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Otto III (980–1002) was one of the most powerful rulers in Europe in the late tenth century. He is also one of the most enigmatic. The son of the German emperor Otto II and the Greek princess Theophanu, he came to the throne at the age of three and was only twenty-one years old at the time of his death. Nonetheless, his reign had a lasting impact on both Germany and Italy for generations. In this book, Gerd Althoff provides a much-needed biography of this fascinating figure. In the process, he uses Otto’s life to explain how in practice early medieval kingship worked.
Henry the Quarrelsome and the Disturbances over the Succession
Otto's reign certainly began inauspiciously. When the three-year-old
was consecrated king at Aachen on Christmas Day, 983, Emperor
Otto II, his father, had already been dead for three weeks. But
nobody in Aachen knew that yet. The news of the senior Otto's death arrived
shortly after the coronation ceremonies and "brought the festivity to an
end." The situation was now critical in many respects. One issue was fundamental-the
kingship of minors placed the medieval ruling bond under an
almost intolerable strain. Contemporaries knew they should fear fulfillment
of the Bible's lament "Woe to the land whose king is a child and whose
princes feast in the morning." But the actual situation for Otto III involved
an even more disturbing circumstance: the last years of his father's reign had
been unfortunate also.
In July 982 the German army had suffered a devastating defeat at the
hands of the Saracens at Crotone in southern Italy. More great nobles, both
secular and spiritual, had fallen on the battlefield at Crotone than at any
time since the Magyar invasions at the beginning of the century. In fact, the
emperor himself only escaped to a ship under conditions filled with adventure.
One year later the Slavs east of the Elbe staged an uprising. They
destroyed the bishoprics of Brandenburg and Havelberg, and thus at a single
blow wrecked the hitherto successful Ottonian missionary policy. The true
importance of these reversals for the makers of political decisions is very difficult
to assess. Only Thietmar of Merseburg discusses the matter, reporting
that "all our princes came sorrowfully together after receiving the evil tidings
[from Italy] and unanimously demanded to see him [Otto II] again."
This report by a later chronicler suggests that the magnates wanted to influence
policies after Crotone. But we cannot say what these nobles hoped to
accomplish. All we know is that they met with the emperor at a great
assembly in Verona. Certainly scholars have assumed that Emperor Otto II
hurried to Mainz to prepare for this assembly and while there discussed the
possible consequences of the predicament in which he found himself. Available
evidence cannot support this assumption, however. According to the
sources, the assembly of Verona set about appointing new dukes for Bavaria
and Swabia, but its main business was to elect Otto III as coruler with his
father. The proceedings were unusual: this was the only royal election ever
held south of the Alps. The sources give no reason for this departure from
custom. Conceivably, time was running short for arranging matters in south
Italy. Possibly, too, the choice of venue aimed to enhance the importance of
a part of the Ottonian empire that Otto I had won only after 951: Italy.
Whatever the reason for the election, immediately thereafter the new three-year-old
king, who until that time had lived in Italy with his parents, departed
for the north. His goal was Aachen, the Ottonians' traditional coronation site,
where he would receive royal consecration. The report that not only Archbishop
Willigis of Mainz but Archbishop Johannes of Ravenna performed the
ceremony is striking in this context. This report, too, suggests a concerted
effort to include representatives from the Italian part of the empire in ceremonial
acts, and in that way a tendency to integrate the various regions under
imperial control. These, however, remained only isolated occurrences.
The death of Otto II created a precarious situation. In Italy there were
rebellions against Ottonian officials. Matters soon became even more complicated
in the empire north of the Alps. There, Duke Henry the Quarrelsome
of Bavaria, a first cousin of Otto II, again emerged as a political force.
His relationship to the imperial house was already greatly strained. As a
member of the Bavarian branch of the Ottonians, Henry had been involved
in several armed rebellions against Emperor Otto II in the years after 974. At
first he had been pardoned. After a second rebellion, though, Henry lost his
duchy and was imprisoned in the custody of Bishop Folcmar of Utrecht. This
imprisonment, which had already lasted an unusually long time by tenth-century
standards, ended abruptly with the death of the emperor who had
ordered it. In the same way that treaties of this time were only valid inter
vivos and lapsed with the death of the treaty signatories, so too had Henry
the Quarrelsome been not a "state prisoner" but the personal prisoner of the
emperor. Naturally, he received his freedom again when Otto II died. There
is hardly a better example of how underdeveloped "transpersonal state representations"
still were in this period.
In point of fact, Henry was not simply released. He immediately claimed
a role in political events. He did so by demanding that Otto III, at that time
staying in Cologne in the care of Archbishop Warin, be handed over to him.
Apparently this was in accord with the law of propinquity as it was understood
at that time. Apparently there was no opposition to this move,
because Henry could claim his rights as Otto's nearest male relative. Moreover,
the dominae imperiales, the young king's grandmother, mother, and
aunt, were still in Italy and by all appearances were in no hurry to return.
According to the sources, almost everyone believed that Henry was only
seeking the guardianship of the young king. Henry's behavior and actions,
however, soon taught them otherwise.
As a matter of fact, Henry took action in a very characteristic way. Henry
immediately made an agreement with King Lothar of France through emissaries
and hurriedly arranged a meeting in Breisach, to conclude a friendship
alliance with Lothar there. To assure Carolingian support, Henry supposedly
even planned to turn the disputed province of Lotharingia over to the French
king. A letter authored by Gerbert in the name of Adalbero of Rheims to
Bishop Notger of Liège is essential for assessing Henry's actions. In this letter
Gerbert warns Notger against King Lothar, who was on his way to
Breisach, and against Henry the Quarrelsome, whom he designates as an
enemy of the state. The letter can be dated to the end of January 984 and thus
shows that by this time the Quarrelsome's activities had already gone
beyond mere guardianship and were considered dangerous. However, we
also learn through several reports and references among Gerbert's collected
letters that the West Frankish king Lothar announced his own right to
assume Otto's guardianship. Indeed, Lothar could also call upon the law of
propinquity, because he was related to Otto III in the same degree as was
Henry the Quarrelsome. This claim perhaps even explains why Henry
made a surprising change in direction. Henry did not turn up at the agreed-upon
meeting in Breisach, despite his oath to do so. King Lothar consequently
used the conflict over the German throne as a pretext to attack
Lotharingia. This was part of a long tradition of West Frankish/French efforts
to recover the region. Because of resistance by the Lotharingian nobles, this
effort had no lasting success.
Henry the Quarrelsome apparently made no arrangements at all to keep
this meeting with the French king. The Saxon chronicler Thietmar gives a
full and detailed report that Henry traveled directly from Cologne, where he
had taken possession of the young Otto, to Saxony by way of Corvey. It is
not possible to say what motives lay behind this apparently abrupt change of
mind. One thing is clear, however: in Saxony Henry the Quarrelsome did not
hide his true aims under the mask of guardianship for long. Instead, his
actions there quite openly aimed at usurping the throne. It is impossible to
say whether he intended to set himself in Otto III's place or to establish some
sort of joint rule. Before he had even reached Saxony, however, something
occurred that significantly worsened Henry's prospects. In Corvey, two Saxon
counts, Dietrich and Siegbert, came to him barefooted and begged his pardon.
In other words, they underwent a ritual of submission, for which there was a
well-established tradition. Henry, however, refused them his forgiveness,
after which these counts "sought with all their strength to entice their relatives
and friends from the duke's service." We know neither the reason for
the discord between Henry and the counts nor Henry's reason for refusing to
forgive them. Still, we can assert from numerous similar incidents: clemency
is always near to the scepter.
Kings of the tenth century never missed an opportunity to provide clear
visible proof of their clementia, public events at which opponents prostrated
themselves before the ruler and begged for forgiveness. On the contrary. Public
submission was a ritual commonly used in conflict resolution. As a rule,
all the particulars were settled beforehand, and the ceremony thus had the
character of a staged production, through which public conflict was concluded.
Henry the Quarrelsome had not heeded these rules of the game.
Possibly he did not want to accept a fait accompli by the counts without
reaching a previous agreement; perhaps he felt too deep a bitterness to forgive
them. In either case, though, Henry the Quarrelsome's refusal injured
him in Saxony as the dismayed counts' understandable reaction shows. From
then on they worked against Henry in every way possible. Not surprisingly,
a little later they are also numbered among those opponents of Henry who
began to form themselves into a party in support of Otto III. As in the case
of the Breisach meeting, Henry's conduct is incomprehensible. A politically
experienced man must have known the consequences of refusing a deditio,
of not accepting a proffered submission. In this way he had demonstrated his
unwillingness or incapacity for practicing clementia, one of the most important
kingly virtues. Unfortunately, we almost never have evidence to explain
what motivated Henry's behavior.
In Saxony, Henry's position was at first so strong that he could seek out the
most important places in the region and use ecclesiastical festivals to present
himself as would-be king: he celebrated Palm Sunday in Magdeburg and Easter
in Quedlinburg, following royal custom. Already in Magdeburg he began negotiations
with the attendant princes, with the goal of convincing them to recognize
his kingship. The majority of the magnates, however, countered this
demand with the pretense that they needed first to obtain the consent of their
current king-the young Otto. The form this permission might have taken is
unclear. Would it have been through the child himself or his guardian? Apparently
the nobles involved were playing for time and working against Henry the
Quarrelsome's plans, as Henry himself immediately recognized. His public
indignatio, his displeasure at the way some Saxons were hanging back, motivated
these nobles to withdraw from Magdeburg and to discuss in secret meetings
possible measures against Henry.
Up to this point, Henry the Quarrelsome's supporters still dominated the
public scene. At the Easter festivities in Quedlinburg they publicly greeted
Henry as king and honored him through ecclesiastical laudes, the formal
songs of praise addressed to a ruler. Many of those present at Quedlinburg paid
him homage, and "swore their support to him as king and lord." In this
regard Thietmar particularly singles out Dukes Mieszko of Poland and
Boleslav of Bohemia, as well as the Abodrite prince Mistui. Mistui's presence
at Quedlinburg is especially surprising because only the year before he had
attacked and destroyed Hamburg during the Slav rebellion. That a long list of
bishops was ready to support Henry's candidacy also demonstrates the dominance
of Henry's supporters at this time. Among them was Archbishop Giselher
of Magdeburg, whose activities during this Easter week are unknown.
We are better informed about the reaction of Henry the Quarrelsome's
opponents. After leaving Quedlinburg they met at Asselburg, and agreed to
resist Henry's attempt to seize the kingship by forming a compact, a coniuratio.
It is important to note that this form of compact by oath was a common
way in which the Saxon nobility dealt with political issues from the
tenth century on. The nobles involved met in urbes or civitates, that is in
fortified places, and effected their political agreement with an oath obliging
those swearing to act toward a common goal. This coniuratio thus offered a
particularly effective political coalition against enemies-including the
Ottonian or Salian kings. Thietmar names the most prominent participants
in the Asselburg meeting: Duke Bernhard of Saxony, Margrave Dietrich from
the northern march, Ekkehard (the later margrave of Meissen), Counts Bio
and Esiko of Merseburg, Bernward (the later bishop of Hildesheim, whom
Thietmar designated at Asselburg as "count and cleric"), along with a whole
series of further Saxon counts. The milites of Saint Martin (the vassals of the
archdiocese of Mainz) were also present. Aside from these men, no representatives
of spiritual institutions are named. Henry the Quarrelsome immediately
recognized the danger of this sworn association. As soon as he learned
of the coniuratio, he moved with a strong military force from Quedlinburg to
Werla, either to disperse his opponents or to reach a peaceful agreement with
them. The conduct Thietmar reports is typical of the age: brewing conflicts
evoked a characteristic mix of threatening military gesture and offers to
negotiate. It was typical to confront an opponent with strong military force
and to threaten him with armed might; at the same time, however, a leader
would send a negotiator to attempt a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
Bishop Folcmar of Utrecht undertook this task for Henry. However, he could
not convince Henry's enemies to submit; he only won their agreement to
meet in the future for a peace conference at Seesen.
As had happened when he negotiated with the West Frankish king, Henry
the Quarrelsome did not consider himself bound by such arrangements made
on his behalf; he immediately set out for Bavaria instead. There all the bishops
and some of the counts accepted him very quickly. Then he continued
his journey toward Franconia. His behavior is probably best interpreted as a
conscious policy not to resist opposition by individuals and groups of enemies,
but rather to win as many supporters as possible as quickly as possible.
His aim was to force his opponents into a position of weakness. His Saxon
opponents used Henry's failure to appear to their own advantage: they
attacked and destroyed Alaburg, in the process freeing Otto III's sister Adelheid,
who was living there. Then they returned joyfully to their homes with
the princess and a large amount of booty.
Excerpted from Otto III
by GERD ALTHOFF
Copyright © 1996 by Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Preface to the German Edition
Preface to the English Edition
The Modern Assessment of Otto III
Royal Rule and the Idea of the State at the End of the Tenth Century
Central Questions and the Problem of Sources
1. A Child on the Throne
Henry the Quarrelsome and the Disturbances over the Succession
The Regency of the Empresses
2. The Beginning of Independent Rule
The First Independent Decisions
The First Italian Expedition
The Encounters with Gerbert and Adalbert
3. The "Revenge Expedition" to Rome and the Beginning of the "Roman Renewal"
The Fight Against Crescentius and the Antipope
Otto III’s "Idea of Roman Renewal" in Older and Newer Scholarship
4. The Journey to Gniezno
Preconceptions and Preparations
From Gniezno to Aachen
5. The Last Expedition to Rome
"Government Business" on the Way
The Gandersheim Conflict
The "Ingratitude" of the Romans
The Death of Otto III
6. Building Blocks for an Assessment of Otto III: Observations, Insights, Open Questions
Demonstrative Ritual Behaviors
"Friends" of Otto III and His Interaction with Them
Dealing with the Heritage