Germany in the Year 1000


Germany in the Year 1000 – History of the Germans
Germany in the Year 1000 – History of the Germans

A look around the economic, social and political structure of Germany in the year 1000. An economic boom fuelled by climate change and social changes drive an expansion of population and wealth. The major barons have managed to assert their rights to inheritance of ducal and baronial titles and rights. The empire relies more and more on the church infrastructure to gather resources and maintain the peace. A German history starting in the Middle Ages when the emperors fought an epic struggle with the papacy to the Reformation, the great 18th century of Kant, Goethe, Gauss, the rise of Prussia and the horrors of the Nazi regime. We will end with the post-war period of moral and physical rebuilding. As Gregory of Tours (539-594) said: “A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad” .

Episode 15 – Germany in the year 1000 (Part 1)
byDirk Hoffmann-Becking

In this episode we talk about the economy, society, infrastructure and art at the turn of the first millennium. We will look at changes in climate, agriculture, monetary system and warfare. We will take a look at towns and cities, take a deeper dive into Cologne and Magdeburg, muse about the trade in Eunuchs and medieval bathing habits. It is the 10th century when society splits into those who pray (Oratores), those who fight (Bellatores) and those who do all the useful stuff (Laboratores). We discuss the beginnings of castles, 20,000 of which will rise up in Germany during the course of the middle ages…lots to get through!

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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Episode 15 – Germany in the year 1000 (Part 1)
Episode 16 – Germany in the year 1000 (Part 2)
Click here for links to Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other listening platforms

A look around the economic, social and political structure of Germany in the year 1000. An economic boom fuelled by climate change and social changes drive an expansion of population and wealth. The major barons have managed to assert their rights to inheritance of ducal and baronial titles and rights. The empire relies more and more on the church infrastructure to gather resources and maintain the peace.


Germany in the year 1000 – The second and third estate, warriors and peasants

Episode 15


Germany in the year 1000 – The first estate, the church

Episode 16


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

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 wide spread. 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. Panataleon, 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

Episode 16 – Germany in the year 100 (part 2)

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 16 – Germany in the year 1000 (part 2)

Last week we discussed the economy and infrastructure of Germany in the year 1000 and looked at the first two social states of the middle ages, the Laboratores, those who toil and the Bellatores, those who fight. Today we will look at the third and highest-ranking group, the Oratores, those who pray. And then we will discuss the role of the king-emperor in the Ottonian realm, the institutions, if there are any and how they differ from other polities of the time.

But first let’s talk about the Oratores. This is the most heterogenous group ranging from the simple country parson to major European political operators.

At the lowest level you have the village priest. As always in this time period we have little consistent data on how many priests there were, whether there were places of worship in most villages, how the priest was paid etc. But best guess is there weren’t many priests and in the outlying villages the priest would show up once a month or even only once a year to do the major sacraments like baptisms and marriages. The training of the priests should have happened predominantly in the cathedral schools that were attached to a cathedral. These were often very prestigious institutions. Quite regularly the bishop himself would do some of the instructing. We for instance know that Gerbert of Aurillac went to Rheims to run the cathedral school and would later become an archbishop and finally pope.

What I am unclear about is the social setup for the pupils at the cathedral school. Some of them are the sons of the highest aristocracy, for instance the future emperor Henry II was taught at the cathedral school of Hildesheim. I am struggling with the idea that he would have rubbed shoulders with a gifted peasant’s son who was destined to become the village priest. The schools were also small with about 100 pupils at any given time, some of whom sons of local rulers who would not become priests at all. Therefore, most priests in the villages most likely have never been close to a cathedral school in their life but have started out as the apprentice of an established priest. They were supposed to be literate and knowledgeable about liturgy, but there are regular complaints about illiterate priests.

Parish priests would often, if not regularly have families. There were regular complaints about priests living with their consorts amongst the more zealous religious figures. However, nobody really cared as long as the priest’s offspring would not be able to inherit. If they would have been able to inherit, that would have been a major problem. If the vicar’s son would become the vicar, it would have created a parallel aristocracy alongside the secular one, and that was a no no.

The other large group of religious people were the monks and nuns. Western monasticism started in the 6th century with Benedict of Nursia who established the Benedictine rule. The Benedictine rule asked monks to do two things, “ora”, i.e. pray and “labora”, i.e., manual work. The rule also encouraged reading as part of the praying bit and production of books as part of the labour bit. Under Charlemagne in the 9th century the Benedictine rule became the basic guide for most monasteries in Europe. By 1000 there were still some Greek-style monasteries around as well as actual hermits, but we find less and less of those in the following centuries.

By the 10th century some monasteries had grown to be large operations. For instance, Corvey where our old friend Widukind was based, had over 300 monks at its peak. Add to that their lay servants, the monastery itself had a population rivalling many cities at the time. The monasteries were rich, mainly thanks to generous donations by high aristocrats, who often would end their days as monks in the monasteries to atone for their sins. A great example is Gernrode founded by the genocidal Margrave Gero in a likely futile attempt to be forgiven for his sins. High aristocrats would often designate their daughters to become abbesses of the “family” abbey, which meant giving their dowry to the abbey. The sisters of Otto II and Otto III with one exemption would all become abbesses, one of the reasons the dynasty disappeared so comprehensively and abbeys like Quedlinburg, Gandersheim and Essen became so fabulously rich. Check out the treasury of the abbey of Essen on the internet and be amazed.

One common feature of German churches and abbeys was that they were often so-called “Eigenkirchen” or proprietary churches.”. That means the church or abbey was fully owned by a layman, usually the founder of the church. Fully owned meant that the church was treated like any other property that could be bought, sold, inherited or given as a present. The patron would appoint the priest without having to ask the local bishop and – most importantly – would take 2/3 of the Tithe and a big chunk of all other income. Basically, creating one of these Eigenkirchen was a highly profitable investment, which puts these pious donations into perspective. The reason the church did tolerate this until the middle of the 11th century with little murmuring was that the bishops themselves did not have the money to build all the churches needed as the population gradually adopted Christianity.

This concept survived at least to a degree until the 19th century. In some Jane Austin novels, you sometimes have the lord giving the plum vicarage to a family friend – no bishop involved. The difference is that in Germany in the year 1000 these Eigenkirchen could be huge. They include the so-called royal abbeys like the already mentioned Corvey, Fulda and Lorsch. With their right to collect the tithe, these churches became de facto tax collectors for the king. Not only that, they were also required to send soldiers. When emperor Otto II asked for replacement troops from Germany in 982, about a fifth of the contingent was demanded from abbots.

The great abbeys were also centers for the arts. In particular the abbey of Reichenau on an island in lake Constance became the predominant centre for the production of illuminated manuscripts. Reichenau is where the most celebrated illuminator, an anonymous monk that art historians called the Gregory Master worked. He illuminated amongst others on the Codex Egberti, examples of his work you may have seen in my Instagram and Facebook feeds. But there were many more illuminators in Reichenau as well as in Trier, Fulda, Regensburg and Echternach.

The most famous and storied abbeys of the time, Corvey, Fulda and Reichenau had been founded in the 8th or sometimes 9th century and by the late 10th and early 11th century were mainly focused on estate management and cultural output, not so much on manual labour as Benedikt of Nursia had demanded.

In the 10th century a new “reform” movement took hold in western monasticism. Reform is nothing new in so far that monasteries always had a tendency to become lax in the adherence to strict rules as money and patronage flows in. What makes the “reform” monasticism in the 10th and 11th century different is its streamlined organisation headed by the monastery of Cluny. Cluny had been created as small foundation by a duke of Aquitaine in 910 in a remote corner of Burgundy. IN an act of unusual generosity, the duke did not make it one of his proprietary churches but made it answerable only to the pope, which in 910 meant to nobody as the popes in Rome were mere playthings of the formidable Mariucca, Senatrix of Rome.

Cluny’s first abbot, Odo, enforced strict adherence to the Benedictine rule and established a particularly beautiful form of liturgy which made the monastery attractive to donations from lay lords. So far, so normal. What makes Cluny special is that Odo went out to reform other monasteries as some sort of ecclesiastical mister fix-it. In exchange for his services, these reformed monasteries would then become subordinates of Cluny, which means they are removed from the direct control of their local bishops and counts. As their fame spreads, monks of Cluny were invited to found new monasteries all across Europe, including the monastery of Selz which empress Adelheid had founded and where she ended her days.

Cluny managed to expand until it had as many as 300 daughter monasteries all across Europe. Its alumni were holding major bishoprics and finally the papacy. The abbot of Cluny had become a major political player in Europe, often seen close to popes and emperors. Abbot Odilo of Cluny was a close associate of Emperor Otto III who made large donations to Cluny. There were other centres of monastic reform around that time like Gorze in Lothingia and St. Maximin near Trier, but they did not create a tight knit network and were ultimately sucked into the holy vortex of Cluny.  We will see how far the power of Cluny reaches when we get into the Salian emperors.

Whilst monks were supposed to pray in solitude for the souls of the people, or at least their major donors, the bishops were supposed to be active in the lay world. Their job was the administration of the diocese and to train and lead the parish priests. In the Ottonian empire this spiritual role was playing very much second fiddle to the political ambitions of their occupants.

There were 6 archbishoprics in the German part of the realm, Trier, Mainz, Cologne, Salzburg, Hamburg and Magdeburg. Mainz was the oldest and most prestigious archbishopric in Germany – not quite as dominant as Canterbury in England but the primate church of the land. You have heard about the archbishops of Mainz in our narrative already, first the arch-conspirator Friedrich of Mainz who was supporting the uprisings against Otto the Great, then Otto’s son William who was nowhere near as obedient as his dad had hoped for and now Willigis of Mainz, kingmaker of the Ottonians. Willigis stands as he was the son of a free peasant and not a high aristocrat like most of the bishops of the time.

Next down the pecking order was the archbishop of Cologne, who had the advantage of Aachen, the coronation church, to be in his diocese. Again, the occupants of the seat like for instance Brun, the brother of Otto the Great was a major political player on a European level.

A number of the most eminent bishops in the 10th century like Willigis and Brun but also Ulrich of Augsburg had been made saints pretty shortly after their deaths, even though their spiritual leadership often left something to be desired.

As we have gone through the narrative of the last 80 odd years you may have noticed that the entourages of our king emperor had subtly shifted. Henry the Fowler spent most his time with his fellow dukes and other secular leaders. That is still true for Otto the Great but becomes less so with Otto II who relies more on the advice of his friend Gieselher, archbishop of Magdeburg, then his German nobles. By the time of Otto III, we find mostly churchmen in his inner circles. Some of these are holy men like Adalbert of Prague, Nilus and Franco of Worms, but mostly they are powerful bishops like Heribert of Cologne and Bernward of Hildesheim.

The bishops have become immensely powerful on the back of royal donations. In particular after 955 the bishoprics were increasingly awarded secular lordships. That could take the form of Brun, archbishop of Cologne becoming duke of Lothringia, a position that ended with his death. but as time went by, whole counties were permanently awarded to bishoprics or abbeys. This created the famous German Prince-Bishops and Prince-Abbots. The concept behind it was that the formerly purely administrative role of count had gradually become an inherited position. Therefore, the king had lost control over the day-to-day management of the counties and he was looking at ways to get it back. Usually when counties became vacant because the incumbent had died without issue, they had to be re-distributed to members of the major aristocratic families, at least that was the situation after 955. Confiscating them for the crown no longer worked. There was a way out of the dilemma though. If the county would be awarded to a diocese or an abbey as a pious act, the local aristocrats had a hard time arguing that they should get it instead of the holy church.

A bishopric has the great advantage that it cannot be inherited, in part because the bishop has no legitimate offspring. Moreover, a bishop is elected to his spiritual role by the congregation, usually represented by the cathedral clergy. For the bishop to then get hold of the lands, rights and treasures of the bishopric, i.e., the money, he needs to be invested by the king. A bishop without money is no use to no-one so the king was increasingly deciding who would be bishop and the clergy just rubber stamped the choice. There were cases where the clergy had chosen a new bishop and the king refused, proposed a new candidate and the clergy then appointed that one. So, every time a new bishop is elected the king can ask for allegiance or concessions or whatever else he needs at that point. Basically the county is now under royal control.

There is another specifically German quirk, which is the so-called advocacy. Advocacy solves the problem that a priest is not allowed to bear arms, which is unhelpful when he is effectively commanding the military levy of the county he had just received as a donation. To get around that problem, the bishop or abbot could appoint a layman to be in charge of the soldiers and the other administrative duties that come with his worldly possessions. That layman is the advocate. Now smart move here is for the king to make himself or one of his confidants the advocate of the bishop or abbot and hey presto, the assets of the diocese are now under the direct control of the king. In some cases the control could be even tighter, if the abbey or bishopric was an Eigenkirche or proprietary church, at which point the king would also collect all the income himself.

Another control mechanism over the church were the synods, meetings of the bishops. These were usually called to debate church issues, either for a specific region, the whole of the kingdom or the whole of Christendom. During the Ottonian period, the king or emperor would regularly preside over the local synods, and during Otto III he would even preside over a global synod in Rome, albeit shared with the Pope. 

This sounds very neat and to a large degree this Ottonian/Salian imperial church system is the source of the dominance of the German emperors in this time period. Based on the one document we have about the composition of the Ottonian army, 70% of its soldiers came from bishops and abbots.

But it is not entirely straightforward either. The emperor cannot just choose anyone to be bishop or abbot willy, nilly, but has to take the expectations of his nobles and magnates into account. You remember when Otto the Great at the height of his might still could not freely choose who he wanted to be archbishop of Magdeburg.

As always with the middle ages, central power is fragile, built on mutual personal obligations and consent of the ruled has to be reaffirmed regularly by meeting and greeting the nobles, pretend to hear what they have to say, kiss their children or stand godparent etc, etc pp. Failure to do so has serious consequences.

Last but not least, at the top of the ecclesiastical tree should be the pope. But in the 10th century that is simply a joke. With the exception of the popes that Otto III installed, the vicars of Christ in the Ottonian period are at best the punchbags of the local Roman aristocracy or depraved murderers and adulterers. Their moral authority is so weak that Ottonian emperors dismiss and appoint popes at will, something they would not ever dare to do with their own bishops and archbishops. On the flipside, when the emperor gets a papal bull that allows him to establish an archbishopric in Magdeburg against the wishes of the archbishop of Mainz, he does not even use it, knowing full well it is not worth the rather expensive vellum it is written on.

In effect there is a vacuum at the top of Christendom, that cries out to be filled.

Well, not a complete vacuum, there is also the emperor. But what is an emperor, in particular at the turn of the millennium?

Having been crowned emperor made no difference even to Charlemagne or Otto the Great as it comes to the number of soldiers, landed estates or piles of gold he controls. That is different to the crown of Italy which comes with clearly defined rights and obligations. The imperial crown is just an ambition. What that ambition is and how it may be achieved differs fundamentally from emperor to emperor.

Before we go into the imperial ambitions, we first need to take a look at the assets and tools the Ottonians have at their disposal.. In other words, we need to look at what kind of “state” (in inverted commas) they ran.

Let’s start with Henry the Fowler. Henry the Fowler relied mainly on his personal demesne, the duchy of Saxony and the power of his personality. There was technically a royal demesne left over from Carolingian times, but what that was worth is more than unclear. For instance, the royal palace at Regensburg, which was the favourite seat of Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, had firmly gone into possession of the Bavarian dukes. Even Aachen was lost to the French and Ingelheim was only part of the Royal estate because the Franconian duke allowed it.

As we transition from Henry the Fowler to Otto the Great, royal power strengthens. Henry the fowler had already gained the right to invest bishops and abbots in most duchies and Otto the Great added more royal domains, mainly by confiscating Franconia. Some possessions in Lothringia were also added to the royal demesne, including Aachen. Between 919 and 955 Henry and Otto the Great placed their close relatives, brothers, sons and sons-in-law as dukes so that by 955 all duchies were in the hands of just one family. That however backfired as the rebellion of Liudolf exposed the level of disaffection amongst the major aristocratic clans who were left out of the plum jobs.

After 955 the Ottonians gradually relinquished direct control of the duchies and the important marches to pacify the aristocratic clans. Whilst they gave up secular power, they build out their control over the church. As mentioned before the emperors handed more and more land and rights to the church, not necessarily for piety, but as a way to create an administrative infrastructure that they could control. The increasing reliance on the church is quite visible in the royal itineraries, which after 955 included more and more stays at the seats of bishops, where they would hold royal assemblies as well as synods.  

By the 980s – as we said before, 70% of the Ottonian army was supplied by the German church, not by the German nobles.

The big financial boost to the imperial coffers came from the silver mines in Goslar that remained the largest silver deposits in Western europe for the next 100 years.

What the emperors lacked and will continue to lack is tax-raising powers. By the year 1000, the only states that had tax raising powers were the emperor in Constantinople, the Muslim states in Spain and Sicily and England. The reason for Constantinople and the Muslims to have taxation is easily explained by the inheritance from the Romans. England is a different matter. England’s king Aethelred the Unready was an ineffectual ruler who could not fight back Viking invasions. His solution was to pay the Vikings the famous danegeld, essentially a bribe for them to go away. That had the entirely predictable effect that the Danes came back every year to ask for more. To raise the funds, king Aethelred had to tax his people. It was either that or being raped and pillaged by the Vikings, so people paid. Once the Danes were themselves in charge, they still collected the Danegeld as a regular tax so that over time the English became used to being taxed. That tax income made the kings of England some of the richest medieval rulers who could punch well above their weight in the hundred years war.

The German emperors were unfortunately too successful against their invaders, namely the Hungarians, so that they never got into a situation where they could justify asking all their subjects for taxes. There were some taxes in Germany in the 10th century though, the Tithe, the 1/10th of the income you had to give to the church. Through the system of Eigenkirchen and Advocacy, the king could get a share in the tithe, so that in some weird indirect way he had some tax revenues.

There is the justifiable question why the German emperors did not introduce taxes when they were at the height of their powers in the 10th century. Establishing taxation requires two things, a bureaucracy that reaches down to the individual tax payer to assess the level of tax to be paid and a means to enforce the tax dues, in extremes by military power. And that is why we have a catch 22, without tax income already you cannot afford the bureaucracy and the standing army required to collect the taxes. What you need is either an existing infrastructure or an extraneous event like the Viking invasion or in the case of France the 100 years war that justifies raising taxes.

But at the turn of the millennium, the German emperor was the most powerful ruler in Western Europe, despite his lack of tax income, because he could draw on the resources of the church. Again, not without restrictions, but in principle, yes.

The only other polity in Western Europe that had similar control over the church  was the Duchy or Normandy. The dukes in Normandy had gradually assumed control of the abbeys and the bishopric of Rouen, having turned them into proprietary churches. The Normans however managed to get one step further. They used the soldiers the church provided them with and subdued their local lords. They tore down their castles and, if they were still not yielding, had them expropriated. Therefore when William the Conqueror arrives in Britain in 1066, he comes as the head of the most coherent medieval polities that is entirely at his command. And the combination of the stressmlined Norman political system and the English population’s willingness to pay taxes is the secret sauce of English power in the Middle Ages. Just keep this bit in mind when we are talking about the next 100 years of German history.

So, to recap, the emperor has some legal rights over the church resources, his own private lands and the silver mines in Goslar.

These are the assets, but how does the software work. What are the processes and institutions that the emperor uses to run the country.

In terms of royal institutions, there is only one, the chancellery. I guess I mentioned before that the chancellery was an invention of archbishop Brun, the brother of Otto the Great. The chancellery was originally just the place where the royal scribes would produce the royal or imperial charters. Under Brun and later Otto the Great, they turned into something more significant. The Chancellor became the chief advisor to the king and his de facto chief administrator. He would organise and sometimes adjudicate court cases and send out the missii, royal envoys who would be sent to enforce the royal orders. Apart from the immediate role, the chancellery was also the training ground for future bishops. If you were a young aristocrat with ambitions to become a church leader, the imperial or royal chancellery was the place to be. As the emperor had the ultimate say on who would become bishop, being close to him and making yourself useful in his service gave you the ticket to great power and riches. From the emperor’s perspective, he gets the chance to evaluate potential candidates and choose those he can hope to be loyal.

Historians of the 19th century had concluded that this was a coherent and streamlined system where the emperor would end up commanding a squad of fully obedient bishops who had been his PAs before. That has been successfully challenged by modern historians and it is now generally believed that the king would have to take the big aristocratic clans into account when appointing his bishops. That meant they were generally loyal and more loyal than they would have been without the stint I the Chancellery, but they are not at his beck and call.

By the late Ottonian period we would usually have two chancellors, a chancellor for Germany and a chancellor for Italy. But beyond the Missii, the administration did not go any deeper. Any order or request needed to be implemented by the local powers, be it a bishop, abbot or count.

Otto III tried to expand the administration and appointed all sorts of roles mimicking the court in Constantinaople. But absent an infrastructure below these titles, they were just empty shells. You remember the chief admiral with no ships?

To achieve their compliance, the emperors would hold assemblies and synods. The difference between the two is that a synod is in principle only for churchmen to discuss church issues whilst an assembly would be mainly for the secular rulers, though the bishops and abbots would be there in their function as secular rulers. Again, when we look into the detail, the distinctions are fluid and you find assemblies discussing church matters and synods being attended by laymen discussing secular matters.

The purpose of these gatherings was to gain approval for the imperial policy. The king-emperor rules by the consent of his people, because he does not have the funds to maintain a standing army and an administration that reaches all the way down to the individual peasant.

And that is most visible when it comes to the question how you become king. We are still in a transition period between the Germanic kingdoms of the dark ages and the high middle ages. In the Germanic kingdoms, the king was usually elected, based on military prowess, i.e., whoever promised the most plunder becomes king. Being a member of the aristocracy and even being related to the previous king mattered but was not the main consideration. As the kingdoms became more stable, hereditary monarchies became more prevalent. The Merovingians were mostly hereditary with the added quirk of being ginger and still in possession of a full head of hair to be king. When we get to the Carolingians, it looks on the outside like a hereditary system, but the exact rankings of various claimants to the throne had not been established, in particular there was the horizontal succession from brother to brother competing with the vertical succession from father to son. And then there were all sorts of questions about the female line and illegitimate sons that in the end, the king was often elected.

As the kingdom of Germany emerges, the situation does not fundamentally change. Henry the Fowler is elected, though only by about half the kingdom. He does get the consent of the rest later.

We do not know whether Otto the Great was formally elected, but he was acclaimed by the nobles before his coronation, which suggests an election of some sort had taken place, possibly at a time when Henry the Fowler was still alive. Otto II and Otto III were both formally elected, but under the watchful eye of the then reigning emperor, making it more of a formality than an actual election.

A way to describe this is as a hereditary elective monarchy, where the reigning emperor can force through the election of his offspring, but if the situation arises where the emperor dies before his successor is elected, election is the correct way to choose the next ruler. And that election would then be free in so far as the closest blood relative does not necessarily have to become the next ruler.

Apart from inheritance and election, consecration by the church is the third source of imperial legitimacy. The coronation rite is in many aspects similar to the consecration of a bishop. The king is anointed with the holy chrism like a bishop, and he swears an oath to defend the church.

With the popes being so weak, the position of the Ottonian emperors was even higher than a bishop. The emperor could see himself as the leader of Christendom and head of the church above the pope. Under Otto III we reach a first peak of this theocratic notion of kingship. Otto III behaves more like a spiritual than a secular leader, more like a future saint than an emperor.

Such an elevated status also meant that rebellion against the emperor was not undertaken lightly. In particular if the king had enjoyed signs of divine favour, as Otto the Great had in the battles of Birten and Andernach. Henry the Quarrelsome would have had Otto III killed, had he not been consecrated almost at the last minute. The Saxon nobles who turned against Henry the Quarrelsome did so largely because they feared divine retribution if they had broken their oath to the anointed king.

For the act of consecration to be valid, it had to be performed by the right people and with the right pieces of kit. You needed the archbishop of Mainz, the Holy Lance as the most valuable of the imperial regalia, but also the imperial crown, sceptre, coat and a whole long list of other accoutrements.

To sum up, you ideally need to meet three requirements to become emperor, direct male descendance from the previous incumbent, election by the majority of the magnates, and valid consecration with the correct regalia.. Btw, France under the Capetins had a similar system. But the French kings were blessed with more powerful loins and produced male heirs in such a consistent manner, that a free election never happened and at some point, the French simply forgot that they could elect their king – until 1789.

In Germany by 1002, these key requirements still need to be fulfilled.  And this is where we are. Otto III had no children and no successor has been elected during his lifetime. There is no direct male descendant apart from Henry of Bavaria, who can trace his line back to Henry the Fowler, 80 years earlier. A new king will need to be elected. Will it be Henry, or will others stake a claim? Who will Heribert of Cologne give the Holy Lance to, the one he had sneakily sent ahead from Rome as soon as Otto III had breathed his last? Can you be king without meeting all three requirements?

All will be revealed next week. I hope you enjoyed this episode and will listen in again next week and in the meantime, do not hesitate to share , comment or give feedback and encouragement. You can do that  on social media, on my Facebook, Twitter, refit or Instagram under History of the Germans Podcast, or on the review section of Apple Podbean or any other platforms


The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.



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About Me

I am a history geek with no academic qualification in the field but a love for books and stories. I do this for fun and my personal self-aggrandisement.

I have been born, raised and educated in Germany but live in the UK for now over 20 years with my wife and two children. My professional background is in law, management consulting and banking. History has always been a hobby as are sailing, travelling, art, skiing and exercise (go BMF!).

My view of history is best summarised by Gregory of Tours (539-594): “A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad”. History has no beginning and no end and more importantly, it has no logic, no pattern and no purpose . But that does not mean there isn’t progress and sometimes we humans realise that doing the same thing again and again hoping for a different outcome is indeed madness. The great moments in history are those where we realise that we cannot go on as we were and things need to change. German history – as you will hopefully see – is full of these turning points, some good, some bad!

Hope you enjoy the Podcast