Köln: politics and economics


Köln experienced a number of political changes and continuities throughout the late Roman and early medieval periods. Most information about politics in early medieval Köln center around King Otto I and his brother Bruno the Great. Bruno combined both secular and ecclesiastical power. This made Köln an example of the increasing entanglement of religious and political institutions in the Holy Roman Empire.

Köln thrived in late antiquity due to its advantageous location on the Rhine. However, it became embroiled in political turmoil when Claudius Silvanus, a Frankish commander in the Roman army, staged a short-lived rebellion against the emperor Constantius II in the year 355. After declaring himself emperor, he ruled his de facto empire from Köln for all of 28 days before being assassinated by his own men under orders from Constantius II himself [1]. It remained a member of the Roman empire until 462 when it became occupied by the Franks. However, due to its size and importance during the Roman Era, it remained a significant city into the early middle ages.

During his reign, due to familial conflicts, King Otto I made a habit of redistributing power among his vassals by taking power from other members of the royal family and giving it to his dukes and clergymen whom he deemed more loyal to the empire [2]. This practice culminated in 953 when Otto I established the archdiocese of Köln and appointed his brother Bruno to the archbishopric. Otto I did so by taking advantage of certain loopholes in canon law that allowed him to influence the outcomes of episcopal elections. In addition, Bruno found himself exempt from Otto I’s redistributions of power due to his support of Otto during the revolt of Conrad the Red [3].

Soon after gaining this position, Bruno began to consolidate political power under his archbishopric. After instating his own brother as archbishop, Otto I was able to increase his own political clout in the city by essentially vassalizing the clergy [4]. Over the course of his thirty-seven year reign, Otto I tripled the size of the chapel of Cologne by appointing large numbers of clergy members from secular roles in society, thereby blurring the line between the church and the state [5]. Indeed, Bruno was the prime example of this new order as he served as both archbishop and duke of Köln. Bruno and, by extension, Otto I had a vice-like grip on the political climate in the city of Köln. Because of Köln’s great political and economic significance within the region, Bruno’s high status in the city made him one of the most powerful people in the kingdom after the king [6]. The reforms made by Otto I tied the church more closely to the state and heavily politicized clerical positions.


The economy in the city of Köln revolved around the Rhine. Its location on the river allowed Köln to fully take advantage of the trade benefits afforded by such a location. From the late Roman era through the early middle ages the city was a major trade hub in central Europe as its merchants were able to easily transport goods on the river as well as enforce taxes upon foreigners using the river to conduct their own operations. As a result, Köln found itself the most economically powerful city in its region for much of this time span.

During the late Roman period, the Köln economy was at least partially dependent on the production and trade of glasswork. Archaeological evidence suggests that the city was home to a number of glass furnaces that were used for this exact purpose and further evidence suggests that the materials produced were distributed across much of the Rhineland, presumably by means of trade and perhaps plunder as well [7].

For much of the early medieval period, the agricultural economy of Köln was stagnant despite advances in agricultural technology. However, Köln’s location on the banks of the Rhine made it a key trading hub of north central Europe. Its convenient location allowed it to fully take advantage of the large quantity of traders sailing along the river by instituting a staple right that required traders traveling through Köln to offer up their wares to sell in the city for a set period of time before they were allowed to continue along the river. In addition, monetary and material tributes from Slavic peoples to the east supplied even more income to the city. Thus, Köln was very economically dependent on its status as a trade hub rather than a self-sufficient agrarian or pastoral establishment [8].

By the late 8th and early 9th centuries bishoprics and monasteries across much of east Francia, including Cologne, had become powerful enough in their own right that they began to have a direct effect on their local economies. Religious institutions required a number of expensive resources, including land, robes, vessels, and building materials for churches and libraries. This became especially evident in Köln after multiple churches burned down in the late 9th century in a fire that damaged much of the city [9].

[1] W. Den Boer, “THE EMPEROR SILVANUS AND HIS ARMY,” Acta Classica 3 (1960), 105-09.

[2] Joseph Fleckenstein, Early Medieval Germany, trans. Bernard S. Smith, Amsterdam: North-Holland (1978), 120-121.

[3] Fleckenstein, 123.

[4] Norman Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, New York: HarperCollins (1993), 213.

[5] Fleckenstein, 122.

[6] C. Stephen Jaeger, The Origins of Courtliness: Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals, 939-1210, University of Pennsylvania Press (1985), 22-23.

[7] Anna-Barbara Follmann-Schulz, “THE HAMBACH GLASS PRODUCTION IN THE LATE ROMAN PERIOD,” Glass of the Roman World,  Oxbow Books (2015), 23.

[8] Timothy Reuter, Germany in the Early Middle Ages, c. 800-1056, Longman (1998), 95.

[9] Reuter, 95-96.


  1. kitchenc

    Interesting stuff about Bruno the Great in the tenth century, he was the brother of the king who became his most powerful vassal.

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/754594 (Mar. 5)
    Archbishop controlled entire city in tenth century
    https://books.google.com/books?id=0qiYM2_HhJgC&lpg=PP1&dq=isbn%3A9780060925536&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false (Mar. 5) (page 213)
    Bruno the Great
    Otto I made the clergy his vassal

  2. Sam Nozaki

    Just added an introductory paragraph for our section about economics and I also went through and cleaned up all of our citations and turned them into footnotes. I think the only thing we need at this point is maybe a picture or two to add some color to the page.


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