1902 Encyclopedia > Germany > History of Germany - Early Mediaeval Period

(Part 21)


Early Mediaeval Period

The first Salian king of whom we know anything is Chlodio, who reigned about the middle of the 5th century, and whose kingdom reached to the Somme. His successor, Merwig, or Merovaeus, who have his name to the first great Frankish dynasty, fought beside the Romans and the West Goths against Attila. Childeric I., the son of Merovaeus, offended his people, and appears to have fled from them and taken refuge for a time among the Thuringians. During his absence the Salians placed themselves under the Roman commander-in-chief, Aegidius, not as the representative of Rome, but as a personal ruler in whom they had confidence. His representative governed so badly that they were glad to welcome Childeric back. In a great battle Childeric overcame Aegidius, and made himself master of Cologne and Treves; but afterwards he was reconciled to the Romans, and before his death he ruled in their name in Paris. When he died in 481, his son and successor, Chlodwig (Clovis) was a boy of fifteen, but a boy of high spirit, daring and aggressive. From him, in 486, came, in the battle of Soissons, the blow which made an end of the Roman rule in Gaul. In a few years he conquered the greater part of the country, and many of his warriors scattered themselves over it, seizing much of its most fruitful land. He turned also against men of his own race. The Alemanni having made war on the Ripuarian Franks, the latter appealed for help to Chlodwig, who gladly responded to their summons, and defeated the invaders in the battle of Zülpich. It was in this battle that he vowed, according to tradition, to become a member of the Catholic Church if the God of the Christians gave him the victory. Whether or not the tale be true, it is certain that to his baptism he owed the greater part of his amazing success; for the West Goths and the Burgundians were Arians and the Gallic clergy, who exercised unlimited power over the popular mind, welcomed into their country an orthodox believer. As for the Alemanni, he would have annexed their whole territory, but Theodoric, the East Goth, who was interetded in them, and whom he did not dare offend, warned him that he must not treat them with undue severity. He must, however, have taken the part of their territory in the nieghbouthood of the Main and the Neckar, for it was henceforth known as Franconia. At a somewhat later date the whole of Alemannia was added to his kingdom. Being as unscrupulous as he was ambitious, he put to death all who had any claim to independent authority among the Franks; so that he became their sole king, and they quickly acquired the proud feeling of being the centre of a vast and growing state.

Chlodwig did in Paris, his capital, in 511, leaving four sons. They did not destroy the unity of the kingdom which in its relation to the outer world continued to be regarded as a single power. But each, as a king of the Franks, received a separate territory. The East or Rhenish Franks, with the Alemanni subject to them, were placed under Theodoric, the eldest. He was an valiant as his father, and not less deceitful and cruel. The great Thuringian kingdom was in his time ruled by three brothers, Hermanfried, Berthar, and Baderich. The former of these was married to a niece of Theodoric the East Goth, Amalaberga, a king of Thuringian Lady Macbeth. Consumed by a vehement ambition, she persuaded her husband to murder Berthar; and she would have caused the death of Baderich also, but that he knew her design and rose against the guilty pair. Hermanfried sent to Theodoric, the east Frankish king, and offered to reward him if he would form an alliance against Baderich was slain. No reward, however, was given, and Theodoric, indignant at being thus treated, vowed to be avenged. He allied himself with the northern neighbours of the Thuringians—the Saxons; and with their united forces they completely subdued the country. Theodoric himself murdered Hermanfried by pushing him off the wall of Zülpich, where they were carrying on an apparently friendly conversation, the Thuringian king having received an assurance that he would be treated with honour. Thereupon the murderer divided between himself and the Saxons the territory of the Thuringians, annexing the southern half to the Frankish kingdom. His son, Theudebert, not only maintained this conquest but added to it, after the downfall of the Gothic kingdom in Italy, that of Bavaria. The Alemanni were also made altogether subject to his rule. Thus the Saxons and the Frisians alone retained their independence.

The rights of the Franks in Germany were at first vigorously asserted; but a change soon came. The Merovingian kings carried on so many fierce wars with each other that they had little time to look after their subjects in the remote east; moreover, the rise of a great new aristocracy steadily undermined the royal power. This aristocracy was made up of the class directly associated with the king by military or court duties. They were rewarded by immense grants of land, which they held in the first instance subject to the condition of rendering faithful service, but the possession of which, in most cases, became in the end absolute and hereditary. Nowhere was the new aristocracy so powerful as in Austrasia, the eastern division of the Frankish monarchy. In Neustria, the western division, where the sovereign had to deal for the most part with a race which for five centuries had been accustomed to the despotic government of Rome, he had little difficulty in maintaining his supremacy; for the Franks settled in different districts could not but be more or less influenced by the feeling of the native population. Besides, they lived at great distance from one another, so that it was difficult to hold popular assemblies of any kind, and the powers of which belonged to them were naturally transferred to the head of the state. Hence, even when the Merovingian kings of Neustria were driven into the background, and the mayors of the palace governed, the latter had high authority, and exercised it, as a rule, in the interests of the crown. In Austrasia the conditions were whooly different. There the Franks were the predominant elements; and the distances were not so great but that an assembly could be rapidly summoned on every occasion of real need. Thus the important landowners of Austrasia were able to hold together, and to limit the powers of the sovereign on the one hand and of the ordinary freemen on the other. And the mayor or the place, who was their nominee, and could at any moment be dismissed if he displeased them, usually acted as their representative and leader.

Kings under the authority of an aristocracy of this kind are not likely to be troublesome to unruly subjects; especially kings of such feeble personal character as those who, from the first half of the 7th century, nominally held the sceptre of the mighty Chlodwig. The German confederations which he and his immediate descendants had conquered soon became virtually free. They continued to acknowledge Frankish supremacy; but the acknowledgment was only formal. At the head of each confederation was its own Herzog or duke. These rulers were at first appointed by the Frankish kings, or received their sanction; but in course of time the office became hereditary in particular families. This was the case, longer than anywhere else, in Bavaria, where the ancient Agilolfing family held the ducal dignity from the earliest days of Frankish authority down to the time of Charles the Great. The dukes were far from being absolute sovereigns, for in Germany the freemen had retained many of their primeval rights. The assemblies of the hundred and of the confederation still exercised great authority. As among the Austrasian Franks, however, although in a less degree, the leading landowners constantly encroached upon the powers both of the poorer freemen and of the head of the state.

In the time of the great dukes of the Franks, who arose to infuse new life into the decaying monarchy, there was another profound change in the position of the Germans. After the battle of Testri, in 687, in which Pippin of Heristal decided that the Frankish kingdom should not then fall to pieces, and that, in the reunited state, the Austrasian Franks should have the supremacy, the German dukes began to find that they were likely again to have a master. He made war on them, and forced them to some extent to return to the allegiance which they had all but forgotten. His successor, Charles Martel, asserted his rights with not less vigour, and added east Friesland for the first time to the monarchy. The high importance of the efforts of these two illustrious rules was seen in the struggle of Charles Martel with the Arabs. Had the Frankish kingdom been dissolved, they would have had little difficulty in overrunning Europe; but having under him a state more or less organized, Charles was able to rally around him powerful warriors from all the districts he governed, Germany among the rest. And so, at the memorable battle of Poitiers, he saved Christendom. Other favourable results of the policy of Charles and his father were that new and vigorous life streamed towards the Gallic part of the kingdom from Germany, while the Germans were brought into closer contact than before with the higher and more refined civilization of the Gauls. Pippin the Short, the first king of the Carolingian line, although his chief fame was won in his wars with Aquitania and with Lombardy, did not neglect Germany, in which he strove to assert an authority more thorough and extensive than has been exercised even by the early Merovingian sovereigns.

After all, however, even these powerful Frankish conquerors had but imperfect success in Germany. When they were present with their formidable armies, they could command obedience; when engaged, as they often were, in distant parts of the vast Frankish territory, they could not trust to the fulfillment of the fair promises they had exacted. One of the chief causes of their ill-success was the continued independence of the Saxons. Ever since they had acquired the northern half of Thuringia, this warlike race had been extending its power. They were still heathens, and maintained all the old customs and institutions of primitive Germany. As in ancient times, they appointed a Herzog only when an officer of this class was needed, in time of war; at ordinary times the chiefs elected by the freemen ruled in association with the popular assembles. They cherished bitter hatred towards the Franks, whom they justly regarded as the enemies both of their liberties and of their religion; and their liberties and of their religion; and their hatred found expression, not only in expeditions into Frankish territory, but in help willingly rendered to every German confederation which wished to throw off the Frankish yoke. No rebellion against the dukes of the Franks, or against King Pippin, took place in Germany without the Saxons coming forward to aid the rebels. This was perfectly understood by the Frankish rulers, who tried again and again to put an end to the evil by subduing the Saxons. They could not, however, attain their object. An occasional victory was gained, and some border tribes were from time to time compelled to pay tribute; but the mass of the Saxons remained unconquered. This was partly due to the fact that the Saxons had not, like the other German confederations, a duke who, when beaten, could be held responsible for the engagements forced upon him as the representative of his subjects. A Saxon chief who made peace with the Franks could undertake nothing for the whole people. As a conquering race, they were firmly compact; conquered, they were in the hands of the victor a rope of sand.

Although, at the time of King Pippin’s death in 768, the Germans were still imperfectly subdued, they had received the germs of new life; for, with the exception of the Saxons, they were then nominally Christians. The first missionaries to Germany were Irish monks. In the 7th century a number of these laboured with considerable success in different parts of the country, especially among the Alemanni and the Bavarians; and when the influence of the Franks became dominant, Frankish missionaries also began to do for the church what the warriors did for the state. The honour of converting Germany as a whole, however, belongs mainly to St Boniface, an Englishman, who in 717 began the task of his life as an assistant to another English missionary, Willibrord, in Freisland, Soon afterwards, during a visit to Rome, he received from Pope Gregory II. a commission as apostle of the Germans, and worked incessantly among the Thuringians and the Frisians. He proved himself one of the most skilful of missionaries, adapting the conceptions of Christianity to the ideas of those whom he taught. The peculiar powers of Wodan, for instance, were transferred to the archangel Michael, those of Donar to St Peter; and the chief Christian festival, Easter, received its name from the goddess Ostara. His zeal and talent, although largely rewarded, effected less than he had hopes, so that in 723 he went once more to Rome to obtain, if possible, increased powers. Hitherto the mission in Germany had possessed an essentially independent character; Boniface now undertook to work in all things under the direction and for the benefit of the papacy. In return for this engagement he was not only made bishop of all Germans who had been or should be converted, but received from the pope a letter commending him to Charles, the mighty duke of the Franks. The Frankish bishops, who had no wish to become subordinate to the papacy, received Boniface coldly, and threw every kind of obstacle in his way. Charles, however, believing that he conversion of Germany would be the most effectual means of establishing Frankish authority, took Boniface under his protection, and sent him forth with orders that he should be everywhere respected. Thus strengthened, he entered upon a wholly new stage of his career. He was looked upon as to some extent armed with the authority of the great warrior and ruler, and he and his fellow-workers rapidly brought vast districts within the pale of the church. Possessing a high talent for organization, he would willingly have established an orderly ecclesiastical system as he proceeded; but the Alemanni and the Bavarians, among whom Christianity had made some progress before his time, would not allow him free scope for his activity; and Charles, who, by "resuming" church lands and granting them to faithful followers, had done much to weaken ecclesiastical authority in Gaul, did not wish to see it assume threatening proportions in Germany. In 738 Boniface again visited Rome, from which he returned in the following year as papal legate to the Frankish state. Armed with this new authority, he was able to some extent to give effect to his ideas. The duke of Bavaria permitted him to divide the whole of Bavarian into the episcopal sees of Salzburg, Freisingen, Ratisbon, and Passau, and to appoint the bishops; and a little later, with the sanction of Charles, he formed also the sees of Würzburg, Erfurt, Buraburg, and Eichstädt.

Before Pippin the Short was made king, he ruled for some years in association with his brother Carlman, to whom the eastern part of the kingdom was confided. Carlman was a man of strongly religious temperament, and warmly supported Boniface. He set up by his advice bishoprics and monasteries, among the latter being the great abbey of Fulda, which, throughout the Middle Ages, was one of the chief centres of intellectual light in Germany. In 742 was held the first German council, summoned by Carlman, and presided over by Boniface. It did much for the organization of the church, and was the beginning of an important movement for the reform of ecclesiastical abuses among the Franks. Boniface wished to become archbishop of Cologne, that he might the more readily influence the Frisians; but the suggestion met with opposition, and he ultimately accepted the see of Mainz. As archbishop of Mainz and primate of Germany, he was able to foster and control the institutions he had established. The last years of his life he spent in missionary labours among the Frisians, and in 755 he died a martyr’s death. By that time all German tribes, with the exception of the Saxons, professed Christianity; and the church was not only highly organized, but possessed great wealth. The old pagan faith had struck its roots too deeply into the German nature to be at once or soon completely destroyed. Traces of its influence may even yet be detected in popular beliefs and customs; and for many centuries some of its conceptions in altered forms, had hardly less vitality than those of the Catholic creed. Christianity was, however, the dominant power, and soon became a great civilizing agency. It was a fact of high importance that its triumph was due mainly to the influence of the papacy. The German Church thus stood from the beginning in close relation to the pope,—a circumstances which added largely to his power, and which was followed by results of the utmost consequence in the later history of the nation.

Under Charles the Great (Charlemagne) a momentous era dawned in the history of the Germans. From the outset of his reign he had vast plans, which, however, were not so great as those ultimately realized. He saw at once that he could not hope to execute his schemes if on the north-eastern boundary of his kingdom there was a powerful and hostile people, ready at all times to plot against him, and to take advantage of any misfortune which might temporarily befall him. Accordingly, when the death of his brother Carlman made him, in 771, sole king, one of his first resolutions was to advance against the Saxons, and thoroughly to subdue them. It is not necessary to suppose that he went to war without an adequate special reason; for, as the Frankish and the Saxon frontiers touched each other along the whole western and southern boundary of Saxony, and as the Saxons were continually robbing their neighbours, protexts for war were always overabundant. In his first campaign in 772 he overran the country, took the fortress of Eresburg, previously supposed to be impregnable, and cast down the Irminsul, a mysterious column to which the Saxons attached profound religious significance. Awed by the lordly bearing of the great Frank, by the numbers and discipline of his army, and by these proofs of his power, the Saxons appeared to submit at once, and Charles was under the impression that he had conquered them. Never was there a more profound mistake; in reality, he was at the beginning of a struggle which lasted upwards of thirty years. Time after time, when apparently they were utterly beaten, they rose against the invaders, and tried with desperate energy to drive them from the country. The execution of 4500 prisoners by Charles—an act which even then was looked upon as barbarous—only deepened their resolve never to yield to his authority. At last, however, their strength was exhausted, and they had not alternative but to submit. Charles introduced among them the political institutions which were established throughout the kingdom; and they were compelled to exchange their heathenism for the Christian faith. Thus one of the greatest dangers which threatened the stability of the Frankish kingdom was overcome, and all Germany was for the first time brought under a single ruler.

The part of Germany which, next to Saxony, had retained most independence was Bavaria. Its duke, Thassilo, had been on ill terms with Pippin, and, had he allied himself with the Saxons during their great conflict, he might have baffled even Charles. But he did not become troublesome until they were too weak to be of service to him. Repeated acts of treachery gave Charles a pretext for depriving him of his office, and after him no duke was placed over the country. As the dukes of the Alemanni and the Thuringians had also been displaced, Germany became, more directly than it had ever before been, subject to the Frankish sovereign. Not content with completing the conquest of the German people, he made war on the tribes which harassed their eastern frontier. The Avars, who held the greater part of what is now Hungary, were thoroughly beaten; and the Slavs, including the Czechs of Bohemia and Moravia, and the Slavonic tribes to the north of them, as far as the Baltic, were also more or less effectually forced into submission.

The great step taken by Charles on Christmas Day 800, when as St Peter’s in Rome he was crowned Roman emperor, intensified the allegiance of his German as of his other subjects; but it could not produce so powerful an impression in Germany as in Gaul. Ultimately, however, it was in Germany that the significance of the step was fully reveled; for, in becoming emperor, Charles created so splendid a prize, that later German kings could not resist the temptation to grasp at it, and its possession proved their ruin.

All the advantages which attended the rule of Charles throughout his vast empire were shared by the Germans. The border countries he formed into "marches," over which he appointed margraves, whose duty was to administer justice in his name, to collect tribute, and to extend his conquests. Germany itself was placed under counts, who did not merely, like the counts of an earlier time, execute the sentences of the royal tribunals, but themselves decided questions of justice in accordance with local laws and the capitularies of Charles. Four times a year the whole country was visited by his Missi Dominici, who reported as to the state of their districts, investigated grievances, and proclaimed the imperial decrees. Although he could not write, Charles was a man of true culture, and encouraged education by causing schools to be established in connexion with cathedrals and monasteries. These schools were modeled on the famous school of the palace over which Alcuin presided, and in which the emperor himself passed some of his happiest hours. By his magnificent basilica in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), his favourite capital, and by the palaces he built there are in Ingelheim and Nimeguen, he fostered a love of art among the more advanced of his German subjects.

In Germany, as in Gaul, Charles treated the clergy in the spirit in which he treated the papacy; he set up and put down archbishops, bishops, and abbots, as if he were the supreme lord of the church,—which indeed, in theory as well as in practice, he claimed to be. But the church never had a truer friend. As emperor, he believed that his chief duty was to protect and to encourage it, and he was stimulated to the performance of his supposed duty by the conviction that a strong spiritual power would be one of the soundest pillars of his secular authority. Hence he not only founded bishoprics and monasteries in Germany, and enriched them with magnificent gifts of land, but invested the prelates with some of the functions which properly belonged to the counts. Criminal cases they did not yet decide; but they were allowed to settle all civil disputes between the inhabitants of their territories. This policy may have been beneficial at the time, but it caused much disaster to his German successors; for the church became one of the most vigorous and obstinate powers with which they had to contend in maintaining their lawful functions.

Although in many respects one of the greatest of statesmen, Charles was of thoroughly despotic temper; more than any previous Frankish king he set himself against popular liberties. Hitherto all Germans had had the right of attending national assemblies or diets; the common freemen were now, excluded, and only the great nobles, spiritual and secular, were summoned. Even they had but slight influence. They had the right of advising, but Charles himself originated and decided; and he would not brook opposition, although, indeed, so commanding was his presence, and so high the moral authority conferred by his great deeds, very little opposition was ever offered. Popular assemblies of all kinds he discouraged, transferring their functions to the counts. Not only were the rights of freemen limited, but severe hardships were imposed upon them by Charles’s incessant warlike expeditions. At any moment they were liable to be dragged from their homes to some distant corner of the empire; and while they were away, their fields lay neglected, and their families suffered grinding poverty. What made this evil most galling was the fact that its pressure was very unequally felt. Well-off freemen knew how to purchase exemption from the counts, part of whose business was to see that he ranks of the army should be properly filled. It is true that Charles treated severely offences of this kind; but in such an empire as his, it was impossible even for his Missi Dominici to find out every case of injustice. Thus the burden of his many wars fell to the largest extent on the poorer class of freemen, who had but a sorry recompense in the glory their sacrifices reflected on their lord.

Not content with the general allegiance due to him as king and emperor, Charles compelled many great landowners to take the oath of vassals; he imposed a like condition on his prelates and counts. A man might be his vassal without possessing land; but no land was granted by Charles except to those who were willing to assume this intimate personal relation. As his conquests put vast quantities of land at his disposal, especially in Saxony and on the frontiers, many freemen gladly swore to be his "men" in the hope that he would reward them for their services with extensive benefices. On the other hand, large numbers of poor freemen became the vassals of their stronger neighbours, as there was a chance that the military demands made upon them would thus be made rather less exorbitant. By these changes, due either directly or indirectly to him, Charles helped to build up that system of feudal tenures, the foundations of which had been laid by the first Merovingian kings. As in giving great temporal power to the church, so in establishing feudalism, he imagined that he was providing for the monarchy a steady support; but in the latter case, even more than in the former, he prepared weakness and humiliation for those who came after him.

After the death of Charles Germany remained for some time, in common with the other countries which composed the Frankish empire, under the direct rule of his son, Louis (Hludwig or Ludwig) the Pious. On the division of the monarchy, effected by the emperor in 817, in order to secure the succession, Bavaria was given to his second son Louis; the other parts of Germany fell to his eldest son Lothair (Hlothar), who received also the rest of the empire, except Aquitania, which was the portion of Pippin, the youngest. This arrangement lasted until the emperor fell completely under the power of his second wife, Judith, a Bavarian princess, who intrigued incessantly to obtain for her son Charles—afterwards "Charles the Bald"—a position similar to that of his half brothers. The emperor at last, at the expense of his son Lothair, marked off an important territory for this inconvenient child. In the wars which followed, Louis the Bavarian firmly maintained his rights; but he disapproved the cruel harshness with which his father was treated by Lothair. In Germany the emperor was highly esteemed,—especially in Saxony, where he softened the rigorous system introduced by Charles, by sanctioning as far as possible a return to ancient popular institution. The result was that when he was virtually deposed by Lothair, and afterwards not only deposed but humiliated almost beyond endurance, the Germans warmly supported Louis the Bavarian in insisting that the emperor should be restored to imperial rights. For his services on these occasions Louis received extensive additions of territory, and had be continued to be fairly treated, he would have been the most effectual support of his father’s power. But the spirit of the gentle-hearted emperor was broken by misfortune, and when Pippin of Aquitania died, he was easily persuaded by Judith, who had come to an understanding with Lothair, to sanction a division of the empire by which his son in Germany would have been confined strictly to his original possession of Bavaria. Louis instantly revolted; and it was in marching against him that the emperor fell sick and died, in 840, on a small island on the Rhine opposite Ingelheim. The last words of the dying sovereign were a message of forgiveness to his rebellious son.

Lothair at once assumed the imperial dignity, and showed that he intended to demand the complete submission of his brothers, Louis and Charles. They combined against him, and in the battle of Fontenay, in 841, after fearful slaughter, defeated him. The armies of the allied brothers soon afterwards met in Strasburg, where they swore to be true to each other, Louis taking the oats, so as to be understood by the army of Charles, in a language in which we find the beginnings of modern French, Charles in a German dialect. In 843 the treaty of Verdun was signed. By this treaty Lothair retained the title of emperor, and received in addition to the Italian territory of the Franks, a long narrow kingdom, stretching from the Mediterranean up through the valleys of the Rhone and the Rhine to the North Sea. This kingdom was called Lotharingia, a name afterwards confined to the northern part of it along the left bank of the Rhine. To the west of Lotharingia was the kingdom of Charles, which included the greater part of what is now France. Louis received most of the German lands to the east of the Rhine, with the towns and sees of Mainz, Worms, and Spires, on the western bank.

Nothing was further from the intention of the brothers than finally to break up the Frankish state by this division. In relation to the outer world the empire was still considered a single power, as the kingdom had been after the death of Chlodwig, more than three centuries before. And, after a time, it was for a brief period reunited under one head. Still it is not an arbitrary impulse that has led historians to fix upon 843 as the date of the real beginning of the German as well as of the French kingdom. Although it can hardly be said that a true national life had yet revealed itself in Germany, at least the foundations of national life had been laid. For the first time Germany was ruled by a king who reigned nowhere else, and it could not but be that the people should slowly acquired a sense of common interests.

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