Heart of Europe
by Peter Wilson(2015)
When I read a book of history my goal is to fill gaps in my knowledge of the subject. Sometimes the gaps are large, sometimes they are small, but every so
often a book comes along that completely transforms my knowledge of a subject, filling gaps I never knew existed. So it was with my recent completion of
Peter Wilson's Heart of Europe, an all-encompassing history of the Holy Roman Empire.
For those who know nothing else of the Empire, we begin with Voltaire's famous statement that it was "neither holy, Roman, nor an empire, " a cynical depiction
with more than a dash of truth. What I came to realize was that most of my knowledge of medieval times was based on English and French history and
culture , which took a path quite separate from that of the Empire.
Wilson's works is a non-linear approach to understanding the politics and the social structure of the time, which evolved and grew in complexity over the centuries.
There is too much material for me to discuss in depth, so I will touch on some of the matters that struck closest to home for me; if any
of them reach you, I encourage you to seek out the book for yourself. You might consider using an e-reader, because the hardcover form is physically heavy.
And it is academically serious: The glossary, footnotes, bibliography, appendices, chronologies, maps and family trees make up almost one-third of
the 942-page book.
What was the Holy Roman Empire?
The Empire was a polyglot composition of large kingdoms, smaller principalities, and even smaller duchies, counties and electorates. Created
by Charlemagne in 800, in 814 it was split into three distinct regions that quickly evolved into France, Germany, and the regions in between, such
as those eventually controlled by the Luxembourg family. France turned into a nation relatively quickly: Though England was conceived as a nation
before the Norman Conquest in 1066, Wilson looks at the 13th century as the time that the concept of France as a nation, greater than the
Frankish people, solidified. The Empire, by lasting so long, put off the consolidation of the German people into a nation until 65 years after its end, in 1871.
The Empire's approach to choosing its leadership, its emperors and kings, was far different from those of ordinary kingdoms. Unlike England
and France, where primogeniture dictated that heirs of monarchs would be the oldest sons, or the closest possible equivalent, the Empire had no such
dictate. No, emperors were elected. They were elected by the Electoral College, wherein electors were the most powerful of the kings and
nobles in the Empire. Every new emperor had to be elected by the Electoral College and every new king had to be approved by the other kings
of the Empire. Although preference was given to eldest sons, on many occasions they were passed over in favor of more competent choices; and
when a family dynasty died, the electors turned to other families without it causing a civil war. This, not English or French approaches, was the model for
America's government. Emperors took this requirement so seriously that they commonly got their heirs pre-elected, before their deaths, in order to
assure the transition they desired. Some, such as Charles IV, were unsuccessful but most were not.
Adolph Hitler talked of the Third Reich, the regime of Germany's National Socialist (Nazi) government,
lasting for one thousand years. To the
average non-German that sounded like idiotic bluster. Having read this book I now understand where Hitler was coming from:
The Empire was the First Reich, and lasted from its creation by Charlemagne in 800 until its final destruction by Buonoparte in 1806 - just
more than one thousand years. Since the Empire is often referred to as the German empire, before Germany even became a nation, this reference makes
Hitler's point understandable. Even Buonoparte himself, having vanquished a millennium-old empire, felt it necessary to pay homage by arranging his
coronation to take place with the accoutrements of Charlemagne's coronation.
Ironically, the Holy Roman Empire was the home of the Protestant Reformation, with began with Martin Luther. Although the
Empire was putatively the protector of what we now call the Roman Catholic church, back then Catholics were simply Christians.
This all changed when Martin Luther and his followers broke from the Church, protesting its rules and insisting that true Christianity must take a
different path. Rather than fight it, as the Tudor monarchs of England did, the Empire found a way to accommodate both sides. Catholic
or Protestant kings and nobles were moderated in their approach: In most cases, in most places, rules evolved to protect commoners against
cruel religions dictates of their leaders. This approach took a long time to evolve but it did so without the bloodshed of the English Civil War.
Any student of the American Revolution knows that Hessian soldiers assisted in the fight, but who were they? I never met a teacher
who could answer the question, but Hessians were mercenaries from the Grand Duchy of Hessen in the Empire; hiring out mercenaries was
one of the specialties of the Hessian economy.
It's impossible to summary the work of a thousand pages in only a thousand words. If you find yourself the least bit tempted by this subject,
Wilson's work is an excellent starting point. By the time you finish with it, encyclopedic as it is, you may not feel the need
to visit the subject again for a long while. And if you do, it may be with it as an accompaniment to an associated subject, such as
my parallel read of The Norman Conquest, but let's save that one for another time.