Late Medieval Italy
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Late Medieval Italy

Throughout the later middle ages Northern Italy continued to be divided into a large number of small independent city-states. The most important were Milan, Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Siena, and Venice. These city-states were often under attack from the Holy Roman Emperors, who wanted to take them over. The people who wanted to stay independent were called Guelfs, and the people who wanted to be part of the Holy Roman Empire were called Ghibellines (GIBB-uh-leens).

The Popes continued to rule central Italy, but there was a lot of fighting between different candidates for Pope. Often there were two popes at the same time (then you call one of them the anti-pope). The kings and queens of the Holy Roman Empire, France, and Hungary supported first one Pope, then another.

In southern Italy, the descendants of the Norman kings were also struggling for independence from the Holy Roman Emperors (that is, basically from Germany). In 1194, the aftermath of the Third Crusade, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI took control of southern Italy. After Henry died, his widow Constance ruled Sicily as regent for their son Friedrich II. Constance died four years later, and the Pope took over as regent. But once Friedrich grew up, he ruled Italy and Sicily on his own, treating them as far more important than his land in Germany. Friedrich spoke German, Italian, French, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. As an educated man, he founded the University of Naples in 1224 AD as the first public university, where salaries were paid by the emperor, rather than the church. That was just in time for Thomas Aquinas to study there. In general, Friedrich didn't get along with the Pope, who didn't like being sandwiched in between Friedrich's German and Italian land; Friedrich II was excommunicated four times, once while leading the Sixth Crusade. Friedrich hired Jewish scholars to translate medical and scientific books like those of ibn Rushd from Arabic to Latin, and he himself wrote a book about falconry. He started a zoo, which had an elephant, giraffes, cheetahs, and leopards. The Hafsids in Tunis paid a lot of money to Friedrich II to stop his attacks, and he also made a lot of money selling Sicilian wheat and barley to the Hafsids, and generally encouraging trade with Tunis. Friedrich II died at 56 of dysentery, in 1250 AD.

After Friedrich died, there was a war between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperors about who would rule southern Italy. In the 1260s, Charles of Anjou conquered the area, moving the capital from Palermo in Sicily to Naples, on the Italian mainland. Charles was Blanche of Castile's youngest son, Saint Louis' youngest brother. He held Provence in southern France through his marriage, but he wanted more. Once he conquered southern Italy and Sicily, Charles worked to get as much money as he could out of both Provence and Italy (and from the Hafsids), but he didn't worry much about building roads or universities. Before he died in 1285, Charles lost Sicily to the Spanish rulers of Aragon, though he kept Naples.

Charles left Naples to his son, Charles II, who actually lived in Naples and made the city richer again (and met Dante). Charles II died in turn in 1309, and left Naples to his son Robert the Wise. Robert gradually increased his power so that by 1317 he controlled all of Italy, and when the Holy Roman Emperors tried to come down to Italy he would force them back up into Germany.

In 1343, when Robert the Wise died, he left power to his fifteen-year-old granddaughter Joanna. Northern Italy immediately broke away and became independent, and Joanna only tried to control Naples. Her husband Andrew was the son of Elizabeth of Poland, and when Joanna took power for herself, he complained to his mother, who came to Naples to try to get him into power. But the result was that Andrew was killed. After several more husbands, Joanna finally got control of her kingdom by 1371, and ruled peacefully and well (keeping the university and the zoo going) until 1380, when a group of Hungarians invaded again. They captured and killed Joanna in 1384. Their leader, Charles, ruled Naples until Elizabeth of Hungary killed him two years later; then his wife Margaret ruled Naples as regent for their son Ladislaus. When Ladislaus grew up, he took power, and tried to reunite Italy again, with only limited success. After Ladislaus died childless in 1414, his younger sister Joanna II ruled Naples, with the help of a series of husbands and boyfriends, whom she killed when they got out of hand.

After 1435, as Joanna II died without children, southern Italy fell under the control of the kings of Spain, first John of Aragon and then his son Ferdinand of Aragon (of Ferdinand and Isabella). When the Holy Roman Emperors then got control of Spain, they also got control of southern Italy and Sicily. But to Spanish and German rulers, southern Italy, like North Africa under the Hafsids, was just a source of money, and they charged everybody such high taxes that Sicily and Southern Italy, from being rich and powerful, became very poor.

Late Medieval Germany
More about Renaissance Italy

Bibliography and further reading about medieval Italy:

Late Medieval Germany
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 24 April, 2017