Neither holy nor a failure

ON A map, the Holy Roman Empire resembles something closer to a Jackson Pollock painting than an empire. Splattered across the lands of central Europe are countless territories overseen by an emperor who shared power with a hierarchy spanning princes, bishops and dukes, down to abbots, knights and city councils. Territory sizes ranged from the vast kingdom of Prussia to the tiny Free Imperial City of Zell am Harmersbach, half the size of San Marino. By its maturity the empire had evolved into a “mixed monarchy” that was neither feudal nor democratic, federal nor unitary. Instead it was a combination of all of them.
To the modern reader, this may seem chaotic to the point of inefficiency. But Peter Wilson of Oxford University argues that we have been conditioned to see the empire this way. From the 19th century, nationalist historians rewrote European state history as a progression towards centralised, ethnic nation-states. Thus the idea of the Holy Roman Empire as a failed nation-state (as opposed to a successful multiethnic empire) has prevailed since—even Hitler condemned this era of his beloved Germany.


In his masterly retelling, Mr Wilson paints a more nuanced picture of the empire as a stable and unique entity that protected the weak. An empire with rulers such as Conrad II—who stopped to hear pleas from a serf, a widow and an orphan despite being late for his coronation in 1027—could only be an empire dedicated to “peace through consensus” between rulers (very much plural) and ruled.


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