Quick! List the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire from 800 to 1200.
[Waits for dust to settle from fleeing readers]
Just kidding. Unless you are really interested in Early Medieval history, there’s a bit of a blur between Charlemagne and, well, probably Charles V of Austria and Spain. Most of us in the States and Canada vaguely recall Charlemagne, then jump back to England and Alfred the Great, then 1066 and the Norman Conquest. There was a Holy Roman Empire on the continent, but that’s not where we draw most of our history from so we sort of nod at it and go back to the Normans and Saxons.
Charlemagne, although the literal as well as proverbial father of Europe, left only one official male heir. That was good, because Frankish tradition demanded that inheritances be split between male heirs. Thus, in the next generations, the Carolingian empire split into three chunks. To the west, the Frankish kingdom, in the east, the Germanic kingdom, and the rich middle went to Lothar and was called Lotharingia. You can guess which section has been fought over the most.
Charlemagne and his son were named Holy Roman Emperors by the pope, after they had been elected king of the Franks and Germans. This is important – the election. The kings of the Germans were always elected as first among mostly equals, and had to keep trying to balance out the different power groups and factions. The Frankish kings just had irritable nobles to deal with. And after 800, Vikings, and a few raids over the border from Spain, but that was more of a problem for the Counts of Toulouse than the King of the Franks.
After the division, the title of Holy Roman Emperor passed back and forth and faded out of usage for a while. The politics of Rome and other parts of Italy were fraught, to put it mildly, and you need a score-card to keep track of which faction had named whom to be Pope when. It was not a high point for the stability of the upper leadership of the Catholic Church. The kings in Germany and France also had the Vikings, Danes, Saxons, Slavs, and others to try and keep in order, and after the 890s the Magyars added to the excitement by raiding as far west as Lake Geneva.
Once some of the dust and fog shook out, the descendants of Charlemagne held chunks of northern France and were generally Kings of the Franks. They claimed the title of emperor by descent. However, the kings of the Germans had some Carolingian blood as well, and had taken up his mantle as defenders of the faith, spreaders of the faith, and protectors of the Pope. Sometimes. When they could. Central Europe was a mess, to put it mildly.
Things started to shake out with a man called Henry the Fowler (he loved hunting) (876-936). He wrangled some of the German nobles into line, fought the Saxons and Slavs, and started the Ottonian Dynasty (sometimes called the Liudolfings). He was not a Carolingian and under his son Otto I, or Otto the Great, the Holy Roman Empire started to develop its German flavor. In Europe, from this point on, it is called “The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.” Henry died of a stroke and was succeeded by his son Otto, who had to deal with two brothers who thought they had better claims to the throne, and the usual Magyar and Saxon and Slavic problems. And the mess that was Rome and Italy.
Otto’s son Otto II wasn’t the same man his father was, and although he kept things together, the mid 900s were not a high point for order and stability. Otto III managed better despite his young age and short life. When the last Ottonian died out, the titles and power shifted to a different family, but still German.
The Salians, sometimes called the Frankish dynasty 1) because they came from Frankonia and 2) to mess with later historians’ minds [just kidding], were short in duration but mighty in ambition and reach. They ruled from 1025 – 1125. Henry IV is probably best known outside of Europe for his being on the semi-losing end in the battle over who could invest Catholic bishops and abbots with their offices – the king or the Pope. Henry spent Christmas 1077 in the snow outside Canossa Castle until Gregory VII forgave him. (Mathilda of Canossa had a personal feud with Henry that lasted until their deaths.) The dynasty ended with Henry V, and after a brief slide, shifted to the Staufens. The title of Holy Roman Emperor passed from family to family after that, until the Habsburgs took it over in the 1400s.
During this period major cultural and religious shifts took place. The great monastic orders of the Cistercians and Franciscans and Dominicans arose between 875 and 1200, and spread religious revival and renewed emphasis on education and proper monastic behavior across Europe and into England. The Latin language underwent a reformation that started in Charlemagne’s time and lost the regional variations that had threatened to undo its universality. The Saxons, Bohemians, Magyars (later Hungarians), Poles, and Danes converted to Christianity, not that it stopped them fighting each other. And the conversions didn’t always stick on the first try, as multiple still-extant letters back to Corvey, Fulda, Mainz and other religions centers attest. Literature bloomed in the German-speaking lands outside the church as well, and the minnelieder were set on parchment by men such as Walter von der Vogelweide and the poet known only as “The Guy from Kurenburg.” The Nibelungenlied was written down at this time, the Burgundian version, not the Nordic version.