Map. The Carolingian Empire in 843.
Q&A

The Political Structures of the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of France (from the 9th to the 16th Century). A Brief Overview

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

How were the Holy Roman Empire and Middle Ages France different in term of political structure? What led to those differences?

I always hear about HRE being a loose confederation of minor kingdoms (for lack of a better word). But wasn’t middle age France much the same? Strong dukes often controlling the king? How did the HRE and medieval France differ and how where they same? Why did the HRE becomes a looser confederation of minor kingdoms than France?

~ posted by u/daimposter on the r/AskHistorians subreddit.

My Answer

The political structure of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) and the Kingdom of France both derive from the political structure of the Carolingian Empire. So let’s have a quick look at that first 😉

A Very Short History of the ‘Origins’

Our contemporary society recognizes three forms of power: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. The Carolingian Empire only had two: the temporal and the spiritual (the executive, legislative and judicial powers were all bundled up together). The emperor ruled over both. Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious, had a total control over the lords and the Church. They could grant lands, titles, bishoprics or revoke them as they see fit.

On the one hand, Charlemagne only had one heir: Louis the Pious. On the other hand, Louis had to split his Empire, according to the Frankish customs, between his three sons. He also didn’t have the charismatic aura of his father, who went from conquest to conquest, and he was left with an Empire practically impossible to rule. It all concluded in Louis’ three sons (Charles, Lothair and Louis/Ludwig) splitting the Empire into three parts. Lothair’s share was ultimately absorbed into his brother’s realms and from that point onward, West Francia and East Francia evolved into very different countries.

In the meantime, the Church which had greatly benefited from the leadership and protection of Charlemagne, Louis the Pious and their predecessors gradually became an independent political body. The Church had obeyed and served the Carolingian emperors, but it had grown so much that it was now able to confront their heirs and come up with its own political agenda. The spiritual power was free from the temporal power by the end of the 9th century and the pope became a major political player by the end of the 10th century.

The Implementation of the Feudal System in West Francia

It is often written that Charles the Bald, who inherited and ruled West Francia, gave birth to the Feudal System with the Capitulary of Coulaines (available online on the marvelous MGH website). Though the direct effects of the capitulary were not as dramatic as historians used to say, it nonetheless recognized that lands given by the King to his vassals could be inherited by their progeny. It meant that not before long every region of the realm had its own local blue-blood dynasty. Therefore the Capitulary of Coulaines was a substantial stepping stone for the implementation of the Feudal System (reminder: the word ‘feudal’ comes from the Latin word ‘feudum’ which is a type of ‘beneficium’ (a gift from a king or prince to a faithful ally) that implies the gifting of a piece of land). By the 10th century, it became obvious that the aristocrats held the real power over most of the land, ensuring it by the building of motte-and-bailey castles and by getting the Church on their side through charity. Founding and donating to monasteries became a regular political play for powerful laymen although it greatly benefited to the rise of the Benedictine Order and the network of the Cluny monasteries more than anything. Nevertheless, anyone inheriting a fief still had to pay a ‘homage’ (Latin, homagium; German, huld) to the king and formally recognize his temporal authority. It was a very significant ceremony that reminded everyone their role and the proper hierarchy within the structure of society.

The Capet Dynasty

The progressive loss of a central and strong seat of power rendered the Carolingian dynasty of West Francia unable to enforce the peace in the realm and to properly protect the northern coasts from new invaders: the infamous Vikings. It became clear to the magnates that they were better off without a king. However, they had to maintain some kind of puppet on the throne to prevent the Carolingian kings of East Francia to march on Paris and conquer the kingdom whole. Several attempts had already been made in the past to reunite the West and the East Francia. While invoking the old Frankish principle of elective monarchy, the great vassals of the realm put a new dynasty on the throne: the powerless House of Capet.

The Capet, however, followed a clever strategy. They would always make sure that two kings were simultaneously elected and anointed, the rex coronatus and the rex designates, so that matters of succession were always settled from the start and there was never any leeway for another dynasty to rise on the throne. Moreover, the Capet gradually extended their personal demesne so that they could eventually compete with their vassals and enforce their law. At the very start of the 14th century, Philip IV the Fair even instituted the ‘États Généraux’, a general assembly of the people gathering representatives of the three orders, to counter the meddling of the pope over the spiritual matters in their realm. It also served him to kill the Order of the Knights Templar and confiscate all their possessions. The kings of France therefore became strong political figures, capable of handling both the temporal and the spiritual power of their realm. They were feared and respected by their vassals and treated on an equal footing by the emperor of the HRE and the pope.

The Plantagenet Problem… and the Valois Solution

The Capet, however, were far from all powerful. Remember those Vikings I mentioned above? They had carved a duchy for themselves, the duchy of Normandy, and no one dared to oppose the duke of Normandy. The guy minted his own money. He was so powerful and relentless, in fact, that he conquered a kingdom. I’m talking of William the Conqueror and the 1066 conquest of England, of course. Eventually, all his possessions were inherited by the Plantagenet dynasty, who also inherited the duchy of Aquitaine through clever matrimonial alliances. At some point, the Plantagenet ‘empire’ included half the kingdom of France! And the Capet kings were totally powerless against such a mighty force, until King John of England rose to the throne, faced revolts at home, bad luck abroad, was dragged into signing the Magna Carta (1215) and saw most of his French possessions confiscated and redistributed by the king.

Nevertheless, the king of France retained a vassal who was a king and everywhere he went he was faced with fierce resistance from the great dukes of the realm. The royal demesne was slowly expanding but the Parliament (the highest court of Justice in the land) had to relentlessly keep on fighting against its dismemberment by the king himself, who often wished to grant a land or two to any of his courtier or captain who provided him a great service. Eventually, after many political intrigues, the king of England said, “Enough!” and claimed the throne for himself when the Valois succeeded to the Capet.

What is really interesting is that at that point, the idea of electing a new king crossed no one’s mind. The quarrel was a quarrel of succession. The realm was an inheritance. It was traditionally passed down from one generation to the other. Since the straight line of male successors was extinct, the only question to answer was to know if a woman could inherit and pass down a kingdom or not. The long game Capet strategy had worked like magic!

Eventually, the Valois stood strong on the principle that the kingdom itself could only pass through male hands and could never be inherited or transmitted by a woman. The Hundred Years’ War came close to an end when Charles VI and Richard II became best buddies, but their terrible fate precipitated the start of new conflicts. Henry VI of England legally and effectively became the king of France but he had a strong opponent, who held on and kept the fight alive mostly despite himself, Charles VII. The latter ultimately passed on heavy taxation reforms and instituted the first permanent non-feudal but professional royal army. He won the war. His son, Louis XI, killed the dreams and ambitions of the great vassals with that very army. No one could contest the king’s authority anymore, but his own Parliament.

The Holy Roman Elective Empire

Whereas the Capet managed to turn the kingdom of France into a hereditary monarchy, which would become the most powerful centralized state of Europe, Germany remained a conglomerate of semi-autonomous states. Maybe it is worth being reminded that Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor, only took on the title to challenge the authority of the emperor of Constantinople, especially on spiritual matters. First and foremost, Charlemagne was and stayed the king of the Franks. He never had the centralized administration capable of holding an empire together. He only became a powerful imperial figure through his military charisma but the institutions of the old Roman Empire had since long collapsed and what was left of them couldn’t carry the political weight needed for an actual empire anymore.

Louis the German, Charlemagne’s grandson and Charles the Bald’s brother was not able to keep the dream alive. His dynasty was very short-lived and the imperial title quickly fell out of use. The political crises of the 9th and 10th centuries, the expansion of Christianity and the Magyar and Viking violent immigration waves prompted a ‘strong man’ to take charge and restore the imperial charge around the same time that the Capet were elected on the throne of France. This man was Otto I ‘the Great’ and he was the actual founder of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’. However, unlike the Capet, the Ottonian didn’t implement a hereditary system of succession. Too many people were fighting for the honor to wear the imperial crown. Otto III, Otto I’s grandson, was already faced with an ‘anti-king’, elected by his political rivals! The Staufer tried to make the imperial title a hereditary one. Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ had his son elected to the imperial throne at the same time as him, which made him his uncontested father’s successor but it remained an absolute exception and the general rule was that stuck through the centuries was that the emperor was elected. It was also interpreted as a direct intervention of God in political matters and it helped to keep unworthy heirs away from the throne.

The HRE around 962

The emperors had little to go with, however, when their authority was challenged. They didn’t have access to an “imperial army” or to an “imperial administration” to help them out. The very idea that the HRE could ever become a centralized state actually scared all its neighbors and many attempts were made to prevent it from happening, though Germans hated foreign political meddling more than anything.

Several cities were placed under the direct rule of the emperor, but it was more of a way for those cities to manage themselves. Therefore the emperor could only rely on his personal demesne and diplomatic wits to assert his authority. However, contrarily to the French situation, it was not like an Imperial demesne could grow like the French royal demesne since a new dynasty could be put on the imperial throne every time an emperor would die. That’s why emperors ended up mostly benefiting of their title to boost up their personal demesne, instead of sacrificing their own resources to pass on any imperial reforms.

The Cezaropapism Crisis

The temporal power of the Holy Roman emperors was very limited and the feudal system was slowly implemented in Germany, although it developed its own specificities. In 1037, Conrad passed the Constitutio de feudis and extended the benefit of hereditary possessions of fief to the lesser lords. The 11th century also saw the emergence of the ministeriales, a group of unfree knights and vassals promoted by the imperial clergy that had no matching concordance in France, where all vassals were free men with hereditary rights and claims.

Bishops and abbots selected able men of unfree status and enfeoffed them with resources to enable them to serve as knights or administrators. The Salians also began employing ministeriales to administer royal domains and garrison the new castles built in the 1060s. The ministeriales gradually acquired other privileges, embraced an aristocratic ethos, and eventually converted their relationship based on servitude into one of more conventional vassalage to fuse with other lesser nobles as knights and barons by about 1300.

It would be wrong to interpret the ministeriales as the potential staff required to create a centralized monarchy. They were indeed used to verse more intensive management of royal domains, notably in Saxony.

Source: Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Roman Empire (2016).

The HRE around 1050

Meanwhile, the pope had become a real political player. The rise of the Benedictine and various religious orders resulted in many reforms within the papacy. The pope was no longer elected by the most powerful Roman families, for a start. Monks also got elected as pope, and popes that were formerly monks loved to live by strict rules. The papal chancery also became a proper administrative center of power: every king or prince soon flocked towards the pope or sent emissaries at least to see their privileges and titles granted and renewed. It is with a papal banner that William the Conqueror battled at Hastings.

It had to happen that the emperor, faced against rebellious vassals, turned to the pope for help and that the pope asked for something in return. In particular, the pope didn’t like that the emperor could still appoint bishops personally and it was interpreted as a violation of the Church. Henry IV (HRE) and Gregory VII (papacy) couldn’t see eye to eye on that matter. This led to the Investiture Dispute that the emperors ultimately lost. What was left of his temporal and spiritual power? Not much…

The Rise of the Hapsburg Dynasty

The imperial electoral college remained undefined until the 13th century. Eventually, three ecclesiastical electors came on top of the others: the archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne. As for the secular electors, they were settled by Emperor Rudolf who chose his four sons-in-law: the count Palatine, the margrave of Brandenburg, the duke of Saxony and the king of Bohemia. In 1356, Charles IV, from the Luxemburg dynasty, who had a great personal relationship with the papacy, fixed those electoral votes with the Golden Bull.

Thanks to a very thorough matrimonial strategy, the Hapsburg dynasty managed to lock on to several of the electoral secular fiefs. It also gave birth to some of the most inbred rulers of Europe, but by the election of Maximilian I to the throne in 1486, the Hapsburg maintained a firm grasp over the imperial title.

Nevertheless they were never able to create a centralized state like the Capet and the Valois did and the HRE never had a regular and professional army of its own. Charles V himself, who owned the kingdom of Spain, the former Burgundian dominions and all of the Hapsburg lands, proved unable to face the rise of the Protestant Reform whereas it was murderously quashed in France.

The dominions of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain and Bohemia, etc.

In Conclusion…

I hope this short overview has helped to figure out how different the HRE and the kingdom of France were in regards of their political structure. The principle of a hereditary monarchy helped the French kings a great deal to progressively implement a centralized state. Meanwhile, the elective imperial title and lack of proper imperial institutions made the German emperors often powerless to shape Germany into according to their political views. That is why the HRE is often described as a ‘loose confederation of minor kingdoms’ that share a same common Germanic culture, whereas medieval France is a properly united kingdom despite the impulse of autonomy expressed by the great dukes of the realm.

Fun Fact

‘Gold, please.’ ~ Grand Theft Relics: comparing Age of Empires 2 to History [1/3]

Not so long ago, on Age of Empires 2, my father and I were holding our ground against waves and waves of conquistadors. My halberdiers were butchered by the dozens and I noticed my father lacked gold to sustain his military production. Faithful son that I am, I tasked a monk with the perilous duty to deliver my relics to my father’s monastery despite enemy raids between both our bases.

Most of the time, however, we see players snatching relics from each other. On Arena maps, light cavalry and monks rush into the no man’s land as soon as players hit Castle Age and it leads to epic micro-fight. Those well versed into the arcane arts can even teleport their monks to snatch relics in the blink of an eye. A blood pact with the Devil is required to gain this wizardly skill, though, since you need two of your monks to shag in a dark alley, which is not very Christian.

Now, I’d like to talk to you about some historic relic gifting and snatching. Since I introduced the early Christian Dukes of Bohemia in a former post, I’ll keep my focus on them for this one.

As you may have read, Václav was the first Christian Duke of Bohemia despite his mother’s Pagan faith. The Přemyslid family strife got to some Game of Thrones proportion, though, when Drahomira, the mother, allegedly had her son Václav murdered by his own brother when he dared to found a rotunda church in Prague. Boleslav, Drahomira’s younger son, was maybe every inch a dutiful son but foremost he was quite the power grabber. With or without his mother’s scheming, he killed his brother without a flinch and took the Duchy for himself. While doing so, however, he also embraced Christianity then he didn’t wait a second to elevate his murdered brother to sainthood.

Go figure.

All this seems weird and fairly unreasonable to us. Yet, there might be a sound political reasoning behind Boleslav’s actions. Not only did he promote Václav to sainthood, he also made him the patron of Bohemia. Every Duke would promote Václav’s cult after Boleslav’s reign and use it as a propaganda of power. However, guilt may not have been the only thing to move Boleslav. Though he abode to Christianity, and therefore had to bow to the Holy Roman Empire, he tried to make Bohemia an independent polity. Sneaky and shrewd as he was, when the Magyars came westwards, Boleslav let them pass through his lands and it took the Duke of Saxony some fierce convincing to bend Boleslav to his will and join him to the Battle of Lechfeld, in 955.

Why does any of this matter? Let’s look at the bigger picture. Capture Age is our friend.

The Holy Roman Empire in 962.

When Václav founded his rotunda church, he acquired a holy relic to dwell it from the Duke of Saxony. That relic was St Vitus’ arm and St Vitus had since become patron of the Ludolfings. What can I say? Two and two make four. The Ludolfings were the Dukes of Saxony themselves. It meant that Prague religious life was enfeoffed to Saxony’s holy patron! Add water to the burned area, the Duke of Saxony was well placed to sit on the vacant throne of the Emperor and that is exactly what Otto I did, eventually, when he was crowned in 962.

Before that fateful year, still in the absence of an emperor in power, and before the Ludolfings claimed and took over the title, Boleslav wished to sunder Bohemia from Saxony’s religious oversight. He murdered his brother to seize the duchy then he made him a local saint so that St Vitus’ cult would not obstruct his personal display of power. This was a very clever move! When Boleslav turned his brother’s cold corpse into holy relics, he insured Bohemia religious life wasn’t overshadowed by a foreign patron. The next step was to elevate Prague into a bishopric and make it as free as possible from Imperial supervision.  

Bohemia’s Christianization was first kicked off by missionaries sent from the bishopric of Passau. Nonetheless, as soon as 895, the bishopric of Regensburg took over the missionary agenda of Bohemia and all substantial religious matters regarding the Přemyslid duchy were settled in Bavaria, Bavaria being nothing but a friend to Saxony.

According to some dubious record in a 12th century chronicle, Boleslav managed to give Prague its own bishopric thanks to the good influence of his daughter, Mlada-Maria, as soon as 967. Nevertheless, it is certain that Prague had its own bishopric in 976 and was freed from Regensburg’s oversight. It was not yet an archbishopric, though, and still answered Mainz. Bohemia would have to wait the Luxembourg dynasty and John the Blind’s reign to see Prague become its own archbishopric. All the credit falls to John the Blind’s son, however, Charles IV.

St Václav (or Wenceslaus) in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 68r

It would be time now to talk about Boleslav II and his epic relic snatching skills. However, I’ll first gloss over the former sentence I wrote, ‘St Vitus had since become patron of the Ludolfings,’ because there are more relics gifting to deal with on that matter!

Little did I know when I started to write this post that St Vitus relics dwelled in ‘France’ before they made their way into Saxony and, from there, found a path to Bohemia’s capital. Even before that, St Vitus’ relics were in Rome! They were moved to St Denis abbey in the 8th century.

Then, what happened?

During the 9th century, the Vikings forced many monks to move out relics from their sanctuary. However, this is not what happened to St Vicus relics. Hilduin, the abbot of Saint-Denis, found himself exiled to the German abbey of Corvey, in Saxony, because he’d allied an enemy of the Emperor, Louis the Pious. Hilduin was quickly reinstated but he made a friend along the way: the abbot of Corvey, Warin. The bound of friendship that united the two abbots is what made the relics transfer possible and moved St Vitus remains from Saint-Denis to Saxony.

First off, this relics transfer hastened the Christianization of Saxony. The German duchy had known very few martyrs: relics mostly had to be imported and St Vitus’ case set up a trend that would only grow stronger. Furthermore, the importation of relics into Saxony tethered its links to the Frankish Empire and helped its integration. Moreover, the chronicler Widukind interpreted the transfer from St Vitus’ relics to Saxony as a translation imperii: the Saxons symbolically inherited the imperial power that the Franks had held for so long when the holy remains entered the Corvey abbey.

A relic transfer was therefore much more than just a symbolic gesture. It could also have deep economic repercussion. Albeit I’ll discuss that in the next installment of this post series.

See you next time for some more relic trivia!

Attack of a monastery ~ Paris, BnF, fr. 2644, f. 142r

Further readings:
~ Nora Berend, Central Europe in the High Middle Ages. Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, c.900-c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
~ Anne Van Landschoot, “La translation des reliques de saint Vit de l’abbaye de Saint-Denis à celle de Corvey en 836”, in Revue belge de philology et d’histoire (1996), 74/3-4, p. 593-632.

Epic Arena Relic Swipe
Fun Fact

Short History of the Early Christian Dukes of Bohemia

St Václav (or Wenceslaus) in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 68r

As promised, here begins a very short history of the early Dukes of Bohemia, from Vratislav to Bretislav. Hang on to your hats, fasten your seatbelts, grab your popcorn and enjoy some Crusader King 2 worthy storyline.

Vratislav, living in the first half of the 10th century, hated the Franks. He married a pagan princess to upset their plan of world domination and she was a fine young woman, but she evolved into a bitter old mother. When Vratislav died, his son Václav became Duke of Bohemia. That’s only logical. However, the latter saw many political upsides to embrace Christianity and he founded a rotunda church, right there in Prague. In doing so, Václav also recognized the authority of the Holy Roman Empire over his Duchy and for many years, Christian matters in Bohemia were overseen by Imperial churchmen. This whole situation enraged Ludmilla, Václav’s mother. She plotted to get her first-born and she enlisted the best man for the job, Václav’s own little brother, her second son, Boleslav.

Boleslav was shrewd. Boleslav was smart. He agreed to murder his brother. He carried the deed. He became Duke of Bohemia, hurray! However, he was too smart to backtrack on his brother’s spiritual choices and he embraced Christianity so hard that he promoted his murdered brother to sainthood. #Paradox

The four Apostles in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 1v

From that point onward, St Václav, better known as St Wenceslaus West of the Rhine, became the spiritual patron of Bohemia. All Bohemian Dukes and Kings had to worship him dutifully to secure their dynastic propaganda of power.

Bretislav was quite the state builder. Beyond handing Bohemia a spiritual patron, he also insured his control of the land by building strongholds all over the country. He built the stronghold in Prague, too. He was nicknamed ‘the Cruel’ when people found out that he had quite an expedite way to deal with his political opponents. To be clear, he gifted them with the same fate that he’d offered his brother. Eventually, Boleslav also tried to free Bohemia from the Holy Roman Empire grasp by reaching to Bavaria and helping the Magyar migrate West. However, Otto I was a bit of a tough nut to crack. The Magyar were utterly crushed by the Imperial Army at Lechfeld in 955 and Bohemia was forced to provide troops. It was clear from that point onwards that Bohemia would be part of the Holy Roman Empire because of its Christianization. There was no escape from it.

Boleslav II succeeded to his father. He maintained friendly relationships with the Holy Roman Empire, but most of all, he secured access and control to the silver mines of Kutná Hora and it would greatly benefit to Bohemia in the centuries to come.

The Biblical Magi in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 13v

Boleslav III was the next Duke of Bohemia. Nicknamed ‘the Red’ because he had red hair—what do you want me to say?—Boleslav was a gentle fruitcake. He reigned only a year or two that he already tried to strangle his brother Ulrich and castrated his other brother, Jaromir. Both fled to Bavaria and the Bohemian nobility chose to overthrow their tyrant by inviting Vladyvoj to the throne. Vladyvoj took on the Duchy of Bohemia as an imperial fief from the German King, Henry II, but he died shortly after that. Jaromir and Ulrich still out of the picture, Bołeslaw the Brave, King of Poland, swooped in and took over. Bohemia was from now on into a personal union with the Kingdom of Poland, and free from the Empire. There was no way Bołeslaw would bow to the Emperor. It would be as if the King of England bowed to the King of France only because he holds a fief of the latter.

Wait…

That’s how the Hundred Years War started!

Bołeslaw’s story as Duke of Bohemia was much shorter. Jaromir was quickly put in charge of Bohemia and the Duchy reconciled with the Holy Roman Empire. Then Ulrich took over and ultimately his son, Bretislav I, inherited Bohemia, which he ruled for twenty years from 1034 to 1055.

Bretislav wished to steal a page from Bołeslaw’s book and refused to pay tribute to the Empire. It cost him dearly. He ended up walking barefoot through Regensburg, wearing a penitentiary sack, begging for pardon. The Emperor granted his pardon and Bretislav swore his total allegiance to his suzerain. Bohemia was definitely part of the Empire, it wouldn’t be contested anymore, yet all those wars forged the Duchy as a stable and powerful polity. It wouldn’t be long before it was elevated to Kingdom. Well, two centuries basically. But who keeps count?

The Crucifixion in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 42r

Note on the manuscript introduced in this post (thanks to Google Translate)

The Vyšehrad Codex (National Library of the Czech Republic, XIV A 13) is probably the most valuable manuscript preserved in the Czech Republic. Researchers believe that the manuscript is the coronation evangelist of the first Czech King Vratislav I (as Prince II), or that he has composed it to commemorate this event.

The Czech King Vratislav I (ruled as Prince Vratislav II from 1061) was crowned on June 15, 1086 at Prague Castle. The Evangelist contains excerpts from the Gospels that were read at the Mass during the church year. […] The Visegrad Code was originally created without a specific purpose, into stock. Later, approximately one third of the Code was hastily completed on order from Bohemia. It also contains a reading on the feast of Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, who opens the initial D-ixit with a depiction of a throne prince who, as a gesture of his right, expresses his consent to the act of Vratislav’s coronation and symbolically passed it over to the government.

Further Readings:
~ Nora Berend, Central Europe in the High Middle Ages. Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, c.900-c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
~ Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe. A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Cambridge [MA]: Belknap Press, 2016.

Q&A

About maps of the early Holy Roman Empire

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 becasue 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: https://i.imgur.com/wPyB9Vn.jpg
As we can see, it was actually very orderly.
Now I have come to understand that the reason German part of the Empire became so messed up was because of the outdated Germanic succession law which split the sub-realms between all sons of the ruler equaly. As we have seen with the Frankish realm, while in theory it remained one realm, funcionaly it was divided between indepedent kingdoms ruled by Carolingian brothers, who were more often than not at each others throats. Sometimes, if other brothers die, before having childern themsleves, the realm became more unified as one of the other brothers would inherit. 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!

Ottonians: the Empire in 962 ~ from Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe (2016).

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 came a bit as a problem to Otto I. His brothers were jealous of his inheritance. However he managed to fight them off or to rally them to his cause and from then on, the succession law that turned the Carolingian Empire into a mosaic was no more.

So, how did we go from compact stem-duchies to a myriad of principalities from the Ottonian to the Hohenstaufen era? Well, first, 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 had 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.

Salians: the Empire around 1050 ~ from Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe (2016).

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.

Staufers: the Empire in 1195 ~ from Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe (2016).

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.

The Imperial Church, c. 1020 ~ from Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe (2016).

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.

Royal Palaces (showing Conrad II’s Royal Progress, 1024-25 ~ from Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe (2016).

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.