High Middle Ages
Why study the middle ages, and history in general? Daileader provides a pragmatic answer:
- Some things seem like artifacts of modernity, but are a millennium old.
- Others appear fundamental and static, but are in fact very recent and ephemeral.
Unless we can get the story straight, we'll have the wrong intuitions about the world today.
Petrarch (13th century) believed that classical Greco-Roman art and culture was the apogee of humanity. After the fall of Rome, which he dated to the sack of Rome in 410, everything went downhill. Naturalism went out the window in favor of abstraction. The Latin language became corrupted. It was all horseshit! Petrarch hoped that his lifetime would see a return to classical values. His hope came true with the emerging Renaissance. Thus, two great eras in human history (classical & renaissance) sandwiched a middle age so terrible it doesn't even deserve a proper name.
During the romantic period, the Middle Ages were viewed with nostalgia. Dirty, polluted, overworked people sought philosophers like Rousseau, who pined for the lush greenery of the past. Marx's vision of constant conflict between classes was seen in contrast to the harmonious system of The Three Orders of the Middle Age.
Medeival is just how you say Middle Age in Latin. Love it when simple things click into place.
Europe's population roughly doubled during the high middle ages (1000-1300), in contrast to Early Middle Ages (300-1000), where late Rome was charaterized by depopulation, followed by stagnation 700-1000. The era that followed, the Late Middle Ages were pummeled by the black death leading again to a decline in population. Depopulation is often correlated with decline
Around 1000 CE, Europe was very rural. Cities had at most 10,000 people living in them. By 1300 many towns grow into cities and have 100,000 residents.
Why this growth? 1. Decline in foreign attacks (Arabs, Vikings, Magyar marauders), partly because all of the good stuff had already been looted. 2. Roman slave populations were so poorly treated, their populations were declining. As more slaves became serfs, they were treated better and could have higher birth rates. 3. Advances in agricultural technology 2. Climate change: 800 - 1200 is called the Medeival Warm Period a period of improved climate, improving crop yields.
As European cities grew, they became worthwhile stops for global merchants, since their markets now became big enough to be interesting. Italy dominated in trade because of its central position in the mediterranean. It's no accident that the famous Marco Polo emerges from Italy in 1270.
The monetary system also evolves around this time. At the height of Rome, a tri-metallic system was in place. Large transactions were done in gold coins, while bronze and copper coins were used for small daily transactions. By 1000, the continent regressed to a a much simpler system, relying on just silver for all transactions. By 1252, gold coinage was reintroduced by Florence: the florin. Small transactions were done in low quality silver. Related: History of global mediums of exchange.
Aside on agricultural technology
(Interesting: all three of these are energy efficiency-related...)
Scratch plows => Moldboard plows
As the Roman empire grew, the Scratch plow began to spread to northern Europe. This plow was designed with a short sharpened wooden stake, making shallow scratchy furrows well suited to dry Mediterranean soil. In contrast, Northern European soils were waterlogged and dense in clay, and the scratch plow hardly made a dent in such soil. Seed ratios in the early Middle Ages were abysmal, something like 2:1.
With the introduction of the Moldboard Plow (aka Heavy Plow) from eastern Europe, seed ratios improved drastically. This plow was far heavier, required wheels to move, and a much deeper, metal cutting blade.
Ox yokes => Horse collars
Romans used oxen to till the soil. These dumb animals were easily domesticated but slow. To pull a plow, a wooden device called a yoke would sit on top of the ox and the beast would plod across the length of a field. Plots tilled by oxen were long and narrow since ox teams were so hard to turn. Second order effects and unintended consequences
Horses were much faster, but equally strong as oxen. However their anatomy was quite different from an ox, and the strap of the ox yoke would sit across the horse's neck, pressing on its windpipe. This not only reduced air supply reducing efficiency, but was also often fatal.
The padded horse collar was constructed with leather, and slipped over the horse's shoulders and did not cross its neck at all, allowing it to breathe freely. In addition to not causing broken windpipe related death, it increased horsepower by 5x.
Romans knew about water mills, but did not build them very often. Slaves were so readily available in Rome that they could be relied on to power hand mills, a laborious and incredibly boring process of manually turning a crank. But as agricultural slavery was replaced by serfdom, European rivers become the new laborers.
Not mentioned in the lecture, but the Three Field System of crop rotation seems to have emerged around the same time, and made big improvements to crop yields. The core insight there was that Cereal crops deplete the ground of nitrogen, but legumes can fix nitrogen and so fertilize the soil. So one plot would be used for cereals, another for legumes, and the third to replenish itself, rotating every year.
Those who fought
In early Middle Ages knights were thugs. But they became increasingly legitimate in their power. As merchants became increasingly affluent and more of them wanted to join the ranks of the knights, there was a problem of Elite overproduction. The fighting class (see The Three Orders) became so numerous that money alone stopped being enough to join. Now to be dubbed a knight you needed to prove that your bloodline was noble.
After the collapse of the Carolingian empire in the 9th century, noble infighting soared to dangerous highs. The church attempted to curtail this trend by designating days and periods in the calendar as peaceful through programs such as the Peace and Truce of God. Courtesy Books were uninteresting lists written in Latin and ultimately fell on deaf ears, or into the hands of largely illiterate ruling class. These attempts did little to curtail noble violence.
Chaplains were clergy members in the courts of noblemen. They were the most worldly of the clergy class and could thus find ways to appeal to the fighting class. The approach that worked turned out to be the new literary genre of Chivalric Romances, around 13th century. These were stories that depicted heroic knights on great adventures of love and conquest. The chivalric code insisted on romantic love with a woman in order to “civilize” a knight and encourage good deeds.
Chrétien de Troyes wrote simple stories exploring the balance between fighting and loving. In some, the hero focused too much on loving his wife and lost status in the field, causing his wife to leave him. In others, he focused too much on conquest at the expense of his relationship. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Lancelot is a more complex classic, who had an extramarital affair with Arthur’s wife Gwyn.
Early tournaments around the 11th century evolved from free-for-all mounted melees taking place on large swaths of territory. They were not aimed explicitly at killing but at capture, but the structure was so loose that all bets were off. Action occurred with real weapons, and had real impacts on innocent bystanders, as well as other externalities. Crops were trampled, houses burned, peasants murdered. Not to mention the large death toll among the fighters.
King and clergy attempted to ban tournaments outright, but failed Instead, they evolved and became more formalized, converging to the 1-on-1 jousting matches with dulled lances and a barrier wall to prevent head on collisions. Knights that broke with chivalric norms, speaking ill of women or hurting the helpless, were disinvited from such gatherings.
A special relationship between members of the fighting class began to emerge: lord and vassal. A rising knight could swear an oath of fealty to a lord and become his vassal. This relationship involved rights and responsibilities:
- The lord gave his vassal a fief, usually a plot of land that the vassal would manage and collect income from. The lord would defend the vassal from harm.
- The vassal would come to the lord's aid, usually in a military campaign. The vassal would also give advice to the lord, if the lord requested it.
Gradually, fiefs became hereditary. Eventually vassals began swearing fealty to multiple lords. The concept of liege lord was introduced to indicate the main lord that you are sworn to, but vassals would just swear fealty to multiple liege lords. People are awesome!
Those who worked
The status of ordinary folk generally improved during the period of 1000-1300. Agricultural slavery faded out and was replaced by serfdom. Most peasants of the time were serfs working for a lord, sometimes a noble, and sometimes a bishopric or monastery. As serfs, they owed their lord seigneurial obligations, meaning they had to till the land for free some number of days a week.
Serfdom gradually became less onerous and less common. Serfs that spent a year in a city would automatically become free, and many would escape in this manner. Lords would treat their serfs better to avoid losing their unpaid workforce entirely. More of the population moved into towns.
Townspeople were split into populo grosso (fat people), consisting of merchants and landlords and populo minuto (little people), consisting of artisans and farmers.
During periods of heightened violence, towns formed communes, associations of mutual defense which attempted to maintain peace, militia style. These associations were led by elected Consuls, elected for a set term, often a year. Consuls judged when members of the commune were injured, and decided when to exact vengeance.
A town would have one commune, but each trade was governed by its own guild: the bakers, the dyers, etc. To practice a trade you needed to belong to the guild. Guilds enforced the quality of work produced by its members and standardized production and distribution of goods to ensure that nobody had an unfair advantage.
Those who prayed
Secular clergy: priests headed by a bishop at a bishopric. Regular clergy: monks headed by an abbot at a monastery.
Most monasteries were based on a Benedictine laws which were focused on austerity. In practice, many of these laws were bent and broken, especially by orphans and retirees, and others that found themselves in monasteries for reasons outside their own control. Monks could not own property of any sort, at least in theory. But in practice this was often not the case. Monasteries themselves were often rich, beneficiaries of large donations from non-monks as alms, with donors hoping to offset their misdeeds.
Attempts at reform
At various points monastic reforms were attempted to bring monasteries closer to their platonic ideal. Two ecclesiastical reform movements stand out, often for the cruelty gave their abbots: Cluniacs and Cistercians. But these reverted to the mean within a couple of centuries.
Franciscans took a different route, insisting on a new kind of monk that does not belong to a monastery at all. Instead he must own nothing and beg for alms, mimicking the life of the apostles. They were led by St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), who had pretty intense views. St. Francis did not permit his followers to store up money or provisions for a rainy day, since this indicated a lack of faith. Eventually the Franciscans were recognized by the papacy and their hard-line stances diluted.
The Gregorian movement attempted to reform the secular clergy. It enforced priestly celibacy, which had become uncommon. Simony, the practice of buying bishopric or abbotal appointments, was banned again. It was already illegal, but often eluded in practice. These reforms largely failed, sowing seeds for popular discontent with the church.
Freethinkers and heretics
As lay people became more literate, they began reading the Bible themselves and coming to their own conclusions. Literacy was highest in urban areas, where merchant class needed to be numerate and literate to do their work. (TODO: what was the actual spread of writing like over time and space? Has this been mapped in detail?)
This combination led to high rates of heresy, self described Christians that challenged the basic tenets of the faith.
Cathars had a different take on Christianity. Cathars believed that the good God was the God of the New Testament, creator of the spiritual realm, whereas the evil God was the God of the Old Testament, creator of the physical world whom many Cathars identified as Satan. This was against the teachings of the church and they were labeled heretics. Waldenzians, followers of Peter Waldo shared a similar fate.
During the episcopal inquisition, bishops were asked to double down on the task of ensuring purity of belief of those in their bishopric, weeding out heretics. But many bishops resided in Rome or Paris and not in their bishopric. And bishops were generally very important and busy individuals.
When this failed, professional inquisitors were hired instead. Many of these were taken from the Franciscan and Dominican orders, already used to traveling and begging for alms. These inquisitors would go from village to village and ask the local priest to gather the residents together. The inquisitors were then trained to try to extract as much information as possible. Those that volunteered dirt on their fellow villagers early on would be rewarded with lighter sentences.
Torture by this point was common in Medieval justice. Inquisitors were allowed to use it too, but could not cause bloodshed, mutilation or death. When a subject was found guilty of heresy, they might be forced to wear a yellow cross on their clothing for the rest of their life. Or they would be handed over to the secular authorities to be burned alive.
Jews of the High Middle ages
As mentioned ad nauseam in The Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Koestler, Jews were often expelled from kingdoms. I even made a list of History of Jewish Expulsions.
Why? It was an easy way for kings to make quick money. They would seize Jewish assets and take ownership of all outstanding loans. But this would disrupt the economy, so these measures were often reverted quickly.
Jews were also forced to wear a badge (star, circle, etc) or a conical cap. Visual indicators were also forced on other minorities, like heretics (yellow cross), prostitutes (yellow dress?), and lepers (rattle, clapper). Jews liked the privacy of living in their own enclaves, but the badges were universally hated. It made Jews visible targets of pogroms. The distinguishing badges could sometimes be removed by paying the sovereign a fee. The king would then annul this deal and force Jews to pay again, another money making scheme.
Especially dangerous times for Jews:
- Crusades would often trigger local pogroms, as echoes of holy war would resonate at home.
- Easter sometimes saw accusations of blood libel, where Jews were accused of crucifying a Christian child gone missing from a village. No coincidence too with Christ’s death. Blood libel was only a popular belief, never an official position.
During the high Middle Ages 1000-1300 prosperity increased but so did anti Jewish violence.
Monk style education involved rote memorization and recitation. There was no space for intellectual activity because it would open up the possibility of heresy.
Scholastic movement: beginning a tradition of comparison of multiple sources with the goal of synthesizing two seemingly incompatible perspectives into something coherent. Through valiant hoop jumping they seemed to be able to get to an interesting equilibrium.
Abelard was an early famous Scholastic with a colorful but gruesome story. He began a tradition of debate, with explicit reliance on old texts - bible and derived works (eg. St. Augustine), but also blended it with the pagan philosophers like Aristotle and Plato.
Classic philosophers were accessible thanks to Islamic preservation efforts, especially the work of Ibn Rushd of Al-Andulus (Averroes). (Why was he not mentioned in Lost Enlightenment by Frederick Starr? Seems like that book devoted no time at all to Al-Andulus, just the caliphate centered at Baghdad.)
Scholastic practices were criticized and censored by the church. Their reliance on reason was seen as having excess hubris. Who are they to think that they can contribute something worthy of the great ancient thinkers? Also their reliance on Aristotle and Islamic commentaries and insufficiently on the Bible was seen as problematic. Indeed Aristotle directly contradicted church dogma on some issues. According to Aristotle,
- The world is eternal, never created
- There are no souls, only a collective soul
- There is one God greater than the other Gods, but he is not omnipotent or omniscient
The church attempted to censor Aristotle but ultimately failed. Some Scholastic philosophers were accused of “double truth” or of arriving at two different conclusions on an issue depending on whether they considered from a Christian or an Aristotelian perspective.
The most prominent scholastic scholar, St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican friar was canonized shortly after his death, illustrating the church's capitulation. Aquinas blended rationalism into Christianity. His magnum opus "Summa Theologica" contained five proofs for the existence of God.
According to Aquinas, there are several ways in which God wills actions. He directly wills the good, indirectly wills evil consequences of good things, and only permits evil. Aquinas held that in permitting evil, God does not will it to be done or not to be done.
Strange sub-plot with early universities. The first two universities in Europe were in Paris and in Bologna.
Students of universities were called Clerici vagantes or vagabundi, Latin for wandering clergy. They were considered to be part of the secular clergy, and subject to special privileges as a result. No one was allowed to physically harm them; they could only be tried for crimes in an ecclesiastical court, and were thus immune from any corporal punishment. Students took advantage of this and broke secular laws with impunity, engaging in theft, rape, and murder.
One side effect of students as clergy was that under Canon Law, women could only be part of the regular clergy (nuns), but not part of the secular clergy, so were banned outright from universities.
The First Crusade
Pilgrimages had been a common practice in Christendom, and increasingly Jerusalem was seen as as destination for penitential pilgrimage. Holy war also had precedents: clergy had previously sponsored battles in which death was linked to salvation.
Crusaders were both pilgrims and holy warriors. This was a brilliant innovation which made the proposition extremely attractive to many people. Pilgrimage was dangerous, but here you were armed to the teeth and could fend for yourself. If you died en route, you would die as a holy warrior. However if you arrived at your destination, you would have fulfilled the pilgrimage. To sweeten the deal, crusaders were given plenary indulgences, remission of all penalties that resulted from sin. Win-win-win!
Crusades were declared by popes, and often for political reasons. The first crusade came shortly after the schism in the papacy. In this schism 1054, numerous disagreements between the Byzantines and the pope came to a head. Two sides failed to come to an agreement and severed ties. Shortly thereafter, the Byzantines were crushed by an Arab invasion. The sitting western pope wanted to try to reunite the church and offered military aid to the east in the form of the first crusade.
The first part of the first crusade was led by common people. Many of these crusaders took a detour to first kill a bunch of Jews and loot their stuff in order to finance the trip to Jerusalem. This was done partly from sheer anti-semitism and holy war fervor, but partly from Millenarian convictions that the world would soon end, and that the ends to their salvation justified the means.
When this first wave of crusaders arrived to rendezvous with Byzantine forces, they arrived earlier than expected, were ill-equipped and hungry. This led to skirmishes among the Christians of the east and the west. Eventually those Popular Crusaders that survived were slaughtered by the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor.
A colorful story, this time about the adventures of crusading knights of noble rank. About 7000 departed from various European kingdoms organized in loose bands under a variety of local leaders. When they arrived at Constantinople to rendezvous with the Byzantines they were not greeted kindly by the Byzantine king Alexios I. Having just been ravished by the people’s crusade he did not trust the westerners and insisted they sign a treaty to ensure territories recently owned by Byzantines would be returned to them.
First taking Nicaea in 1097, then Antioch in 1098, joint Crusader-Byzantine forces marched toward Jerusalem. However these victories only further eroded relations between east and west. The crusaders took Antioch, and left no prisoners, and their leader Bohemond decided to keep the city for himself, breaching the oath he swore to Alexios. Multiple waves of Muslim reinforcements attempted to take back the city, besieging the crusaders. The crusading knights nearly perished from famine.
A lowly priest named Peter Bartholomew had a vision wherein St. Andrew came to him and told him that the Holy Lance was in Antioch. Enthralled by this, the crusaders began to dig in the cathedral in search for the Holy Lance. Initially coming up empty, Peter joined in the digging and found the object he was looking for, which boosted morale significantly. After fasting for 5 days, the already famished knights sortied out of the garrison with Raymond of Toulouse at the head, carrying the Holy Lance. Despite his general's suggestions, the Turkish commander decided to let all of the knights exit the city walls before engaging them in battle. Soon the Muslim troops were in panicked retreat.
After several months of rest at Antioch, a decimated crusading army set out for the ultimate goal Jerusalem in 1099. Another priest, Peter Desiderius had a vision: if the crusaders circumscribed the Jerusalem walls barefoot, the city would fall within nine days. Befuddled defenders spared these erratic barefoot knights. Sure enough, Jerusalem fell in seven days. This is shocking given an invading force of 1500 against city walls. Unmentioned in the lecture was the fact that an additional 10,000 infantrymen came as reinforcements via Jaffa. Using wood from the boats, Genoese engineers built two huge siege towers (called Malvoisin or "Bad Neighbors"), catapults and a battering ram. Eyewitnesses reported gruesome crusading with the entire population of the city indiscriminately murdered.
This first crusade marked a turning point in European standing on the world stage, previously clearly inferior to their more technological and culturally developed Muslim neighbors.
Norman conquest — meanwhile in England
The next few lectures were a review of The Story of Medieval England, but the enlarged scope of this lecture made for some new insights.
The Normans were partly Franks but also partly descendants of north men, Vikings that were invited to settle in western France by the Franks in an attempt to prevent other Vikings from raiding and pillaging.
Vikings seem to have settled often despite their reputation. They were a key genetic component to the Russian (see The Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Koestler), French, and English people.
- Exchequer an early accountant system in England. The name comes from the checkered board in which counters representing debts were moved around.
- Domesday book: is this something where age rounding has been analyzed? Might be a cool baseline. Sadly, doesn't appear to include ages, according to the data in https://opendomesday.org/.
- How can I find digitized versions of early censuses? Age Heaping and Numeracy
After the Norman conquest, there was an interesting dynamic between England and France. The French speaking Normans that conquered England were vassals to the French king. As a result, William the conqueror and his descendants like Henry II were both feudal subordinates and equals to the French kings. Things got especially weird when the English monarchs controlled large tracts of France (called the Angevin Empire) through strategic marriages.
Meanwhile in France
By 987 France was being raided by Magyars, Vikings, and Arabs. The kings were no longer able to retain power. Aristocrats rebelled and split the Carolingian kingdom into smaller units. The subsequent dynasty that takes over is led by Hugh Capet, first of the Capetians. Under their watch France further fragmented into duchies and beyond. But the dynasty's lineage continued despite the fragmentation. This continuity helped prevent civil wars which usual meant bad news for the ruling family.
Learning from the mistakes of the Merovingians and Carolingians, the Capetians changed their succession style. The practiced anticipatory succession and picked an heir before your death. Rather than splitting the kingdom between all of the king's sons, the firstborn was given the kingdom, and his brothers received Appenages (see Primogeniture vs partible inheritance).
Eventually Louis VI the Fat began to try and assemble the disintegrated French kingdom. He retakes Île-de-France in relentless military attacks against the castellans that resided there. This became the base for expansion, a place to reimpose authority on rebel lords.
The Capetians waited patiently for opportunities to retake their holdings. They would buy out barons that went bankrupt. They would annex the duchy of a dead duke with no clear heirs.
Phillip II Augustus was the best known king in the Capetian dynasty, an unlikely ruler. Compared to his contemporary Richard Lionheart, he was not much of a warrior, shunning crusading. Instead, he focused on trying to recover French lands that were now in English hands due to the Angevin Empire. At first, he tried to turn King John against his brother Richard but his scheme failed. Finally he decided to exploit the feudal relationship with English kings. He summoned John to nominally resolve a dispute between John and one of his French vassals. When John failed to show up, Philip declared his vassal John Lackland's possessions in the European continent forfeit.
Philip begins repossessing English lands on the continent. First he took Normandy, then Anjou. John forms an alliance with German king Otto of Brunswick. In 1214, a joint English-German invasion of France begins to try to retake back the Angevin lands. Philip II defeats Otto at the Battle of Bouvines. Upon seeing the Germans crushed, John retreats fearing a similar fate. This confirms Philip's reconquest, leaving just a small region in the French southwest under English control.
Around the same time, the pope declared a crusade against the south of France known as the Cathar Crusade. Supposedly those in the south were harboring Cathar heretics and thus needed to be cleansed, one of the major cities harboring them was Carcassonne. This was a twenty year affair, extremely bloody. Overall this led the decentralized French political system (discussed in early Middle Ages), further damaged by English conquest, to centralize again under a powerful king. See Decentralization and Centralization cycles
England's Canterbury Debacles
A bit more review of The Story of Medieval England, but Thomas Beckett's story is truly fascinating. Appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry II, Thomas Beckett, personal friend of the king quickly turns on him. Rather than buttressing royal power as expected by Henry, Beckett strongly criticized the corrupt system of royal ecclesiastical appointments. His subversion exiles him to Paris for 6 years, but upon returning, Beckett continues as before. Apocryphally, Henry II asks “will no one rid me of this pesky priest?”, whereupon four of his knights travel to Canterbury and kill Beckett in cold blood in his own cathedral. Beckett is quickly canonized and Henry II pays the price both in PR and by being embarrassingly lashed by monks.
Henry II's son John is also tied up by a long quarrel at Canterbury in 1205: after the prior archbishop dies, the monks elected a new one, egged on by a doctrine of Papal Supremacy. This is legal but not how the English king liked it — it was normally an appointment in practice. John refuses the election and instead pressured the monks to select his preferred candidate. They agreed to this but the two archbishop candidates both insisted on their legitimacy. As a result the papacy intervenes and insists that both candidates are invalid and that a third archbishop be selected. John refuses this and the pope declares an interdict, a sort of clerical strike in which only key services like baptisms are done. This lasts 6 years and John finally gives in when Innocent III begins to support John's deposition. Ultimately the pope's candidate Stephen Langton becomes Archbishop of Canterbury. Throughout this long period, King John does nothing to retake English possessions retaken by Phillip II, giving him time to prepare.
English barons in France were in a weird position: are they now loyal to France, or to England? They pressured John Lackland to retake the lands. Finally after the botched English-German attack on France, the English barons rebel. They take London and force John to accept the Magma Carta.
A lot of the Magma Carta contains detailed articles that were designed to limit the king's power. Article 39 had more longstanding relevance to us, imposed formal legal restraints on royal will, declaring that no action detrimental to a free man’s life, limb or property was to be taken without a prior judgment in a lawfully constituted court. Within a year John rejects the Magna Carta and then promptly dies. His son Henry III accepts it and has a long reign, paving the path toward a fledgling parliament.
Henry III used the parliament to seek financial aid. The Barons agreed but pushed back, insisting on the Provisions of Oxford, which gave a group of barons representation in the king's government. The king would gather and consult Great Councils on occasion. These would sometimes include commoners as well as barons. Initially mostly to collect money, these gradually became more formalized in time, soon were done thrice a year.
Despite all this turmoil, 13th century England had a strong and stable monarchy, at least compared to France and Germany. This led barons to really push back on the monarchy and lobby for more power. This led to rudimentary checks and balances and eventually English Common Law. In weaker states, there was less need for these balances since the king was already weak. Thus when countries like France centralized again, their monarchs became extremely powerful, their power unchecked.
Meanwhile in Germany
Holy Roman emperors in the territory of Germany had done well for themselves while France was fallen apart into smaller pieces. These Teutonic rulers held a firm grasp on the church through the practice of investiture, in which kings appointed important abbots and bishops.
Popes had extra leverage over Holy Roman Emperors since the pope was the only individual allowed to crown an emperor, a tradition that went back to Constantine. As part of Gregorian reforms, pope Gregory VII decided to take action against investiture. He terminated a group of imperially appointed bishops in Italy (part of the Holy Roman Empire). In response, Emperor Henry IV wrote a letter denouncing the pope and calling for his resignation. To which Gregory responded, I’m not fired — you’re fired. He excommunicated and deposed Henry IV. German elites then took advantage of the mess, and decided to rebel against their ruler. As a result, Henry IV rushed back to Rome to apologize to the pope.
The apology led to a temporary truce, but it was clear to the pope that it was not a sincere apology. Also, the German aristocracy was not done rebelling. They declare an alternative candidate, Rudolph as German King. Three years later, Gregory VII declared his support for Rudolph and excommunicated Henry IV. In response, Henry IV declares a new pope and lays siege to Rome with the intent of forcibly replacing the current pope with his candidate known as Antipope Clement III. Pope Gregory VII comes close to death as Henry IV takes Rome in 1084, but is saved by an army of Normans that the pope calls on for help. They arrive and force Henry to retreat, but in their zeal plunder Rome.
Eventually several imperial generations later, a truce is reached under the Concordat of Worms (pronounced Verms). This compromise ends the practice of investiture but allows an imperial representative to weigh in on clerical elections. The German kingdom loses power and standing. Enterprising aristocrats use this opportunity to build castles and otherwise entrench their own power base, similar to what happened in France centuries earlier.
The Ottonian dynasty doesn’t fare as well as the Capetians. Overall Henry IV reign shows the weakness of Germany in the 13th century.
- too dependent on their aristocracy, who were keen to take advantage of any weakness.
- too dependent on the papacy, leading to crusades being launched against the Holy Roman Empire.
Collapse of the Holy Roman Empire
Frederic II was a famous member of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. The end of his reign marks the point of complete disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick's contemporaries called him stupor mundi, the "astonishment of the world".
Born in Sicily, Frederic II was fluent in Arabic. He was well read and even wrote books about hawking. Early in his reign he went on crusade, took a vow to participate or risked excommunication, by then a common issue between kings of Germany and popes. He fell ill (or may have pretended to do so) on his voyage to Jerusalem. The pope promptly excommunicated him and prevented him from continuing the crusade until excommunication was lifted. However, to lift excommunication, pope Gregory IX requested a small gift: Sicily.
Frederic II ignored all of the above and continued on to Jerusalem. Taking advantage of Muslim infighting of the time, he secured Jerusalem for Christendom through diplomacy alone. However the pope was resentful, calling Frederic preambulus Antichristi and denied this treaty. Instead, a papal army marched on Sicily. Frederic was not greeted warmly in Jerusalem by fellow Christians because of an interdict. Frederic II returned quickly to Sicily to quash the papal forces.
A tentative peace breaks out for a decade. Pope Gregory IX, then his successor Innocent IV called for a crusade against Frederic II. Crusaders with vows to the east are allowed to change course to fight Frederic II instead. Some of his own subjects turn against him. Civil wars rage beyond Frederic II's death in 1250, and Germany disintegrates further. The papacy denies election of further members of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. The result is a final decimation of the Holy Roman Empire into a loose confederacy with an elected emperor.