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.
King Henry the Fowler elected by barely half the country forges a viable kingdom through cunning diplomacy and personal charm. He establishes the borders of the new kingdom and builds the foundations on which his son, Otto the Great can end the Magyar threat
Otto the Great – Germany’s luckiest emperor. Almost destroying all his father had built through his own recklessness he emerges from a civil war as the most powerful ruler the Carolingian empire had seen in a long time. In 955 he comprehensively beats the bane of the age, the Magyars at the Lechfeld. He acquires Italy with arms and charms, gets crowned emperor in Rome and even gets recognised by the Eastern Emperor in Constantinople. His path is also littered with the most fascinating, powerful and glamorous women German history has on offer – Mathilda of Ringelheim, Eadgith of Wessex, Adelheid of Italy and Theophanu, the not quite real princess from the east. Never a dull moment!
As much as Otto the Great was lucky, Otto II was unlucky. He gets ambushed by the king of France, loses the largest battle of the century in the South of Italy and in his last year the Slavs, having been brutally oppressed by his father’s generals rise up, burn cities and churches and regain their freedom
Otto III comes to the throne aged 4 when his father unexpectedly died of Malaria. His mother and grandmother have to wrestle the guardianship out of the hands of his perfidious cousin, henry the Quarrelsome. Once matured he becomes a fascinating figure oscillating between excessive brutality and excessive piety. His attempt at a “Restauration of the Roman Empire” fails catastrophically and his friends barely manage to repatriate his body back to Germany.
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.
The last of the Ottonians, though much more akin to the Salian emperors who follow in his wake. After a complex route to kingship, Henry focuses on the war with his increasingly powerful neighbour to the east, Boleslav the Brave of Poland. He shocks his contemporaries by entering into an alliance with the pagan Slavs against a Christion ruler. Though he has to ultimately concede defeat he did strengthen the internal structure of his kingdom by further expanding the Imperial church system.
These two episodes try to get a bit closer to the question of what the Ottonians mean for us today. Episode 20 – A Blank Canvas traces the way historians have perceived and interpreted the Ottonian period since the beginning of the 19th century which is almost a 1:1 reflection of contemporaneous events – leaving us with the question whether the current interpretation is also just a reflection of where we are today. The second episode is an attempt to answer all the questions you sent me over the last couple of months.