History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Charles IV—the Step-Father of the Empire

Although their leader was now dead, Lewis's friends and followers still refused to acknowledge Charles as ruler. So they elected first Edward III of England, and then Frederick, Marquess of Meissen, to be king. But both refused. Then they chose Gunther, Count of Schwarzburg, who accepted the crown. He was a brave knight and splendid soldier, and for some months he held his own gallantly against Charles. He was a dangerous rival and Charles knew it. So he fought him in every way, not alone with the sword and spear, but with gold.

He scattered broadcast gold and promises, titles and honours, so that many forsook Gunther. But in spite of these desertions Gunther kept a brave front. Then he fell ill. Poison, some say, was at work. He could fight no longer. Sick in mind and body, he gave up the struggle and renounced his right to the throne for the sum of 20,000 francs. But he was a dying man, and neither gold nor kingdom could avail him more. And so only a few months after his election he died.

Charles had indeed bought the kingdom rather than conquered it, but after Gunther's death he reigned without a rival.

And now, no sooner had the country escaped the miseries of civil war, than it had to suffer a still more terrible evil. This was the Black Death, a dreadful plague which had been brought from the East in trading vessels. It swept Europe from end to end; for three years Germany was made desolate by it. Whole families, whole villages, whole towns were wiped out.

At the first sign of the dreaded disease the rich fled. But often they carried with them the seeds of the evil from which they tried to escape. They died even as they fled, often from sheer terror. Many a strong castle stood silent and empty, with no knight to guard its walls, no knave to serve in hall, no page in bower. For all lay dead of the fearful plague, leaving no last survivor to tell the awful tale of the miseries endured. No spot on land was safe. Even upon the sea fugitives found no safety, and many a richly laden vessel tossed here and there upon the waves, with not a living soul on board to guide its course, all being stricken down by the fell disease.

In this dreadful time all bonds of love seemed broken, and both men and women fled from their nearest and dearest, leaving them to die alone and untended. Some who escaped the plague went mad with horror and terror. Fear and greed stalked through the land, hand in hand with death. Some in their greed for gold would consent for great sums of money to watch by the sick. But many a time they would take the money and leave the plague-stricken folk to die untended.

They died by hundreds and by thousands. The graveyards were all too narrow to hold them, and so great trenches were dug outside the city walls, and into these dreadful graves, in haste and fear, the dead were cast. Grass grew in the streets; flocks wandered shepherdless; unreaped, the harvest rotted in the fields.

The doctors of the time were few and ignorant, and they were powerless to stay the plague. But there were many rogues who pretended to have found cures, and who sold worthless medicines for great sums of money. Many thus grew rich, only themselves to be seized suddenly by the dread disease, and be forced to leave their ill-gotten gains and gold.

Many looked upon the Black Death as a punishment from God. Haggard and gaunt they wandered through the land calling upon men to repent of their sins, and humble themselves before the Almighty.

Thus arose the strange order of the Flagellants or whippers. Every man of the order carried at his girdle a terrible little scourge with iron-pointed ends, and twice daily, having worked themselves into a religious fury, they scourged themselves until the blood ran and their bodies were covered with wounds. Half mad with zeal to turn aside God's wrath, from town to town they marched in a piteous procession. In front lighted candles and splendid banners of silk and gold were carried. Behind came the grim procession. Barefoot, with garments marked with a red cross and stained with their own blood, they marched two by two, chanting mournful hymns.

Like vexed spirits they passed through all the land in restless haste, for their vows bound them never to spend more than one night in any town. So from one infected place to another they flitted, often spreading the disease which by their frenzied penance they hoped to stay.

The Flagellants punished themselves. They rejoiced in their own martyrdoms. But the fury of the plague was not stayed; it yielded to neither prayers nor penance, but continued through winter frosts and summer suns. The wrath of God, it seemed, was not thus to be appeased.

Then dreadful doubts laid hold upon the people. Perhaps, after all, said some, this thing had not been caused by God, but by a foe. So the people, filled with terror and unrest as they were, sought some new cause for their agony. Soon they found a scapegoat on which to wreak their fury. It was noised abroad that the Jews had caused the plague. They, it was said, had joined in a general plot to kill the Christians, and had poisoned all the springs and wells.

In this time of tumult and frenzy, when terror had robbed men of all sense of justice, such a lie was only too readily believed. And so a terrible persecution of the Jews began. They were robbed of their goods and lands, their houses were sacked and burned, they themselves were put to death by hundreds and by thousands. They were tortured, they were cut in pieces, they were burned alive, and no man pitied them. So terrible were their sufferings that many put themselves to death, with their wives and children. "It is better to fall into the hands of God," they said, "than into the hands of the Christians."

This persecution of the Jews is one of the most cruel the world has ever seen. And it was not only the mad belief that they had caused the plague which roused men against them. It was greed too, for men were jealous of their wealth. "Their money was the poison which slew the Jews," said a writer of the time. "Had the Jews been poor," said another, "and had the nobles owed them nothing, they would have never been burned."

But at length, so horrible did the persecution become, that the nobles themselves were moved to pity, and even the Pope took the part of the poor Jews. But there were few left alive in Germany when the fury of hatred had worn itself out.

The plague, too, wore itself out. "And then," says an old writer, "the world began again to be merry, and men made unto themselves new garments and sang new songs."

Charles IV, like so many kings before him, journeyed to Rome and was there crowned by the Pope. But he had no dreams of Empire. The old Roman Empire was dead, he said, and would never again be brought to life.

He was cunning and selfish, and he also loved money. He had no wish to waste it in a useless attempt to govern Italy. So for gold he sold all that was left of the rights of Empire to the cities and Italian nobles, and as soon as possible he left Italy, and hurried back to Germany, followed by the scorn of many noble Italians. "You carry back with you both the iron and the golden crown," cried the great poet Petrarch, "but the title of Emperor is empty. You, Emperor of the Romans, will be known only as the King of Bohemia."

After his return from Italy, Charles issued the decree for which his name is best remembered. This was called the Golden Bull. It received this name from the colour of its great seal, and it was almost as important for the German Empire as the Great Charter was for us. For it formed the groundwork of the laws for more than 400 years. One of its chief aims was to put an end to the strife over the election of the Emperor, and to make the law so plain and clear that the choosing of rival Emperors would be impossible.

And one very surprising thing is that in all the Golden Bull there is not a word about the Pope or his claims. Indeed there is no mention of Italy at all. This shows two things; that German rule over Italy was really at to end, and that the Pope's power over Germany was growing very weak.

Yet towards the end of his life Charles himself broke the rules of his own Golden Bull, and yielded in all sorts of ways to the Pope's demands in order to win the crown for his son Wenceslaus. He at last succeeded; and before Charles died, his son Wenceslaus was chosen to succeed him.

As has been said, Charles was greedy of money and of land, and he spent his last years adding to his own possessions. He cared little for the welfare of the Empire and of his subjects at large, but he loved his own special kingdom of Bohemia. He made the capital, Prague, both strong and beautiful, and founded there the first German university. Indeed he did so much for Bohemia that a later Emperor (Maximilian I) called him "The Father of Bohemia and the Stepfather of the Empire." "Germany," said the same Emperor, "never suffered from a more pestilent plague than the reign of Charles IV."