Sunday, April 9, 2017

What was the Holy Roman Empire?

Fig.1: Where to begin with this madness?
The 18th century French philosopher Voltaire (you know, that guy that snug people pretend to understand) once said, "This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire." And like most things Voltaire said that I totally understand, he definitely had a point. The Holy Roman Empire, which officially existed between 962 and 1806, is certainly difficult to characterize in such simple terms. It may have been "Holy" in the beginning, but centuries of conflicts with the Catholic Church should have probably forced them to discontinue use of that adjective. It really wasn't all that "Roman," since it was mostly centered around present-day Germany and only controlled the city of Rome for a fraction of its existence. And, yes, while the big boss of the Holy Roman Empire was called an emperor, he came to possess so little power that using the word "Empire" to describe it is practically akin to calling Waffle House a 5-star restaurant. Nevertheless, as the political, military, religious, and geographic center of Europe for much of the second millennium After Doughnuts (AD), it's hard to ignore this confusing monstrosity when discussing world history. I guess that's my job or something.

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.

This changed in the mid-900s with the arrival of Otto, king of the eastern part of Charlemagne's former empire (the German part, though we shouldn't hold that against him). He was doing his best Charlemagne impression by expanding his territory throughout Central Europe, spreading Christianity to pagan groups, and using marriage as a political tool rather than for love (as it should be). His prestige only increased in 955 when he defeated invading Hungarians who were trying to get the rest of Europe to love goulash as much as they did. As thanks, Pope John XII did his best Pope Leo III impression, and crowned Otto as Holy Roman Emperor in 962. This made Otto the natural successor to Charlemagne, who was the natural successor to the Roman Emperors of old, who were the purple toga-wearing rulers of most of the known world. Just a little bit of a big deal. Also, according to many historians (Canned and non-Canned), this is the official beginning of what came to be known as the Sacrum Imperium Romanum, or "Holy Roman Empire" if you didn't go to Catholic school.

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.

A major blow to the HRE came in the 11th century, which had many people begin to question both the "H" and the "R."  Before this point, popes and emperors were all buddy-buddy with one another, with the tradition of the former crowning the latter (followed by a raucous slumber party with soda, chips, and video games) still in full-force. Unfortunately, the relationship soured in 1075 when Pope Gregory VII (unfortunately not the Pope Gregory of either Chant or Calendar fame) took away the right of the emperor to appoint bishops, believing that only the church should decide who gets to wear funny hats and carry weird sticks everywhere. Emperor Henry IV, who had been selling bishoprics to the highest bidder in order to buy mutton meat like his ancestors before him, vehemently disagreed. Henry continued choosing his own bishops, leading Gregory to excommunicate him in 1076. This meant that Henry was no longer considered Holy Roman Emperor in the eyes of the Holiest Dude around, thus his Catholic subjects should rebel against him (as some opportunists did). Henry responded by nominating his own pope and relied on his guy's infallibility instead of Gregory's. This went back-and-forth for several years, with civil wars, pretender emperors, antipopes, an invasion of Rome, and too many hurt feelings to count. While Henry's son, Henry V, would apologize and give up the fight by 1122, that lovin' feeling between the Papacy and the HRE would never return, and more conflicts would erupt between the two over the centuries. Indeed, Rome would no longer be considered a part of the Holy Roman Empire after 1177, and after Charles V's coronation in 1530, the emperor didn't even bother to make the trip to Rome to be crowned anymore (despite the king-size bag of Cool Ranch waiting for him).

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 W├╝rttemberg 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...

Fig.4: The Quaternion Eagle was used as the coat of arms for the Holy Roman Empire
around 1510. It shows the double-headed imperial eagle, which made the Emperor happy,
the shields of 56 Imperial Estates, which made the nobility happy, and a crucifixion,
which made the nuns happy. Always make the nuns happy.

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?

It went downhill even further when a guy named Martin Luther (of Saxony, but also of the Holy Roman Empire, I guess) got really upset about the Catholic Church allowing people to buy their way into heaven (how else would the 1% get there?). His movement caused divisions in the HRE, with the emperor and some Estates supporting Catholicism, and other Estates adopting the new fad called Protestantism. Before you knew it, Catholic Estates were fighting with Protestant Estates, and a really nasty incident involving people getting thrown out of a window caused one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history with the Thirty Years' War (fig.5). In the Peace of Westphalia that ended the conflict, it was decided that the local noblemen would decide which religion his Estate would practice, regardless of the wishes of the Holy Roman Emperor (by this point, all of those words were just for show). The mess that was the HRE was finally cleaned up in 1806, when Napoleon did everyone a favor (for once) and conquered the territory for the French. The Habsburg family, which had held the title emperor since 1438, tried to start it up again with the Austrian Empire (later the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after those goulash-lovers got more of a say), but even that disappeared from the map after the middle school fight that was World War I. However, their German rival, Prussia, was successful in doing what the Holy Roman Empire failed to do: unite all of Germany into a single nation, which finally occurred in 1871. And Germany has been grand and hasn't caused any problems since.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment