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Episode 52 - The Honour of the Empire
Episode 5224th March 2022 • History of the Germans • Dirk Hoffmann-Becking
00:00:00 00:39:39

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This week we finally get our narrative going. Barbarossa will boost the honour of the empire by burning cities, hanging heretics, slaughtering rabble-rousing Romans and inventing the concept of the university.

With an introduction by Robin Pearson from the History of Byzantium. Check out his website here:

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 52 The Honour of The Empire

This week we finally get our narrative going. Barbarossa will boost the honour of the empire by burning cities, hanging heretics, slaughtering rabble-rousing Romans and inventing the concept of the university.

Before we start just a reminder. The History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at or on my website You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Elliott, Otto and Craig who have already signed up.

Last week we talked, amongst other things, about this new generation of princes who surrounded Barbarossa. These young men – and I am afraid they were all men – had a very different outlook from their forefathers. They saw the provincial kings of France and England rising up in the world whilst their ruler Conrad III could not even acquire the imperial crown, let alone be the universal monarch his title made him out to be.

The weakness of the king reflected the weakness of the empire and that by extension meant that they, the princes as branches of the empire appeared weak. The sources talk a lot about the honour of the empire, or honoris imperii in Latin as the key motivation in Barbarossa’s reign. What that is exactly is much in dispute. And Barbarossa and his princes who did not speak Latin would not have used that word anyway.

In broad terms it is something between respect and authority. Honour is diminished when imperial orders are disregarded or when someone, usually the pope claims to rank above the emperor. In a governance system with zero institutions, how can an emperor make sure his orders are implemented and nobody contests your status?. Conrad III and Lothar III before him thought that the only way to make people do what you want was brute force. Burn their castles and massacre their peasants until they obey.

Barbarossa and his circle are different. They believe that the emperor by force of his office, his personality and his honour is to be obeyed, as long as he is a just lord. And Barbarossa made sure he was a just lord by delegating all major decisions to a court of the princes. The princes were then bound to uphold the honour of the empire by enforcing that decision. And if the emperor encounters resistance in implementing the decision, it is not just his authority and standing that is at risk, but the honour of the empire as a whole and that of each individual prince as well.

to von Northeim’s speech in:

And the first thing the honour of the Reich demanded was for Barbarossa to be crowned emperor in Rome. With the empire north of the Alps largely at peace an expedition to Rome was a much easier proposition than it had been for Conrad III just 2 years earlier.

In preparation of the journey negotiations with pope Eugene III began that will end in the treaty of Constance. This is again another indication how the balance of power between popes and emperors have shifted in the last century. A little more than 100 years earlier Barbarossa’s great, great grandfather Henry III had journeyed to Rome not even knowing who exactly the current pope was and, when he had doubts about the validity of the one who presented himself, he had all three contenders to the papacy deposed and a new one put in place. Now, the emperor has to negotiate terms with the pope. Delegations moved back and forth between Germany and whichever small town the pope currently resided at to find an agreement.

The terms of this agreement can be summarised as follows:

1. Barbarossa shall not make peace with either the Roman commune or the Sicilians without the consent of the pope. The emperor is to make best efforts to subject the Romans to the pope and the holy mother church.

2. The emperor as advocate of the church was to preserve and defend the papacy and all their legal rights.

3. The emperor promises not cede any land in Southern Italy to the “King of the Greeks” which was to mean emperor Manuel in Constantinople and should Manuel invade both Pope and emperor would combine their forces to throw him out.

4. The pope on his part would crown him emperor and would help him in accordance with his duty to the papal office to maintain, increase and expand the honour of his realm.

5. And finally, the pope promises to warn, and if necessary, excommunicate anyone who dared to trample underfoot or overturn the imperial honour.

Many a tree have been felled and carbon pigment expanded on the question who got one over the other in this agreement. Given that opinion is split almost exactly 50/50 it must have been one of those compromises that left either side believing they got what they wanted until they find out that they did not.

And even if Barbarossa had signed a bad treaty, he still benefitted by calling in the papal obligations first and leaving his own commitments for later..

Pope Eugenius III had already made a number of decisions in Barbarossa’s favour even before ethe ink was dry. First up he deposed the archbishop of Mainz, who you may remember was the only significant elector who had opposed Barbarossa at his elevation. And secondly the pope annulled his marriage to Adela of Vohburg. Barbarossa had no particular liking for his first wife that had been chosen for him by Conrad III. But more importantly, her political usefulness had vanished when her father had died, and even more problematic the couple had no children. A few monks were assembled to go through the rickety Staufer family tree and unsurprisingly, they found a common great, great grandmother and bingo, the marriage was annulled for consanguinity.

Barbarossa used his newly acquired status as bachelor to paper over the most explosive clause in the treaty of Constance, the promise to expel emperor Manuel should he show up in Southern Italy. That would be a big shift in Staufer policy towards Constantinople.

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As you may have heard on the History of Byzantium, Manuel’s #1 political objective was to weaken the king of Sicily and regaining a foothold in Southern Italy and for that he was counting on Stauffer support

It is unclear whether Manuel knew about the clauses in the treaty of Constance but it is not likely that Barbarossa had told him What Barbarossa did Instead of announcing his u-turn was to send envoys asking the Vasilev for the hand of his daughter, the beautiful, purple born Maria. That must have been a ruse to string the Byzantine emperor along. Barbarossa needed his coronation more than any amount of Greek gold and that meant he had to honour the treaty of Constance, at least until he had done the business in St. Peter. But after that, who knows. It is worthwhile to keep the communication channels open.

So far, so good. We have a calm Germany, an invitation to Rome from the pope and we have kept the emperor in Constantinople at bay.

Two more things need to be looked at before the horses can be saddled.

cardinals in their midst. By:

The old sign SPQR, the Senate and the People of Rome that was once carried before the victorious legions that subdued the known world re-emerged for the first time in 500 years and with it delusions of grandeur. Just as an aside, it is still in use, mainly to grace manhole covers. They had already written to Conrad III and offered to crown him emperor. That letter was at least deferential and polite. The letter Barbarossa received in 1153 was anything but. The writer made it clear that if Barbarossa did not come down pronto, something bad would happen. I guess that is not a way to talk to someone who rates his own honour above everything else. Being threatened by some shoeless rabblerouser was just the thing to make the imperial blood boil. The Roman communal leaders were sent home with some choice words and now Barbarossa had his own reason to go to Rome and tell these jumped-up plebeians what is what.

But these were not the only plebeians asking for imperial support. As Barbarossa was holding court in Constance and putting the finishing touches on the eponymous treaty, two citizens of the town of Lodi in Lombardy happened to travel through and, seeing the line of petitioners waiting for the king, joined in to tell of their plight.

Lodi lies 30 km south of Milan and had come into conflict with the mighty metropolis. Milan was not only the largest and most powerful of the communes in Lombardy, it also did not like competition. And Lodi was though small, still a competitor. So the army of Milan came and razed old Lodi to the ground, removed all fortifications and forced the inhabitants to move into undefended villages nearby. After this catastrophe the Lodese began rebuilding their shattered lives. They set up a new market in a field near the main road and things were slowly improving. But even a small market was unacceptable to the Milanese and they shut that down too.

Barbarossa heard their plight and – without hearing the other side – wrote a harsh letter to the consuls of Milan ordering them to allow the market of Lodi to reopen. One of his ministeriales, a man called Sicher was dispatched to Milan with the document bearing the imperial seal. Sicher first came to Lodi to tell the population what the emperor had decided. Instead of rejoicing, the citizens panicked. It is all good for some potentate from north of the alps to make some ruling, but nobody had seen an emperor in Italy for 15 years and the Milanese cavalry could be down here in half a day to burn the miserable huts they were living in now. They begged Sicher to go back home and forget about everything, but the poor man did not dare to disobey his master. He went to Milan and the Consuls had the letter read out in a public assembly. That did not go down well. Not only did the Milanese refuse to obey, they tore the order to shreds and Horror of horrors trampled on the imperial seal. Even the hapless ambassador had to flee for his life.

Barbarossa’s honour demands that he comes to Milan and makes the city obey him. Not just Barbarossa’s honour, it is the honour of the realm as a whole that is at stake.

By October:

The army crosses the Brenner pass and after burning a castle belonging to the city of Verona and hanging its defenders, meanders its way down to the fields of Roncaglia. These fields are a flat area outside the city of Piacenza extremely suitable for royal assemblies in Italy.

By the 12th century Italy is fundamentally different from the empire north of the alps. A German royal assembly is family gathering of aristocrats that can take place in an episcopal palace or imperial Pfalz. Northern Italy has barely any major feudal lords left.

During the last 150 years the emperors have spent a total of just 22 years in Northern Italy, leaving the place without central authority for long stretches of time. And that is particularly true during the last eighty years of civil war. In the interim the city governments have first taken over all the secular powers of their bishops and subsequently conquered the lands outside their walls. The local lords were made to either flee or integrate into city society so that the area surrounding the cities, the so-called contado had been cleared of castellans.

And then all these Cities whose contados share a border tend to be constantly at war. The political map of Northern Italy looks a bit like a chessboard. If you are a city on a white square, you are at war with all the cities on the black squares next to you and you are allies with the ones on the white squares.

Hence, if an assembly would take place in a particular city, half the participants would be on enemy territory. So, the only place where representatives of all these cities can meet without fear of being captured and murdered is an open field – the field of Roncaglia.

This first of Barbarossa’s royal assemblies is a great success. Nearly all the cities of Italy have sent representatives. Most cities have paid the Fodrum, a traditional tax paid when the emperor is in Italy. Some cities go further. Genoa brought him lions, ostriches and parrots they had captured from the Muslims in Spain. Pisa too brough expensive gifts.

The main point of the Meeting was however not to gather trinkets, but to let the Italian subjects of the empire know that the king is back. Barbarossa main concern was the size of his army. So he passed laws that required the cities and vassals such as they were to provide military support upon request. He also banned the sale of fiefs as that would circumvent the ability to call for military service. And he set financial compensation levels for vassals who were unable to attend in person.

And then he began dispensing justice. He ordered the cities of Pavia and Tortona to make peace and exchange their captives from the recent war. Chieri and Asti were admonished for insubordination and their complete destruction ordered. And Lodi was re-established. The Milanese had realised that this emperor was actually coming down to Italy and that he could make things quite uncomfortable. So, they offered an enormous sum, 4,000 pounds of silver and a promise to rebuild Lodi and Como to make amends.

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The two consuls of Milan had offered to lead the army from Roncaglia to Monza and Barbarossa was happy to accept this generous offer from his new friends. All this business with the trampled seal was it seems forgotten. But the consuls led the army through a part of the country that had recently been completely destroyed in a war between Milan and Pavia. Lack of food and poring rain made the journey an utter misery. Barbarossa is getting really angry now. He sends the two consuls home and asks them to come back with food and to open a market where his troops can revittal. But no food, no market appears.

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Finally, he begins to point the army in the direction of where he actually wants to go, Rome. On the way there he comes past the city of Tortona, an ally of Milan. When Tortona does not obey his demands to give satisfaction to Pavia, he loses the plot. His army may be far too small to attack Milan, but his honour demands some punishment, and that punishment will be borne by Milan’s ally, Tortona. He besieges the city for two months, two months the Tortonese were waiting for help from Milan that never came. Tortona’s citadel sits on a steep hill overlooking the city and is a hard nut to crack. Though Barbarossa’s allies, the city of Pavia bring siege engines and ruthlessness, but progress is slow. And it is brutal. Any defenders they capture are being hanged at large gallows within sight of the city walls.

The city has one vulnerability. Water supply is from just one well outside the main citadel. Barbarossa’s troops manage to at least temporarily capture the well, long enough to throw carcasses of animals and humans into the well. After that the city surrenders. Barbarossa allows the defenders to leave but once they are gone, he has the city burned to the ground.

It had all gone off to such a good start but look at it now. The Italians are used to brutal warfare. Milan had razed Lodi, Como and Novara to the ground and the others weren’t shy either. But taking sides against Milan so openly and consistently will make it hard to be the impartial arbiter of the city disputes he would like to be.

And as if he needed to make it any clearer whose side he was on, he has himself crowned in Pavia after all.

if not a great deed. In May:

It is now June and as we all know that means time is running out. Rome is already dangerous but in a few weeks it will be a hotbed of disease. All that wandering up and down in Lombardy and the siege of Tortona had cost too much time.

Pope Eugenius III had died in:

On that count things were off to a bad start. As the pope arrived in the imperial camp near Sutri he expected the new emperor to perform the service of Strator and Marshall as Lothar III had done. These ceremonial services involve the emperor welcoming the pope at least a stone’s throw from his accommodation, leading his horse to the entrance and then holding the papal stirrup as the pope descends. What exactly went wrong here is unclear. Either Barbarossa outright refused or did it wrongly, sloppily or sourly. In any event, once the pope had descended from his horse and sat down on his chair, he refused the kiss of peace, and all hell broke loose.

Why Barbarossa was unwilling to perform the act has been disputed. The older view was that these services would make him look like a vassal of the pope. And hence his honour would not allow that. Modern historians believe it was a misunderstanding of sorts, which would mean that this was one of the few displays not meticulously planned beforehand.

Anyway, the parties leave without further conversation. The pope insists the ceremony is repeated as that this was an ancient ceremony performed by all emperors in the past. As far as I can see that is untrue. The first emperor to perform this service was Lothar III and it had bad consequences if you remember episode 44.

Barbarossa’s archivists were however not as well versed with their history to refute the papal claims and – as time was running out – 24 hours later Barbarossa repeated the whole procedure and this time did as he was told. The relationship was off to a very bad start.

Pope and Emperor then progressed to Rome where papal authority was limited pretty much to the right bank of Tiber, the Vatican city. The main city was held by the Senate and People of Rome. One thing Hadrian had achieved though was getting Arnold of Brescia expelled from the city when he threatened an interdict. The senate complied and Arnold was tried as a heretic. After the utterly unsurprising verdict, he was handed over to Barbarossa who had him hanged, his body burned and his ashes thrown in the Tiber, so as not to leave a place for his followers to remember him. Whether that endeared the citizens to Barbarossa is unclear.

to crown him if he would pay:

The next day was a Saturday and coronations normally take place on Sundays. Or so the Romans thought. Hadrian and Barbarossa had decided that to avoid any more trouble, best thing to do was to pull the coronation forward to Saturday.

The emperor arrives surrounded by armed guards at the church of St. Maria in Turri just outside old St. Peter and offers the traditional coronation oath. The pope asks him whether he wants to be a faithful son of the church and he answers three times, that yes he will. The pope now covers him with his mantle and the emperor kisses his chest.

Pope and emperor then enter the atrium of St. Peter through the silver gate where prayers are spoken, then more prayers as he reaches the rota, the giant circular plate of red marble that is still at the entrance of St. Peter. And finally, he is anointed in front of the relics of St. Peter. During the mass Hadrian hands him the sword and sceptre and finally places the crown on his head.

At that the congregation shouts and screams with joy, so loud one might have thought a tremendous thunder had fallen from the sky. And that is what the Romans hear on the other side of the Tiber.

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It might have been a great victory, but it also made the position of both pope and emperor in the Holy city untenable. Leaving behind the stench of rotting flesh the two heads of Christendom travelled to Tivoli and then onwards to Spoleto. This journey did not improve imperial papal relations. Wherever they went questions arose about who was who’s vassal, which rights were to be granted by who and just generally who was in charge here. The party arrived at the abbey of Farfa, an imperial abbey since time immemorial and subject to so many imperial charters I used to jump over them every time I saw one – ahh Farfa again. But by 1155 the pope was utterly convinced the abbey was now his if only for the fact that no emperor had shown his face there for half a century. All these unresolved issues weren’t really crucial but they constantly implied that either party failed to recognise the honour and status of the other and gradually eroded the alliance the two sides had formed under the treaty of Constance.

The cities along the way are asked to pay the Fodrum, the tax owed to a passing emperor. Spoleto thought they could fool the emperor and paid him in worthless copper coins. They had hoped they get away with it because they held one of Barbarossa’s followers, a count Guido in their power. That did not go down well, in particular not the imprisonment of an imperial envoy and so Spoleto was besieged, captured and burned. For the next two days the army plundered Spoleto during daytime but stayed in their camp during the night as the smell of burning flesh was overpowering.

This may all be sort of profitable for the soldiers, but it did not really do much for the actual military objectives. Barbarossa had promised the pope to overcome the Roman Commune and to break the hold of the Normans on Southern Italy. As for part one, that had already failed, leaving objective #2.

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This discontent could have provided the opportunity for Frederick to deliver against his promise in Constance. Very much like in Lother III’s day the barons of Puglia were ready to rise up and the cities were happy to join.

And another advantage was at hand. Emperor Manuel had sent two of his best generals, Michael Paleiologos and John Doukas with a small army and a big chunk of cash to Ancona. They were to team up with Frederick and capture Puglia. For several days the two sides negotiate but in the end there is no deal. Two things are stopping Frederick.

The first was the treaty of Constance. Barbarossa had promised the pope not to make an agreement with Manuel that would give the Byzantines control over Puglia or other parts of Italy. And that would have been the demand from Constantinople. These guys were not handing over fine gold just out of the goodness of their hearts. Doing a deal without papal consent would have caused a lot of friction in the already difficult relationship with the pope.

He may have taken the risk if the chances of success would have been high enough. The Byzantines had brought only a small army to add to Barbarossa’s already modest forces. And it is now the height of summer and his vassals have already made clear that they are not keen on a campaign in Southern Italy – again, the same scenario as 17 years earlier when the German princes ended Lothar III’s campaign.

Barbarossa puts all this in the too hard box and decides to go home. The alliance with Byzantium is now dead as is his chance to marry a gorgeous, purple born Greek princess. Paleiologos and Doukas go it alone and have some initial success. They even capture Bari. In the process they drive a final nail in the coffin of germane/byzantine relations by showing letters bearing Barbarossa’s signature that purport a transfer of ownership of Puglia to the Vasilev. These may either be fake or being used without consent. In the end the byzantine endeavour fails, their small army perishes, and the two generals die manfully in battle.

As for Barbarossa, his return home also allowed for true heroism. As the army was about to leave Italy they had to pass Verona, a city whose castles they had sacked on the way down and whose citizens were none too happy to see them coming up again. They did provide a bridge across the river Adige or Etsch in German outside the town for the army to cross but otherwise stayed behind their walls.

The army followed the Etsch for about 25 km from Verona and reached the Chiusa di Verona or Veroneser Klause where the river valley narrows with steep mountains on both sides. And that is where the Veronese had decided to trap the army. They blocked the exit and entrance with large boulders and their archers shot at the advance guard of the army. There was no way out. To the left the ice-cold fast flowing river Etch, ahead and behind well defended enemy positions and to the right, the sheer cliff of the Chuisa de Verona.

The enemy’s demands were not political but purely financial. They required that every knight including the emperor himself was to hand over their armour, their horses and their weapons. This was totally unacceptable. Imagine the emperor returns from his trip to Italy with barely the clothes on his back. His rule would have ended even more ignominiously than Conrad III.

But it did not. If you want to see a great depiction of how he got out of this cliff hanger, you have to go to Munich. There in the gardens of the royal residence, the Hofgarten a 19th century painter depicted the most glorious moments in the history of the House of Wittelsbach the Kings of Bavaria. And that cycle of frescoes starts with Otto von Wittelsbach in the Veroneser Klause. Otto was an accomplished warrior and he and his Bavarian knights were also skilled climbers. In the night, unseen by their enemies 200 of the brave Bavarians scaled the sheer cliff carrying their weapons and their armour. No ropes, no harness,, no crampons, just straight up the wall. As the sun rose, they planted the imperial banner and with wild screaming descended upon the thieving Veronese. At the same time Barbarossa and his men attacked them from the front. In less than an hour the opponents sued for mercy, but none was forthcoming. They weren’t real combatants, they were robbers after monetary gain, not knights fighting for glory. Barbarossa had all those who survived hanged alongside the road.

And so ended the first of Barbarossa’s journeys to Italy. He had achieved his main objective, he had received the imperial crown, but he had not achieved much else. His relationship with the pope was on the rocks since he neither cleared out the Roman commune nor defeated the king of Sicily. His alliance with emperor Manuel in Constantinople was now permanently dissolved. The Northern Italian cities remember him for the brutal siege of Tortona, the destruction of Chieri, Asti and Spoleto and the hanging of so many.

As he heads back, one idea takes hold of his mind. Italy was so immensely rich, so much richer than Germany that if he were able to establish a permanent rule over Italy he would be truly as powerful as his great predecessors Otto the Great and Charlemagne. He must also have realised that the two biggest issues he had faced were the small size of his army and the unreliability of his vassals who wanted to go home just when things had become interesting.

Fighting for the honour of the empire was a motivator for many of the younger princes, but it seems not for enough for all. Next time he needs to come with more men and stay for longer and to do that his governance model needs a tweak. What that is and how he fares on his next round we will find out next week. Hope to see you then.

cing the Eastern Empire since: