There are some names in History that make a whole world of sense. The Eighty Years War lasted, wait for it, eighty years. The Soviet Union was indeed a union of small local districts called Soviets. And AD 69 was called the Year of the Four Emperors because in Ancient Rome…OK, I’ll stop patronising you, you get my idea. Which is why I’m so disappointed to tell you that, when I talk about the Holy Roman Empire, I’m talking about something not particularly Holy, not at all Roman, and debatably one unified empire. And yet it was Europe’s number one superpower at a time when most countries were fractured and tiny. It’s the reason Europe is mostly Christian, and mostly Catholic, and yet it was the birthplace of the largest and most powerful movements that opposed it. Most importantly, from my writing-about-history-on-the-net perspective, it’s the perfect example of a feudal system gone horribly wrong and a German Empire gone horribly right and definitive proof that Germany was at the centre of European politics well before the Eurozone. Ladies and gents, the Holy Roman Empire.
I’m not a fan of that theory that “history is but the biography of great men” – for one, it fails to take account of some pretty great women, and ignores those awful not-great men, who were probably just growing your food or making your armor or running your country, you self-righteous feudal prick. But even I admit that the story of the birth of the Holy Roman Empire (please forgive me for calling it the HRE from now on, but the innaprioriate naming just annoys me) is pretty much the story of one man. This is the story of Karl Karling.
Before you make fun of what must be one of the least cool names in history, bear in mind that Karling is the name of his dynasty, and it’s only called that because his descendants named themselves after him because they were so in love with him. If even that’s not badass enough, people tend to use the Latin “Carolingian” for his dynastic name – surely in a Holy Roman attempt to sound more Roman – and call him Charlemagne, or Charles the Great. But, you know…I prefer Karl. Karl was King of the Franks, crowned in 768 (I could get into how the Dark Ages were actually pretty enlightened, but I’m guessing it’ll be more interesting to cover Christian smear campaigns when we cover the Vatican). His ancestors had left him some pretty big boots to fill, going from tiny tribes in North Germany to owners of what is now northern France (yes, France named after the Franks, keep up) and the land around Frankfurt (You can figure that one out). Yeah, it was fine, but have you been to Northern France? Karl inherited the motive and the means to create something a little more sprawling.
I could go into detail into his conquests, but if you look at a map of Western Europe (well, Western Europe without Spain and the British Isles, but…I just want to prove a point, OK?) you pretty much have the Karling Empire by Charlemagne’s death. This guy was good – so good, in fact, that the Pope declared him the Roman Emperor despite not owning Rome itself, in the hope that he would restore the Western Roman Empire’s glory and give the power back the the Pope. He didn’t, because at the time the Pope was essentially just in charge of a ruined city of Rome and he owned all of everything, but it’s the thought that counts. Karl was even named Caesar (in his own language, Kaiser), and explains how the HRE he created got its H and R. Unfortunately, the E wasn’t doing so well – partly because of over-extension (when you can only travel by horse, Spanish lords are pretty far removed from the Luxembourg-based Kaiser) and partly because people aren’t fantastic honorable loyalty machines what was one empire crumbled into about six. The largest of them, East Francia, kept its imperial nametag – and picked up the culture of the East Franks to become German – and became the HRE proper that would last for the next seven centuries.
Remember when I said the HRE wasn’t a proper empire? This is where all that emerges. It had Emperors, yeah, but they were voted for by nobles. It had cities, yeah, but no capital or centre of power. It had a unified army, yeah, but the dukes and princes and archbishops could still declare war on each other within the kingdom, essentially acting as constituencies when it suited them and independent nations when it didn’t. It wasn’t as much an empire as a collection of smaller kingdoms, archbishoprics and free cities who claimed to be part of a larger state, and although that made the HRE relatively stable, it did NOT make it as powerful as powerful as its French neighbours – something that would bite them in the ass later. The decline of the empire was slow, and punctuated by breakaway kingdoms like Bohemia (yes, it’s a real place, but we call it the Czech Republic now) and infighting Italian Free Cities. By the time Napoleon rolled along (yes, we have skipped a bit, but HRE history before that is much more the history of the awesome families who dominated its politics, and that’s for another time) it was weak enough that the French General broke it up into tiny independent countries so it wouldn’t threaten his shiny new empire. Created by a conquering French Emperor and destroyed by a conquering French Emperor, the HRE had truly come full circle but paved the way for the little German states to unify and become something extremely powerful – the nationalist, militaristic German Empire.
Has the HRE really made a difference to life today, though? Are old and weirdly named kingdoms and empires actually relevant? That’s probably up to you to decide. Its religious freedom (“Let every man get to heaven in his own way”, etc) allowed movements like Protestantism and Judaism to survive and thrive in Europe through the Renaissance, but its borders have been broken up and beaten by wars and long forgotten. It is still remembered fondly by Germans (You’ve heard of the Third Reich, right? The HRE was the first) but is all but forgotten by the nations who once feared it. It’s sort of the stereotypical medieval kingdom but it’s sort of… exactly the opposite. When it comes to questions like how relevant anything, today or a thousand years ago, will be, the answer doesn’t exactly come easily.