Nations and Nationalism

The Empire disappeared at the point in European history generally considered to be the birth of modern nationalism. This coincidence is often related in older accounts arguing that the Empire’s demise was barely registered by its inhabitants, who had long since transferred their loyalties to national states. The classic conservative interpretation of European history presented the continent’s peoples as predetermined by language, ethnicity and culture. Archaeology, ethnology, linguistics and other specialist disciplines emerging after 1800 all provided corroborating evidence in the form of distinctive pottery, customs and root words. Political history was written as a story of each people’s search for a viable framework to claim their place as a distinct country. States ruling ‘mixed’ populations were viewed suspiciously and apt to be condemned as ‘artificial’, unless they were imperial states ruling supposedly inferior non-European peoples elsewhere. German historians were convinced of the continuous existence of Deutschtumsince antiquity, but usually believed the Empire had failed to provide the necessary framework for this to flourish.1

Later twentieth-century historians were more aware how previous generations had, with terrible results, manipulated evidence to convey false continuities and to claim parts of Europe as ‘historic’ homelands. Several influential writers dismissed the entire idea of pre-modern national identities, arguing that nationalism is a modern, ‘artificial’ ideology associated with mass politics of the industrial age.2 Evidence advanced previously for continuity was now dismissed as marginal or exceptional. The most that was conceded was that a tiny military and clerical elite articulated a narrow view of themselves as a ‘people’ to bind warlord and followers through a common myth of origins.

Regnal Identities and the Empire

Such insights have been developed to argue that pre-modern identity was ‘regnal’, focused on a monarchy, rather than defined by the essentialist ‘blood and soil’ criteria advanced by nineteenth-century nationalists.3 It is certainly easier to research the process of identification through the symbols and arguments employed to foster identity than to reconstruct individuals’ subjective self-definition.4 The medieval French monarchy made considerable efforts to foster loyalty, already projecting the family’s own patron saint as a model for all subjects in the eleventh century – a strategy also employed in Bohemia, Hungary, Poland and Kievan Rus. Central holy places were endowed to assist this, like Westminster Abbey in England, or St Denis in France. Royal institutions, like the court, justice, taxes and war-making, also all focused attention on a common political centre.5 The argument that pre-modern identities were regnal shares much with older arguments that Europe’s states were products of centralizing processes largely driven by kings. As we have seen, such interpretations have distorted the Empire’s history, because later generations have looked for centres and institutions that did not exist.

The Empire’s inhabitants did not lack elements that could encourage a shared identity. While the actual Roman legacy was confined to the south and south-west, it was spread in its revised Holy Roman form by Charlemagne and his successors. For much of the early Middle Ages the Empire was simply the regnum, whereas all other kingdoms required some qualification limiting them to a specific people, as in the kingdom of the Lombards.6 In this sense, the Empire was a more elastic and inclusive concept than more centralized monarchies like France. Latin served as a single elite language transcending vernacular dialects. Roman Christianity provided a common belief system, as well as much of the conceptual language required to discuss morality, politics and justice. Migration, especially after the eleventh century, spread people and ideas across the Empire. The political elite often travelled great distances to attend assemblies or participate in coronations and military campaigns. Distance was no barrier to the spread of other common institutions like monastic orders or the imperial church. There was great variety in socio-economic forms, but this was scarcely unique in medieval Europe, while there were no fundamental divisions between ethnic groups, such as those between steppe nomads and settled populations found in Russia or China.

These factors suggest there was nothing inevitable about the Empire’s peoples eventually building multiple, distinct ‘national’ identities around notions of language, culture and ethnicity, most of which were indeed constructed precisely for this purpose only much later. The real difference between the Empire and more centralized monarchies was certainly political, but not how ‘political’ is customarily understood. Centralized monarchies fostered ‘national’ identities by selecting elements that made their regnal identity plausible and desirable. This always entailed excluding aspects hindering this, hence the use of language, culture and (after the Reformation) religion to distinguish ‘loyal subjects’ from ‘suspect foreigners’. The Empire never attempted this, because it was always superior to any one kingdom and hence always contained more than one ‘people’. The story of identification within the Empire was never one of failed efforts to forge a single (German) national identity. Rather, it was always a process through which communities and groups formed their own particular identities through securing a legally recognized autonomous position within the wider imperial framework.



The belief in the existence of different peoples is very old and can be found in the writings of ancient historians such as Herodotus, as well as in the Bible. The problem is to understand what this meant to those involved, because the words employed have acquired additional associations over time. This is especially true of the parts of Europe occupied by the Empire and which were the subject of intense study by nineteenth-and twentieth-century German ethnographers and archaeologists who used the terms ‘tribe’ (Stamm) and ‘people’ (Volk). Tribes were usually regarded as subdivisions of a common people, with the Franks, Saxons, Bavarians, Frisians and Alemanni all being considered ‘Germanic’.7 The writers generally romanticized their subjects as repositories of ‘authentic’ national culture, regarding history as a constant struggle to preserve cultural ‘purity’ in the face of foreign intrusions, as well as expansion through the merger of tribes on the basis of alleged common characteristics. Most argued that this process culminated in a national ‘awakening’ around 1800 as people became more self-aware of their commonalities. A typical example is the way in which linguists traced the history of their ‘national’ language by identifying common root words and describing how tribal tongues were gradually reduced to dialects before these too were eradicated through standardized spelling and pronunciation facilitated by printing and universal schooling.

The German word Volk was in fact rarely used before the eighteenth century, and then only to denote a specific group, particularly soldiers (Kriegsvolk).8 Early writers like the etymologist Isidore of Seville and the Frankish historian Regino, abbot of Prüm, used Latin terms. Populus meant ‘people’ in the general sense of humans or inhabitants, especially the politically active section. Gens were people related by common descent, while natio usually denoted common origins more narrowly defined by birth. Nonetheless, medieval commentators – like their present-day counterparts – were often imprecise and ambiguous in their employment of such terms. Identity was usually multilayered and frequently expressed differently according to the situation, despite most writers’ conviction that geography and climate imparted ‘fixed’ characteristics.

The term natio could be employed to identify a group that later writers called a ‘tribe’. ‘Nations’ were originally ‘barbarians’, those who lay beyond Roman civilization, and it was not until the thirteenth century that the term acquired more positive attributes with the growing acceptance that Christendom was split into different sovereign peoples. Initially it was foreign students studying in Paris or Bologna who were identified as ‘nations’ according to common origins. The delegates at church councils were grouped this way after 1215, but the designations changed frequently and were inconsistent with later ideas. For example, ‘Bohemians’ at Prague University after 1348 included not just Czechs, but Hungarians, southern Slavs and German-speakers from Bohemia, while ‘Bavarians’ encompassed all central, western and southern Germans, with northern Germans and all Scandinavians being called ‘Saxons’.9 Even in the eighteenth century, ‘nation’ continued to be used flexibly, with the Viennese and Prussian soldiers variously constituting ‘nations’ according to some authors. However, from the sixteenth century, ‘nation’ assumed many of the characteristics once associated with populus, especially in the mouths of those claiming to represent the nation politically, whereas populusbecame more debased as the ‘common’ sort.

Identity Markers

Early writers already recognized the need for criteria to distinguish between tribes and peoples, but – like the terms used – these categories also shifted over time. Language (lingua) was already widely touted in the ninth century as an important distinguishing mark, but in practice the huge variance amongst vernaculars hindered actual understanding. Customs (mores) were also cited and often expanded into generalized characteristics. Thietmar of Merseburg identified cunning Swabians, greedy Bavarians who lived in poverty, quarrelsome Lorrainers prone to rebellion, and loyal Saxons who allowed their ruler to abuse their trust – the latter comment clearly motivated by his own dissatisfaction at Otto II’s dissolution of his beloved bishopric. Common descent (genus) proved equally vague in practice, as it was applied variously to kinship groups and entire populations.

Myths of origins often proved more attractive because they combined various elements within a story that could serve many, especially political, agendas. Most myths identified one or more founding figures usually associated with victory or conquest, especially of the area their people currently inhabited. The martial aspect was important during the development of these stories in the early Middle Ages, an era when most of the population was enslaved. The myths thus legitimated the elite of free warriors and their self-identification with alleged characteristics like prowess, moral fibre and their supposedly unique political institutions. Myths were portable; indeed many contained stories of a shared migration, or that the current people emerged from the mingling of earlier groups including conquered and conquerors. The Franks considered themselves descended from Priam, the last king of Troy, who wandered westwards into central Europe, but they also believed they were a fusion of many tribes, initially each under its own king, before united by Clovis in the late fifth century. They distinguished themselves as an imperial populus, carrying a general civilization, rather than simply an individual gente (tribe), and – thanks to Clovis’s conversion – they considered themselves ‘God’s people’ (populus Dei).10

However, even in their core homeland, the Franks formed only 15–25 per cent of the population and were too few to establish themselves exclusively as a ruling class throughout the Carolingian realm. They generally merged with other elites through marriage or expropriation of land, with assimilation working in both directions depending on circumstances: some conquered elites considered themselves Franks, while elsewhere Frankish conquerors identified themselves at least partly with the areas they now controlled. The Franks sought to preserve their distinctiveness by continuing the late Roman practice of expressing separated identities through law codes. This aspect should not be over-exaggerated as most laws remained unwritten, while the distinction between law and custom was far from clear. Nonetheless, law assumed significance as a defining marker of identity when combined with other factors encouraging a sense of community; hence the significance of the use of expulsion as punishment for major transgressions, since this cast the wrongdoer from the tribe or people.11

The Franks wrote laws for each subject people incorporated within their realm from the late eighth century, often fabricating tradition by claiming these derived from earlier ones. The Alemanni, Bavarians, Frisians, Lombards, Saxons and Thuringians all had (or acquired) their own Lex distinct from the Lex Francorum (Salic law) reserved for the Franks. Paradoxically, this eroded the Franks’ own self-belief as an imperial people, since they became just one group among many, even if their elite remained primarily the group in charge. In turn, this imparted the lasting sense of the Empire as inhabited by a variety of peoples, rather than as an exclusive, superior people standing apart and above those they ruled, as in the case of the British and Ottoman empires.

Other Frankish policies further eroded any sense of their being the Empire’s exclusive rulers.12 Rapid Christianization of the elites between 780 and 820 removed religion as a potential marker of difference – another contrast with British and Ottoman experience. Old power structures broke up, at least outside Saxony, southern Italy and, to an extent, also Bavaria. Continued redistribution of land and offices by later monarchs further reduced the differences amongst the elites – differences that were now socially and politically far less significant than those between the free and unfree populations.13 Population growth from the eleventh century, together with migration after about 1100, eroded old identities whilst adding new ones.

Belief in tribal identities nonetheless persisted, because their original lack of clarity allowed later generations to shape them to suit their own purposes. For example, there was no direct link between the Lex Saxonum of 802 and the Sachsenspiegel of about 1224, but the existence of these two law codes served to substantiate claims of a continuous Saxon identity.14 Identities were still sufficiently sharp in the early tenth century for some to criticize the Saxon Ottonians as being the ‘wrong’ people to replace the Frankish Carolingians as German kings in 919. The Ottonian chronicler Widukind of Corvey placed great emphasis on the story of the dying Conrad I, the last Carolingian, symbolically passing the Empire to the Saxons by allegedly designating Henry I, the first Ottonian, as his successor. By this point, Conrad and Henry were clan or family leaders, rather than tribal chiefs.15 The sense of distinct peoples increasingly mattered less than other, more focused identities.


Estates Society

Tribes were never regarded as composed of equals. There was already a sense of the individual during the early Middle Ages. Each person had specific duties and was responsible for their own actions and salvation. However, prior to the eighteenth century, most commentators were more concerned with how horizontal and vertical divisions stratified society internally. Personal aspects, like interests, abilities or appearance, were all considered less important in identifying an individual than their membership of one or more of society’s subgroups. The Empire was not unique in how social stratification reinforced political hierarchies, but the specific form of this interaction nonetheless contributed to its governance becoming increasingly multilayered and territorialized. A key factor in this development was that social distinctions were never fully transportable, at least partly rooting an individual’s identity to place as well as person.

Frankish society recognized two fundamental social distinctions. The first identified free people, whom most writers considered the populus, and a much larger number of unfree people, mainly slaves born as such or obtained by raiding or conquering pagans. The second distinguished laity from clergy, the latter drawn overwhelmingly from the free population. However, a more complex, three-way functional division was also recognized, especially by 1000. Morality remained a key determinant, but writers were less bound by references to specific biblical passages and more interested in adapting earlier social categories to keep pace with the demographic and economic expansion experienced from the eleventh century.16 These wider changes eroded the earlier Christian idea of freedom as a natural state, with servitude as the consequence of sin. New forms of agricultural production resulted in around 85 per cent of the population living as laboratores in some form of servitude as the ‘commons’, or third social Estate, whose function was to provide for the material needs of others. Whereas previously all free male laity had been considered warriors, bellatores were now restricted to the second Estate, which was evolving as hereditary nobility more concerned with controlling and exploiting land than fighting. Nonetheless, their programmatic function as society’s defenders was used to legitimate their special privileges. The clergy (oratores) formed the senior Estate, placed first thanks to their function of praying for everyone’s salvation.

All commentators were convinced that social structure was hierarchical as a necessary and fundamental feature of human existence. How hierarchy was rationalized changed over time, but always included the argument that humans possessed varying qualities and abilities. Those in authority developed lengthy justifications for their elevated status, generally emphasizing some form of asymmetrical reciprocity whereby duties and obligations were distributed unevenly throughout society. However, hierarchy was neither absolute nor fully clear. The sharp dividing line between free and unfree had been replaced by more complex graduations. All, including those in servitude, possessed rights relating to their Estate’s function. The ideal was an interlocking system in which all should accept their allotted place, because all derived benefits from the functions performed by others on their behalf.

The reality was necessarily messier and less consensual. Status was neither exclusively self-determined nor simply imposed from above according to a rational blueprint, but instead depended heavily on how far individuals and groups could secure recognition from others. Although the ideal was presented as stable, status remained a process of constant negotiation. It was accepted that each Estate was internally stratified into various subgroups, but their precise interrelationship was often unclear. For example, the Latin term milites (soldiers) had associations with personal freedom during the early Middle Ages, but by the eleventh century it applied to a new group of unfree knights also known as ministeriales. A century later it had become inconceivable for a knight not to be both free and on the lower rung of hereditary nobility. Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ promoted the knightly ideal after 1180, drawing on the new ethos of chivalry imported from France to bridge the widening gulf amongst the nobility caused by the emergence of a princely elite. Later, the nobility’s continued and growing internal stratification raised questions whether its senior ranks could still be considered knights. Individuals could subvert conventions, as long as they enjoyed unimpeachable social credentials. Emperor Maximilian I placed himself in the front rank of his mercenary infantry (the Landsknechte) in an effort to raise their social status as warriors. Two centuries later, Prussia’s king Frederick William I banned the use of the word Miliz (deriving from miles) for professional soldiers, because he wanted to distinguish his army from part-time militiamen.17

Theorists and rulers never resolved the contradictions inherent in their descriptions of Estates society, but their continued efforts embedded these categories deeply within social consciousness and legal practice.18 A further factor was that the three Estates were largely self-recruiting. Even the clergy, who were expected to be celibate, were often not in practice for much of the Middle Ages, while the Reformation endorsed marriage for Protestant clerics and led to the emergence of dynasties of pastors where son followed father into the calling.19 This pattern was still more pronounced for the nobility and commons, where a father’s status determined that of his family. Vertical social mobility was generally much more restricted than geographical mobility through migration. Peter Eppelmann (aka Melander), a peasant from Nassau, became Count Holzapfel and commander of the imperial army during the Thirty Years War, but such examples were both rare and often perceived as transgressive. Melander was unusually well educated and many of his relations were pastors or public officials, while he enjoyed aristocratic patronage from an early age.20 Generally, upwards mobility required several generations to achieve, delayed of course by the reluctance of superior groups to accept newcomers.

Status and Place

Around 5–10 per cent of the population fell outside the boundaries of Estates society by early modernity, because they lacked a fixed abode. The linkage of status to domicile was common throughout Latin Europe, but assumed a distinct form in the Empire thanks to its specific social and political developments during the high and later Middle Ages. Consequently, the identity of social groups became irretrievably entwined with the Empire’s political and legal fabric. This was most pronounced in Germany thanks to the greater integration of territorialized authority within the overarching legal framework. As a result there were profound political and social consequences for the Empire and for the identity of its inhabitants.

Estates were not national, in the sense that there was no single ‘imperial’ clergy, nobility or commons. Instead, there were Paderborn clergy, Hessian nobles, Bavarian peasants, and a multitude of other groups defined by both place and social status, often subdividing further as, for example, not just Saxon burghers, but those of Leipzig, Dresden and other towns. In each case, their identity came to be expressed through shared rights incorporated in law and anchored in turn through their recognition in other charters or privileges associated with their community’s relationship to the Empire.

This relationship was mutually reinforcing thanks to the difficulties each group experienced in defining and defending its identity. For example, late fifteenth-century German nobles tried to define their own status more clearly by emphasizing their ancestry, marriage and record of participation in tournaments, rather than be defined by privileges granted by their prince, such as tax exemptions, tithes and hunting rights. Self-determination was employed because nobles could not prevent their prince granting similar privileges to other groups. However, princes could also prove long and illustrious pedigrees, possessed superior resources, and were able to transform tournaments into lavish baroque spectacles that by 1600 were focused on their own courts and carefully choreographed to emphasize their own superior status and political agendas. The Empire’s multilayered political structure offered alternative security for distinct privileges, since groups and communities could obtain recognition of their status from those superior to their own immediate lords. For example, the inhabitants of numerous towns during the high Middle Ages obtained charters from the emperor granting them corporate privileges that their own lords were unable to revoke.21 The diffuse distribution of authority through the Empire thus reflected and reinforced decentralized, multilayered social distinctions. The social hierarchy was complex and fragmented, like the political structure that offered multiple sources to legitimate corporate rights.

The emergence of burghers as legally distinct, privileged inhabitants of towns was the most important change in the third Estate across the Middle Ages. This process also underscores the significance of place in the wider elaboration of social distinctions, because burgher status was encouraged by aspects of communal living unrelated to the socio-economic functions of commoners, as well as being an expression of political self-assertion and people’s desire for greater control of their own destinies. Although burghers were collectively recognized as a distinct Estate by early modernity, they shared the late medieval characteristic of the other Estates in being fragmented by place, with each community having its own local and specific rights. These were not portable; therefore if someone moved to another town, they had to apply (and usually pay) for recognition as a burgher there.

While burghers were generally considered socially superior to peasants, their exact relationship to both the commons and to the other two traditional Estates remained unclear. The politicized slogan of the ‘common man’ (gemeiner Mann) emerged around 1500, embracing peasants and burghers without removing all distinctions between them.22 Throughout the later Middle Ages and early modernity, individuals sought special marks of distinction through forms of address or the right to wear particular clothes, often usurping the privileges of more prestigious groups that in turn would then invent new ways of elevating themselves.23 The spread of writing encouraged greater efforts to fix distinctions through elaborate laws, tables of ranks regulating hierarchies of titles, and sumptuary legislation defining what each corporate group should wear. Gender differences added complexity. A burgher’s wife was socially superior to a man from a status group below burgher’s rank, like a day labourer. If she was his employer, she might also exercise authority over him. Yet, as a woman, she was decidedly inferior in other respects, notably her ability to represent herself in a law court – something denied Saxon women until 1838 for instance.24 Even perceptive commentators chose to ignore these contradictions. As late as 1795, the lawyer Johann Pütter wrote ‘people of the same Estate can differ in rank and status without the Estate thereby losing its unity’.25


By the late eighteenth century, the subdivision of Estates into corporate groups had assumed greater significance than the overall conception of a tripartite social order. Communities and groups cherished their corporate privileges because these offered time-hallowed protections for distinctive identities increasingly threatened by new forces of homogenization during this period.

Social mobility increased through the employment opportunities provided by expanding state administration. Governments possessed greater ability to revise established legal arrangements in the interests of fiscal-military efficiency, and to intrude into previously autonomous social spheres, establishing more direct relationships with all inhabitants regardless of their social status. Princely taxation increasingly targeted wealth rather than exempting status. Brandenburg-Prussia, for instance, experimented with graduated poll taxes in 1677 and 1679. Civil and military hierarchies were restructured according to their members’ seniority of service in official ranks, rather than status determined by their birth. Many German territories issued patents of nobility rewarding commoners, who could then insert the predicative von (‘of’) into their names even without owning a landed estate. The Austrian army automatically ennobled any officer awarded the Maria Theresa medal instituted in 1757, while commoners with 30 years’ service were invited to apply for ennoblement.26 Meanwhile, economic changes and the proletarianization of many tasks through the spread of wage labour also levelled old distinctions whilst forging new ones. Elements of a class society were certainly emerging as people were marked by their relationship to production rather than social function.27

New arguments emerged that could serve to legitimate the removal of hallowed status distinctions. Social criticism was scarcely new. Medieval clerics already attacked noble privileges and their basis in violence as immoral, while the twelfth to early sixteenth centuries saw repeated bursts of popular anticlericalism fuelled by resentment at the often stark contrast between the lifestyle of clergy and their Christian ideals. However, the popular basis of such criticism broadened during the sixteenth century and focused more sharply on the obstacles to upward social mobility. For example, burghers tried to claim nobility on the basis of education and other achievements.28 The criticism gradually shifted from this or that group being unworthy of its privileges to a more fundamental critique of Estates society. The growing emphasis on human reason in philosophical arguments from the late seventeenth century undermined faith in a divinely ordained human order. By the late eighteenth century, burghers increasingly renounced efforts to join the nobility and instead claimed moral superiority for their own ‘bourgeois’ culture. Political attitudes changed in line with this. Whereas authorities had been regarded as guardians of an idealized static social order into the eighteenth century, increasingly they were seen by some as motors of potentially beneficial changes through their ability to revise or overturn existing legal arrangements. As we shall see (pp. 639–45), such demands for change clashed with those who saw the Empire as a legal order protecting entrenched rights.


Much of the late medieval and early modern legislation in the Empire focused on delineating rights associated with marriage, parenthood, legitimacy, property-ownership and inheritance. Changes in these aspects of social structure were also to have profound implications for the Empire’s political order. The predominant form amongst the free population in 800 was the kindred or clan comprising a fairly large group of relations cooperating for mutual support and protection. Clan ties overrode those of marriage and nuclear families. For example, a wife could seek support from her kindred if her husband abused her or wanted a divorce.

These kindreds have entered history by the names of their ‘founder’, whose first name was applied by later genealogists as a family name for an age when such things were unknown. Thus, the Carolingians are Charlemagne’s descendants, while the Liudolfinger (in turn ancestors of the Ottonians) are traced from Liudolf, who founded Gandersheim abbey in the ninth century (see pp. 82 and 86). Kindreds were indeed distinguished by common naming patterns – all the males in the Salian family were called Conrad or Henry.29 Nonetheless, kindreds in fact operated through consanguinity and not patrilinear descent. Property could be bequeathed to any legitimate son or brother or even to more distant relations. Individual prestige, reputation and influence were all more important than immediate descent, though the latter was certainly important amongst royalty. There was little sense of an ancestral home, as royal service required the elite to move throughout the Frankish realm, while conquests and royal gifts gave them land scattered across wide areas.

The word ‘family’ (familia) was not determined primarily by blood or marriage ties before the twelfth century. Instead, it was most frequently used to denote the unfree workers and others economically dependent on a manor for whom the lord was legally responsible.30 Monogamous marriage was already a church ideal by the ninth century and praised as an indissoluble union of two consenting adults. Changes in the twelfth century made it a sacrament requiring clerical involvement to be legally binding and therefore easier for the authorities to regulate. The proportion of the population married officially in church remained small prior to a renewed emphasis on marriage as the basis for a godly household following the Reformation. It was at this point that the German word Familie gained common currency to denote the nucleated family of parents and children as the social ideal.

The changing attitudes towards marriage reflected its growing social and political importance. More distinct patrilineal families emerged around 1000, as tracing a single line of descent through fathers and sons assumed greater significance than consanguinity. This process took at least two more centuries to complete. Matrilineal descent remained significant into the twelfth century. For example, the chronicler Wipo regarded Henry III’s connections through his mother to Charlemagne as more significant than his more immediate relationship to his father, Conrad II. Likewise, it was politically important for Conrad III to be able to demonstrate ties to the former Salian line of kings through his mother Agnes, daughter of Henry IV. Consanguinity also served aristocratic political interests into the late twelfth century. Brothers and sisters could be pulled from church careers and redeployed in the wider interests of the kindred to breed sufficient heirs when required. In an age of deficient medicine and the frequent violent premature death of males, this made perfect evolutionary sense. The larger group had better overall survival chances than narrower strategies based on nucleated families.31

Frederick II used the expression ‘House of Staufer’ (domus Stoffensis) only once (1247) in over two thousand surviving documents.32 However, things were already beginning to shift by then and cooperation between siblings declined noticeably from the 1230s. While kindreds had the advantage of numbers, they often suffered from indiscipline as each member pursued his own ambitions. Internal rivalries could be destructive, as the Carolingians’ civil wars demonstrated from the 840s. Discipline could be imposed through subordinating individual interests to an ideal of the family as dynasty transcending the generations. This entailed acceptance of a stricter hierarchy of loyalties through a culture of self-restraint and deference to a paterfamilias. Patrilinealism and the seniority of the firstborn son provided a way to regulate subordination and determine the options each family member would be allowed to pursue. This explains the continued importance of the imperial church in providing suitable accommodation for the aristocracy’s unmarried children. Paternalism was supposed to compensate for individuals’ self-sacrifice as the senior head of the family employed his influence and connections to safeguard the material well-being and status of junior family members.

One sign of the spread of dynasticism was how twelfth-and thirteenth-century chroniclers began tracing royal genealogies to structure their accounts. The line of Saxon aristocrats ruling as kings after 919 was dubbed Ottonians from the succession of three Ottos by 1002. Early twelfth-century chroniclers named the next line of kings as the Salians (reges Salici) from their origins amongst the Salfranken, the Franks living in the Rhineland, once forming the western part of the original Franconia, which was distinguished through its use of Salic law. The family were already known locally as the Wormsers by 982 after their main possessions in the diocese of Worms.33

Association of family and place was partly a reflection of much wider trends. The growth in population since the eleventh century encouraged the use of more stable ‘family’ names to help identify people more easily. Another factor was a significant reduction in the diversity of first names after about 1100 as parents chose from a fairly restricted repertoire of those of well-known saints and monarchs. The transition from one to two names was completed between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries amongst the urban population and adopted by the early fifteenth century in the countryside. Initially, individuals took either their father’s or mother’s first name as their surname, but increasingly geographic origins or occupation were used instead.34 Aristocrats and nobles were always associated with place. Common patronage of monasteries already provided a focal point for kindreds, serving as a common burial place and way to preserve collective memory. The Salians initially used Worms Cathedral before shifting to Speyer, which they expanded after 1024 with the accession of their first Holy Roman emperor, Conrad II. Swabian nobles established family monasteries after the mid-eleventh century, followed by those in Bavaria around fifty years later.

The cause of ‘church liberty’ weakened some of these associations during the later eleventh century, while the practice of replacing earth and timber castles with more durable and expensive stone constructions provided alternative, secular sites.35 Count Lothar, the future Lothar III, was known as von Supplinburg after his castle in Saxony. The Staufers derived their name from the Hohenstaufen castle built in 1079 to consolidate their new position as dukes of Swabia. The Habsburgs assumed their name around 1090 from their castle Habichtsburg built about seventy years earlier in what is now the Swiss canton of Aargau. Over time, these locations assumed almost mystical status as ancestral homes, though by the end of the Empire few nobles could actually trace such long lineages directly.



The assumption of a castle or town name to identify a family linked its members with a specific location. However, people also identified with larger geographical areas. These were always human constructs, as there is nothing ‘natural’ about frontiers. The choice of markers like rivers or mountain ranges always involved the demarcation of power and the desire to control resources, as well as emotional attachment and feelings that can affect someone who has left a place or perhaps never even been there.36 Place can assume significance beyond material considerations, notably through identification as a holy site. Size is not predetermined as it depends on how far the balance between population and space is socially and politically viable. Exactly how much space a community feels is justified depends on not only what they actually require, but how much they feel entitled to and can maintain without too much cost.

As Chapter 4 has indicated, the Empire’s external and internal boundaries changed considerably across its history. The internal changes were probably more significant than the external expansion and contraction, since they reflected how power and identity became increasingly concentrated in more numerous hierarchically ordered and territorially bounded units. Whereas medieval travellers encountered the Empire as they moved between the fixed points of human settlement, those during the eighteenth century experienced it as they crossed clear internal boundaries marked by customs posts and sentry boxes.

To an extent this simply reflected broader European trends. Frontiers remained open transitional zones into the thirteenth century, which allowed inhabitants to identify with powers either side according to circumstances. Given the absence of mutually recognized sovereignty, central authorities viewed frontiers as one-sided limits where their own power finished without paying too much attention to arrangements beyond.37

Hierarchy mattered more politically than geographical boundaries. Authority was defined as chains of vassalage primarily linking people rather than places. This reflects the higher value placed on controlling people rather than land, which remained relatively plentiful into the eleventh century. Without machinery, command over people represented the only way to exploit land. Huge areas of forest, marsh and unfertile upland remained largely uninhabited into the eleventh century and often beyond.

Nonetheless, people were already associated with specific places by the ninth century. The Lombards believed their name derived from Wotan, but their control of the Po valley since the late sixth century gave that region its lasting designation as Lombardy. The Pomeranians were the ‘People from the Sea’ whose presence named the southern Baltic shore between the Elbe and Oder rivers. Likewise, all the major German regions derive their names from association with a tribal identity around 800: Bavaria, Franconia, Frisia, Swabia, Saxony, Swabia and Thuringia. Their inhabitants distinguished both ethnic and political (jurisdictional) boundaries by the tenth century, with the latter being more important in marking identity.38


Identification with these larger units remained relatively weak into the late Middle Ages, at least outside the elites, whereas attachment to smaller communities was already strong much earlier. Pre-modern Europe contained many communities, both real and imagined, and varying in size from Christendom through kingdoms, towns, villages to monasteries, manors and castles.39 Some communities were itinerant, but most were defined through the permanent concentration of people in a specific place.

Even isolated communities were connected somehow to others, so that all should be considered porous rather than fully closed. Nonetheless, common needs and activities focused collective identity. Many communities had an economic function, such as the manors of the early Middle Ages, or the towns of Italy and those founded in Germany from the eleventh century as market centres. Most forms of production required people to work together. Communal living brought numerous practical problems requiring people to collaborate; for example, fire safety or maintenance of drainage ditches. Christian worship was a communal activity. Already in the eighth century the church fostered the belief that individual sins endangered the wider community.40 Other theological developments strengthened this, notably the concept of purgatory, which required the living to pray to speed the passage of souls to heaven. The development of more robust parish structures by the twelfth century provided a framework to engage the community in the maintenance of their church and participation in its activities. The pace accelerated considerably with the Reformation, which sharpened the distinctiveness of local religious practices, particularly in Germany, where different confessional groups often lived in relative proximity. The form of rituals, use of prayer, internal decoration of churches and the timing and sound of their bells all became important markers of community.

Identity was expressed through symbols, flags, coats of arms and civic colours, adopted with increasing elaboration from the high Middle Ages. Early chronicles are largely by clerics recounting the deeds of kings with varying levels of approval. However, it was common by the eleventh century for monks to compile lists of abbots or bishops to demonstrate the continuity and purity of local religious practice. They were joined by secular chroniclers during the later Middle Ages who traced the origins of their home town, often in considerable detail. Most were commoners, but they proclaimed the ‘nobility’ of their own town, boasting a lineage equal to that of any aristocrat. Other, more personal documents also testify to individuals’ identification with specific places, such as nuns writing for the edification of their community, or Jewish memory books of local martyrs.41

The growing size and density of settlements also helped sharpen their identities, as did the way they became embedded in wider political jurisdictions. Most of the Empire’s settlements had acquired some form of self-government by the high Middle Ages. Pressure on resources contributed to sharper internal and external demarcation. Fences and walls served practical defensive purposes, but also marked each community’s outer extent and the internal subdivision of its assets. These changes were accompanied by new conceptions of property, distinguishing that owned collectively from that belonging to individuals.42

Individuals’ identity followed the generally hierarchical structure of all social, political and religious organization in the Empire. Each person had multiple identities. Exactly what these meant cannot be determined except in the rare cases where we have personal testimony, but their general shape can be discerned. There were the familial and social identities already discussed. Larger towns had craft guilds, lay spiritual fraternities and neighbourhoods all providing more local foci for identity within the wider sense of community. Horizontal solidarity was more prominent in some circumstances, such as within guilds engaged in friendly competition in civic sports, or during periods of political or economic tension. However, many communal activities were also designed to stress internal hierarchies, such as the social distinctions displayed in seating arrangements in churches, or through the processional order employed during religious festivals. Community might be celebrated as a special homely place (Heimat) offering warmth, security, familiarity and rootedness, but it was not open to everyone on equal terms. Merely being born in a specific place did not automatically guarantee full membership, since this often rested on the kind of privileges associated with the social Estates. Possession of such privileges was no guarantee of their continued enjoyment, since membership of a community also depended on observing its rules.43

Multilayered Identities

Higher authorities viewed communal identity with ambivalence. Internal solidarity could prompt a community to combine against its lord, such as the German episcopal towns of Bremen and Cologne, which threw off their bishops’ jurisdiction during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. However, it also enhanced cohesion and enabled communities to discharge their obligations, such as providing taxes or soldiers. Communal identity coalesced during the twelfth century as other spatial distinctions sharpened in the Empire through the gradual territorialization of lordly jurisdictions.

This process will be explored at greater length later (pp. 365–77), but for now it is important to note that only one side of it usually receives attention in histories of the Empire. The demarcation of clearer territorial jurisdictions indeed fragmented power, yet this was never solely a centrifugal process inevitably replacing the Empire with smaller, sovereign principalities after 1806. Rather, the demarcation of clearer jurisdictions within the Empire was accompanied by their greater integration within a common legal and political framework.

The Empire’s significance is demonstrated by how its internal political hierarchy enabled people to relate themselves and their community to their wider environment. Writing in the early eleventh century, Hermann the Lame used the first-person plural ‘our’ for his own abbey in relation to others in the region, for his fellow Swabians when dealing with the rest of the Empire, and for Germans in discussing interaction with outsiders.44 The monks who compiled lists of local bishops and abbots often combined these with parallel sequences of emperors, increasingly using both to write histories of their diocese as part of the Empire (See Plate 16).45 The growing clarity of secular jurisdictions and their increasing significance for daily life provided another focus that displaced attachment to the larger, less clear, old ‘tribal’ areas as a secondary, more distant regional identity.

Secular jurisdictions were increasingly territorialized in the sense that specific powers and prerogatives came to rest in hereditary rule over an area and its inhabitants. The Franks already had a sense of patria as their Christian kingdom providing a common homeland for distinct groups of inhabitants.46 This persisted in a general sense throughout the Middle Ages, but assumed a new form during the sixteenth century as territorial identities sharpened rapidly. The growing use of patria for territory helped transform the idea of terra (territory) from a bundle of sometimes disparate possessions held by a common ruler into a distinct and geographically bounded entity. All levels of society engaged in this, because all used a similar language of the ‘common good’ to claim the moral high ground when expressing their objectives (see pp. 498–503). Confessionalization reinforced this by associating each German territory with a specific form of Christianity, considerably widening the earlier regnal identity built around saints patronized by the ruling family to include other specific religious practices. Humanist scholars recovered or invented tribal identities to buttress what were in fact often spatially much smaller territorial identities. For example, writers serving the Hohenzollerns tried to appropriate the Teutonic past as a way of fostering an anti-Polish Prussian identity.47 Territorial coats of arms and army uniforms provided further markers during the eighteenth century.

The rapid development of cartography from the fifteenth century made a profound impact by providing a ready image of territorially defined political power. Maps now showed political boundaries as well as natural features and towns. The members of the House of Savoy celebrated its elevation to ducal rank in 1416 with a huge cake in the shape of their territory.48 Maps became increasingly detailed as cartographers struggled to meet their governments’ desire to survey and quantify. From 1763 to 1787 the Austrian army prepared a 5,400-sheet map of all Habsburg territory. Although this was never published, the government issued a single-sheet map to all primary schools in 1781.49

Such maps greatly influenced how the Empire appeared in later historical atlases. Nothing underscores the nineteenth-century interpretation more clearly: the Empire is a multicoloured patchwork of dynastic territories compared to the solid blocks of colour used for other, supposedly more centralized states. Yet most maps produced prior to 1806 showed the Empire with clear outer boundaries divided into the Kreise, its official regional subdivisions. Territories were often named and sometimes also marked, but did not dominate. Written descriptions followed these conventions.50 The Empire remained a common fatherland composed of numerous, lesser homelands.

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