The Holy Roman Empire

(This page contains excerpts with comments from the book The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History by Peter H. Wilson. Please see the accompanying blog post for bibliographical details and a short review. The excerpts are not intended to be representative of the vast range of material covered in the book, including well-known topics such as the Thirty Years War. Here I wanted to focus on lesser-known or amusing details.)

“A permanent Gothic structure which might not conform to all the building regulations, but in which one lives securely.” Arch-chancellor Dalberg (1744–1817) describing the Holy Roman Empire near the end of its existence [p.280]. With Napoleon coming he was wrong about the secure part but he aptly described the “broad contentment” with the imperial structure while it lasted. Many of the following excerpts will support his assertion.

Kingdom of Germany

First, a sadly necessary introductory remark. An annoying World War propaganda meme claims that “Germany wasn’t even a nation until 1871” when Bismarck created the Second Reich. This is quite absurd unless you are prepared to concede that there was also no French nation until Napoleon or so. Indeed the identifiable kingdoms of both France and Germany trace their history back to the same event, namely the splitting of Charlemagne’s empire into West Francia and East Francia (and the short-lived Middle Francia) with the Treaty of Verdun in 843. And indeed the very first king of East Francia, later dubbed Louis the German, was called rex Germaniae or rex Germanorum by contemporary sources. This referred obviously not to any modern Germans but simply to the Latin designation of his territory, just like West Francia was of course far from the modern French nation.

There is however the remarkable fact that East and West Francia already used distinct languages, evidently due to the rapid Latinization in West Francia. “The chronicler Nithard recorded the Strasbourg oath sworn by Carolingian nobles in 842 in both Old High German and Old French versions.” [p.256] If you use language as a significant marker of nationality you could indeed date back both France and Germany to the ninth century. Now let’s dig into the book proper.

German King vs Holy Roman Emperor

From the split of Charlemagne’s empire to the ascent of the Habsburgs, the principal though less prestigious title within the HRE was in fact King of Germany. “While it became impossible to become emperor without being crowned by the pope [until the Habsburgs, see below], papal involvement was not necessary to rule the Empire. The so-called ‘interregna’ are misleading. The Empire had an almost unbroken succession of kings; it was just that not all of them were crowned emperors by the pope. Otto I established the convention that the German king was automatically imperator futurus, or, as Conrad II asserted in 1026 before his coronation, ‘designated for the imperial crown of the Romans.’ […] By the early eleventh century it had become accepted that whoever was German king was also king of Italy and Burgundy, even without separate coronations. The title King of the Romans (Romanorum rex) was added from 1110 in a bid to assert authority over Rome and reinforce claims that only the German king could be emperor.” [p.37] A table on the same page shows that from the founding of the Carolingian empire in 800 until the ascent of the Habsburgs in 1438, there were 636 years with a king but only 291.5 years with an emperor!

Paradoxically, the memory-holing of the Kingdom of Germany is partly the fault of the German kings themselves who much preferred the more prestigious imperial title, once the annoying duty of receiving the imperial crown from the pope had been dropped. “Imperial reform [around 1490] greatly strengthened the coherence of what had been the kingdom of Germany. Increasingly, this was now called ‘the Empire,’ especially by outsiders who indeed viewed the Italian and Burgundian lands as separate Habsburg personal possessions. A major factor in this shift was the absence of German coronations after 1486, removing the separate significance of the German royal title since whoever was elected automatically became emperor. The institutions created through imperial reform were primarily intended to regulate how the German kingdom was governed, not the wider Empire, since the Burgundian and Italian lords had already been excluded from the process of choosing the German king by the mid-fourteenth century.” [p.217]

German Language and Culture

Germany was rather quick to replace written Latin with a fairly standardized form of German. “The linkage between Germany and the Empire was reinforced by the gradual displacement of Latin by German as an administrative language from the thirteenth century, about two centuries before English replaced either Latin or French for political and administrative communication in England. […] The administrative use of German helped to standardize it well ahead of the language reforms promoted by eighteenth-century intellectuals.” [p.259] A common south German form emerged in the mid-fourteenth century and was adopted by the imperial chancellery in 1464. Of course the Empire as a whole continued to extend beyond Germany and thus included other official languages, in particular Italian and Czech.

During the Renaissance cultural features such as language and dress styles were promoted as markers of national identity. “German was supposedly the most ancient and purest language and a general marker of cultural superiority over the Welsch; this was a blanket pejorative term for all ‘Latin’ foreigners, chiefly French and Italians, but also including on occasion Poles, Hungarians and others. […] Germans allegedly wore smart, restrained and simple clothes reflecting their honesty and integrity. By contrast, the Welsch were slovenly and promiscuous, especially – of course – their women, who sported low-cut, garish dresses, jewelry and ridiculous hairstyles.” [p.261]

Not unusual in medieval societies, communities exerted considerable peer pressure on their members for good behavior. “Household members were expected to behave responsibly, so as not to damage their collective reputation and, with that, access to valuable resources. External peer pressure encouraged this, through criticism of drunken and other ‘bad’ householders as undermining overall communal well-being. Marriage remained restricted until at least one of the prospective partners could inherit or otherwise obtain the property necessary for a viable autonomous existence. […] Those who were not economically independent were generally excluded from enfranchisement in the communal institutions: cottagers, landless laborers, unmarried younger men and generally the entire female population, though widows were allowed to represent households in some areas.” [p.509f]

Special Cases: Bavaria and Austria

Bavaria was obviously the greatest and oldest part of Germany! “Bavaria is identifiable from the mid-sixth century as distinct from the eastern part of the former Roman province of Rhetia beyond the river Lech, north of the Alps and south of the Danube. The Bavarians also resisted Frankish attacks, but they faced simultaneous pressure from the Avars in what is now Hungary to the east, and were forced to submit in 788. Bavaria remained politically ‘distant from the king’ [of Germany] throughout the ninth and into the tenth century.” [p.186]

A good deal later, there is the special case of Austria which is of course intimately connected to the rise of the Habsburgs, involving lots of cheating. “Throughout [the various troubles of the Habsburgs with imperial princes], however, Austria itself remained undivided, its special status having been enhanced by Duke Rudolf IV’s forgery of the Privilegium maius around 1358 to expand the genuine privileges granted when Austria was elevated to a duchy in 1156. Responding to his exclusion from the electoral college, Rudolf invented the entirely new title of ‘archduke’ with semi-regal powers, including ennoblement, and appropriately kingly insignia like a crown and a scepter. […] Austria’s distinct status persisted and the Habsburgs never used their powers as emperor to award themselves electoral rights. Instead, they fostered a sense that Austria was already somehow superior, though the precise ceremonial distinctions were never clarified.” [p.429]

As Habsburg power grew, their justifications became ever more preposterous. “Rudolf I was celebrated not just for acquiring Austria but as the king who allegedly restored the Empire after the ‘interregnum’ following the end of the Staufers. Stories repeated the Rudolf motif for later Habsburgs, like Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III, who both supposedly also gave their horses to priests. Meanwhile, ingenious genealogists traced the Habsburgs as descendants of Aeneas, son of Venus and a Trojan royal who led the survivors of the fall of Troy via Carthage to Rome. Thanks to the idea of imperial translation, the line could be continued forward through the ancient Roman emperors, Christian Merovingians, Carolingians, and all the Empire’s other subsequent illustrious rulers. The skillful blending of family stories and imperial tradition trumped anything offered by their rivals to present the Habsburgs as the only ones worthy to be emperors.” [p.430]

Imperial Economy

The early imperial court was famously itinerant, and the resources to be provided by the unlucky place that housed it were quite astonishing. “A rare surviving list from 968 records just one day’s requirements: 1,000 pigs and sheep, 8 oxen, 10 barrels of wine [why so few?], 1,000 bushels of grain, plus chickens, fish, eggs and vegetables.” [p.333]

Being Emperor could be quite profitable, as in the case of Charles IV and his Italian subjects. “The major Italian cities had mostly slipped from being republics to oligarchic regimes. These still sought confirmation of their autonomy, but their leaders now also wanted recognition as hereditary princes and were prepared to pay handsomely. The Visconti in Milan gave Charles 150,000 florins in return for recognition as imperial vicars in 1355, as well as contributing another 50,000 to his coronation expenses. Florence paid 100,000 florins that year, and agreed an annual tax of 4,000 florins that it paid until 1378. Altogether, Charles received an average of 34,000 florins from Italy each year of his 32-year reign, constituting 21 per cent of all the money he obtained from the Empire.” [p.392f]

The Emperors exploited the legendary mutual hostility of Italian lords (cf. Machiavelli) to ensure their obedience, even without direct interventions. “No Italian lord felt sufficiently confident to ignore the emperor, who might otherwise favor their local rival. Imperial displeasure could be expressed by placing a city under the ban that could legitimate attacks by its neighbors. Princely ranks bolstered urban despots against their internal opponents, while grants of vicar’s powers enabled them to extend control over their city’s hinterland. Although he did not appear often nor bring many troops, the emperor remained the sole recognized fount of honors.” [p.393]

One peculiar feature of the Empire was the ease with which towns and territories changed hands for cash. “Albrecht III sold his share of the Habsburg lands to his brother Leopold for 100,000 florins in 1379, while Sigismund transferred Brandenburg to Friedrich IV of Hohenzollern for four times that sum in 1415. Those with cash could develop and expand their territories. The Württemberg counts founded only seven towns, but bought three in the thirteenth century, 47 in the fourteenth and 10 more in the fifteenth century.” [p.369]

The abundance of minor princes became a financial problem in the 17th and 18th century, as they insisted on lavish courts comparable to those of great kings which “consumed one-fifth to one-quarter of peacetime expenditure in most medium-sized and smaller territories.. […] Ernst Friedrich III of Sachsen-Hildburghausen dined daily with 100 guests while his debts piled up, reaching an astonishing 1.3 million florins by 1769, equivalent to 23 years of his principality’s revenue.” [p.541] An imperial debt commission ended up literally invading the territory to put an end to this waste. “Commissioners could be tough: those in Sachsen-Hildburghausen called in military assistance from neighboring territories in 1769 when the local prince refused to accept their reforms, which included disbanding the principality’s oversized army.” [p.544]

German Freedom and the Empire

Why did the early modern Empire not follow other European states in establishing a centralized monarchy? “One reason was that the changes made since the Staufers had enabled it to retain a lightweight, low-cost form of royal government which no important participant saw any reason to abandon now. Princes and cities enjoyed considerable individual autonomy, but discharged ‘public’ functions at their own expense, freeing the emperor from having to organize and pay for this. The other reason was that the emperor’s main task was considered to be maintaining internal peace, not waging external war. Peace was intended to be permanent, whereas war was always presented as a necessary exception. This meant that apologists for greater royal power in the Empire could not use the fiction employed in France, England, and Spain that new taxes were short-term emergency measures. Instead, it remained politically unacceptable to develop centralized institutions capable of sustaining the king’s permanent interference in his subjects’ lives. Regular taxation was equated with ‘eternal servitude’ inimical to ‘German freedom’.” [p.397f]

The medieval concept of burghers, i.e. town residents, is an interesting one because it attached exclusively to particular towns, not unlike city-states in antiquity. “The emergence of burghers as legally distinct, privileged inhabitants of towns was the most important change in the Third Estate across the Middle Ages. This process also underscores the significance of place in the wider elaboration of social distinctions, because burgher status was encouraged by aspects of communal living unrelated to the socio-economic function of commoners, as well as being an expression of political self-assertion and people’s desire for greater control of their own destinies. Although burghers were collectively recognized as a distinct Estate by early modernity, they shared the late medieval characteristic of the other Estates in being fragmented by place, with each community having its own local and specific rights. These were not portable; therefore if someone moved to another town, they had to apply (and usually pay) for recognition as a burgher there.” [p.243]

One important role of the Empire was to guarantee particular freedoms for groups, not universal freedom for individuals. “German freedom [was] distinct from its equivalents in other countries, where writers claimed or invented broader underlying ‘common’, such as ‘national law’ (ius patrium) in France or ‘the common custom of the realm’ emerging in early seventeenth-century England. […R]ather than championing an underlying set of universal freedoms, [German writers] celebrated the Empire as an overarching system protecting numerous local and specific liberties. To most Germans, a universal system of freedoms was equated with tyranny since it threatened their cherished distinctiveness.” [p.265]

An instructive 1682 quote from Duke Ernst August of Hanover: “It is not in the interest of this House to detach itself from the emperor and Empire, but on the contrary to remain firmly bound to them, since there is no more reliable security than in the Empire. And if the Empire were to go under, I do not see how this House can maintain its liberty and dignity.” [p.283] In other words, the very looseness of imperial federation generated loyalty from all factions who had no wish for a stricter central rule.

There was also one group supporting the Empire that might surprise some. “Far from heralding a new dawn, many Jews perceived the Empire’s demise as a disaster, since it removed the legal protections that had been corporate in line with their own visions of community, unlike the individual freedoms granted by post-1806 states.” [p.285]

Imperial Fragmentation

The modern concept of the HRE as hopelessly fragmented is quite misleading. In reality the smaller units were simply the equivalent of modern counties and the like, having their own identity and rights while still being part of the greater whole. “Writing in the early eleventh century, Hermann the Lame used the first-person plural ‘our’ for his own abbey in relation to others in the region, for his fellow Swabians when dealing with the rest of the Empire, and for Germans in discussing interaction with outsiders.” [p.252]

In modern maps, “the Empire is a multicolored patchwork of dynastic territories compared to the solid blocks of color used for other, supposedly more centralized states. Yet most maps produced prior to 1806 showed the Empire with clear outer boundaries divided into Kreise, its official regional subdivisions. Territories were often named and sometimes marked, but did not dominate. Written descriptions followed these conventions. The Empire remained a common fatherland composed of numerous, lesser homelands.” [p.254]

One area where imperial fragmentation did result in undesirable results was trade. “By the eighteenth century there were 32 toll stations on the Rhine and 35 on the Elbe, most of which were operated by different lords. Their owners had little incentive to reduce rates to boost trade, because they already enjoyed a captive market. Tolls added nearly 60 per cent to the cost of salt just travelling between Cologne and Frankfurt, while it was cheaper to take wine up to the Main to Frankfurt and overland to Kassel for shipment down the Weser instead. It was precisely these kinds of problems that the imperial framework should have resolved by providing the forum to reach a mutually beneficial solution, yet all talks failed, because too few authorities were prepared to forgo local advantages, and there was no mechanism to compel them. Only thanks to French pressure after 1795 were the Rhine toll stations reduced to 12 with published rates within common system called the Octroi under Franco-German administration.” [p.469]

Imperial Innovations

Not only was the printing press with movable letters invented in what was then Germany, printing also spread very rapidly throughout the country, including in official capacities. “The first printed report from a Reichstag appeared after the 1486 meeting, giving précis of the speeches. A semi-official record of all decisions appeared as the Corpus Recessum Imperii after 1501, well ahead of Hansard, which only began recording British parliamentary proceedings in 1774. Well before then, the Reichstag had emerged as a key political information hub, publishing far more information about its deliberations than any other European representative institution.” [p.275]

The Empire featured the world’s first postal network, too, “deliberately promoted through the grant of imperial privileges in 1490, creating a communication system transcending both geography and political decentralization. Already open to private customers in 1516, the network of post horses and coach routes connected most of the Empire within a century, allowing Europe’s first regular newspapers to develop through a commercially viable distribution network, 26 years ahead of France. The Empire had its first daily paper from 1635, some 67 years ahead of England.” [p.277]

Imperial Jurisdiction

The chapter on judicial practice brings a surprise for people who think judgement by peers originated with the English Magna Carta in 1215. “Judgement by peers had already been part of Ottonian [10th century] practice and continued as trial by 7 to 12 jurors selected from upstanding members of the community. The judge was assisted by a clerk, while by the fifteenth century cases could be brought by an official prosecutor as well as by a plaintiff. […T]he emphasis remained more on mediation than determining guilt and punishment. In some regions, jurors were required to seek an amicable settlement prior to a case coming to court.” [p.623]

Medieval imperial law explicitly allowed feuds as a way to settle conflicts, as long as damage to third parties was avoided. “A king was not expected to enforce verdicts, leaving those involved free to accept his judgement or find their own settlement. For this reason, the public peace retained the option to feud. […] Violence was permitted, but contained and channeled through measures intended to ensure that those using ‘excessive’ force forfeited the legitimacy of their case. For example, the 1235 peace contained clauses to protect economic activity by guaranteeing the safety of royal highways even during a feud.” [p.621]

Naturally this changed over time, and by the 16th century the prime benefactors of imperial jurisdiction were commoners and communities suing abusive local princes. “Peasants generally developed a favorable view of the Empire’s supreme courts, whose adherence to standardized procedures often contrasted with seemingly capricious seigniorial justice. Lords, especially in smaller territories, had tried to assert social distance by manipulating their judicial powers, placing themselves above the law, whilst dispensing clemency periodically to win acceptance of their elevated position. Juridification after 1526 bound them within a system beyond their personal control. It objectified justice, removing or at least lessening the impact of individual circumstances, especially as imperial law applied to all and was widely disseminated through print.” [p.635]

Imperial Communalism

Lesser lords often pooled resources to acquire expensive property, for example twelve families who in 1337 established Burg Friedberg as a “co-heirship castle” with a common castellan. “This form of co-proprietorship was binding on heirs and linked to internal discipline and self-sacrifice. For example, members who engaged in unsanctioned feuds were to be expelled for endangering the collective.” [p.554] The same group later acquired the mortgage to the imperial city of Friedberg and even the entire county of Kaichen.

One prominent feature of medieval Europe including the Empire was the spread of professional associations such as guilds, starting during the eleventh century with long-distance traders in northern Germany (later to become the Hanse). Modern observers like to decry their monopolization of trades and strict barriers to entry as obstacles to free competition. “However, they also operated an internal moral economy to ensure all members had reasonable opportunities to make a living, and sustained collegiality by helping each other in the event of personal or family misfortune, and through various social and religious activities. Guilds proved potent platforms from which to bargain for rights and demand a share in communal government.” [p.550]

Guilds formed one component of the Empire’s peculiar form of fine-grained federalism. “The construction of a broader socio-political order based on the horizontal, associative aspects of communities has been labeled ‘communalism’ and has been claimed as late medieval Germany’s ‘third way’ to modernity between absolutist territorial state-building and the construction of a homogeneous national state. Communalism was a specifically late medieval–early modern form of egalitarianism that was collective in that it focused on the community, rather than the individual. […] All this originated in the communal self-government emerging in the Empire’s towns and village during the high Middle Ages. […] Communalism extended individual communal self-government by using the same practices to federate multiple communities, effectively building state-like organizations from the ground up.” [p.579]

Glory to the Empire!

The post-medieval Empire is today seen as a rural backwater due to its lack of a metropolis such as London which had already around a million inhabitants by 1800, compared to only three imperial cities even a tenth that size (Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg). However, this ignores the fact that the Empire contained many more medium-sized towns acting as regional centers: “there were only two other English towns with over 15,000 inhabitants whereas this size was exceeded by 7 imperial cities and 27 territorial towns” [p.523]. This decentralization is still typical for Germany today.

German political writers defended the Empire’s form of government well into the 18th century. “Justi still saw the Estates, like Althusius had, as guardians of laws, rather than law-makers. Most Germans regarded fully republican government as dangerous, citing the examples of Britain and Poland-Lithuania to argue that disassociating representation from corporate groups and incorporated communities gave too much scope for divisive ‘parties’ and ‘factions’. Without imperative mandates, representatives would be free to pursue their own self-interests.” [p.601]

Likewise, the ideals of the French Revolution were rather unpopular in Germany. “The absence of support is not surprising given the prevailing hostility to republicanism and individualism. French bourgeois equality with its inviolability of property suggested the horrors of an unfettered free market strongly at odds with the moral economy of the Empire’s regulated corporate society.” [p.643f]

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