History and Theory of the Holy Roman Empire.

Historians group European empires into three phases:  an ancient period of Greek and Roman Empires that extended into the mid 5th century CE.  A second phase of successor empires to the Roman Empire that overlapped between the Byzantine of the East that continued until 1453 and the Holy Roman Empire that derived as a consortium of Frankish, Germanic and Austrian kingdoms that survived as a coalition in various forms until the abdication of the Austrian-Habsburg dynasty to Napoleon’s invading army in 1806.  A third phase of empires emerged in around 1500 with the modern world system, the conquest of the New World and the production of European colonial empires.   The separate and rival Spanish, British, Dutch, French and later empires of other European states came to dominate the world system alongside the Euro-Asiatic empires of the Ottomans and Chinese.

The choice of how to write about European empires crosses the division of history into conventional theories found in three dominant approaches:  Eurocentric, Nation-State or Nationalistic, and Core-Periphery.  Eurocentric approaches are founded upon Hegel’s theory of European civilization as the root of progress in which Greek civilization and its European successors are superior to their Oriental counterparts.  The national approach is found in Leopold von Ranke, whose nation-state approach positioned nationalism as the division of Europe and with it the division of the world into European spheres of imperial control of influence. Immanuel Wallerstein represents the revisionist approach that sees the modern world system as a competition between a European and other core areas and their semi-periphery and peripheries that are exploited by the former[1].  It is common then to find historians who blend one or two of these approaches, but rarely do we find all three approaches attempted, for the various theories contain self-enclosed arguments that exclude one or another of the other theories[2].

An interpretive survey of the thousand-year history of the Holy Roman Empire forces a historian to confront these theories.  Peter Wilson’s The Holy Roman Empire (2016) offers seeks to present analogies with the contemporary formation of the European Union with the political organization and administrative theory and practice of the Holy Roman Empire[3]. The book is organized into four parts:  ideology and the relation between church and state; power over land in local kingdoms, principalities and national allegiances; and the relative administrative and dynastic control of territories; and a final section on judicial and governmental powers.

For Part Two, the author surveys the various overlapping and competing dynasties. These are grouped into the following:

  1. the Western-based Frank and Germanic Carolingian dynasty from Charlemagne in the 8th century up until the disruption of the Normans in the 11th century;
  2. the Ottonian and German based dynasties from Otto I in the mid 9th century to the beginning of the 11th century;
  3. the Salian Dynasty of Northern Europe and Austria from the early 11th to 14th centuries;
  4. the Stauffers and Welfs who ruled Swabia, Bavaria and other parts of Northern Europe and Sicily from the 11th to 13th century;
  5. the Luxembourg Dynasty from the mid-13th to 15th century;
  6. and the Habsburgs based in Austria and Hungary who ruled from the 14th century until Francis II’s abdication in 1806, and then locally as the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.

 

The book is an impressive and informative survey of this period with insight on the organizational and ideological appeal to authority. Wilson’s choice to focus on ideology and   administrative history deemphasizes the material and historical forces and serial crises that erupted throughout this 1,000 year history.

A number of periods of crisis, including the Thirty Years War and the Peace or Treaty of Westphalia are too briefly appraised and abandoned.  Perhaps this is due in part on the author’s assumption that his previous book, Europe’s Tragedy:  A New History of the Thirty Years’ War (2009) was a summative work that need not be recounted in this text. Nevertheless, the summation of this period leaves the failure of the Peace of Westphalia in a brief and fragmentary form, for the various crises of the Great Northern War (1701-1721) and wars in France attest to the breakdown of the system.

However in doing so, a reader is left without a discussion of critical social forces and conflicts over land, peasant struggles, the costs of war and environmental catastrophes and epidemics that devastated these lands.  Peripheral areas that lay outside the Holy Roman Empire dynastic lands carry no mention or discussion.  The British Isles, Ireland, Scotland, and even Spain and the Iberian Peninisula are entirely or largely avoided.  Similarly the Southern Mediterranean, with the exception of intermittent struggles over Italy and Sicily and the Crusader States are similarly underrepresented.  Eastern Europe beyond Poland and Hungary, in other words, areas under the lands of the Rus and Muslim empires are underdeveloped. The consideration of the Ottoman Empire is included but is overly focused on the wars and truces between the various dynasties and sultans.

 

Reinhard, Wolfgang. Die Unterwerfung der Welt: Globalgeschichte der europäischen Expansion 1415-2015. Historische Bibliothek der Gerda Henkel Stiftung. 2016.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World-System I Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century.  Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2014.

———. The Modern World-System II : Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600–1750.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

———. The Modern World-System III The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730s-1840s.  Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2014.

———. The Modern World System IV.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

Wilson, Peter H. The Holy Roman Empire : a thousand years of Europe’s history.  London: Allen Lane, 2016.

[1] Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World System IV (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); The Modern World-System II : Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600–1750 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); The Modern World-System I Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2014); The Modern World-System III The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730s-1840s, (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2014).

[2] Wolfgang Reinhard, Die Unterwerfung der Welt: Globalgeschichte der europäischen Expansion 1415-2015, Historische Bibliothek der Gerda Henkel Stiftung (2016).

[3] Peter H. Wilson, The Holy Roman Empire : a thousand years of Europe’s history (London: Allen Lane, 2016).

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