The Holy Roman Empire in the Twelfth and Thirteenth centuries I

The Hohenstaufen-ruled Holy Roman Empire and Kingdom of Sicily. Imperial and directly held Hohenstaufen lands in the Empire are shown in bright yellow.

During all the years in which the Hohenstaufens had been occupied with their hitter wars against the papacy, Germany of her own accord had been making wonderful progress in social, agricultural, and intellectual matters. In the eleventh century she possessed little more than the lands between the Elbe, Rhine, and Danube; by the fourteenth she had doubled her territory, had extended her bounds to the Baltic and the river Vistula, and had peopled Bohemia, Silesia, and even Transylvania with her colonists.

A new field of activity had been discovered, and in working it, all the experience of past generations was brought to bear. Peasants and citizens, knights and clergy from all parts of Germany wandered out to the Slavic lands in the north and in the east. Their new settlements were unhampered by old traditions; their mode of life became more free and democratic.

Various causes tended to induce men to leave their homes and seek their fortunes elsewhere. Chief among them, for cultivators at least, was lack of space in their native villages.

All through the Middle Ages the unit of landed possession for the village communities was the manse or hufe, which comprised room for house and garden, the right of using the common village pastures and also a certain number of parcels of agricultural land. These parcels were distributed among the three fields, or three greater divisions of land, one of which was to lie idle each year in order that the soil might improve. As a rule about thirty acres of agricultural land would generally fall to the share of each possessor, whose parcels, however, being assigned by lot, did not necessarily adjoin each other.

By the twelfth century the inconveniences of this system had come to mate themselves widely felt. To reach one of his own lots or plots the farmer had to cross his neighbour’s land; it was necessary, therefore, in order to avoid spoiling crops already sown, for all to plough, sow, and harvest at the same time. This was, naturally, a great hardship for active men who had to accommodate themselves to the ways of their slower neighbours.

The great attraction for those who emigrated and became colonists was that in the new districts to which they were invited, or in which they arranged with the lord of the land to become settlers, the different parcels of land were no longer scattered. A long central street was usually laid out and from this each man’s allotment ran backward in a long strip, if necessary over hill and dale.

The new manse, too — the momsus regalis as this measurement was usually called — was almost invariably double the size of the old.

The thinly populated Slavic lands in North-eastern Germany, in Silesia, and in Transylvania were rich in marshy districts, in moorlands, and in uncut forests that were altogether uninhabited. The methods of agriculture of the Slavs were far more primitive than those of the Germans; the process of reclaiming lands, so familiar already to the Dutch and to the Flemings, was to them entirely unknown. Many of the Slavic land-owners now called in the Germans as settlers and divided their districts among them on the new system that was everywhere coming into vogue.

It was with four great groups of Slavs that the German colonists came, peacefully or otherwise, into contact; the Tschecks and Moravians, the Poles, the Baltic tribes, and the Sorbs.

The Tschecks were settled in the present Bohemia, and the Moravians, as now, adjoined them on the east and spoke their language. The Poles possessed at this time an immense stretch of territory, and were destined to play a large part in German as well as in Swedish and Russian history. The Baltic Slavs consisted of the Pomeranians, Liutitians, and Abodrites; their land was flourishing, and Danzig and Wollin had already been founded, the one at the mouth of the Vistula, the other of the Oder. The Sorbs, whose descendants in the Spreewald, about fifty miles from Berlin, still keep their language and their quaint costume, had settlements at that time which extended over a large part of the present kingdom of Saxony.

The Slavs, as has been intimated, possessed no really practical method of agriculture. They had established themselves wherever the land seemed easy to cultivate. Their villages were of a circular form, and did not admit of being enlarged; it accordingly frequently became necessary to found new ones.

In Bohemia and Silesia there were villages under the protection of Slavic princes, where the inhabitants all pursued one trade or occupation; Tscheckish names still exist to remind us of such places. Kolodeja, for instance, was once the village of the wheel-makers, as the word itself implies; Mydlovary, in like manner, has perpetuated the memory of those who were engaged in boiling soap.

The Slavs along the Elbe were in a lower state of civilization than those in Bohemia; it was against them that the Ottos had fought, that Meissen had been founded, and that the Billungs had won their laurels.

It is with Henry the Lion and Albrecht the Bear that the great increase of the empire’s boundaries at the expense of the Slavs may be said to have begun. Albrecht, originally possessed of lands in the present Anhalt, where his descendants still rule, was given the North Mark by the Emperor Lothar in 1134. This embraced the present Altmark and the tongue of land between the Elbe and the Havel. Albrecht’s chief goal was the incorporation of the Slavic territories of Havelberg and Brandenburg into his new dominions. This he accomplished in the one case by violence, in the other by a treaty, Brandenburg falling to him by inheritance after the death of its prince, Pribislav Henry, in 1150.

Both Albrecht and Henry the Lion took part in the crusade of 1147 against the Wends; the results of the undertaking were small, but the terrible devastation and depopulation of the land prepared the way for the calling in of German colonists.

Count Adolf II. of Holstein, a vassal of Henry the Lion, had in the meantime been doing much to carry German culture into Slavic lands. He it was who, in 1143, having called in Flemish, Dutch, Westphalian, and Frisian colonists, began the building of Lubeck, which in both senses was to be the first German city on the Baltic.

For his own part Henry the Lion had at first found it to his advantage to favour the Slavic princes on his borders and to accept their tribute. In 1160, however, he determined to conquer the land of the Abodrites in spite of the fact that its prince, Niklot, had been his friend and ally. Niklot fell after a heroic resistance, but in 1164 his son defeated the Saxons and regained for himself the land of his father. As a fief of the empire, however, with which he remained on terms of peace. He was the founder of the two modern duchies of Mecklenburg Strelitz and Mecklenburg Schwerin.

Henry the Lion next proceeded to attempt the conquest of Pomerania and Eugen. As regards the latter place the Danes were before him, and founded a rule which lasted until the time of the Reformation. In Pomerania Henry was more fortunate. In common with Albrecht’s successor, Otto of Brandenburg, he reduced the land to subjection.

It was, on the whole, the Dutch and the Flemings that proved most successful in the matter of colonizing conquered lands. Accustomed as they were to low moorland, they undertook the cultivation of tracts that had hitherto seemed worthless. To them was due the credit of reclaiming the marshes around Bremen, and their methods were largely adopted by other German settlers.

The territory around the Erzgebirge on the eastern border of the present Saxony was settled in feverish haste, not by farmers, but by miners. Here, near Freiberg, silver was discovered about the year 1160, and a rush was made for the place. By 1225 Freiberg had come to have no less than five different churches and parishes. Tin and copper were also found in the neighbourhood, and around each promising centre German settlements arose.

About 1160 began the systematic colonization of Brandenburg by Albrecht the Bear. He had but shortly before suppressed a Slavic rebellion, and seems now to have adopted the principle that the Slavs had no longer right or title to the lands which had so long been theirs. They were given away right and left to the followers of the margrave and to the new settlers. The former owners took refuge in the forests or founded miserable hamlets on the seashore. Only a few remnants of them can be traced in the following centuries; we know, for instance, that as late as 1762, in Luchow, near Hanover, sermons were preached in the Slavic tongue.

The Slavs were treated by the Germans much as the later redskins by their American conquerors; in certain districts the war against them was one of extermination. In the county of Schwerin, about the year 1170, we hear of an order being given that every Slav who could not answer certain, inquiries about himself should be strung up to the nearest tree.

The influence of the Church must not be forgotten in connection with this work of Germanizing Slavic lands. In the wake of the farmers followed the clergy, and churches and chapels soon dotted the landscape. In Meissen to-day, in the former land of the Sorbs, remains of this early colonial architecture are still to be seen.

The monkish orders were especially active in furthering colonization. The first to take the field were the Premonstratensians, founded by Norbert, Archbishop of Magdeburg from 1126 to 1134. By 1150 they had already established themselves as far north as the island of Usedom. After 1170 their influence yielded to that of the Cistercians, whose order had been founded by Bernard of Clairvaux.

The Cistercian monasteries, founded one after the other in rough uncultivated districts, proved very oases in the desert, and worked their civilizing influence in every direction. Their monks took the matter of colonizing the reclaimed lands into their own hands, and called in Dutch and other settlers as occasion demanded.

The Teutonic Order proved in the end the most successful of all civilizing and Germanizing agents. The knights were called in to Transylvania at the beginning of the thirteenth century by King Andreas II. of Hungary. They undertook the defence of the boundary against the Rumani, a tribe of plunderers.

The rapid progress which the Order made, and the independent power which it seemed about to found soon awakened the fears of King Andreas, and, after fourteen years, the knights were banished. The Order was transplanted to Prussia, where an immense field of activity awaited it.

The Prussians, a people who were divided into many stems and tribes, lived in the land between the Vistula and the Memel. They were about on a level of civilization with the Germans of the time of Tacitus; their priests sacrificed to the gods and tended a never-dying flame.

It was at the hands of the Prussians that St. Adalbert, the friend of Otto III., had met his death; since then there had been various attempts at conversion, some of which had met with no small success. About 1215, however, there was a terrible uprising against the new teachings, and the heathen raged so furiously that a crusade was preached against them in Poland and Germany. The failure of this crusade showed the necessity for more radical measures; Herrmann of Salza, friend alike of Frederick II. and of the Popes who opposed him, procured permission for his Order to undertake the difficult task and to take possession of a large tract of land. It was expressly stipulated that the Order should be independent of the Polish Church, and that its land as well as its future conquests should form a separate principality of the Holy Roman Empire.

This was in 1226; by 1231 the knights had crossed the Vistula and founded the town of Thorn, and already a year later the whole bank of the river between Thorn and Kulm had come into their possession. In 1233 Marienwerder was begun, by 1237 the mouth of the Vistula had been reached. Colonists followed everywhere in the wake of the conquerors; not only peasants and burghers, but nobles as well. In 1236 a grant of thousands of acres near Marienwerder was made to the Noble Lord Dietrich of Tiefenau.

The knights continued their conquests along the Baltic. They were assisted by the “Brothers of the Sword,” an order which had been founded in Livonia at the beginning of the century, and which now gladly amalgamated itself with the Teutons. The next task was to conquer the land which separated the former seats of this new branch from those of the rest of the Teutons. The work was rapidly accomplished; in 1251 Memelburg was founded, in 1264 the important town of Konigsberg.

The Order now ruled over Prussia, Courland, Livonia, and the land of the Lettes.

Terrible revolts of the subjected peoples were still to be met and put down. The next years were full of bloodshed, and the real struggle was found to have only commenced. The Prussians attempted to massacre all the Christians in the land; in the end they themselves were all killed, enslaved, or driven away.

Several times the Order had been on the verge of destruction, but in the end it conquered. By 1283 the struggle was over, and there was no more opposition to be feared. The Teutons were soon able to extend their influence into Poland and Pomerellen, to which latter land the Margrave of Brandenburg was induced in 1308 to abandon all claim.

In 1309 Marienburg was founded at the Delta of the Vistula, and became the capital as it were for the whole order. The ruins of this mighty fortress are to-day among the finest in all Europe.

The land of the Teutonic Order came to be the best governed state of the later Middle Ages; it was divided up into districts, each with its own directory, and with a fortress for its central point. The officials were all chosen from among the brothers, and there existed an admirable system of control. Every year there was a general calling to account, and the grand master, with the advice of the chapter, could depose, advance, or transfer according as he saw fit.

By the efforts of the Order a strong bastion to the north-east of Germany had now been formed against the Slavs; in the south Silesia was strong enough to fear no ordinary attacks. Between the two that part of the Polish kingdom which comprises the present province of Posen made a great indentation to the westward, and touched the confines of Brandenburg. It was the task of the Brandenburg margraves to secure and extend their boundaries in this direction, and well did they succeed. By the time of the interregnum Brandenburg was one of the largest provinces of the entire empire, and fifty years later one of its margraves, Waldemar, became candidate for that empire’s throne.

We have followed far enough the growth of Germany as regards the acquisition and colonization of new territory. In another direction a great inward development was going on quietly the while, and results no less remarkable were being obtained; A population formerly scattered over a large extent of territory began to concentrate itself at different points; we have reached the period of the rise of great towns.

We may define a city in the Middle Ages as a place privileged to hold markets, with immunity from the jurisdiction of the king’s officials, and governing itself by means of a corporation.

No connection remained with the old Roman cities that had existed on German ground; if new settlers occupied the sites where those cities once had been, as was the case with Cologne, they adopted nothing of the old Roman municipal institutions. For centuries the counts and centenars ruled over such incipient towns as over any other part of their county or hundred.

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