edited By: Robert A. Guisepi


Throughout western Europe and northern Africa, the political and cultural bonds of the Roman Empire were gradually replaced by a multitude of successor states. In 486 the Salian chieftain Clovis defeated the last Roman governor in Gaul and established a Frankish kingdom that included southwestern Germany. Clovis and his successors, known as the Merovingian dynasty, succeeded in uniting many Germanic tribes under one king. Following his conversion to Christianity in about 500, Clovis formed a special relationship with the bishop of Rome (later known as the pope). He forcibly converted his subjects from the Arian form of Christianity to the Roman version. During the following century, many monasteries and churches were built in the Merovingian kingdom, usually sponsored by the king or wealthy nobles.

In 751 the Merovingian dynasty was overthrown by the Frankish noble Pepin the Short. In order to boost his own claims to legitimate rule, Pepin secured the endorsement of the kingdom’s bishops and the pope; this was the beginning of a long tradition of church leaders conferring kingship. The rule of Pepin’s son Charles had a major impact on German and European history. Known as Charlemagne (Charles the Great), the ambitious king expanded the Frankish kingdom to include large parts of modern-day Germany and Italy during his long reign (768-814). He fought the Slavs south of the Danube River, annexed Bavaria, and ferociously subdued and converted the pagan Saxons in the northwest. Charlemagne was received in Rome as the champion of Christianity and restorer of the western empire. Just as importantly, he supported the papacy against Rome’s restive populace. On Christmas Day in 800, he was crowned emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III, thereby reviving the Roman imperial tradition in the west as well as setting a precedent for dependence of the emperors on papal approval.

The Carolingians  
Charlemagne’s empire, known as the Carolingian Empire, assumed many of the traditions and social distinctions of the late Roman Empire, but it also introduced some key innovations. Charlemagne persuaded Alcuin of York, considered the greatest scholar of the day, to come to his palace at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) and establish a new school to train clerks and scholars in classical Latin. The official language of the court and of the church was Latin, but Franks in Gaul adopted the Latinate vernacular that became French, while Franks and other Germanic tribes in the east spoke various languages that were ancestors of modern German.

Charlemagne granted large landholdings, known as fiefs, to many tribal military leaders, or dukes. In addition, he appointed numerous Frankish aristocrats to the lesser posts of count (the head of a smaller district called a county) and margrave (the count of a border province). These aristocrats were kings in miniature, with all of the administrative, judicial, and military authority of the emperor within their respective districts. Each county had a parallel ecclesiastical, or church, district, called a diocese, that was headed by a bishop with authority in all church matters. Both counts and bishops were vassals of the emperor, and were overseen by traveling representatives of the emperor, known as missi dominici. Every year, both counts and bishops attended a general assembly where they would advise the emperor and hear his directives.

The empire was vulnerable to tribal dissension and did not long survive Charlemagne’s death in 814. In 843 the Treaty of Verdun divided the Carolingian Empire into three parts: East Francia (roughly modern-day Germany), West Francia (roughly modern-day France), and, separating the two, an area running from the North Sea through Lotharingia (modern-day Lorraine) and Burgundy to northern Italy. In 870 the middle kingdom was divided, with Lotharingia going to East Francia and the rest to West Francia. The Carolingian dynasty in East Francia came to an end in 911 when the last of Charlemagne’s descendents died without an heir.

The Tribal Duchies  
By the 10th century, East Francia was being buffeted from the north and east by new waves of pagan invaders. Rival tribes of Vikings, Magyars (Hungarians), and Moravians virtually tore East Francia apart. As royal authority declined, the feudal dukes, counts, and other members of the aristocracy gradually made their fiefs hereditary. Increasingly, they established their own local governments and provided defense for their people. The greatest secular lords in East Francia were the rulers of five stem (tribal) duchies: Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Lorraine. Lesser warriors joined noble or princely retinues out of tribal loyalty and in exchange for smaller grants of land and other gifts. Common people worked the fields of warriors and nobles in return for protection and a share of the crops.

Growth of the Holy Roman Empire (911-1250)  Following ancient German tradition, the kings of East Francia did not automatically inherit the throne. Instead, they were elected by the wealthiest and most powerful nobles of the realm at the time—a group that was subject to change as fortunes rose and fell. None of these families wanted to be subject to another family or to a strong king so they often chose weak kings who were not a threat to the nobles’ power.

Once elected, medieval German kings had three major concerns. One was checking rebellious nobles; for this they often relied on the support of bishops and abbots. The second was controlling Italy and preserving the imperial coronation by the pope, which they considered an essential part of the Carolingian heritage. The third was territorial expansion to the north and east, especially after 955, when the Viking and Magyar threats subsided.

Otto I, the Great, and the Saxon Kings  
The first strong king of East Francia was Otto I. Elected in 936, Otto combined extraordinary forcefulness, dignity, and military prowess with great diplomatic skill and genuine religious faith. Determined to create a strong centralized monarchy, Otto married his relatives into the families of the duchies in order to gain control over them. This backfired, however, as his family members began to plot against him to usurp his power. After several dangerous uprisings, Otto began to break up the duchies into nonhereditary fiefs granted to bishops and abbots. By bringing these church figures into the court, Otto ensured their loyalty and was able to use their literacy to produce correspondence and legislation. The counts maintained their judicial functions from Carolingian times, but the church leaders were used much as Charlemagne had used the missi dominici—as the king’s representatives throughout the realm. Otto’s successors continued this Ottonian system of making alliances with the church and shifting toward a more formalized state.

Otto also defended his realm from outside pressures. In the west, he strengthened his hold on Lorraine and gained influence over Burgundy. In the north and east, he defeated the Danes and Slavs and permanently broke the power of the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. Wishing to emulate Charlemagne as the divinely sanctioned emperor, Otto established the archbishopric of Magdeburg in 968 and other dioceses as centers of civilization in the conquered lands.

In 951 Otto began the disastrous policy of German entanglement in Italy. He was perhaps tempted by the prosperity of the area and its political vacuum in the wake of feudal disorder and Saracen (Muslim) invasions. During his second Italian campaign in 962, Otto was crowned emperor by Pope John XII, who was grateful for Otto’s help against encroaching Italian nobles from the north and Byzantine Greeks and Saracens from the south. By a treaty called the Ottonian Privilege, Otto guaranteed the pope’s claim to most of central Italy in exchange for the promise that all future papal candidates would swear allegiance and loyalty to the emperor. This treaty effectively united the German monarchy and the Roman Empire until 1806, when the Holy Roman Empire, as it came to be called, was dissolved.

Otto’s successors in the 10th and 11th centuries continued his domestic and Italian policies as best they could. Otto II established the Eastern March (now Austria) as a military outpost; the influx on settlement from within the empire effectively Germanized the local population. He attempted to secure southern Italy, but was defeated by the Saracens. Otto III ruled from Rome. He supported the monastic reform movement originating in Cluny (Burgundy) that encouraged a more austere, disciplined, and prayerful life within monasteries and convents. The childless Henry II, gentle and devout, also encouraged the Cluniac movement and sent out missionaries from his court.

Salian Kings  From 1024 to 1125 German kings were chosen from the Salian line of Franconia, which was related to the Saxons. The Salians brought the empire to its height, both in terms of power and territorial expansion, but also initiated a period of intense religious and political strife. The rulers often faced difficulties with the German princes both in securing election as king and then in maintaining power.

Powerful rival dynasties developed during this period. These included the Wittelsbachs of Bavaria, the Welfs of Saxony, and the Hohenstaufens (sometimes called Staufers) of Swabia. Rivalry between the last two families led to a long international division between their respective allies in both Germany and Italy. In Italy the Welf allies were known as Guelph and the Hohenstaufen allies as Ghibelline (see Guelphs and Ghibellines).

The first Salian kings consolidated their power in Germany and were able to maintain control over the papacy. Conrad II, who ruled from 1024 to 1039, was clever and ruthless. He asserted royal authority over princely opposition by making the fiefs of lesser nobles hereditary, thus undermining their dependence on the princes, and by appointing ministariales, non-nobles responsible directly to him, as officials and soldiers. He also seized Burgundy, strengthened his hold on northern Italy, and became overlord of Poland.

Conrad’s son, (Henry III), who ruled until 1056, was possibly the first undisputed king of Germany. A pious visionary, he tried with little success to introduce to an empire torn by constant civil strife the Truce of God, a weekly respite from warfare lasting from Wednesday night to Monday morning. His ecclesiastical reforms were somewhat more successful, particularly his efforts to end simony, the practice of buying and selling church offices. At the same time, he continued to exercise strong control over the church in Germany, appointing key church figures as his vassals as well as deposing three rival popes and creating four new ones, most notably the reform-minded Leo IX.

In 1056 Henry IV, while still a child, succeeded his father. During his mother’s regency, long-restive princes annexed much royal land in Germany, while the Normans seized control of Italy. Henry IV sought to recover lost imperial power, but his efforts to retrieve crown lands aroused the Saxons, who had always resented the Salian kings. He crushed a Saxon rebellion in 1075 and proceeded to confiscate land, thus intensifying their enmity.

Investiture Controversy  In addition to his struggle with the German princes, Henry also became involved in a controversy with the papacy over who would appoint clergy in Germany. The ensuing struggle was known as the Investiture Controversy.

Pope Gregory VII wanted to free the church from secular control and forbade lay investiture (the appointment of clergy by nonclerical officials). The German kings, however, wanted to appoint major church officials such as bishops, because they were powerful vassals of the king. Henry retaliated by having the pope deposed by an episcopal synod at Worms in 1076. The pope promptly excommunicated Henry, which denied him the benefits and privileges of church membership, and released all of his subjects from their oath of loyalty to him, a move that pleased the princes. To keep his crown, Henry cleverly sought to see the pope at Canossa in the Apennines in January 1077. He waited outside the palace for three days as a barefoot penitent in the snow. Thinking he had succeeded in humiliating a disobedient emperor, Gregory forgave Henry.

The princes, however, felt betrayed and elected a rival king, Rudolf of Swabia, triggering nearly 20 years of civil war. In 1080 Gregory again excommunicated Henry, who had continued to practice lay investiture, and recognized Rudolf as emperor. When Rudolf died later that year, Henry marched on Rome, free from the threat of Rudolf’s forces. He deposed Gregory by force and installed the rival pope Clement III in his place; Clement crowned Henry emperor in 1084. Henry returned to Germany to continue the civil war against a new rival king. Henry’s son, Henry V, betrayed and imprisoned him and forced him to abdicate in 1106.

The treacherous and greedy Henry V continued his father’s struggle for supremacy, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Suffering military defeats, he lost control of Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia. Despite the support of churchmen, ministeriales, and the towns, he could not suppress the princes, who forced the weary emperor and Pope Callistus II to compromise on investiture. Pope and emperor accepted the Concordat of Worms in 1122, which stipulated that clerical elections in Germany were to take place in the presence of the emperor without simony and that the emperor was to invest the candidate with the symbols of worldly office before a bishop invested him with the spiritual ones. The pope had the better of the bargain, but the struggle was not resolved and the rivalry between empire and papacy contributed in many ways to the decline of the German monarchy.

The Guelph-Ghibelline Conflict  Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, the rivalry centered around two princely families: the Hohenstaufen, or Waiblingen, family of Swabia, and the Welfs of Bavaria and Saxony. The rivalry extended to Italy where the Hohenstaufens were known as the Ghibellines and the Welfs as Guelphs. The Hohenstaufens held the German and imperial crowns, while the Welfs were allied with the papacy.

When Henry V died childless in 1125, the princes passed over his nephews, Frederick and Conrad Hohenstaufen, and chose Lothair, Duke of Saxony, as Henry’s successor. When he became allied with the pope, however, and was crowned Emperor Lothair II in 1133, the Hohenstaufen princes and their allies refused to recognize the coronation and rose up in revolt. At Lothair’s death in 1137, the princes chose Conrad Hohenstaufen, rather than Lothair’s powerful Welf son-in-law and heir, Henry the Proud of Bavaria and Saxony. Civil war erupted again, this time between the charming but weak Conrad III and the Welf dukes Henry the Proud and his son, Henry the Lion. Peace was temporarily restored at Conrad’s death by the election of his nephew Frederick, a Hohenstaufen whose mother was a Welf.

Frederick Barbarosa
Intelligent, handsome, warlike, and judicious, Frederick I, known as Frederick Barbarossa, ruled from 1152 to 1190. Regarding himself as the successor of Augustus, Charlemagne, and Otto the Great, he took the title Holy Roman Emperor and spent most of his reign shuttling between Germany and Italy, trying to restore imperial glory to both regions and coming closer than any other medieval ruler to this goal.

In the north, Frederick joined Germany and Burgundy by marrying Beatrice, heiress to Burgundy. He then declared an imperial peace, and to ensure it he placated the Welfs by recognizing Henry the Lion as duke of Saxony and Bavaria. But when Henry refused to contribute troops to a critical Italian campaign, Frederick and jealous princes exiled him as a traitor. Henry’s duchies were split up, with Bavaria going to the Wittelsbach family, who would remain its rulers until the modern unification of Germany.

In the south, Frederick made six expeditions to Italy to assert full imperial authority over the pope and the Lombard city-states, a group of northern Italian cities that had organized to resist Frederick’s imperial claims in Italy. On his first trip in 1155, he was crowned emperor by Pope Adrian IV. During the next 20 years he was successful in defeating a variety of alliances between the popes and the Italian city-states, capturing Rome itself in 1166. During his fifth Italian expedition, though, he was defeated by the Lombard League at the Battle of Legnana in 1176, partly because he lacked the crucial support of Henry the Lion. The subsequent Peace of Constance recognized the autonomy of the Italian cities, which remained only nominally subject to the emperor. Stubbornly, Frederick made one last trip, gaining new support among the quarrelsome cities. He resigned as emperor in 1190 in favor of his son Henry VI and set out to lead the Third Crusade, in which he died.

The Last Hohenstaufen Kings  More ambitious even than his father, Henry VI wanted to dominate the known world. To secure peace in Germany, he put down a rebellion by the returned exile Henry the Lion and then restored him to power. He forced the northern Italian cities to submit to him, and on the basis of an inheritance claim through his Norman wife, he seized Sicily. Intending to create an empire in the Mediterranean, he exacted tribute from North Africa and the weak Byzantine emperor. However when Henry died suddenly in 1197 while planning a new crusade, his empire immediately fell apart. The German princes refused to accept his young son, Frederick II, as king and thus initiated a new civil war between backers of the Hohenstaufen Philip of Swabia and those of the Welf Otto of Brunswick. When Otto invaded Italy, Pope Innocent III secured the election of Frederick II in 1211 on the promise that the young king would give up Sicily so as not to surround papal territory.

Outstandingly accomplished in many fields, Frederick II, who reigned from 1212 to 1250, was called Stupor Mundi (Wonder of the World). Determined to keep Sicily as his base of operations, he revised his coronation promise to the pope, giving up Germany rather than Sicily to his young son Henry. In exchange for the German princes’ support of his Italian campaigns, Frederick allowed them to usurp many of his own powers, making them virtually kings in their own territories. On the empire’s eastern frontier, he granted a fief to the Teutonic Knights, a military religious order that eventually created the Prussian and Baltic states, on the condition that they convert the natives to Christianity.

In Sicily, Frederick suppressed the local nobility, reformed the laws, founded the University of Naples, and kept a brilliant court, where he shone as scientist, artist, and poet. He was also an excellent soldier, diplomat, and administrator, and led a successful crusade to Jerusalem in 1228. In his absence, however, Pope Gregory IX invaded Sicily. Frederick quickly returned and made peace with the pope, but by 1237 he was waging battle against a second Lombard League of cities in northern Italy. Once again, their ally, the pope, excommunicated Frederick, but this time Frederick responded by seizing the papal states. Gregory’s successor, Innocent IV, fled to Lyon and declared the emperor deposed.

Frederick died before he could secure his position against the league, however, and under his successor, Conrad IV, the Hohenstaufens were finally ousted from Sicily. The empire then suffered the turmoil of the Great Interregnum (1254-1273), during which two non-Germans—Richard of Cornwall and Alfonso X of Castille—claimed the crown, although neither was ever crowned. The German princes, meanwhile, exploited the absence of an emperor, further solidifying their own political independence. At the very time that French and English kings were centralizing their power, German lands moved ever further into political pluralism and fractured authority. The Great Interregnum marked a decisive turning point in the history of Germany and the empire, beginning the slow decline of real imperial power.

 Decline of the Empire and Growth of Habsburg Power (1250-1519)  
By the end of the 13th century, dynastic realignments resulted in the gradual replacement of the stem duchies by several new principalities. Three of the new dynastic powers in particular—the Habsburg, Wittelsbach, and Luxemburg families—struggled to secure the imperial crown. In 1273 the electors ended the Great Interregnum by choosing Rudolf of Habsburg, a minor Swabian prince who was unable to repossess the lands that the principalities had usurped. Instead, Rudolf I concentrated on aggrandizing his own dynastic holdings. Aided by the Wittelsbachs and others, he defeated the rebellious Ottokar II of Bohemia and took the lands of Austria, Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola (modern Slovenia). The Habsburgs thus became one of the most powerful dynasties in the empire.

Rudolf reigned until 1291, and his two immediate successors were deposed and murdered by the princely electors. Still seeking a weak emperor, in 1308 they chose Henry, count of Luxemburg. Anxious to restore imperial claims to Italy, Henry VII crossed the Alps in 1310 and temporarily subdued Lombardy. He died in 1313 while trying to conquer Naples from the French. His death precipitated a civil war that raged until the Wittelsbach candidate for the throne, Louis the Bavarian, defeated his Habsburg rival at the Battle of Mühldorf in 1322. Louis IV reigned until 1347.

At Rhense in 1338, the electors made the momentous declaration that henceforth the king of the Germans need only be the majority choice of the electors, instead of the unanimous one as was previously the case. This decision averted a civil war. They also declared that he would automatically be emperor without being crowned by the pope. This was reflected in the king’s title, official by the 15th century: Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation.

The popes, of course, objected to this change. Clement VI immediately opened negotiations with Charles, king of Bohemia and grandson of Henry VII. In 1347 Charles was chosen by five of the seven electors, who had deposed Louis IV. Charles IV diplomatically ignored the question of papal assent. In the Golden Bull of 1356, he specified the seven electors as the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, the count palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg, and the king of Bohemia. Because the bull made their lands indivisible, granted them monopolies on mining and tolls, and secured monetary gifts from all imperial candidates, these seven rulers were now the strongest of all German princes.

Charles then began building a great state in the east by entrenching his own dynasty in Bohemia, buying Brandenburg (which allowed him to become one of the seven electors), and taking Silesia from Poland. To obtain cash, he encouraged the silver, glass, and paper industries of Bohemia. He also oversaw a major cultural revival, adorning his capital Prague with new buildings in the late Gothic style and founding the first German university in Prague in 1348.

Charles’s son, Sigismund, who reigned from 1410 to 1437, was involved in calling the Council of Constance (1414-1418). The council invited the popular religious reformer John Huss to come to the assembly under imperial protection to present his views. Huss’s proposals for ecclesiastical reform challenged not only the authority of many church figures but also the political and cultural dominance of Germans in a predominantly Czech region. When he arrived in Constance, Huss was immediately imprisoned, tortured, and burnt at the stake as a heretic. His death was considered a martyrdom by many Czechs in Bohemia and led to a series of confrontations, known as the Hussite Wars, during the 1420s and 1430s. While the more radical branches of the revolt were suppressed, moderates won some concessions from both Sigismund and the church in exchange for reconciliation.

When Sigismund died without an heir, the electors unanimously chose his Habsburg son-in-law Albert of Austria as Emperor Albert II. Albert died shortly thereafter, in 1439, but from that time on the imperial crown became in practice, although not officially, hereditary in the Habsburg line. Albert’s cousin and successor Frederick III successfully reunited different branches of the Habsburg family that had been previously split by inheritance, but he lost Hungary and Bohemia and sold Luxemburg to France. He also continually struggled with the German princes and the ever-encroaching Ottoman Turks on his eastern borders. In 1486 the princes forced him to cede his authority to his son Maximilian, but he retained the title of Holy Roman Emperor until 1493.

Maximilian I, who reigned from 1486 to 1519, was a knight and art patron. He enthusiastically laid many plans for the empire, but these never materialized. His chief success was in arranging marriages to benefit his family. By his own marriage to Mary of Burgundy, he acquired a rich territory that included thriving Dutch and Flemish towns. By marrying his son, Philip the Handsome, to Joanna, daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, Maximilian ensured for his heirs all of the expanding Spanish empire, including possessions in Italy and the Americas. He betrothed his grandson Ferdinand to the heiress of Hungary and Bohemia, thus adding those states to his inheritance. The office of emperor meanwhile had become an increasingly symbolic position, to be used in the next five centuries to further Habsburg dynastic ambitions.

Life in Germany During the Middle Ages Feudal Society  
With the decline of the Roman Empire and particularly with the onset of Viking and Magyar raids during the 9th and 10th centuries, political authority became increasingly fractured and localized throughout western and central Europe. The model for political authority developed from the Roman and Frankish tradition of seignorialism. In this tradition, large landowners provided farmland and protection to their tenants in return for taxes and labor. This tradition gradually evolved into a variety of forms, collectively known as feudalism.

In general, all types of feudal relations in the Middle Ages shared two features. First, and most importantly, all political relationships were based on personal bonds, or contracts, between two individuals, whether between king and noble or noble and peasant. Such mutual loyalty had been the basis for the comitatus, a group of warriors in ancient German societies. By the time of Charlemagne, the formation of a lord-vassal relationship between two warriors, or nobles, was increasingly formalized, usually involving the exchange of military service and loyalty for land. Land tenure—the key to personal wealth and power—was the second universal element of feudal relations. In most instances, kings were the largest landowners, and they secured the support of other nobles by giving each of them an estate, or fief.

By the beginning of the 11th century, most parts of Germany were dominated by aristocrats. Everywhere nobles monopolized the right to bear arms. They held supreme jurisdiction within their own lands and dispensed all types of justice. Only taxation, which was considered an exceptional and generally temporary practice in medieval Europe, required the approval of the emperor and all of the other nobles. The German nobles and the emperor gathered irregularly and in different locations in an imperial assembly, or diet, eventually called the Reichstag. A similar meeting within a territory, or land, was called a Landtag.

The German nobility ranged from the powerful seven electors and the princes of more than 240 states to the minor imperial knights who held fiefs directly from the emperor. Violent conflicts among noble families were common throughout the Middle Ages and usually aimed at expanding a dynasty’s landholdings. Arranged marriages provided another method of dynastic expansion and consolidation. Beginning in the 11th century, many families constructed castles, both for defense and as a sign of social importance.

About 90 percent of the German population during the Middle Ages lived in small, rural communities and worked on the land. In many regions peasant families entered into an unfree relationship with landowners, commonly known as serfdom. Serfs were required to give part of their labor to the landlord. The majority of those who worked the soil in Germany, though, were free tenant farmers who gave nobles a share of their annual harvest as rent. Peasants—all of those who farmed the land and bred livestock—relied on local secular and ecclesiastical patrons for various kinds of protection, both from invaders and criminals as well as from such natural disasters as famine and flood.

The material conditions of the peasants’ lives were generally harsh. Infant and child mortality was exceptionally high: One out of two babies born did not reach adulthood. Most Germans lived in one-room wooden or mud shacks with all the members of their family and even some domesticated animals. The diet consisted largely of bread, some vegetables, and beer or wine. Meat was expensive and generally reserved for holidays and other special occasions. Whether tenant or serf, peasants relied on the lord for most services—including milling and baking—and were required to provide him with their own labor at certain times. Famine and taxes occasionally drove some individuals to revolt, but the result was always violent suppression. More often peasants negotiated with landlords for better conditions or simply fled to the nearest city.

Population Growth and Movement

 At the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, there were probably only about 700,000 people in the area of modern Germany. These numbers rose gradually to about 3 million by the year 1000. As elsewhere in Europe, the population of Germany then boomed for the next three centuries, possibly growing as high as 12 million people by the end of the 13th century. In addition to contributing to the growth of towns, the growing number of people increased the demand for food and arable land. One result was the push to the east, a deliberate policy of German settlement of various areas east of the Oder, Vistula, and Memel rivers. From the 12th century to the 14th century, recruiters, working for German lords, led wagon trains of Germans to settle thinly populated Slavic lands. Monastic orders such as the Cistercians and the Premonstratensians also came to the new frontier. The Teutonic Knights moved their headquarters to Marienburg in eastern Germany and led a crusade against the pagan Prussians. The knights’ defeat in 1242 by Russian prince Alexander Nevsky marked the eastern limit of German expansion, but by then most of modern-day eastern Germany, northern Poland, and the Baltic states had been overrun by German settlers. Tensions between German and Slavic cultures in these areas have endured into modern times.

The later Middle Ages were dominated by the plague, a deadly disease known as the Black Death. Perhaps as many as 5 million Germans—about one-third of the population—died during the first wave of plague from 1348 to 1350, and subsequent outbreaks prevented the population from recovering to preplague levels until 1500. For those peasants and workers who survived, the decrease in the labor supply generally meant more favorable leases and wages. In the eastern lands, however, nobles reacted in the opposite manner. Determined not to lose their privileges, they brutally cracked down on their tenants, introducing what is known as a second serfdom, with even more oppressive feudal demands.

Commerce and the Growth of Towns  
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, urban centers everywhere in Europe declined dramatically. By the beginning of the 11th century, however, trade revived and towns began a three-century growth spurt. A few, such as Trier and Cologne, were based on Roman settlements, but the majority were new centers, some connected to nearby castles or monasteries. In eastern Germany, cities such as Breslau (modern Wroc³aw, Poland) and Königsberg (modern Kaliningrad, Russia) developed as part of deliberate colonization. Cologne and Frankfurt prospered greatly because they were on the routes that traders traveled between Germany and the large merchant fairs of Champagne, in what is now northeastern France. Mainz grew because it lay on the trade route across the Alps to Italy. Of the 3,000 German towns established by 1300, almost all were small, with populations under 1,000. Cologne, the largest city in medieval Germany, had a population of 30,000 at its peak in the early 14th century.

As their economic power grew, the cities’ demands for freedom from attack and from feudal tolls often led to war with neighboring nobles. Shrewd town magistrates were able to use the ongoing struggle between German emperors and princes to their own benefit. Beginning with Frederick Barbarossa in 1183, emperors granted some cities complete political autonomy and the right to form alliances in exchange for tax revenues. These were called imperial cities. Most were located in southern Germany and formed defensive unions such as the Swabian League.

Meanwhile, in the north, several German and Scandinavian towns—particularly Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen—combined forces to form the powerful trade association of the Hansa, or the Hanseatic League. At its peak in the early 15th century, the league monopolized all trade on the Baltic and throughout northern Europe. The league constructed canals and roads, arranged commercial treaties, and even waged war.

In Switzerland, eight city-states, or cantons, won their independence from the Habsburgs in the 13th century. They were eventually joined by others in the Helvetic (Swiss) Confederation, which has endured to this day. As befitted a decentralized empire, no one city gained undisputed prominence, although Prague served as the imperial capital during the 14th and 15th centuries.

During the later Middle Ages, the cities became increasingly important in an expanding money economy. In the south, the imperial cities of Nürnberg and Augsburg, home of the Fugger Bank, thrived on mining and trade with Italian city-states. The growth of trade was accompanied by a marked increase in production of finished goods beginning in the 12th century. Throughout Germany, skilled artisans organized themselves into guilds devoted to a particular specialty, for example weaving. The guild was a local monopoly that held complete power over production quality and quantity, prices, and admission into its ranks. By the late Middle Ages, guilds had gained for their members the most powerful economic and political positions in the cities.

The medieval city was dominated by a few powerful people, just as the countryside was. The key difference was that in the cities, the various merchant and craft guilds (both virtually hereditary by the 15th century) struggled with one another for political power. Those who were successful dominated the town councils. Beginning in the 12th century, these councils legislated on a variety of matters, including safety, hygiene, and social behavior. The majority of the urban population—artisans, shopkeepers, day laborers, and the destitute—had no say in governing the city.

Many German cities included Jews who in theory were under the special protection of the emperor, but in fact they endured countless organized attacks, or pogroms, throughout the Middle Ages. By the end of the 13th century, most German cities required all Jews to live within an enclosed district (ghetto), supposedly for their own safety, but sporadic persecutions persisted.

Technological Developments  
During the Middle Ages, the productivity of agriculture increased as a result of several technological advances. The proliferation of the heavy-wheeled plow by the 6th century greatly improved production on German lands but also required much animal power—from two to eight oxen per plow. As a result, many farmers gathered in small settlements with common livestock and fields. By the 9th century, the introduction of the collar and harness permitted horses to do the same work as oxen; developments such as the tandem harness (two teams, one behind the other) and the horseshoe improved productivity even more. Undoubtedly the greatest agrarian innovation of the early Middle Ages was the three-field rotation. Common by the 9th century, this method allowed farmers to improve their annual yield and avoid exhausting the soil by rotating crops on three fields—one for a winter wheat, one for a spring crop (such as oats, barley, peas, or beans), and one left unused. An agricultural revolution during the 11th and 12th centuries witnessed the clearing of millions of acres of forests and swamps for cultivation as well as the introduction of the windmill, which harnessed the power of the wind to mill grain or pump water.

The two areas of technological innovation most prominent in late medieval Germany were mining and printing. By the late 15th century, a series of inventions and improved techniques resulted in a fivefold increase in central European mining output. Saxon methods of extracting pure silver from the lead alloy in which it was often found helped expand the money economies of Europe. Increased iron production also meant more and stronger pumps and other machine parts and a related boom in construction work and shipbuilding.

The invention of movable metal type was one of the most significant developments of all human history. Johannes Gutenberg discovered a durable alloy of lead, tin, and antimony that allowed books and other writings to be duplicated in a fraction of the time needed for manuscript copying. Gutenberg’s Bible, first printed in 1455, was the first major work to be printed. Within 50 years, more than 250 cities throughout the empire and Europe had one or more printing shops operating full time. The impact of the printing press on society is still being explored, but it is clear that it touched the lives of many more than the 10 percent of the population who could read.

Ancient Germanic peoples worshipped many gods, usually distinguishing between the greater sky gods, such as Wodin and Thor, and the lesser divinities who dwelled in fields, trees, and streams. The first recorded Christian missionary to the Goths was Ulfilas in the 4th century, who preached the Arian version of Christianity. This version was considered heretical because it denied the full divinity of Jesus Christ. Ulfilas and his successors converted almost all of the German peoples within the empire. Clovis and the Franks reconverted them to orthodox (Catholic) Christianity beginning in the 6th century.

The Frankish kingdom established a special relationship with the Roman church that continued under the Carolingians. Charlemagne enthusiastically encouraged missionary work among the Germans, which was largely completed by the end of his reign in 814. The pagan Slavs of eastern Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states were also eventually converted.

By the 10th century, numerous German monasteries and convents were operating under the Benedictine rule. This rule of daily life for monasteries was established by Saint Benedict of Nursia and stressed communal living, physical labor, prayer, and study. However, not all the monasteries adhered strictly to the rule. This prompted a monastery in Cluny, in central France, to lead a reform movement to restore strict adherence to the Benedictine rule. The Cluniac movement was well organized because all the monasteries were responsible to the central abbey in Cluny. The movement attracted support from many kings and bishops who supported monastic reform. The widespread following and strict rule of the Cluniacs made the movement a powerful force for stability in the Catholic Church.

Although this movement had little impact in German lands until the late 11th century, from that time on aristocratic and imperial families established numerous monasteries and convents. Parish churches and grandiose cathedrals also multiplied during this period and with them the number of clerics. The social background and duties of the clergy mirrored the hierarchical nature of the larger society. Positions of power, such as bishop (head of a diocese) and abbot (head of a monastery) tended to be held by members of aristocratic families, while parish priest and other lower positions went to individuals of peasant or worker status.

Converts often blended secular and even pagan ideas and practices with those of Christianity. This intermingling eventually resulted in a great diversity of local religious traditions in medieval Germany. Religious practices were woven into civic and village processions, festivals, and other communal gatherings.

There was no standardized training for parish priests, so sometimes they taught beliefs considered heretical by Rome. In southern Germany, followers of Peter Waldo, who were known as Waldenses, were especially critical of wealthy and powerful clerics during the 12th and 13th centuries. Another major challenge to the church came from John Huss, who in the early 15th century advocated reducing the clergy’s authority, both in secular and ecclesiastical matters.

Perhaps the most distinctive German contribution to medieval Christianity was in the area of mysticism, the idea that an individual could achieve personal union with the divine. The Benedictine nun Hildegard of Bingen was the most famous mystic of the High Middle Ages and inspired a cult of followers long after her death in 1179. One of the most influential mystics of the later Middle Ages was Meister Eckhart, a Dominican theologian who became a popular preacher in the Rhineland. Eckhart taught that union with God could be achieved through emptying the self and allowing the divine spark to enter. Some of his ideas were declared heretical after his death, but his influence on German spirituality as well as literature was profound. The works of his disciples Heinrich Suso and Johannes Tauler represent some of the greatest German literary achievements of the later Middle Ages.

Beginning in the late 14th century, many of the teachings of the Rhineland mystics were incorporated in a movement called Modern Devotion. Also known as the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, this group established several houses in northern Germany and the Netherlands where lay people and clerics could meditate. Most of these houses also maintained small grammar schools where children—most notably Erasmus and Martin Luther—were taught to read and write.

 Intellectual Developments  During the early Middle Ages, the centers of scholarship were the monasteries. In the 9th century, the so-called Carolingian Renaissance did much to revive the literary arts of classical Latin, but the number of individuals who could read and write remained small and for the most part limited to clerics. By the 12th century there were more than 200 small cathedral schools in Europe. By the next century, many of these had expanded or been absorbed into new institutions of learning called universities. The first German university was founded by Charles IV in Prague in 1348, eventually followed by similar institutions in Vienna (1356), Heidelberg (1386), Cologne (1388), Erfurt (1392), Leipzig (1409), Tübingen (1477), and Wittenberg (1502).

The Age of Religious Strife (1519-1648)  
Dramatic changes occurred in Germany and other European societies during the next period, which historians call the early modern era. During this time, Christianity was divided by the Reformation and the Americas were explored. Both had profound effects on politics, economies, and society. Another force for change was the new mass medium of the printing press, which carried diverse ideas, news, and entertainment to large audiences.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, territorial rulers and city councils in Germany expanded their authority, often in conjunction with religious changes stemming from the Reformation. At the same time, capitalism expanded and the population grew, resulting in widespread inflation throughout the period and a greater polarization of wealth within German society. On the other hand, many of the basic structures of medieval life—dynastic politics, predominantly agrarian economies, and low standard of living—remained largely constant throughout the period.

Charles V  When Charles V succeeded his grandfather Maximilian as Holy Roman emperor in 1519, he was already hereditary lord of a vast assortment of territories. Due to a combination of politically astute dynastic marriages and fortuitous accidents, he had inherited the French Bourguignon lands as well as the Netherlands (modern Holland and Belgium), the Habsburg’s Austrian and Bohemian holdings, and the kingdoms of Aragon and Castille (modern-day Spain), including all of the Spanish territories in the newly discovered Americas.

Charles made a concerted effort to consolidate and institutionalize the empire. He expanded the number of imperial districts to facilitate the raising of armies and money for imperial wars against the Turks. His 1532 criminal code, known as the Carolina, was widely copied throughout German cities and principalities, providing some limited standardization to the widely diverse laws and customs of Germany.

On the whole, though, German princes and cities resisted what they perceived as imperial encroachments on their prerogatives. Although Charles had ruled more territory than any European leader since Charlemagne, by the time he abdicated in 1556 the Holy Roman Empire was more politically fractured than at any time since the Great Interregnum of the 13th century.

 Habsburg Conflicts with the French  In 1494 the French had invaded Italy, and Europe’s two most powerful dynasties—the Habsburgs and the Valois, the French ruling family—engaged in a series of military conflicts aimed at dominating the continent. At first, Maximilian and the Habsburgs only joined leagues of Italian cities in fighting the Valois and supplied arms and troops to the Italians. After the battle of Marignano in 1515, though, the Valois ruler Francis I resumed expansionist policies in Italy and in 1519 even presented himself as a candidate for Holy Roman emperor.

When the Habsburg Charles was elected instead, lingering resentment over Bourguignon territory now in Charles’s possession led to the first Habsburg-Valois war, from 1521 to 1526. In a decisive battle at Pavia in 1525, Francis was captured and forced to renounce all claims to Milan, Naples, Genoa, and the duchy of Burgundy. Alarmed by Charles’s growing power, Pope Clement VII and Henry VIII of England joined Francis in the League of Cognac, leading to the second Habsburg-Valois war. After two years of disastrous consequences for all participants, little had changed, except that Charles gave up Burgundy. In 1535 the house of Valois once more made a claim on Milan and marched into the duchy of Savoy. Charles counterattacked in southern France, thus initiating the third Habsburg-Valois war, which ended in a stalemate three years later.

Tensions continued during the next 20 years, with further outbreaks of war in 1542, 1551, and 1557. Finally, in 1559, both sides were financially and psychologically exhausted and sued for peace. The resulting Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis gave the Habsburgs control over Italy, the free county of Burgundy, and most of the Netherlands. The Valois maintained the duchy of Burgundy, most of Piedmont (Piemonte) and Savoy, and parts of the Rhineland.

 Turkish Wars  Under the ambitious sultan Suleiman I, the Ottoman Turks in the 1520s began to expand into the eastern Habsburg holdings in Austria and Hungary. After Suleiman’s armies defeated imperial forces at Mohács in 1526, they moved on to besiege Vienna. The same year, Charles made concessions to Protestant princes at the imperial diet in Speyer to gain their support for a counteroffensive. The Turks were temporarily checked, but by 1532 they once again threatened Vienna, forcing Charles to make another truce with Protestant rulers in return for their military assistance. After three years of fighting, Charles succeeded in capturing Tunis and halting the Ottoman advance for the time being.

Meanwhile, Francis I signed an alliance with the Turks and made plans to reopen an offensive while the emperor was occupied in the Mediterranean. A truce was reached in 1545, but for the next 25 years imperial and Ottoman troops skirmished in southern Europe until the imperial troops achieved a smashing defeat of the Turkish navy at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. While all European rulers, particularly the Habsburgs, remained concerned about the Turkish threat for the next century, Ottoman advancement had been halted.

The Protestant Reformation  
Martin Luther, one of the most important figures in all of German history, was a monk and theology professor at the University of Wittenberg. Through his studies, he gradually developed an alternate interpretation of how Christians obtained salvation. In his interpretation, an individual could be saved only through faith, not through good works, as the Catholic Church taught. His famous posting of the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral in 1517 was a call for reforming certain abuses within the Catholic Church, such as the selling of indulgences, remissions of sin granted by the Church. By 1520, however, Luther had decided that his interpretation of Christianity was incompatible with that of the existing church. Within six months, he published three significant pamphlets that stated his belief in salvation by faith alone, described how the Roman church had deviated from the Scriptures, and called on the German princes to take a more active role in governing the church within their territories.

Pope Leo X issued a papal bull, an official statement giving Luther until the end of 1520 to recant or face excommunication; the reformer replied by publicly burning the bull and all the books of canon (church) law. The following year Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to defend himself at the imperial diet in Worms. When Luther attended and refused to bend before the assembled heads of Germany, he was outlawed. Fortunately, his powerful patron Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, ignored the ban and instead installed Luther at Wartburg castle, where Luther began to translate the New Testament into German.

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