Germany and Hungary in The Eleventh Century Part I

Otto I the Great (936–73)
Otto I the Great (936–73)

Neither of the principal central European monarchies, Germany and Hungary, was entirely stable in the eleventh century, and they differed considerably from each other. Nonetheless, insofar as centralization is a proper standard of comparison, they stood in sharp contrast to the politically splintered kingdom of France. Of course, it may be argued that centralization is not an appropriate or important marker of difference, that the similarities among all three kingdoms in economic and social organization were much more significant than variations in nascent ‘state formation’. But this argument is dubious at best.

Ordinary people in the towns and villages of all the northern continental countries of Christendom had much in common in terms of the way they exploited the land, organized workplaces, and responded to the demands of lordship. But levels of violence which differed significantly in the three kingdoms deeply affected these arrangements, and the perceived threat of paganism on the borders, in Germany’s case, or within and on the borders (Hungary’s), undermines facile attempts by scholars to homogenize everyday life across the map.


Germany’s Ottonian or Saxon dynasty projected itself as the rightful guardian of the legacy of Charlemagne; and as Holy Roman emperor, from 962, the head of the dynasty ruled extensive territories in Italy, claimed a universal lordship in Christendom, and enjoyed a special theocratic status recognized as such by many prominent churchmen. He garnered economic support for his rule from extensive rural estates under his direct lordship in Germany and from various taxes and levies in the towns and cities of the empire.

The German king who had assumed the imperial title in 962 and who gave his name to the Saxon dynastic lineage was Otto I the Great (936–73). The heartland of his realms, even after his coronation as emperor, was Germany or, more precisely, the Germanic-speaking areas of Europe, including much of present-day Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, France east of the Meuse and the Rhone, and Switzerland. In the early eleventh century there may have been only four million or so inhabitants of this ‘Greater Germany’, despite the fact that geographically it was the largest kingdom in Christendom. (For comparison, England, which was territorially less than a quarter the size of Greater Germany, had a population of one to two million in the mid-eleventh century.)

Vast districts, particularly in the central and southern parts of the realm, were heavily forested and/or mountainous, but it was only later that the mountains yielded up some of their vast wealth to the princes and princelings in the form of silver. Levels of agricultural exploitation and the intensity of mining remained low in large parts of the country. More prosperous areas of the realm were to be found in the towns and the cities of the Rhineland, which were on the verge of a spectacular period of demographic and economic growth, and in Flanders, although here the prosperity benefited the count much more than the German king.

Unlike in the more southerly areas of Germany, agricultural settlements in the northern plain were already expanding apace as rustics, sometimes in the employ of monasteries, undertook the clearance of forests, marshes, and kettle and moraine (lands marked with pits and boulders by the receding glaciers of aeons past). At times the expansion in size and numbers of German villages came not at the expense of wilderness, but from the conquest of Slavic settlements and expulsion of the Slavic population. The further east from the Elbe, as a rule, the more tentative, even precarious, was the German presence and the stiffer the Slavic resistance. Lords exercised a sometimes brutal rule in these troublous border or marcher regions – the March of the Billungs, the March of Thuringia (east of Thuringia proper), the Ostmark (Austria) and Carinthia, among others.

The Ottonian patrimony – the region of the greatest concentration of direct royal rights and of the Crown’s most productive estates and most lucrative fiscal rights – was concentrated in the north in Saxony and Franconia, but the rulers sought, in part through the surrogate powers of the Church, to extend their influence and multiply their rights in the southern part of the country as well. By claiming protection over the Church the monarchs were asserting rights and power in regions in Germany far distant from the patrimony. By investing the bishops directly with their episcopal and temporal authority, the kings were implying a personal dependency owed by the episcopate that was tantamount to the bonds of loyalty and fidelity that tied the ranks of the nobility to them. By endowing the Church with large estates, sometimes from lands confiscated from fractious barons (for the growth of Ottonian monarchy was not uncontested), the rulers expected the prelates to be willing and able to put military forces in the field in support of the Crown’s ambitions.

Much more fascinating than internal consolidation of authority in Germany, at least in a long tradition of modern scholarship, has been the Ottomans’ territorial ambitions. Otto I’s aspirations in this regard, as his taking of the imperial title suggests, focused largely on Italy, but in the mid-960s he also saw opportunities for the enhancement of his territorial base on the disturbed eastern border of German settlement. There, Slavic and German or, put another way, pagan and Catholic rivalry grew exceptionally fierce. Otto I had no illusions about the Slavic threat or qualms about how to deal with it, and skirmishes with tribes living between regions of dense German settlement and Poland were common. Indeed, German expansion eastward came largely at the expense of these tribes.

Germany and Hungary in The Eleventh Century

Poland was a powerful presence further east. And because the Poles, unlike some other Slavic ethnic groups, possessed the kind of political and military institutions under their leader Mieszko (962–92) that permitted them to raise substantial forces, relations between Poland and other central European polities were more formal. War was always possible, and war between Germans and Poles occasionally took place. But in the tenth century, at least, relations on balance between Germany and Poland were stable and reasonably good.

The Poles’ own situation was complicated in the long run by the absence, except for extensive marshlands separating them from the Russians, of any very effective natural defences before the millennium. This absence continued to be characteristic of the principality’s boundaries until well into the eleventh century, when expansion south reached beyond Krakow to the Carpathians, but even these mountains offered a defensive line only for one part of Poland’s lengthy borders. Moreover, Poland’s marshes and its mountains faced enemies east and south not west, where German power was concentrated. Again, however, there was an underlying reason to hope for continued good relations, for Mieszko’s marriage to a Bohemian Christian princess and his subsequent embrace of the Catholic faith in 966 opened up the possibility of strong bonds of fraternity with other Christian princes.

Otto the Great spent the greatest effort in the last years of his life in trying to make imperial authority in Italy a reality. His son, Otto II (973–83), continued the effort. The second Otto had married a Byzantine princess, and it was probably as a result of his Byzantine connections that he chose to be called Imperator Augustus Romanorum (Emperor Augustus of the Romans) and tried to achieve the kind of control over the ancient imperial capital, Rome, that would add lustre to his claim. But his dreams of uniting Italy under his imperial dominion ended when Muslims inflicted a crushing defeat on his army in 982 in Calabria in southern Italy. Thereafter, even though Muslim ascendancy was ephemeral on the Italian mainland, German imperial authority was confined to central and northern Italy.

The dream of imperial hegemony was not forgotten or abandoned. Otto II’s son, the third Otto (983–1002), was only three years old when his father died, and his succession owed much to the ability of his Greek mother, Theophano, who became regent. The boy himself appears to have been fascinated by things Byzantine and imperial, and when he came into his own continued to augment the trappings of German imperial rule. The palace he caused to be constructed in Rome evoked this dream, and by temporarily bending the bitter factions in the city to his will, he went a long way towards fulfilling his father’s hope that control of Rome would enhance the imperial stature of the sovereign and renew the Roman Empire (renovatio imperii romanorum). Otto III also tried to rule in the Byzantine manner, by adopting ceremonies and rites from the Eastern imperial court as his own.

The emperor promoted his claim to universal rulership by an array of titles he appropriated to himself. To be styled ‘servant of Jesus Christ’ and ‘servant of the apostles’ was nothing less than to claim equality with the pope, the ‘heir of St Peter the Apostle’, the ‘vicar of Christ [or of God]’, the ‘servant of the servants of God’ – all pontifical titles that went back to the seventh century or before. Otto III aimed at a collaborative co-dominium with the pope over the bodies and souls of all the faithful of Christ.

Along with the trappings of imperial rulership went policies meant to enlarge the ecclesiastical compass of the emperor’s power. And here the views of a substantial number of zealous missionary churchmen who sought the Slavs’ conversion and risked martyrdom for it (St Adalbert of Prague got his wish in 997 at the hands of the pagan Prussians) played a major role in Otto Ill’s thinking. The situation with regard to Poland is a case in point. Despite Mieszko of Poland’s conversion in 966, ferocious wars between Germany and Poland occurred in the reign of Otto II, to the Germans’ serious disadvantage. It was the pious young emperor Otto III who remade the eastern policy when he came into his own.

Otto III seems to have imagined himself standing above petty rivalries in order to pursue a higher goal of Christian unity. That goal, which he affirmed with many of his ecclesiastical advisers, like the future martyr Adalbert, implied that the primary duty of a Christian emperor was to spread the Catholic faith. To this end, supporting Mieszko in his efforts to convert the Polish population at large took pride of place over the military confrontations in his predecessor’s reign that threatened to delay or even put in jeopardy the full christianization of Poland. Otto III had a mystical streak. His zeal for conversion found its natural expression in an almost priestly solicitation for the Poles and their spiritual health. By ecclesiastical standards his was a noble dream, of sorts, but it provoked a conservative reaction in Germany that took strength from the lack of direction after the young emperor’s early death and from the fact that this reaction cohered with the sentiments of Otto’s successor, a collateral heir from the Bavarian branch of the royal family, Henry II (1002–24).

Part of Henry’s hesitation in pursuing Otto’s goal was the uncertain character of his governance in Germany itself, the territory that continued to provide the bulk of royal income from estates and various fiscal rights. Despite all the creative efforts of the Ottonian monarchs, many of the powers that might have been thought to inhere in the king-emperor as of right in Italy remained in the hands of local potentates, who in good times, as reckoned by the Crown, were kept in check by the monarchs and their retainers ceaselessly on the move in displays of their authority. The relationships of power between the Crown and these potentates was not seen, by the former, as written in stone; the eleventh-century German kings – Henry II was no exception – persisted in trying to reconfigure conditions more in their favour.

In Germany itself, their principal rivals, as they would have seen them, were the dukes, who, though clearly in a subordinate relationship to the Crown because of its political and military successes in the tenth century, remained powerful. An older historiography describes the tension between the magnates and the Crown as intractable and at the very centre of German politics. It makes of the magnates, by trivializing differences among them, a more coherent opposition than they were or than they were considered to be at the time by the Crown. But the existence of rivalries between Crown and magnates, which was quite real, did not mean that there was no community of interests. Both Crown and magnates had a monumental stake in social peace, and magnates accepted – to varying degrees – the claims of the Crown to spiritual leadership. Moreover, both magnates and Crown recognized that there had to be a fixed set of hierarchical relations and obligations among them.

Power, legitimately exercised, depended on some mutual recognition of the proper spheres of influence of various potentates. But the distribution of power, as already remarked, was not set in stone. In those troubled borderlands with the Slavs new German families rose to prominence, as they carved out villages and estates, while other families fell. The ups and downs of the Billungs and collateral branches of that lineage in the so-called March of the Billungs, east of Saxony proper, are revelatory. Favoured by the king, the Billungs displaced an old ducal family that opposed the Ottonians. Accumulating properties, they became local magnates of great power, whose interests then sometimes ran counter to the centralizing practices of the Crown. Rival factions within the family, sensing opportunities in the instability, vied for authority in an ever-changing mix of characters violently seeking power.

Many families had less violent histories, but all sought to augment their resources. Some by preference invested their resources in the founding of new monasteries, thus anchoring their power in the prestige of nurturing the Catholic faith and in the material benefits that accrued from the economic growth that these monasteries brought from the introduction of new or enhanced modes of exploitation in the (sometimes undeveloped, sometimes newly conquered) lands given over to them. The founding of monastic establishments under aristocratic patronage in Germany was nothing short of a revolution in the eleventh century. By the end of the century hundreds of new houses were in existence; indeed, the number of monasteries appears to have tripled.

If it is wrong, then, to see the rivalry of the magnates and the Crown as always dominating the mental universe of German princes, and if it is equally wrong to think of the rivalry as unmitigated in its intensity and uniform in its character, it remains the case that German history in the eleventh century exhibits a number of flashpoints when the unity of the German kingdom seemed to be threatened. And it was the vested interests of the magnates in competition with the vested interests of the Crown that made these moments of social tension so dangerous.

External uncertainties, like the perceived threat of Poland, only complicated matters further. Henry II may have believed that his military confrontation with Poland spoke to German aristocratic sentiment more approvingly than Otto Ill’s morally noble pacific policies, but he underestimated the Poles’ capacity to resist the imperial onslaught. In a series of three wars, in fact, the Poles established their independence; in 1025, almost surely with papal approval and with the objections of Henry II laid to rest with his death the year before, Poland became a kingdom under Mieszko’s eldest son, Boleslaw. Unfortunately for the Poles, Boleslaw died a few months later, in June of 1025, and was succeeded by a younger son whose claim was disputed. Poland descended into anarchy, a usurper renounced the royal title, and lordly violence coupled with a peasant rebellion led to a pagan revival. In the event, the imperial authorities succeeded in bringing their influence to bear by supporting the royal line of Casimir I (1034–58), known as the Restorer because he fostered the rechristianization of Poland. But Polish-German tension remained a major factor in the international politics of northern Europe and would have significant effects on the internal histories of both kingdoms in the decades to come. Of course, this story is intimately related to another, the great struggle between the emperors and the popes over the nature of royal and papal power, the Investiture Controversy, and may best be considered in that context.