Holy Roman Empire
The Holy Roman Empire, enduring from AD 962 to 1806, was said to be neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire. The Holy Roman Empire was the official successor under papal authority to the Roman Empire. After its restoration the Empire was known as the "Holy Roman Empire of the German People." The term "Holy" does not appear in the official title until the time ot Frederick I; but the new character appears from Otto's time, and it is customary to use this name for Ihe whole period after 962. Two new terms in this title are significant. The new Empire was Holy, in that it partook of the nature of the church, and its most serious problems - indeed, the question of its success - were to turn upon the relations between popes and emperors. The new Empire was German. It was less universal than the Carolingian Empire had been. Charlemagne had been ruler over practically all Latin Christendom. The restored Empire never included the French part of Charlemagne's territories, while, outside the old imperial bounds, new states were now growing up, north, west, and east, - in England, in the Scandinavian lands, in Spain, in Poland, and in Hungary, - all for the most part beyond any real imperial control.
The title "King of the Romans", first given to Charlemagne, was borne by a long succession of German kings. Centered in Germany, the empire at its peak (thirteenth century to sixteenth century) extended from the Low Countries to Czechoslovakia and southward into Italy. Weakened by struggles with Roman Catholic Church and the Reformation, then scattered by the results of the Thirty Years' War in 1648. The title of emperor was of course a proud one, but it gave the German kings no additional power except the fatal right that they claimed of taking part in the election of the pope.
Charlemagne's successors divided up his realms into three parts by the Treaty of Mersen in 870. One of these parts was the kingdom of Italy. Little is known of what went on in Italy for some time after the Treaty of Mersen. There was incessant warfare, and the disorder was increased by the attacks of the Mohammedans. Various powerful nobles were able to win the crown for short periods. Three at least of these Italian kings were crowned emperor by the pope. Then for a generation there was no emperor in the west, until Otto the Great again secured the title.
Charlemagne's successors in the German part of his empire found it quite as hard as did the kings of the western, or French, kingdom to keep control of their vassals. Germany, like France, was divided up into big and little fiefs, and the dukes and counts were continually waging war upon each other and upon their king.
The first German ruler of note was Otto the Great, who came to the throne in the year 936. He got as many of the great fiefs as possible into the hands of his relatives in the hope that they would be faithful to him. He put an end forever to the invasions of the Hungarians who had been ravaging Germany. He defeated them in a great battle near Augsburg and drove them out of his realms. The most noteworthy of Otto's acts was his interference in Italian affairs, which led to his winning for the German kings the imperial crown that Charlemagne had worn. Otto was called to Rome by the pope to protect him from the attacks of his enemies. Otto accepted the invitation, and the grateful pope in return crowned him emperor, as Charlemagne's successor in the year 962.
The restored Empire was to last more than eight hundred years, into the nineteenth century. During the latter part of this long period, it was little more than a mockery ; but for the first three hundred years it was a mighty agent in keeping down feudal anarchy, in helping to reform the church, in civilizing Germany, in extending the sway of Christian civilization over the barbarous Slavs, and in holding together Central Europe, when very possibly no other power could have done these things so well.
The coronation of Otto was a very important event in German history; for, from this time on, the German kings, instead of confining their attention to keeping their own kingdom in order, were constantly distracted by the necessity of keeping hold on their Italian kingdom, which lay on the other side of a great range of mountains. Worse than that, they felt that they must see to it that a pope friendly to them was elected, and this greatly added to their troubles. The succeeding German emperors had usually to make several costly and troublesome journeys to Rome, a first one to be crowned, and then others either to depose a hostile pope or to protect a friendly one from the oppression of neighboring lords. These excursions were very distracting, especially to a ruler who left behind him in Germany a rebellious nobility that always took advantage of his absence to revolt. The German emperors wasted their strength in a long struggle with the popes, who proved themselves in the end far stronger, and eventually reduced the Empire to a mere shadow.
The counection with Italy first really lifted Germany from its ancient barbarism and brought to it the culture and art of the older world. Modern German writers, however, sometimes blamed Otto bitterly, claiming that his ambition caused needless woe to his country in future times. And it is true that Otto was the first of a long line of German kings, who, for three centuries, at intervals of a few years, led splendid German armies across the Alps, to melt away beneath the Italian sun, and that his policy influenced future German rulers often to neglect true German interests. For the whole duration of the Empire, German strength and German enterprise were frittered away in foreign squabbles, while the opportunity to make a permanent German state and to develop German national feeling was lost. Quite as serious were the results to Italy. A German king, however much he was "Roman emperor," could hardly enter Italy without a German army at his back, and the southern land became in practice a conquered province, ruled by foreigners whom the natives looked upon as uncouth northern barbarians.
There was throughout central Europe no conspicuous desire for strong centralized national states, such as prevailed in western Europe. Separatism was the rule. In Italy and in the internal Netherlands the city-states were the political units, the Holy Roman Empire was a vast hodgepodge of city-states, and feudal survivals - archduchies, such as Austria; margravates, such as Empire Brandenburg; duchies, like Saxony, Bavaria, and Wurttemberg; counties like the Palatinate, and a host of free cities, baronies, and domains, some of them smaller than an American township. In all there were over three hundred states which collectively were called "the Germanies" and which were united only by the slender imperial thread.
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