In Germany feudalism was established later than in France. The Norsemen only attacked the area of the lower Rhine, and the period of their raids was relatively short. The greater danger came from the Magyars and Slavs along the eastern borders. Although their raids influenced the development of serfdom and the growth of feudalism even before the reforms of Henry the Fowler (919–36), it was not until the civil wars of the reign of Henry IV (1056–1106), the baronial revolts of the twelfth century, and the weakening of the crown by the Investiture Contest that the power of the nobility was greatly strengthened and many of the freemen peasantry were depressed into servility. The traditional German war leader, the duke (Herzog), had survived from tribal times, and his power, together with that of the great church magnates, prevented complete chaos from breaking out, even under weak kings like Ludwig the Child (899–911) and Conrad I (911–18). Although Charlemagne had suppressed the original tribal dukes and replaced them by his own Frankish officials, by the time of Henry the Fowler they had once more become identified with the racial origins of their dukedoms, Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, and Saxony. The tribal origin of the great dukedoms prevented feudalism becoming as rigid as it did, for instance, in France. The dukes recognized that they held their offices of the king but did not admit to holding their lands from him. Within their dukedoms they coined money, called assemblies, administered justice, and controlled the church, as in Merovingian times.
The nobility always included many who regarded their lands as being allods which they might divide up into fiefs as they liked, without asking leave of the king. These were at first called ‘sun fiefs’ (Sonnenlehen) since they were held free of any earthly overlord, and later ‘banner fiefs’ (Fahnlehen) because investiture was by the gift of a banner. At first only the duchies were of this rank, later margravates, and finally all princely fiefs were conferred in this way. Investiture by means of a banner is illustrated in the manuscript of the Sachsenspiegel of about 1360, as well as investiture by means of a glove, also referred to in the Chanson de Roland. The Sachsenspiegel also illustrates the act of doing homage both singly and in groups, and the subsequent oath on saintly relics (Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden, M. 32).
French-style feudalism, the union of benefice or fief with vassalage and the adoption of the principle of commendation and homage, came later and was always more common in the lands nearest to France. The growth of feudalism was everywhere checked by the existence of the royal officials, dukes, counts, and hundred-men. Otto the Great (936–73) had incorporated into the military hierarchy the bishops and the abbots appointed by the Crown. The Concordat of Worms of 1122 confirmed this by making the princes of the Church princes of Germany with the Pope’s approval. The Church magnates were expected to serve in the army in person, and their forces were one of the mainstays of the king. The feudatories, as opposed to the dukes, were forbidden to wage private wars, and were not allowed to coin money. They had only simple jurisdiction within their lands. Under Otto 1 even the dukes were not immune from the king’s justice. The feudal anarchy prevailing in France was considered to be a scandal and the attempt of Henry II to introduce the ‘Peace of God’ was thought to be an unjust reflection on public law.
Fiefs did not become hereditary until the eleventh century, and although counties had become hereditary by the time of Henry II (1002–24) even the greatest duchies were not absolutely hereditary until the reign of Henry IV. Knights and knighthood were apparently unknown until the twelfth century. The first recorded instance of knighthood being conferred in the German lands is the knighting of the Hungarian king by Conrad III in 1146, possibly in imitation of French practice seen on the Second Crusade.
Very many freemen survived in Germany without dependance on any lord, vassals without fiefs were common until the eleventh century, and the Heerban, the levy of all freemen to defend the realm, survived as a fighting force much later than elsewhere. At Bouvines (1214) there were many Saxon freemen fighting on foot. These freemen (Frîgebur) who were particularly common in Saxony and Bavaria and rather less so in Swabia and Franconia, had the same wergild as a knight (Ritter), acted as jurors as in England, and formed the Heerban.
The main feature distinguishing German feudalism from that of other lands is the ministerialis, the unfree knight. Although in England and France vassals could be sold, given away, or bequeathed by the will of their overlords, they remained free in law, and noble; the ministeriales did not. They appear to have derived from a superior class of serf who rendered service rather than labour, and in Carolingian times they are found as managers and stewards of estates. Originally their service was essentially non-military, and in 789 Charlemagne ruled that a ministerialis who rendered genuine military service was by the very fact made free. As time went on they developed into court officials at both royal and noble courts, because their employment meant that land was not lost by enfeofment, and because of the unreliability of vassals. A serf had the habit of obedience, a free vassal had not. By the twelfth century when the class was fully formed, they are found regularly performing military duties, and their status had become hereditary in fact, if not in law. The Italian expeditions greatly increased the military use of ministeriales since the German feudatories were reluctant to serve so far from home. Among south German contingents sent on these campaigns the proportion of vassals decreased from 71 per cent in the period 1096–1146 to 3 per cent in 1191–1240. The balance were ministeriales. They made up the majority of the army of Conrad III on the Second Crusade. Their term of service is unknown but it may have been longer than that of knights, which was six weeks without pay with a further period of service on demand after an interval of six weeks.
Under Henry IV (1056–1106) almost all the court officials were ministeriales. They were cordially detested for their coarse manners, pride, and petty tyranny. In the twelfth century they began to receive knighthood and to assume titles like nobles from the lands granted to them, and by the end of the century the two classes, the free and unfree nobility, were virtually indistinguishable. In Italy they sometimes held great administrative offices, like Markward of Anweiler who was regent of Sicily and, at the time of his enfranchisement in 1197, was made Duke of Ravenna and Marquis of Ancona.
Society took much longer to stratify in Germany than it did, for instance, in France, partly because of the position of ministeriales bridging all ranks, and partly because of the large number of freemen peasants which prevented the growth of the contempt for the peasantry typical of France. Few of the smaller barons had any vassals, their place being taken by ministeriales, and those that did had rarely enfeofed them. The barons lived on their estates in unfortified manor houses made possible by the peaceful condition of the countryside. Castles were usually only held by royal officials and were often provisioned and garrisoned at the expense of the king. During the reign of Henry IV, on the other hand, many unlicensed castles were built by rebellious barons or self-seeking ministeriales. The long minority of this king and his subsequent quarrel with the Pope over investiture of bishops weakened the royal power, encouraged the centrifugal force of feudalism, and lost him the support of the church so laboriously built up, as a counterweight to the baronage, by Conrad II (1024–39). This king had done what he could to undermine the growing power of the great barons by recognizing the hereditary nature of fiefs held by sub-vassals in Germany and legalising it in Italy. This gained him the sympathy and support of the sub-vassals and weakened the grip on them of the tenants-in-chief, but at the same time encouraged the fragmentation of Germany.
In the late eleventh century Benzo of Alba suggested that Henry IV should replace feudal military service by a tax similar to scutage, and employ a mercenary army. The same suggestion was made after the battle of Bouvines in 1214 but mercenaries never seem to have played a major part in German armies until late in the Middle Ages. Instead, kings like Henry V (1106–25) and Frederick 1 of Hohenstaufen (1152–90) relied on their great personal wealth and family connections to provide themselves with vassals and allies. The fall of Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, in 1181, weakened the traditional power of the ancient dukedoms and allowed the emergence of many small feudal states. The fall of the Hohenstaufen family in the thirteenth century prevented a strong kingship from growing up, as in France and England. The centrifugal forces of feudalism took over. Vassals became independent of their overlords, and the condition of Germany began to resemble that of France under the later Carolingians.