'Heart of Europe' is history at its most engaging

University of Hull history professor Peter Wilson has given the Holy Roman Empire its longest and most readable one-volume history of the modern era.

Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire By Peter H. Wilson Harvard University Press 1,008 pp.

It's always telling when a quip is so on-target that it outlives its subject. This has certainly been the case with Voltaire's famous witticism that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire; the line is so good it even took on a new life on Saturday Night Live, two centuries after the empire had breathed its last.

In Heart of Europe, University of Hull history professor Peter Wilson has given that empire its longest and most readable one-volume history in the modern era, and he's sharply aware of the daunting, nearly impossible nature of his task. The Holy Roman Empire lasted for a thousand years and sprawled over most of Europe, eventually encompassing, as Wilson reminds us, all of present-day Germany and all or part of Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden. It dominated life and commerce in a way that hadn't been seen since the height of imperial Roman rule.

But it was a very odd thing that whole time. “The Empire lacked the things giving shape to conventional national history: a stable heartland, a capital city, centralized political institutions, and, perhaps most fundamentally, a single 'nation',” Wilson writes, making the charting of “the multiple paths, detours and dead ends of the Empire's development” especially challenging.

It's amazing and quite pleasing that "Heart of Europe" meets that challenge so adeptly. Wilson begins his account with the creation of the Empire at the point when Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish ruler Charlemagne as “King of the Romans” on December 25, 800. The Carolingians held on to the title for nearly a century, after which it sank into vicious internecine warfare until 962, when German King Otto I was crowned emperor and renovated the title that would last for centuries, only coming to an end in 1806 when it was swept into obsolescence by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Wilson's study ranges over the long ambit of those centuries, tracing the mutable symbiosis that existed between emperors and popes, and between the various and fractious territories loosely grouped under the empire's authority. The realms bordering those expanding territories, peoples like the Scandinavians, Slavs, and Magyars, often didn't share the Christianity of the Empire, and Wilson points out that the Christianization campaigns that resulted have sometimes been oversimplified by historians. Christianization wasn't a “clash of civilizations,” he writes: “This popular yet controversial approach defines civilization largely through religion and regards cultures as mutually exclusive, homogeneous entities that either clash or engage in dialogue.” The reality was more fluid, although it turned around the fixed point of the Empire's indivisibility: “The singularity of empire was too deeply rooted in Christian political thought; there could only be one emperor, because there was only one God in heaven.”

There's quite a lot of history in these thousand pages, and some of its terms – the Peace of Basel, the Swabian League, the Helvetic Republic – will perhaps cause tedium-flashbacks for some readers, harking them back to the worst forced marches of their freshman European History 101 ordeals in college. But on virtually every one of those thousand pages, Wilson proves himself to be the teacher only the luckiest students ever get: engaging without being pandering, knowledgeable without being officious, and best of all, genuinely thought-provoking. His subject resists a straightforward reign-of-kings annalistic approach (indeed, between 1245 and 1415 there were only 25 years during which there actually was a crowned emperor), but it equally resists the traditional view that reduces the Empire's history to “a repetitive and chaotic cycle” of princely squabbling and local bloodbaths, ending only when the Habsburgs came along in the sixteenth century and started to regularize the whole affair by more closely uniting their kingship with an actual kingdom.

About the Habsburgs themselves and their success as Continental rulers, Wilson drolly observes that “they were not more virtuous than the Empire's other senior families” and attributes their relatively long-lived prominence to “dynastic and individual biological good fortune (longevity, fecundity, ability),” combined with dumb luck of circumstances.

The Empire lived for a long time – three or four times as long as nations that would later disparage it as a failure – and Wilson's book gives the strong impression that it did so because of the very thing that makes its history so tricky to pin down: its lack of a centralized authority, what Wilson calls “the multicentered character of imperial governance.” Under the banner of the Empire, a wide variety of heterogenous groups could flourish with minimal interference from any central authority – a quasi-federational setup that turned out to be remarkably durable.

It couldn't survive the nationalism that characterizes the modern era, however. As Wilson puts it simply, “The Empire had no place in a world where every nation was supposed to have its own state.” In "Heart of Europe," one old and ramshackle and occasionally glorious exception to that rule of nationalism gets a superb chronicle.

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