Wilson (History/Univ. of Hull; The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy, 2009, etc.) delves into the makeup, structure, and lands of the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted “more than a millennium, well over twice as long as imperial Rome itself.”
Beginning with the coronation of Charlemagne in 800, the empire lasted until the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars brought about its dissolution. The author takes Voltaire to task with his comment that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, and he meticulously explains how it was structured and ruled. The Holy Roman Empire was unlike any other, defined by countless autonomous kingdoms led by an emperor with a divine mission. The emperor combined secular and ecclesiastical roles, and he existed as a protector of the papacy—but not a master. The empire lacked the things that constituted a single political core, such as a stable heartland, a capital city, central political institutions, or even a single “nation.” The Reichstag, representing the imperial estates, not the general population, had a broader remit than other countries, enacting law codes, military regulations, and policy implementation. The author avoids chronological narration, arguing that the empire never had a linear development. He traces the power and influence of the imperial church system and the educated clergy as well as the lords’ power over clerical appointments. As princes gained power, structure switched to a status hierarchy, persistent and increasingly rigid. To explain the details of this nebulous empire ruled by autonomous princes, Wilson takes thoroughness to a painful threshold. Many aspects can only be pinpointed with semantics. The author’s scholarship is unassailable, and his writing ability is clean and readable, but the subject is just too convoluted and even tedious to readers without deep historical background knowledge of this enormous federation.
An encyclopedic reference work to be consulted but likely not completely read by anyone other than fellow academics.