Books feature

The Holy Roman Empire has been much maligned

The vast, sprawling entity, generally considered a byword for inefficiency, actually worked remarkably well, according to Peter H. Wilson

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History Peter H. Wilson

Allen Lane, pp.1008, £35, ISBN: 9781846143182

Last month in the Financial Times, Tony Barber closed a gloomy summary of the European Union’s future with this comparison:

Like the Holy Roman Empire which lasted for 1,000 years before Napoleon put it out of its misery in 1806, the EU may not disintegrate but slip into a glacial decline, its political and bureaucratic elites continuing faithfully to observe the rites of a confederacy bereft of power and relevance.

This vivid comparison has much to commend it. Both institutions defy definition. As Voltaire sneered in 1756, ‘it’s not holy, not Roman and not an empire’. The greatest student of the Holy Roman Empire, Johann Jacob Moser, concluded in his 1776 study:

We have various kinds of lands, various forms of government, with estates and without them, imperial towns, a nobility of whom some are immediate [the ones who can appeal directly to the emperor], subjects of all different sorts, and a thousand other such things — to think, for oneself, what good is it here?

Today’s successors to Moser cannot decide if the EU is a union of states or a superstate. It rests on treaties among the members but also on several hundred thousand pages of the acquis communautaire: decisions, resolutions, directives and judgments by various bodies in the EU itself.

These similarities may well account for the recent publication of two superb but very different studies of the Old Reich: Joachim Whaley’s 2012 Germany and the Holy Roman Empire and Peter H. Wilson’s The Holy Roman Empire. Whaley’s two volumes cover the years from 1493 to 1806, while Wilson’s book covers the entire 1,000 years in one volume. Whaley works within a chronological framework; Wilson attempts something very ambitious — to treat the history by categories.

The Holy Roman Empire began symbolically in 800 ad, when Charlemagne, the Carolingian king, received an ‘imperial’ crown from the Pope; and that union of church and state gave it a special status. Within this loosely defined geographic area over the centuries, hundreds of small princes claimed to be ‘sovereign’ in their territories, and there were the ‘free cities’, sovereign prince archbishops, prince bishops, prince abbots, secular princes, counts and imperial knights and even imperial villages. The map looked like a crazy jigsaw puzzle.

The establishment of the Habsburg family after 1493 as permanent holders of the imperial title gave new prestige and stability to the imperial crown but complicated its position, since the Habsburgs had huge domains outside the empire. At the same time the kings of Sweden and Denmark had domains inside the empire and gained representation in its institutions. The sheer number of recognised entities offered opportunities for aggrandisement through marriage or inheritance, and even the smallest of princes had claims. No wonder that by the age of reason in the 18th century the system of rule looked antiquated and absurd.

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Wilson’s history represents the culmination of a lifetime of research and thought, and in its scope and depth of detail is an astonishing scholarly achievement. The author moves from the grand themes to detail with felicity. He adds important insights on the empire’s Italian dimensions. The kingdom of Savoy, the main Italian power in the unification of Italy in 1861, belonged to the old Reich and the Duchy of Savoy’s

position within the former German kingdom was not entirely meaningless, since it sustained influence within the empire… Savoy’s dukes either attended in person or sent a representative to every Reichstag between 1541 and 1714, and they accepted jurisdiction of the empire’s other supreme court, the Reichs-kammergericht, over themselves as imperial Estates.

They continued to pay feudal dues after 1714, and in 1788 tried to gain a new imperial title. These connections, totally ignored in modern histories, restore a complex reality of Europe before the French Revolution.

Lordships passed from family to family as pieces of property. The Frisian lordship of Jever (330 sq kilometres) was inherited by the principality of Anhalt-Zerbst, and became in time the property of Catherine the Great, who was a princess of Anhalt-Zerbst. On her death a fief on the North Sea passed to the Russian family in 1796. As Wilson explains, the ‘empire thus fostered a deep-rooted, conservative ideal of freedom as local and particular, shared by members of corporate groups and incorporated communities. These were local and particular liberties, not abstract Liberty shared equally by all inhabitants.’

The establishment of bishoprics and archbishoprics under Charlemagne created a church landscape which lasted for a millennium, and the accumulation of local patronage solidified the structures. The Reichskirchensystem (the imperial church system) a unique feature of the empire, became part of the governing structure. That history explains the state system of support for churches in the Germanic world, including Switzerland, even today, where the state collects a church tax from members to support the institutions of the church.

Wilson uses a relaxed and easy prose, turning antiquated and odd pieces of evidence or description into approachable and comprehensible explanations. Again and again he shows how this much maligned system of rule had virtues which only became general in the modern era. The court system, the use of the printing press by the 1490s, the effective and inexpensive structures of administration, the way the Reichspfennigmeister (imperial penny master) collected and administered fees and fines imposed by the Reichs-kammergericht, all worked remarkably well.

The book, in addition to its subject, has an unusual structure. It is analytic, not narrative, divided into 12 chapters, grouped equally into four parts: the themes of ideal, belonging, governance and society. Wilson claims that these themes have been ‘grouped for natural progression, so the reader approaches the material like an eagle flying over the empire’. Within each thematic category, there are three subsections. Thus Part III divides into Kingship, Territory and Dynasty; Part IV into Authority, Association and Justice.

The trouble is that the reader cannot approach the material like ‘an eagle flying over the empire’ because reading moves line by line and page by page. Wilson cannot escape linearity either. Each large section goes back to the beginning or takes up themes that happened at the same time but in the Wilson version take place hundreds of pages from each other. Though the structure challenges readers to maintain evidence in their heads, there is a central theme, like a ground base, which unites the sections.

Wilson urges his readers to reduce the damage done by previous generations, who ‘had, with terrible results, manipulated evidence to convey false continuities and to claim parts of European “historic” homelands’. This theme becomes explicit in the final chapter, Afterlife. The Reich as an ideal and a word has been tarnished by Bismarck’s Kaiserreich and still more so by Hitler’s Drittes Reich. Wilson shows how the evolution of the old empire solved problems in a pragmatic, unsystematic way but much more peacefully than its successors.

Less well known is how much of the ‘old Reich’ survived 1945. Postwar west Germany looked back to Charlemagne for a non-national model of Europe’s future, and the old Reich, with its cult of the pre-national regions, evoked the ghost of the Carolingians in the Coal and Steel Community of 1950. Even in today’s reunited Germany the culture of the medieval town lives on in the corporations and guilds and in the cult of the Heimat, an untranslatable phrase which includes ‘home town’ and ‘home land’.

The book closes with critical reflections on the European Union: ‘The decentralised, fragmented political structures do not lend themselves to common direct democratic control’, Wilson concludes on the last page, arguing that ‘democracy derives from the openness of debate, not the practice of voting’. But therein lies the difficulty: the vast bureaucracy of the European Union in its huge Brussels buildings makes everything available online, but the citizens either do not read the material or cannot understand Euro-speak if they try. Eurosceptics profit from this ignorance.

Wilson’s plea to his contemporaries to rethink the past is admirable and might have been useful even in the last years of the 20th century. Now, when the past has ceased to exist in the minds of those under 30, his voice cries in the wilderness. Most of my students find a 30-page article a burden. They cannot imagine the pleasure that a massive work of scholarship like Wilson’s can give the conscientious reader, because such intense reading needs background, practice and discipline, not virtues often found in our universities today. For those who still have them, this book will be a very stimulating read.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £29 Tel: 08430 600033. Jonathan Steinberg is a professor of modern European history and the author of an acclaimed 2011 biography of Bismarck.

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Show comments
  • Herman_U_Tick

    Those who judge persons who lived in bygone ages are guilty of ‘epochism’.
    Down with the epochists, I say

  • Sue Smith

    Imperial Vienna – centre of the Holy Roman Empire from the 15th Century until WW1. The glories of Austro-German classical music a DIRECT consequence of this Holy Roman Empire, it’s power and affluence.

    You need infrastructure and money to produce great works of art. Thank God for the educated and enlightened aristocracy!!!

    The barbarians never got it and never will.

  • jeffersonian

    ‘Today’s successors to Moser cannot decide if the EU is a union of states or a superstate.’

    That’s really neither here nor there.

    The Question is: do Europeans, including we Glorious Brits, know any longer which values underpin our civilisation? Do the French remember the values of La Révolution? Will the Dutch remember Erasmus, the Renaissance, and the key role they’ve always plaid in the safeguarding of freedom in Europe? How about Italy? The cultural cradle of our Civilisation. Southern Italy is like North Africa today. Lega Nord tries in the north…but there is only so much they can do. Spain is in thrall to the Euro…as is Portugal (so far). Is Catalonia a way out?

    The common denominator however is that in no case is the EU playing a positive, liberty-enhancing role?

  • UnionPacificRX

    The Holy Roman Empire was the reason for the birth of the Renaissance. The first major building of that era was the Duomo of Florence, financed by the Catholic Italian family the Medici.
    Napoleon slowed her down but did not “put her out of her ‘misery’ “. The Roman empire went on to expand into the New world, claiming most of South and Central America, including being a major player in the North American continent.

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