Visual History of the World




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Artists that Changed the World
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Visual History of the World
First Empires
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The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century


The upheaval that accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome, the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time, great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba, Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.

The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 1 3th—14th century in the Gothic style; the cathedral served for many centuries as the location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.

The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio



The Holy Roman Empire in the High and Late Middle Ages



The Power Politics of the Houses of Habsburg, Luxembourg, and Wittelsbach

After the breakdown of centralized royal authority, local rulers fell back on their authority over their own lands. This led to conflicts of interests between the empire and the individual dynasties.


Following the end of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, a period known as the Interregnum set in. In 1257, a descendent of Philip of Swabia, the Spanish king Alfonso X of Castile, was elected Holy Roman emperor. However, he was just as incapable of gaining recognition as his rival, the English claimant, Richard, earl of Cornwall. The absence of both these foreign monarchs made it possible for the local clerical and secular princes to extend their own power.
Gradually, a group of the most important princes, the Kurfiirsten, emerged and claimed the exclusive right to elect the king.

Following the death of Richard of Cornwall in 1273, the princes elected 1 Count Rudolf of Habsburg as the new king.

Although Rudolf came from a respected and wealthy family, he did not belong to the high nobility.

The princes thought they could easily control him, but he energetically set to work eradicating irregularities in the kingdom, for example, by combating the 2 robber barons.

He also established a strong territorial power base for his family.

1 Rudolf of Habsburg's tomb in Speyer

2 Looting of a village by robber barons, quill lithography,
15th century


Rudolf I defeated Otakar II of Bohemia in 1278 and 4 invested his sons as the dukes of Austria and Styria, territories that had been occupied by the Bohemians after the extinction of the Babenbergs.

Following Rudolf's death in 1291 and the brief reign of Adolf of Nassau through 1298, Rudolf's son was elected King Albert I.

He ruled only ten years, however, 3 assassinated in 1308 by his own nephew, which shattered the Habsburgs' plans for a hereditary monarchy.

The elector Baldwin of Trier succeeded in having his brother Henry VII of Luxembourg elected king.

Henry's son 5 John married the heiress of the kingdom of Bohemia, which from then on became the territorial base of Luxembourg power.

4 Rudolf I invests his sons with Austria
and Styria in 1282, book illustration,
16th century

3 Murder of Albert I of Habsburg,
copper engraving, 17th century

5 Henry VII of Luxembourg invests his son
John with Bohemia, after his marriage,
wood engraving, 19th certury


6 Louis IV (the Bavarian), from the House of Wittelsbach, beat a rival Habsburg candidate in the next election, becoming king in 1314.

He was 7 crowned emperor by the people of Rome in 1328, despite having been excommunicated by Pope John XXII in 1324 for having supported an antipope.

In 1338, the German electors finally forbade the popes from influencing the election of German kings at the Diet of Rense. Because Louis was too actively enlarging his power base, the princes chose Charles IV— the grandson of Henry VII and son of John of Bohemia from the House of Luxembourg—as rival king and Holy Roman Emperor in 1346. He also gained the crown of Lombardy in 1355. When Louis died in 1347, Charles became the sole ruler.

6 Emperor Louis the Bavarian defeats the rival claimant of the throne, Frederick of Austria,
book illustration, 14th century

7 Louis IV the Bavarian is crowned emperor by layman
Sciarra Colonna in Rome in 1328, painting, 19th century



The Rise of the Habsburgs


After the end of the Luxembourgs, the Habsburgs were able to establish themselves as the imperial dynasty until the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. Their actual power, however, was based on the family estates, which they enlarged through a judicious marriage diplomacy.


In the 14 "Golden Bull" of 1356, Charles IV redefined the election process of the king, specifying three elector archbishops (Mainz, Trier, and Cologne) and four secular 9 electors (Palatine of the Rhine, Saxony, Brandenburg, and Bohemia).

Without the involvement of the pope, the king would be crowned in Aachen and thereby become emperor as well. The seven electors had influence on imperial policies as well as rights within their own territories.

14 First page of the "Golden Bull,"
the empire's constitutional law,
enacted by Charles IV in 1356

9 The seven electors, book illustration, ca. 1350


Charles had his capital 11 Prague magnificently improved and founded the first university on German soil there in 1348.

11 The Charles Bridge in Prague
with the Lesser Quarter Bridge Towers,
built in the 13th—14th centuries

Charles's son Wenceslas was deposed by the electors because of his lack of interest in the affairs of the empire.

Wenceslas's brother 13 Sigismund, the German king from 1410, spent his energy m numerous conflicts.

Although he was able to end the Great schism of the papacy through his intervention at the 10 Council of Constance in 1414-1418, he was unable to defeat the Ottomans in Hungary, an area he had acquired through marriage.

The wars against the Hvissites in Bohemia where he had succeeded his brother Wenceslas as king in 1419, distracted him from urgent domestic problems in the empire.

13 Sigismund of Luxembourg,
painting by Pisanello, ca. 1433

10 Cardinals leaving the conclave
after the election of Martin V at the
Council of Constance,
book illustration, 15th ñ



12 Frederick III, painting, 15th century

After the death of Sigismund in 1437, his son-in-law, the Habsburg 8 Albert II of Austria, inherited Sigismund's lands.

8 Albert II of Austria's seal

But due to Albert's early death in 1439 and that of his son Laszlo V (Posthumus) in 1457, the Habsburgs lost both Bohemia and Hungary.

Only in the empire and in the Austrian hereditary lands was Albert's cousin Emperor 12 Frederick III able, with great difficulty, to hold authority.

Frederick's son Maximilian I, called the "Last Knight," acquired sovereignty over the prosperous Netherlands through his marriage to Mary of Burgundy in 1477, which he was also able to defend successfully against French attacks. In the empire, where he succeeded his father in 1493, his reforms failed in the initial stages, but he was more successful in his marital diplomacy. The marriage of his son Philip the Handsome to the heiress of the Spanish kingdom and the double wedding of his grandchildren Ferdinand and Mary with the heirs of Hungary and Bohemia laid the foundation for the rise of the Habsburgs as a great power that would culminate in the world empire of Charles V, who became emperor in 1519 after the death of his grandfather Maximilian I.



Adage about the marriage diplomacy of the Habsburgs

Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube!—

"May others make war, you, lucky Austria, marry!"

Maximilian I with his family: his son Philip the Handsome of Castille and his wife Mary of Burgundy, first row; his grand-sons, the future emperors Ferdinand I and Charles V, as well as Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia, painting, ca. 1515




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