Christendom and Christianization

The early Middle Ages recognized Christianity (faith) and Christians (believers), but had no geographic concept of Christendom. Faith began with baptism (christening). The role of kings, lords and bishops was to oversee this, and to enforce observance of holy days and other outward markers of inner belief. The slogan ‘defence of Christendom’ (defensio Christianitatis) emerged during the ninth century in response to the Muslim Arab threat, especially in southern Europe, and it identified the wider lay community beyond the church (ecclesia) which the emperor should defend. Christendom only assumed closer associations with Europe through Gregory VII’s promotion of the papacy as sole and exclusive leader of all Christians, reducing the emperor to being mere ruler of the largest Christian kingdom. The geographic demarcation was consolidated by the First Crusade of 1095 and those that followed, which involved military expeditions against what was regarded as an eastern ‘other’.1

The Empire’s southern reaches encompassed Italy, including Rome into the eleventh century. The absence of a religious boundary in the west contributed to the lack of clear demarcation between the Empire and what became France. Differences were sharper with the pagan Scandinavians, Slavs and Magyars to the north and east. An extensive belt of pagan peoples across south-east Europe separated the Empire from its Christian counterpart in Byzantium – a major factor in the ability of both empires to ignore each other. Thus, though geographically located in the heart of what is now considered Europe, the Empire lay on the northern and eastern edges of Latin Christianity, and provided the principal means by which that faith penetrated these regions.

A sense of east–west distinctions was already present in the inhabitants’ myths of origins. The Franks considered themselves descendants of Noah’s son Japheth, and thought the Slavs stemmed from another of Noah’s sons, Ham.2 The Slavs worshipped forest and sky gods, practised bigamy, cremation and other customs totally alien to Christians, such as digging their houses into the ground in contrast to the wooden-post construction used by the Franks. Slavs had little affinity for Christian practices and regarded tithes as tribute to an alien, unwanted god. Even those willing to embrace Christianity encountered significant cultural barriers. The boundaries between past and present in Slavic culture were more fluid than among Christians accustomed to the Bible’s linear chronology. The refusal of Christian priests to baptize ancestors made no sense to Slavs.3

Christianization aided the consolidation of imperial authority and promoted its extension north and eastwards across the river Elbe. However, unlike the Muslim Ottomans, who would form a majority in their own empire only late in the nineteenth century, the Empire’s population was always overwhelmingly Christian with only a small Jewish minority; the population included relatively few pagan Slavs in the ambiguous border zones of the north-east, who were largely Christianized by the thirteenth century.4

Christianization was not a ‘clash of civilizations’.5 This popular yet controversial approach defines civilization largely through religion and regards cultures as mutually exclusive, homogeneous entities that either clash or engage in dialogue. The Empire’s expansion was certainly legitimated in language which later generations would consider that of civilization overcoming barbarianism. Religious texts and laws certainly distinguished Christians from Slavs, Jews and Muslims. However, culture offers a repertoire of behaviour, experience and attitudes allowing individuals to select what is meaningful or useful in their own context. Interactions depend on circumstances. Boundaries are blurred by negotiation, exchange and integration, and contact is rarely exclusively either benign or violent. Christianity underwent considerable changes in practice and belief throughout this period. What was considered acceptable at one point could be condemned later. The sense of a fully defined Christendom only assumed its true shape as a singular, exclusive civilization in the period of Romantic nostalgia following the French and Industrial Revolutions.6


It is unlikely that Charlemagne and the Franks had a conscious policy to create a single populus Christianus.7 The principal sources for this view are clerics who put their own gloss on Carolingian actions. Carolingian society was primarily organized for war, not prayer. Its goal was to acquire wealth through plunder and extorting tribute, and to translate claims to authority into reality by gaining prestige, reputation and dominion.8 Christianity channelled these ambitions by identifying non-Christians as ‘legitimate’ targets. Crucially, the Empire’s foundation coincided with the revival of the western European slave trade, which had declined with the demise of ancient Rome and the development of a servile rural population working the land. Demand for slaves returned with the rise of the Arabs, their growing wealth and their switch from tribal to slave armies.9 The Vikings emerged to service this economy by seizing captives in northern and western Europe for sale in the Mediterranean. The Carolingians and Ottonians provided a second supply through their campaigns across the Elbe. The word ‘slave’ is cognate with Slav and began to displace the earlier Latin term servus during this period.10 Meanwhile, both the Saxons and Slavs engaged in more localized raiding for women. These practices only ceased with a general growth in population and the assimilation of east Elbian areas into the Empire around 1200.

There were other reasons for laity to answer the clergy’s call to spread the Gospel. The Empire’s elite was uniformly Christian and shared a concern for salvation and the belief that God influenced earthly events. The idea of penance was powerfully attractive to a warrior elite engaged in killing, fitted with Germanic legal customs that demanded reparations for victims, and encouraged lavish endowments of material resources to the church. The development of indulgences at the end of the eleventh century allowed warriors to gain remission from sin by serving in the crusades. Endowments were additionally encouraged by the belief in vicarious merit in which prayers and intercessions by the living benefited the donor’s soul long after their death. These beliefs in turn encouraged the laity’s concern for monastic discipline and good ecclesiastical management, since ‘a community of lax and negligent monks was a poor investment’.11

Endowments removed wealth from the grasp of rivals and entrusted it to a transpersonal institution headed by Christ. The clergy enjoyed considerable social prestige through their proximity to God and their role as transmitters of written culture. The church offered a secure and attractive career for those of the elite who did not fit into the secular world, either because they were surplus to requirements as younger sons or unmarried daughters, or through personal misfortune. Hermann ‘the Lame’ probably had cerebral palsy and, unable to train as a warrior like his brothers, was placed instead in Reichenau abbey, where he could develop his prodigious literary and musical talents.12 Religious houses were also secure places to confine wayward relatives and rivals.

Spiritual Goals

Thus, Christianization was driven by a powerful mix of conviction and self-interest. The objective was outward conformity and submission. In contrast to Byzantium, before the twelfth century the western church did not enquire too deeply into what people believed. Conversion and winning souls entailed persuading powerful local figures to join the clergy or enter a monastery. The captured sons of Slav nobles were often educated by monks in the ninth and tenth centuries. Later, as Christians, these Slavs used their personal connections to advance conversion among their own people by acting as baptismal sponsors. The Carolingians and Ottonians were likewise quite successful in persuading Viking warlords to convert, thereby assimilating ‘barbarians’ in the same way as did the ancient Roman empire.13

Carolingian kings were already coordinating these activities before 800. A series of church synods between 780 and 820 increased the incentives for lay patronage through written guidelines (capitulares) to improve monastic discipline. Monks and nuns were distinguished by their vows and strictly circumscribed lives, setting them apart from secular canons and canonesses who lived a communal life and acted as political and economic managers of church assets. While the first group prayed for benefactors, the second provided suitable roles for noble sons and daughters.14

The synods ensured clergy had the tools of their trade. Eighth- and ninth-century inventories show that most of the Empire’s churches contained at least one religious book – a remarkable achievement in an age without printing.15 The Christian message was also conveyed through non-written methods like wall paintings, sculptures, sermons and mystery plays. Objectives remained realistic. Bishops were to ensure liturgical uniformity and check that lesser clergy preached on Sundays and holy days, visited the sick, and performed baptisms and burials. Burial rites were an important marker of Christianity, displacing earlier customs of interring horses and weapons in warrior graves. However, saints’ days only became regular calendar fixtures in the twelfth century, while it was not until 1215 that confession became at least an annual obligation. Considerable scope remained for local toleration of pagan practices and heterodoxy, all of which eased assimilation.


Christianization varied across the Empire. The church had enjoyed support from local elites in Burgundy and Italy since late antiquity, in contrast to Britain, where Christianity had largely expired by the late sixth century and had to be reintroduced by missionaries. Meanwhile, much of Germany had escaped both Romanization and Christianization. Frankish influence remained limited to the Rhine–Main nexus prior to the rapid conquest of Alamania, Bavaria and Saxony completed by Charlemagne around 800. For most of what became the kingdom of Germany, conquest and Christianization proceeded together and the entire church structure had to be created from scratch. The new German church was both a ‘national’ (i.e. general) and local institution, owing its overall shape to royal initiative, but its specific character to lords and missionaries on the ground.

Frankish kings sent missionaries to Frisia on the North Sea coast from the 690s, and others into central and northern Germany to work among the heathen Saxons from 718.16 St Boniface, the most famous of these missionaries, felled the sacred oak at Geismar in Thuringia to prove the impotence of pagan gods. A major push followed between 775 and 777 when around 70 priests and deacons travelled to north-west Germany, including Willehard, who became the first north German bishop in 787.17 Liudger was a prominent, yet fairly typical missionary. A third-generation Christian Anglo-Saxon, he had been educated in Utrecht and York, imbibing the literate, cosmopolitan culture characteristic of a period without clear political or national boundaries. He worked among the Frisians from 787, moving his base in 793 to Mimigernaford, an important ford and crossroads, where he established a monasterium, giving the later name of Münster to the settlement that slowly developed around it.18

Like Boniface’s felling of the sacred oak, military victories were intended to prove that God favoured only Christians. Acceptance of the conqueror’s religion was a powerful sign of submission, hence the significance attached to the baptism of the Saxon leader Widukind in 785. Germanic warrior culture provided common ground, easing assimilation. The Saxon elite embraced Christianity within two generations. Already in 845, the Saxon Count Liudolf and his wife Oda travelled to Rome to fetch relics and papal approval for a convent at Gandersheim. Five years later, Widukind’s grandson Walbert collected Roman relics for his own monastery at Wildeshausen.19

Christianization and imperial expansion both slowed as the Carolingian civil wars coincided with intensified external raids by Vikings, Arabs and Magyars during the middle and later ninth century. The stabilization of the northern and eastern frontiers allowed renewed activity from the early 930s. The king and his cleric advisors selected suitable monks who were sent to Rome to secure papal backing and holy relics, before being despatched to establish new churches and persuade local pagans to convert.20 In time, these churches were placed on a firmer footing through incorporation within new or existing dioceses. A notable example was the mission of Abbot Hadomir of Fulda in 947, which revived Willehard’s archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen as the primary centre for the Christianization of Scandinavia and the Baltic.

The emperor was rarely able to help missionaries once they set off into the wild north and east. Those sent to Denmark were expelled in the 820s and Christianization made no headway there until the conversion of Harald Bluetooth in the mid-tenth century. The cooperation of local elites proved indispensable, especially as conversion entailed simultaneous acceptance of imperial suzerainty and payment of tithes. The Bohemian leader (and later saint) Wenceslas had been educated as a Christian and accepted imperial overlordship, only to be murdered on his brother’s orders in 929. Bohemia was forced to acknowledge imperial suzerainty in 950, though resistance to Christianity persisted into the eleventh century. Nonetheless, conversion of much of its elite proved significant in spreading Christianity and imperial influence to the East Elbian Slavs and to the Poles and Magyars. Vojtech (Adalbert), a missionary martyred by the Prussians in 997, came from the Bohemian ruling family.

Despite the impressive scope of its activity, Ottonian Christianization rested on insecure foundations, with few churches and only a tenuous hold on most of the East Elbian and Baltic populations. Its vulnerability was exposed during the massive Slav rising of July 983, which, in turn, was probably encouraged by Otto II’s catastrophic defeat by the Arabs at Cotrone the previous year. Churches and castles were swept away, leaving the partially Christianized Sorbs around Meissen as a last outpost. The other East Elbian bishoprics remained only nominally in existence, and it was not until the twelfth century that the bishops of Brandenburg and Havelberg could visit their dioceses.21

Nonetheless, many Slavs found Christianity attractive, especially the elite, who saw it as a way to enhance their own status through association with Latin culture and power. Bohemian and Polish nobles had already converted before 983 and refused to join the revolt. The Polish Duke Boleslav I Chrobry (‘the Brave’) ransomed Vojtech’s body from the Prussians and placed it in his capital at Gniezno just prior to Otto III’s pilgrimage during Lent 1000. The emperor’s visit resulted in Gniezno’s elevation to an archbishopric with jurisdiction over missionary bishops in Cracow, Kolberg and Breslau (Wroclaw). This entailed the transfer of jurisdictions that were previously part of the Magdeburg and Hamburg-Bremen archdioceses, as well as recognition of Boleslav Chrobry as an allied if still subordinate prince sharing in the imperial Christianizing mission. Cooperation was symbolized by Otto’s gift of a copy of the Holy Lance in exchange for the prized relic of Vojtech’s arm. Boleslav was clearly elevated above his local rivals, while the establishment of a separate Polish ecclesiastical structure provided the basis for that country as an independent monarchy. Polish Christianity was swept away by a pagan rising between 1037 and 1039 during which the rest of Vojtech’s corpse was retrieved and installed in Prague, where it became the focus of a cult extending across Germany, Bohemia, Poland and Hungary. Polish Christianity was rebuilt through new monastic foundations in the later eleventh century.22

Building the German Church

Burgundy and Italy already had established ecclesiastical structures dating from late antiquity when dioceses had been established on the framework provided by the Roman imperial provinces. The emperor’s primary contribution to the development of the Italian church was to encourage the pope to create new institutions in southern Italy to curb Byzantine influence during the late tenth century. These factors ensured there were 26 archdioceses in Italy in 1000, compared to six in Burgundy, seven in France, two in Britain, and one each in Poland and Hungary.

The general framework for the German church was laid out in just twenty years by Charlemagne in collaboration with the pope. Already an important base during St Boniface’s mission, Mainz was elevated to an archdiocese in 780 to oversee all missionary work east of the Rhine. The rapidity of subsequent conquests necessitated more subdivisions to allow closer supervision of the population being incorporated into the Frankish realm (Map 13). Cologne was raised to an archbishopric in 794 with responsibility for north-west Germany and the Frisian missions. Hamburg-Bremen was initially one of its subordinate bishoprics, but was itself raised to archiepiscopal status during the 860s with responsibility for lands beyond the Elbe. Bavaria’s submission to Carolingian rule led to Salzburg’s elevation as an archbishopric in 798. The Empire’s foundation in 800 was preceded the year before by an assembly held by Charlemagne and Leo III in Paderborn, which had served as the main military and missionary base in the campaigns against the Saxons since 770. It was agreed to leave Saxony as part of the archdiocese of Mainz, which was simultaneously confirmed as Germany’s premier archbishopric.23 Trier was raised to an archdiocese around 800 with jurisdiction over what became Lorraine, a factor in this province’s eventual attachment to Germany rather than France. Besançon was meanwhile made the senior archdiocese for Burgundy.

Complete by 800, this basic framework survived a millennium. The only major modification was made by Otto I, and the difficulties he encountered amply illustrate the role of local elites in developing the imperial church. Otto wanted to commemorate his victory at Lechfeld over the Magyars in 955 and improve coordination of missionary activity beyond the Elbe. At his imperial coronation in 962 he announced the establishment of a new archbishopric based at Magdeburg equal in status to Mainz, which was expected to relinquish its jurisdiction over the Saxons. The bishoprics of Brandenburg and Havelberg were transferred from Mainz. The bishop of Halberstadt (also under Mainz) was required to surrender part of his diocese to create a new bishopric of Merseburg, while additional bishops were to be installed at Meissen and Zeitz in the missionary areas.

Implementation was delayed until 968 by opposition from Otto’s son, Archbishop Wilhelm of Mainz. Otto I’s death in 973 opened the way to reverse his pet project. The pope adjusted the German hierarchy in 975–6, reasserting Mainz’s premiership and extending it to include Bohemia’s bishopric, created in Prague in 973.24 Otto II used the death of the first archbishop of Magdeburg in 981 as an opportunity to suppress the bishopric of Merseburg and redistribute its resources and jurisdictions to Halberstadt, Zeitz and Meissen, which were all considered under-endowed. Giselher, the former Merseburg bishop, was compensated by promotion to the vacant see of Magdeburg. However, this still left lesser clergy deeply disgruntled, including Thietmar, a Merseburg Cathedral canon who interpreted the 983 Slav rising as divine punishment for the suppression of his beloved diocese.25 Even the imperial family were divided over the issue. Otto II’s wife Theophanu supported Thietmar, while the emperor’s mother Adelheid backed Archbishop Giselher in opposing Merseburg’s restoration. The imperial women intervened, because Merseburg’s dissolution affected the jurisdiction over convents under their patronage. Otto III ordered Merseburg’s restoration in 998, but this was only achieved when Giselher died six years later and the new king Henry II made a large donation to compensate Magdeburg and Halberstadt.26

No further archdioceses were added after Magdeburg, but the number of bishoprics grew through a subdivision of existing dioceses, and the creation of new ones as the Empire expanded eastwards again from the twelfth century. Charlemagne’s realm had contained 180 bishoprics, of which 45 were under direct papal control. A significant number were detached in the Empire’s partition in 843 following the Treaty of Verdun, but the development of the German church created 32 bishoprics and 6 archbishoprics there by 973. This total grew to over 50 by 1500, or around a tenth of all those in Latin Christendom. There were another nine that remained unincorporated within an archdiocese, as well as five more outside all archiepiscopal control because they had been placed under direct papal supervision, like Bamberg, founded by Henry II in 1024.27


The eighth century already saw the foundation of abbeys as a third ecclesiastical tier junior to bishoprics and archbishoprics. Abbeys had smaller jurisdictions and were initially closer than diocesan centres to the monastic ideal of prayer. Frankish conquests both created the need for a local ecclesiastical infrastructure and secured the slave labour necessary to build it. Charlemagne is credited with founding 27 cathedrals, and 232 monasteries and abbeys, compared to 65 palaces.28 This activity created a new sacral landscape in Germany where only Mainz, Cologne and Trier had relatively old churches. Some important monasteries traced their origins to early missionary churches like St Gallen, established in Switzerland by an Irish monk in 612, though the actual church dated from the 830s. Association with a martyred missionary often influenced the choice of location, but royal or lordly initiative was important too.

Patronage of churches and abbeys helped preserve lordly family identity. The Ottonians traced their origins to Liudolf and Oda, the pious founders of Gandersheim convent. In praying for them, the Gandersheim nuns helped perpetuate the Ottonians’ memoria, including Abbess Hrotsvith, who wrote an early family history. Moreover, the Ottonians broke even more sharply than the Carolingians with the old Frankish practice of partible inheritance, thereby increasing the need for suitable accommodation for younger or unmarried children excluded from inheritance. All Gandersheim’s early abbesses, including Hrotsvith, were Liudolf and Oda’s direct descendants.29

Patronage extended to multiple sites, especially amongst the royal family, which remained without a fixed capital into the later Middle Ages and needed staging posts for their journeys around the Empire. Extended kinship continued to outweigh patrilinear descent in family structure, also encouraging the use of different places. In addition to Gandersheim, for instance, the Ottonians developed the former Carolingian castle of Quedlinburg into another important family convent, promoted by Henry I’s widow, Matilda. Matilda held the status of canoness regular created by the earlier Carolingian legislation, allowing her to become Quedlinburg’s first rector without taking vows as a nun.30

The Imperial Church

This ecclesiastical infrastructure emerged as the Empire developed, creating what became known as the imperial church and serving as a primary pillar of the political order into the early nineteenth century. As a new foundation, the imperial church rested on recently endowed land, most of which came directly from the emperor. The Franks had donated about a third of their land to the church between the fifth and eighth centuries, but Charles Martel had secularized much of this to fund his campaigns. Donations resumed under his grandson Charlemagne, but were most extensive in the newly conquered areas east of the Rhine where property could be redistributed from defeated peoples.31

Prüm abbey north of Trier was especially favoured, acquiring 1,700 individual properties scattered across Lotharingia, inhabited by 16,000 to 20,000 people in 893. The 12 manors belonging to St Bertin abbey in ninth-century Flanders encompassed 11,000 hectares, while Nyvel abbey near Ghent had 14,000 dependent farms when it was given by Otto II to Theophanu after their marriage in 972.32 These properties were gifted as benefices, remaining ultimately royal possessions whilst used by the beneficiaries. The Carolingians also finally achieved the long-standing Merovingian goal of enforcing the tithe as a one-tenth tax on all Christians. Bishops were charged with coordinating collection, but the role of assigning tithes to specific churches often lay with the king.33

The emperor expected a significant return on his investment. Senior clergy represented a readily identifiable group of vassals who could be summoned, in contrast to the much larger and fluctuating numbers of secular lords. The advice of clerics was valued, especially as they were usually literate, well travelled and widely connected. They could draw on their substantial endowments to supply troops for royal campaigns and coronation journeys. These burdens increased at the end of the tenth century when German kings largely stopped living in palaces and instead stayed with bishops and abbots as they toured the Empire. Clerics critical of such displays compared royal visits with biblical plagues of locusts.34

However, the imperial church was never an exclusive instrument of royal dominion, since lesser lords were also partners in these arrangements. This point is important, since it explains why the imperial church became so deeply embedded in the Empire’s socio-political hierarchy. Secular lords were already important local donors before the ninth-century civil wars disrupted royal supervision of abbeys. Lorsch, Fulda and other important imperial abbeys acquired additional, local patrons.35 Some houses slipped entirely under local control. Others were founded by lords on their own land. These trends created a second, mediate ecclesiastical layer under lordly jurisdiction and only indirectly subject to imperial authority. Carolingian lords passed monasteries directly to their sons, and lordly control remained pronounced until revised as protectorate powers during the Investiture Dispute that began in the 1070s (see pp. 56–60).

Prior to Gregory VII, lordly influence was generally welcomed. The early missionaries faced a monumental task and needed lordly protection and assistance. The term parish (parochium) and priest (sacerdos) still meant diocese and bishop respectively until well into the eleventh century. Clergy remained based in the primary religious sites like cathedral towns, travelling to outlying oratories and churches to perform services. Missionary activity further promoted the incipient hierarchy through founding mother–daughter networks with satellite churches surrounding their abbeys. Further church-building allowed the initially large parishes to be subdivided. By the eleventh century, most dioceses contained sufficient numbers of parishes to require an intermediary level of deaconries to supervise them. Demarcation was often driven by the desire to define control over tithes and other resources.36 Clergy also responded to growing demands for their services from the tenth century, as well as new ideas emerging from Gregorian reform and the requirement after 1215 to confess annually. The parish structures envisaged in Carolingian legislation around 800 finally became reality in the later Middle Ages when there were 50,000 parishes in the Empire, compared to 9,000 in England and a total of 160,000 across Latin Europe.37 The impact was profound. Christianity extended beyond the elite to become a more genuinely popular religion, changing many of its practices in the process.

The ‘incorporation’ or assignment of a parish to an abbey, a deaconry, or other higher jurisdiction entailed control over its resources, including tithes and any endowments associated with its church. With this often came the power to appoint the parish priest. By 1500, half of German parishes had been incorporated in this way, often with the priests’ functions entrusted to poorly paid vicars as substitutes. This formed a major grievance fuelling what would become the Reformation, but it also illustrates the growing complexity of overlapping jurisdictions, and interconnected spiritual, economic and political interests in the Empire.

These local networks remained mediate, subject to one or more intervening levels of secular supervision below the emperor’s overall authority, as well as subordination to at least one layer of spiritual authority, such as that of an abbot or a bishop. The extensive lordly influence remained acceptable to the emperor, because he retained overall supervision of the imperial church, including the appointment of archbishops, bishops and many abbots who remained his immediate vassals on account of their benefices. There was no significant breach in this control until 1198 when the secular supervision of the bishopric of Prague was transferred to the Bohemian king. The Bohemian church acquired full autonomy in 1344 when Prague was raised to an archbishopric, freeing it from Mainz’s spiritual jurisdiction. A separate Habsburg territorial church followed Frederick III’s concordat with the pope in 1448, which was consolidated with the establishment of new bishoprics in Vienna and Wiener Neustadt in 1469, subject to Frederick’s jurisdiction as Austrian archduke rather than as emperor. However, both bishoprics would remain under the spiritual jurisdiction of the archbishop of Salzburg, despite some reduction of that cleric’s powers by Joseph II in the 1780s.

The ‘Imperial Church System’

Before exploring the impact of the Reformation, we need to turn from the imperial church’s structure to its place in medieval imperial politics. The monarch’s influence over senior clerical appointments was a key royal prerogative that assumed even greater significance with the Ottonian kings after 919. Despite widespread clerical concubinage, the senior clergy were still celibate and lived under rules distinguishing them from the laity. As such, they could not pass their benefices directly to sons or relations, and so did not exhibit the trend to hereditary possession that was a constant feature of secular jurisdictions in the Empire. Consequently, the Ottonians saw the senior clergy as potentially more reliable partners than the great secular lords. Growing reliance on the imperial clergy changed the episcopate from the cosmopolitan, learned monks of the Carolingian era to a more aristocratic, politically engaged group, and created what has been termed the ‘imperial church system’ (Reichskirchensystem).38

This label remains useful provided we remember that the political use of the imperial church was never a coherent policy.39 Much depended on circumstances and personalities. Kings had to respect local interests, not simply through the formal requirements of canon law, but because ignoring these usually caused trouble. Two-thirds of eleventh-century bishops were either born in their see or had served there prior to appointment. Bishops ‘married’ their church, displaying a sense of transpersonal office by the eleventh century and seeking to raise their see’s prestige through cathedral-building, relic-collecting and territorial acquisitions. Simultaneously, the old ideal of the monk-like bishop was displaced around 1050 by a new model of the energetic shepherd actively promoting his flock’s welfare.40

The itinerant royal chapel was central to the king’s influence. Established under the Carolingians to provide religious services at court, it was developed by Otto I from the 950s to test the loyalty of his secular vassals by encouraging them to send their sons there to be educated. Soon, those who showed promise were rewarded with the next vacant bishopric or abbey. Turnover was relatively high, offering numerous opportunities: Henry II installed at least 42 bishops across his 22-year reign.41 The practice peaked under Henry III when half of all bishops emerged from the chapel. Capacity expanded with the foundation in 1050 as an additional training school of the St Simon and St Jude monastery at the royal palace in Goslar, Lower Saxony. Connections to royalty did not automatically make bishops more reliable partners. Kinship was at least as important, with families directly related to the king providing a quarter of both senior secular lords and bishops in the eleventh century. In the longer term, the monarchy was a victim of its own success. Royal patronage of the church increased the attractions of clerical appointments for lords, who began expecting appointments. The later Salians were unable – or possibly unwilling – to open the episcopate to the new class of unfree vassals calledministeriales who emerged in the eleventh century and might have provided a counterweight to aristocratic influence.42

The demographic and economic expansion from 950 was another factor behind royal patronage, because kings saw senior clergy as ideal agents to tap the growing resources. This explains why the later Ottonian and Salian kings accelerated the transfer of crown lands to the imperial church and entrusted senior clergy with new secular powers like mint and market rights, and jurisdiction for crime and public order. Far from representing a dissipation of central authority, this entailed the replacement of relatively inefficient direct management by a more productive partnership with the imperial church. Henry II began donating imperial abbeys to bishops whose sees overlay duchies where royal control was weak. For example, Bishop Meinward of Paderborn received several abbeys, strengthening him relative to the powerful duke of Saxony. The bishops of Metz, Toul and Verdun were likewise patronized as counterweights to the duke of Upper Lorraine. Italian bishops had already acquired county jurisdictions by the early tenth century, and this was extended by Henry II to Germany, where 54 counties had transferred into episcopal hands by 1056.43

This explains why the early Salians saw no danger in the cause of ‘church liberty’ emerging from eleventh-century reform, since it appeared to free valuable assets from the influence of potentially difficult secular lords. Bishops also welcomed the greater powers that assisted their conscription of peasant labour and the resources needed for cathedral construction. The invention of new techniques like frame construction increased the scale of both buildings and clerical ambitions. Within four days of arriving in Paderborn in 1009, Meinward ordered the half-finished cathedral to be demolished and resumed on a grander scale. Meanwhile, his colleague in Mainz embarked on a lavish construction programme to underpin his claim as Germany’s senior churchman. Bishops also adopted the new royal symbolism that had been introduced by Otto II by representing themselves in sculpture and pictures as seated on thrones.44 Episcopal and royal splendour were still mutually reinforcing at this point, and kings participated fully in the building boom. Henry III dramatically expanded Speyer Cathedral, making it the largest religious building north of the Alps in the mid-eleventh century and setting aside 189 square metres of the nave for the royal tomb. The symmetry of royal and ecclesiastical power was symbolized by the addition of two towers of equal height and a throne room above the western portico from where the emperor could see the mass; these modifications were replicated in many other cathedrals.45

Relations were not always so harmonious, even before the Investiture Dispute beginning in the 1070s. The most notorious case involved the rivalry of archbishop Anno II of Cologne, archbishop Adelbert of Hamburg-Bremen and Bishop Heinrich II of Augsburg during the regency for Henry IV (1056–65), and underscores the importance of personalities in imperial politics. Anno wanted to assert his own, exclusive control and persuaded the young king to inspect a boat moored outside the royal palace at Kaiserswerth on an island in the Rhine on 31 March 1062. No sooner was the king aboard than Anno’s co-conspirators cast off. Henry tried to escape by jumping overboard, but was fished out by Count Ekbert of Brunswick, and the boat sailed to Cologne, allegedly for the king’s safety.46

Secular lords did not always cooperate with imperial bishops, as illustrated in the defeat of Adelbert’s plans to revive Hamburg-Bremen’s earlier role as sole archbishopric for the Baltic and Scandinavia. He used his influence in the regency to acquire additional benefices and planned to incorporate 12 north German bishoprics within his jurisdiction. The Saxon lords compelled Henry IV to oblige Adelbert to relinquish two-thirds of his assets to their two leaders in 1066. The significance of Adelbert’s alienation of secular support was revealed later that year by the largest Slav rising since 983. Antagonized by Adelbert’s missionary zeal, the pagan Wends burned Hamburg and Schleswig, stoned Christians in Ratzeburg, and murdered one of their own princes who had cooperated.47

The Imperial Church after the Investiture Dispute

The Investiture Dispute changed how the church related to the emperor, but it did not diminish the church’s political role. The re-emergence of the monk-bishop ideal challenged political appointments, but it made little difference, as the aristocracy retained the best access to education and continued to dominate senior church positions. The Worms Concordat of 1122 confirmed that local clergy and laity were to participate in selecting their bishop. In practice, the wider population was excluded by the twelfth century through the emergence of cathedral and abbey chapters composed of lay canons, or senior clergy who had not taken full vows and who managed their church’s secular affairs. The royal chapel lost much of its political significance, since the way to become a bishop now lay through winning influence in the relevant chapter. This contrasted with the situation in France, where the king had displaced the chapters’ role in selection by the later Middle Ages.48

Although the Worms Concordat allowed the king to be present at elections, it was scarcely possible to coordinate royal movements with the death and succession of individual bishops. Conrad III’s presence is documented for only eight of the 36 episcopal elections during his reign, while Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ was present at just 18 of the 94 elections under his kingship. Nonetheless, monarchs retained considerable influence, sending envoys to express their views and, less directly, through their ability to favour clients with appointments as canons. They were aided by the generational shift around 1140 as the imperial church passed into the hands of men who had not participated in the Investiture Dispute and who viewed royal influence more pragmatically.

This explains why the transfer of secular jurisdictions to the imperial church resumed with even greater force under the Staufers, who enfeoffed favoured bishops with not merely counties but also ducal powers after 1168. The new relationship was codified in a general charter favouring what were now explicitly called ‘ecclesiastical princes’, which was issued in April 1220.49 This consolidated church lands as a distinct category of imperial fief held by senior clerics elected by their abbey or cathedral chapter. Like their hereditary secular counterparts, ecclesiastical lords only exercised their privileges once the emperor confirmed them in office. Their secular authority rested on the clutch of jurisdictions and material assets acquired over time and now permanently associated with their abbey or diocese. These jurisdictions were extensive, collectively covering a third of the German kingdom, but they remained fiefs held immediately under the emperor’s authority and entailed obligations to support him with advice, troops and other assistance. Simultaneously, the ecclesiastical lords exercised spiritual jurisdictions that generally extended far beyond their own lands and across neighbouring fiefs held by hereditary secular lords. These spiritual jurisdictions were bolstered by the ongoing incorporation of parishes within diocesan control and included powers to supervise local clergy and religious practice.

Abbots and bishops participated in the general trend to territorialize rights through clearer, more exclusive demarcation of jurisdictions under way from the thirteenth century. However, unlike their secular counterparts, they suffered from the Staufer’s demise around 1250, because the persistence of weaker monarchs into the fourteenth century reduced the flow of patronage and benefices. Abbeys with nuns were especially hard hit, with many disappearing during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries through incorporation within the domains of their secular protectors.50 Many abbeys and bishoprics now appeared under-resourced compared to the larger secular fiefs. Secular lords tried to curtail spiritual jurisdiction where this conflicted with their own powers to adjudicate criminal behaviour, especially as the growing significance on personal piety and morality from the thirteenth century changed how many misdemeanours were perceived. Ecclesiastical lords frequently lost lands that they had previously pawned to secular neighbours to avoid insolvency. Some ecclesiastical lords agreed treaties of protection, whereby secular lords assumed various functions on their behalf, including honouring their obligations as imperial vassals. Over time, such agreements eroded the ecclesiastical lords’ immediacy and by the later fifteenth century 15 bishoprics, including Brandenburg and Meissen, were well on their way to being fully incorporated within secular principalities.


Efforts to rebuild ecclesiastical structures in north-eastern Germany after 983 were wrecked by the renewed Slav rising of 1066. Expansion of the Empire and imperial church only resumed around 1140, but this time it continued until virtually the entire southern Baltic shore had been Christianized and incorporated within the Empire. The extensive forests and underpopulated regions east of the Elbe had attracted western settlers since at least the eighth century, but the movement only became general and coordinated after 1100. Acutely aware that Germany had lost out in the European scramble to steal other peoples’ lands, nineteenth-century historians adopted the language of high imperialism to present this migration as a legitimate ‘drive to the east’ (Drang nach Osten  ) to colonize ‘virgin land’ and spread a supposedly superior culture.51 In fact, eastwards migration was part of a much wider movement of peoples throughout the Empire, which included forest clearance, marsh drainage, land reclamation and urbanization, all frequently in areas already viewed as ‘settled’. People were moving elsewhere in Europe at the same time, such as Spaniards crossing into Arab lands south of the river Ebro, or southern Italians settling in Sicily after its conquest by the Normans.52

The initial impetus came from the more densely populated areas of Holland, Flanders and the Lower Rhine, from where people were already moving around 1100 into the western Saxon lands around Bremen. Flemings and Dutch also continued east across the Elbe into the eastern Saxon areas of Altmark and Brandenburg during the twelfth century, and were later joined by further waves of Saxon and Westphalian migrants. Hessians and Thuringians from central Germany moved east into the area between the Elbe and the middle Saale, settling the region that would later become electoral Saxony. Altogether, 400,000 people crossed the Elbe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, causing an eightfold increase in the population of the region immediately beyond, compared to a 39 per cent increase over the next 250 years.53 Meanwhile, south Germans joined migrants from Luxembourg and the Moselle region in crossing Hungary to settle in Transylvania in the late twelfth century. Saxons, Rhinelanders and Thuringians also headed north to the Baltic coast, while Italians crossed the Alps to live in Germany. New Polish towns attracted Germans, Italians, Jews, Armenians and Tartars, while Polish settlers headed into Lithuania, Prussia and later Russia.

Each group brought its own legal system, though most lived under what was called ‘German law’. This was always an amalgam of different elements, some originating in Flanders. Each successive wave of migrants transformed this law as they moved further east, creating entirely new elements unknown in the west. Certain broad patterns existed through the influence of Lübeck, Magdeburg and other important cities, providing models for the laws of new eastern settlements.54

The legal arrangements help explain why people moved. Although the impetus came from areas with high population density, migration was not primarily a product of overpopulation. As Flemish migrants put it: ‘We want to go east together . . . there’ll be a better life there.’55 The new laws included better property rights, lower inheritance dues and reduced feudal obligations. Migrants faced considerable hardship, as expressed by the thirteenth-century German proverb Tod-Not-Brot  : the first generation found death, the second experienced want, but the third finally got bread. The greater personal freedoms were guaranteed by eastern lords who used them to attract settlers to their sparsely inhabited domains. Slav lords participated in this, like the Polish Prince Henryk the Bearded of Silesia, who called on 10,000 Germans to settle 400 new villages he established in 1205.56

Newcomers almost always faced mistrust, not least because they enjoyed privileges denied indigenous inhabitants, who remained tied to manorial farms. Assimilation was also slowed by the successive arrival of fresh migrants. Areas experiencing significant initial settlement were transformed, such as Brandenburg, where already by 1220 Slavic-speaking Wends were only a third of the population. Migrants had generally merged with the indigenous population by the fifteenth century, though some Slavic areas retained their distinct identity, most notably the Sorbs, who remain a distinct group today around Bautzen and Cottbus in eastern Germany. Germans comprised only 40 per cent of Prussia’s population, while Slovenes predominated in Krain and Lower Styria. Assimilation could work in the other direction. Germans arriving in rural parts of Prussia and Poland became Polonized, and though they predominated in the towns, this was not invariably the case and by the sixteenth century, German was no longer understood in Cracow. Descendants of medieval settlers often reacted with hostility when a new wave of German eastwards migration began in the eighteenth century.57

The initial phase of colonization was accompanied by considerable violence, reinforcing a sense of a frontier and contributing to the lasting contradistinction between German and Slavic identities. The arrival of additional labour reduced the dependency of frontier communities on slave raiding, whereas those Slav communities still further east continued attacks for captives. Coupled with factors like material and technological differences, this fostered the self-perception among German communities of their inherent cultural superiority.58

The Northern Crusades

Animosities were inflamed by the new language of holy war accompanying the Empire’s eastwards expansion. Popes already blessed warriors and their weapons in the tenth century and from 1053 offered remission from sin to men fighting their enemies. Initially, these indulgences were granted to those fighting the Normans, but from 1064 they were extended to campaigns against Muslims. Gregory VII prepared the ground for what became the crusades by stigmatizing his enemies as heretics. The ideologically charged Investiture Dispute nurtured new ideas about violence, involving sharper distinctions between Christendom as a realm of peace where killing was condemned as murder, and an external world where exterminating infidels glorified God and Christians dying in combat became martyrs directly entering heaven.

The most concrete expression of these beliefs were the new military orders whose members combined monastic vows with the duty to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. The Templars are perhaps the best remembered today, but never had a significant presence in the Empire, in contrast to the Hospitallers, who were founded in 1099 and known in the Empire as the Johanniter, or Knights of St John. They established their first German house at Duisburg in 1150, and were followed by the Teutonic Order formed in the Holy Land in 1190, which had seven houses in the Lower Rhine by 1261.59

The crushing defeat by the Turks at Manzikert in 1071 forced the Byzantine emperor to call on the despised Latins for assistance. The first full crusade was eventually proclaimed by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in November 1095. The initial part of the ambitious programme was achieved with surprising ease when Jerusalem was recovered after 463 years of Muslim rule in 1099, leading to the establishment of a new crusader state in the Holy Land. The second goal of reunifying the eastern and western churches quickly foundered on the pope’s insistence on supremacy over Constantinople’s patriarch. By 1105, the papacy was actively encouraging the Normans to conquer Byzantium, a redirection of resources that ultimately contributed to the failure of the entire crusading enterprise over the following three centuries.60

Crusader ideology was employed against western Christian opponents already in 1102 when Pope Paschalis II backed one of Henry IV’s opponents in a struggle over the bishopric of Cambrai; this was one of the many local conflicts characterizing the confused final phase of the Investiture Dispute. The ideology was employed more extensively by Gregory IX and Innocent IV, who redirected armies bound for the Holy Land to fight Frederick II in the final stage of the papacy’s conflict with the Staufers.

Outside Italy, crusader ideology assisted the Empire’s expansion. What became known as the Northern Crusades opened as a second front declared by the pope in 1147 to attack the Wends and other Slavs north of the Elbe. The initiative lay with Count Adolf II of Holstein, who began by evicting Slavs from Wagria and replacing them with Flemish and German settlers, many of whom helped found the new town of Lübeck in 1143. Official sanction as a crusade attracted Germans, Danes, Poles and some Bohemians to Adolf’s army, allowing him to greatly expand operations. ‘Indulgences on this front could be won at a lower cost and in a fraction of the time necessary to complete a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.’61 The cooperation of the Polish and Pomeranian dukes proved crucial to success. These Slavic princes were engaged in Christianizing their own lands as a means to enhance their authority and possessions. Their involvement expanded the scope of the Northern Crusades from the area immediately north of the Elbe eastwards along the Baltic shore through Prussia and into modern Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Much of this region had been conquered by 1224, assisted by the pope’s sanction of the Knights of the Sword, a new military order who soon became rulers of the area north of Riga, known as Livonia.

The heathen Prussians were driven from the Vistula estuary in the later eleventh century, only to spread across the Polish duchy of Masovia, prompting Duke Conrad to appeal for aid in 1226. The call was answered by the Teutonic Order, which had transferred to fight in Hungary only to be expelled in 1225 for being out of control. Operations were temporarily dislocated by the devastating Mongol invasion of Poland in 1240–41, which eliminated much of the Polish elite. Although the Mongols soon retreated, Pope Innocent IV had been persuaded to proclaim a permanent Baltic crusade in 1245, legitimizing regular recruitment for the Teutonic Order. Four hard-fought campaigns secured Prussia by 1280.62

The emperor was hardly involved in either colonization or the Northern Crusades, which, together, achieved the largest expansion of the Empire since Charlemagne. Although Frederick II issued his own authorization to the Teutonic Knights, the Order acted independently in carving out its own state, which eventually succumbed to a resurgent Poland around 1500 (see pp. 209–11). Secularization of the Order’s territory in Prussia by the (then) relatively insignificant Hohenzollern dynasty in 1525 did not affect its other possessions, which were grouped into 12 bailiwicks across the Rhineland, south and central Germany, and Austria. The Order retained its crusader privileges, making membership highly attractive for German nobles. Any land donated to it was immediately freed from previous debts. The senior Grand Master remained based in Germany and had been raised to the status of imperial prince in 1494, followed by his counterpart in the Knights of St John in 1548. These elevations integrated both Orders and their leaders into the imperial church, with their lands becoming immediate imperial fiefs, though the Knights of St John remained part of an international organization based in Malta. The Teutonic Grand Master remained Catholic, but the Order accepted Protestant nobles after the Reformation.63

The Hussites

A century after the Northern Crusades, the Empire engaged in a final, internal crusade, against Bohemian Hussitism, the most important heretical movement prior to the Reformation, as well as the largest popular rising prior to the Peasants War of 1524–6. The late medieval concern for individual belief intersected with the growth of written culture to make heresy easier to identify as deviance from approved texts and practices. The Hussites took inspiration from Jan Hus, the rector of Prague University who was treacherously burned at the stake in 1415 after the Luxembourg monarch Sigismund reneged on a promised safe conduct to present Hus’s case at the Council of Constance (1414–18). Although the Hussites established their own national church in 1417, their movement soon split into millennialist Taborites, operating from the town of Tabor, and moderate Utraquists, named after their practice of communion ‘in both kinds’ (sub utraque specie  ), bread and wine. Opposition to Sigismund’s accession as Bohemian king in 1419 briefly reunited the factions and led to their conquest of most of the kingdom.

Sigismund received papal indulgences for five major expeditions between 1420 and 1431. Most crusaders came from Germany, Holland and Hungary (where Sigismund was also king), despite the appeal being directed throughout Christendom. A 3,000-strong English detachment arrived on the continent in 1427, but they were redirected to fight Jeanne d’Arc in the Hundred Years War – a further indication of the manipulation of indulgences to advance secular goals. The imperial counter-attacks were repulsed by the Hussites’ determination and superior tactics, but also because the emperor was simultaneously engaged in defending Hungary against renewed Turkish invasion.

Eventually, the situation was defused through the Compacta of 1436 between the Bohemian Catholic elite and the Utraquists, who formed the majority of the population. Utraquist practices were tolerated in return for their formal submission to Rome. The defeat was greater for the papacy than for the Empire. For the first time, the pope had allowed heretics to present their case and made significant concessions. Sigismund’s rule was secure in Bohemia, while the episode provided a significant boost to constitutional reform, eventually giving the Empire its definitive shape around 1500. Bohemia remained within the Empire despite its distinctive religious arrangements and even the accession of an openly Utraquist king, George Podibrad, in 1458.64


The Jews and the Empire

The story of the Jews in the Empire is much like imperial history generally: far from perfect, occasionally tragic, but generally more benign than that of other places or times. Although marginalized in most accounts, their history reveals much about the Empire’s social and political order. Charlemagne revived late Roman imperial patronage of the Jews, who had retained legal recognition in most of the Germanic successor kingdoms since the fall of western Rome in the late fifth century. Jews made significant contributions to Carolingian artistic and commercial development, particularly through their roles as intermediaries in selling captive Slavs as slave soldiers to Iberian Muslim armies. There were around 20,000 Ashkenazi Jews in the Empire north of the Alps in 1000, mainly in Mainz, Worms and other Rhenish episcopal towns.65

The Carolingian and Ottonian elite remained ambivalent, conscious that Jews and Christians shared the Old Testament, yet only Jews could read the original Hebrew text.66 Imperial protection was inconsistent. Otto II often assigned powers over Jews to bishops as part of broader privileges intended to boost the development of cathedral towns. Adverse circumstances could prompt punitive measures against Jews, notably under Henry II, who was decidedly less tolerant. Two thousand Jews were expelled from Mainz in 1012, though the decree was revoked the following year.67

The most significant step came in 1090 when Henry IV issued a general privilege to Jews modelled on those granted to individuals by Louis II over two centuries earlier. Probably prompted by the significant growth in the Jewish population in Worms and Speyer, Henry assumed the position of Advocatis Imperatoris Judaica, or general protector of all Jews in the Empire. This established arrangements that persisted until the Empire’s demise in 1806. The safeguarding of Jewish economic, legal and religious rights was reserved as an imperial prerogative, linking imperial prestige to effective protection. Like other arrangements in the Empire, implementation varied according to circumstances, while protection rights were often devolved along with other privileges to more local figures. Enforcement became less consistent, but over time Jewish privileges were woven into the general web of imperial law, affording Jews by early modernity a surprising degree of autonomous protection.

Pre-modern toleration should not be confused with modern multiculturalism, equality, and the celebration of diversity as intrinsically good. Jews remained protected provided they accepted their second-class status. Diversity was feared, but also recognized as beneficial. Jews had a specific socio-economic role, assuming tasks that Christians were unwilling or unable to perform. Jews also played a cultural part as ‘the other’ reinforcing Christian group identity – often at considerable cost to themselves.

Pogroms and Extortion

Imperial protection of the Jews foundered almost immediately when Henry IV was trapped by his enemies in northern Italy and unable to prevent the first serious pogrom in German history in 1096. Proclamation of the First Crusade in November 1095 coincided with widespread suffering from flooding and famine. French preachers spread the standard accusations of Jews as usurers and ‘Christ killers’, calling on the crusaders to eradicate them as they marched to the Holy Land. Already licensed to kill by papal indulgences, the crusading army wreaked havoc as it moved east from Rouen into the Empire, where it was joined by impoverished German knights who saw a chance for plunder. Jews were told to convert or die, with many choosing suicide as the crusaders marched up the Rhine. Only the pro-imperial bishop Johannes of Speyer used force to uphold imperial protection. Once he managed to escape to Germany in 1097, Henry blamed Archbishop Ruthard of Mainz for the pogrom. Jews who had been forcibly converted were allowed to return to Judaism, despite Ruthard’s protests. Imperial protection was renewed and incorporated in the general public peace declared for the Empire in 1103.68

Frederick Barbarossa acted swiftly to prevent a repeat of the pogrom when 10,000 gathered in Mainz to take the cross for the Third Crusade in March 1188. He publicly praised loyal Jews, and when a mob threatened violence against them, the imperial marshal, ‘taking his servants with him and his staff in his hand . . . smote and wounded them, until they all dispersed’.69

Frederick II made an important adjustment when he renewed Henry IV’s legislation in 1234. As with many of Frederick’s actions, this was not as progressive as it first appears. The emperor vigorously rejected the myth of Jews committing ritual child murder, which so often provided an excuse for pogroms. Christians killed 30 Jews in Fulda after five Christian children died in a house fire at Christmas 1235. The case was considered sufficiently serious to be transferred to Frederick’s own royal tribunal, which publicly rejected the excuse of ritual murder and renewed imperial protection for all Jews early the next year. Frederick’s legislation inspired similar measures in Hungary (1251), Bohemia (1254) and Poland (1264). Unfortunately, it also incorporated Pope Innocent III’s transfer of religious animosity to secular law promulgated a few decades earlier. Arguing that Jews inherited the guilt of Christ’s death, Innocent had imposed permanent servitude as a punishment. This aspect was expressed in Frederick’s verdict in 1236, which subordinated the Empire’s Jews as ‘servants of the chamber’ (Kammerknechte).70 Protection was now dependent on payment of an annual tax, known since 1324 as the ‘Sacrificial Penny’, levied on all Jews older than 12. An additional ‘crown tax’ was payable on the accession of each new king.

Imperial protection for Jews remained patchy. Three-quarters of Frankfurt’s 200-strong Jewish community died in a pogrom in 1241, while Jews joined other migrants heading east in search of a better life. Nonetheless, the situation was probably similar to that in Spain and compared favourably to England or France.71 More significantly, this persisted despite weaker royal power after 1250, providing a further indication that ‘decentralization’ should not be misconstrued as ‘decline’ in the Empire’s history. Later thirteenth-century kings sold or devolved to lords those rights to protect Jews as part of a wider strategy to buy support. Consequently, both the number of Jewish communities and their lordly protectors multiplied so that there were 350 communities across Germany by the mid-fourteenth century.

This did not immediately strengthen protection for the Jews, since overall responsibility remained with the monarch, who could switch track, as Charles IV demonstrated with fatal results. Charles assumed power in the middle of a civil war in 1346. The papal interdict against his predecessor, Louis IV, had left large parts of the Empire without Christian services by 1338, stoking anxiety that deepened dramatically with the Black Death a decade later. Charles crudely exploited his prerogatives to win support by encouraging pogroms, even offering immunity in return for a share in the spoils. Six hundred Jews died in Nuremberg, where the Marienkirche was built on the ruins of their synagogue, while only around 50 communities across the Empire survived, largely by paying huge ransoms.72 The privilege of protecting Jews (Judenregal) was included in the wider bundle of rights granted to the electors in the Golden Bull cementing the new alliance between Charles and the Empire’s political elite in 1356. His son and successor Wenzel repeated this shameful extortion, receiving 40,000 florins from the Swabian cities in return for allowing them to plunder their Jewish populations in June 1385, and he did this again five years later in alliance with several princes. Meanwhile, Jews faced growing discrimination, including exclusion from long-distance trade. Again, much of this was fuelled by the Empire’s elite, who were imposing heavier taxes on Jews, who were then obliged to pass increased costs on to their Christian customers by charging higher interest on loans.73

Early Modern Protection

Nonetheless, in the longer term the devolution of protection for Jews blunted this abuse of power by widening the circle of those with a vested interest in better relations. Throughout the bad times of the fourteenth century, individual lords and imperial cities preferred peaceful coexistence. Regensburg and Ulm refused to cooperate with Charles’s measures, and while Frankfurt expelled its Jews in 1349, it allowed them to return in 1360. The community thrived, doubling across the late fifteenth century to total 250 by 1522, and then rising rapidly, reaching 3,000 or 11 per cent of all inhabitants by 1610.74 The Habsburg Albert II was the last monarch to attempt extortion and, significantly, this failed to raise much money, despite the richer and larger Jewish population.75

His successor, Frederick III, reactivated imperial protection by claiming all Jews were his immediate subjects. Frederick too hoped to raise money, but this time through the regular Sacrificial Penny, and he vigorously resisted calls from Christians to reinstitute extortion. He was criticized as too soft, and mocked as ‘king of the Jews’.76 More positive attitudes were emerging around the time of Frederick’s death in 1493. Humanists and early Protestant reformers were interested in Hebrew as a means to understand Christianity’s origins. Sebastian Münster’s book Hebraica sold 100,000 copies, making it one of the world’s first best-sellers. The personally anti-Semitic Maximilian I, Frederick’s successor, was dissuaded from renewing persecution by the Humanist Johannes Reuchlin, who argued in 1511 that Jews had been Roman citizens since late antiquity.

Rapid socio-economic change, passions stirred by the Reformation, and the reformers’ disappointment at failing to convert Jews to Protestantism all contributed to a more threatening atmosphere around 1530. Jews were expelled from at least 13 Protestant and Catholic territories and cities between 1519 and 1614, reducing their main communities to Frankfurt, Friedberg, Worms, Speyer, Vienna, Prague and Fulda abbey. Anti-Semitism remained a depressing feature of rural as well as urban protest throughout early modernity. However, the continued grant of Jewish protection rights to princes created new communities in Fürth, Minden, Hildesheim, Essen, Altona, Crailsheim and the duchy of Westphalia from the 1570s. Others, like Ansbach, readmitted communities they had previously expelled. The new pattern of protection again changed the character of Jewish settlement, which now spread into the countryside from imperial cities and princely residence towns. Meanwhile, refugees from the Dutch Revolt founded the Empire’s first Sephardic community in Hamburg during the 1580s.

Jews and Imperial Law

Emperor Rudolf II (r. 1576–1612) was genuinely interested in Jewish culture and banned Luther’s anti-Semitic books.77 However, the Empire’s development as a mixed monarchy proved a far more significant factor in the improving conditions. Unlike in centralized monarchies, toleration no longer depended on the whim of individual monarchs. Devolution of protection for Jews embedded responsibility within the general web of privileges and rights enshrined in imperial law. Imperial protection was renewed five times between 1530 and 1551, and became part of the general legislation passed by all imperial Estates through the Reichstag, linking the integrity and prestige of all political authorities to ensuring observance. The 1530 law did oblige all Jews to wear a yellow star. This was widely ignored and then formally overturned by the Reichstag in 1544. All forms of harassment were now prohibited. Jews were guaranteed free mobility, protection for their property and synagogues and against forced conversion, and were permitted to charge higher interest rates than Christians. Jewish self-government also secured legal recognition.78

Local authorities had to obtain permission from higher sources before expelling a Jewish community. Individual Jews remained subject to numerous restrictions, such as denial of full citizenship in cities, but could own property, including weapons, and could participate in wider aspects of the Empire, including using the imperial postal service. Imperial criminal justice remained neutral towards religion. Prejudice certainly affected judgements, but the new imperial supreme courts created in the 1490s were concerned with adhering to formal procedures. For instance, Jewish prisoners could observe religious rituals, even where they had not requested this.79

Like peasants and other socially disadvantaged groups, Jews were able to make effective use of imperial laws to defend their rights after 1530. For example, Emperor Ferdinand I’s own supreme tribunal (the Reichshofrat) disregarded his anti-Semitism and upheld an appeal from the Jewish community in Worms against the city council’s decision to expel them.80 Such cases have wider significance, because the Empire’s judicial system is widely perceived as deficient thanks to a systematic late sixteenth-century campaign by Protestant zealots to discredit their Catholic opponents, much of which was accepted as fact by later historians. Precisely when some Protestant princes were complaining loudly at religious bias, Jewish communities were quietly and effectively obtaining legal protection against princely and civic persecution.81

This is best demonstrated by the notorious Fettmilch incident, the worst anti-Semitic outburst between the mid-fourteenth century and the 1930s.82 Frankfurt’s Jewish community became the scapegoats for wider problems in the city around 1600, including rising taxation, falling wages, and an increasingly oligarchical government perceived as out of touch with ordinary inhabitants. The artisan leader Vincenz Fettmilch accused Jews and patricians of exploiting the poor, inciting a mob that attacked both the city hall and the ghetto where the city’s Jews had lived since 1462, murdering 262 and plundering property worth 176,000 florins in 1612. Violence spread to Worms, where Jews were expelled. Although the outbreak had not been prevented, punishment was swift and effective. Fettmilch and six associates were executed, while legal injunctions prevented other cities from expelling their communities. Worms was forced to readmit its Jews in 1617. Overall, Jews brought 1,021 cases to the Empire’s supreme court (theReichskammergericht), representing 1.3 per cent of its entire case load between 1495 and 1806, though they only numbered 0.5 per cent of the Empire’s population. Meanwhile, they were also involved in 1,200 cases before the Reichshofrat between 1559 and 1670, or 3 per cent of that court’s business.83

The Persistence of Established Structures

Protection for the Jews continued despite the upheavals of the Thirty Years War (1618–48), while the surge in violent anti-Semitism accompanying the hyper-inflation of 1621–3 did not see a repeat of the earlier pogroms. The immediate post-war decades after 1648 saw a renewed wave of expulsions, with Jews driven from ten territories and cities, including Vienna, but these were more limited than those of the sixteenth century, while many authorities now actively encouraged Jewish immigration to help repopulate their lands. Already in 1675, 250 families were allowed to return to Vienna, while that year Duisburg University admitted its first Jewish students, far ahead of institutions elsewhere in Europe.84 Territorial governments observed their legal obligations, even though they no longer derived significant financial benefit. Only Frankfurt’s Jews still paid the Sacrificial Penny in the eighteenth century, which brought the emperor a mere 3,000 florins annually, while Jewish taxes in Münster accounted for just 0.1 per cent of the bishopric’s revenue.85

The Jewish population grew faster than that of the Empire overall, rising from under 40,000 in 1600 to 60,000 by the later seventeenth century, with an additional 50,000 in Bohemia and Moravia. Although main centres were still urban, notably Frankfurt and Prague, nine out of ten Jews now lived in the countryside, either in the 30 principalities with communities or amongst the 20,000 living on the lands of the imperial knights by the late eighteenth century. The knights saw Jewish protection as a way of asserting their otherwise vulnerable autonomy. The Jewish population continued to grow faster than that of Christians, totalling 250,000 by 1800, with a further 150,000 in the lands recently annexed by Austria and Prussia from Poland.86

Economic arguments and liberal ideas associated with the Enlightenment are usually used to explain the improving conditions leading to nineteenth-century emancipation. This links the standard narrative of progress to the centralized state, exemplified in central Europe by Prussia and Austria. Both these lands were largely outside the web of imperial laws by the late eighteenth century, so we would expect the position of Jews there to be better than in the more politically fragmented areas of the Empire. This was not the case. The situation in the Habsburg monarchy was not always favourable prior to the 1781 toleration edict, and in 1745 the Ottoman sultan lodged a formal protest at Empress Maria Theresa’s treatment of the Bohemian Jews.87 Frederick William I forced Prussia’s Jews to pay a new tax in 1714 in return for dropping requirements to make them wear a distinctive red hat. The Berlin court printer circumvented the imperial censor to publish Johannes Andreas Eisenmenger’s Jewishness Revealed, the first modern anti-Semitic book that was banned in the Empire, but it now appeared from a press supposedly based in the Prussian town of Königsberg beyond the imperial frontier. The brilliant Jewish intellectual, Moses Mendelssohn, visiting Berlin in 1776, was made to pay a head tax fixed at the rate levied on cattle passing the main city gate in a deliberate effort to ridicule him. His treatment reveals the hollowness of Frederick II of Prussia’s much-celebrated toleration.88

Legal protection for Jews could still fail elsewhere in the Empire, as exemplified by the notorious show trial and execution of the financier Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, who was made the scapegoat for discredited government policies in Württemberg in 1738.89However, the authorities had a vested interest in upholding protection, since their own privileges and status were at risk if they failed to do so.90 The contrast with other parts of Europe is perhaps best illustrated by one final case. Prince de Rohan fled revolution in his homeland of France by moving to his German properties at Ettenheim in 1790, where he evicted several Jewish families to make room for his courtiers. The families promptly obtained redress from the Reichskammergericht.91


The Reformation in the Context of Imperial History

The Jews formed the Empire’s only religious minority between the decline of paganism amongst the Slavic populations around 1200 and the emergence of Hussitism over two centuries later. The most significant challenge to conformity came with the Reformation after 1517.92 The Reformation’s uneven outcome reinforced the political and cultural distinctions between the Empire’s primary territorial components, including the drift of Switzerland and the Netherlands towards independence.

The causes of this cultural earthquake lie beyond this book’s scope, but we need to note the context in which it emerged, since this explains why the new religious controversy differed from those of the medieval Empire. Papal concordats with individual monarchs since the early twelfth century fostered the growth of more distinct national churches across much of Europe. This process accelerated rapidly around 1450 and contributed to Charles V’s inability during the 1520s to repeat Sigismund’s success at the Council of Constance by addressing the Reformation through a single church council under his leadership. Meanwhile, the Empire was also changing rapidly through the institutional changes collectively labelled ‘imperial reform’ around 1500 (see pp. 398–406). Crucially, these changes were incomplete by 1517, ensuring that resolution of the crisis became enmeshed with constitutional developments.

The context also contributed to Luther’s failure to restore what he regarded as the original ‘pure’ Christianity by elevating Scripture to the sole basis of truth. The relative decline in papal and imperial authority meant there was now no single authority to judge his beliefs, which were as a result accepted, rejected or adapted by a host of national and local communities. Religious issues affected broad aspects of daily life, as well as personal salvation, adding to the urgency of their resolution. Attempts to defuse controversy by clarifying doctrine proved counter-productive, since fixing arguments in writing simply made the disagreements more obvious. Moreover, the new print media ensured rapid dissemination of the diverging views, igniting arguments across Europe.93 Once the initial splits had occurred, it became harder for those involved to repair them.

The Problem of Authority

The failure of clerical leadership prompted theologians and laity to call on the secular authorities for protection and support. Religious issues became impossible to disentangle from political questions as political backing for Luther expanded the evangelical movement from simply protesting within the Roman church to creating a rival structure. The real question by 1530 was one of authority. It was not clear who among the emperor, princes, magistrates or people was entitled to decide which version of Christianity was correct. Nor was it clear how to resolve who owned church property or how to deal with dissent.

Some reformers like Caspar Schwenckfeld and Melchior Hoffmann rejected virtually all established authority, while a few like Thomas Müntzer envisaged a communistic godly society. Such radicalism was discredited by the violence accompanying the Knights Revolt (1522–3) and Peasants War (1524–6) (see pp. 557–8 and 591–3). Regardless of belief, the Empire’s authorities had closed ranks to exclude common folk from these decisions by 1526. However, evangelicals continued to elaborate theological arguments to resist those who opposed their goals, by claiming that duty to God trumped political obedience.94 Unfortunately, even they disagreed about who possessed such rights of resistance. While most restricted such resistance to ‘godly magistrates’, it was far from clear who these were given the Empire’s multiple layers of authority.

Luther’s protest came at entirely the wrong time for the ageing emperor Maximilian I, who was in the middle of brokering the election of his grandson, Charles, king of Spain, as his successor. The pressure of other events ensured that nearly two years elapsed between Charles’s election as emperor in 1519 and his arrival in the Empire to open his first Reichstag at Worms in April 1521. The delay fuelled not only mounting (and unrealistic) expectations, but also frustration at the pace of constitutional reform. The decisions over the next three years proved decisive in determining how religion affected later imperial politics.95 Luther’s refusal to recant at Worms prompted Charles to impose the imperial ban, effectively criminalizing the evangelicals as outlaws who threatened the Empire’s internal ‘public peace’. Under the judicial system developed since 1495, all imperial Estates were supposed to enforce this decision, but Charles acted more honourably than Sigismund had behaved towards Jan Hus. Having allowed Luther to enter Worms under safe conduct, Charles permitted him to leave unmolested. The elector of Saxony, who sympathized with Luther, then arranged to have him hidden in Wartburg castle, where he stayed for ten months while others spread his message largely unchecked.

Having sought to detach theological issues from public order, Charles issued the Edict of Burgos on 15 July 1524, expressly rejecting calls to hold a national council to debate church reform. This completed his attempt to separate religion and politics along the traditional lines expressed by the Two Swords doctrine: the pope was to decide what constituted the correct version of Christianity, while Charles as emperor would enforce this using the Empire’s legal machinery to crush dissent as a public-order issue.

A Lost Opportunity?

The controversy surrounding the decisions of 1521–4 persisted into the nineteenth century. Protestant German nationalists condemned what they regarded as a lost opportunity to embrace their faith as a truly ‘German’ religion, thereby forging the Empire as a nation state.96 This ‘failure’ was often woven into explanations of later German woes: the country was supposedly left divided, hindering unification under Bismarck, who regarded Catholics as disloyal after 1871, because of their continued religious allegiance to Rome. These charges rest on a partisan, Protestant reading of history and the self-identification of that faith as inherently ‘German’, as well as a gross oversimplification of the situation facing people in the sixteenth-century Empire – that is, a supposedly simple choice between Catholicism and Protestantism. The vast majority hoped the controversy could be resolved without shattering Christian unity. Wholehearted support for Luther made little political sense for Charles V, regardless of his own fairly conservative views on faith. Ruling the birthplace of the Reformation, Charles confronted evangelism when it appeared indelibly associated with political subversion and challenges to the socio-economic order, and before it had acquired the theological and institutional footing making it acceptable later in other countries such as England. Charles’s imperial title was tied to a universal, not a national, church, and it remained inconceivable, both to himself and to many of his subjects, that he should not follow the same faith as the pope.97

These considerations help explain why the Empire did not adopt what became the general western European solution to the religious controversy of imposing a monarchical civil peace. This entailed the ruler deciding on a single official faith enshrined in a written statement prepared by his theologians (as, for example, in England), or through publicly defending Catholicism. Regardless of the precise theology, this produced a ‘confessional state’ with a single, established church allied institutionally and politically to the crown.98 Toleration of dissenters was a matter of political expediency, granted when the monarchy was weak, as in the case of late sixteenth-century France, or where the official church remained opposed by a significant minority, as in England. Either way, dissenters depended on special royal dispensations which could be curtailed, or revoked, unilaterally, as the French Huguenots discovered in 1685. Toleration might be widened incrementally through further dispensations, like the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) in Britain, but a privileged, established church remained. Few countries have ever gone as far as the French Republic, which separated church and state in 1905, establishing a modern, secular peace treating all faiths equally provided their followers do not transgress state laws.


Rather than imposing a solution by fiat from above, the Empire negotiated its solution collectively through the new constitutional structures emerging from imperial reform. Unity rested on consensus, not central power, and the result was religious and legal pluralism, not orthodoxy and a disadvantaged or persecuted minority. This outcome emerged from fierce and sometimes violent disputes over constitutional rights rather than through ecumenical compromise.

Once all parties had agreed by 1526 that matters should be settled by the ‘proper authorities’ rather than the ‘common man’, two core issues remained. One involved the question of spiritual jurisdiction, since this determined the authority to direct the religious belief and practices of ordinary folk in specific areas. The other concerned the management of clergy and church assets like buildings, property and revenue streams. These had always been important issues in imperial history. The Ottonians had already revoked donations and transferred land to secular lords. This process accelerated after 1100 as the emperor needed more resources to compensate nobles for their military expenses. Meanwhile, secular lords curtailed or usurped the secular jurisdictions of their ecclesiastical neighbours, removing them as imperial Estates, but not as functioning Catholic institutions. This continued beyond the Reformation as the archbishop of Salzburg incorporated the possessions of the bishops of Gurk, Seckau and Lavant. Charles V himself bought the secular jurisdiction of the bishop of Utrecht in 1528, and in 1533 would have accepted a similar offer from the archbishop of Bremen if the pope had not objected. However, secularization in these cases mostly involved smaller properties, and rarely threatened spiritual jurisdiction.99

The evangelical movement posed an entirely new challenge through its objection to papal jurisdiction and its rejection of good works and prayer for the dead as justifying monasticism. Georg the Pious of Ansbach-Kulmbach did sequestrate religious houses in 1529 and then sell them to fund road and fortress construction in a move prefiguring Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536–40). However, this was exceptional in the Empire, where ‘secularization’ generally meant a change of public use. Church assets were placed in public trusts by reform-minded princes and used to fund a more numerous and better-educated clergy, evangelize by teaching the population to read the Bible, and improve welfare through hospitals and poor relief. For example, the duke of Württemberg converted 13 monasteries into schools to train pastors in 1556.100 Conflict was not always inevitable. The complexity of legal and property rights in the Empire prevented a clear demarcation of jurisdiction and ownership, necessitating fairly frequent discussion between the different authorities. These discussions often continued despite religious animosities.101 However, many Catholics regarded the evangelicals’ re-designation of church property and use of spiritual jurisdictions as robbery breaching the public peace, and opened the so-called ‘religious cases’ in the imperial courts.102

Becoming Protestants

The problem fell to Charles’s younger brother Ferdinand I, who was left to oversee the Empire during the emperor’s prolonged absences after 1522. Ferdinand had inherited Hungary in 1526 amidst an Ottoman invasion. This existential threat to the Empire encouraged the imperial Estates to avoid matters that might escalate to civil war. The 1526 Reichstag at Speyer tried to uphold the Burgos edict by allowing imperial Estates to act according to their consciences until the papal-chaired church council ruled on doctrine. The decision essentially settled the question of authority by identifying the imperial Estates as responsible for religious affairs in their own territories. Electoral Saxony, Hessen, Lüneburg, Ansbach and Anhalt now followed the example of some imperial cities two years earlier and began converting church assets and jurisdictions to serve evangelical objectives. These decisions were influenced by the personal convictions of princes, the location of their lands, regional influence, and their relations to the Empire and papacy. For instance, thanks to its earlier concordats, Bavaria already enjoyed considerable control over the church on its territory and had little incentive to break with Rome.103

Given the long history of secular supervision of church affairs in the Empire, these changes did not automatically identify a territory as evangelical. Several important princes kept arrangements deliberately ambiguous, like the elector of Brandenburg, while religious practices amongst the bulk of the population remained heterodox. The new Lutheran territorial churches issued several revisions to its initial statement of faith, while other reformers like Huldrych Zwingli and Jean Calvin produced their own competing confessions. Similarly, Catholic thought and practice were hardly monolithic, and contained their own reforming impulses, so that we should speak of multiple Reformations.104

The growing divergence was nonetheless clear by the next Reichstag in Speyer in 1529. Catholics disputed the evangelicals’ interpretation of the 1526 meeting as a licence to forge ahead with religious reform. Since the majority of imperial Estates were still Catholic, they reversed the earlier decision and insisted on full enforcement of Charles V’s Edict of Worms banning Luther and his adherents. The ruling prompted the famous Protestatio, giving rise to the word ‘Protestant’ as the elector of Saxony led five princes and magistrates from 14 imperial cities in dissenting from the majority. This was the first open breach in the political unity of the Empire.

Failure of the Military Solution

The Protestants formed the Schmalkaldic League in 1531 for mutual defence (see pp. 564–5). The Ottoman threat encouraged Ferdinand to suspend the Worms edict in 1532 and then extend this truce three times by 1544. Meanwhile, the League was weakened by internal divisions and scandals amongst its princely leadership. Having temporarily gained ascendancy over France and the Ottomans in 1544–5, Charles V returned to the Empire with a large army. The elector of Saxony and the landgrave of Hessen were declared outlaws after they attacked their regional rival, the duke of Brunswick. This allowed Charles to present his intervention as restoring the Empire’s public peace. The resulting Schmalkaldic War of 1546–7 saw the League’s comprehensive defeat, culminating in Charles’s victory at Mühlberg, which was celebrated in Titian’s famous portrait of the emperor as triumphant general (see Plate 8).

Charles held the ‘Armoured Reichstag’ (Geharnischte Reichstag) at Augsburg between September 1547 and June 1548 under a strong imperial military presence. Intended to consolidate his victory, this Reichstag represented the only time the emperor attempted to define doctrine by issuing a statement of faith that he hoped would last until the pope’s council, meeting in Trent, passed judgement. Known as the Interim, Charles’s statement offered ‘a new hybrid imperial religion’ incorporating some Protestant elements. Although the Interim was endorsed by the archbishop of Mainz, most Catholics already disavowed it ahead of its promulgation, while Protestants rejected it as an imposition.105

The unsatisfactory settlement was widely resented as a breach of consensus, and Charles was accused of exceeding his authority. Magdeburg’s armed defiance of the Interim galvanized more general opposition across 1551, leading to the Princes Revolt the following year that was backed by France, which had renewed its own war with the Habsburgs. Three months of manoeuvring convinced Ferdinand – who had again been left by Charles to manage the Empire – to agree the Peace of Passau on 31 July 1552. This provided the basis for a general settlement through the mutual renunciation of violence to settle religious disagreements.106

The Peace of Augsburg

The initiative had slipped from Charles to Ferdinand, who won support through his more consistent dealings with princes and adherence to constitutional norms. This allowed Ferdinand to convert the temporary arrangements evolving since 1521 into a more stable peace, securing broad acceptance of this as necessary to preserve the cherished imperial unity.107 The result was the agreement concluded at the 1555 Reichstag, which has entered history as the ‘Religious Peace’ but was known to contemporaries as the ‘Religious and Profane Peace’. The differences are important. The treaty annulled the Interim and deliberately avoided any religious statement.108 Rather than grant toleration, as was soon to be attempted in France, the peace extended political and legal rights to both Catholics and Lutherans. These privileges were part of a much longer document adjusting the Empire’s police, defence and financial arrangements as parts of a comprehensive constitutional package. The key questions of authority, property and jurisdiction were encompassed by the right of Reformation (ius Reformandi) granted to imperial Estates to manage the church and religious affairs in their territories. Possession of church property was fixed at the date of the Peace of Passau as the Empire’s ‘normative year’ (Normaljahr). Protestants accepted that the Reichskammergericht should resolve specific disputes. No imperial Estate was to transgress the property or jurisdiction of another, meaning that Catholic spiritual jurisdiction was now suspended over those territories embracing Lutheranism. Limited freedom of conscience and rights of emigration were extended to inhabitants who dissented from their territory’s official faith.

These arrangements have entered history as ‘he who rules decides the religion’ (cuius regio, eius religio  ), though the phrase is absent from the Peace and was only coined by Joachim Stephan, a Greifswald University law professor, in 1586. They are usually credited with strengthening the Empire’s supposed dualism between a weak emperor and more distinct principalities. Yet although rights were granted equally to both confessions, Catholic and Lutheran, they were distributed unevenly along the status hierarchy among imperial Estates. Regardless of faith, imperial cities lacked the full right of Reformation, as they were obliged to stick to whichever faith they had adopted by 1555. The imperial knights were excluded, while it was uncertain how far counts enjoyed the same powers as princes to change their subjects’ faith. In short, the Reformation’s political outcome reinforced the Empire’s existing development towards a mixed monarchy where the emperor shared power to differing degrees with a complex hierarchy of imperial Estates.

The imperial church was covered by a special clause known as the Ecclesiastical Reservation, because it obliged all incumbent bishops who converted from Catholicism to stand down, whilst also ruling that Protestants were ineligible for election as church princes. These restrictions were modified by Ferdinand’s Declaration, issued on his own authority separate from the Peace, which extended toleration to Protestant minorities in the imperial church lands.

Apart from Ferdinand’s Declaration, the Peace was collectively ‘owned’ by all imperial Estates, setting it apart from other western European settlements. Whereas other monarchies became confessionalized through identification with a single, official faith, the Empire remained simply Christian, while the legal position of Jews remained unaffected. This was potentially a source of great strength, since the autonomy and identity of both major religions rested on shared rights guaranteed by the confessionally neutral constitutional order. There was, however, a price: a modern separation of church and state was impossible, and religion remained integral to imperial politics. Formal political action remained open-ended: the Catholic majority ruling of the 1529 Reichstag had remained unenforceable, and it now appeared that future majority decisions would remain provisional until those in favour won acceptance from dissenters. The real decision of 1552–5 was the mutual renunciation of violence by the imperial Estates as part of this process.109

The Outcome beyond Germany

Most accounts of the Reformation in the Empire stop at this point, interpreting developments as simply ‘German’ history. Yet all the major reformers thought in terms of a single, universal church, while the Empire was still much bigger than just Germany. The Peace of Augsburg settled matters between the emperor and those parts of the Empire that had acquired the status of imperial Estates during the late fifteenth-century constitutional reforms. The largest Estates were those areas under direct Habsburg rule in Austria and Burgundy, meaning that the imperial family shared the same rights granted to other princes. The treaties of Passau (1552) and Augsburg (1555) did not alter the Burgundian Treaty, which was part of the package of measures that Charles secured at the Armoured Reichstag in 1548. This assigned the Burgundian lands to his son, the future Philip II of Spain, who retained them when Charles partitioned his entire inheritance into Spanish and Austrian branches across 1551–8. As an imperial prince, Philip exercised his right of Reformation to instruct his Burgundian subjects to remain Catholic, but his violent methods contributed to what became the Dutch Revolt after 1566, leading to the eventual independence of the northern provinces (see pp. 228–9 and 594–8).

Bohemian religious affairs continued along their own route, reflecting that kingdom’s special place within the imperial constitution. The 1436 Compacta had been revised as the Treaty of Kuttenberg in 1485, guaranteeing the Utraquists autonomy at parish level through the appointment of their own priests, while forbidding lords to dictate their peasants’ faith. This arrangement prefigured that at Augsburg seventy years later in that it accepted only two confessions (in this case, Catholicism and Utraquism), whilst denying rights to dissenting minorities like the Bohemian Brethren. The Treaty of Kuttenberg was confirmed in 1512 and accepted by Ferdinand I when he became Bohemian king in 1526. For outsiders, Utraquists remained tainted by Hussite subversion and no one saw Kuttenberg as a desirable model for domestic religious peace.110 Yet the agreement remained legally binding despite the Peace of Augsburg, thanks to Bohemia’s political autonomy and the Habsburgs’ need to retain support amongst the Bohemian nobility. The spread of Lutheranism among German-speakers during the 1570s added to the kingdom’s religious pluralism. In his capacity as Bohemian king, Maximilian II gave oral sanction to the confessio Bohemica agreed between Utraquists, Lutherans and the Bohemian Brethren in 1575. Written confirmation was later extorted from his successor Rudolf II in 1609 in the form of the Letter of Majesty allowing dissenters to establish parallel administrative and ecclesiastical institutions. Although this was overturned during the Thirty Years War, the distinct course of Bohemian religious developments reinforced that kingdom’s autonomous place within the Empire.

The Reformation also strengthened similar political trends amongst the Swiss, who were still redefining their relationship to the Empire when the religious crisis broke. Theological differences reinforced this, because Swiss evangelicals followed their own reformer, Huldrych Zwingli, rather than Luther.111 The Swiss agreed their own version of cuius regio, eius religio in 1529, resolving the question of authority in favour of the cantonal governments. This collapsed in 1531, but the Catholic victory in the ensuing civil war ended Protestant expansion in the Confederation’s core regions. Protestants conceded legal guarantees for Catholic minorities in the condominia, the lands jointly administered by two or more cantons. Protestant minorities belatedly secured equivalent rights after another brief war in 1712. Like Bohemia, Switzerland was able to pursue its own path, because it already enjoyed considerable political autonomy, and remained outside the institutions created by imperial reform. The common heritage of the Empire is nonetheless apparent in the broad similarity of political and legal solutions to the problem of religious division.

Imperial Italy also lay largely outside the new common institutions, but was bound more closely to the Empire through the Habsburgs’ possession of Milan, as well as their acquisition through Spain of Naples and Sicily to the south. Itinerant evangelical preachers drew huge crowds, while senior clerics like Cardinal Contarini conceded the need for reform. The Italian Wars since 1494 were widely interpreted as a sign of divine displeasure and added to the sense of urgency. Charles V pressured a succession of popes to respond positively to the Protestant criticism of the Italian church. However, he remained within his interpretation of the Two Swords doctrine. After theologians failed to resolve their difference during talks at the 1541 Regensburg Reichstag, Charles allowed Pope Paul III to enforce Catholicism in Italy through the Inquisition and the new Jesuit Order.112

The Italian principalities were excluded from the Peace of Augsburg, because they were not imperial Estates, except the duchy of Savoy, which had been incorporated within the German kingdom during the fourteenth century. However, Savoy refrained from direct engagement in the events leading to Augsburg, pursuing instead its own, more western European-style settlement towards the Waldensian communities that had persisted in its Alpine and Piedmontese territories since the late twelfth century and had been reinvigorated through contact with Swiss reformers after 1532. The duke of Savoy granted special dispensation to designated villages in the Peace of Cavour on 5 June 1561, and allowed exiles to return provided the Waldensians refrained from proselytizing.113This agreement was close to those adopted in France after 1562 and proved equally unstable, especially because the duke remained susceptible to pressure from other Catholic monarchs to renew persecution. The persistence of at least some form of toleration nonetheless contributed to the generally positive impression among German Protestant princes, who continued to regard the duke as a potential ally into the seventeenth century.


Preserving the Augsburg Settlement

The Peace of Augsburg suffered from the same divergence of interpretation undermining the earlier agreement at Speyer in 1526, though it survived far longer without serious trouble. Catholics regarded it as limiting further encroachments on their church, while Protestants believed the legal protection licensed the continued expansion of their own religion. Many now openly embraced Lutheranism by reforming clergy and churches in their territories along evangelical lines. The basic religious balance within Germany was complete by the late 1550s, at which point Lutheranism had been officially adopted in around 50 principalities and counties and three dozen imperial cities. These included some very substantial territories, notably the electorates of Saxony, Brandenburg and the Palatinate, as well as most of the old, established princely houses: the Ernestine Saxons, all branches of Hessen, the Franconian Hohenzollerns in Ansbach and what became known as Bayreuth, as well as Württemberg, Holstein, Mecklenburg, Pomerania, Anhalt, and the majority of Westphalian and Lower Saxon counties.

Catholicism was reduced in Germany to only three large principalities: Lorraine, which was already semi-autonomous, Bavaria and Austria, which was by far the largest principality in the Empire. Elsewhere, Catholicism held out in the small counties of the south-west and in two-fifths of the imperial cities. However, since the numerous (but individually fairly small) church lands were reserved for them, Catholics still ruled around 200 imperial Estates, giving them a decisive majority in the Empire’s common institutions.

Lutherans did not establish any national organizations. Instead, each prince or city council assumed the powers formerly exercised by a Catholic bishop in their territory. In practice, these powers were entrusted to church councils, considerably expanding the scope of territorial administration and increasing its presence at parish level. Catholic authorities implemented similar reforms in their own lands, though they still accepted the spiritual jurisdiction of their bishops. Regardless of belief, all secular and ecclesiastical authorities pursued similar policies of ‘confessionalization’ intended to impose the official faith of their territory through education, improved clerical supervision and more intensive ‘visitations’ to probe individual belief and monitor religious practices.114 Such measures were far from universally effective. Heterodoxy and dissent persisted, while there were often considerable discrepancies between outward conformity and inner belief. Many people simply adopted a pragmatic approach, embracing those beliefs and practices that made most sense to their own circumstances.115 Nonetheless, confessionalization initially helped preserve the Augsburg settlement by directing official energies inwards and away from activities likely to cause friction with neighbouring territories.

Ferdinand I and his successor Maximilian II worked hard to maintain the peace through good personal relations with influential princes, not least since consensus was in their own interests in the face of the constant Ottoman threat to their own possessions. Moreover, the benefits of peace were soon clear to all, as first France and then the Netherlands descended into violent religious civil war after the 1560s. Most German observers were horrified by such atrocities as the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France in August 1572, and urged a culture of self-restraint.116 Moreover, unlike France, where the monarchy was a participant in the struggles, the Empire remained a neutral, cross-confessional legal framework. Lutherans and Catholics might disagree, but they largely refrained from criticizing the Empire since their own rights and status derived from imperial law. The later sixteenth century saw a strong ‘irenic’ current, providing additional arguments to bridge religious divisions in favour of preserving political harmony.117

Confessional and Political Tension

Three developments challenged harmony after 1555. One was the emergence of Calvinism during the 1560s. Calvinists distinguished themselves from Lutherans theologically, yet considered they were simply continuing Luther’s ‘Reformation of the Word’ with their own moral ‘Reformation of Life’.118 Calvinism made most of its converts in the Empire among the aristocracy, unlike the French Huguenots and English Puritans, who evolved into more genuinely popular movements. Apart from Emden in East Frisia, which adopted a Presbyterian structure, Calvinism spread through its acceptance by Lutheran princes who then used their right of Reformation and the territorial church to impose the new faith on their subjects. The first and most significant conversion was the elector Palatine, who abandoned Lutheranism in 1559. Calvinism slowly gained ground from the 1580s, including the conversion of the landgrave of Hessen-Kassel (1604) and the elector of Brandenburg (1613), but had been adopted by only 28 territories, including a single city (Bremen) by 1618.119

Lutherans increasingly resented these inroads into their own faith, but minimized the differences to preserve the Peace of Augsburg. The elector Palatine, as self-appointed Calvinist leader, promoted his own, narrow form of irenicism to remain within the Peace by finding common ground with Lutherans. Internally, the Palatine government remained dominated by Calvinists who bullied the largely Lutheran population, persecuted Jews and refused dialogue with Catholics.120 Calvinism threatened the peace by seemingly adding substance to Catholic zealots’ arguments that no Protestant could be trusted. More seriously, the elector Palatine deliberately fanned fears of Catholic plots to persuade Lutherans to accept his leadership and his demands for constitutional change. The Palatinate had lost influence to Bavaria, ruled by a rival branch of the same Wittelsbach family who had conquered much of its territory in 1504 and who had remained Catholic.121 The elector Palatine’s demand for religious parity in imperial institutions promised not merely to remove the inbuilt Catholic majority, but also to level some of the status distinctions that currently disadvantaged the minor princes and aristocrats who formed the bulk of his political clientele. A hierarchy dominated by the electors and a few senior princes would be replaced by a political structure of two confessional blocs, with that of the Protestants firmly under Palatine leadership.

Developments in the imperial church represented a second challenge to peace.122 Protestant princes and nobles were not prepared to forgo the benefits of engagement in the imperial church, which still offered around 1,000 lucrative benefices for cathedral canons, as well as the considerable political influence through the 50 bishoprics and 80-odd abbeys recognized as imperial Estates. Although these were reserved for Catholics in 1555, Ferdinand’s Declaration extended toleration to individual Protestants living in church territories. Under this protection, Protestant nobles gained majorities in several important chapters, enabling them to elect their own candidates on the death of each Catholic bishop. Maximilian II and Rudolf II refused to accept these men as imperial princes, but tolerated them as ‘administrators’ to preserve peace. Ten sees passed this way into Protestant hands, including the substantial archbishoprics of Magdeburg and Bremen. The duke of Bavaria meanwhile promoted his relations in the church lands as a means of pushing his own family as Catholic champions in the Empire. Thanks to Spanish support, Bavaria blocked a Calvinist takeover of Cologne in 1583, establishing a Bavarian monopoly of this important archbishopric lasting until 1761. To advance these objectives, Bavaria pushed the emperor to deny the Protestant administrators rights of imperial Estates.

The dispute over the ecclesiastical imperial Estates was complicated by problems surrounding mediate church property, such as monasteries under secular jurisdiction. Enforcement of the 1552 normative year was hindered by the often confused legal arrangements, involving rights and assets which had been pawned or were shared by several lords. The Peace of Augsburg charged the Reichskammergericht with resolving any disputes by entrusting cases to bipartisan panels composed equally of Lutheran and Catholic judges. The court made sincere efforts to judge according to law, encountering few complaints until cases became increasingly politicized through Palatine and Bavarian propaganda during the later sixteenth century.

It is likely that the Peace would have survived the challenge of both Calvinism and disputes over the imperial church had the Habsburg monarchy not encountered serious difficulties of its own around 1600. Charles’s partition of his inheritance left Austria with the imperial title, but cut off from Spain’s vast resources. Problems were compounded by a further internal partition creating three separate Austrian lines in 1564: the Tirolean branch (based in Innsbruck), that of Inner Austria, or Styria (in Graz), and the main line based in Vienna. Each branch traded limited toleration for cash grants from the largely Lutheran nobility who dominated their provincial assemblies. Lutheran nobles in turn used their powers over parish churches to install Protestant pastors and encourage their tenants to adopt their faith. Around three-quarters of Habsburg subjects followed some kind of Protestantism by the time the dynasty began to reverse this by restricting court and military appointments to loyal Catholics during the 1590s.123 Coordination of this roll-back broke down amidst bankruptcy following the protracted and unsuccessful Long Turkish War (1593–1606) and subsequent quarrelling amongst Rudolf II’s relations over his succession, leading to renewed concessions to Protestant nobles in Bohemia and parts of Austria.

The distraction created a political vacuum in Germany, adding to anxiety fanned by extremists. The Palatinate was finally able to rally sufficient support to form the Protestant Union in 1608, answered the following year by the Bavarian-led Catholic League. Despite these ominous developments, support for the Augsburg settlement remained strong among moderate Catholics and most Lutherans, and there was no inevitable slide towards war.124

The Thirty Years War

The famous Defenestration of Prague on 23 May 1618 was the work of a small group of disaffected Bohemian aristocrats who felt their gains from the Letter of Majesty were being eroded by the Habsburgs’ practice of restricting government appointments to Catholics. The aristocrats acted independently of the Protestant Union, which was in a state of near collapse. By throwing three Habsburg officials from a window in Prague castle, the Defenestrators hoped to force the moderate majority to take sides in their dispute with the dynasty.125

The Defenestrators presented their cause as common for all Protestants. Confessionalization had forged new connections across Europe, especially among radicals of the same faith. Militants tended to interpret events in providential terms, feeling personally summoned by God and believing their religious goals were almost within reach. Setbacks were interpreted as tests of faith. Such zealots were a minority within all confessional groups, confined mainly to exiles, clergy and external observers frustrated with their own government’s policies. Militants dominated public discussions, but rarely influenced decision-making directly. Most people were more moderate, wanting to advance their faith by pragmatic and peaceful means.126

These insights explain the fragility of confessionally based alliances during the ensuing conflict. Contrary to popular memory, military operations did not escape political control, but remained tied to negotiations that continued almost unbroken throughout the war. All belligerents fought as members of complex, often delicate coalitions and knew that peace would entail compromise. Generals were asked to achieve a position of strength so that concessions would appear magnanimous gestures rather than signs of weakness, which could endanger the established authorities and cause further problems.127

The war escalated through the failure to contain successive crises. The initial revolt widened through the decision of Elector Palatine Frederick V, one of the few genuinely militant leaders, to accept the rebels’ offer of the Bohemian crown in 1619. This set him against the Austrian Habsburgs, who now received substantial Bavarian support. Outsiders were drawn in. Spain aided Austria in the hope that assistance against its own Dutch rebels would follow a swift victory in the Empire. The Dutch, English and French sent men and money to help Bohemia and the Palatinate, largely because they saw war in the Empire as a useful way of distracting Spain.

Habsburg policy became more determined with Ferdinand II’s accession in 1619, because he regarded his opponents as rebels who forfeited their constitutional rights. The comprehensive victory at White Mountain, outside Prague, in November 1620, allowed him to start the largest transfer of private property in central Europe prior to the Communist land seizures after 1945. Assets were redistributed from defeated rebels to Habsburg loyalists. Following further victories in western Germany, this policy was extended across the Empire, culminating in the transfer of Frederick V’s lands and titles to Duke Maximilian of Bavaria in 1623. The war was essentially over, though Danish intervention reignited it in May 1625, shifting the focus to northern Germany. Danish defeats by 1629 merely extended the area covered by Ferdinand’s policy of redistribution and reward.128

Ferdinand sought a comprehensive settlement, securing Danish acceptance through generous terms, but overreaching himself by issuing the Edict of Restitution in March 1629. This sought to resolve the ambiguities in the Peace of Augsburg by asserting a narrowly Catholic interpretation of the disputed terms, which included excluding Calvinists from legal protection and ordering Protestants to return all church lands usurped since 1552. The Edict was widely condemned, even by many Catholics who felt Ferdinand had exceeded his prerogatives by issuing it as a definitive verdict for immediate enforcement, rather than as guidelines to assist the imperial courts in resolving disputes case by case. Coming after the substantial redistribution of land to Habsburg supporters, Restitution appeared a further step towards converting the Empire into a more centralized monarchy. Despite their confessional differences, the electors closed ranks at their congress in Regensburg in 1630 to block the emperor’s bid to have his son Ferdinand III made king of the Romans, and to force him to dismiss his controversial general, Albrecht von Wallenstein, and reduce the expensive imperial army.129

Any hope that negotiations might ease tensions over Restitution were wrecked by the Swedish invasion in June 1630. Sweden had its own security and economic reasons for intervention, which it only subsequently officially masked as saving German Protestants from Ferdinand’s Counter-Reformation. The religious dimension grew pronounced following the death of Sweden’s king Gustavus Adolphus at the battle of Lützen in November 1632. The site later became a virtual shrine after locals celebrated the battle’s bicentenary, and the subsequent hagiography profoundly influenced later interpretations of the Thirty Years War as a religious conflict.130 At the time, though, Sweden legitimated its involvement principally as defending the Palatinate’s more aristocratic interpretation of the imperial constitution, since this would weaken Habsburg management of the Empire. Sweden’s operations were facilitated by the exiled rebels and those imperial Estates most threatened by Ferdinand’s edict. This ensured that the new round of conflict was a continuation of that which began in 1618 and not an entirely separate war as Ferdinand claimed.

German support grew after Sweden’s victory at Breitenfeld in September 1631 made it a credible ally. Subsequent successes enabled Sweden to copy Ferdinand II’s methods and redistribute captured imperial church lands to its allies. Gustavus Adolphus clearly intended usurping constitutional structures to tie these allies within a new Swedish imperial system, though it is not entirely clear how far he intended to displace the emperor. His death in 1632 and subsequent Swedish defeats forced these ambitions to be scaled back. The imperial victory at Nördlingen in September 1634 gave Ferdinand another chance to make ‘peace with honour’ through concessions to moderate Lutheran states like Saxony. He agreed the Peace of Prague in May 1635, suspending the Edict and revising the normative year to 1627, allowing Lutherans to keep many of the church lands acquired since 1552, though not all those they had held in 1618. The need to retain Bavarian support meant the Palatinate’s exclusion from the amnesty, along with several other important principalities. These exclusions allowed Sweden to claim it was still fighting to restore ‘German freedom’.

Opportunities slipped from Ferdinand’s grasp as he delegated negotiations with Sweden to Saxony, while he embarked on ill-advised support for Spain in its new war with France.131 France had sponsored Austria’s opponents since 1625 and now moved over to direct involvement. The full impact was delayed until France and Sweden agreed a more coordinated strategy in 1642, now concentrating on forcing a succession of pro-imperial principalities into neutrality. The war was channelled into fewer areas, but fought with desperate intensity, contributing to the lasting impression of all-destructive fury.

The Peace of Westphalia

The Westphalian towns of Münster and Osnabrück were declared neutral in 1643 as venues for a peace congress intended to resolve the Thirty Years War in the Empire, Spain’s struggle with the Dutch rebels, which had resumed in 1621, and the Franco-Spanish war waged since 1635. Military operations continued as the belligerents fought to improve their bargaining positions. Spain eventually accepted Dutch independence in a treaty concluded in Münster in May 1648, but the Franco-Spanish war continued for another 11 years, because both powers overestimated their chances of future military successes.

However, the diplomats successfully concluded an end to the Empire’s war in two treaties negotiated in Münster and Osnabrück and signed simultaneously on 24 October 1648, known respectively from the abbreviations of their Latin titles as IPM and IPO.132Together with the first peace of Münster, the two treaties formed the Peace of Westphalia, which was both an international agreement and a revision to the Empire’s constitution. France and Sweden received territorial compensation, but the Peace neither made the princes independent sovereigns nor reduced the Empire to a weak confederation. Instead, the existing trend towards a mixed monarchy continued. This can be seen by examining the adjustments to the place of religion in imperial politics.

The Peace of Augsburg was renewed but also revised by adjusting the normative year to 1624, agreed as a compromise. This allowed Catholics to recover some church lands, but not as many as they would have done had either the Edict of Restitution or the Peace of Prague been fully implemented.133 Calvinism was included alongside Lutheranism and Catholicism, but other faiths remained excluded, except for the Jews’ existing privileges that remained unaffected. Contrary to the later perception that Westphalia widened princely powers, Article V of the IPO in fact significantly curtailed the right of Reformation granted at Augsburg by removing the power of imperial Estates to change their subjects’ faith. Henceforth, the official faith of each territory was permanently fixed as it had existed in the new normative year of 1624. Individual freedoms were extended to ease implementation of this rule by protecting dissenters from discrimination over emigration, education, marriage, burial and worship. Violence was again renounced in favour of arbitration through the Empire’s judicial system. The Palatine programme of constitutional change was definitively rejected. Fixing each territory’s official religious identity cemented the permanent Catholic majority in imperial institutions. However, new voting arrangements (known as itio in partes ) were introduced in the Reichstag to allow that body to debate as two confessional bodies (corpora) if religious matters had to be discussed.134

Tension and Toleration after 1648

From this review of the key terms, it is obvious that the Westphalian settlement did not remove religion from imperial politics, still less inaugurate a fully secular international order, but it did signal the defeat of militant confessionalism. Imperial Estates lodged 750 official complaints at breaches of the religious terms between 1648 and 1803, but virtually all these concerned jurisdictions and possessions. Many were relatively trivial: a fifth involved individual farms or houses, and only 5 per cent were about entire districts.135Church and state had not been separated, but doctrinal issues had been quarantined to allow the Empire’s courts to settle ‘religious’ disputes like other disagreements over demarcating legal rights and privileges. None of the 74 allegations of religious bias in Reichshofrat judgements were upheld by reviews conducted by the Reichstag between 1663 and 1788.136

Only three issues proved significantly difficult. One concerned Protestant anxiety at the Catholic revival after 1648. Calvinism’s political defeat during the Thirty Years War compounded its inability to attract further influential adherents after the conversion of the elector of Brandenburg in 1613. Likewise, Lutheranism lost ground, apart from new grass-roots activism known as Pietism, which was generally viewed with suspicion by the authorities, except in Prussia.137 By contrast, even minor Catholic abbeys embarked on massive building and cultural projects associated with the baroque, while the emperor’s wealth and prestige (all signs he had not lost the war) attracted nobles from across the Empire into his service. Competition for imperial favour encouraged 31 leading princes to convert to Catholicism between 1651 and 1769, including Elector Friedrich August I ‘the Strong’ of Saxony in 1697, followed by his son in 1712. Saxony, birthplace of Protestantism, was now under Catholic rule.138 Each major conversion caused momentary tension, but the constitutional problems were resolved fairly easily, indicating the Empire’s continued flexibility into the eighteenth century. The revised normative-year rules prevented princes from requiring their subjects to follow their new faith. Instead, the ruling family was allowed to worship in their palace chapel, but had to sign documents known as Reversalien guaranteeing the unimpeded management of their Lutheran territorial church by officials sworn to uphold these arrangements regardless of their prince’s own beliefs. The agreements were usually guaranteed by the territorial assembly and often other Protestant princes, extending the basis upon which appeals could be lodged with the imperial courts in the event of disputes.139

Despite the Reversalien, many Protestants suspected princes of secretly promoting Catholicism through the priests attached to the court chapel. This helps explain the furore surrounding developments in the Palatinate, which formed a second major difficulty. On the extinction of the Calvinist ruling line, the Palatinate passed to a junior, Catholic branch of the Wittelsbachs in 1685. The new elector collaborated with the French occupying his lands during the Nine Years War (1688–97) to reintroduce Catholicism. France then secured international recognition for the changes as part of the Peace of Rijswijk in 1697, despite this breaching the 1624 normative year (which France, as a guarantor of the Westphalian settlement, was supposed to uphold). The impact was magnified by its coincidence with the conversion of the Saxon elector to Catholicism and Louis XIV’s expulsion of the Huguenots from France, where their religious rights had been revoked in 1685. The depth of concern is apparent from the fact that 258 of the 750 official complaints were about this one issue.

The response opened the third major difficulty, because Protestants invoked their right to ‘debate in parts’ by splitting the Reichstag into two confessional groups. While legal under the post-1648 constitution, this threatened to deadlock debate at a time when the Empire needed to respond to the outbreak of the Great Northern War (1700–1721) and the looming dispute over the Spanish inheritance, which embroiled it directly in renewed war with France (1701–14). Despite the intensity of public discussion, there was little political appetite to abandon established ways of working in the Reichstag and other institutions. The Protestants did meet separately as a Corpus Evangelicorum from 1712 to 1725, 1750 to 1769, and 1774 to 1778, but continued to participate throughout in the other imperial institutions. The Catholics regarded existing structures as satisfactory and never convened a separate body. The Protestant Corpus was hamstrung by a struggle over its leadership between Prussia, Hanover and Saxony (whose elector, despite becoming a Catholic, refused to relinquish his leadership). The practice of formally debating in parts was used only four times (1727, 1758, 1761 and 1764), largely as a tactical device for Prussia to hinder Habsburg management of the Empire. In the longer term, Prussian manipulation of religious issues eroded their potential to cause trouble and by the late eighteenth century the established constitution was regarded as sufficient protection for religious freedoms.140

The Westphalian settlement also proved successful in resolving more local, everyday disputes, again indicating how the Empire remained meaningful to its inhabitants into early modernity. The new normative year left Brandenburg, the Palatinate, several Lower Rhenish principalities, and the bishoprics of Osnabrück, Lübeck and Hildesheim as confessionally mixed. Four imperial cities had been officially bi-confessional since 1548. The IPO imposed parity in civic office and there are signs that confessional identities hardened into an ‘invisible frontier’ dividing each community.141 The number of cross-confessional marriages declined in Augsburg and it was said that even Protestant and Catholic pigs had separate sties. The adoption by Catholics of the Gregorian calendar in 1584 had placed them ten days ahead of their Protestant neighbours, who only caught up in 1700. However, the riots accompanying the calendar’s adoption were not repeated. Inhabitants might be acutely aware of subtle differences, but they now preferred court cases to violent protest.

Clergy, especially in border areas, placed innumerable petty obstacles in the way of ordinary folk exercising their religious freedoms. Mixed marriages were regarded as divided houses, and individuals were often pressured to convert. Nonetheless, pragmatism generally prevailed. A fifth of marriages in Osnabrück were cross-confessional, while Protestants joined Catholic religious processions and in a few communities different congregations even shared the same church. Official policy remained toleration not tolerance, suffering minorities as a political and legal necessity. Attitudes did change during the later eighteenth century, notably following Joseph II’s patent in 1781, which allowed greater equality and was adopted by most other German governments between 1785 and the 1840s.



The register prepared for the 1521 Reichstag in Worms recorded 3 ecclesiastical electors, 4 archbishops, 46 bishops and 83 lesser prelates, compared to 180 secular lords. By 1792 only 3 electors, 1 archbishop, 29 bishops and prince abbots, and 40 prelates remained, alongside 165 secular Estates. This decline is only partly attributable to the Reformation, which merely accelerated the existing trend for secular rulers to incorporate the material assets of church fiefs within their own territories. Many of the ecclesiastical Estates listed in the 1521 register were already disappearing this way, including 15 bishoprics. While the Reformation added new theological arguments for this, political changes associated with imperial reform were equally important, because they tied the status of imperial Estates more clearly to imperial fiscal and military obligations. Many prelates voluntarily accepted incorporation within secular jurisdiction in the hope of escaping these obligations.142 Thus, all ‘secularization’ up to 1552 involved a reduction from immediate to mediate status by removing a fief’s political rights. By contrast, the Peace of Westphalia sanctioned the secularization of two archbishoprics and six bishoprics by converting them into secular duchies with full political rights and obligations.

Movement was not only in one direction. Some ecclesiastical territories emancipated themselves from secular influence, notably the bishopric of Speyer that had been under the Palatinate’s protection from 1396 to 1552, though it did lose all its mediate monasteries and two-thirds of its churches and benefices in the process. Twelve prelates were promoted to princely rank, while a few mediate monasteries bought out their secular protectors to become full immediate Estates.143

As Speyer’s experience indicates, losses amongst mediate church property were far greater. Protestant rulers in the Palatinate, Württemberg, Hessen, Ansbach and elsewhere suppressed religious houses that lacked full immediacy yet had been vibrant parts of Catholic cultural and political life – often for centuries. Nonetheless, many Catholic institutions survived in Protestant territories. Magdeburg retained half its convents and a fifth of its monasteries after its conversion to a secular duchy by the Peace of Westphalia. The bishopric of Lübeck even remained part of the imperial church, despite its official designation as a Lutheran territory permanently assigned to Holstein-Gottorp. Three imperial convents likewise remained within the imperial church as Lutheran institutions, because Protestant princely families valued them for their unmarried daughters. Altogether, there were still 78 mediate foundations and 209 abbeys worth 2.87 million florins in annual revenue east of the Rhine in 1802, in addition to hundreds of monasteries, mainly in Catholic territories. The 73 immediate ecclesiastical Estates controlled 95,000 square kilometres, with nearly 3.2 million subjects generating 18.16 million florins of annual revenue.144

Social Composition

This vast wealth extended the political influence of the Empire’s aristocracy, which held virtually all the roughly one thousand cathedral and abbey benefices and dominated the imperial church. The geographical distribution of church lands reflected their origins in the areas of densest population, which had supported higher concentrations of lordships since the Middle Ages. The majority of the counts and knights were in the same regions as the surviving church lands: Westphalia, the Rhineland, and the Upper Rhine–Main nexus across Swabia and Franconia. Election as bishop automatically elevated the successful candidate to full princely rank, and so was especially attractive for the knights who otherwise remained disadvantaged by the Empire’s hierarchical distribution of political rights. The knights provided a third of all early modern prince-bishops, with the Schönborn family being the most successful, twice securing election in the premier see of Mainz.145 Aristocratic domination was already well advanced in the Middle Ages and was strengthened during early modernity by additional barriers, such as requiring canons to prove they had 16 noble ancestors. Of the 166 archbishops in the Empire between 900 and 1500, only 4 are known to have been commoners, while there were only 120 known commoners among the 2,074 German bishops from the seventh to fifteenth centuries. This proportion remained broadly the same with 332 nobles, 10 commoners and 5 foreigners serving as archbishops or bishops between 1500 and 1803.146

Unfortunately for the knights and counts, the princes also had long pedigrees. The Wittelsbachs emerged as strong contenders to be archbishops or bishops, especially once Protestants officially disqualified themselves by their faith after 1555. The papacy relaxed the rules prohibiting the accumulation of bishoprics to prevent these falling into Protestant hands. The Bavarian Duke Ernst secured Cologne and four bishoprics in the late sixteenth century, while his relation Clemens August was known as ‘Mr Five Churches’ for securing a similar number around 150 years later.147 The accumulation of bishoprics was often welcomed by cathedral canons, because it could link a weaker bishopric to a more powerful one, such as Münster to Cologne, or allow neighbours to cooperate, like Bamberg and Würzburg.

Such unions remained temporary with each bishopric retaining its own administration. This apparent failure to participate in wider institutional development attracted criticism after 1648, especially from Protestants and Enlightened thinkers who complained about the ‘dead hand’ of the church tying up valuable resources that might be put to better uses. These arguments for renewed secularization grew stronger after 1740, because they appeared to offer a way to defuse Austro-Prussian tension, or to improve the viability of the middling principalities, all at the expense of their ecclesiastical neighbours. Some later historians accepted this discussion at face value and presented the imperial church as a fossilized medieval relic.148 In practice, the internal development of the church lands was broadly similar to that of the secular territories and included many of the measures advocated by Enlightened thinkers. Unfortunately, this meant the church lands were also not the benevolent backwaters claimed by some Catholics, as all of them established their own armies and many participated in the same European wars as the secular princes.149

Political reform was supplemented by a grass-roots movement for spiritual renewal across Catholic Germany from the 1760s. This faltered in the 1770s, but recovered renewed vigour in response to Joseph II’s suppression of 700 mediate monasteries in the Habsburg lands and curtailment of the spiritual jurisdiction of several south German prince-bishops after 1782.150 Renewal and reform became known as Febronism after the pseudonym adopted by the Trier suffragan bishop Nikolaus von Hontheim in a manifesto published in 1763. Hontheim asked the pope to settle the remaining Protestant Gravamina, or formal complaints, to permit the reunification of all German Christians within a national church. The anti-papal element deepened as several bishops called for an end to all-papal jurisdiction and the recall of the papal nuncios in Vienna, Cologne and Luzern. This contributed to the alienation of all those whom Febronism hoped to enlist as supporters, including the largely conservative Catholic peasantry who opposed many of the bishops’ social reforms. The association of Febronist bishops with Prussia’s League of Princes in 1785 angered Joseph II and left the imperial church politically vulnerable by the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792.151

Carl Theodor von Dalberg was prominent in these efforts to defend the imperial church. He came from a family of imperial knights that had owned estates between Speyer and Oppenheim since the fourteenth century and was related to the influential Metternich, Stadion and von der Leyen families. Having been a cathedral canon for ten years, Dalberg rose in the service of the elector of Mainz to become his successor as imperial arch-chancellor and head of the Empire’s church in 1802. His promotion came precisely at a time when the world he loved was coming to an end through the demise of the three interrelated institutions of the imperial church, imperial knights and imperial constitution. Dalberg struggled amidst rapidly changing circumstances to preserve the old order, remaining optimistic (his critics say naive) despite what appear with hindsight to have been impossible odds. Napoleon Bonaparte used him to legitimate his reorganization of Germany between 1802 and 1806. Dalberg’s lavish flattery of Napoleon did nothing to deflect accusations of treachery and led to his being made a scapegoat for the end of the Empire.152

In fact, the imperial church’s fate was sealed by arrangements under the Peace of Campo Formio accompanying Austria’s surrender of the left bank of the Rhine to France in 1797. Secular princes who lost possessions were to be compensated at the expense of church lands east of the Rhine. The Habsburgs hoped to limit the damage, but the process gathered its own momentum in the wake of further French victories culminating in a final, extensive wave of secularization between 1802 and 1803. This went far beyond all previous changes, irrevocably changing the Empire by effectively destroying the imperial church. Only Dalberg’s electorate was relocated, to the former bishopric of Regensburg, while Mergentheim and Heitersheim remained in the hands of the Teutonic Order and Knights of St John as preserves of the German aristocracy. The rest of the imperial church passed into secular hands, including its mediate properties. Austria alone seized property worth 15 million florins, while Württemberg suppressed 95 abbeys, converting them into barracks, schools, mental hospitals, government offices and palaces to accommodate the secular lords of the lands it had also annexed by 1806. The former Augustinian monastery at Oberndorf became an arms factory, later famous for producing the Mauser rifle.153 Property, artworks and records were scattered or destroyed, and 18 Catholic universities closed, though most of the wealth was used initially to provide pensions for the former imperial clergy.154

Dalberg saved his principality by acting as a figurehead of the 16 princes who left the Empire through a pact with Napoleon in July 1806, precipitating Emperor Francis II’s abdication three weeks later (see Plate 31). Dalberg was rewarded with additional territory and the title of Grand Duke of Frankfurt, but was obliged to accept Napoleon’s stepson Eugène de Beauharnais as his designated successor. Austria assumed the Teutonic Grand Master title, but the Knights of St John were eliminated as a political element entirely in 1805. Dalberg became the Empire’s executor, working hard to reorganize the Catholic church and redefine its relations to the now sovereign principalities. He was hindered by laws passed by the Reichstag in 1803 exempting Austria and Prussia from future imperial concordats with the papacy. Prussia annexed most of the Westphalian bishoprics in 1802, reorganizing them without reference to the pope. Meanwhile, the papacy rebuffed Dalberg’s overtures on behalf of the rest of the Empire after 1803, because it saw him as continuing Febronism. Bavaria fanned papal suspicions, hoping as it did to obtain the autonomy enjoyed by Austria and Prussia. Other princes made their own arrangements, reducing Dalberg’s supporters to those whose lands were too small or poor to support their own bishops. The project failed. Dalberg’s death in 1817 cleared the way for the papacy to agree concordats with the surviving sovereign states, thereby participating in the Empire’s demise by adjusting to the federalization of Germany, which was left without a national church.155 However, this story was not simply one of loss, since the imperial church’s destruction freed energies and resources that fuelled the dynamism of German Catholicism in the nineteenth century.

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