Friday, April 18, 2014

The Other Great Institution: The HRE

Present consensus appears to be that the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) extended in time from the coronation of Otto I, Duke of Saxony, as Emperor of the Romans, in 962, to the dissolution of the HRE by Francis II, emperor of Austria, in 1806, after his defeat in the Battle of Austerlitz by Napoleon. In this view the Carolingian empire is labeled as a “forerunner.”

I prefer another version I found in the 1956 Encyclopedia Britannica, “Empire.” That version sees the HRE as beginning with Charlemagne, whose coronation took place in 800. The HRE is there seen in large part as an institution that existed in parallel with the papacy for 1007 years and was seen, by the popes, as the secular counterpart to the sacred rule of the Church.

Another way to put that is to say that the HRE was an ideal, expressed as an institution, an institution that only gave this ideal a very modest embodiment. For secular rulers the title of emperor was either a well-deserved honorific the reality of which they more or less already possessed, or a title that gave them titular rights to influence realms they did not really control. In a practical sense it was a tool by which the papacy could motivate rulers to defend an often threatened papacy.

In any case Voltaire’s famous quip, calling the HRE “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire” is quite accurate. In that sense the HRE much resembles every other projected idealization that humanity has tried but has not quite succeeded in making real.

To illustrate this. The Carolingian was a genuine empire only while Charles I ruled it. Thereafter it fell apart physically. And the realm that came into being with the election of Otto I might be labeled the United States of Germany. Otto controlled some but not all German duchies—and, at his elevation, became King of Italy. The Emperor’s powers were always quite limited; the states that made up the later HRE had quite real sovereignty of their own—much more so than the states of the USA. But the Emperor had moral suasion, so long as he was firmly on the job, which was not always the case. After 911 the Office itself became elective, the electors being kings and dukes.

I present above a complete list of Holy Roman Emperors treating HRE as a singular phenomenon. I’ve marked the periods in which no Holy Roman Emperor ruled at all. The major dynasties that held this office are marked in different colors. Most worthy of note is that the longest period without an Emperor (37 years) came between what was left of the disintegrating Carolingian legacy and the coronation of a Germanic Emperor Otto. That gap would seem to justify the dualistic view—but only if we viewed the HRE as a genuine, coherent political-military power, which it was not.

Worth noting further is that the other gaps that appear do so at times when one dynastic power waned before a new one managed to take hold. The sway of these dynasties also ensured that the electors continued to stick with a successful house while its power lasted. And other emperors that surfaced briefly were often selected for practical reasons. Two such were Louis the Blind, ruler of Provence, right next door to Italy in France, and Berengar of Friuli, a region just north of Venice and Trieste. I show an inset map of Friuli, showing how small Berngar’s real base was in actuality—but well-placed to hold off the Magyars. Both men, indeed, were honored with the title in attempts to recruit and to incentivize them to fight Magyar invasions from the East. When you cannot endow people with real authority, sometimes a title is useful.

Another way to view the HRE is using a lens from the future—how the major nations of Europe were formed. Charlemagne actually controlled the future France, Germany, Austria, and half of Italy. The empire under his grandchildren was split in three parts (see map) at the Treaty of Verdun in 843, with the future border between France and Germany already set as the Rhine (in the earlier Oaths of Strasbourg, 842). Until the Ottonian dynasty took over, Holy Roman Emperors came from the green and orange regions, thus from France or Italy. Thereafter fragmentation and weakness in the West—Norman invasions and Magyar incursions—shifted stability to Germany, specifically the ruling power of Saxony, as shown in the next map.


The solid black lines above indicate the extent of Otto’s realm in 972, thus ten years after his coronation. The HRE still controls significant elements of France. The following series of maps next shows the evolution of the HRE over time, the marked areas shown overlapping modern boundaries.




Note the successive changes, particularly in the west and south, as French power gradually works its way all the way to the Rhine, as the Nordic emperors lose Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire becomes, eventually, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The thought also occurs, staring at these maps, that the slowly shrinking extent of the HRE represents the inverse of Europe’s gradually establishing coherent and stable nation states—with the HRE remaining, well past the date of its dissolution, a realm of competing duchies and principalities. The actual formation of a coherent German state had to await Bismarck and the year 1871—which takes us way, way past the end of the Middle Ages.

Two closing notes. The careful reader of the table will note that dates of some individuals overlap. The explanation is that such individuals co-ruled with their predecessor—having been elected while the predecessor still held power and, while doing so, could ensure his own succession.

The French-German divide was first symbolically marked when two grandsons of Charlemagne, Charles the Bald who ruled West Francia and Louis the German, ruler of East Francia, pledged allegiance against their brother, Lothair who, ruling Middle Francia, which also included the papal states, claimed overall dominion over them. He was, after all, the Holy Roman Emperor. (For the layout of their realms, see the second map shown in this post.) The documents were prepared in Old French and Old German, and each brother swore in his own language. Medieval Latin was also used to record the oath, perhaps to make them official. The oatha were sworn in Strasbourg in 842 and they set the Rhine as the border between the two brothers’ respective claims to dominance. Prophetic, that, although much sand had to run through the clocks before it was realized.

This famous event reminded me of a visit once to Strasbourg. I was stationed near there as a soldier of the U.S. Army. I went to see a popular movie one evening. Two teenage girls in front of me, waiting in line, had a lively dialogue, one speaking German, the other French. At one point they switched languages quite spontaneously, quite unaware of the fact that they were doing so. What comes around goes around. I bet that it’s still happening…
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Image credits:

Timeline of HRE: dates and names largely from Encyclopedia Britannica.
Map of Friuli: Google Maps.
Three-fold division of Carolingian Empire: Robert Sewel (link).
Otto's Realm in 972: Wikipedia (link).
Images of HRE over time: Wikipedia (link).

Middle Ages Posts:

From Attila to Osman
Plagues: The Other Invaders

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