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Heart of EuropeWilson, Peter. The Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2016. 1008 pp.

Perhaps the most widely known thing about the Holy Roman Empire is the one credited to French philosophe François-Marie Arouet, who quipped in 1761 that the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor Empire. The Frenchman was not alone in disparaging the Central European polity. James Madison, when looking for a model of a federal union for his republic in the New World, remarked upon the European sovereignty that it was a “nerveless body; incapable of regulating its own members; insecure against external dangers, and agitated with unceasing fermentation in its bowels. [Its history was simply a catalogue] of the licentiousness of the strong, and the oppression of the weak…of general imbecility, confusion, and misery.” Peter Wilson, Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Souls College, University of Oxford, pushes back against this entrenched negative impression of the Holy Roman Empire in his masterful new book, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire.

Part of the prejudice may come from the fact that the demise of the Holy Roman Empire coincided with the rise of the nation-state. Ideologues then and historians since have written the European saga as one of progress towards the modern, centralised, ethnic nation-state and the Holy Roman Empire had no place in a world where every nation was supposed to have its own state. Thus, it achieved the reputation of a failed state for no doing of its own. Moreover, distortions have crept in as historians seeking to explain the character of modern Germany looked to the Holy Roman Empire – not to understand it on its own terms but to project later events into the past.

Wilson’s tale begins with the “surprise” coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in 800 as the King of the Romans. The Frankish chieftain was seen as carrying on the legacy of Rome. This was important to medieval Christian theology which prophesised the arrival of the Kingdom of God after the fall of the fourth great empire – Babylonia, Medes-Persia, Greece, and Rome. It was not until 962, however, that an emperor – Otto I – was crowned specifically as the ruler of a Holy Roman Empire. His decisive victory over the pagan Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955 earned him a reputation as the saviour of Christendom.

A chronological history of the Holy Roman Empire would be a nightmare to write and even more challenging to understand. A mosaic of principalities, free cities, grand duchies, kingdoms, and even confederations, the imperial polity had no clear hierarchy of authority. Authority was not concentrated in an imperial capital but was diffuse in several of the major cities in the emperor’s domain – Augsburg, Milan, Antwerp, Prague, Leipzig, Hamburg, Vienna, and elsewhere. This befuddling framework governed by consensus of its parts rather than by coercion, the bewildering diversity of communities and practices protected by imperial decree rather than assimilated.

Instead, Wilson chooses to present a thematic analysis of the Holy Roman Empire and his book is divided into four parts: ideal, belonging, governance, and society. What is important for the author to tell his readers, in this book at least, is not what happened but how things worked. The past is a foreign country, as British novelist LP Hartley memorably opened his The Go-Between with in 1953, and Wilson endeavours to ensure that we comprehend its values, priorities, politics, relations, dynamics – in short, its entire weltanshauung.

Despite a political system that must appear unfathomable to the modern reader, the Holy Roman Empire proved adept at governance. It established the world’s first postal system in 1490 and the world’s first newspaper, a weekly, in 1605; the first imperial daily had to wait until 1635, still 67 years ahead of England’s Daily Courant. Almost every town had a lending library by the 18th century and there were over 200 publishers and 8,000 authors in the Holy Roman Empire – twice that of France which had a comparable population. There was relatively little censorship and even that was usually only at the local level. The Holy Roman Empire had 45 universities in its realm by 1800, while France had 22 and England just two.

This is not to say that such a decentralised system ran always ran smoothly or efficiently. Trade was particularly difficult given the shifting currencies and endless tolls; a pound of pepper, for example, could almost double in price simply by traversing from one end of the Holy Roman Empire to the other due to the taxes in each principality.

Foreign policy was no picnic either, with different regions of the Holy Roman Empire associating in leagues such as the Hanseatic League, Swabian League of Cities, the Lusatian League, the Alsatian Décapole, and the Lombard League. Some of these, such as the Hanseatic League, was a loose confederation of merchant guilds, who, at the zenith of their power, were strong enough to declare war on Denmark and Norway to extract trading concessions from King Valdemar IV and King Haakon VI. These semi-independent actions, needless to say, influenced imperial policy as well.

Other alliances, such as the Swabian League of Cities and the Alsatian Décapole were formed to ensure that their members do not lose their rights in the constant imperial power shuffles while others were created to defend local regions from the Emperor. The Lombard League, for example, was formed to defend Italy from the German Staufen dynasty which held the imperial reins then. Paradoxically, the papal-supported Lombard League did not wish to secede from the Christian empire.

Despite his thematic approach, Wilson does adhere to some semblance of chronology within his sections. He traces his core ideas through the Carolingian dynasty, followed by the Ottonians, Salians, Staufen, Luxembourgs, and finally the Habsburgs. Minor interruptions in dynastic succession such as the Wittelsbach, Welf, Supplinburg, Unruoching, Bosonid, or Widonid houses naturally get less of a mention. However, the author rejects the narrative of progress and nationhood as so many historians before him have told. As Prasenjit Duara, in his thought-provoking Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China, has argued, Wilson also resists the temptation to depict regionalism – whether due to religion, language, or ethnicity – as meaningless fratricide that diminishes from the unified national edifice. Imperial subjects had multiple identities within a complex framework of allegiances and hierarchies. A Münchner could be a Catholic, a burgher, a guildsman, a father, and a Bavarian. The Holy Roman Empire did not “fail” to evolve into a German nation because none of its imperial subjects felt the need for such a development.

Despite producing a thought-provoking and rich work on the history of one of Europe’s important yet less understood empires, Heart of Europe, at 1,008 pages, is likely to be a daunting read for most people. In all fairness, Wilson has done his best to minimise the length of this convoluted saga but unfortunately, it may only serve to confuse the average reader more. For example, even the average reader might be expected to know of Charles V, Stupor Mundi, the Golden Bull of 1356, the Battle of Bouvines in which the Holy Roman Empire fought on both sides, or the Seven Years’ War and use these events and personages as markers in the longer history of medieval Europe. However, Wilson gives most such major events and figures short shrift in his narrative with the result that only those with a solid background in European history would be able to appreciate the author’s mammoth effort. Even the non-academic prose of Heart of Europe does not redeem its readability for most.

Seen from a global perspective, the Holy Roman Empire was not as unique as it appeared in Europe. The Ottoman Empire, its close neighbour, was also socially diverse though politically more centralised. Some of the Holy Roman Empire’s Indian contemporaries were also comparable in their diversity and pluralism. For that matter, even the modern Indian republic is no less confounding. Compared to these empires, the Roman Empire was a far greater claimant to the label of modern with a genuine sense of civic nationalism.

Heart of Europe‘s publication at a critical juncture in the history of the European Union is bound to draw comparisons. Wilson himself points to the similarities between the two – permeable boundaries, multi-layered jurisdictions, a byzantine bureaucracy, consensus-driven policy. However, he is also the first to warn the reader that such similarities should not lead one to advocate a neo- Holy Roman Empire as a solution to the European Union’s difficulties. For one, modern sensibilities regarding equality cannot coexist with the hierarchical nature of the Holy Roman Empire’s domains to the emperor and to one another. Second, it remains to be seen if society can genuinely transcend its monotheistic fetish, whether expressed as nation or deity.

Wilson’s monograph is a substantial one in heft as well as content and deserves careful consideration. It is not for the casual reader nor is it amenable to yielding quick solutions to current problems in world affairs. Belying its chatty style is a rigorous academic tome that requires an equally rigorous and disciplined reader.