ottonenOtto III ruled over an immense area. In the west, the rivers Scheldt and Upper Maas formed the border with France; the Slavic leaders and the present-day Poles and Czechs paid tribute to the emperor as their better; the recently Christianized Danes tried to forget their aggressive Viking period; and somewhere in southern Italy lay the border with the friendly Byzantine empire. Since Rome functioned as the capital city, the empire was referred to as ‘Roman’ and because the emperor had the task of keeping his subjects from sin and educating them to be moral, the word ‘holy’ was often added to this title. Furthermore, because the monarch was German, the Holy Roman Empire was often simply called the German Empire.

Apart from the name, the Christian religion and their ruler, the different parts of the empire had little in common. The collection of territories was definitely not a homogeneous state. In fact, we may well ask if this empire could be called a state at all in the true sense of the word. Allowing for mild exaggeration, you could say that the Emperor alone constituted the whole government. He had hardly any ministers or civil servants and therefore, in order to have a royal command executed, he was dependent on the cooperation of other leaders. And so the paradox of a big get-together such as the one in Aachen is that the Emperor displayed a power which he, in fact, did not possess.

And yet he had an extensive round of duties; as army general he had to protect his subjects against foreign enemies; as the defender of the faith, he was supposed to guarantee the continuity of the celebration of the Mass and look after the souls of his flock and, as ‘father of the poor’, he was responsible for vulnerable groups such as women, orphans, Jews, the sick and the handicapped. It is clear that the Emperor could not have fulfilled all these duties alone. If he were actually to achieve anything, then this was only possible in collaboration with local rulers. For the most part, he left the day-to-day running of his dominions to prosperous nobles. In exchange for prestigious titles like duke or count, they saw to the maintaining of public order and the administration of justice. Sometimes the noble had to serve the Emperor with a mounted army. In this way, the Dutch Count Unroch of Teisterbant joined up with Otto III in Aachen in order to escort him during his journey to Italy.

It goes without saying that Unroch had to be compensated for his services and had to receive a fitting payment for the mounted soldiers he had mustered. However, in those days it was impossible to pay him in hard cash (for reasons we will deal with later). Therefore, he was given the honor of becoming one of the vassals of the monarch, who were maintained by the emperor in return for services rendered. As the vassal was a count in this case, he was granted estates which he held as a fiefdom of the Emperor. The Emperor’s role was then that of a feudal lord who granted a feudal estate to a vassal while the vassal’s role was to fulfill the obligations stated in his oath of allegiance or fealty.

A striking aspect of the feudal system was that for his role in public government, the count was rewarded not by the state but by the ruler. The distinction between services to the state on the one hand, and services performed for a private person such as the king, on the other, did not yet exist in the year 1000. In fact, the ruler was a very rich estate owner who demanded services from other aristocrats, compensating them for their services from his personal possessions. This arrangement bore little resemblance to a modern state.

Feudalism was a primitive system for running an empire and it functioned badly. If the count did not keep to his oath of fealty, the monarch could of course end the feudal relationship, but in such a case he had to have the force at his disposal to transfer the fief to a new count. That was more easily said than done, as it could only be expected that the former count would violently resist any attempt by his successor to take over the fief. Therefore, it follows that a local count would have to go very far before the monarch took recourse to removing him. Nor was the feudal relationship terminated when the count died, because then his son took over not only his duties, but also his rights and rank. It was impossible for the Emperor just to ignore him. In this way, dynasties of counts came into being who regarded their fiefs as family property and behaved more and more as independent lords.

If an emperor wanted to be more than just a symbol of the unity of an empire where the local plenipotentiaries had the real power, he had to make sure that they respected the oath of fealty. It was difficult for him not to exact this, but with all this pomp and ceremony he could woo them into giving it. In Aachen, Otto gave a show of power that he really did not possess, but just by doing that, he gained influence over his subjects. Symbols are a real form of power.

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