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The Teutons (919 to 1250)

The origin of Germany traces back to the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy


Roman Emperor in
800. Upon his death the empire was split into three parts that gradually coalesced
into
two: the western Frankish kingdom that became France and the eastern kingdom
that became
Germany. The title of Holy Roman Emperor remained in Charlemagne's family until
the tenth
century when they died out. In 919 Henry, Duke of Saxony, was elected king of
Germany by
his fellow dukes. His son Otto became emperor in 962.
The Holy Roman Empire that Otto I controlled extended over the German plain north
to the
Baltic, eastward into parts of modern Poland, and southward through modern
Switzerland,
modern Austria, and northern Italy. From the outset, the emperors had a difficult
problem
keeping control of two disparate regions-Germany and Italy-that were separated by
the Alps.
The Holy Roman Empire was successful at first because it benefited the principal
members,
Germany and Italy. The Germans were not far removed from the barbarian
condition. They had
been conquered by Charlemagne only a century earlier. They benefited greatly from
Italian
culture, technology, and trade. The Italians welcomed the relative peace and
stability the
empire ensured. Italy had been invaded time and again for the previous 500 years.
The
protection of the empire defended the papacy and allowed the city-states of Italy to
begin
their growth.
The imperial armies were manned partially by tenants of church lands who owed
service to
the emperor. A second important contingent were the ministriales, a corps of serfs
who
received the best training and equipment as knights but who were not free men.
These armies
were used to put down revolts or interference by local nobles and peasants or to
defend
against raids by Vikings from the north and Magyars from the east.
Because Germany remained a collection of independent principalities in
competition, German

warriors became very skilled. The most renowned German soldiers were the
Teutonic Knights,
a religious order of warriors inspired by the Crusades. The Teutonic Knights spread
Christianity into the Baltic region by conquest but were eventually halted by
Alexander
Nevsky at the battle on frozen Lake Peipus.
A confrontation between the emperors and the church over investiture of bishops
weakened
the emperors in both Germany and Italy. During periods of temporary
excommunication of the
emperor and outright war against Rome, imperial authority lapsed. The local
German princes
solidified their holdings or fought off the Vikings with no interference or help from
the
emperor. In Italy, the rising city-states combined to form the Lombard League and
refused
to recognize the emperor.
Political power in both Germany and Italy shifted from the emperor to the local
princes and
cities. The ministriales rebelled, taking control of the cities and castles they
garrisoned
and declaring themselves free. During desperate attempts to regain Italy, more
concessions
were given to the local princes in Germany. By the middle of the thirteenth century,
the
Holy Roman Empire existed in name only. The throne remained empty for 20 years.
The German
princes cared only about their own holdings. The Italian city-states did not want a
German
ruler and were strong enough to defend themselves.
Future emperors in the Middle Ages were elected by the German princes but they
ruled in
name only, controlling little more than their own family estates. Germany remained
a minor
power in Europe for centuries to come.