Germany too was a federation, but its constituent parts were ruled not by democratic assemblies but by secular or ecclesiastical princes acknowledging only a limited fealty to the head of the Holy Roman Empire. Some of these states—Bavaria, Württemburg, Thuringia, Hesse, Nassau, Meissen, Saxony, Brandenburg, Carinthia, Austria, and the Palatinate—were ruled by dukes, counts, margraves, or other secular lords; some—Magdeburg, Mainz, Halle, Bamberg, Cologne, Bremen, Strasbourg, Salzburg, Trier, Basel, Hildesheim—were politically subject in varying degrees to bishops or archbishops; but nearly a hundred cities had by 1460 won charters of practical freedom from their lay or church superiors. In each principality delegates of the three estates—nobles, clergy, commons—met occasionally in a territorial diet that exercised some restraint, through its power of the purse, on the authority of the prince. Principalities and free cities sent representatives to the Reichstag or Imperial Diet. A special Kurfürstentag, or Diet of Electors, was called to choose a king; normally it was composed of the king of Bohemia, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg, the count palatine, and the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne. Their choice created only a king, who became the acknowledged head of the Holy Roman Empire when he was crowned emperor by the pope; hence his precoronation title of “King of the Romans.” He made his capital primarily in Nuremberg, often elsewhere, even in Prague. His authority rested on tradition and prestige rather than on possessions or force; he owned no territory beyond his own domain as one feudal prince among many; he was dependent upon the Reichstag or Kurfürstentag for funds to administer his government or to wage war; and this dependence condemned even able men like Charles IV or Sigismund to humiliating failures in foreign affairs. The destruction of the Hohenstaufen dynasty by the powerful popes of the thirteenth century had fatally weakened the Holy Roman Empire founded (A.D. 800) by Pope Leo III and Charlemagne. In 1400 it was a loose association of Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Holland, and Switzerland.
The conflict between Empire and papacy revived when, on the same day in 1314, two rival groups of electors chose Louis of Bavaria and Frederick of Austria as rival kings. John XXII, from his papal seat at Avignon, recognized both as kings, neither as emperor, and argued that since only a pope could crown a king as emperor, he should be accepted as judge of the validity of the election; moreover, said the ambitious pontiff, the administration of the Empire should belong to the papacy between the death of an emperor and the coronation of his successor. Louis and Frederick preferred the arbitrament of war. At Miihldorf (1322) Louis defeated and captured Frederick, and thenceforth assumed full Imperial authority. John ordered him to resign all titles and powers, and to appear before the papal court to receive sentence as a rebel against the Church. Louis refusing, the Pope excommunicated him (1324), bade all Christians in the Empire to resist his rule, and laid an interdict upon any region that recognized him as king. Most of Germany ignored these edicts, for the Germans, like the English, rated the Avignon popes as servants or allies of France. In the progressive weakening of faith and the papacy men were beginning to think of themselves as patriots first and Christians afterward. Catholicism, which is supernational, declined; nationalism, which is Protestant, rose.
At this juncture Louis received aid and comfort from incongruous allies. Pope John’s bull Cum inter nonnulla (1323) had branded as heresy the notion that Christ and the Apostles refused to own property, and he had directed the Inquisition to summon before its tribunal the “Spiritual Franciscans” who affirmed that view. Many friars retorted the charge of heresy upon the Pope; they expressed holy horror at the wealth of the Church; some of them called the aged pontiff Antichrist; and the general of the Spirituals, Michael Cesena, led a large minority of them into open alliance with Louis of Bavaria (1324). Emboldened by their support, Louis issued at Sachsenhausen a manifesto against “John XXII, who calls himself pope”; denounced him as a man of blood and a friend of injustice, who was resolved to destroy the Empire; and demanded that a general council should try the Pope for heresy.10
The King was further encouraged by the appearance, at his court in Nuremberg, of two professors from the University of Paris—Marsilius of Padua and John of Jandun—whose book, Defensor Pacis, attacked the Avignon papacy in terms that must have pleased the royal ears: “What do you find there but a swarm of simoniacs from every quarter? What but the clamor of pettifoggers, the... abuse of honorable men? There justice to the innocent falls to the ground, unless they can buy it for a price.”11 Echoing the Albigensian and Waldensian preachers of the thirteenth century, and anticipating Luther by two hundred years, the authors argued that Christianity should be based exclusively upon the Bible. A general council of the Church should be summoned not by the pope but by the emperor; the latter’s consent should be required for the election of any pontiff; and the pope, like everybody else, should be subject to the emperor.
Delighted to hear this, Louis decided to go to Italy and have himself crowned emperor by the people of Rome. Early in 1327 he set out with a small army, some Franciscans, and the two philosophers whom he employed to compose his public pronouncements. In April the Pope issued new bulls, excommunicating John and Marsilius, and ordering Louis to leave Italy. But Louis was welcomed into Milan by the ruling Visconti, and received the iron crown as the formal sovereign of Lombardy. On January 7, 1328, he entered Rome amid the acclamations of a populace resentful of the papal residence in Avignon. He established himself in the Vatican palace, and summoned a public assembly to meet at the Capitol. To the multitude there he appeared as a candidate for investiture with the Imperial crown. It gave its tumultuous consent; and on January 17 the coveted diadem was placed upon his head by the old syndic Sciarra Colonna—that same unrelenting foe of the papacy who, almost a quarter of a century before, had fought and threatened with death Boniface VIII, and who again symbolized for a moment the challenge of the rising state to the weakened Church.
Pope John, now seventy-eight, never dreamed of accepting defeat. He proclaimed a holy crusade to depose Louis from all authority, and bade the Romans, under pain of interdict, to expel him from their city and return to the papal obedience. Louis replied in terms recalling his excommunicated predecessor Henry IV; he convoked another popular assembly, and in its presence issued an Imperial edict accusing the Pope of heresy and tyranny, deposing him from ecclesiastical office, and sentencing him to punishment by secular powers. A committee of Roman clergy and laity, under his instructions, named Peter of Corvara as a rival pope. Reversing the roles of Leo III and Charlemagne, Louis placed the papal tiara upon Peter’s head, and proclaimed him Pope Nicholas V (May 12, 1328). The Christian world marveled, and divided into two camps, almost along the same lines that would divide Europe after the Reformation.
Petty local events changed the situation dramatically. Louis had appointed Marsilius of Padua spiritual administrator of the capital; Marsilius ordered the few priests who remained in Rome to celebrate Mass as usual, despite the interdict; some who refused were tortured; and an Augustinian friar was exposed in a den of lions on the Capitol.12 Many Romans felt that this was carrying philosophy too far. The Italians had never learned to love Teutons; when some German soldiers took food from the markets without paying for it, riots ensued. To support his troops and retinue Louis needed money; he imposed a tribute of 10,000 florins ($250,000?) upon the laity, and equal sums upon the clergy and the Jews. Resentment mounted so dangerously that Louis thought it time to return to Germany. On August 4, 13 2 8, he began a retreat through Italy. Papal troops took possession of Rome the next day; the palaces of Louis’s Roman supporters were destroyed, and their goods were confiscated to the Church. The people made no resistance, but returned to their devotions and their crimes.
Louis was consoled at Pisa by receiving another recruit, the most famous philosopher of the fourteenth century. William of Ockham had fled from a papal prison in Avignon; now he offered his services to the Emperor, saying (according to an unverified tradition),“Tu me defendas gladio, ego te defendam calamo”—“Defend me with the sword, and I will defend you with the pen.” 13 He wrote vigorously, but he could not save the situation. Louis had alienated all the ruling elements in Italy. His Ghibelline adherents had hoped to rule the peninsula in his name for their own good; they were chagrined to find him assuming all the powers and perquisites of government; moreover, he made them levy unpopular taxes for his exchequer. As his forces were ill proportioned to his pretensions, many Ghibellines, even the Visconti, abandoned him and made what peace they could with the Pope. The Antipope, left to his own resources, submitted to arrest by papal officers, was led before John XXII with a halter around his neck, threw himself at the Pope’s feet and begged for pardon (1328). John forgave him, embraced him as a returned prodigal, and imprisoned him for life.
Louis returned to Germany, and sent repeated embassies to Avignon offering recantations and apologies for papal pardon and recognition. John refused, and fought on till his death (1334). Louis recovered some ground when England, beginning the Hundred Years’ War, sought his alliance; Edward III recognized Louis as Emperor, and Louis hailed Edward as King of France. Seizing the opportunity provided by this alliance of two major powers against the papacy, an assembly of German princes and prelates at Rense (July 16. 1338) proclaimed that the choice of a German king by the German electors could not be annulled by any other authority; and a diet at Frankfurt-am-Main (August 3, 1338) declared the papal pronouncements against Louis null and void; the Imperial title and power, it ruled, were the gift of the Imperial electors, and needed no confirmation by a pope.14 Germany and England ignored the protests of Pope Benedict XII, and moved a step toward the Reformation.
Reckless with success, Louis now decided to apply to the full the theories of Marsilius, and to exercise ecclesiastical as well as secular supremacy. He removed papal appointees from church benefices, and put his own candidates in their place; he appropriated the funds that papal collectors were raising for a crusade; he dissolved the marriage of Margaret of Carinthia—heiress to much of Tyrol—and wedded her to his own son, who was related to her by a degree of kinship canonically invalidating marriage. The repudiated husband, his elder brother Charles, and their father, King John of Bohemia, vowed vengeance; and Clement VI, who had become pope in 1342, saw an opportunity to unseat the aging enemy of the Papal See. Skillful diplomacy won elector after elector to the view that peace and order could be restored in the Empire only by deposing Louis and making Charles of Bohemia emperor; and Charles, as the price of papal support, pledged obedience to papal commands. In July 1346, an electoral diet at Rense unanimously declared Charles to be King of Germany. Louis, having failed to secure a hearing at Avignon for his offers of submission, prepared to fight to the death for his throne. Meanwhile, aged sixty, he hunted vigorously, fell from his horse, and was killed (1347).
Charles IV, as King and Emperor, governed well. The Germans disliked him because he made Prague the Imperial capital; but in Germany as well as in his homeland he improved administration, protected commerce and transport, reduced tolls, and maintained an honest currency; and to the whole Empire he gave a generation of comparative peace. In 1356 he acquired equivocal fame in history by issuing a series of regulations known as the Golden Bull—though they were only a few of many documents bearing the Imperial golden seal. Perhaps convinced that his long absence from Germany necessitated such an arrangement, he granted to the seven electors such powers as almost annulled the Imperial authority. The electors were to meet annually to legislate for the realm; the king or emperor was to be merely their president and executive arm. They themselves in their own states were to enjoy full judiciary power, ownership of all minerals and metals in the soil, the right to mint their own coinages, to raise revenue, and, within limits, to make war and peace. The Bull gave its legal sanction to existing facts, and tried to build upon them a co-operative federation of Principalities. The electors, however, absorbed themselves in their regional affairs, and so neglected their responsibilities as an Imperial council that Germany remained only a name. This local independence of the electors made possible the protection of Luther by the Elector of Saxony, and the consequent spread of the Protestant faith.
In his old age Charles secured the Imperial succession for his son by wholesale bribery (1378). Wenceslaus IV had some virtues, but he loved alcohol and his native land; the electors resented his tastes, and deposed him (1400) in favor of Rupert III, who left no trace on history. Sigismund of Luxembourg had at the age of nineteen been chosen King of Hungary (1387); in 1411 he was elected King of the Romans, and soon assumed the title of emperor. He was a man of varied accomplishments and personal charm, handsome and vain, generous and amiable, occasionally cruel; he learned several languages and loved literature only next to women and power. His good intentions might have paved a small inferno, but his courage failed him in crisis. He tried honorably to reform the abuses and weaknesses of the German government; he passed some excellent laws, and enforced a few of them; but he was frustrated by the autonomy and inertia of the electors, and their unwillingness to share in the cost of checking the advancing Turks. In his later years he consumed his funds and energies in fighting the Hussites of Bohemia. When he died (1437) Europe mourned that one who for a time had been the voice of European progress had failed in everything but dignity.
He had commended his son-in-law, Albert of Hapsburg, to the electors of Bohemia, Hungary, and Germany. Albert II graced the three crowns, but before his abilities could bear fruit he died of dysentery in a campaign against the Turks (1440). He left no son, but the electors voted the royal and Imperial crowns to another Hapsburg, Frederick of Styria; thereafter their choice fell repeatedly to a Hapsburg prince, and the Imperial power became in effect the hereditary possession of that talented and ambitious family. Frederick III made Austria an archduchy; the Hapsburgs made Vienna their capital; the heir presumptive was regularly the archduke of Austria; and the genial quality of the Austrian and Viennese character entered like a graceful feminine theme to cross with the brusque masculinity of the north in the Teutonic soul.