Why You Should Care About the Holy Roman Empire

I think the "Why you should care" thing is going to become a regular series.  Because there's so many historical things about Germany and Europe that most Americans know little about, that provide the crucial context for really understanding what makes a particular building, church, or city important and interesting.  So with that in mind, let's talk a little about the Holy Roman Empire, shall we?  I'll try really hard not to be boring!


The Holy Roman Empire is one of those topics that's covered for maybe a day or two in U.S. high school world history courses, and maybe slightly more in-depth in a university course, if you're lucky.  I remember being really confused about it in high school.    How was it Roman?  What kind of power did it actually have?  I wasn't the only person to wonder this - the French philosopher Voltaire famously quipped, "The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire."

First, a little backstory:  We're all acquainted with the ancient Roman empire, that huge swath of land that included all of Western Europe and a good chunk of Eastern Europe as well - it was really, really big.  Especially when it was united.  But politics and later, religion, in the Empire led to a split - the Western Roman Empire, headquartered in Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire, with Constantinople (today's Istanbul) as it's capital.  The two segments of the empire recognized each other, but when Rome fell in the 5th century, the Western Empire basically ceased to exist as a political entity.  The Eastern Empire chugged along for many more centuries, and was eventually called the Byzantine Empire, until it was brought down by invading Turks.


When Rome fell, the Western empire was plunged into disarray, and the native tribes  of those areas began many, many wars for control of the land.  Eventually, the Germanic tribe of the Franks managed to subdue the inhabitants of these lands and ruled over an empire that encompassed most of France and Germany and parts of Italy.  Within the Frankish nobility one particular figure rose to power - Karl der Grosse, better known as Charlemagne.  

Charlemagne not only succeeded in administering the Frankish kingdom well, but brought much more of present-day Germany, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, and Spain under his control. In short, he was a badass.  He also followed in the footsteps of his father, Pippin, in being buddy-buddy with the Pope in Rome, often coming to his aid as this or that group of barbarians threatened the Eternal City.  As a reward, or maybe just as a shrewd political move, the Pope crowned Charlemagne "The emperor of the Romans."  

It seems a little silly, since the Franks weren't Romans nor was Rome even part of the Empire. But it was a brilliant symbolic marriage between political power and divinely-ordained rule.  It's worth noting that the Byzantines didn't care much for this arrangement, since they still saw themselves as the only existing Roman empire, not this Germanic upstart band of savages.

But still, this was the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire.  Despite the fact that the Frankish empire had controlled nearly all of France, due to political upheavals (sons of emperors had a habit of fighting against their fathers or amongst themselves for a bigger piece of the pie in the first few centuries of this arrangement) a good chunk of France came to be an independent kingdom, and the Holy Roman Empire was centered mainly in Germany, although it included Austria, northern Italy, and Alsace-Lorraine.  This new political entity would continue to be extremely influential for the next 1,000 years.

"That's great," you say, yawning, "But you still haven't told me why I need to care about the Holy Roman Empire."  True - I'm saving that for part two.