Peter H. Wilson


On his book Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire

Cover Interview of November 22, 2016

The wide angle

My book is the first in English to cover the Empire’s entire history and the first in any language to offer a comprehensive reinterpretation of its place in wider European history. It is also the first to dig beneath the surface of high politics and explore how the Empire related to its inhabitants. None of the conventional accounts of the Empire make any sense, because they have tried to reduce its complex story to that of Germany. This is understandable given what we usually associate with the term ‘empire’. We expect empires to emerge through conquest as the people occupying a central ‘core’ territory expand to dominate and exploit those living on the ‘periphery’. This model of empire is deeply rooted in historical writing, not least because of the character of nineteenth and twentieth-century European imperialism. Elements of the Empire’s history indeed fit this model. It was Charlemagne’s success in conquering the Lombards that persuaded Pope Leo III to collaborate with him in establishing the Empire, supposedly as a direct continuation of that of ancient Rome. This, he thought, would offer better protection to the papacy than the real direct successor of imperial Rome, the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople. Similarly, Charlemagne and his immediate successors pushed the Empire’s frontiers eastwards by conquering lands from the heathen Slavs.

However, the Empire never had a stable core territory or a single, permanent capital. Rome remained the preferred location for imperial coronations until 1452, but emperors remained itinerant, moving between their many palaces or free-loading on the abbeys and monasteries they helped to establish and which were obliged to lodge them and their court – not for nothing did one medieval abbot compare an imperial visit with a plague of locusts. The pope retained the exclusive right to crown an emperor until 1508, but the choice of candidate clearly rested with a small group of senior German lords by the mid-tenth century. From 962, whoever was German king was the primary candidate for the imperial title. Yet, the Empire itself was already transpersonal, existing even when no monarch had been crowned emperor. Despite the long-running dispute with the papacy over political precedence, in practice whoever was German king ruled the entire Empire regardless of whether they had been crowned in Rome.

The Empire remains incomprehensible if approached anachronistically from a narrowly political perspective in which a succession of German kings supposedly set out to create a strong national monarchy, only to be distracted by the need to confront recalcitrant popes, or to pursue a seemingly irrelevant imperial mission. That mission forms the subject of the first of the four themes used to structure the book. From the outset, the Empire embodied the ideal of Europe as a single pacific Christian order. The ‘imperial’ element was thus not hegemonic, but rather the monarch’s duty as guardian of the church and upholder of justice. The Empire lacked precise frontiers, because there could be no defined limit to something which was considered universal. The emergence of new ideas of sovereignty around the twelfth century slowly challenged this by suggesting that kings were ‘emperors in their own kingdoms’. Ultimately, national sovereignty became the basis of Europe’s political order, fragmenting the continent into numerous separate states, but the Holy Roman emperor remained formally the senior monarch until the Empire’s dissolution.

The book’s second part examines the mosaic of different lands and peoples comprising the Empire, both in terms of how this changed over time and what these relationships meant for questions of belonging and identity. The Empire never sought the kind of homogeneity desired by later European states which generally compelled their inhabitants to speak the same language and observe a common faith. Though tied by its mission to Christianity, the Empire ultimately avoided becoming tied to any particular form of that religion, and always contained a significant Jewish minority which it protected, though never perfectly, generally better than achieved by other European states. Inhabitants identified with the Empire as the distant, yet overarching guarantor of their own local customs and autonomy.

The third part explains how the Empire was governed, indicating that none of its monarchs attempted to build a centralised state with uniform system of laws or institutions. Instead, the Empire evolved as a multi-layered system largely beyond the emperor’s direct control, but nonetheless subject to his authority. New institutions emerged from the fifteenth century that underpinned this structure by integrating the component territories more clearly into the common legal and political framework. The Empire continued to develop and was able to absorb considerable shocks like the Reformation and the Thirty Years War, but the legal and institutional arrangements became increasingly inflexible during the eighteenth century.

The final section examines how these arrangements were rooted in the Empire’s social order which became defined through corporate rights based on status and place. Many of the institutions created during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were intended to resolve tensions between these corporate groups. It became increasingly obvious that underlying demographic, social and economic changes were eroding the formal order by the eighteenth century at least as much as the emergence of Austria and Prussia as European great powers in their own right posed a political challenge to the Empire as a collective of all its constituent territories.