The Renaissance “feud” between the Guelphs and Ghibellines was a major factor in territorial disputes, i.e. people shooting each other, looting, pillaging and so on, for centuries. Modern readers could think of it a bit like Red states/Blue states, Hatfields/McCoys, or those guys on the old Star Trek episode who were black on one side and white on the other… (“But he is black on the LEFT side!!!!”)
Both were extra-extra-Catholic. Both were political factions. Both were originally German, though they swept up most of continental Europe. Each claimed to have marching orders from the Christian God and the Bible, which means the Bible wasn’t given very clear instructions. Maybe there was a signal break-up near the burning bush. Can you hear me now, Moses?
The Holy Roman Football of Piety
If you were snoozing during the early medieval period of your world history class, you may have drowsily wondered what the heck is a Holy Roman Emperor, as opposed to the Roman emperor or the Byzantine emperor or the Bishop of Rome, all of whom claimed that they were ruler of everything on earth. That’s the thing about empires; borders tend to be flexible.
Roman emperors, like Julius Caesar and Caligula, were on their way out once the Goths and Visigoths started burning large bits of Rome. For the ones like Caligula (Nero, Domitian…) the Goths probably did them a favor. For the others, they had to move their office over to Byzantium and become Byzantine Emperors. Constantine was one of the early big poobahs, big enough to have the city named after him.
But Constantinople is not very close to France, and there were still roaming bands of barbarians–ever play Civilization II?–so the pope in the 700s also decided to grant Charlemagne a status as “my extra special Catholic buddy,” the Holy Roman Emperor. What about the Guelphs? I’m getting to that…
The Franks Got to Germany, and the Germans Got in an Argument
After Charlemagne moved on and the pope down in Rome still wanted an emperor closer to himself than to Turkey, he shifted the title from the head of France to the head of Germany. Thus, by 1125, the Holy Roman Emperor was in Germany. But families are families, and most of history can be traced over to disputes over who should cut the turkey at Thanksgiving or bless the wine at Michaelmas or whatever.
There were familial disputes between the House of Welf and the House of Hohenstaufen in Waiblingen. Frederick I, also called Barbarossa, resolved those in part by being the issue of a Welf who married a Waiblingen. And he was a big-time badassed crusader, so he was very much loved by the pope.
But, pretty soon after Barbarossa, the temperature started rising among the Germans and they started squabbling–again! And they dragged the rest of Catholicism into the mix with them. Even though at another point there were multiple popes (three popes for the price of one!!!), the real pope… which one? take your pick… sided with one group of the Germans, the Welf or Guelph part. The rest of the Germans happen to side with the H.R.E. at the time, who was a Ghibelline (from Waiblingen). So, there you go.
Even Dante Can’t Catch a Break
Not only did the city-states line up on different sides of the Guelph and Ghibelline feud, but sometimes the cities themselves divided into factions. Dante got caught up into one of those disputes between White Guelphs and Black Guelphs in Florence.
Because Dante was a White Guelph (or white on the left side!), he was exiled from the city. Florence is still trying to recover from the embarrassment, now that Dante has become an international epic poem superstar. Once Dan Brown starts writing about someone, whoever has thrown shade at them in the past better start backtracking.
The Trans-National Feud Fades into National Feuds
Ultimately, this Catholic-church-wielding political power vs. political-territory-granted-temporary-divine-authority started to crumble as a division. During the Renaissance, it’s true that Guelph and Ghibelline forces faced off constantly. But Spain, France, and England each grew in power as national entities in their own right, rather than representing either the pope or the H.R.E. So the began to fight for territory for themselves. Plus, once Martin Luther and John Calvin came along and threw a wrench into the Catholic mill, the Catholics had plenty of other fronts to fight.
By 1605, so much side-switching and doctrine-waving had been done, that newly-elected Pope Paul V even ended up bearing a coat of arms with a German eagle, representing Ghibelline insignia. The division of G&G sort of faded away.
Besides, the Catholics and Paul V ended up with other things to worry about. He had just met this guy named Galileo.