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But as dark days came over Germany, after the fall of the Hohenstauffens, the bloom of her knightly poetry faded, and another style, chiefly didactic or mystical, but of much lower poetic merit, took its place.

Perplexed and troubled indeed must have been many hearts in the trials that now fell on Germany. Frederick II., the last of the Hohenstauffens, a wise and brave prince, a patron of the large cities and of learning, and a successful crusader, died in 1250; and for twenty-three years Germany was without a settled head, until the choice of the princes devolved on Rudolph of Hapsburg. To a great extent every man did that which was right in his own eyes; and as there existed a numerous class of returned crusaders and unemployed soldiers, the smaller castles all over the country were soon transformed into robber-strongholds, whose inhabitants lived by levying a sort of black-mail on the merchants and peasants whom they despised. The great cities alone were able to protect themselves; they purchased or assumed their freedom from the lords who still asserted manorial rights over them, and leagued together to defend it, forming the Swabian league in the South and the Hanseatic in the North; and from this time onwards we find them sending deputies to the diet, and recognised as an independent portion of the empire. Rudolph of Hapsburg did his best to restore order, and destroyed, 70 it is said, in Thuringia alone seventy of the robber-castles, whose ruins still add to the picturesqueness of that region of wooded hills and romantic glens. But the twenty years of his reign were but an interval of peace amid a succession of storms. During the first half of the fourteenth century the distractions of Germany reached their height. There were rival emperors at home, rival popes abroad, and bitter conflicts between the civil and ecclesiastical powers. On the 25th November, 1314, two emperors, Frederick of Austria and Louis of Bavaria, were crowned at once; and for eight years, until the battle of Mühldorff in 1322, a desolating warfare between their respective partisans was carried on all over the country. While the struggle lasted the Pope declined to pronounce decisively in favour of either candidate, but was supposed to lean to the side of Louis of Bavaria. When, however, Louis was left master of the field, the Pope refused to acknowledge him, unless he consented in the fullest terms, to hold the empire as a fief of the Holy See. To this Louis would not accede, and he was supported by the diet, who gave him their undivided vote, and at last declared that the unanimous choice of the country was the true source of the imperial dignity, and sufficed to bestow it without any consent of the Pope. The Pope now laid Germany under an interdict, which was not removed from some districts for twenty-six years. During an interdict all the ordinary ministrations of religion were suspended; no church was open, no bell was heard, no sacrament but those of baptism and extreme unction was administered.

The Flagellants

To these social and spiritual calamities were added, as is often the case in times of 71 political convulsion, natural ones. Germany was visited with earthquakes, plagues of grasshoppers or locusts, and bad harvests, in the train of which came that fearful pestilence known as the Black Death, which swept over Europe in the middle of this century, and the full extent of which we are only now beginning to appreciate. It passed over Germany in 1348, bringing the usual accompaniments of such terrible visitations, in lawlessness, outbursts of despair, and some scattered examples of heroic devotion. It was no wonder that men's minds grew unsettled. Some believed that the last times had come, and that the end of the world was at hand. Some looked for a Messiah in the person of the "Priest-hater," Frederick II., who was to rise from the dead, do justice, humble the clergy, and lay down his crown on the Mount of Olives. Some thought only of averting the wrath of God in the present, and so that strange epidemic of religious frenzy sprang up, which brought into all the highroads and market-places of Europe the ghastly processions of the Flagellants and the White Hoods. Hundreds of either sex wandered in bands from town to town, half-naked, or clothed in white shirts spotted with blood. On reaching a town they proceeded to the church, and after a service, if they could have one, formed into a circle, in which they paced round in pairs singing their wild chant:

"Now raise your hands to God, and cry

That this great death may pass us by:

Now raise your arms to God, and call

That He have mercy on us all."

They then adjured the crowd of spectators to imitate 72 their penance, and finally, casting themselves on the ground, scourged each other till they were weary. On their way from town to town they sang hymns and sequences in German, exhorting the people to repentance; and it is certainly a fact that the use of hymns in the vernacular becomes much more common from this time onwards, no doubt partly from their being thus introduced into many parts hitherto unacquainted with them. The mode of life of these Flagellants, however, led in some cases to acts of license, which by degrees turned the popular feeling strongly against them, and so they vanish from our sight.

The Mystics

In such times as these it must have been difficult for men not to be either fanatics, like these poor Flagellants, or altogether indifferent to the religion which presented itself in such a shape as it wore then, when rival Popes disputed the Headship of Christendom, and the Papacy appeared as the enemy of civil authority and political liberty; while the bishops and most of the richer monastic clergy lived lives of self-indulgence and worldly ambition. But, like the remnant in old days that had not bowed the knee to Baal, so now there grew up in various parts of the country a set of men who formed themselves into no sect, but who kept alive the flame of love and faith and hope in many hearts where it had else died out. The names best known to us (though many others are still preserved) are those of Eckhardt and Tauler, especially the latter, and in the next century the same tone of thought and piety meets us again in the works attributed to the more famous Thomas à Kempis.

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