Holy Roman Empire

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The Holy Roman Empire (Latin: Sacrum Imperium Romanum; German: Heiliges Römisches Reich), also known as Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in Western and Central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. The largest territory of the empire after 962 was the Kingdom of Germany, though it also included the neighboring Kingdom of Bohemia and Kingdom of Italy, plus numerous other territories, and soon after the Kingdom of Burgundy was added.


  • I touch with reverence the laws of Charlemagne, so highly applauded by a respectable judge. They compose not a system, but a series, of occasional and minute edicts, for the correction of abuses, the reformation of manners, the œconomy of his farms, the care of his poultry, and even the sale of his eggs. He wished to improve the laws and the character of the Franks; and his attempts, however feeble and imperfect, are deserving of praise: the inveterate evils of the times were suspended or mollified by his government; but in his institutions I can seldom discover the general views and the immortal spirit of a legislator, who survives himself for the benefit of posterity. The union and stability of his empire depended on the life of a single man: he imitated the dangerous practice of dividing his kingdoms among his sons; and, after his numerous diets, the whole constitution was left to fluctuate between the disorders of anarchy and despotism.
  • This great empire Charlemagne formed into a systematically organized State, and gave the Frank dominion settled institutions adapted to impart to it strength and consistency. This must however not be understood, as if he first introduced the Constitution of his empire in its whole extent, but as implying that institutions partly already in existence, were developed under his guidance, and attained a more decided and unobstructed efficiency. The King stood at the head of the officers of the empire, and the principle of hereditary monarchy was already recognized.
    • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, "Part IV: The German World", in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Incorporated, 1952.
  • The reality is that, since the fall of Rome, no power has come near to ruling this continent. Charlemagne did not do so, nor did the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors, nor France's Napoleon, nor Germany's Hitler, nor yet the commissioners of the European Union. If history teaches anything, it is that all attempts to straighten Kant's 'crooked timber of humanity' will fail. Europe's peoples will not be put in bondage to a superior state, however liberal its intentions.
    • Simon Jenkins, A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin (2018)
  • The sheer heterogeneity and diffusion of these lands, which will be examined further below, might suggest that the Habsburg imperium could never be a real equivalent to the uniform, centralized empires of Asia. Even in the 1520s, Charles was handing over to his younger brother Ferdinand the administration and princely sovereignty of the Austrian hereditary lands, and also of the new acquisitions of Hungary and Bohemia—a recognition, well before Charles’s own abdication, that the Spanish and Austrian inheritances could not be effectively ruled by the same person. Nonetheless, that was not how the other princes and states viewed this mighty agglomeration of Habsburg power. To the Valois kings of France, fresh from consolidating their own authority internally and eager to expand into the rich Italian peninsula, Charles V’s possessions seemed to encircle the French state—and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the chief aim of the French in Europe over the next two centuries would be to break the influence of the Habsburgs. Similarly, the German princes and electors, who had long struggled against the emperor’s having any real authority within Germany itself, could not but be alarmed when they saw Charles V’s position was buttressed by so many additional territories, which might now give him the resources to impose his will. Many of the popes, too, disliked this accumulation of Habsburg power, even if it was often needed to combat the Turks, the Lutherans, and other foes.
    • Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000 (1987)
  • But despite the occasional rhetoric of some Habsburg ministers about a “world monarchy,” there was no conscious plan to dominate Europe in the manner of Napoleon or Hitler. Some of the Habsburg dynastic marriages and successions were fortuitous, at the most inspired, rather than evidence of a long-term scheme of territorial aggrandizement. In certain cases—for example, the frequent French invasions of northern Italy—Habsburg rulers were more provoked than provoking. In the Mediterranean after the 1540s, Spanish and imperial forces were repeatedly placed on the defensive by the operations of a revived Islam. Nevertheless, the fact remains that had the Habsburg rulers achieved all of their limited, regional aims—even their defensive aims—the mastery of Europe would virtually have been theirs. The Ottoman Empire would have been pushed back, along the North African coast and out of eastern Mediterranean waters. Heresy would have been suppressed within Germany. The revolt of the Netherlands would have been crushed. Friendly regimes would have been maintained in France and England. Only Scandinavia, Poland, Muscovy, and the lands still under Ottoman rule would not have been subject to Habsburg power and influence—and the concomitant triumph of the Counter-Reformation. Although Europe even then would not have approached the unity enjoyed by Ming China, the political and religious principles favored by the twin Habsburg centers of Madrid and Vienna would have greatly eroded the pluralism that had so long been the continent’s most important feature.
    • Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000 (1987)
  • The importance of status is vividly illustrated by perhaps the most celebrated summit in German history: the meeting at Canossa in 1077 between Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. In German this is known as der Canossagang, the journey to Canossa; more aptly in Italian as l’umiliazione di Canossa, for it was truly a humiliation. In the Investiture Controversy—the power struggle between pope and emperor over the right to appoint bishops—Henry had renounced Gregory as pope, only to find himself excommunicated. This papal edict not only imperilled Henry’s immortal soul, it also laid him open to revolt by the German nobility. He sought a meeting with Gregory who, fearing violence, retreated to the castle of Canossa, in safe territory south of Parma. This forced the emperor to come to him. What exactly happened is shrouded in legend, but supposedly Henry arrived in the depths of winter, barefoot and in a pilgrim’s hair shirt, only to be kept waiting by Gregory for three days. When he was finally admitted to the castle on January 28, 1077, the emperor knelt before the pope and begged forgiveness. He was absolved and the two most powerful figures in Christendom then shared the Mass.
    • David Reynolds, Summits: Six Meetings that Changed the Twentieth Century (2007), p. 14
  • The reconciliation was short-lived. After being excommunicated a second time Henry crossed the Alps with his army and replaced Gregory with an “antipope” of his own. But the events themselves matter less than the myth that grew up around them. During the German Reformation Henry was lionized as the defender of national rights and the scourge of the Catholic pope, often being dubbed “the first Protestant.” And during Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s struggle to rein in the Catholic church, he famously declared in the Reichstag on May 14, 1872: “We will not go to Canossa, neither in body nor in spirit.” He was voicing the new German Reich’s resolve to accept no outside interference in its affairs—political or religious. As a result Henry IV shivering outside the gates of Canossa became a familiar figure in late-nineteenth-century German art; the phrase “to go to Canossa” (nach Canossa gehen) entered the language as a synonym for craven surrender— almost the equivalent of “Munich” to the British and Americans.
    • David Reynolds, Summits: Six Meetings that Changed the Twentieth Century (2007), pp. 14-15
  • Ce corps qui s'appelait et qui s'appelle encore le saint empire romain n'était en aucune manière ni saint, ni romain, ni empire.
    • This body which called itself and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
      • Voltaire, Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations, Chapter 70 (1756)

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