'The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe's History', by Peter H. Wilson - Review

By Steinberg, Jonathan | The Spectator, January 23, 2016 | Go to article overview

'The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe's History', by Peter H. Wilson - Review


Steinberg, Jonathan, The Spectator


The Holy Roman Empire has been much maligned over the centuries. In fact it worked remarkably well, says Jonathan Steinberg

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.

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. …

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