The Saxon Ottonian dynasty ruled a tenth-century empire that was built upon the remains of the eastern half of Charlemagne's empire, incorporating regions that are today parts of Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, and Italy.2 Though this dynasty lasted barely a century, from 919-1024, its kings and emperors were responsible for developments that helped to shape the West throughout the rest of the Middle Ages and even into the early modern world (for good overviews of the essential history of the Ottonian era, see Althoff, 2005; Arnold, 1997, 83-95, 133-150; Keller & Althoff, 2008; and Reuter, 1991, 137-220). Chief among these were the successful defense of their eastern frontiers against the incursions of Magyar invaders; a fluorescence of artistic and cultural achievements known as the Ottonian Renaissance; and the re-establishment of the Western Roman Empire (distinct from the Roman Empire of the Byzantines in the East), a polity which would become known in the twelfth century and later as the Holy Roman Empire. But despite their successes as rulers, how exactly Ottonian kingship worked as a functioning government has been the subject of much debate, and indeed much about it remains unknown to us. The focus in this essay will be the tools of governance—the institutions, offices, and apparatuses—that the Ottonians employed in the course of their dynastic tenure north of the Alps. The reach of the Ottonians—through rule, diplomatic ties, or marriage—extended from Iberia and England to Byzantium. While the extent of their rule and the significance of cross-cultural connections to Ottonian kingship is important, especially their engagement in Italy, it lies outside the scope of this essay (for a comprehensive examination of how Ottonian rule tied together control of both Germany and Italy, see Huschner, 2003. Other representative studies investigating Anglo-Saxon, Byzantine, and even Fatimid political/cultural exchanges with the Ottonian Reich include Ciggaar & van Aalst, 1985; Leyser, 1994b 1994, 1995; and Oesterle, 2012).
One thing that becomes evident when exploring any aspect of Ottonian history is that while there have been copious amounts of German-language scholarship published, the field has evidenced comparatively little work by non-German scholars (see Geary, 1996 and Matthew, 1992). Slowly, the situation seems to be changing, especially among Anglophone scholars, and interest in the Ottonians appears to be enjoying a resurgence. Nonetheless, the vast amount of current German scholarship in the field precludes anything but a selective approach here.
The historiographic tradition for the Ottonians has been influenced by Germany's more recent past. Events in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the rise of the National Socialist Party and the two World Wars, shaped the worldviews of historians both within Germany and without. These events also had a direct effect on the methodologies employed by historians in approaching medieval Germany as well as on the degree of interest in the field by non-German historians. The causes and effects of both early modern and modern history on the study of early medieval Germany has been treated at length in historiographic essays dealing with medieval Germany in general and the Ottonians in particular (e.g. Goetz, 2006a and Warner, 2009. For summaries on the state of the field to the 1990s in German and English research, much of which is still relevant today, see Bowlus, 1990 and Peters, 1995). Thus, I will only touch on a few points here. In the years preceding the Second World War, work by figures such as Percy Schramm and Gerd Tellenbach set the stage for the emergence of an influential group of scholars in the decades after the war, including Karl Leyser, Karl Schmid, Josef Fleckenstein, Helmut Beumann, and others whose work continues to influence Ottonian studies today. Perhaps even more importantly, they bequeathed to the field a subsequent generation of scholars whose work has proved equally influential. The main focus of this essay will be on that subsequent generation, on the historiography of the scholarship of the late twentieth century and after.3
Primary sources for the study of the Ottonians are rich and widely accessible, and include charters and a wide variety of narrative sources such as histories, annals, chronicles, saints’ lives, and letters. The sources that are left to us, however, can be problematic when trying to see how exactly Ottonian government worked. We have a few contemporary chronicles written by witnesses to many or most of the events that they describe, and charters, which carefully note the date and place of issuance. Notably lacking are the sets of royal ordinances which we see under the Carolingians and Anglo-Saxons; the Ottonians have left us almost no legislation, no written law. The exception was in Italy, which became part of the Ottonian Reich during the reign of Otto I. Italy had a long legislative history, which was likely why the Ottonians continued to utilize this legal form there. In addition to the nineteenth-century editions of archival sources for diplomatic and narrative history published in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (e.g. MGH DD vol. 1-3 and MGH SS 3), a number of more recent English translations of charters and narrative sources have increased their accessibility and utility, particularly for non-specialists and classroom use, and include significant helpful apparatuses such as genealogies, maps, and commentary, as well as substantial introductions which place the works in historical context and provide good overviews of the political milieux in which the authors were writing (e.g. Bachrach & Bachrach, 2014; Fanning & Bachrach, 2008; Gilsdorf, 2004; Hill, 1972; MacLean, 2009; Squatriti, 2007; and Warner, 2001a; for the usefulness of Widukind and Thietmar as windows into contemporary views about kingship see Bagge, 2002:23-94 and 95-188 respectively). The picture we have today of Ottonian rule has been pieced together from these broad kinds of sources, and suggests a model of kingship that utilized a variety of methods and tools for governing.
One of the frustrations for historians searching for continuity between the Carolingian and Ottonian eras has been the apparent lack of any use of an administrative structure like that used by the Carolingians, an apparatus and bureaucracy dependent to a large degree on written capitularies, instructions, and directives (e.g. Althoff & Keller, 1985; Nitschke, 2001. Bachrach criticizes the effort to the distinguish the two polities as dichotomous, arguing instead for continuity of governing institutions and practice [Bachrach, 2016:66-67]). The lack of visible, recognizable bureaucratic structures affected how historians tried to explain Germany's transition from the medieval to the modern era without developing the governing structures of the modern state. Scholars of medieval German history tried to account for what was perceived as an anomaly among the medieval polities that became strong early modern nation-states: “While English and French kings were centralizing power and administration, German kings surrendered power and independence to the aristocracy whose position was ensured by the archaic practice of the royal election” (Warner, 2009:96). Thus, according to this view, not only did the German kings fail to develop proto-modern political architecture and consolidate their power in a centralized government, they actually gave away much of their power to their magnates. Efforts to explain these differences resulted in an approach to understanding medieval German history known as the Sonderweg (Special Path), an inherently teleological approach enmeshed with claims of German exceptionalism.4 This way of understanding early medieval German history has cast a long historiographical shadow. Scholars have continued to assume that the Ottonians lacked any “highly organised polity,” largely in light of “the loose nature of law and order; the importance of ritualized and symbolic action, especially with political implications; and the absence of clear administrative structures” (Reuter, 2006b:292). But the idea that the Ottonians ruled a disorganized polity and had little interest in creating a more coherent centralized hierarchical organization, yet somehow still achieved significant political and military successes, relative dynastic stability, and prolific artistic and cultural developments implies an inherent contradiction, a contradiction that was not seriously addressed by scholars until the late twentieth century. The first suggestion that some kind of administration or formal government structure existed under the Ottonians was in 1979, when Karl Leyser asserted that Ottonian government did indeed have recognizable institutions, although he conceded that they were few in number with little use of written documents for the functions of government (Leyser, 1979). Even this relatively modest assessment of a royal administration continues to be challenged, and the extent to which the Ottonians had an adminstrative apparatus for ruling their extensive empire persists as the subject of debate. While some take a stance similar to that of Leyser (e.g. Deutinger, 2009 and Goetz, 2000), others, such as Hagen Keller (1989 and 1991:162-163) and Gerd Althoff (2005), argue that there was no state structure or administrative apparatus.5 Some scholars, such as David Bachrach (2009), are beginning to take a more assertive posture against this traditional interpretation of Ottonian government, taking into account the numerous political, military, and cultural accomplishments of their rulers and these kings’ abilities to organize highly complex activities involving the large-scale coordination of resources—both human and material—over large geographic territories.6 Many of the traditional institutions of Ottonian governance that have been used as evidence of their lack of administrative capabilities and their tendencies to franchise or give away power are now being reassessed as part of a sophisticated style of government that warrants reconsideration.
One of the most distinctive features of Ottonian government was the iter regis, the royal iter. Eckhard Müller-Mertens' groundbreaking study introduced new methodologies for investigating the iter and spurred new investigations into this important facet of Ottonian kingship (Müller-Mertens, 1980). The Ottonian court exemplifies how itinerant rule could be a highly effective way to distribute royal and imperial authority over a wide geographical area (Arnold, 1997; Bernhardt, 1993:56-57; Brühl, 1968; Leyser, 1981:746-747. Kränzle (1997) has suggested that the iter facilitated the king's absence as much as his presence, also an important aspect of itinerant kingship). Ottonian charters typically cite the date and place of issuance, helping to provide historians with a good picture of the kings’ routes. The Ottonian itinerary was closely tied to the liturgical calendar, and the rulers generally celebrated feasts at the same places each year—for example, they traditionally celebrated Easter at Quedlinburg. This royal itinerary served several functions for the Ottonians, but one of the most important was its facilitation of communication between the king and his magnates, essentially assuring the king a “near-monopoly of long-distance communications” and providing a venue for formal meetings with secular and ecclesiastical lords (Leyser, 1981:746-747; Bernhardt, 1993:56-57; regarding assemblies as vehicles for communication between kings and magnates, see Airlie, 2003 and Reuter, 2001; for synods, see Wolter, 1988). These assemblies were an important aspect of Ottonian rule, and one of their purposes was to dispense justice via placita and synods. Placita, both the assemblies at which pleas were heard and the documents that were produced to record the outcomes of those hearings, were often combined with synodal hearings under the Ottonians. And indeed, placita and synods convened by the emperor shared many of the same characteristics: they were frequent, they were attended by mixed assemblies of nobles and bishops, and they often were attended by other kings or rulers. While there has been some treatment of tenth- and eleventh-century placita in Italy, placita as a function of government in the Ottonian territories north of the Alps have received almost no attention in the scholarship (Keller, 1976; Leyser, 1981:725; Patzold, 2001:71-3. For placita in early Frankish history, see Fouracre, 1986; regarding placita in Italy see Bougard, 1995; Brunsch, 2007; Lazzarini, 2007:272-3; and Wickham, 1997). But the sources suggest that they were an important tool for the assertion of royal power and the dispensation of justice, and the iter assured the king's ability to convene and preside at such assemblies throughout his territories. For example, Thietmar of Merseburg emphasized the royal iter as an essential component of good governance and stability in describing part of the itinerary for Henry II in 1004:
Hastening to return to his homeland, he [Henry II] entered the boundaries of Swabia, both to rule and confirm, for it had recently been deprived of the solace of Duke Hermann [II] and bestowed upon his like-named son, who was still a minor. He then travelled to Strasbourg, which is located in Alsace, and there celebrated the birth of the venerable predecessor of Christ [24 June]. On the vigil of the feast, the Lord performed a miracle through him which I must not pass over . . . A house in which the king was giving the justice of the law to the populace suddenly collapsed, but only one priest was hurt. He had been living, unjustly and knowingly, with the wife of a man who had been excommunicated. (Warner, 2001a:243-44).7
The importance of the king's physical presence to assure regional stability is clearly implied here—the succession of a minor child was always a cause for anxiety, and the confirmation of any royal immunities that existed in the duchy, to assure immunists’ continued support of the crown and demonstrate the crown's local interest to those who might be tempted to encroach on them, would have been an important signal that the king supported continuity of those grants and privileges under the rule of the new duke. The ceremonial aspect of feast-day celebrations is also noted here, as is the administration of law and justice by the king's own hand. An additional function of the iter was economic; John Bernhardt's comprehensive study of the king's iter and Ottonian royal monasteries effectively demonstrates the economic importance of the itinerary to the crown, as well as how the establishment and patronage of royal monasteries, where the king and his entourage expected hospitality, was a part of Ottonian royal policy (1993:75-84). Research by Thomas Zotz (1991) and Caspar Ehlers (2002) also assert the effectiveness of the iter as a method of rule.
While the iter was one important ritual of Ottonian governance, it was closely tied to another ritual, that of the adventus. The adventus was a formal ceremony which celebrated the arrival of the king, and it too served as a means of communication and legitmation of his rule, as well as a reminder of his royal prerogative. David Warner has noted how the “visual language of ritual,” in particular that of the adventus, was a favorite construct of Ottonian literati in composing histories and recording remembered rituals (2001b:257-58). While these ceremonies were based on Roman imperial custom, this public display of a king's supremacy also echoed Christ's arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, emphasizing the sacral nature of his rule (Kantorowicz, 1944:210). Peter Willmes also notes this sacrality and messianic tone in his discussion of a song written for the adventus of Otto III into Rome in 998, where he argues that the last verse points to an imperial-political program for Roman renewal (Willmes, 1976:140). The itinerancy of the Ottonians and the rituals that accompanied their journeyings throughout their kingdom were not just an administrative necessity, but also a continuing confirmation of the legitimacy of their position and relationships. Warner asserts that these ceremonies accompanying the arrival and reception of the king were as “forceful as a royal diploma” in publicly demonstrating the relationship between the king and a church or monastery (Warner, 1995:56).
The historiography of the adventus also demonstrates the growing interest in the late twentieth century in medieval ritual behavior. Gerd Althoff first applied anthropological theories of ritual to medieval Germany, trying to uncover in descriptions of gesture and ritual the nuances of political behaviors and customary practices that were not recorded in royal documents (1997).8 According to Althoff, these ritualized Spielregeln, “rules of the game,” allowed nobles and king a means of communication and conflict resolution through a mutually understood symbolic idiom, which could be inferred by the historian from descriptions of the non-verbal communications in sources. While Althoff's thesis has had challengers (e.g. Buc, 2001), scholarship on ritual behavior has grown far beyond the boundaries of medieval German studies, and has stimulated lively exchanges over the use and interpretation of sources that continue today (Koziol, 1992; Warner, 2010).
Another element of Ottonian governance that is still debated is the degree to which the network of royal monasteries, abbeys, and churches created an imperial church system (Reichskirchensystem). In Ottonian Germany, ecclesiastical foundations were important tools of royal governance. Reuter (2011) frames the network of bishops against the political map of European kingdoms, and Bernhardt (1993) demonstrates the importance of monasteries to institutions of governance such as the royal iter. Ecclesiastical foundations were endowed with substantial land and rights, but also expected to provide services for the king (servitium regis), including duties and obligations such as hosting the king and his familiares and providing military service (Arnold, 1989). Thietmar of Merseburg, for example, reports how he was sent to restore the burg of Lebusa in 1012, which had been left empty since the time of Henry I. According to Thietmar, he and his cohorts refortified the site and left the fort secured with a garrison (Thietmar of Merseburg, 1935:6.59). Bishops and other ecclesiastical authorities additionally played a role in the administration of justice. Ecclesiastical jurisdictions resembled those of great lords both in their scope and in their obligations to the emperor. Bishops could operate, like their secular counterparts, with great autonomy in the administration of law and justice over their lands. For example, Burchard of Worms produced a legislative text intended to govern both clerical and lay peoples under his jurisdiction, the Lex Familia Wormatensis Familiae (familia also carried connotations of unfree people; see Innes, 2000:80n78). Thus, it was in the interest of the Ottonian kings (and their Salian successors) to control the appointments of bishops and abbots, often placing family members or their own candidates into open positions. While the essential features of the Ottonian royal abbeys, monasteries, and bishoprics are well attested, the degree to which they formed a system, that is, a consciously deployed royal policy that developed over the course of the tenth century, has in recent decades become a matter of debate. The Reichskirchensystem was largely accepted as a defining factor of Ottonian and Salian government throughout much of the scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; it was not until Timothy Reuter's article of 1982 that this received wisdom was challenged (Reuter, 2006a). While Reuter's position has by no means gained universal acceptance, it did force scholars to more carefully define their acceptance of a Reichskirchensystem or to rethink their use of the term ‘system,’ reconfirming that the use of imperial churches was an important tool of the kings, but not necessarily reflecting a cohesive and consciously applied policy of government. Representative of the push-back against Reuter's thesis include Josef Fleckenstein (1985) and Rudolf Schieffer (1989). More recently, the emphasis has been on reasserting the importance to the king of these foundations and investitures, regardless of whether they constituted a system or not (e.g. Althoff, 2003:20 and Mayr-Harting, 2007:6-7), or indicate a rethinking of the debate (e.g. Körntgen, 2001:14). Others approach the problem more obliquely. For example, David Bachrach's work on immunities argues that immunities were important tools of government, used “for the purpose of allocating the resources of the government in ways that furthered royal policies” (Bachrach, 2013:7). Bachrach here is specifically concerned with military mobilization, and argues that fiscal properties were transferred to ecclesiastical foundations with the intent that they produce revenues and resources that would support military activity (23). Thus, the kings expressly and deliberately allocated fiscal properties—and often transferred authority over fiscal resources from secular lords to ecclesiastical control—in such a manner as to provide the most expedient access to resources for defense at home and to facilitate the mobilization of soldiers on campaign (22-23).
As may already be apparent, immunities were another important tool of Ottonian governance. It was noted above that the Ottonians had, in much of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century historiography, often been accused of giving away royal power, largely because of the great numbers of immunities they granted and confirmed. Grants of immunity in areas under the control or influence of the Ottonian Reich often included full judicial authority over and the rights to incomes from fiscal lands (Davies & Fouracre, 1995:13; regarding the development of immunities in the early medieval Western legal tradition, see Drew, 1994-1995). But our understanding of immunities has begun to change, as scholars have come to recognize that these grants of exemptions from various aspects of royal intervention could work in the service of power, as opposed to diluting it. Put another way, “exemption means closeness to the centre, not distance from it” (Davies & Fouracre, 1995:15). There are hundreds of charters that confirm the immunities granted by previous kings, and these are one of the ways that we have become familiar with Ottonian royal monasteries and other religious foundations. One such function of these charters was to legitimize the confirming ruler, establishing his authority in the line of succession from earlier kings. But they served another purpose as well. Christina Pössel has argued that ritualized performances needed to be constantly recreated, often incorporating new elements to reflect changed situations or new interpretations of a consensus or arrangement over time (Pössel, 2009). The confirmations of immunities served just such a purpose, providing a public reaffirmation of the relationship between the ruler and the institution. And perhaps we would do well to consider Wendy Davies and Paul Fouracre's comment that “exemption from the activity of a ruler's agents has primary meaning in a context where he has such agents—local officials actively engaged in taxing and/or judging on its behalf—as well as the ability to supervise and control their activities” (1995:15). That is, if there are no royal officials, there is no need to issue an exemption from their interference. Thus, we are led again to a consideration of the possibility of an Ottonian administrative system as a method employed by them to govern.
As already noted, this position is in direct opposition to the “Königsherrschaft ohne Staat” idea held by Keller and Althoff, discussed above. Leyser identified, perhaps, the crux of the problem for historians, that is, that the historians and chroniclers writing in the tenth century had no interest in recording details about administrative tasks or the officials who carried them out (Leyser, 1981:722-23). Thus, we know very little about the various administrative functionaries of the Ottonian court. The Ottonian diplomas that follow Carolingian formulae and list judices, vicarii, and exactores after counts and other lords in their immunity clauses do not reveal who held these roles nor specify what their precise duties might have been. We see no return to Carolingian practices like capitularies to instruct missi dominici, special envoys of the king who were sent out to handle royal affairs when the ruler himself was unable to be physically present. The usefulness of royal agents such as these, especially in a geographically broad realm with a peripatetic royal court, seems self-evident. And yet we see no use of missi north of the Alps at all by the Ottonians, no formation of administrative records, and no evidence of archival activities, all of which were practices followed by the Carolingians (Leyser, 1981:727; regarding the Carolingian's use of writing as an essential component of their government, see McKitterick, 1989:23-77. Regarding the specific lack of written instruments in Ottonian government, especially compared to the Carolingians, see Bernhardt, 1993:51). I have argued that the office of missi was indeed used in Ottonian government practice, following the pre-Carolingian models for missi ad hoc in combination with Charlemagne's adaptation of the office for specific regions (Wangerin, 2014:37-42). David Bachrach, in his study of the inquisitio as a tool of government under the Ottonians, gives another example of how the Ottonians followed administrative procedures employed and developed by the Carolingians, procedures which presupposed an administrative apparatus (2016:37). These officials tasked to undertake inquisitions on behalf of the crown were charged with keeping a record of the properties held by the royal fisc (31). Bachrach argues that these activities show “that there was no discontinuity in practice between the Carolingian and Ottonian kings” with respect to their use of these royal officials (65). It is worth noting here that Leyser, citing the work of Fleckenstein, points out that the capellani that staffed the chapel and chancery were not only an integral part of the Ottonian court, fulfilling its many clerical needs and other functions; they might also have been sent out on separate missions (1981:725, referencing Fleckenstein, 1966). Could they have been employed as missi? Sent to oversee inquests? It is clear that there is great potential for future directions and further investigation as scholars struggle with the question of the nature of Ottonian governance.
One subtext that has run through this essay and that gets at a key issue surrounding Ottonian governance is the problem of how and in what ways they employed written documents. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this too is a subject that is a matter of debate among scholars. The traditional view has been that they essentially did not use writing in service of government to any measurable degree, a position which continues to appear throughout the scholarship (e.g. Bernhardt, 1993:51; Waßenhoven, 2011:108. D. Bachrach asserts, instead, that the governmental apparatus relied heavily on the use of written materials [2009:396-397], and that “there was, in fact, no demise or even diminution of Carolingian institutions or in the use of writing for governmental operations in the early German kingdom” [2016:65]). And it is true that we do not see the nascent archival practices or numerous written capitularies in Ottonian records that were so prevalent during the Carolingian era (except in Italy; see above). But it seems that there is significantly more work to be done in this area. Writing, in some way or form, touched on every institution of government addressed in this short survey. And the promise of such investigations seems sure. The degree to which ritual and written documents worked together in the service of political communication, for example, could reveal important aspects about rulership, as well as enhance our understanding of the use of public ritual and writing. There is little doubt that such work will offer new possibilities for understanding the models and methods of rule employed in tenth-century Germany, furthering the conversations that exist today and energizing new debates.