Once upon a time, Europe was a place of great culture and enlightenment. Athenians passed the time in the pursuit of philosophy, geometry and small boys. Spartans stoically supervised the husbandry of their helots and in Rome, capitol of the world, syphilisation was raised to new heights under the benign rule of the Toga party. Then in 476 everything changed. Vandals broke into Rome, smashed the streetlights and the dark ages began.
In 800 or thereabouts, Charlemagne attempted to relight Europe but his successors weren’t up to the job and the Carolingian candle was soon snuffed(1). In the end, Europe was saved by Charlemagne’s ancient foes, the Saxons, who not only reunited his Empire but who also produced the stained glass window of feudalism through which the noble light of the middle ages was able to shine forth in all its glory (Huzzah!).
In 936 the Roman Empire was more holey than holy. The remnants of the Carolingians (not realising that they would soon be Kaput(2)) were quarrelling over the kingdom of the western Franks(3), Italy was divided between the Lombards, divers petty lords, the Byzantines and the Infidel (much as it is today) and Germany was divided into four autonomous duchies(4). Duke Henry of Saxony, Otto’s dad, had been elected as King of Germany by the slimmest of margins(5) and had been somewhat hesitant to impose himself outside his native Saxony. Otto, however, was a true son of Charlemagne’s ancient rival, the Wunderkind Witikin, and before you could say “Saxony, Saxony über its allies”, he had united the Germans under his rule.
He managed this through a particularly cunning plan. The Saxon system of feodalism had worked well against the Vikings(6) but by Otto’s time, the barons had overdosed on their own testosterone and were oozing feodalismo in all directions. Otto’s plan: turn the bishops into barons. The horrendous overlap between secular and clerical authority threw everyone. It wasn’t long before both the barons and the bishops were petitioning King Otto to act as an umpire in the myriad disputes that had appeared overnight.
The united German kingdom muddled along quite happily for a several years, until one day when King Otto was playing cards with the Archbishop of Mainz for the bishopric of Magdeburg. Otto led his candidate, the Archbishop replied with his, Otto trumped him with his King and then the Archbishop over-trumped Otto with the Pope. Otto had never heard of the Pope and accused the Arch. of trying to trick him. The two consulted a rulebook and, much to King Otto’s surprise, the Archbishop was right. Popes did outrank Kings in episcopal appointments. Grumbling inwardly, Otto graciously admitted defeat, dismissed the archbishop, summoned his army, crossed the Alps and reshuffled the deck.
Otto thoroughly enjoyed his Roman romp. He upgraded the badly corrupted Pope John XI to an Emperor-compatible John XII(7) and proceeded to rewrite the rule book(8). He then rescued the beautiful heiress Adelaide of Burgundy, married her and, with the help of his enthusiastic Saxon horde, restored to her new husband all the bits of Italy to which she could conceivably lay claim. The Italians weren’t very happy about the King of Germany owning half of Italy, so Pope John crowned Otto King of Italy and gave him the lot.
Thanks to the Pope’s diplomatic solution, Europe made sense for the first time in centuries. The King of Germany (Otto) ruled Germany, the King of Italy (Otto) ruled Italy and, to ensure the two kings behaved themselves, they were both answerable to the Holy Roman Emperor (Otto): a very logical and efficient arrangement. As he had now reunited BOTH Italy and Germany to his satisfaction (Garibaldi, Bismarck, eat your hearts out!), Otto returned to Germany where he reigned jointly with his son Otto until his death in 973.
Otto II, by virtue of being an only child, received the Empire intact, as did his son and successor Otto III(9). Three generations of united and stable leadership in Germany and Italy (a record that is still current for post-Roman Italy to the best of my knowledge) did the trick. The dark ages were a thing of the past and enlightened Europeans everywhere (even Normans!) were free to feodel to the best of their ability.
(2) Or more accurately, Capet. The French Franks ditched the Carolingians in favour of the Capetians after Charles the Mentally Retarded gave Northern France to a Viking named Rolf on the condition that he would limit his pillaging to Brittany.
(4) Franken, Swaben, Bayern and Saxern. The Prussians, then as now, were regarded as barbaric heathen by the other Germans. According to my map, Prussia was separated from the German duchies by a wasteland inhabited only by packs of savage Pomeranians.
(6) The success of this system was based on the premise that if you could lock up all the valuables in the Baron’s castle whenever the Vikings turned up they’d eventually stop bothering you and wander off to France or England where the pickings were easier.
(7) At the time the Italian bishops complained that John XII had not been installed correctly and would lead to all sorts of clerical errors. However, the new Pope turned out to be considerably more user friendly than its predecessor and was able to support all of Otto’s favourite programmes.
(8) John and Otto are best remembered for the introduction of the Imperial Flush – King appoints Pope, Pope annoints Emperor, Emperor plus Pope out trump Archbishop, Archbishop’s political ambitions go down the toilet.