Short Reads

How to Draw Maps of the Early Holy Roman Empire

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

What caused the political fracturing of Italy following its ascension into the German Empire in the mid 10th century? Also, is it true that Germany became messed up because of the old Germanic sucession law?

[A question by u/Brother_Judas on r/AskHistorians: link to the original post]

Right so a while back, I was making a map of the early HRE, eventually after doing research, I made the map that looked like this:

As we can see, it was actually very orderly. Now, I have come to understand that the reason why the German part of the Empire became so messed up was because of the outdated Germanic succession laws which split the sub-realms between all sons of a ruler equally.

As seen with the Frankish realm–thought it theoratically remained one undivided realm–it was divided between indepedent kingdoms ruled by Carolingian brothers, who were more often than not at each others throats. Sometimes, if a brother died before having children, the realm was reunited as one. However given the extended time period, in Germany, I assume that sometimes succesor realms simply never got together and split apart permanently. Question: Is what I have just wrote actually the reason Germany became so fractured?

Question number two, as I understand, Kingdom of Italy remained relatively centralised, atleast around its core center in Pavia and north Italy. At the time of its ascension into the German realm, there were 4-5 sub realms which constituted it. However, overtime in some 150 years, the once cohesive regions of Lombardy and Tuscany became a patchwork of tiny states, principalities and city republics. Why? It is my understanding that the Germanic succesion laws didn’t apply to Kingdom of Italy? Can someone expain this process of political fragmentations in more detial?

Thanks in advance!

My Answer

As a matter of fact, the traditional Germanic custom of splitting one kingdom into several depending on how many sons a king had fell out of use during the Ottonian era. It became a bit as a problem to Otto I for his brothers were jealous of his inheritance. However, he managed either to fight them off or to rally them to his cause and from then on, the succession law that periodically turned the Carolingian Empire into a mosaic was no more.

From that point onward, how did we go from compact stem-duchies to a myriad of principalities starting from the Ottonian to the Hohenstaufen era?

Well, to begin with, we cannot escape some good old source criticism.

Early medieval Germanic history is deeply rooted in oral traditions. Lords, bishops and kings were talking directly to one another and their word was their bond. It carried a heavy judicial weight. When we think of trials by ordeal we picture people drowned, put on fire, or sworn to fight each other off. Yet we often forget that several men “of good faith” swearing on the Bible were deemed as enough of an evidence to discredit or exonerate someone.

From the second half of the 11th century onwards however, charters and written documents multiplied. They are heavily guarded and protected. They are sealed and put into heavily defended towers. The written word now carried the value of tangible proof. Oral traditions were far from dead yet and regal administrations were still at an embryonic state, but we do have much more as historians to go on and to help us understand how power was structured and yielded in those centuries.

Therefore maps depicting the “evolution” of the early Holy Roman Empire tend to be deceiving. We have fewer records for the Carolingian and Ottonian eras than we have for the Hohenstaufen era onward. We should then consider pre-Hohenstaufen maps as “blurred” or at least over-simplified. Nonetheless we can actually assume that principalities and seats of power multiplied for several reasons.

Let’s start with Northern Italy. By the end of the 10th century, Italy was still the richest region of the former Western Roman Empire, before West Francia and the Iberic peninsula. Italy also had inherited a long, very long tradition of urban culture from the Classical Era. Many cities had been ransacked or even razed by the Huns, the Goths, the Byzantines themselves and the Lombards from the 4th to the 8th century, but it doesn’t mean that the Italian urban culture totally died out.

The 9th and 10th centuries saw new waves of migration threatening the peace in Italy. Saracens from the South and Hungarians from the East were setting foot on the Italian peninsula and a quick succession of weak Carolingian Emperors didn’t help to defend the country. The pope was not yet the fearsome overlord rivalling kings and emperors that he would become a few centuries later. Italians could only rely on themselves and so they did.

There is a historical process that we call the incastellamento to describe how Italians moved in or bolstered up their fortified settlements. The città (or city) became a centre of local power closely attached to its contado (or countryside)—a city and its country were economically and politically tightly tied together. Some cities emerged as more influent or powerful than others, like Milan or Firenze, and exercised their authority over several less potent cities. On the long run that’s how the Duchies of Milan and Toscana were eventually formed thanks to the political intrigues of shrewd families like the Visconti, the Sforza or the Medici.

Late migration waves also hit the early Holy Roman Empire (HRE). Hungarians, Slavs and Vikings posed serious threats on the stability of the Empire. It took skilled Emperors like Otto I and his successors to safeguard the peace and expand their borders further North, East and South. They proved unsuccessful to march on Paris, though. Yet, contrarily to the king of West Francia that became the powerless king of France, the emperor, who inherited East Francia, stood tall and long remained the most powerful man on his half of the late Carolingian Empire.

Nonetheless the feudal system was slowly implemented to a degree that would necessarily fracture the wholesome unity of the Empire. Personal feuds opposing lords started to fester the country and it became an all-time job to repress such acts of uncontrolled violence. Privileges were granted to some cities to keep some if not all of the money made from their taxes to insure their defence. The process of incastellamento therefore spread to the HRE. Castles were built instead of roads. Episcopal cities and principalities became very powerful places and as the pope rose from his ashes the Emperor had a new adversary to challenge his authority by the end of the 11th century. Who could appoint bishops? The pope told one story and the emperor another.

To help him rule his large empire the Emperor also appointed ministeriales to carry out special missions or to supervise certain chunks of land. Those ministeriales progressively carved their way into the Feudal system and this process added to the complexity of the Imperial power network. All of those elements contributed to fracture the HRE in many somewhat autonomous principalities and to weaken the emperor’s might.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

In short, what is important to remember is that old Frankish laws of territorial succession fell in oblivion with the rise of the Ottonian dynasty on the imperial throne.

However, up until the 10th century, waves of migration unsettled the fragile political equilibrium of the Holy Roman Empire.

The lack of a proper centralised administration and a regular army forced the local populations to stand up for themselves.

Northern Italy found itself split between mighty cities and German lands were disputed by various lords.

The emperor himself mostly end up using his imperial title only to favor his own personal fiefdoms and lacked an overall political “vision”.

The safest thing to remember is that the Holy Roman Empire was, in fact, no empire, but a vast aggregation of autonomous political structures that participated to the Carolingian delusion of continuing the long collapsed Western Roman Empire.

This also explains why Roman Emperors are depicted in medieval manuscripts with the Holy Roman Empire coat of arms.

Further readings:
~ The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology (2010)
~ Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe. A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Cambridge [MA]: Belknap press, 2016.
~ J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Barbarian West. A.D. 400-1000. The Early Middle Ages. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
~ Urban Identities in Northern Italy (800-1100 ca.). Edited by Cristina La Rocca and Piero Majocchi. Brepols: Turnhout, 2015.

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