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Ep. 54 - A Bohemian Bluff - Barbarossa conquers Milan for the first time
Episode 547th April 2022 • History of the Germans • Dirk Hoffmann-Becking
00:00:00 00:31:13

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(1158) This week we will see Barbarossa try using his freshly minted army to take down the city of Milan, a city of 150,000 and the one commune that he needs to defeat if he really wants to establish imperial rule in Italy

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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To make it easier for you to share the podcast, I have created separate playlists for some of the seasons that are set up as individual podcasts. they have the exact same episodes as in the History of the Germans, but they may be a helpful device for those who want to concentrate on only one season.

So far I have:

The Ottonians

Salian Emperors and Investiture Controversy

Fredrick Barbarossa and Early Hohenstaufen

Frederick II Stupor Mundi

Saxony and Eastward Expansion

The Hanseatic League

The Teutonic Knights

The Holy Roman Empire 1250-1356


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 54 – A Bohemian bluff

This week we will see Barbarossa try using his freshly minted army to take down the city of Milan, a city of 150,000 and the one commune that he needs to defeat if he really wants to establish imperial rule in Italy

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 Rune and Danielle who have already signed up.

has now gathered and in Juli:

A mighty force indeed, but what was the plan? The plan was simple, Barbarossa wanted to make himself the ruler of Italy, a ruler even more powerful than Charlemagne or Otto the Great, a ruler who brings peace, law and order to Italy. Yes, I know.... The immediate objective was to bring Milan to heel, a city that had insulted imperial honor more than once and being the most powerful of the communes that needed to be subjugated if genuine control was to be established.

How this was to work the Italians were told well before the first warhorse was saddled and before the first oxcart rattled up the serpentines of the Alpine passes..

The reason they knew was simple, Barbarossa had let them know. His two best men, Otto von Wittelsbach and Rainald von Dassel had been in Italy since January rallying support for the emperor.

Otto von Wittelsbach you have already met. The most fearsome warrior of the time, he was the man you called if you needed somebody’s head smashed in. Rainald von Dassel was the ideal complement to the Bavarian Agrippa. Rainald was the man you called when you needed heads penetrated by thoughts rather than axes.

h. He advanced quickly and by:

He was of sharp intellect, well-educated and though we do not know where he acquired his education, had a thorough understanding of canon as well as Roman law.

So, these two, the imperial brawn and the imperial brain were down in Italy without an army just protected by the Imperial authority. They traveled from commune to commune and made the citizens and their consuls and senators swear an oath of allegiance to Barbarossa. Let me quote the entire oath to you because it gives you a great impression what is about to come. So here we go:

Quote “I swear that from this time forth I shall be faithful to my lord Frederick, the emperor of the Romans, against all men , as is my lawful duty to my lord and emperor, and I shall aid him to retain the crown of the empire and all his prerogatives in Italy, namely and specifically the city of X* and whatever jurisdiction he is entitled to have in it , or in his power over the county or bishopric of X*. I shall not deprive him of his royal rights here or elsewhere, and if they should be taken from him I shall in good faith aid him to recover and retain them. I shall be party to no plot or deed to cause him the loss of life or limb or honor or to be held in dire captivity. Every command of his, given me personally, or in writing, or through his representative rendering justice, I shall faithfully observe, and I shall by no evil means evade hearing or receiving or complying with it. All of these things I shall observe in good faith without deceit. So help me God and these four Gospels.” end quote.

This translation is by the way taken from John B. Freed’s recent biography of Frederick Barbarossa, the first biography in English and a really great one at that.

Let’s unpack this. What the communes swear here are two things. One is that they commit to help the emperor in his military operations in Italy. This is not unusual. We have seen before that emperors or kings of the Romans could rely on support from some Italian communes.

The second part, on the face of it, does not seem to be anything new either. The commune promises to respect and if lost help recover his ancient rights. But then think about the context. These last 100 years the emperors had made no more than fleeting visits to Italy. Though they kept issuing charters to Italian counts, bishops, cities, nobles and monasteries, they did not exercise any actual power in Italy outside their occasional campaigns. The bishops were the ones who initially stepped into this vacuum and took on the rights and prerogatives of the emperor. Over time the communes took the rights away from the bishops. By the time Otto von Wittelsbach and Rainald von Dassel journey through Northern Italy the royal rights to markets, bridges, tolls, taxes and jurisdiction had been taken over by the communes and their elected leaders for decades.

With this oath the cities promise to return all the rights back to the emperor, subject themselves to imperial judgements and even promise to proactively help recovering these rights where they have been lost.

l the Italians may have added:

And that leaves you with one question, why on God’s wide earth did these proud communal leaders swear an oath of submission? These communes that did regularly fight each other with astonishing brutality over even the mildest indication of contempt for their rights, why would they subject themselves to imperial justice? Not only that but offer military assistance in his efforts to subject them?.

emperor had returned home in:

The second consideration was the one that always applied to Italian campaigns, they do not last very long. Ever since anyone in Italy could remember the Germans never stayed more than 18 months. Signing some piece of paper that would keep these fearful warriors away for now was a cheap price to pay in particular when you can file this paper in the great dustbin in the sky once the emperor turns his horse towards the Brenner pass. And maybe you can get him to burn down your neighbor as well.

And there was a third reason. Barbarossa and his paladins Otto von Wittelsbach and Rainald von Dassel had gained a level of authority not seen in an imperial administration for a 100 years or more. Barbarossa’s success in unifying the chaotic kingdom north of the Alps did not go unnoticed, nor the respect he commanded amongst the kings of France, England and Hungary. Imperial PR has become clear, concise and convincing in part thanks to the brilliance of Rainald von Dassel. The military feats of Otto von Wittelsbach and others were the talk of all of Italy and they keep adding to them.

When the two envoys came down to Ravenna and encountered some senior citizens who they suspected of treason, Otto and Rainald immediately charged them with just 10 armored riders though their opponents numbered 300 knights. Otto and Rainald took many prisoners and Ravenna instantly caved and swore allegiance. So did Ancona despite the Byzantine garrison they hosted in their midst.

So, for the Italians all this was seen as a transitory thing. They would be good boys and girls for the time the emperor and his mighty warrior are in Italy and help putting Milan back in its place, but just wait until he and his fearsome friends are back home, then the gloves come off and the old games start again.

Barbarossa and his circle saw this very differently. They were coming to Italy to stay. The old kingdom of the Lombards was part of the now Holy Empire in the same way as Saxony and Lothringia are. And as in Saxony and Lothringia, it is now time to rebuild imperial authority. The offer was to be the same as it had been North of the Alps, peace and justice in exchange for obedience..

Barbarossa had seen the utter brutality of Italian warfare where cities aimed to wipe each other from the face of the earth, and concluded they must want peace even more than the Germans and hence should be prepared to give up even more rights to gain the security a strong emperor can procure.

As so often in world history, at the heart of the most persistent and vicious conflicts lies a misunderstanding. 12th century Italians are badass and have no interest in peace at all. What they care about is the freedom of their commune.

But before we get to this misunderstanding. Let’s talk about the thing everyone, or almost everyone agreed on, the reduction of Milan. Well obviously the Milanese did not agree.

Milan in:

The territory of Milan is protected on three sides by rivers, in the east the Ticino, in the south y the Po River and in the west by the Adda. In the North are the alps and the lakes, Lago Maggiore, Lago di Lugano and Lago di Como. Any attacker would first have to cross either the alps or the rivers to get into the contado, the lands of Milan.

The city itself was surrounded by walls the emperor Maximian had erected between 285 and 305 when he took up residence there. The walls had six major gates, all still in Roman masonry. The Milanese army is estimated at 3,000 knight and 9,400 foot soldiers, so roughly a fifth of the size of Barbarossa’s forces. The city militia was divided into 6 units, each defending one of its six gates.

The center and focal point of the communal armies was the carroccio. The carroccio is a sacred cart that carries a portable alter and a mast to fly the city’s battle flag. I will publish a picture on the website showing the carroccio of Milan. That thing was simply enormous. Pulled by 8 oxen it carried a full sized church alter with an enormous crucifix attached to the mast. On the mast the Milanese would fly the flag of St. Ambrose, the city saint who also happened to have been a bishop who stood up to the emperor Theodosius and won. The cart was the symbol of Milan and rallying point for the army should they get under pressure. Given it was an ox cart it was extremely slow and hard to maneuver, meaning that the army who defended it could not retreat unless it gave up the holy cart and giving up the holy cart was a no go. So, the armies of the communes would fight ferociously not yielding quarter. Big difference to the imperial standard bearer who sits on a fast horse and can turn tail when needed. If you asked me who was more committed, an army of German knights or an Italian Communal fighting unit, no question, the Italian Communes were way tougher.

The Milanese are aware that Barbarossa is coming, and they add a third line of defense on top of the rivers and the Roman walls. Under the guidance of their main siege engineer, Guintelmo the Milanese had dug a moat around the whole city and used the earth to create ramparts behind it. These ramparts were manned by the city militia. All in, Milan was an impressive defensive position.

Barbarossa’s army began now to arrive in Italy in late July.

The concept was to envelop the whole of the Milanese contado. The three German army units that had come down with Barbarossa and Henry Jasomirgott were to occupy the eastern limits of the Milanese territory along the river Adda. The Italian communal allies were to hold the southern frontier along the Po River and Berthold von Zaehringen was coming from the west to occupy the frontline along the Ticino River.

The first to arrive in theatre were the Bohemians, sent ahead for logistics reasons. The army was simply too large to come down in one go. As the Bohemians waited in Veronese territory busying themselves with the occasional bit of logging in orchards and olive groves, the concerned citizens of Verona suggested to them to go over to the territory of Brescia and burn and pillage there, at least that was enemy territory. And that the Bohemians did as told - with great success. Brescia cancelled their alliance with Milan, paid some fine gold, swore the oath and even send soldiers to reinforce Barbarossa’s army.

The next issue was to get the army across the Adda, the first of the Milanese lines of defense. The Milanese had part destroyed all the bridges over the river, usually by taking out the central part. They did not want to completely destroy the bridges for obvious reasons. A party of Milanese knights followed the imperial army on the opposite side of the river, preventing any attempt to repair and cross the bridges.

Barbarossa split his army and left one detachment at the bridge at Trezzo whilst moving the bulk of the army further south to Cassano where there was another bridge. Milanese forces occupied the opposite sides of both bridges.

Under the cover of darkness, the king of Bohemia and his men travelled further south searching for a place to ford the river. The Adda comes straight from the Alps and the melted snow had turned the otherwise mellow stream into a torrent. Vladislaus and his men found what they thought was a suitable crossing and plunged in. Sixty of his men were swept away into certain death but the bulk of his forces managed to get across. They gallop up to Cassano and overwhelm the Milanese holding their side of the bridge. Now a race against time begins. Some of the Milanese had escaped and are alerting the main army who will come and crush the Bohemians, unless Barbarossa can get his men across in time. Bohemians and Germans are ferociously cutting timber, adding joists and laying planks to effect some repair. As soon as the construction looks viable men, horses and armor cross, but the bridge collapses again taking more men to their watery grave. Though they work through the night, by sunrise the bridge is still not finished, and the Bohemians are still not reinforced.

the way he had come, and his:

That same evening Barbarossa can finally cross the River Adda. They take the strategic castle and bridge at Trezzo as well and with that, the first line of defense has fallen.

rd of August:

The other reason for the delay is that Barbarossa is keen to do things by the book this time. As the future ruler of Italy, he needs to appear fair and considerate. He maintains strict discipline in the army, keeps Germans and Italians separate, regulates prices merchants can charge the soldiers and prohibits women inside the camp.

Not only that, when some learned jurists point out that to make his war just, he needs to formally summon the Milanese to his court again and give them a chance to prevent the siege. The Milanese indeed appear and now that their first line of defense had fallen, try to end the war by offering presents and a form of penance to restore the imperial honor. Barbarossa and some of his princes are considering an early peace, if not because we are in August now and – as you know medieval Germans and Italian summer do not go well together.

But the archbishop of Ravenna, Anselm von Havelberg, a great theologian, strict Premonstratensian and according to many a holy man, objects. The pious prelate insists that the Milanese cannot the trusted and that in revenge for all the cities and churches they had destroyed, they do not deserve any mercy. They are to unconditionally surrender to imperial justice. Anselm carries the day and he gest his siege, a siege during which he dies. I am not making comment here, I do not want to be called condescending towards the church again, but.

On August 6th the army arrives before Milan. Despite an army larger than anything a northern ruler had yet brought to bear on a Lombard city, it was still not large enough to invest the whole of it. The army takes position outside the eastern gates of the city, the Porta Romana, Porta Tosa, Porta Orientale and Porta Nuova. The Milanese defend their gates for a month against an army 5x their own forces. The walls are old and as the chronicler Vinzenz of Prague said, the defenders relied more on their bravery than on their masonry. They nearly scored a success when they attacked the Swabians under the just 13 year old Frederick of Rothenburg who had to be rescued by the Bohemians. This constant heroism of the Bohemians began to irritate the other princes and they redoubled their efforts. Otto von Wittelsbach, who else, broke through to the Porta Nuova and began burning the wooden gates, but the city militia finally pushed him back.

One of the most curious defensive structures was the Arco Romano, a four-sided triumphal arch positioned 600 meters in front of the Porta Romana. The Milanese had placed a suicide squad of forty men inside the 500 year old structure. These guys were a real problem as they could rain down arrows on the army camped outside the Porta Romana. The Arco had to fall and so engineers from Cremona began to undermine the construction in order to bring the arc and the men down. Fear of collapse or arrows from below that occasionally hit the brave fighters finally forced them to surrender. The imperial allies erected a stone catapult, a petrary on top of the arch that hurled stones into the city. The Milanese retaliated with their own trebuchet that succeeded in destroying the one on the Arco Romano.

You see, warfare in Italy was a lot more sophisticated. The sources dedicated praise not just to valiant knights but more and more to crafty engineers.

But all that sophistication did not bring Milan down. What turned the tide in favor of the holy emperor was old school torched earth tactics. The Kaiser’s troops and sometimes he himself would raid the western side of the city and far and wide into lands of Milan. That forced the peasants and their livestock into the overpopulated city. The place began to fill up with dirt and animal carcasses which bred disease. The more reasonable citizens of Milan concluded that this could become really unpleasant and decided to sue for peace.

By August 14th, 2 days after the death of the bellicose bishop negotiations began and by 1st of September a formal peace agreement was concluded. The agreement attempted to balance the interests of Milan to retain the independence of its commune with the imperial claim to true lordship over Italy.

The main terms were as follows:

• Milan promises to leave Como and Lodi alone and recognize their independence

• All citizens between the ages of fourteen and seventy swear allegiance to the emperor

• The city pays a fine of 9,000 marks in gold, silver or coin

• The city had to release its prisoners and provide 300 hostages, 150 of which can be taken across the alps

So far so normal, but now come the more contentious sections:

• The city will build the emperor a palace inside the walls, which basically means the emperor gets a fortified castle in their midst.

• Imperial legates were given the right to “hear cases”, i.e, administer justice “for the honor of the empire”. Not sure what that exactly means, but if I was Milanese, I would fear a term so flexible could lead to full imperial control of the judiciary.

• And finally, the empire regains all regalia that had been alienated since the time of Otto the Great, these are the right to mint coins, market tolls, transit tolls, gate tolls and all ancient rights associated with the county. Any dispute about regalia was to be heard before an imperial court.

As this was not an unconditional surrender, Milan was allowed to retain some privileges. Namely they were allowed to elect their consuls though these needed imperial approval and had to personally come and swear allegiance. And Milan was allowed to retain its alliances with Tortona, Crema and Isola Comecina.

After the signing of the agreement comes the ceremonial capitulation and restoration into Frederick’s grace. That took place on September 8th outside the Porta Romana in the great imperial tent, a tent Barbarossa had received as a present from King Henry II of England. These tents were often huge and highly decorated. The original obviously no longer exists but there is an ottoman sultan’s tent in the royal palace in Dresden that can give an impression of what this one could have looked like. It is 20 meters long and 5 meters high, its inside embroidered with a paradise garden. It is so large that it took 35 restorers six years to recreate the original impression.

Inside the tent sit Barbarossa and the King of Bohemia in the full splendor of their ceremonial robes wearing their crowns.

The first to arrive are the archbishop and the clergy of Milan carrying crosses, liturgical books, and censors wearing their vestments. The archbishop is greeted with the kiss of peace and allowed to take his place amongst the other archbishops.

Then follow twelve consuls of Milan. In disheveled garb, barefoot and bearing drawn swords upon their necks they approach. One of them, Obertus ab Orto addresses the emperor “we have sinned, we have acted unjustly, we beg for forgiveness. Our necks which we bow to your lordship and sword, are those of all Milanese; and with these swords, all our weapons are subject to imperial power”.

Frederick then takes each consul’s sword off their necks, hands it to a servant and receives them back into his grace.

This is another of these great medieval stage shows. Yes, the consuls have formally declared their submission to the emperor’s sword, i.e., have allowed him to have them decapitated right there. But that was never going to happen. The two sides had negotiated every single move in detail. They debated whether the Consuls could wear shoes, which was denied, but they were relieved form having to completely prostrate themselves before the emperor.

The archbishop of Milan concludes proceeding by saying mass under the Ambrosian rites, a special liturgy only performed in Milan in commemoration of its great bishop.

Though terms are harsh, they are not a complete humiliation and the final act, the ambrosian mass was an olive branch to the great city. With Milan submitting to his rule, its allies also fell in line and Barbarossa could now truly call himself king of the Lombards, the first time since probably Henry III any emperor could.

He dismisses most of the army and begins preparations for the next act in the process of cementing control over the Southern part of the empire, the laws of Roncaglia. But those will have to wait until next week. For now, we leave him enjoying the autumn sunshine in Italy, the richest land in Europe he had fully subdued in just three months, or so he thinks. See you next week.

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