Peter H. Wilson

 

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

Cover Interview of November 22, 2016

A close-up

If the casual reader or bookshop-browser were to follow my grandfather’s advice, they would start at the end to see whether my book was worth reading. In this case, they would find my final chapter covering the Empire’s afterlife in European history from the initial horrified reactions to its demise to its place in the current debate over the future of the European Union. Closer inspection of these pages will already suggest why the Empire still matters today, since how it has been interpreted tells us much about wider European history and how the continent’s past has been remembered and interpreted. An alternative starting point might be the numerous maps at the front of the book which show the Empire’s extent and something of its complex internal composition. These maps are a deliberate attempt to correct the impression conveyed by conventional historical atlases which show countries like France or England as solid blocks of colour in contrast to the patchwork quilt that covers central Europe into the mid-nineteenth century. This cartographical convention emerged with the rise of history as a modern profession backed by state funds and charged with writing each nation’s history as a coherent story. Most modern maps still fail to record the full extent of imperial jurisdiction as it existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, whilst simultaneously obscuring how other European states remained composites of different regions, legal systems, social orders and economic networks until well into the nineteenth century.