The last time I dug into the early history of the Holy Roman Empire 2.0 (Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, which starts with Henry the Fowler and Emperor Otto I), I skipped most of the politics. I was far more interested in the cultural and spiritual aspects of the period (roughly 875-1100 or so) than the politics. Oh, I knew that there was a lot of fighting, both for the title of King of the Germans/Holy Roman Emperor and with outsiders (Magyars, Magyars, Wendish/Sorbish Slavs, the First Crusade). But I ignored the internal strife for the most part.
Alas, because of a number of factors I’m having to wade into the politics of the Empire, Poland, and Bohemia, and Hungary. Oof. Part of the difficulty is the repetition of names. Not just Otto I, II, and III, but multiple Henries, Boloslavs of both Poland and Bohemia (some of whom fought each other), Stephans, and lots of Matildas. For a while, Matilda was as common as Mary, Barbara, Ann, and Catherine. Henry the Fowler’s second wife was a Matilda, as was Henry II’s wife. Oh and Henry II’s father was Henry, but not Henry the Fowler. Confused yet?
One thing I have to force myself to remember is that, unlike later periods in England and elsewhere, the Holy Roman Emperor was in some ways first among equals when north of the Alps. And an often unwanted outside interloper south of the Alps, at least unwanted by those who felt that their candidate for the papal throne was the real pope. So someone like Duke Henry the Lion could be a real political threat to Frederick Barbarossa, but was also a critical supporter and ally of Frederick — when Henry stuck with his feudal vows. Within their own territories, the various dukes of Saxony, Bavaria, Austria, and so on had total control, as much as a Germanic warlord had control of his knights and clerics. The Imperial Diet was a real necessity as far as mediation and problem solving between the various nobles, high church leaders, and the Emperor. It didn’t always work, but it probably kept things from being more violent than they were. Add in the Church trying to channel all that aggression into more socially useful directions, and the Empire, Poland, and Bohemia were probably about as calm as was possible for the time.
I have to know this stuff inside and out, in order to clarify it and distill it for other people. This is also taking me into some new research directions, like the roles of women. I knew about the women of the Hanse cities and how some of the merchant patricians widows and daughters earned full citizenship, acting as men in all legal ways. The women of the Ottonian and Salian periods of the Holy Roman Empire could be as independent and powerful, especially some of the abbesses of places like Quedlinburg. Others, also within the church, scolded their male “superiors” about immorality, lack of attention to duty, and the need to clean up some problems in the Church. There was a reason why St. Francis was needed, and the preaching orders in general. Women like Matilda of Canossa could have strong political influence on even the papacy. She also could nurse a grudge well enough to get a Red Cross life-saving award, but that seemed to be true of a lot of the nobility of the early and high Middle Ages. Legally, women had rather limited rights. In reality? It depended on the individual, her situation, and her location. Germanic and western Slavic women seem to have had more traditional as well as legal independence than those south of the Alps. At least during this time.
There’s only one “textbook” for this region, the one written by Lonnie R. Johnson. It wasn’t exactly meant to be a textbook, but it can be and is used as one for college classes. It’s good, but it skims some of the earlier material that I need. Trying to pull all this sort of stuff together and to keep it from bogging down is an art, and one I suspect very, very few people have. I don’t. So I’m borrowing a little from here, and a lot from there, and my vacation slides and notes from over here, and trying to make sense of all of it, in chronological order. It must be good for me, because it makes my brain ache. It’s one thing just to read German and get the material. It’s another to translate it accurately for other people.
And I just know that some of this will leak into my fiction. Especially Henry the Lion of Bavaria and Saxony. I first met him as “Oh, yeah, the guy who was a PitA for Barbarossa.” Except Henry was a lot more than that, and he connects England (Henry II Plantagenet) to Saxony and places like Lübeck and Brunswick/Braunschweig. No, I have no idea what Henry’s going to do, or how, but I have this sinking suspicion . . .