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Bohemia (13th – 15th c.)

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Bohemia was elevated into an independent kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire under Ottokar I or Otakar I (1198-1230) and the royal title became hereditary. Ottokar I was succeeded by Wenceslaus I Premyslid (1230-1253) who successfully repulsed the Mongolian attack in 1241 and suppressed the rebellion led by his son Ottokar II who was imprisoned. He arranged marriage between his first born son and heir Vladislaus with the Duke’s niece Gertrud to gain the Duchy of Austria but Vladislaus died shortly afterwards, while his widow swiftly remarried. Wenceslaus I invaded Austria, released his son Ottokar II, named him margrave of Moravia and installed him as governor of Austria.

Burial crown of Ottokar II of Bohemia on display at Prague castle

Burial crown of Ottokar II

Ottokar II married the late Duke’s sister Margaret to legitimize his position in Austria and succeeded his father Wenceslaus I as Ottokar II of Bohemia (1253-1278). He seized Styria from Hungary in 1260 and inherited Carinthia and Carniola in 1269. Bohemia reached its greatest territorial extent stretching from Silesia to the Adriatic and became the most powerful state of the Holy Roman Empire. Ottokar II joined the contest for the Imperial throne and refused to recognize his victorious rival Rudolph of Habsburg. However, he was deprived of Styria, Austria and Carinthia at the convention of the Reichstag at Frankfurt in 1274 and forced to give up all claims to Austria and the neighboring duchies two years later. Ottokar II retained only Bohemia and Moravia. He tried to recapture the lost lands but he was defeated and killed by Rudolph of Habsburg in the Battle of Durnkrut and Jedenspeigen in 1278.

Ottokar II was succeeded by his son Wenceslaus II (1278-1305). He gained the Duchy of Krakow from Premislas II but the latter retained other duchies in Poland and the royal insignia from Krakow, and was crowned King of Poland in 1295. However, Wenceslaus became the overlord of Poland after Premislas’ death in 1296 and was crowned King of Poland in 1300. Wenceslaus also assumed the Hungarian throne on behalf of his son after death of Andrew III of Hungary, the last of the Arpad dynasty in male line in 1301 but he failed to gain full support of the Hungarians. He was succeeded by his son Wenceslaus III (1305-1306) who renounced his claim to the Hungarian throne and met difficulties in Poland. He was murdered under mysterious circumstances in Olomouc, Moravia in 1306.

The Premyslid dynasty became extinct after the death of Wenceslaus III and the Bohemian throne was assumed by Henry VI of Carinthia (1306-1310). In 1310, he was deposed by John of Luxembourg (1310-1346) who assumed the Bohemian throne through marriage with Elisabeth, heiress of Wenceslaus III of Bohemia. John of Luxembourg extended Bohemian territory to upper Lusatia and Silesia and ruled part of Lombardy and Tyrol for a short period. He got involved in the Hundred Years’ War siding with France against England but he was killed in the Battle of Crecy in 1346.

A photo of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle taken by Frantisek Fridrich in 1870

Charles Bridge

John of Luxembourg was succeeded by Charles IV (1346-1378) who was elected King of Germany in 1346 and crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1355. Bohemia reached its political and cultural height during his reign. Charles IV greatly increased the power of his dynasty through skillful diplomacy, purchases, marriages and inheritance, and made Prague the political and cultural center of the Holy Roman Empire. He founded the first university in Prague and in Central Europe in 1348, expanded and rebuilt the Prague Castle, built much of the cathedral of Saint Vitus and ordered the construction of the famous Charles Bridge.

Charles IV was succeeded by his son Wenceslaus IV (1378-1419) who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1376. However, he was deposed as Holy Roman Emperor and replaced by Rupert of Wittelsbach in 1400. As King of Bohemia, Wenceslaus IV supported the religious reformer Jan Hus and his followers against the Roman Catholic Church. Hus’ execution in 1415 provoked serious unrest which resulted in the outbreak of the Hussite Wars (1420-1434) after Wenceslaus’ death in 1419.

A portrait of Prokop the Great

Prokop the Great

The Bohemian crown was claimed by Wenceslaus’ brother Sigismund, King of Hungary from 1387 and King of Germany from 1411. However, the Bohemians refused to recognize Sigismund as King of Bohemia because of his role at the Council of Constance which burned Jan Hus at the stake for heresy. Sigismund declared a war against the heretics but all his military campaigns against the Hussites led by Jan Ziska and Prokop the Great failed. He was able to assert his rights to the Bohemian throne only after the outbreak of a war between the two fractions of Hussites, the Utraquists and the Taborites in 1434. The Hussite Wars ended with the peace agreement signed at Jihlava by King Sigismund, the Hussite delegates and the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church in 1436. Sigismund was finally crowned King of Bohemia but his power was little more than nominal.

Albert II of Habsburg (1437-1439) who was married with Sigismund’s daughter and heiress Elizabeth succeeded Sigismund as King of Hungary, Germany and Bohemia. He was killed in a campaign against the Ottomans at Neszmely in 1439 and was succeeded by his posthumously born son Ladislaus the Posthumous (1453-1457). The latter was crowned king of Bohemia at age of thirteen in 1453 but he died suddenly in 1457. He was succeeded by his regent George of Podebrady (1458-1471) who was the last domestic ruler of Bohemia.

George of Podebrady was succeeded by Vladislaus II who was unable to defeat his rival Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary who claimed the Bohemian throne. The conflict between the rival kings was settled with the Peace of Olomouc in 1478 allowing both Vladislaus and Matthias Corvinus to use the title King of Bohemia. Vladislaus reigned Bohemia, while Matthias gained Moravia, Silesia and the two Lusatias. Vladislaus II succeeded Matthias’ as King of Hungary on his death in 1490 and incorporated the Bohemian lands into the Kingdom of Hungary.

Swiss Confederacy or the Swiss League

27 Jul
July 27, 2012
The Federal Charter of 1291

The Federal Charter of 1291

Decline of the central power under Frederick II of Germany and chaos during the period of Interregnum forced the local communities to connect themselves against robbers, petty nobles as well as against powerful landlords who tried to extend their possessions. Thus the crisis in the Holy Roman Empire during the period of Interregnum resulted in the creation of the Old Swiss Confederacy, an alliance of the rural communes (cantons) of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden and the precursor of modern-day Switzerland in 1291. The Luxembourg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, Henry VII and his successor Charles IV appointed administrative representatives in each of the three communes and de facto recognized the Old Swiss Confederation.

The Habsburg Dynasty tried to take advantage of the political crisis and win back lost lands in southern Germany. For that reason the three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden supported Louis IV of Bavaria instead of Frederick I of Austria (Habsburg) in their struggle for the German throne. Frederick’s brother Leopold I, Duke of Austria led a military campaign against the Swiss in 1315 but he was severely defeated in the Battle of Morgarten. A month later, the three cantons renewed their alliance and reached an agreement over their unification which formed the legal basis of the confederacy for the next five centuries. The most important clause of the agreement was the provision that alliances with other states will not be concluded without consent of all cantons, while each canton took an oath to defend its independence. The three cantons had been joined by the cantons of Glarus and Zug and the city states of Lucerne, Zurich and Bern by 1353 forming the Bund of Acht Orte or the alliance of the eight places.

Bern and Zurich retained a right to maintain special relations with the Habsburg House which tied to prevent the eventual rise of the Swiss Confederacy. Leopold III of Austria assembled an army against the Swiss when Lucerne invaded Habsburg lands in 1385 and captured the city of Sempach. However, the Habsburg House was defeated for the second time, while Glarus declared independence and defeated Leopold’s brother Albert III in the Battle of Nafels in 1388. The Habsburg pretensions in the Swiss Confederacy afterwards ceased. The Swiss took advantage of the tense relations between Frederick IV of Austria and Emperor Sigismund and invaded and conquered Aargau in 1415. Aargau was of great strategic importance and played an important role in the history of constitutional development of the Swiss Confederacy, while joint administration of the canton resulted in the rise of consciousness of common identity. The Pfaffenbrief signed by the members of the Swiss Confederacy in 1370 restricted the privileges of clergy, while the Sempacherbriefsigned in 1393 determined that a war can be declared only after consulting with all cantons of the Confederacy.

The relations between the cantons were not ideal. The claim of Zurich to Toggenburg resulted in a ruinous war with the other confederates between 1436 and 1446. The war was intervened by the Habsburg House which supported Zurich against Bern by sending troops that were loaned to Emperor Frederick III by Charles VII of France. However, the French commander withdrew after the clash with the confederates and the French heir to the throne Louis XI signed a peace agreement with the confederates in the name of France. Zurich reconciled with the Confederation but had to dissolve its alliance with the Habsburgs.

The Swiss Confederacy developed into an influential military power and helped Louis XI of France defeat Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in the Battle of Nancy in 1477. The Swiss soldiers gained a reputation of near invincibility during the Burgundian Wars and their mercenary services were afterwards increasingly sought by all European great powers. The Swiss Confederacy repulsed the attack of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor at the end of the 15th century and Maximilian granted Switzerland virtual independence in 1499.

Medieval Life and Society

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the Western Roman Emperor by Odoacer in 476 resulted in the collapse of the Late Antique political system and of its social structure. However, the social changes occurred already before the official Fall of Rome, while formation of the new social order known as feudal system evolved gradually as a combination of Roman social-economic system and tribal-military organization of the barbarian peoples who triumphed over Western Roman Empire.

The barbarian kings in Italy, Iberian Peninsula, France and elsewhere in Europe adopted the Roman titles and methods of government. Although they were practically independent they considered the Byzantine Emperor their suzerain. Feudalism developed in Western Europe in the 8th and 9th century and became the predominant political and social system by the 11th century. For that reason medieval society and related subjects are often referred as the Feudal society. The feudal system was not equal in all countries but there were certain common characteristics such as strict division into social classes: nobility, clergy and peasantry or “those who fight”, “those who pray” and “those who labour”.

Cleric, knight and serf

Cleric, knight and serf

The king was on the top of the hierarchy of an ideal medieval society. Beneath him was a hierarchy of nobles consisting from the nobles who held land directly from the king to those who held only a single manor. Landholding system which based on fiefs or landholding in exchange for providing military service and paying a homage to the overlord eventually evolved into a system of subinfeudation by which the recipient of the fief – the vassal granted part of his fief to one who then became his vassal. Thus evolved very complex relations within the class of nobility, while every noble was someone’s vassal and was bound by mutual ties of loyalty and service. Besides that it was not unusual for one being a vassal to several overlords, while even a king could have been a vassal to another king.

The peasants or serfs who represented the majority of the medieval population and worked for the landlords in exchange for use of his land and his protection were on the bottom of the medieval society. Instability and turmoils in the 9th and 10th centuries forced the remained free peasants to seek protection by the nearest powerful landlord in exchange for their labour and personal freedom. They accepted to became serfs and also granted serfdom of their descendants. Thus serfdom became inheritable, while the principal duty of the serfs according to the medieval perception was to work on the land on which they were bound and which placed them on the very bottom of medieval social hierarchy.

Clergy was placed very high in the medieval social order. The Christianity and the Church had an absolute monopoly over mentality of all social classes, while religious believes had great influence on all medieval institutions as well as on all aspects of life of a Christian. Vassal took his oath on the Bible or holy relics, while serfdom was considered to be determined by God with purpose of survival of humanity. Thus clergy played very important role in the establishment of feudalism, while its hierarchy was very similar to the hierarchy of feudal society. Besides that the Church held much land, while high church officials acted as feudal landlords and lived a leisurely life comparable to the life of high nobility.

The theory of the three classes of feudal society does not describe the whole medieval population. Besides fiefs some men held their land in allod and were without any obligations, while even the three classes of feudal society sometimes referred as “the estates of the realm” were not a homogenous group. Besides city population (bourgeoisie) which was not a part of the “feudal pyramid” medieval society also consisted of population which was in certain way excluded from the feudal order: Jews and other subordinate groups – lepers, homosexuals, disabled persons, foreigners, witches, heretics, beggars, unemployed and outlaws.


27 Jul
July 27, 2012
A 14th century illustration of Pope Urban II

Pope Urban II

The Crusades were a series of military campaigns of a religious character fought from 1096 to 1291 by most of the Christian Europe against the Muslims in the Middle East. However, the Crusades were also launched against the pagan Slavs, Jews, Orthodox Christians, Albigenses, Hussites as well as against political enemies in Europe (such as the Crusade against Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II). The appeal of the Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I Comnenus to the Pope for military assistance against the Seljuk Turks resulted in the convocation of the Council of Clermont by Pope Urban II in November 1095. At the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II called for the Crusade against the Muslims who had occupied the Holy Land and were attacking the Byzantine Empire and gave a cloth crosses to the knights to be sewn into their armor which gave the Crusades their name.

After the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II travelled throughout France preaching and organizing the Crusade. Although he expected his call for the Crusade will be responded only by knights and warriors the majority of those who took up his call were the poor peasants without any fighting skills.

The appeal of the Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I Comnenus to the Pope Urban II is widely regarded as the immediate cause for the Crusades but the real cause for the Crusades laid in Papacy’s and Western Europe’s own interests. The Papacy saw an opportunity to establish its dominance over the Holy Land, while the Crusaders were primarily led by economic, political and social motives. The best evidence for that is the fact that the Crusaders were primarily concentrated on capturing of Palestine instead of helping the Byzantine Empire against the Seljuk Turks of Anatolia.

Medieval Europe (13th to 15th c.)

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

The period from the Mongol invasion to the end of Reconquista from the 13th to the 15th century was characterized by great political changes. The Western Europe was marked by the emergence of centralized nation-states: England, France and the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula, while Eastern Europe saw the rise of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, a predecessor of the Russian national state.

At the same time when the Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula finally collapsed and Grand Duchy of Muscovy finally defeated the Golden Horde, Southeastern Europe and the Byzantine Empire were subjugated by the Ottoman Empire. The expansion of the Ottoman Empire had a great impact on the future development of the Balkan Peninsula but it greatly effected the rest of Europe as well.

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