The Investiture Controversy had set the Holy Roman Emperors and the Papacy at loggerheads for almost 50 years. At stake were a whole range of issues, but at core was the power of the Imperial throne itself: were bishops and clerics to be selected by the Emperor and then merely rubber-stamped by the Pope, or were they to be subject to Papal decree? The Concordat of Worms settled these issues for a while – but the conflict had let a bigger genie out of the bottle: Northern Italy would become a perennial ulcer for the German Emperors, with a unique political culture of independent city-republics who would bow to no-one. In every city, the conflict between Emperor and Pope would become folded into petty rivalries and local power plays, with two great camps contending for power: the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Their century-long feud would set the scene for the Italian Renaissance.
The Long Shadow of the Investiture Controversy
The Concordat of Worms, concluded in 1122 between Holy Roman Emperor Henry V and Pope Callixtus II, sought to settle the Investiture Controversy – and it almost worked. It effectively gave the privilege of selection to the Papacy in the form of free ecclesiastical elections, but churchmen would be bound to the Emperor through an oath of loyalty. But it preserved the Emperor’s position in disputed ecclesiastical elections (even that of the Papacy), giving the Emperor the tie-breaking vote. As well, the lands and titles accompanying an ecclesiastical appointment were symbolically separated out from the office itself: the bishop would receive their ring and a crozier from the Pope, but they would receive a scepter from the Emperor as a mark of their temporal fealty.
Many historians regard this as, at best, a mixed success for Gregory VII’s original vision of a purified, powerful Papacy. It certainly marked the failure of the most ambitious of Gregory’s desires: to bring the Imperial title back into the Papal gift. But it did mark a partial erosion of the Emperor’s ability to freely appoint church officials, and historians note the reduction in the practise of simony (the outright sale of church positions) in the following years. However, the Concordat of Worms feels like a fudge: its ambiguous language shies away from the deeper problems – and ultimately, these issues could not be settled by compromises between the Church and the Emperor – and the following century would see the displacement of the conflict between Emperor and Pope into the realm of city-state politics in Northern Italy.
But how did we get to Northern Italian city-states from a dispute about the High Medieval church? To understand the development of this unique political culture, we need to have a whistlestop tour through Italian history.
The Italian Job
Whilst the fragmentation of the Western Roman Empire resulted in the rapid dilution of ‘Roman’ political culture with ‘barbarian’ traditions in far-flung regions, in Northern Italy there was a distinct continuity. Etruria, Umbria and Tuscany were remarkably urbanized in the Roman era, and even with the waning of Roman power in the 5th century, the cities there remained exceptionally wealthy and organized. A tribe of Germanic origin known as the Ostrogoths moved into the Italian peninsula at the close of the 5th century, establishing a Kingdom with a distinctly Roman public ideology – but these Goths were hamstrung by a costly and devastating war with Byzantium. Italy was partially reclaimed by the resurgent Eastern Roman Empire, which held many coastal parts of Italy (including the city of Rome) from an Exarchate in Ravenna – but their expedition was extremely costly for both sides, annihilating the Ostrogothic ruling class and depopulating much of Northern Italy, and the Byzantine toe-hold was never complete. A crucial moment in Italian history occurred in the 560s CE when another Germanic tribe named the Lombards migrated down into the depopulated areas of the North, fending off contestation from the Byzantines to establish the Lombard Kingdom of Italy. Unlike the Ostrogoths, the Lombards put down deep roots in the region, becoming a well-established noble class who retained a unique political culture whilst adopting local Roman styles and language.
The next watershed in Italian history came with the arrival of Charlemagne: the great Frankish Emperor conquered the Kingdom of the Lombards in 774 CE, incorporating the Kingdom of Italy into the fledgling Holy Roman Empire – but unlike many conquered ruling classes, the Lombard nobles largely retained their lands, merely transferring their fealty to their new Emperor. In 931 CE, under Emperor Otto I the Great, the Kingdom of Italy became a permanent possession of the Kings of Germany. But the locus of Imperial power remained to the north, rooted in Charlemagne’s historic capital at Aachen – and so the German Emperors were absentees in Italy. Local Lombard nobles saw the Emperor as a remote overlord to whom they had little connection, and an independent political culture began to brew in the region. As we saw in our examination of the Investiture Controversy, for almost half a century Imperial and pro-Papal armies had clashed repeatedly in Northern Italy – several generations of conflict severely impaired the prestige of both the Emperor and the Pope in the region.
This was further compounded by the lack of many wealthy, powerful rural nobles. The last notable exception to this trend was the March of Tuscany, whose final scion Matilda of Canossa was a bulwark of the Papacy during the Investiture Controversy, taking to the field in person to lead the Papal armies against Emperors Henry IV and V – but with her heirless death, the March of Tuscany reverted to the ownership of the Emperor, and no other feudal nobles were able to fill the vacuum. At the same time, the North of Italy was wealthy and prosperous, with a booming population concentrated in the most urbanized region in Europe at the opening of the 12th century, with dozens of cities comprising tens of thousands of souls each – when most other kingdoms only had one or two.
(We are focusing here on Northern Italy – concurrent with our events here, Norman mercenaries had gradually dislodged the Byzantines and Lombards in Italy below the Papal States, carving out a Norman Kingdom of Sicily. This will become important in the dynamics of Frederick I Barbarossa’s invasions of Italy, but we’ll set it aside for now!)
Vive la Commune!
All of these circumstances combined in Northern Italy – the political alienation of the Lombards from the German Emperors, the absentee monarch, the wealth and urban organization inherited from Rome, and the dislocation of the Investiture Controversy – to create the conditions for a radically different type of social organization. Most other states in Europe were based around feudalism – a single monarch, who enfeoffed (gave lands to) his inferiors, in return for oaths of loyalty and service, all the way down to the lowliest serf. But the political culture which arose in Northern Italian towns in the early 12th century was based around a totally different concept: the ‘commune’.
Italian communes were based around a peculiarly urban concept of liberty. Walled towns, such as the ex-Roman garrison towns common across Northern Italy, were the arena for this new political formation: within the walls, residents pursued the concept of ‘freedom’ (informed by the Roman civic concept of libertas), where citizens were much more equal before God (as opposed to the world outside the walls, where backward feudalism bound men to kings in inequality and brutality). Such walled towns could be easily defended from the interference of a local noble or bishop – and the freedoms sought by its citizens were often secured in the form of charters permitting free trade and mercantilism.
This new form of social unit in the form of the ‘commune’ necessitated co-operation between its citizens: the defense of the town walls required the creation of militias and fighting guilds, independent and self-sustaining militaries that were not bound to serve a feudal lord’s dynastic ambition. This is not to say that these communes were egalitarian paradises – as we shall see, their politics were extremely cut-throat, and they were places of great inequality – but their social organization was a rejection of feudal norms. Indeed, most were explicitly republican, rejecting even the idea of hereditary rule by birthright in favor of governing councils or elected leaders. Many scholars point to this melange of social outcasts, rebels and merchants as the cauldron in which the capitalist social relations were formed.
Just as these independent political tendencies were incubating in Northern Italy, the Holy Roman Emperors were uniquely hamstrung to bring them to heel. For half a century after the end of the Investiture Controversy was ‘ended’ by the Concordat of Worms, the affairs of the German Emperors were preoccupied very much with domestic issues. Henry V’s death in 1125 marked the extinction of the Salian dynasty, and the position of the Imperial title was subject to a power struggle that would mar the next century of Imperial history. Two rising Houses were poised to tussle over the throne: on the one hand, the House of Hohenstaufen, and on the other, the House of Welf.
The Hohenstaufens had risen to become Dukes of Swabia in the 11th century, and their historic name ‘Stauf’ or ‘Staufer’ comes from the Swabian word for ‘chalice’, applied to the conical hills used as sites for strong defensive fortifications in the region. The Welfs, on the other hand, were Dukes of Bavaria, Saxony and Tuscany, with strong links to the Lombard nobles of Northern Italy – their dynastic name is taken from their founder, Duke Welf I of Bavaria. Neither house claimed ancient lineage from legendary kings – rather, they justified their claims on military prowess and competence to the Imperial throne. The Hohenstaufens were loyalists to the Salian Emperors, having staunchly backed Henry IV and V during the Investiture Controversy; they benefited greatly from the extinction of the Salian line, inheriting many of the former Salian lands, including a castle named Wibellingen, the name of which would become a perennial war-cry of theirs on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the Welfs had defied the Imperial ban and supported the Pope against the Emperors – and when Lothair III (the Duke of Saxony) managed to win the Imperial election, the Welfs naturally allied themselves with him to frustrate the intrigues of the rising Hohenstaufens.
The Welf-Hohenstaufen intrigues broke into the open during the reign of Hohenstaufen Conrad III. Conrad had conspired constantly against Lothair III, even to the extent of crowning himself as an anti-King of Germany and as King of Italy (the personal possession of the King of the Germans). When Lothair III died in 1138 CE, Conrad was crowned as the new King of the Romans – but the head of the Welf household, Duke Henry the Proud of Bavaria, Saxony and Tuscany, refused to acknowledge him. This was all the excuse that the new Emperor needed: in response, Conrad Hohenstaufen stripped the Welfs of all of their lands and titles, distributing them amongst his allies. The Welfs rose in rebellion – and the armed conflict which broke out marked the opening blood in a century’s struggle insurgency between the Pope’s supporters and the German Emperors.
Only 16 years after the Concordat of Worms had aimed to end civil strife within the Holy Roman Empire for good, Germans once again one-another on the battlefield. Conrad III assaulted the Welf stronghold at Weinsberg in the summer of 1140 CE, and legend has it that both parties developed a new war cry for the occasion. Abandoning their traditional cry of ‘God have mercy’, the Welf partisans in the siege cried simply ‘Welf!’ – and the Staufers cried ‘Strike for Wibellingen!’, referring to their Salian inheritance. The Welfs were tamed at Weinsberg, and the Hohenstaufen Emperors reaffirmed the stripping of the German holdings of the Welfs, who were reduced to only their holdings in Northern Italy. They would gradually reacquire some of these territories in Germany under the conciliationist policy of Frederick Barbarossa – but the Welfs were forever smarting from their second-best treatment.
In the North Italian city states, these political developments in high Imperial politics landed like a bombshell. For the wealthy burghers and merchants, victory of the Hohenstaufen Emperors demonstrated a serious threat to the independence of the Italian communes, who feared that a unified German empire under the Staufers would seek to reimpose Imperial authority on the fragmented urbanized landscape of Northern Italy. But this would not be disastrous for everyone: minor feudal nobles with agricultural estates saw the restoration of Hohenstaufen power as a boon, representing the reimposition of the ‘proper’ social order (or one in which they would be permanently on top). The dynamic of internal Italian politics conditioned this split as well: due to the Welfs’ alliance with the Papacy, sympathy with the Staufers tended to be greater in areas where the Central Italian Papal States were at risk of expanding and removing local autonomy. Thus, the Hohenstaufen/Welf split within the Empire was mirrored within in the Italian communes as well. In Italian, ‘Welf’ was transliterated to ‘Guelph’ – and the Hohenstaufen war cry of ‘Wibellingen!’ was transliterated to ‘Ghibelline’.
These parties were famously brutal in their feuds, indulging beatings, brawls, and even poisonings and assassinations. Their conflict will be rich fuel for the writers of the early Renaissance. The Florentine satirist Dante Alighieri, himself a ‘white’ Guelph forced into exile for perceived disloyalty to the Pope, depicts the Ghibelline commander Mosca dei Lamberti being tortured in the Inferno amongst the ‘sowers of discord’. When dei Lamberti’s allies were deliberating how to respond to a perceived sleight from a Guelph family in 1216 CE, dei Lamberti uttered a phrase which became famous in Italian culture: ‘Cosa done capo ha‘ (‘What is done cannot be undone’), meaning that revenge was already inevitable. These rash words inspired the retributive murder of a Guelph, and initiated the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict in Florence.
Now, the board is set. In our next historic blog post, the house of cards will come crashing down. An aggressive, expansionist Hohenstaufen with a grand vision of an expanded German empire free of internal strife will come to power: the towering, red-bearded Frederick Barbarossa. Over his 35-year reign, he will seek to bring the Italian communes to heel. The Guelphs and the Ghibellines will jockey for power across the region, seeing bloody coups, acts of cowardice and betrayal, international interventions, and alliances of convenience. This will be the High Medieval Cold War. Buckle up.