|Fig.1: Where to begin with this madness?|
Once upon a time, there was a regular Roman Empire. As great as that Roman Empire was, it still had problems from time to time: you know, stuff like revolts and fires and barbaric neighbors coming by and asking for more than a cup of sugar. For all intents and purposes, the Roman Empire ended with the abdication of the last emperor in 476, even though some weirdos out east would claim their Byzantine Empire was its continuation (for all intents and purposes, that would also come to an inglorious end). By 800, Western Europe felt a void in their life for not having a Roman Empire to push them around for the past three hundred years. Luckily, this is the year my favorite European, Charlemagne, King of the Frankish Empire (present-day France and Germany) had his crowning achievement. Literally. He was crowned as emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas, which has gone down in history as the best stocking-stuffer ever. This elevated Charlemagne from a mere "King of the Franks," which no one cared about, to "Emperor of the Romans," which had a much better ring to it. This did not create a "Holy Roman Empire," per say, but it passed the title of "emperor" along for the first time since the fall of the (unholy) Roman Empire, as well as set the stage for a non-Roman to be considered for the job (take that, glass ceiling!). Nevertheless, Charlemagne's empire would be carved up between his grandsons over the next fifty years, and the title of "Emperor of the Romans" would eventually fade like Michael Cera's movie career.
|Fig.2: Just like Charlemagne, Otto is|
best depicted in gold.
Now it would be folly to think of the Holy Roman Empire as just a normal country (though in comparison to, let's say, North Korea, everything is a normal country). Yes, the emperor was in charge, but his title of Holy Roman Emperor was not what gave him power over his territory. The emperor was simultaneously king of countries within his realm; for example, Emperor Conrad II (r. 1027-1039) was also King of Germany, King of Italy, and King of Burgundy (present-day southwestern France), and it were those titles that truly allowed him to tax the crap out of the peasants there. Emperors would often marry off their siblings, children, or even themselves into other royal families, and hope the right rulers would kick the bucket at the right time in order for one of their own to inherent the throne, thus adding another territory to the HRE (as the kids call it). At one point or another, a Holy Roman Emperor would also be the ruler of Sicily, Jerusalem, Hungary, Bohemia, Croatia, Austria, Spain, and the Nether-regions (as I call it), even if not all of those lands were technically a part of the HRE itself. Similar complications were not uncommon in Europe (just look at the crazy history of the United Kingdom, if you dare), but this system of decentralizing power to various kingdoms with their own laws, customs, nobility, and rules about designated hitters would cause mucho problemos (as the Spanish call it) in the centuries to come.
|Fig.3: Don't worry if you don't understand|
the Investiture Controversy; they made a
graphic novel about it.
So even if the Holy Roman Empire wasn't all that holy nor commanded Rome, it was still an empire, right? Right?! Well, maybe it was in the beginning. The definition of an "empire" is a collection of different nations governed by a single ruler. Other emperors throughout history, such as Augustus, Genghis Khan, Victoria, and Palpatine, can certainly claim their empire was correctly defined, with their rule extended beyond their own nation to major ethnic groups like the Greeks, Chinese, Indians, and Ewoks, respectively. Indeed, Holy Roman Emperors did rule over nations other than their native Germans (Italians, Dutch, Bohemians, Rhapsodies, etc), which was why they were considered kings of those lands in addition to being emperor. This began to change under the rule of Emperor Frederick II between 1220-1250 (who, you may recall, was the guy who dillied during the Fifth Crusade and dallied during the Sixth). Because he was so preoccupied with fighting wars outside the HRE, Frederick granted the princes that ruled small pieces of the Empire more power, including the right to mint coins, levy tolls, and collect taxes (so, yeah, mostly money stuff). This was akin to giving the babysitter more authority, just to make sure the child doesn't destroy the house while the parents were out for the night.
Unfortunately, the end result of this ploy was the babysitter demanding more power and money, and even insisted on being the one in charge even when the parents were home. Local princes began to assert their authority on their populous, and came to be seen as the real guys in charge instead of the emperor. The fact that there was no clear emperor in the 23 years after Frederick II's death in 1250 only made it more convincing when the princes said, "I am the captain now!" Suddenly, territories like Saxony, Bavaria, Luxembourg, Swabia, and the lovely-sounding Württemberg started acting like independent countries instead of parts of a larger empire. Power became less concentrated in the hands of the emperor, and more in the various "Imperial Estates" that made the map of the HRE so colorful in fig.1 (and made the coat of arms so busy in fig.4). These Estates even began going to war against each other for land and resources, despite technically being part of the same kingdom! Emperors tried several times to halt the slippery slope of decentralization; they gave other nobles ruling powers in order to check the princes, but this only succeeded in breaking the Empire down into even smaller pieces (oh the irony!). By the 1700s, the Holy Roman Empire consisted of about 1,800 different Estates, with some under direct control of the emperor, but most commanded through a prince or duke or baron or count or abbot or lord or landgrave or margrave or burgrave or...
The emperor's power was leached away even more after what's known as the Golden Bull of 1356 (called so because Emperor Charles IV thought it was total bull...). It confirmed the authority of the Imperial Estates, and also established a system for their noblemen to elect the emperor. That's right: the all-powerful Holy Roman Emperor would be elected like some secretary of the PTO! Even though the title of emperor often stayed in the same family (much like my grandmother's secret lemon chicken recipe), these electors now had the ability to deny the emperorship to someone they didn't like (much like how my blabbermouth aunt wasn't allowed to know my grandmother's secret lemon chicken recipe). Eventually the meetings between the princes, as well as other guys with fancy titles in front of their names, pretty much became a legislature that made more decisions than the guy with a fancy crown on his head. This was called the Imperial Diet, which is different than what Emperor Maximilian II had to do in 1570 when his weight was at its Maximilian. It got to the point where the emperor was forced to accept any decision the Imperial Diet made after 1648. Even the county coroner had more power than the lowly Emperor of All the Romans by this point!
|Fig.5: The Thirty Years' War killed a similar proportion|
of the European population as World War II, and it
started in Germany. Will we ever learn?
So in the long run, did the Holy Roman Empire really matter? Despite its obvious flaws, you could still say this country (or kingdom or empire or whatever you want to call it) had the biggest influence over the course of European History during its existence. The actions taken by Charlemagne and Otto, the HRE's founding fathers, took Europe out of the Dark Ages and towards the slightly more illuminating Medieval era (just slightly). The controversy between emperors and popes was a small, but significant step towards the separation of church and state (though neither staunch-Catholics truly intended that). The Protestant Reformation that tore the Empire apart branched into several coexisting denominations of Christianity practiced by approximately one billion people (give or take 100 million) today. Most importantly, the various Estates in the Empire provided Europe with a plethora of proper marriages choices, and practically all royal families from Britain to Russia had some German in them (they didn't have a vaccine for that yet). Just like Germany in the 20th century, the Holy Roman Empire was the middle of everything in Europe, good and bad, literally and figuratively, in sickness and in health (mostly the former).
So what if the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire? Yes, the complexity and hypocrisy of the HRE was always a huge problem, but it still survived nearly a thousand years! Compare it to an old jalopy: who knows how many different parts are moving around in there, but by God, it still runs! Just explain the history of the Holy Roman Empire to your mechanic the next time your ride fails inspection. He'll understand.