Central Europe, 919–1125. The Kingdom of Germany included the duchies of Saxony (yellow), Franconia (blue), Bavaria (green), Swabia (orange) and Lorraine (pink left). Various dukes rebelled against Otto’s rule in 937 and again in 939.
It will have been seen that Otto’s cherished policy with
regard to the duchies had been a miserable failure. He had hoped to found a
patriarchal state, as it were, and to bring the highest temporal offices into
the hands of his own relatives. The result had been a civil war. Otto’s son,
Liudolf, and his son-in-law, Conrad, had allowed no ties of blood or of
marriage to stand in their way. The people of the duchies, too, had, in more
than one case, shown their impatience under the yoke of dukes foreign to their
Otto now gave up the plan of uniting local interests through
a network of family ties. On his brother Henry’s death, in 955, he gave Bavaria
to a grandson of the old Duke Arnulf. Hermann Billung was made duke of Eastern
Saxony, and native nobles held office in Swabia and Lorraine.
It was, however, almost necessary to the existence of the
crown that it should be supported by a strong party, and Otto was led into a
step which, however advantageous at first, was fraught with dire consequences
for the German people. He made the Church that which the duchies should have
been, the prop and stay of the kingly power. He encouraged new ecclesiastical
foundations, and made rich gifts of lands and exemptions to the clergy, hoping
in this way to bind them more closely to himself. His first care was to fill
all the archbishoprics with friends and faithful servants.
William, Otto’s own bastard son, received Mayence, Bruno was
established in Cologne, and a pupil of his in Treves. For more than a century
now the history of the German Church and of the German kingdom were to become
almost identical. The government assumes a churchly character, church rule
becomes a matter of politics. The result was to be that when in the next
century the struggle with the popes began it was no longer possible for the
princely ecclesiastics to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s, and thus
to avoid the conflict of nationality versus the Church universal.
So long as the right of choosing the bishops remained with
the king, the latter was able to constitute a body of men whose interests were
identical with his own. The bishops were simply officials; they left no heirs,
being not allowed to marry, and at their deaths their sees reverted to the
crown. They made a splendid counterpoise to the power of the nobles, who were
already beginning to claim that their fiefs were hereditary. Estates, honours,
and riches could safely be given to such men, and the crown lands yet suffer no
Great were the services demanded of the clergy in return. As
fief holders they furnished regularly their quota of vassals to the king’s
army, and often took the field in person. All the business of the court, all
the charter writing, all the correspondence, was in their hands.
And Otto ruled them like a second Charlemagne. No council
might be called, no decree of the clergy passed, without his consent. Of his
own accord he founded bishoprics, and set up bishops, judged the clergy, and
disposed of church funds. The canon laws indeed, and not only the forged ones,
directly negatived such proceedings, but as yet there was no one to call
attention to such discrepancies.
The immediate result of the union of the crown with the
clergy was to raise the prestige of Germany, and to pave the way for the
renewal of the holy Roman Empire. A time was to come, however, when the
interests that joined the two were to be sundered, and the bonds that bound
them loosed. The result was to be destructive indeed. The glory of the empire
was to be tarnished, and German unity to be trodden under foot.
For a hundred years now the crown of the empire had been a
mere bauble, the disposal of which had been for the most part in the hands of
the popes. Neither Charles the Bald nor Charles the Fat, Arnulf, nor Berengar
I., nor any of the other rulers of Italy seem to have regarded it as more than
an empty honour. Alberic, the ruler of Rome, had not cared for the title, and
had thwarted the plans of those who did. During his time, therefore — after wielding
the sceptre for twenty years, he had died in 954 — it remained in abeyance.
Alberic’s mantle, as head of Rome, descended upon his son
Octavian, a mere boy. Octavian, in spite of his youth, however, was soon made
Pope under the name of John XII., thus combining in his person the sovereignty
of Rome and the spiritual headship of Christendom. His great ambition was to
increase his temporal power in Italy, but in this he was thwarted by Otto’s old
enemy and vassal Berengar. At this time Berengar and his son Adalbert were in
possession of the Exarchate of Ravenna, and the dukes of Tuscany, to which the
pope also laid claim, did them homage.
Pope John looked around for allies, and, finally, fixed his
hopes on the German King. Otto had again broken with Berengar, and in 956 had
sent his son Liudolf to Italy, promising him the crown of that fair land if he
could win it. Liudolf within two years had subjected nearly the whole of the
so-called Italian kingdom — the present Tuscany and Lombardy. The “path was open
to Olympus,” as a monk of the time has expressed it, when the heir to the
German throne was attacked by fever and died. All the advantages won over
Berengar were lost, and the Pope once more trembled before him. He felt himself
insecure even in his own Eternal City.
It was then that John decided to summon Otto’s aid and to
dazzle him with the prospect of the imperial crown. Otto was won by the lure,
and the first steps were taken towards that union with Italy that was to cost
the nation so dear. Otto made hasty preparations for his expedition. His son
Otto was elected and crowned co-regent, Bruno was to uphold the royal rights in
Lorraine, and William of Mayence to transact the daily business of the realm.
In the autumn of 961, the king crossed the Brenner.
Berenger had raised an army of 60,000 men, but at the
decisive moment his troops refused obedience. Otto was able to enter Pavia
unmolested and to pursue his way to Rome. In February, 962, he received the
crown in St. Peter’s from the Pope’s hand.
It was not altogether without fear that Otto had entered
Rome. His sword-bearer had orders to watch while the king knelt before the
grave of the apostle, and to hold his weapon in readiness. The fickleness of
the Romans was well known to Otto, also, to some extent, the character of the
Pope. John was obliged to swear by the holy bones of St. Peter that he would
never make common cause with Otto’s enemies, Berengar and Adalbert.
The price to be paid to the Pope for Otto’s new dignity was
to be the provinces held by the two Italians. These were as yet unconquered,
but a deed of gift was drawn up concerning them which is still extant. Written
upon purple parchment in letters of gold, it has withstood the ravages of time.
Its genuineness, long doubted, has been re-vindicated in our own day.
The “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” as founded by
Otto the Great, was to continue for eight hundred and forty four years. Only
for short intervals was the throne ever to be vacant, although in the sixteenth
century the Pope’s influence in the matter of its disposal was to fall into
abeyance. In the time of our own grandfathers it came to an end, and the
Austrian Empire, the anomalous kingdoms of Napoleon, and the North German
Confederation rose on its ruins.
For two weeks after Otto’s coronation harmony lasted between
the heads of Christendom. The Pope approved of the emperor’s plan of changing
Madgeburg into an archbishopric with many suffragan bishoprics. The details of
the matter were arranged in a Roman synod and made known to the German clergy
by a papal bull. But John soon found that Otto was playing by far too important
a role in Italy, was winning over the bishops by rich donations, and was
treating the provinces that he conquered completely as his own.
The Pope did not hesitate to commence negotiations with
Berengar and Adalbert. The same messengers who brought news of this turn of
affairs had much to say about John’s ungodly manner of life. Otto was little
affected by either of these communications, and is said to have remarked with
regard to the charges of immorality: “He is a boy, the examples of good men
will improve him.”
But one day papal ambassadors were arrested at Capua with
letters to the Greek Emperor and to the Hungarians. John confessed his
treasonable intents in part, but made counter-charges against Otto which the
latter condescended to explain away. The crisis, however, was not long in
coming. Adalbert was received within the walls of Rome and warmly welcomed by
the Pope. Otto marched against the city, which he took without difficulty. The
Pope fled with Adalbert.
The Romans were made to give hostages and to swear never
again to install anyone as pope whose election should not have been confirmed
by the emperor and his son. Such an influence as this did Otto win over the
Roman Church! The popes became his creatures and he their judge.
A synod was summoned over which Otto presided. It was well
attended. Three archbishops and thirty-eight bishops came together in St. Peter’s.
All the clergy of Rome and the officials of the Lateran were present, also many
nobles and the Roman soldiery.
Otto refrained at first from bringing his own causes of
complaint before the synod. He wished John’s ruin, but the Pope’s daily manner
of living was enough to condemn him. A long list of sins was brought up against
him, and his contempt for the canons of the Church was clearly proven. He had
drunk the devil’s health, and had invoked heathen gods while playing dice. He
had chosen a ten year old boy as bishop of Todi and had given a deacon his
consecration in a horse’s stall. He had lived like a robber-chief, and an
impure and unchaste one at that.
The synod summoned John to answer the charges against him.
He replied by banning the bishops who had taken part in the proceedings. A second
summons was likewise disregarded.
At the third session of the synod Otto came forward as
accuser and declared the pope a perjured traitor, who had conspired with the
enemies of the empire. John’s deposition was agreed upon and a new pope
elected, but it was some months before the matter came to a settlement. John
had found adherents in the city, but died just as Otto was preparing to crush
The Romans disregarded Otto’s pope, Leo, and elected the
cardinal deacon, Benedict. The result was a siege of Rome, famine in the city,
and a capitulation. Again a synod and again a triumph for the emperor. Benedict
appeared before the assembly and begged for mercy. Clad in the papal robes and
holding the bishop’s staff he had come to the synod. He left it stripped of his
pallium, his staff in pieces, himself a prisoner. He was to die in captivity at
Hamburg. The last hopes for the Romans of freeing the papacy had proved in
vain. One German after another now ascended the throne of Peter.
Otto’s last years were spent partly in administering the
affairs in his own land, partly in trying to preserve quiet and to increase his
power in Italy. On Margrave Gero’s death, in 966, in order that no one man
should again have such a preponderating influence in Saxony, his district was
divided into six parts with each a separate margrave. Lorraine, too, was
divided into an upper and a lower duchy, and these parts were not again to be
Otto’s mere reappearance in Rome sufficed to quell an
insurrection against his pope. He then proceeded to fulfil the promise once
made to Pope John XII. All of its earlier possessions were restored to the
chair of Peter, although the imperial rights in the ceded districts seemed to
have been preserved. Otto, for instance, built a palace near Ravenna, where he
often held his court.
Otto now made an effort to reap lasting fruits from all of
his untiring labours. He wished to secure the empire to his son, to unite the
latter by bonds of marriage to the still influential court of Constantinople, and,
finally, to rid Italy of the Arabs who had been infesting it for a hundred
years. The last of these desires was not to be accomplished either in his own
or in his son’s reign. The consent to the imperial coronation was easily
obtained from an obsequious pope, and the ceremony took place in St. Peter’s on
Christmas day, 967.
The union with the Eastern Empire was only brought about
after endless negotiations and some bloodshed. Otto, determined to exert
pressure on the Greeks, invaded their possessions in Apulia and Calabria and
besieged Bari. He soon withdrew, however, and sent Bishop Luitprand of Cremona
at the head of a large embassy to Constantinople. Luitprand was a man of
letters and a skilful diplomat, but somewhat rash and fiery of temper. To him we
owe most of our knowledge of these times; and among his other works is a
detailed report, addressed to Otto, of his mission. It is one of the most
attractive writings of the middle ages.
Luitprand found Nicephorus one of the haughtiest and most
insolent of men, living in a style of great magnificence and utterly refusing
to believe that any power in the world could equal his own. He demanded Rome
and Ravenna as the price for the hand of a royal princess, and offered an
alliance without the marriage if Otto would make Rome free.
While Luitprand was detained at the court of Nicephorus,
Pope John XIII. sent an embassy to the “Greek emperor.” Only the low degree of
the envoys saved them from instant death, for Nicephorus considered himself the
emperor of the Romans, and the only one.
Luitprand’s mission was a failure. He met with insults and
taunts from the Greeks, and repaid them in kind. He was absent so long,
virtually a prisoner, that Otto renewed hostilities without awaiting his
return. But soon a revolution took place in Constantinople. At the instigation
of the empress Nicephorus was murdered, and John Zimisces succeeded to his bed
and to his throne. Zimisces, surrounded by enemies at home, was quite willing
to give the hand of a Grecian princess in return for peace in Italy. Theophano,
the niece of Zimisces, reached Rome in April, 972, and was wedded to Otto II.
in St. Peter’s. She was a gifted creature, and was destined to play a very great
part in German affairs.
A number of provinces and estates were settled on the young
bride, and the original of the deed of transfer, drawn up in purple and gold,
is extant to-day.
In 968 Otto’s favourite project of making Magdeburg an
archbishopric, a project which had met with some opposition in Germany itself,
was at last realized. The bishoprics of Brandenburg, Havelberg, and Meissen
were subordinated to the new creation, also two new sees, Zeiz and Merseburg,
to which, later, Posen was to be added. A grand centre for carrying on the
conversion of the Slavonians was at last won.
Otto’s life-work was nearly done. Few German emperors have
been able to end their days amid such general prosperity and rejoicing. He was
able to take part, in 973, in a series of feasts and processions in Saxony, but
died at Memleben before the year was out. He had reigned thirty-seven years,
and had reached the age of sixty-two. His bones rest in the cathedral of
It remains to say a few words about the social and intellectual
life in the reign of Otto the Great, and it must be membered in this connection
that different parts of Germany differed much from each other in the degree of
their culture and civilization. There was no general state organization in our
sense of the word, and the duchies enjoyed a great degree of independence. The
king might demand certain services of the dukes, but he could not interfere
with the administration of their duchies. Here they were absolute masters,
except when held in check by their local diets.
One such assembly in Saxony dared to oppose the wishes of
Otto himself, although, he represented king and duke in his own august person.
It is questionable whether at any time in the tenth century a royal or imperial
command which was contrary to a local law would have been obeyed. The people at
this time, as during the next two hundred years, were devotedly true to their
dukes. How easily could one of them raise an army for his own purposes, and how
many of the old German songs centre about the beloved person of a duke who, as
likely as not, had been a traitor to his king!
We must remember at every turn how different the people of a
thousand years ago were from ourselves. Cities as centres of trade and commerce
had scarcely as yet come into being, and the use of money was extremely
restricted. If taxes or tolls had to be paid they were paid in kind. This or
that proportion of grain or cloth was subtracted from the rest and reserved for
the treasury of the king. Even the produce of the rich estates belonging to the
crown was not sold. We know now why it was that the kings of the tenth century
moved so frequently with their huge followings from place to place. It was
necessary to consume the products of the soil, for they were perishable and not
convertible. A modern historian likens the royal household to a ruminating
animal that grazes up one pasture after another.
Family life, to turn to a special phase of social existence,
was a far different conception from what it is now. Among the Saxons, Thuringians,
and Frisians, marriage seems to have been purely a business transaction, which
was carried on independently of the wishes of at least one of the parties
concerned. Fathers could dispose of their daughters at will, and regularly sold
them to their future lords. The husband was master of his household in the strictest
sense of the word, and the women were kept in complete subjection. Conjugal
fidelity was a one-sided affair, and the marriage vows were binding only on the
wife. The father had a right — how much use he made of it we shall never know —
to kill his children or to sell them into captivity.
It is possible that religious considerations tempered the
brutality of the laws. We know that Otto the Great’s age was one of great
piety, not to say superstition. The king himself, especially after the death of
his first queen, Edith, which event was considered by him a warning to call him
to good works, was untiring in furthering missions. His mother had founded
several monasteries, and his daughter herself became abbess of Quedlinburg.
Otto’s brother Bruno, who was his chancellor and
archchaplain, instituted a far-reaching reform in the church affairs of
Lorraine. He summoned clergy of blameless life from all parts of Germany.
Monasteries which had sunk into decay were purged and regenerated. Old schools
were bettered and new ones founded. The Lorraine clergy were models for Europe
in education, as well as in the proper performance of their duties. Bishops
without number were chosen from their midst, and Rheims raised two men from
Lorraine in succession on her archiepiscopal throne. A century later Rome
herself was to choose a pope from this rich nursery of prelates.
The religious life of Otto the Great’s age was not without
its anomalies. A stiff formalism pervaded this as every other phase of
existence. Humility in those chosen to a high position in the Church consisted
in a routine of refusing to accept the dignity, of fleeing behind the altar, of
weeping copious tears, of self-deprecation. Not once but a hundred times do
such performances meet us in the chronicles, and one case is known of a regular
formula for the proper conduct on such occasions. Piety and charitable intent
were often measured by the power to shed tears less or more copiously.
The strange belief was almost universal that the end
justified the means. We read of housebreakings and robberies, of forgeries and
other crimes committed for the sake of obtaining the relics of this or that
saint, and in all the literature of the time we hear no disapproval of such
acts except from the side of the injured parties. On the contrary, biographers
frequently praise their heroes for just such performances.
An excessive saint worship and an extreme credulity went
hand in hand with such moral ideas. Miracles were thoroughly believed in, not
as now merely by the ignorant, but by the best intellects of the time. The more
a man could believe the higher was his piety reckoned.
In art and literature, Otto’s court was the scene of a
veritable renaissance. Countless miniatures or book illustrations of his time
are still preserved. In St. Grail, Treves, Regensburg, and elsewhere, were
famous schools for such ornamental work, and the colours used were most
brilliant and enduring. Strangely enough they were used without any sense for
the real fitness of things. Scarlet eagles fly through cherry clouds, yellow
asses pasture in blue fields, and red oxen draw golden ploughs. Towards the end
of the century the taste changed and more sombre hues crept in. It has been suggested
that ascetic views, such as those which were so diligently fostered by Otto
III., were responsible for the transformation.
Otto the Great, although personally, as far as we know,
without literary tastes, did everything to foster and encourage a revival of
classical learning. We hear of an Italian who at his instigation brought a
hundred manuscripts over the Alps. Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Terence, Cicero and
Sallust arose from the dead as it were to a new life in Germany. They found
their way into the monasteries and even into the nunneries.
Who has not heard of Roswitha, Abbess of Gandersheim, who
wrote comedies in the style of Terence, but with the outspoken object of
maintaining the field against him? Her aim was “that the praiseworthy chastity
of holy virgins should be celebrated in the same poetic strain in which
hitherto the loathsome incest of voluptuous women has been narrated.” Her works
have been published in our own day, and fill a respectable volume.