Book review: The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History

The Roman Empire is a somewhat neglected part of history, but Peter H Wilson’s tome sets the record straight and reveals new secrets, writes Michael Duggan.    

The most puzzling thing about the continent of Europe is that there is no continent of Europe.

What we call Europe is simply where the western end of the Asian landmass of narrows, breaks-up, and runs-out. It wrested its place among the continents of the world not through any geographical characteristics, but through cultural, commercial, and military power.

The great forcing houses of European identity included the original Roman Empire (which built the bridge between classical Mediterranean culture and the north Atlantic); Christianization in general and the Papacy in particular; and the Holy Roman Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire came into being in Rome on Christmas Day, 800, when Pope Leo III placed the crown on the head of Charlemagne, King of the Franks. It passed into history just over 1,000 years later when Francis II of Austria dissolved it in the face of the Napoleonic advance. In addition to modern-day Germany, the empire at a different times included all or part of Italy, France, and eight other countries.

And yet this empire is a somewhat neglected part of European history. Peter H Wilson attributes this to the fact that the story of the empire is so difficult to tell. It was very large and lasted a long time, but it also “lacked the things giving shape to conventional national history”. Byzantium, the separate empire in the east maintained a large standing army, a great central bureaucracy and a regular tax system — all things missing in the west.

The Holy Roman Empire was a strange concoction, then. And it was so right from the start. The Church at the turn of the ninth century had spiritual authority, social prestige, and growing endowments of land, but it went unarmed in a world run by warriors. Nothing much survived or retained its independence if it could not defend itself in war. Paradoxically, if it was to fulfil its mission of proclaiming peace, the Church needed a military defender.

It fell to the shifty Leo III to cut the deal. With the power of the actual Roman Emperor in Constantinople now a busted flush in the western Mediterranean, Leo looked north to the Franks. The Franks had stuck with Catholic baptism where others had succumbed to Arianism. They had co-operated with the bishops and monks sent from Rome. Under Charles the Hammer, they had defeated the Islamic armies that had marched up through Gaul from already-conquered Spain. The Franks themselves were, of course, brutal, experienced invaders and plunderers.

They had subdued the Saxons, the Bavarians, and the Lombards.

And so the empire came into being when a pope in Rome found a defender who resided hundreds of miles away in Aachen, far beyond the Alps, beyond even the frontiers of the ancient Roman Empire itself. Leo transferred the imperial title under doubtful authority, given there was still very much a seat of empire in Constantinople.

Emperor Otto I (962-973) established the convention that the German king would be the emperor. But this was because the German king ruled such extensive lands — and not, Wilson makes plain, because he and his successors regarded the empire as a German nation state.

While the ancient Romans believed their empire was a unitary state inhabited by peoples who had submerged their previous identities through the acceptance of common citizenship, the Franks and their imperial successors would come to see themselves as ‘kings of kings’, ruling an empire composed of discrete kingdoms inhabited by different peoples. The imperial crown itself was elective, not hereditary.

Separate interests never seemed to converge for very long. Century followed century of pope against emperor; pope against anti-pope; emperor against external powers like the King of France; north against south; lords against kings; church reformers against the old guard; piety against politics. There were wars of words, wars of ideas, and real blood-soaked wars too, with the boundaries of the empire shifting about amoeba-like. Until the Habsburgs came along, there were long stretches when the empire went without an emperor.

Wilson’s approach to bringing order to what could feel like chaos is to not attempt a chronological history. Instead, he dissects the empire thematically, providing cross-sectional views of topics such as sovereignty, kingship and justice. Indeed, the book may best be approached as a collection of essays to be read in portions, with reference material at hand, rather than simply end-to-end.

There will be surprises for most readers along the way. For me, none was greater than learning of Emperor Henry IV assuming the position of general protector of all Jews in his domains, an arrangement that persisted right through to the demise of the empire more than 700 years later.

This was protection, not a grant of equality, and implementation was patchy. But, nevertheless, it is salutary to be reminded of German leaders such as the 11th century Bishop of Speyer preventing rather than instigating pogroms; or Emperor Rudolf II banning Luther’s anti-Semitic books in the sixteenth century; or the imperial judges who overturned the eviction of Jews by the Prince de Rohan after he had fled to his German properties following the French Revolution. There was to be no such protection available to German Jews once the 20th century rolled round.

Ireland creeps into view only once, with a glancing, anonymised reference to an abbey founded by Saint Columbanus. There isn’t much on the Carolingian Renaissance and so no place for John Scotus Eriugena, the outstanding Neoplatonist philosopher who took over the Palatine Academy in 845 at the invitation of another Charles, Charles the Bald (and who used to appear on our £5 notes).

Wilson’s style is dry and it sometimes feels like he leaves his readers to fend for themselves amid the swirling masses of detail. This is not dashing historical narrative in the vein of someone like Tom Holland.

On the other hand, his style is not entirely bloodless. Wilson does not simply wish to reacquaint Europe with its own history. He wants his readers to see some of the merits of the Holy Roman Empire, too, merits that have been forgotten, or ignored, or dismissed.

In a nutshell, while it was around, the empire kept a bejewelled, battered lid on ethnic chauvinism and the will to power on a grand scale. It did so by trying to govern through consensus rather than command, instilling common cause among the teeming ranks of kings, princes, dukes, city leaders, bishops and archbishops.

The empire fostered local, particular liberties, shared by members of incorporated groups and communities, and not abstract ‘Liberty’ as a right of all. It is complicated stuff with a complicated ‘afterlife’, which Wilson deals with in his final chapter where he embarks on an extended meditation on what the Holy Roman Empire might have to tell us about the EU.

Despite its immense heft, there are times when Peter H Wilson’s book feels like it is just skimming the surface. Nevertheless, a significant breach has been opened in how the story of Europe is told, at least in English. It will be interesting now to see how many other historians pour through that gap.

The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History

Peter H Wilson

Allen Lane, £35


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