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The name Thuringia is given to a large part of Central Germany, bounded on the west by the Werra River, on the east by the Saale, on the north by the Harz Mountains, and on the south by the Thuringian Forest. The extent of territory is not exactly defined. Besides the Thuringian states, which include the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, the Duchies of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Saxe-Altenburg, and Saxe-Meiningen, Thuringia comprises some parts of Prussian territory, as the cities of Erfurt, Merseburg, Naumburg, etc.; the two principalities of Schwarzburg and the two principalities of Reuss extend beyond the natural limits of Thuringia, especially in the south and east. The early inhabitants of Thuringia were a German tribe called Hermunduri; about A.D. 420 they became known as Thuringians. The powerful kingdom of the Thuringians, which at the beginning of the sixth century extended to the Danube, was overthrown in 531 by the Franks. Christianity had been introduced in various places through the intermarriage of the royal families of the Thuringians and the Visigoths. The Gospel was preached in Southern Thuringia by the Apostles of the Franks, Kilian and his two companions Coloman and Totnan, and in Northern Thuringia by Willibrord, the Apostle of the Frisians; but these missionaries had little success. The real Apostle of Thuringia is St. Boniface. From the monasteries of Fulda and Hersfeld in Hesse, Christianity spread throughout this region. In 742 St. Boniface established Erfurt as the See of Thuringia, making it an important centre of civilization. After the death of the first Bishop of Erfurt, St. Adelar, the diocese was suppressed and Thuringia was united with the Archdiocese of Mainz . The episcopal assistants of the Archbishop of Mainz, who since the fourteenth century had been auxiliary bishops, resided at Erfurt and in the course of time became almost entirely independent of Mainz. The extreme southern part of Thuringia always belonged to the diocese of Wurzburg, the extreme northern to the Diocese of Halberstadt, and the central or main part to Erfurt-Mainz; in the tenth century Eastern Thuringia was divided between the newly-found Dioceses of Merseburg and Zeitz-Naumburg.

The first monastery established by St. Boniface in Thuringia proper was Ohrdruf, now a city of the Duchy of Saxe-Gotha. Contrary to canon law, no church tithes were paid by the inhabitants of Thuringia up to the time of the Reformation, and they obstinately maintained this right, that had become theirs by custom, against the Archbishop of Mainz. The tribal characteristics of the Thuringians gradually disappeared. The southern Thuringians were absorbed by the Franks, the northern Thuringians adopted the character and racial peculiarities of the Saxons, whose territory closely adjoined theirs. In 804 Charlemagne established the Thuringian mark as a defence against the advance of the Slavs. In the tenth century the country was seized by the Duke of Saxony, and during the reign of Emperor Otto I it came under the suzerainty of the Margraves of Meissen. The Saxon dynasty founded the monasteries of Nordhausen, Memleben, and Wahlbeck. In the eleventh century a family of counts from Franconia arose to great importance in Thuringia. The ancestor of this family was Louis the Bearded (d. 1056). His son Louis the Springer built the Castle of Wartburg near Eisenach. In 1089 he founded the Benedictine Abbey of Reinhardsbrunn near Friedrichroda, which was the burial place of the Thuringian landgraves until 1440. This monastery, which has become known through a series of much controverted historical works called the "Reinhardsbrunner Annalen", was badly damaged in the Peasants War of 1525 and was turned into a hunting castle in 1543; it now belongs to the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha . Other important Benedictine abbeys founded by the landgraves during the eleventh century were the Abbeys at Heiligenstadt and Saalfeld, and during the twelfth century those at Paulinzella, Gosek, and Bosau. The Cistercian Abbeys of Volkenroda, Pforta, and Georgenthal were of great value in civilizing the country, especially Eastern Thuringia.

In 1130 the Emperor Lothair appointed Louis I (d. 1140), son of Louis the Springer (d. 1123), Landgrave of Thuringia. Landgrave Louis IV of Thuringia (1217-27) married St. Elizabeth of Hungary ; he was succeeded by his brother Henry (d. 1247), with whom the first dynasty of Thuringian landgraves became extinct. The war of succession which now broke out raged until 1263, when the branch of the Wettin family that ruled Saxe-Meissen assumed control of Thuringia. In 1440 a quarrel arose as to the possession of the country, and by the family compact made at Leipzig in 1485 Thuringia was assigned to the Ernestine branch of the house of Wettin. Thuringia now formed a constituent part of the Electorate of Saxony , where the great schism of the sixteenth century had its beginnings. As early as 1520 the Catholic Faith was abolished, priests that remained loyal were driven away and churches and monasteries were largely destroyed, especially during the Peasants War of 1525. The Anabaptists found many adherents in Thuringia, particularly at Mulhausen where the founder of the sect, Thomas Munzer, laboured for it. Within the borders of Thuringia the Catholic Faith was maintained only in the district called Eichsfeld, which was ruled by the Archbishop of Mainz, and to a small degree in the city and vicinity of Erfurt, a result also due to the energetic measures of this archbishop. By the Capitulation of Wittenberg of 1547 that closed the Smalkaldic War, John Frederick the Magnanimus lost both the electoral dignity and the country of Saxe-Wittenberg, retaining only Thuringia, which was partitioned by his sons into numerous duchies (see SAXE-ALTENBURG; SAXE-COBURG AND GOTHA; SAXE-MEININGEN; SAXE WEIMAR-EISENACH). While Thuringia still remained a landgravate, there were a number of independent counts and nobles in the country whose possessions were finally absorbed either by the Saxon-Thuringian duchies or by Prussia. Only the principalities of Schwarzburg and the principalities of Reuss have remained independent.

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