The Merovingian kings of the Germanic Franks conquered northern Gaul in 486 AD. In the fifth and sixth centuries the Merovingian kings conquered several other Germanic tribes and kingdoms and placed them under the control of autonomous dukes of mixed Frankish and native blood. Frankish Colonists were encouraged to move to the newly conquered territories. While the local Germanic tribes were allowed to preserve their laws, they were pressured into changing their religion.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire the Franks created an empire under the Merovingian kings and subjugated the other Germanic tribes. Swabia became a duchy under the Frankish Empire in 496, following the Battle of Tolbiac. Already king Chlothar I ruled the greater part of what is now Germany and made expeditions into Saxony while the Southeast of modern Germany was still under influence of the Ostrogoths. In 531 Saxons and Franks destroyed the Kingdom of Thuringia. Saxons inhabit the area down to the Unstrut river. During the partition of the Frankish empire their German territories were a part of Austrasia. In 718 the Franconian Mayor of the Palace Charles Martel made war against Saxony, because of its help for the Neustrians. The Franconian Carloman started in 743 a new war against Saxony, because the Saxons gave aid to Duke Odilo of Bavaria. In 751 Pippin III, mayor of the palace under the Merovingian king, himself assumed the title of king and was anointed by the Church. The Frankish kings now set up as protectors of the Pope, Charlemagne launched a decades-long military campaign against their heathen rivals, the Saxons and the Avars. The Saxons (by the Saxon Wars (772-804)) and Avars were eventually overwhelmed and forcibly converted, and their lands were annexed by the Carolingian Empire.
In 768 C.E. (Common Era) the Frankish king died, leaving his kingdom to his two sons—Charles and Carloman. When Carloman suddenly died in 771 C.E., Charles seized his brother's lands and made them part of his own kingdom. During the next two years, Charles consolidated his control over his kingdom and became more commonly known as "Charles the Great" or "Charlemagne". From 771 C.E. until his death in 814 C.E., Charlemagne extended the Carolingian empire into northern Italy and the territories of all west Germanic peoples, including the Saxons and the Bajuwari (Bavarians). In 800 C.E., Charlemagne's authority in Western Europe was confirmed by his coronation as emperor in Rome. The Frankish empire was divided into counties, and its frontiers were protected by border Marches. Imperial strongholds (Kaiserpfalzen) became economic and cultural centres (Aachen being the most famous).
Between 843 and 880, after fighting between Charlemagne's grandchildren, the Carolingian empire was partitioned into several parts in the Treaty of Verdun (843 C.E.), the Treaty of Meerssen (870 C.E.) and the Treaty of Ribemont The German empire developed out of the East Frankish kingdom, East Francia. From 919 C.E. to 936 C.E. the Germanic peoples (Franks, Saxons, Swabians and Bavarians) were united under Duke Henry of Saxony, who took the title of king. For the first time, the term Kingdom (Empire) of the Germans ("Regnum Teutonicorum") was applied to a Frankish kingdom, even though Teutonicorum at its founding originally meant something closer to "Realm of the Germanic peoples" or "Germanic Realm" than realm of the Germans. (In recent times this has been referred to as the "First Reich" with Bismarck's Prussian-built empire called the "Second Reich" and Hitler's rule called the "Third Reich.")
In 936 C.E., Otto I the Great was crowned at Aachen. He strengthened the royal authority by re-asserting the old Carolingian rights over ecclesiastical appointments. Otto wrested the powers of appointment of bishops and abbots from the dukes and other nobles within his empire. Additionally, Otto revived the old Carolingian program of appointing missionaries in the border lands. Otto continued to support the celibacy rule for the higher clergy. Thus, the ecclesiastical appointments never became hereditary. By granting land to the abbotts and bishops he appointed, Otto actually made these bishops into "princes of the Empire" (Reichsfürsten). In this way, Otto was able to establish a national church. In 951 Otto the Great married the widowed Queen Adelheid, thereby winning the Lombard crown. Outside threats to the kingdom were contained with the decisive defeat of the Magyars of Hungary near Augsburg at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. The Slavs between the Elbe and the Oder rivers were also subjugated.
The papacy in Rome had fallen in decline in the years before Otto the Great became Holy Roman Emperor. During the years coincident with the reign of Otto the Great, the secularization of the papacy became complete as the pope became nothing more than a puppet to the local tyrant, Alberic II, son of Alberic I and Marozia, who controlled Rome from 932 C.E. until 954 C.E. A crisis was reached when Alberic's son and successor as tyrant of Rome, had himself elected pope as John XII. Otto marched on Rome and drove John XII from the papal throne and presided over a synod which deposed John XII. Otto then insisted on the election of his own candidate for pope, who was then seated on the papal throne as Leo VIII (963 C.E. through 965 C.E.). The people of Rome elected Benedict V (964 C.E. through 966 C.E.). However, Benedict V was prevented by Otto from taking the papal throne. Upon the death of Leo VIII in 965 C.E., Otto and the church agreed on a compromise choice for pope--John XIII. When John XIII died on September 6, 972 C.E., Otto insisted on his own candidate for the papacy who became Benedict VI. This series of interventions in papal affairs by Otto set a firm precedent for imperial control of the papacy for years to come. In 962, Otto I was crowned emperor in Rome, taking the succession of Charlemagne, and this also helped establish a strong Frankish influence over the Papacy.
The Kingdoms of Provence and Trans-Jurane Burgundy remained separate and independent kingdoms until during the reign of Otto the Great, the two kingdoms were merged into the single kingdom of Burgundy. Otto made the united kingdom of Burgundy a protectorate of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1033 the Kingdom of Burgundy was formally incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire during the reign of Conrad II, the first emperor of the Salian dynasty.
As noted above, the Roman Church had been in decline for some time. The Church had been secularized and had fallen under the control of a series of tyrants of Rome. The recent interference of the Holy Roman Empire in the affairs of the Church had not improved the condition of the Church, but merely changed its master. There was a strong impulse for sincere reform of the Church. However, this impulse for reform of the papacy and of the ecclesiastical hierarchy did not arise from the hierarchy itself. Instead this impulse arose from the monasteries. However, first the monasteries had to be liberated from secular control. The monastery at Cluny became the focal point of this impulse to reform the monasteries and later the Church hierarchy itself.
During the reign of Conrad II's son, Henry III (1039 C.E. to 1056 C.E.), the Holy Roman Empire supported the Cluniac reform of the Church - the Peace of God, the prohibition of simony (the purchase of clerical offices) and the celibacy of priests. Imperial authority over the Pope reached its peak. An imperial stronghold (Pfalz) was built at Goslar, as the Empire continued its expansion to the East.
In the Investiture Controversy which began between Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII over appointments to ecclesiastical offices, the emperor was compelled to submit to the Pope at Canossa in 1077, after having been excommunicated. In 1122 a temporary reconciliation was reached between Henry V and the Pope with the Concordat of Worms. The consequences of the investiture dispute were a weakening of the Ottonian National Church Reichskirche, and a strengthening of the Imperial secular princes.
The time between 1096 and 1291 was the age of the crusades. Knightly religious orders were established, including the Templars, the Knights of St John and the Teutonic Order.
From 1100, new towns were founded around imperial strongholds, castles, bishops' palaces and monasteries. The towns began to establish municipal rights and liberties (see German town law), while the rural population remained in a state of serfdom. In particular, several cities became Imperial Free Cities, which did not depend on princes or bishops, but were immediately subject to the Emperor. The towns were ruled by patricians (merchants carrying on long-distance trade). The craftsmen formed guilds, governed by strict rules, which sought to obtain control of the towns. Trade with the East and North intensified, as the major trading towns came together in the Hanseatic League, under the leadership of Lübeck.
The German colonization and the chartering of new towns and villages began into largely Slav-inhabited territories east of the Elbe, such as Bohemia, Silesia, Pomerania, and Livonia (see also Ostsiedlung).
Henry V, great-grandson of Conrad II became Holy Roman Emperor in 1106 upon the death of his father, Henry IV. Henry V's reign was born into a civil war which had continued from his fathers' reign. Hoping to gain complete control over the church inside the Empire, Henry V appointed Adalbert of Saarbruken as archbishop of Mainz in 1111 C.E. However, like Becket in England some fifty years later, once appointed as archbishop, Adalbert began to take his position seriously and began to assert the powers of the Church against secular authorities, i.e.. the Emperor. This precipitated the Crisis of 1111 C.E. which was really a continuation of the struggle between the Church and the Emperor known as the Investiture Controversy (noted above). The Church was re-asserting its right to appoint or "invest" persons to ecclesiastical offices within the Church. Although the immediate crisis was settled by the Concordat of Worms of September 23, 1122, the struggle between the Church and the Emperor continued in Germany in years that followed. Upon the death of Henry V in 1125, some magnates of the Empire supported the elevation of Henry's nephew, Frederick of Hohenstaufen, Duke of Swabia, to the Emperor's throne. However, opposition to Frederick was strong. Eventually, led by Adalbert and the Archbishop Frederick of Cologne, the magnates elected the popular Lothair Duke of Saxony as Emperor. Lothair was a capable leader in a difficult situation. To strengthen his position, Lothair married his only child, a daughter to Henry, Duke of Bavaria (also known as Henry the Proud). By this marriage, Henry the Proud also became heir to the duchy of Saxony. This made Henry the Proud the most powerful lord in the kingdom, as well as the logical successor of Lothair as the Holy Roman Emperor. However, upon the death of Lothair on December 4, 1137 C.E., the magnates refused to elect Henry the Proud, who many of the magnates feared. Instead, the magnates turned back to the Hohenstaufen family for a candidate. Frederick of Hohenstaufen was already dead. He had been succeeded as Duke of Swabia by his son, Frederick (the future Emperor Frederick Barbarossa). Accordingly, the magnates chose late Frederick's brother Conrad to become the Holy Roman Emperor as Conrad III. One of Conrad III first acts was to deprive Henry the Proud of his two duchies. This brought a civil war to southern Germany as the Empire divided into two factions. The first faction called themselves the "Welfs" after Henry the Proud's family name which was the ruling dynasty in Bavaria. The other faction was known as the "Waiblings" after the favorite residence of the Hohenstaufens in the town of Waiblingen. In this early period, the Welfs generally represented ecclesiastical independence under the papacy plus "particularism" (a strengthening of the local duchies against the central imperial authority). The Waiblings on the other hand stood for control of the Church by a strong central Imperial government. Because Church interests were involved in the struggle between these factions, this struggle in Germany had a counterpart that was carried on south of the Alps in Italy. There the Welfs faction was called the "Guelphs" and the Waiblings were called the "Ghibellines." The struggle between these two factions would continue for some time and, over time, the issues between the factions would bear no relations to the original principles of the factions.
Between 1152 and 1190, during the reign of Frederick I (Barbarossa), of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, an accommodation was reached with the rival Guelph party by the grant of the duchy of Bavaria to Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony. Austria became a separate duchy by virtue of the Privilegium Minus in 1156. Barbarossa tried to reassert his control over Italy. In 1177 a final reconciliation was reached between the emperor and the Pope in Venice.
In 1180 Henry the Lion was outlawed and Bavaria was given to Otto of Wittelsbach (founder of the Wittelsbach dynasty which was to rule Bavaria until 1918), while Saxony was divided.
From 1184 to 1186 the Hohenstaufen empire under Barbarossa reached its peak in the Reichsfest (imperial celebrations) held at Mainz and the marriage of his son Henry in Milan to the Norman princess Constance of Sicily. The power of the feudal lords was undermined by the appointment of "ministerials" (unfree servants of the Emperor) as officials. Chivalry and the court life flowered, leading to a development of German culture and literature (see Wolfram von Eschenbach).
Between 1212 and 1250 Frederick II established a modern, professionally administered state in Sicily. He resumed the conquest of Italy, leading to further conflict with the Papacy. In the Empire, extensive sovereign powers were granted to ecclesiastical and secular princes, leading to the rise of independent territorial states. The struggle with the Pope sapped the Empire's strength, as Frederick II was excommunicated three times. After his death, the Hohenstaufen dynasty fell, followed by an interregnum during which there was no Emperor.
Beginning in 1226 under the auspices of Emperor Frederick II, the Teutonic Knights began their conquest of Prussia after being invited to Chełmno Land by the Polish Duke Konrad I of Masovia. The native Baltic Prussians were conquered and Christianized by the Knights with much warfare, and numerous German towns were established along the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. From 1300, however, the Empire started to lose territory on all its frontiers.
The failure of negotiations between Emperor Louis IV with the papacy led in 1338 to the declaration at Rhense by six electors to the effect that election by all or the majority of the electors automatically conferred the royal title and rule over the empire, without papal confirmation.
Between 1346 and 1378 Emperor Charles IV of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia, sought to restore the imperial authority.
Around 1350 Germany and almost the whole of Europe were ravaged by the Black Death. Jews were persecuted on religious and economic grounds; many fled to Poland.
The Golden Bull of 1356 stipulated that in future the emperor was to be chosen by four secular electors (the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg) and three spiritual electors (the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne).
After the disasters of the 14th century, early-modern European society gradually came into being as a result of economic, religious and political changes. A money economy arose which provoked social discontent among knights and peasants. Gradually, a proto-capitalistic system evolved out of feudalism. The Fugger family gained prominence through commercial and financial activities and became financiers to both ecclesiastical and secular rulers.
The knightly classes found their monopoly on arms and military skill undermined by the introduction of mercenary armies and foot soldiers. Predatory activity by "robber knights" became common. From 1438 the Habsburgs, who controlled most of the southeast of the Empire (more or less modern-day Austria and Slovenia, and Bohemia and Moravia after the death of King Louis II in 1526), maintained a constant grip on the position of the Holy Roman Emperor until 1806 (with the exception of the years between 1742 and 1745). This situation, however, gave rise to increased disunity among the Holy Roman Empires territorial rulers and prevented sections of the country from coming together and forming nations in the manner of France and England.
During his reign from 1493 to 1519, Maximilian I tried to reform the Empire: an Imperial Supreme Court (Reichskammergericht) was established, imperial taxes were levied, the power of the Imperial Diet (Reichstag) was increased. The reforms were, however, frustrated by the continued territorial fragmentation of the Empire.