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The Golden Bull of 1356 fixed the number and identity of the electors. And while the Empire finally received an orderly method of choosing its sovereigns, the power of these sovereigns had largely passed from the center to the periphery. The old empire existed in name only.
Italy too is part of the story of the German rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. The part of Italy north of the Papal States was an actual part of the Holy Roman Empire, while Sicily, in the extreme south, was at times under the rule of the Emperors. In particular, Frederick II was famed for the glorious, and learned, court he maintained in Sicily. Italy was very strongly affected by political developments North of the Alps. The same divisions between Church and State that plagued the rest of the Empire were prominent in the Italians city states as well. For Italy, like Germany, was divided into many different parts. However, unlike its neighbor to the North, Italy's different political entities were base primarily on the numerous cities that were to be found on the peninsula. Never quite snuffed out after the fall of Rome, Italy's cities gradually came into their own again as they engaged in a vigorous trade and commerce with the Mediterranean World and Northern Europe. Home to merchants and tradesmen, the Italian cities jealously defended their independence against marauding warrior bands, and rural lords. Groups of urban businessmen formed the communes that governed the city as an independent state. The cities fought with each other; the winners claiming surrounding villages and towns... And sometimes their rival cities too. Italy's cities were essentially oligarchies - their communes composed (especially as time went on) of the wealthiest citizens of each locality. Democratic to an extent, the limitations imposed by wealth effectively kept out the lower classes. The battle for supremacy that was so often ignited by these arrangements was therefore one that was waged between the wealthiest and most enterprising of these urban families.
In their struggle for control, the Italian lords and businessmen attempted to ally themselves either with the Church - the Guelphs - or with the state (Emperor) - the Ghibellines. On the whole, the urban businessmen tended to be Guelphs. They saw the power of the Church as a bulwark against the ambitions of the landed nobility. While on the other side, most territorial magnates thought it better to ally themselves with the Emperor; as Ghibellines they sought protection from Church interference rather than cultivated it. The great struggle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines has left its mark on Italy even today. The many stone towers that one sees in the heart of Italian cities are relics of the terrible bloodshed of the Middle Ages. As Italy prospered economically and culturally, she was also torn apart by war. The city states fought each other almost constantly, until at last, their number was greatly reduced. The tiny independent fiefs so common in Germany became relatively rare in Italy. Nevertheless, the Peninsula remained divided among a number of mutually antagonistic states; states that were tiny compared to France, England, or any of the larger kingdoms. The continued bloodshed was expensive and only served to further develop the power of the wealthiest few. With only a small number of citizens trained to, or free, to fight, the Italian states turned to mercenaries - the condottiere. Professional fighters, the condottiere only intensified the horrors of incessant warfare. However, the condottiere also laid the foundations of the modern army; their organization, and means of recruitment offered a viable alternative to the feudal levy, or the levy of urban citizens. Developments in Medieval Italy, perhaps more than anywhere else in Europe, were beginning to undermine the framework of medieval life.
Political development in medieval France, Germany, and Italy followed similar, and yet very different paths. All began with the attempt to bring order out of the chaos that followed the breakup of the Roman Empire. Rulers attempted to fashion workable systems of administration out of a welter of governmental jurisdictions and traditions. France was the first of the three to achieve unity. It then collapsed, made some faltering steps forward and back, and then ended the period firmly on its way to becoming a tight-knit, and highly centralized state. Germany, for a while, was controlled by a series of powerful emperors, but the strains between Church and state proved to great, and the Holy Roman Empire collapsed into a confusion of competing sovereign entities, many of them tiny in extent. Italy's Medieval political development was somewhere in between. Strong city states came into being that fought with both Church and State (in the form of the Empire). They throve on trade and entrepreneurship. Feudal lords battled with the powerful urban elite for control of the Peninsula. Endemic warfare resulted from the endless struggles for supremacy. Yet, just as Italy's condottiere presaged the end of the medieval knight, so too did political developments in Italy, Germany, and France eventually lead the way out of the Middle Ages, and…[continue]
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