Episode 15 – Germany in the year 1000 (Part 1)

In this episode we will talk about the economy, society, infrastructure and art at the turn of the first millennium. We will talk about changes in agriculture, monetary system and warfare. And finally, we will look at the changes in the political set-up since Henry the Fowler, the role of dukes and counts, bishops and abbots and the definition of what an emperor is for.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans Episode 15 – Germany in the year 1000 part 1

Last week we said goodbye to Otto III, one of the more complex personalities amongst the German emperors. I am a bit sad that we did not dive deeper into the different layers of political objectives, personal friendships and religious fervour that mad up his captivating personality. But on the other hand, I am glad we can now talk about facts in the real world that move the story forward.

My initial plan was to move straight on to Otto III’s successor who is usually counted amongst the Ottonians. However, I am feeling we need a bit of a breather, take stock on where we are and what kind of country and society we are talking about. And I also realised that Otto III’s successor has much more in common with the next dynasty, the Salians than with the Ottonians so that it would be better to deal with him in that context.

Therefore, in this episode we will talk about the economy, society, infrastructure and art at the turn of the first millennium. We will talk about changes in agriculture, monetary system and warfare. And finally, we will look at the changes in the political set-up since Henry the Fowler, the role of dukes and counts, bishops and abbots and the definition of what an emperor is for.

Let’s start with agriculture. The reign of the Ottonians falls into what has been called the Medieval Warming period that started around 950 Northern Europe. There is no consensus whether this was a global, synchronised phenomena or a set of regional phenomena. But, as far as Northern Europe is concerned, we can see from Greenland ice cores that the temperature around the year 1000 was 1 to 1.5 degrees higher than in the preceding centuries and in the 14th to 19th century. With that much less frost, a wider variety of crops could be planted and yields in Northern Europe should be higher.

On top of that we see a material improvement in productivity. That was achieved in part by a gradual introduction of a crop fallow system, whereby land would be seeded with oats or barley in the autumn, that would be harvested in late summer of the next year. The following spring the same field would be seeded with Wheat or Rye that could be harvested again in the late summer. In the third year the land was either left fallow or used for grazing.  The alternation of crops helps the land to recover.

At the same time new plough systems became more widespread. The mould board or turn plough gradually replaced the traditional hook plough. The difference is that the turn plough lifts and then turns the soil to create the classic furrows you see on fields today. That brings fresh nutrients to the surface whilst burying weeds and old crop under to decay.

I think I mentioned in episode 1 that by the time of Henry the Fowler a peasant would expect a yield of 3 grains of wheat for every grain seeded. By the time of Otto III this had increased to probably 5 grains for every grain seeded. Still a long way from the 30 grains we harvest today and about a 1/12t of the carbohydrates contemporary Song dynasty Chinese farmers could harvest, but still a big step forward.

In some parts of the country, namely the western parts that had been under Roman control until the 5th century, further productivity improvement came from social change. Under the ancient Romans large estates were mainly operated using slaves. When the Merovingians took over from the Roman Empire they saw little reason to change that. Only when Christianity extended deeper and deeper into society, the slaves often converted as well, which brought the church into play, who opposed the holding of Christians as slaves. I have little good to say about the church in the Middle Ages, but this is one score on the plus side. By the 10th century the classic slavery had largely disappeared, and the former slaves have become serfs, which means they were allowed to manage some land for themselves alongside ethe work for their master. As we know from Soviet Russia and Communist China this permission of even just small holdings has a major impact on productivity.

What has not yet happened by the year 1000 are the other two drivers of the agricultural boom of the Middle Ages, (i) the large-scale forest clearing and (ii) the colonisation of the lands east of the Elbe river. Following the Slav uprising in 983, these lands were back in control of the local Slav tribes and would largely remain so for almost 150 years. 

With agriculture expanding from a pretty much hand to mouth model to one of modest surplus, population expanded. Moreover, it allowed for specialisation. Rather than having to grow all major foodstuff yourself, farmers could specialise in one or two crops their land was most suited to, say wheat or vegetables and buy the other things, like wool, meat, and wine from someone else. That again boosted productivity.

To facilitate that exchange you need money. Charlemagne had created the silver penny at 1/240th of a pound of silver, a denomination that remained in force well beyond the Middle Ages. These silver pennies were a lot more useful than the Byzantine gold Solidus which was simply too large a denomination to use in daily commerce. But in Carolingian times there was simply not enough silver around to mint a sufficient number of coins. That makes the silver mines in Goslar which started in around the 970s so important. They were the largest silver mines in Europe for about 100 years and a major source of Ottonian wealth. Apart from funding the conquests in Italy these little coins pushed the economy forward.

If we talk about money, you should not assume that a 10th century peasant would walk round with a bag of silver pennies to spend at the market on Friday. A penny was still a lot of money, 4 of those could for instance could buy you a sheep. Therefore, most transactions were credit transactions, where debts were offset against services or other merchandise. Though relatively few pennies moved around, you still need them because the parties have to be sure that pennies could be procured should the chain break.

When you have agricultural surplus and money, the thing you get is local markets where the peasants of the area could trade their goods. Do you remember the Burgenordnung of Henry the Fowler? In that he not only ordered the building of castles, but also that markets should be held near these castles. The king’s order may not have been the only reason that they usually sprung up under the walls of castles, the presence of an armed guard for the traded goods may well be another, but it did give a further impetus.

But we have to keep things in perspective. According to the Doomsday book, which came 70 years later, about 10% of the population of England was living in cities. Chris Wickham estimates that at that time about 2% of people in Scandinavia lived in cities versus 15% in Italy. Now we are 70 years earlier, so it is likely that maybe about 95% of Germans in the year 1000 lived in villages in the countryside as peasants. And amongst those, the majority would be living in these still rather embryonic market towns.

But Germany also has some real cities, two of which I would like to discuss.

The first one is Cologne. Cologne had been founded by the Romans and was named Colonia Agrippina, after Nero’s mum who was born there. At its peak in Roman times the city may have had 30,000 inhabitants. That dropped already in the 3rd century to about 15,000 but held at around 10,000 throughout the chaos of the great migration[1]. By the year 1000, Cologne was very much on the up. Charlemagne had made Cologne the seat of an archbishop by the 9th century and during the reign of Otto the Great, his brother, Brun, was not just archbishop of Cologne but also duke of Lothringia and de-facto Regent of France. He founded a number of important churches, including St. Pantaleon, where the empress Theophanu is buried.

Though the bishop dominated the city, Cologne was first and foremost a commercial centre. Cologne was located on the all-important Rhine route that connected Italy with Flanders or the Mediterranean with the North Sea. Trade moved not only on the Rhine river but also on the ancient Roman road from Strasburg via Mainz, Koblenz and Bonn to Cologne and from there via Maastricht and Brussels to the sea.

Trade along those routes was dominated by luxury goods, the only merchandise that warranted the effort of arduous travel. There is no data on the kind of merchandise that was transported, but we find things like glassware from Syria, expensive cloth coming up through Venice and, in the opposite direction, slaves. The slave trade involved predominantly the sale of prisoners captured in the Slavic lands to the east. They were pagans and hence not under the protection of the church.  One particularly gruesome trade was in eunuchs, who, how can I say that delicately, experienced a root and stem mutilation. The merchants of Verdun in Lothringia specialised in this particular product that was highly prized in both Constantinople and the Muslim world. As we see, international trade existed, but it was not anywhere near the volumes it would reach by the end of the middle ages. Cologne also had one of the oldest Jewish communities in Northern Europe that first existed back in the 4th century and is confirmed to be there either still or again in the 11th century.

Beyond trade, Cologne also had a long-standing manufacturing tradition in glass and ceramics that went back to Roman times. There is even a suggestion that the imperial crown, the one that had been in continuous use until the end of the Holy Roma empire in 1806 had been produced in Cologne around 970 by a jeweller, not by a monk in an ecclesiastical outfit.

These wealthy merchants and artisans may already have been rubbing up against the rule of the bishop and may have harboured ideas of self-determination. They rebelled 70 years later, but true autonomy has only been achieved in the 13th century.

The other end of the spectrum is the city of Magdeburg. Magdeburg had been created as a fort by Charlemagne in 805 as part of his efforts to subjugate the Saxons. Henry the Fowler expanded the fortifications, but it was Otto the Great who gave the city its major boost. He turned it into an archbishopric and built an enormous cathedral, which unfortunately burnt down and has been replaced by the current construction in the 13th century. He is buried there together with his first wife.

Magdeburg’s purpose wasn’t trade, but conquest and Christianisation. It was the foremost frontier town looking towards the east. This is where the Ottonian emperors gathered their armies to conquer or harass the lands east of the Elbe. The archbishop of Magdeburg was designated to supervise the Christianisation of the Slavs. Part of that effort to conquer the East required the building of roads, both west towards the Rhineland, but also south to Bavaria and its capital at Regensburg. Though the purpose was warfare, Otto II realised the need to foster trade and grants privileges to the traders at Magdeburg. This gave the burgers of Magdeburg a leg up over the more established towns. Magdeburg’s merchants had a representation in the city government as early as 1128 and its city statutes from 1188 became the blueprint for city statutes across Germany.

What both cities had in common was that they were terribly unhealthy. Even if Cologne would have had a sanitation system left from Roman times, it had gone into disrepair. Disease was rife and the general assumption is that the only way cities grew was by immigration as births and deaths roughly balanced.

Maybe one thing that often comes up, which is personal hygiene. Let’s be clear, the story that medieval people refused to bathe for religious reasons is a myth. Preachers warned against excessive use of bathhouses, but that was more to do with the fact that some bathhouses were also brothels. Cleanliness was something people aspired to, then as they do now. I am just not sure it was that easy to achieve. Peasants could wash in lakes and rivers. In the cities there were bathhouses which offered warm baths, but that water had to be brought in by hand, meaning communal baths where water would not be exchanged that often. Only very rich people have been able to afford solo baths. All that tells me that a peasant had a much better chance of being properly clean than a city dweller, but neither of them wanted to be dirty. So much for the dirty peasant myth. Back to the cities.

What we do not have in Germany is a capital city, and we will not get one until 1871. The kings and emperors did not stay in one place but travelled around from one Pfalz to another. I have tried to use other words for the German word Pfalz, but there aren’t any. So here is the definition. Pfalz is an old German word that is the same route as our word palace or the modern German word Palast. What it describes is a royal or imperial residence. This could be one that is actually part of the royal demesne like Ingelheim, Aachen, Thionville and Quedlinburg. There are also Pfalz’ owned by dukes, like Regensburg, or by bishops. What they have in common is that they are available for the king’s use.

And use they did. All Ottonian emperors are constantly on the road. That is in part down to logistics, i.e., no single location is capable of permanently feed and house the whole court. That is particular true for the regular royal assemblies and synods where the leading magnates of Germany but also leaders of for instance Italy, Burgundy, Bohemia and Poland come with their retinue. The other reason for the incessant travel is that the presence of the emperor projects and legitimises his power. We have seen several times in our narrative what happens if the emperor fails to come through at least in regular intervals.

There is however something changing in the Pfalz system in the 10th century. The old Carolingian Pfalz like Aachen or Ingelheim were country estates without any defensive structure. They were built along the lines of the Roman country villas of the 3rd and 4th century. The new Pfalz, like Quedlinburg or Magdeburg look very different. They are heavily fortified castles, not open villas. That may initially have been justified by the risk of Slav and Magyar incursions that dominate the first half of the Ottonian reign.

But even after that had come to an end with the battle of the Lechfeld, the kings and their magnates kept building these new-fangled fortifications that we now call castles. They were initially only meant to offer protection for men, crop and animals in case of an attack, but as people realised how difficult it was to take them, everybody got busy building them. Because once you had a castle, your negotiation position with the next one up in the aristocratic pecking order changed. Yes, you still owed fealty to your liege lord, but if push comes to shove, you can refuse and hide out on the top of a mountain until a solution is found.

It is not that the kings, the dukes and the bishops did not realise that allowing their subordinates to build castles diminished their power. The problem was that they struggled to stop it. If they wanted a vassal to follow them into battle, your vassal expected royal or ducal or episcopal generosity in return. Given the king or duke or bishop rarely had ready cash and did not want to part with land, he ended up handing over privileges, which included the right to build a castle.

Next time the king or duke or bishop comes round and asks for the liege service, he may find himself with a less than satisfactory answer. It is estimated that about 20,000 castles were built in Germany during the Middle Ages. The process really accelerated from the middle of the 11th century when the kings lost control of the process. Where we are now, in around 1000, we are in an early period of castle construction, where only the king and some of the most important lords are able to build castles.

And that gets me to the social order. It is right around now that the idea of the three social orders takes hold. There are the “oratores” i.e., those who pray, the “bellatores” i.e., those who fight and finally the “laboratores” i.e., those who do all the useful stuff, like work, build, create etc.

That kind of division is a new thing in the 10th century. In the old Germanic tradition, there was no division between fighting men and peasants. The army would consist of a very thin class of aristocrats and a horde of free peasants. Around the 10th century cavalry in the form or armoured horsemen became massively superior and to the extent infantry was called for, for instance to defend castles or support armoured knights, this required a well-trained infantry, not just some peasants with sticks. Again, if you remember the Burgenordnung of Henry the Fowler, every 9th peasant was made to live in the castle and train with weapons, whilst the other eight stayed on the fields, essentially providing food to the 9th man.

This emasculation of the peasant did not happen overnight and not in the same places at the same speed. In some areas, namely in France, England and western Germany where large estates were the norm, the free peasants were much smaller in number than in the more “Germanic” areas like Saxony or Scandinavia. Hence the transition to the classic medieval model of a manorial farm with serfs that owe work to the local lord and tenants who owe rent happened faster in the West. For a lot of the former slaves, the manorial system was in a way an improvement. On the other hand, in the East you have villages where the majority of peasants are free men who are now pressed into a system of dependency and serfdom. That process is by its nature slower and requires more pressure. The German peasant also has escape routes should the lord become overbearing. Some underpopulated areas on the frontier, like for instance Austria, welcomes new settlers who want to give a fond adieu to their tormentors. That ability to give dos fingos to the landlord would become even more prevalent during the 12th century when the Eastern expansion gets going in earnest.

When German peasants had a different life experience in the 10th and 11th century in Germany compared to the French, their aristocratic overlords were even more different. In the 10th century the central power of the king was immense compared to the French king. Otto the Great had control not just of his own duchy but all other duchies in Germany as well as the kingdoms of Italy and Burgundy. The king of France could not really put his mark on any of his main vassals. Under the Carolingian kings, Louis and Lothar, their rule was limited to the surroundings of their capital in Laon. Under the Capetins, Hugh and Robert, it was very much the city of Paris and the lands of the Loire. That meant the fragmentation of power and the emergence of small, coherent lordships happened much quicker in France than it happened in Germany.

The German lords were still somewhat at the back and call of the king-emperor. The role of duke had originally been an office and Henry the Fowler and Otto the Great in the first half of his reign installed members of his family as dukes until such a point that all five duchies were held directly or indirectly by the king. Otto even allocated counties contrary to aristocratic perceptions of succession rights when he gave the eastern marches to Hermann Billung and Gero. But the rebellion of Otto’s son Liudolf in 955 changed that. Liudolf had found so much support amongst the aristocratic clans who felt shut out from the most appealing jobs, that the regime realised it could not go on like that. After 955 all the plum jobs went to senior members of aristocratic clans. By the time of Otto IIIs death, the duchy of Saxony is in the hand of Hermann Billung’s descendants, Swabia is held again by the Konradiners. The duchies of upper and lower Lothringia are held by old Lothringian families. The former duchy of Franconia that Otto had confiscated to the crown had begun to re-emerge under another branch of the Konradiners. Equally we get new entities, one in the east where Margrave Eckart of Meissen is addresses as the duke of Thuringia and the Ezzelino’s who had carved out a large demesne around Cologne on the lower Rhine. The only family possession in the loosest of senses was Bavaria, held by Otto III’s cousin three times removed.

The way the king interacts with his nobles is through royal assemblies and a process best described as management by walking around. We already talked about the importance of the king showing up regularly on his Pfalz to meet the nobles, solve disputes and renew friendships.

The other key process is to hold large assemblies, usually in the big imperial palaces of Aachen, Ingelheim, Frankfurt or Quedlinburg. There the king would discuss the affairs of state with his nobles, which both legitimises his rule and makes the nobles feel involved in the big decisions. When they get home, they can tell their followers that they had convinced the king to do x, y or z. It is also the place to display power by inviting foreign rulers who would publicly pay homage to the king. These royal assemblies are sometimes replicated on the levels of duchies and as time goes by in even smaller entities like counties and cities. For the avoidance of doubt, this is not democracy. The king has the last word, but people can vent their concerns and get a great meal with party late into the night.

At the same time the make-up of the aristocracy changed. By 920 when Henry the Fowler took over, the leaders of Germany were the descendants of a very thin slither of Carolingian aristocrats who maintained an international outlook. People like the Welf family would hold positions in Burgundy, Bavaria and Italy and would later rule Saxony before ending up as kings of England. As we enter the 11th century, these kinds of “international” aristocracy receded. The main French or German families stayed within their “country”. Even when the Ottonians took over Italy, very few of their German followers were given fiefs in the country. We also see “new” families emerging who have gained wealth and recognition in the imperial service without being a member of an ancient lineage.

The Burgenordnung is another system that created social mobility. The peasant who was chosen to be the 9th man who would live at the castle could -with a bit of luck – become a miles or knight in the service of a major lord or even the king and from there could become a minor aristocrat.

What we do not have in Germany at this time is the concept of the Seignior that is developing in France. A seignior would consolidate all power within a coherent geography. He would be the landlord, the chief justice, has the right to hold markets and collects tolls for miles around. The German system was still much mere intertwined. A count or lord would own land and rights distributed across a larger geography, rather than in one consolidated area. So, a market town may have been built around the castle of the secular lord, but the local monastery would own the market rights, the bishop has the tolls on the bridge and the king is still in charge of justice and the minting of coins. It will take a long time for German nobles to consolidate these rights and in many areas, it would not happen until the 18th century. That makes for comparatively weak individual counts or even dukes. On the other hand it forces cooperation amongst the different stakeholders who will look to expand their set of rights at the expense of the weakest one amongst those involved. That would often be the church, but as we will see later, could also be the king.

Now we have covered 2/3 of society, the laboratores, i.e., those that toil and the bellatores, i.e., those that fight. Next week in part II of our review of Germany in the year 1000 we will cover the third group, the Oratores, i.e., those that pray and we will take a closer look at how the role of king/emperor had developed during the Ottonian reign, including the question of how you become a legitimate king.

I hope you enjoyed this little overview, and you feel keen to join me again next week. If this is the first episode of the podcast you listened to, you may enjoy listening to the whole story of the Ottonian from episode 1.

[1] Koelner Stadtmuseum