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About this book

The Holy Roman Empire has always caused tremendous confusion for students of European history, and this book sets out to provide a clear account of this remarkable organisation - comparable in many ways only to the modern European Union - and its profound impact during its three centuries of existence.

Table of Contents

1. The Holy Roman Empire Explained

Abstract
The Holy Roman Empire was once famously dismissed by Voltaire as neither holy, Roman nor an empire. Despite covering most of central Europe for over a millennium, the Empire is still poorly understood in comparison with other European states, even to the point that many scholars dispute whether it was indeed a state at all [20, 56]. Within German historiography, the Empire, or first Reich in contrast to Bismarck’s Second and Hitler’s Third, used to be a byword for political impotency and national disunity. Recent scholarship has done much to dispel these misconceptions, but the very volume and scope of this newer literature has made it difficult to form a rounded picture of the Empire’s development and place within wider European trends.
Peter H. Wilson

2. Constitutional Development

Abstract
It has long been customary to divide the Empire’s development into phases, based on the significance of key ‘turning points’ in its history such as the 1495 meeting of the Reichstag in Worms, or the Peace of Westphalia [41]. This has considerable utility, provided it is recognized that these dates mark transitional stages rather than abrupt ones. The principal focus of this chapter will be on the period after 1495, a date that is commonly taken as marking the transition from the medieval to the early modern [52]. First, however, we must identify those medieval currents that continued to shape the Empire’s development after this date.
Peter H. Wilson

3. Key Institutions and Trends

Abstract
The elective character of the imperial title was a key determining characteristic of the Empire. Seventeen elections to the position of King of the Romans took place between 1486 and 1792, of which eight occurred during the lifetime of a reigning emperor (vivente imperatore) (see Appendix). This procedure was not specified in the Golden Bull, but neither was it prohibited, and electors as well as emperors could appreciate the advantages it offered in avoiding the dangers of an interregnum or disputed succession. These problems had plagued imperial elections in the thirteenth century, slowing down moves towards political centralization and inflicting lasting damage on the Empire’s constitutional fabric. It is significant that two longest interregna occurring after 1495 (1657–58 and 1740–42) were associated with debilitating external interference in imperial politics and serious domestic crises [60, 75].
Peter H. Wilson

4. Conclusions

Abstract
The revival of interest in the Holy Roman Empire has been sustained and has placed it firmly back on the agenda of historical research. Significantly, it is no longer the domain of narrow constitutional history, as its importance to other avenues of historical enquiry has been demonstrated beyond doubt. Though never corresponding in practice to its own constitutional theory, the Empire was neither moribund nor irrelevant to the lives of its inhabitants. It provided the framework within which a variety of political cultures could flourish. These were neither fully progressive, nor entirely reactionary, combining instead numerous, often contradictory strands, as outlined in Chapter 1. For this reason, it is not possible to chart the Empire’s political development through simple phases of decline, or to see it as deviating from some standard European norm. Moreover, the Empire’s political history cannot be reduced to a dualism between a fading medieval monarchical ideal and a dynamic, modernizing impulse supposedly inherent in absolutism. Absolutism did not displace older forms of representative government which persisted in the survival of the territorial estates and certain imperial institutions such as the Reichstag.
Peter H. Wilson
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