Cover image for Conrad II, 990–1039: Emperor of Three Kingdoms By Herwig Wolfram and Translated by Denise A. Kaiser

Conrad II, 990–1039

Emperor of Three Kingdoms

Herwig Wolfram, and Translated by Denise A. Kaiser


400 pages
6.125" × 9.25"
18 b&w illustrations/2 maps

Conrad II, 990–1039

Emperor of Three Kingdoms

Herwig Wolfram, and Translated by Denise A. Kaiser

“What Wolfram’s biography ably demonstrates is how a new man with international vision could effectively govern an unruly empire of different races: German, Frisians, Slavs, Italians, and Burgundian French, while maintaining effective alliances with England, Denmark, France, and the papacy.”


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In this biography of the German emperor Conrad II (990–1039), internationally renowned medievalist Herwig Wolfram paints a fascinating portrait of a consummate politician set against the background of a Europe entering a new millennium. Conrad was the founder of the Salian Dynasty, under whose almost century-long dominion Germany became the most powerful state in Western Europe. He was also the first emperor of the high Middle Ages to rule the three kingdoms of Germany, Italy, and Burgundy.

Conrad’s reign marked the triumph of the concept of “kingdom” and the zenith of what has been termed “imperial grandeur.” He broadened the internal bases of imperial power and brought the full weight of his office to bear upon popes, clerics, and abbots in the pursuit of his ecclesiastical policies. His astounding ability to achieve his political goals was practically unparalleled among the emperors of the High Middle Ages.

Wolfram sees Conrad as a politician in almost the modern sense of the word, capable of exploiting the political, social, and economic structures of his day in order to exert his authority and marginalize his opponents. The result is an intimate portrait filled with fresh insights about Conrad and his consort, Gisela, who—as Wolfram demonstrates—played an influential advisory role with her husband. First published in 2000, this work demonstrates Wolfram’s masterly command of the sources and the storyteller’s craft, making Conrad II a compelling history of an emperor and his magnificent epoch.

“What Wolfram’s biography ably demonstrates is how a new man with international vision could effectively govern an unruly empire of different races: German, Frisians, Slavs, Italians, and Burgundian French, while maintaining effective alliances with England, Denmark, France, and the papacy.”
“This is no bite-sized, easily digested work, but rather a detailed, reflective book, offering insightful consideration both of Conrad as ruler and of his historical context.”

Herwig Wolfram is Professor Emeritus of Medieval History and Director of the Institute for Austrian Historical Research at the University of Vienna. Of his many influential works, two have previously appeared in English: History of the Goths (1987) and The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples (1997).


List of Illustrations

Translator’s Note

Introduction to the English-Language Edition

Our Story Opens

Part I: From Worms to Basle

1. Conrad II

2. Gisela

3. The Royal Election of Conrad II

4. Coronation, Assumption of Office, and Royal Progress

Part II: Conflicts and Their Resolution

5. Family Ties or Intrafamilial Disputes

6. Sitting Out Conflict: The Dispute over Gandersheim (1025–30/31)

7. Engaging in Conflict: The First Expedition to Italy (1026/27)

8. The Emperor in Germany (1027): Court Diets, Synods, Confidential Discussions, and Compromises

9. Engaging in Conflict: The Second Expedition to Italy (1036–38)

Part III: The Realm

10. The Sovereign

11. The “People”

Part IV: Foreign Policy

12. Bilateral Diplomacy: The Imperial Embassy to Constantinople (1027–29)

13. Conrad’s Policies Toward the Peoples to the Empire’s North and East

14. Consolidation of Sovereignty over Burgundy (1032–38) and the Accord with France

Part V: The Church

15. The Ecclesiastical Policy of Conrad II

16. The Six Archbishoprics of Germany

17. The Most Important Bishoprics North of the Alps

18. Open Conflicts with Bishops

19. Conrad’s Monastic Policy

20. Issues of Canon Law

21. Summary

Part VI: Epilogue

22. Personality and Policies

23. The Emperor’s Life Draws to a Close: Utrecht, June 4, 1039

Appendix: Genealogy of the Early Salians

List of Abbreviations




Introduction to the English-Language Edition

The historian selects his own history from within history.

—Gaston Bachelard, L’eau et les rêves: Essai sur l’imagination de la matière (Paris, 1947), 26

King Frederick II “the Great”—if you will—of Prussia (1712–86) was incensed by the authors of historical studies because he deemed most of them bourgeois “pedants” or “members of the Benedictine congregation of Saint Maur” who presumed to judge long-dead sovereigns and their ministers even though they lacked even the slightest comprehension of political or military issues. There was and still is a grain of truth to that complaint, even though the political landscape has experienced extensive democratization since his day and military matters have attained such importance that they are no longer entrusted to soldiers alone. Even so, “Old Fritz,” as he was called, did have a point: It is difficult for historians to produce an accurate and balanced description of the past dealings and the underlying motives of royal decision makers. It also matters whether the ruler died a century or, as in the case of Conrad II, somewhat less than one thousand years ago. We can imagine some fictive sovereign dying on, say, “June 4, 1905,” but what about Conrad II, who in 1039 “departed this life on the II of the nones of June (in other words, on June 4), the second day of the week (Monday) in the seventh indiction (the seventh year in the fifteen-year cycle used by the Romans to calculate taxes)”? The differences between them extend far beyond that between the levels of effort—not to mention historical and chronological training—necessary to decipher the respective dates. So much time has passed since Conrad’s day that we are justified in wondering whether it is even possible for someone of our day and age to write the biography of an individual who lived in the eleventh century.

The paucity and nature of medieval sources—their supposed or actual disregard of personality and individuality, their penchant for preconceptions and for interpretations that treat the actions as well as the motives of the actors as exemplars—do not provide the sort of material that Europeans, who think of things from a psychological point of view, demand in a biography today. “When it comes to the early Middle Ages, our ability to discern a person’s individuality is limited, and we are often obliged to proceed in a cautious and roundabout manner, primarily by inferring information from the interactions between the person and his environment. . . . The appraisals (of contemporaries) are mostly monotonous recitations of good or evil that focus on a few undifferentiated, typical virtues and vices, with an eye to the presumed consequences—positive and negative—in the hereafter.”

Today, everyone knows—even without having studied psychology—that childhood and adolescence are the formative periods of one’s life. While it is debatable whether “youth is the loveliest age,” as Curt Goetz (d. 1960), a Swiss humorist, once put it, for long stretches of human history it was not treated as a distinct stage, even though youth was one of the ages of man. A person’s early years were of so little interest in the Middle Ages that even the biographer Einhard (d. 840) could assert—no doubt contrary to fact—that he knew nothing about Charlemagne’s childhood and youth.

Next, what about the choice of a spouse, which we find so revealing today? To what extent did an individual in that era allow him- or herself be swayed by personal passion and emotion? All cultures have marriage customs, and the more formalized those customs are, the more informative a deviation from the norm is, the more a conscious violation of the norm—such as, for instance, a woman’s consenting to a bridal abduction—says about an individual’s personality. For example, Carolingian queens were often accused of having committed adultery, but as Johannes Fried so rightly put it, such accusations signaled “crises, not always within the marriage, but always within the kingdom.”

Should our suspicions be not equally aroused by information and appraisals found in our sources that strike us as modern in tone? Thus, we learn that Conrad changed his name upon his election in 1024, dropping the name Cuno in favor of Conrad; the change in his “honor” triggered an “improvement” in his name. In the same way, who in this part of Europe has not heard tell of a Much or Hias hailing from the remotest reaches of the Pitz valley in the Tyrolean Alps of southwestern Austria who, upon receiving a tenured professorship at the University of Innsbruck, suddenly claims that he has always gone by the name of Michael or Matthias?

In this work, we are interested in a single individual from the past. As even Jacques Le Goff (b. 1924)—a proponent of the Annales school of historical thought who has recently published a biography of the saintly French king, Louis IX (1226–70)—stated some years ago, “Sick and tired of abstractions, the investigator of historical structures felt a need for concrete facts. In actuality, he wished to become the sort of historian Marc Bloch said was ‘like a man-eater in a fairy tale: Wherever he smelled the flesh of a human, there he caught the scent of his prey.’ And indeed not just any prey, no longer people within a community, the collectivity of human potential; no, what filled his nostrils was the scent of an individual person, a quite specific historical figure.” “Willingly or unwillingly, in the West today the historian again enjoys to some degree much the same social status and performs much the same function as in the nineteenth century: intellectual, author, national or European celebrity.” Stylistic considerations have also regained importance. “His chances of tapping the full potential of écriture historique [historical writing] are better with a biography, however, than with the other historical genres.”

At the end of the twelfth century, Abbess Herrad of Landsberg commissioned a work titled the Hortus deliciarum, or Garden of Delights, which includes a portrait—rendered in the style of a relief on a Roman gravestone—of each of the sixty nuns in her Alsatian cloister of Odelienberg-Hohenburg. The sixty busts are arranged in six rows, with eleven drawings on each of the lower three rows, and nine on each of upper three. In recognition of her rank, Abbess Herrad alone is depicted as a standing figure, stretching from the bottommost to the topmost of the six rows. Even though there is a separate portrait for each nun, they are barely distinguishable from one another. In fact, the “portraits” are practically identical. The work’s patroness and its artist obviously discerned “the individuality of each nun not in her outward appearance, but elsewhere,” and it is we modern viewers who fail at first glance to find the key to enter this “elsewhere.” Some follow in the footsteps of the nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt and aver that a sense of the individual first developed in the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, in contrast, “[m]an was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category.” The ban on human individuality was first lifted in the Italian city-states of the fifteenth century, as we read at the beginning of “The Development of the Individual,” part 2 of Burckhardt’s famous study The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. If we accept this view, it seems applicable to the series of nuns’ portraits. Consonant with the Anglo-American scholarly tradition, on the other hand, some roll back the onset of the Renaissance to the twelfth century. According to that approach, the discovery of the individual began around 1050 and was complete by the end of the twelfth century. By the way, this is the very same period covered by the eminent Austrian medievalist Heinrich Fichtenau (d. 2000) in his last book, which bears the noteworthy title Heretics and Scholars.

Generally speaking, a historian turns to biography only after he or she has reached a certain stage in life, bolstered by the experience that comes with age. The exception to this rule is Ernst Kantorowicz (d. 1963), who published his life of Emperor Frederick II in 1927 at the age of thirty-two. Whoever has been able to spend years learning to observe, examine, indeed penetrate, one’s fellow creatures begins—like Jacob Burckhardt—to seek out the “individual and general” characteristics of “historical stature”; in doing so, “we fervently wish to become better acquainted with individuality.”

“How enchantingly beautiful this likeness is!” sings Prince Tamino in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. At first glance at her portrait, he falls in love with a girl whom he has never met and yet on whose account he is nonetheless prepared to face the greatest trials. The prince is so captivated that he does not inquire into her paternity—not to speak of that gentleman’s financial status—or into the good reputation and character of his presumptive mother-in-law. In any case, the blessed naïf Papagano has the wit to point out that the portrait, unlike the real thing, lacks hands and feet! At a far remove from the operatic stage, likenesses were also exchanged on the stage of world history; in early modern times, for example, members of the Spanish and Austrian branches of the Hapsburg dynasty exchanged portraits as a prelude to the marriage bonds being brokered by their chancellors. The ancients even believed that the imago imperatoris [image of the emperor] did not merely depict the emperor but actually was the emperor.

Our subject’s physical attributes are also significant, since a biographer must immediately grapple with questions like Was he tall or short? Was she beautiful or plain? Fair or dark? Ready and able to undertake physical exertion? Furthermore, did he or she marry and have children, or was the marriage without male issue or even barren? Was there generational conflict? Did our subject make any personal statements, utter any witticisms, or figure in any anecdotes? Percy Ernst Schramm (d. 1970) studied the witticisms of Charlemagne, Otto III, and Henry IV, and Gerd Althoff relied to no small measure on anecdotes and witticisms in his analysis of “what made a person famous in the Middle Ages.” The latter scholar cited examples of the highly valued quick-wittedness, of “a way with words, be they pointed, ironic, sarcastic or even conceited, [that] rendered one’s partners, opponents, or enemies speechless and cunningly stopped them in their tracks.” Moreover, “holding forth was simply an attribute of lordship, an attitude of dominion in an oral community,” wrote Johannes Fried. “The ritualized word of the king, verbum regis, possessed the force of law.”

Penetrating further, we inquire into the individual’s origins, education, religious devotion, political influence, or even power. Of particular interest are the hero’s or heroine’s relationships with others, particularly family members; in fact, the familial community encompassed the dead as well as the living, since part of an individual’s “kinship mores” involved cultivating the memory of the dead. Furthermore, how did the individual resolve and manage conflict? That topic has garnered increased attention in recent years. Even in periods that may have been marked by “a correlation between minimal interest in individuality and only modest attention to an individual’s training,” we cannot be absolutely sure that conflicts were sufficiently ritualized as to be managed “in a routine manner.” If we were to compare how different individuals resolved conflicts during a given epoch, we probably would be able to identify distinguishing characteristics that might qualify as “individual” in nature. Did the person proceed in the traditional manner or—as in Conrad’s case—employ approaches so novel that they either met with surprisingly swift success or fell flat, forcing him to make amends along traditional lines?

The following study does not purport to be a biography of Conrad II in the fullest sense of the word. That is also true of the intelligent book by Franz-Reiner Erkens, which was published in 1998 as part of a series titled Historische Biographien. While they are learned in tone, these attractive volumes are aimed at a broader readership and must provide their target audience appropriate breadth, structure, and scholarly apparatus, as well as depth of analysis. Given the editorial guidelines for the series, the book’s author is to be congratulated on a remarkable achievement and to be thanked as well for permitting this scholar to consult the work when his own study was approximately four-fifths finished.

Furthermore, the second edition of Werner Goez’s book Lebensbilder aus dem Mittelalter [Biographical Sketches of Medieval Figures] proved to be very helpful. In a mere eighteen pages, Goez successfully paints a convincing as well as stirring portrait of Conrad II. A book titled Kaiser Konrad II. und seine Zeit [The Life and Times of Emperor Conrad II], published not all that long ago, covers more ground than a pure biography—hence the “and Times” in the title —and relies extensively on the two-volume work Jahrbücher des Deutschen Reichs unter Konrad II. [Annals of the German Empire Under Conrad II], published in 1879 and 1884 by Harry Bresslau (d. 1926). This nineteenth-century study was the crown jewel in the series Jahrbücher der deutschen Geschichte: Auf Veranlassung Seiner Majestät des Königs von Bayern: Herausgegeben durch die historische Commission bei der Königl. Akademie der Wissenschaften [Annals of German History: Commissioned by His Majesty the King of Bavaria: Published by the Historical Commission of the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences]. We owe Bresslau a debt of gratitude for a remarkable number of works—including his editions of Conrad’s diplomas and of The Deeds of Conrad II by Wipo—that remain authoritative to this day. In an unsurpassable achievement, he consulted and knowledgeably evaluated German, European, and even non-European historical sources. It took Bresslau fifteen years—one year for each year of Conrad’s reign —to bring this awe-inspiring work to fruition. While the work is structured along chronological lines, it includes many digressions highlighting connections and providing thoroughgoing analysis.

On December 1, 1918—less than one month after the signing of the armistice that ended World War I—Bresslau was expelled from France on the charge of being a “militant Pan-Germanist.” At seventy years of age, the German medievalist, father-in-law of the Protestant theologian and future Nobel Peace–prize winner Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and, lastly, adherent of the—to quote the parlance favored in assimilationist circles at the time—“Mosaic Confession,” that is, Jewish faith, found himself summarily dismissed from his professorship at the University of Strasbourg—founded during the nineteenth-century German occupation of Alsace—and forced “to haul the forty kilos [eighty-eight pounds] of luggage allowed him across the bridge over the Rhine River at Kehl by himself.” In truth, the representatives of the victorious Grande Nation of France treated him ignobly, and the label “militant Pan-Germanist” was not merely overblown but patently unjust. Be that as it may, the general reader today may very well find Bresslau’s point of view and style redolent of German nationalism, and if the Jahrbücher—deservedly reprinted in 1967—were the only work available, the public would understandably be dismissive of Conrad II. And therein lies the first reason for undertaking this study, namely, to tell Conrad’s story in modern language, from a modern perspective, and with an eye to modern modes of interpretation.

The content of the story has also changed over the last 115 years. For instance, we have learned to distinguish between the Cluniac monasticism that arose in Burgundy and the reform movements that took root in German soil: Even though the proponents of the latter types of reform may have sought to approximate the ordo [rule] observed at Cluny, their foundations nevertheless remained imperial monasteries duty-bound to the emperor and, unlike the Cluniac houses, never attained “liberty” from secular power. This distinction was still beyond the ken of Harry Bresslau and his successors. Also, the passage of time has fostered markedly different interpretations of certain issues, such as the social tensions in northern Italy during Conrad’s day.

To no small measure, the same holds true for our understanding of politics. And therein lies the prime reason for a new study of this ruler: Conrad II sometimes resembles a modern politician, and at the same time he presents us moderns with a paradox. Here we have a bearded medieval emperor who let his wife take part in much, if not most, important political decision making, who turned to her for advice and deferred to her opinion. The reigns of Conrad and his son Henry III (1039–56) may have marked the pinnacle of “German imperial grandeur,” as it was once commonly and anachronistically termed, but that is a matter of lesser interest to us. A more pressing issue is that phenomenon we term “political engagement,” the ability to avail oneself of the existing official, social, and economic structures in order to assert one’s own authority and marginalize one’s opponents. While his predecessor and successor both aroused serious and even mortal opposition their whole lives long, Conrad is not known to have been targeted for assassination. It hardly comes as a surprise that one roughly contemporary non-German could attribute the Salian’s sudden and broadly backed rise to imperial power to only one thing, the help of the devil. In our day and age we are hardly satisfied with this sort of explanation, yet even nowadays we speak of someone’s having a “magic touch” in politics, although a politician may work his or her “wizardry” only for a given time.

It is commonly said that a good politician is like a good actor; both of them measure their success in the here and now on the basis of a well-received performance. Hence, we ought not to equate good political instincts with greatness in an individual. Seeking to implement far-reaching decisions through wide-ranging proposals is only rarely good politics, since such plans tend to strike contemporaries as overly burdensome and can be adequately evaluated only by posterity. In his day Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (d. 1898) was successful—in other words, “good”—at foreign affairs, and yet the results were catastrophic. British prime minister Winston Churchill (d. 1965) won World War II and then resigned after losing in the next parliamentary elections. Chancellor Helmut Kohl (b. 1930) brought about the reunification of Germany in 1990, promoted the integration of Germany into Europe, and was voted out of office. Konrad Adenauer (d. 1967), chancellor of West Germany from 1949 to 1963, and Bruno Kreisky (d. 1990), chancellor of Austria from 1970 to 1983, were both known for keeping their ears to the ground and dealing with issues proactively, if possible, or at least reacting very swiftly—for being good tacticians in the short run but also for reversing their decisions if circumstances changed. All of these traits make for good politics, once it is possible to resolve or defuse a conflict and forge an agreement between opposing parties. In short: Good politics involves keeping one’s eye on the ball, not being too short-sighted or looking beyond the immediate horizon; it is the “art of the possible” for a given age.

While we may allege that Conrad and his “indispensable helpmate” Gisela were good politicians, we do not with the same breadth claim that they were great historical figures, that their policies reflected grand political designs, or that we must always sanction or even admire their methods and the ramifications of their actions. To the extent possible, we should of course rise above the moral and hence anachronistic ivory-tower standards of our and bygone ages in making our assessments; those ought to rest instead on a critical reading of the historical sources and our own experience in life. The latter should serve as a reality check, lest—in Procrustean fashion—we be tempted to stretch our interpretations of even the most personal statements to fit some predetermined political framework. Life also teaches us that things never work out the same for two people; in other words, two politicians may appear to be saying or doing the same thing, yet one falls flat on his or her face, while the other is praised to the skies. Our investigation of Conrad II, ruler of the High Middle Ages, will put this theory to the test.

An acknowledgement is also in order here. I am grateful for an amazing stroke of luck that two scholars, having started work on related topics unbeknownst to one another, could become more and more forthcoming with each other as their studies progressed, to the point that they could even exchange their completed manuscripts, from which they derived mutual benefit and support. The book on Henry II by Stefan Weinfurter may, however, have profited less by the exchange than did this biography of Conrad II, since the latter’s author is something of a newcomer to the eleventh century, which cannot be said of Weinfurter.

And yet another acknowledgement is in order, one that readers familiar with medieval scholarship may themselves have already deduced. Just as twenty years ago I was able to apply material found in Reinhard Wenskus’s book Stammesbildung und Verfassung: Das Werden der frühmittelalterlichen “gentes” [Ethnogenesis and Governance: Tribal Formation in the Early Middle Ages] to my own scholarly work on the Goths, so the biography before you attempts to draw concrete lessons from Fichtenau’s work Lebensordnungen des 10. Jahrhunderts [Living in the Tenth Century]. Hence, it is with gratitude that I dedicate Conrad II to the memory of these scholars.

My special thanks go to the translator, Denise A. Kaiser, for her historical and linguistic talents, abiding patience, and effort, and to Keith Monley for his editorial expertise. I also wish to express my gratitude to Peter Potter of the Pennsylvania State University Press, who ventured to publish this book at the recommendation of Professors Rosamond McKitterick, University of Cambridge, and Patrick Geary, UCLA. Finally, I thank the Austrian Ministry for Education, Science, and Culture for generously subsidizing the publication of this book.

Herwig Wolfram

Vienna, Austria

Spring 2005

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