The Ends of the (Roman) World

Well, I’ve seen one of them. The other end isn’t quite as safe to visit right now.

At the gate to the remains of part of the Antonine Wall. Latina Magna Est!
Beyond this point be barbarians.

Hadrian’s wall is the more famous barrier the Romans built in Britain, in part because it was so visible for so long, and in part because it lasted over two centuries. It marked the dividing line between Roman occupied Britain, and Roman influenced Britain. At least the Romans wanted to influence it. Sometimes it was a negative influence.

The Antonine Wall vs. Hadrian’s Wall. From: DigitScotland. Creative Commons Fair Use:

The Antonine Wall, credited (or at least claimed) by Antoninus Pius, was farther north, near modern Sterling. You have to know how to get there in order to get there. It lacks the signage and markers of the southern edition, in part because it was never as permanent or impressive as Hadrian’s wall. Also, the land around the northern barrier is more settled and farmed, and too valuable to be left pasture, unlike far more of Hadrian’s wall.

What you see are two artificial mounds with the fossa, the ditch, in the middle. I’m looking north, toward the dangerous side. Behind me the land slopes more gently, and that was the Roman side. You had an interior ditch, then a wall made of turves (turfs – sod and dirt and wood), a deeper and steeper ditch that donated material for the wall, and then a clear line of sight toward the barbarians. The trees would most certainly NOT block the view.

When I was at the Antonine wall, it was me, one dog walker, the rest of the group, and a mowing crew. I played “dodge mower” as they trimmed knee-high grass back to lawn height.

Looking south from Hadrian’s Wall. The sun was NOT that bright, I assure you. Notice that there are fewer trees here in Yorkshire.

I’ve also been along most of the Limes, the anti-German Roman defensive line that ran from the mouths of the Rhine to the Main then the Danube. From there it followed the river, more or less, until it reached the “Pontic shores where the snowflakes fall,” as Kipling put it. I’ve been from Budapest to the Antonine Wall, but not yet to Rome or to the eastern end of the Roman world.

Been there, hiked that, as far as the last a in Pannonia. From Ray Bishop History.

Some day, perhaps . . .


Why Did it Even Work? Holy Roman Empire 2.0

A loose agglomeration of cities, territories, church lands, and imperial personal possessions, all held together by . . . Well, by a shared faith, a shared understanding of what an emperor’s role generally should be, and the need to defend against outsiders. Yet it lasted from the late 800s to 1806, surviving the Black Death, Thirty Years War, other wars, and was dissolved by mutual consent, to protect it from Napoleon. Critics claimed that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” to use Rousseau’s sneer, and that it held back the development of a proper Berlin-centered sense of Germanitas and of empire. Except . . . people kept it around, and must have found something of value in it.

In some cases, the title of Holy Roman Emperor was preserved just because someone else wanted to hold the title. That seems to have been the case in the mid 800s, in the semi-gap between the more powerful Carolingians and the first Ottonians. However, by the 1100s the Emperor had come to have the role of mediator and first-among-equals, someone who was (often) above the fray and could hear all sides, then provide possible solutions. Or he could answer calls for help from inside (and sometimes outside) the empire. The emperor was the secular balance to the pope, the sword of the state and of the western Church. He had to balance a lot of things, and much rested on the personality of the individual. Otto I managed it, Frederick II preferred to focus on Sicily and Italian/Roman politics, the Habsburgs kept their eyes fixed in the north . . .

One very important role of the emperor, and of the imperial courts and counsels, was to set standards for city creation and independence. Many cities ended up using the law code developed for Magdeburg, which made a lot of business easier. The free cities had to have walls and had to be able to defend themselves if attacked. No walls – no freedom. The emperor was their final gurantor, in some cases. In others he and his counsel served as mediators and neutral parties when a city or group of cities and a prince-archbishop or noble collided. Cities could buy their freedom, and that was a source of revenue for the emperor. Freiburg in Breisgau (southwest Germany) is one example. They forced out the local bishop from political power and built walls, defended them, then petitioned for independence. It was granted after some wrangling and fee paying.

After the wars of the Reformation (which were as much about Charles V having too much power as they were about theological differences), the Holy Roman Empire turned into a critical place for nobles of both denominations to solve disputes. The counsels were carefully balanced, half Lutheran and half Catholic, to ensure that theological differences were minimized. It worked well until Frederick of Rhineland-Palatine, a staunch Calvinist who came to believe that G-d was calling him to dethrone the Antichrist (Holy Roman Emperor and Pope) and bring about the Second Coming, upset the balance and contributed to the start of the Thirty-Years War.

The Westphalian System of states that developed out of the 1618-1648 period might have been the end of the empire, except that it remained very, very important as a symbol of unity and as a place for mediation and dispute resolution. The threat from the Ottomans was real, and tangible, and wasn’t just a Habsburg or Polish problem. France’s ambitions also contributed to the desire to keep the empire in place as a bloc, even if the emperor couldn’t always muster everyone to work against France as a group (he did at times, as the adventures of John Churchill the Duke of Marlborough and Eugene von Savoy showed.)

When the members of the empire voted to dissolve it rather than allow Napoleon to claim the title, it truly was the end of an era. Later historians tended to dismiss the H.R.E. as a dead weight that kept Prussia from taking over as the rightful leader of the northern Protestant (and Catholic) German speakers, and as a useless relic that should have disappeared even before 1648. The last 30 years have seen a reappraisal, as a new generation ask, “Why keep it? What did people see of value in the empire that led them to preserve it, even symbolically?” It was a link to the past, to the legacy of civilization and Christendom, it served as a place to talk and sort things out before the became war (sometimes), and held deep meaning in the identity of various parts of the empire during fast-changing and scary times.

Relic? Yes. Dead? Not really. Useless? The people of the time felt it served a vital purpose, no matter what later historians declared.

NOTE: I am on the road, and clearing comments or answering questions will be slow, or after Sunday afternoon. Thanks for your understanding.

Who Runs the Place?: Holy Roman Empire 2.0 Edition

The first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, ran the empire. No one contested that, or if they did, apparently it wasn’t for long. He had, let us say, a dominant personality and decisive way of settling inter-personal disputes. However, after his great-grandsons divided the empire (the Franks had partiable inheritance, so each male had to get land), the role of the emperor dwindled as more powerful nobles gained territory and control, and the internal politics of Rome started to resemble a Mafia soap opera. It took the Ottonians, and what I half-jokingly call Holy Roman Empire 2.0 for the emperor to return to a place of political prominence and authority, and even then he had a lot of challenges from nobles who preferred their feudal overlord to stay both weak and far away.

With the Ottonians came several changes. The kings of France, or rather the Frankish kings, had grown strong enough that they stood on their own, outside the empire. The Ottonians were from the German-speaking lands, and their power base was the middle Rhine Valley, the Main River lands, and over around the Harz Mountains. Like Charlemagne and his successors, the Ottonians moved around a lot, but their “base of operations” was in Goslar, in the mountains to the east, where the newly-converted Saxons and the Slavs resisted imperial rule. The east had no memory of Roman leadership, not really. The Romans never stayed very far north of the Danube, and the Slavic tribes had pushed the Germanic peoples west and either north or south in the 600s-700s, as best we can tell. Or they intermingled with them (Austria, Hungary, Croatia). So the empire now faced east as much as south, fighting and establishing diplomatic ties, and fighting with, the Slavs and Saxons, and starting to move civilization north, into the wet, cold areas of what is now Lower Saxony, Westphalia, Schleswig-Holstein, and Mecklenberg-Vorpom. And parts of modern Poland.

Because the emperors were always on the move, more or less, and occasionally had to go down to Rome to settle things at least temporarily, the local nobles and imperial servants were tasked with running things on a daily basis, and had to be the first on scene when, oh, the eastern Saxons decided to revert to paganism and attack someone (not always in that order), or the Magyars invaded, or the Byzantine Empire deflected someone north and west. Also, most of the nobles were related through marriage or ancestry, and at any time, several had possible claims on deserving the title of Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation. Depending on the personality of the emperor and which nobles had risen to power, this could lead to collisions, or to cooperation. Occasionally, the popes would wade into the fray, as Gregory VII did with Henry IV in 1075-76.

After the Ottonians came the Salians, another dynasty from the Rhine Valley, of whom Henry IV is the most famous, although he’d probably have happily relinquished that distinction. He ended up fighting with the major nobles, his son, the pope twice, and pretty much everyone else. Conflict management and resolution was not one of his strong suits. All this is a bit of a fog for most English-speakers, because we tend to focus on what was going on in Britain at the time – the Norman Conquest and other minor excitements. Also going on was the conversion of Poland to Catholicism, more or less*. Poland became Catholic as opposed to Orthodox, but because they were officially brought into Christendom directly by a Papal missionary from Bohemia, instead of from one of the Holy Roman Empire’s bishops, they were not considered part of the Holy Roman Empire’s lands. The relationship with the Emperor varied from “great friends” to “here we go again, call out the army.”

The emperor was supposed to be a neutral party above the nobles, someone who could mediate, settle arguments before they got out of hand, and who could balance the demands of the free cities with those of ecclesiastic nobles (like the Archbishop of Mainz) and the secular nobles (Saxony, Austria, Bavaria, Swabia, and so on.) He was also tasked with defending Rome and the pope (not always the same thing). Again, since the emperor was always on the move, and sometimes south of the Alps, that left a lot of wiggle room if a noble got ambitious.

Enter two real characters in every sense of the word. Frederick von Staufen and Heinrich of Saxony had nearly equal claims to the imperial throne. Heinrich came from the Welf family, Frederick from the Staufers**. They were almost the same age, and both tended to be, let us say, pugnacious. Frederick of the Red Beard (Barbarossa) ended up on the throne, and Heinrich swore feudal vows of vassalage, promising to help the emperor if needed and to obey – mostly. Their first collision came fairly early, when Frederick had Heinrich’s first marriage annulled after several years, in part because the property owned by the bride’s family surrounded Frederick’s own home base. Heinrich agreed, but he was not entirely pleased. He married the daughter of Henry II of England, which was OK. Yes, that Henry II. Family get-togethers must have been entertaining to watch from outside stabbing range.

The far north of the German lands, notably along the Baltic and eastern North Sea, and been depopulated by the Northern Crusades, and years of Viking raids. Heinrich turned his attention north, and while Frederick was going to Jerusalem and doing things in Italy and elsewhere as well as in the German lands, Heinrich refounded Lübeck, founded Luneberg and Braunschweig, and encouraged other settlements to expand. He established Braunschwig (Brunswick) as his main base. Once or twice, Frederick deputized Heinrich to deal with things while Frederick was tied up in Italy or dealing with Seljuk problems. However, Heinrich grew very powerful, and rather independent. Eventually the two collided. Heinrich lost and for a while ended up in Normandy, acting as diplomat and ambassador for his father-in-law. One can imagine the imperial court getting a little tense when Heinrich came back with diplomatic papers. Heinrich ended up outliving Frederick, then defeating Frederick’s son in battle and retiring to Braunschweig where, to the surprise of everyone, he died of old age.

Heinrich wasn’t the only noble to collide with the emperor. But most others don’t have summer pageants dedicated to the fight. Given Frederick Barbarossa’s personality, and the times he lived in, someone probably would have poked him the wrong way. Rudolph “the Founder” von Habsburg would butt heads with several people, and would resort to dirty tricks to defeat the prince of Bohemia. (Dirty tricks meaning having a rested reserve launch, surround, and beat up on the Bohemians. That was frowned upon by the rules of chivalry. Rudolph was a pragmatist, and a survivor, and didn’t really care.)

First among equals, sword of the Church (sometimes), keeper of order, settler of disputes, and feudal overlord of the lands north of the Alps. The Holy Roman Emperors walked a bit of a tightrope, and it’s probably more surprising that they didn’t have more, greater conflicts with the other men of the empire.

* Parts of Poland remained pagan, or kept lapsing back into paganism, until at least the late 1100s. Then the union with (pagan at first) Lithuania distracted the missionary priests.

**If you are thinking “Welf sounds like Guelph as in Guelphs and Ghibillines in Italy, Dante’s mess” you are correct. In English, we used to say “Staufen” for the family, but the Germans started moving toward “Staufer” for the larger group and “Staufen” for one later branch, as in “von Hohen-Staufen.” English-writers have picked up that usage.

So, He’s Related to Him, and Her, So That Means . . . Arrrrrgh!

Or: Why Environmental History is SOOOOOOO much easier than European history.

Due to a complicated series of events, and research for the next Merchant book, I found myself wading into the politics of the Guelphs and Gibilines, or the Welf and Staufer and Salier families (for those north of the Alps). I’ve been known to joke that the Spanish Habsburg family tree is a stick, because of a number of too-close-for-their-own-good marriages. The alliances, marriages, separations, and relationships between the major and many minor nobles of the Holy Roman Empire, and to a lesser degree (but not too much lesser) Hungary, Bohemia, and Poland look like a thorn-thicket stretching from Wales to Kiev.

Which does tend to explain a few cases of “Why didn’t [Emperor] just slap down [problem person] ten years earlier?” And “Why did he think trying to intervene in [Poland/Hungary/Bohemia]’s civil war was a good idea?” Because he, whoever he was at the time, had a dog or at least an in-law in the fight. Sometimes. Sometimes? Eh, pure power politics, and once or twice I suspect sheer boredom back home.

One reason for all the complicated crosses and out-crosses is that in the 900s-1200s, give or take, the Church did not allow marriages between relatives to the 7th degree. Even second or third cousin was out, unacceptable without a lot of paperwork and penances and really good reasons. So you have Salian princes from the Rhineland looking at duchesses in Anjou, France, but since they have a common great-grandfather, the betrothal is challenged by the Church. It also means that the two family heads on opposite sides of “who gets the imperial crown” fight may also be cousins (probable), uncle and nephew (possible), and step-father and step-son (at least twice and wasn’t that a mess). And the occasional “I’m marrying from way the heck outside the region, in part for dowry, in part because I need neutral help, and in part because I give up trying to shop local.”

OK, perhaps I exaggerate on the last one, but it’s easy to imagine someone looking at the list of possible spouses and having a priest scratch off ten of the eleven candidates, and that last one is only eight years old, and you are twenty. Thus the occasional Byzantine, Rus, Anglo, or Scandinavian popping up in Germanic pedigrees. Trade, diplomacy, and other things played larger roles, but consanguinity was a major legal concern.

So, what I was trying to sort out was: if Frederick Barbarossa’s election as Holy Roman Emperor was a sort of compromise between the (Guelphs) Welfs and Babenburgs (Bavaria, Austria) and (Ghibellines) Saliens and Staufers (Rhineland, central German lands), why did Barbarossa not deal more firmly with Henry of Bavaria and Saxony earlier? Well, in part, the three most powerful dukes—regional rulers—in the central Empire were Barbarossa’s uncles, including Henry of Saxony. Among other things, but the family connection played a role.

However, when we think of Guelphs and Ghibellines, we usually think of Italy. After Barbarossa’s election, the Italians seem to have looked north, shrugged a little, kept the names of the two sides, and continued going after each other for other reasons. Ah, Italian Renaissance politics.

“Bad” Places and Spa History in Germany and Austria

The question came up last week: How do towns get “Bad” in their names and what does it mean? And how recent is it? The answers required more than just a comments-comment, so here are the answers.

The super-condensed version: government interventions, place to bathe, and generally modern (post 1789.) Continue reading

Book Review: The Last Knight

The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I Pierre Terjanian, ed. (New York: Metropolitan Museum, 2019)

I asked for three things for Christmas – new work gloves, brown earrings, and this book. I’ve been interested in Maximilian von Habsburg for a while, and seeing the wonder exhibition of his art and books in the imperial library in Vienna this past summer just stoked the flames. This is the 500th anniversary of his life, and so the Met Museum in New York, in conjunction with the Prado, the Spanish Military Museum, the Kunsthistorischesmuseum in Vienna, and a few other places, had a very large show of his armor, art, and weapons. For those who don’t know, the Met has one of the largest collections of medieval and Renaissance armor in the world. This book is the catalogue of that exhibition. Continue reading