1125), great-grandson of Conrad II, who had overthrown his father Henry IV became Holy Roman Emperor in 1111. Hoping to gain greater control over the church inside the Empire, Henry V appointed Adalbert of Saarbrücken as the powerful archbishop of Mainz in the same year. Adalbert began to assert the powers of the Church against secular authorities, that is, the Emperor. This precipitated the “Crisis of 1111” as yet another chapter of the long-term Investiture Controversy. In 1137 the prince-electors turned back to the Hohenstaufen family for a candidate, Conrad III. Conrad tried to divest his rival Henry the Proud of his two duchies – Bavaria and Saxony – that lead to war in southern Germany as the empire was divided into two powerful factions. The faction of the Welfs or Guelphs (in Italian) supported the House of Welf of Henry the Proud, which was the ruling dynasty in the Duchy of Bavaria. The rival faction of the Waiblings or Ghibellines (in Italian) pledged allegiance to the Swabian House of Hohenstaufen. During this early period, the Welfs generally maintained ecclesiastical independence under the papacy and political particularism (the focus on ducal interests against the central imperial authority). The Waiblings, on the other hand, championed strict control of the church and a strong central imperial government.
During the reign of the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa), an accommodation was reached in 1156 between the two factions. The Duchy of Bavaria was returned to Henry the Proud’s son Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, who represented the Guelph party. However, the Margraviate of Austria was separated from Bavaria and turned into the independent Duchy of Austria by virtue of the Privilegium Minus in 1156.
Having become wealthy through trade, the confident cities of Northern Italy, supported by the Pope, increasingly opposed Barbarossa’s claim of feudal rule (Honor Imperii) over Italy. The cities united in the Lombard League and finally defeated Barbarossa in the Battle of Legnano in 1176. The following year a reconciliation was reached between the emperor and Pope Alexander III in the Treaty of Venice. The 1183 Peace of Constance eventually settled that the Italian cities remained loyal to the empire but were granted local jurisdiction and full regal rights in their territories.
In 1180, Henry the Lion was outlawed, Saxony was divided, and Bavaria was given to Otto of Wittelsbach, who founded the Wittelsbach dynasty, which was to rule Bavaria until 1918.)
From 1184 to 1186, the empire under Frederick I Barbarossa reached its cultural peak with the Reichsfest (imperial celebrations) held at Mainz and the marriage of his son Henry in Milan to the Norman princess Constance of Sicily. The power of the feudal lords was undermined by the appointment of ministerials (unfree servants of the Emperor) as officials. Chivalry and the court life flowered, as expressed in the scholastic philosophy of Albertus Magnus and the literature of Wolfram von Eschenbach.
Between 1212 and 1250, Frederick II established a modern, professionally administered state from his base in Sicily. He resumed the conquest of Italy, leading to further conflict with the Papacy. In the Empire, extensive sovereign powers were granted to ecclesiastical and secular princes, leading to the rise of independent territorial states. The struggle with the Pope sapped the Empire’s strength, as Frederick II was excommunicated three times. After his death, the Hohenstaufen dynasty fell, followed by an interregnum during which there was no Emperor.
The failure of negotiations between Emperor Louis IV and the papacy led to the 1338 Declaration at Rhense by six princes of the Imperial Estate to the effect that election by all or the majority of the electors automatically conferred the royal title and rule over the empire, without papal confirmation. As result, the monarch was no longer subject to papal approbation and became increasingly dependent on the favour of the electors. Between 1346 and 1378 Emperor Charles IV of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia, sought to restore imperial authority. The 1356 decree of the Golden Bull stipulated that all future emperors were to be chosen by a college of only seven – four secular and three clerical – electors. The secular electors were the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg, the clerical electors were the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne.
Between 1347 and 1351 Germany and almost the entire European continent were consumed by the most severe outbreak of the Black Death pandemic. Estimated to have caused the abrupt death of 30 to 60 % of Europe’s population, it lead to widespread social and economic disruption and deep religious disaffection and fanaticism. Minority groups, and Jews in particular were blamed, singled out and attacked. As a consequence, many Jews fled and resettled in Eastern Europe.
Change and reform
Jacob Fugger (right) and his accountant M. Schwarz
The early-modern European society gradually developed after the disasters of the 14th century as religious obedience and political loyalties declined in the wake of the Great Plague, the schism of the Church and prolonged dynastic wars. The rise of the cities and the emergence of the new burgher class eroded the societal, legal and economic order of feudalism. The commercial enterprises of the mercantile patriciate family of the Fuggers of Augsburg generated unprecedented financial means. As financiers to both the leading ecclesiastical and secular rulers, the Fuggers fundamentally influenced the political affairs in the empire during the 15th and 16th century. The increasingly money based economy also provoked social discontent among knights and peasants and predatory “robber knights” became common. The knightly classes had traditionally established their monopoly through warfare and military skill. However, the shift to practical mercenary infantry armies and military-technical advances led to a marginalization of heavy cavalry.
From 1438 the Habsburg dynasty, who had acquired control in the south-eastern empire over the Duchy of Austria, Bohemia and Hungary after the death of King Louis II in 1526, managed to permanently occupy the position of the Holy Roman Emperor until 1806 (with the exception of the years between 1742 and 1745). However, this strict policy of dynastic rule over a vast multi-ethnic territory, prevented the development of concepts of patriotism and unity among the empire’s territorial rulers and a national identity as in France and England.