This is a rapid rundown of the first 1000 years of “German” history starting with Julius Caesar naming the people living east of the Rhine “Germans”. The battle in the Teutoburg forest may look like a major German victory that kept Rome out, but the reality is a lot more prosaic. Germanic tribesmen became the mainstay of the legions, fighting off their cousins from across the wall, but were never really admitted into Roman society – something about their sense of humour I suppose. After the Western Empire had fallen the Merovingians under Clovis ruled most of Europe when they were not engaged in fratricide/matricide or enforcing haircuts. The Carolingians finally forged a mighty empire out of the Merovingian pieces, bringing about a cultural renaissance.
Out of the ruins of the Carolingian empire a new polity emerges. It is not yet Germany, but it is no longer a pan-European Frankish empire. King Henry the Fowler elected by barely half the country forges a viable kingdom through cunning diplomacy and personal charm. His son, Otto the Great, elevates the role of King to Roman emperor, incorporates Italy, expands east beyond the Elbe, defeats the marauding Hungarians and gets recognition from the Emperor in Byzantium. Under his son, Otto II, the empire almost collapsed after a defeat against Muslim Sicily and a violent uprising of the pagan Slavs in the East. At his death, his son, Otto III is just 4 years old. He gets crowned in the nick of time but gets kidnapped by his cousin who wants to usurp the throne. Thanks to some cunning manoeuvring of his mother, Theophanu, his grandmother, Adelheid, and Gerbert of Aurillac, the smartest man in the 10th century, little Otto III is saved and the kingdom is stabilised. Otto III embarks on a madcap attempt to rebuild the Western Roman Empire with its capital in Rome. After his death the last of the dynasty, Henry II refocuses on Germany and creates the most powerful European state in the 10th/11th century.
During the century of the Salians emperors (1024-1125) the Investiture Controversy pits Popes against Emperors. The dispute is nominally about the role secular powers play in the selection of bishops and abbots. But in reality, it is about much more than that. It is about whether the monarch acts as the representative of God, or as a mere mortal, subject to Papal authority. It is about whether Europe becomes a coherent political entity ruled by an all-powerful emperor or whether it becomes a system of interlocking states, cities, and lordships under a parallel church infrastructure. It is about whether Europe becomes a uniform society or the diverse structure that will give birth both to endless warfare and misery for common people, as well as to the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment (to name just a few).
Join us as we trace the steps and missteps of the 4 Salian emperors as they move from the unexpected election of Konrad to his son Henry III becoming the undisputed senior ruler in Western Europe. The backlash against the emerging command monarchy culminates in Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow outside the Castle of Canossa begging Pope Gregor VII to receive him back into the mother church.
Almost 700,000 people visited the Alte Schloß in Stuttgart in 1977 to see an exhibition entitled “Die Zeit der Staufer” (the Time of the Hohenstaufen in English). Over 1,000 items from 17 countries were on display, with the Cappenberger Kopf, the portrait image of emperor Frederick Barbarossa as its star exhibit.
Nobody expected these numbers of visitors for what was a smallish exhibition space. At peak times there was barely a square meter per person. People fainted in the low and badly ventilated rooms. They sold 150,000 copies of the enormous four volume exhibition catalogue, one of which to my father who proudly displayed it in his office for 40 years and is now in a box en route over to mine.
Most other medieval German rulers are all but forgotten, but interest in the Hohenstaufen never completely disappeared. Why is that? They were by no means the most successful emperors, that crown has to go the Ottonians nor was their reign the most fateful, that was the reign of the later Salians.
Frederick Barbarossa and his grandson Frederick II have been such fascinating personalities that almost any age could project their own perceptions and expectations onto them, from champion of national unity to modern man before his time. Time to find out what really happened, who they really were. As always a great many things keep happening, some good, some bad.