The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History

The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History
Peter H. Wilson
Allen Lane  942pp  £35

In his 2014 radio series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, Neil MacGregor used coinage to introduce his listeners to the complexity of the Holy Roman Empire. Holding a gold five guinea piece, he pointed out that there was only one currency minted in Great Britain under George I. However, in the German lands from which he came there were nearly 200 different currencies, each representing a particular state with its own forms of government, laws and traditions. The British Museum’s coin collection provided a wonderfully immediate way of visualising the early modern Empire, a patchwork of territories that was, in the eyes of some contemporaries and many later historians, a failure, because it did not centralise and did not generate national loyalty in the manner of its European neighbours. The narrative of delayed nationhood, with its attendant implications for modern German history, has long been discredited. Peter Wilson’s The Holy Roman Empire rides a wave of recent scholarship, of which he shows a truly prodigious grasp, which argues that the Empire was, in fact, a stable and successful political structure. The book’s most immediate counterpart, Joachim Whaley’s Germany and the Holy Roman Empire (2011) presents a broadly chronological account of the Empire’s last 300 years. Wilson offers something very different: a thematic history of the Empire from its medieval origins to its demise in 1806.

In the first of four sections, Wilson shows the power of the imperial ideal: the emperor’s assumption of the ancient Roman mission of protecting Christianity, which gave him a status above that of an ordinary king. This ideal remained important, Wilson suggests, well into the early modern period: Maria Theresa may have described the imperial crown as a ‘fool’s hat’, but the title still conferred symbolic power. In the second section, ‘belonging’, Wilson explores how the Empire’s various peoples and lands related to it and it is one of the book’s great strengths that it takes the Empire’s ‘peripheries’ (including Italy and Bohemia) seriously throughout. While political and legal frameworks and intellectual culture and symbols created a shared sense of belonging, Wilson argues that the Empire also successfully preserved particular identities and freedoms. In section three, ‘governance’, he examines the Empire’s rulers, institutions and resources, emphasising that its history must not be written in terms of a failed attempt to create a unitary state. In the final section, ‘society’, Wilson addresses what he rightly sees as the largest gap in writing on the Empire: the relationship between its governance and the lives of its inhabitants. Through examining various forms of authority and association, he shows the extent to which the political and social structures of the Empire were interwoven. 

Key concepts emerge from the book: the idea of the Empire as a ‘status hierarchy’ and the strength of its ‘corporate social order’. In constitutional terms, Wilson suggests that the Empire should be equated with a mixed monarchy. It developed in ways that diffused power though various authorities, making them dependent upon one another. Few other historians could convey such a long and complex history so effectively: for an account of the ideas, institutions and events that shaped the medieval and early modern Empire, this book is, and will surely long remain, unrivalled. Wilson’s other major theme, identity, is more elusive. As he acknowledges, it is easier to study the symbols and arguments deployed to foster identity than to recover any sense of the subjective self-definition of the Empire’s inhabitants. Did Zwickau burghers or Brandenburg peasants really see themselves as belonging to the Empire? Here Wilson’s case rests on his conviction that the Empire’s decentralised structure created ‘numerous layers of engagement and identification’, from the Reichstag at the top  to peasant associations at the bottom. He argues for the significance of appellate justice in the early modern Empire and points to the pride that cities such as Nuremberg showed in their imperial traditions and to peasant petitioning. Yet, as he admits, social and economic regulation – the forms of governance that shaped the day-to-day experiences of most people – developed at a local, not an imperial level.

In the Holy Roman Empire as described by Wilson there is much to admire. As a ‘collective actor’, the Empire was not bellicose or expansionist, unlike Louis XIV’s France. Wilson praises its ability to manage both political and legal problems, using methods that were ‘more realistic and often more humane’ than those employed elsewhere in Europe. He stops short of suggesting that the Empire really functioned as the ‘protector of the weak’, but he emphasises the emperors’ (less than reliable) guardianship of Jewish communities and the system of justice that inserted courts ‘between ordinary folk and lordly exploitation’. He writes of a common political culture, of small, cohesive urban communities and of decentralised politics that created opportunities for social mobility. The fact that a review of the book in the Economist picked out the story of the 11th-century Emperor Conrad II, who stopped on the way to his coronation to listen to petitions from the dispossessed, is indicative of the message that some readers will take from this book. It will speak to a contemporary audience preoccupied by debates about Europe’s future and Wilson uses this opportunity wisely. Yet the desire to show that effective polities do not always require their inhabitants to surrender local identity and autonomy should not lead historians to oversell the Empire. Wilson acknowledges only in passing, for example, that imperial courts could do little to prevent the misuse of law that helped make Germany the heartland of early modern witch-hunting and we must remember that the Empire’s ‘progressive’ religious diversity came about only against the wishes of its rulers and as the result of prolonged and bloody conflict. Just like the European Union, the Holy Roman Empire could divide as well as unite. 

Bridget Heal is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Reformation Studies Institute.

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