Political Influences

Italians and Burgundians identified with the Empire to varying degrees, but only the Germans associated it with their nation. Much has been made of the addition of the words ‘of the German Nation’ to the title ‘Holy Roman Empire’.1 Appearing in 1474, this combination was used more frequently after 1512 without becoming the Empire’s official title – despite numerous later claims to the contrary. Protestants were far more likely than Catholics to add ‘of the German Nation’ when discussing the Empire, but even their use was inconsistent. Only one in nine official documents issued after 1560 included any reference to Germany, usually referring simply to ‘the Empire’.

This chapter argues that the absence of a single political centre in the Empire complicated the definition of German national identity, encouraging several, often antagonistic versions of Germanness by the eighteenth century. This contributed to the richness of German identity, which was not restricted by linguistic or artistic criteria but instead was defined primarily politically. Later sections explore how the Empire was represented symbolically and how far its other, non-German-speaking inhabitants identified with it, as well as demonstrating the continued strength of older, broader political identities relative to narrower, more essentialist concepts of nationalism emerging around 1800.

The subsequent description of the Empire as simply ‘Germany’ stems from attempts to trace German history in national terms. Various national birthdays have been suggested, with the events surrounding the first partition of the Carolingian realm being the favourite. The chronicler Nithard recorded the Strasbourg oath sworn by Carolingian nobles in 842 in both Old High German and Old French versions. The tripartite division (East Francia, West Francia, Lotharingia) enacted the following year through the Treaty of Verdun appears to confirm the end of Charlemagne’s Empire and its replacement by French and German kingdoms (Map 2). Other historians favour the Treaty of Mersen from 870 since this redrew the map in a more modern form by dividing most of Lotharingia between the East and West Frankish kingdoms. The extinction of the eastern Carolingians and their replacement in 919 by the Ottonians was also interpreted later as the true birth of the German monarchy. In this narrative, Otto I’s coronation in 962 becomes the start of an entirely new, greater German empire.2

All these claims work by projecting later developments deep into the past. For example, Louis the Pious’s son Louis II, who ruled East Francia after 843, only received the sobriquet ‘the German’ in Heinrich von Bünau’s history of the Empire published in 1739.3Louis II was certainly known to contemporaries as rex Germaniae (king of Germany) while his brother Charles ‘the Bald’ was rex Galliae (king of Gaul), but it is unclear what these meant beyond distinguishing different parts of what many believed was still a common Frankish realm. The West Frankish king Lothar, the penultimate western Carolingian, attacked Aachen in the summer of 978. Otto II and his wife only just managed to escape. Lothar celebrated his coup by having the imperial eagle on the palace roof turned to face east instead of west. Writers either side of the Rhine interpreted this in partisan terms, displaying a sense of cultural differences, but nonetheless still focusing these on ‘their’ king in the form of the regnal identities discussed in the previous chapter.4The sense of difference did not end references to a broader Frankish heritage, which was invoked by emperors into the twelfth century and remained part of most discussions of the Empire’s identity long after that.

The terms Germani (Germans) and Teutonici (Teutons) were not original self-designations, but labels applied by outsiders to the inhabitants of what later became known as Germany. The Romans used Germani to refer to all those northern peoples they did not want to conquer. The term gained renewed currency through its employment by (Latin-trained) missionaries entering this area from the seventh century. Missionaries also spread the use of the term Teutonici, derived from lingua Theodisca, which in turn stemmed from the Old German thiot, meaning ‘people’; hence those who spoke a local vernacular rather than Latin. In reality, the inhabitants spoke a variety of Indo-European languages, while they saw themselves as distinct tribes or peoples.5 By then, western writers were also employing the term Alemanni from the name of the tribe closest to them. In time, this evolved into the French and Spanish words for Germany (Allemagne, Alemania), while the Alemanni themselves became ‘Swabians’.

The renewed engagement of northerners in Italian affairs from the mid-tenth century, after around 60 years’ relative absence, embedded these designations. By 1000, Italians were likely to generalize all northerners as Teutonici. The Ottonians appear to have embraced the label and carried it back over the Alps where it contributed to the gradual use of the term regnum teutonicorum.6 The concept was politically expedient, enabling both the Ottonians and their Salian successors to disarm potential criticism that they were not really Carolingian Franks by presenting themselves as rulers of all peoples inhabiting the realm north of the Alps and east of the Rhine. To them, the ‘German kingdom’ was not synonymous with the Empire, which remained greater and included other kingdoms in Italy, Burgundy and Bohemia. The reduction of the Empire to Germany came from the Salians’ papal opponents, as Gregory VII sought to belittle Henry IV by reducing him to merely a German king. Without abandoning claims to be emperors of a far greater realm, both the later Salians and the Staufers found identification with Germany also useful in countering papal actions. The ‘German’ king and his subjects were equal sufferers at the hands of a perfidious pope whose excommunication and interdict affected them all. This helps explain why John XXII went a step further in his attempts to belittle Louis IV by calling him ‘the Bavarian’.

The multicentred character of imperial governance inhibited the kind of focused regnal identities forming around English, French, Polish or Hungarian monarchs. Henry II and Charlemagne were canonized in 1146 and 1165 respectively without either of them gaining universal recognition as German or imperial patron saints. Writers in the Empire favoured strength in numbers, with the Empire’s numerous saints and political centres as its distinguishing characteristic. Nonetheless, the wider sense of the Empire continued to become more closely associated with German identity after 1250. This requires qualification before proceeding, since it should not be misconstrued as arguing there was a single, wider ‘Germanic’ civilization based either politically on the Empire or on alleged commonalities of language, law or economic forms.7

It is also a paradox that the decades between 1251 and 1311, when German kings were not crowned emperors, were those of the growing association between the Empire and German identity. The Staufers’ demise stimulated discussions of German identity at a time when it was also becoming clearer that Europe was subdividing into kingdoms each associated with a distinct people.8 Writers were concerned that Germans should not lose imperial prestige while their kings were unwilling or unable to be crowned emperor. What later generations interpreted as weakness actually strengthened the ideological associations between German identity and the Empire. A relatively distant king-emperor could be attractive as a monarch who did not impose heavy burdens on his subjects. The absence of a single, stable political core freed the monarchy from being tied to any one part of Germany, enabling all regions to identify with it. This explains the growing interest in ideas of imperial translation of the Empire as inheritor of ancient Rome, ideas that were disentangled from papal critique and employed to assert that Germans were distinct from Europeans through their association with the imperial title and its pan-Christian mission. These discussions already elaborated all the tropes that found full expression two centuries later in Humanist writings: Germans demonstrated their virtues through their martial prowess, amply justifying their claim to be Christendom’s defenders. In this way, the concept of imperial translation became the Empire’s myth of origins, substituting for the more focused stories elsewhere, like the myths around the Goths in Sweden or the Sarmatians in Poland.


Association with the Empire defined ‘Germany’ and ‘German identity’ politically, enabling both to continue including peoples of other languages and cultures. Likewise, electoral status made the archbishops of Mainz, Cologne and Trier all Germans despite their possessions being located in what was, historically, ancient Gaul. The Humanist Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia, published in Basel in 1544, presented a historical-geographical description of Germany in which the word Teütschland was synonymous throughout with the Empire regardless of the language on the ground. Johann Jacob Moser argued that French-and Italian-speaking Savoy ‘belongs to Germany’ through its incorporation within the German kingdom dating back to 1361, and he also used ‘German’ as shorthand for imperial.9

Germany remained a land of many languages, while political and linguistic boundaries never aligned. Some ninth-century texts were written in Frankish, like the Fulda translation of the Gospel that became the basis of the 6,000-line Heiland poem recounting Jesus’s life in Old Saxon. Nonetheless, Latin remained the dominant written language until the emergence of Middle High German in the twelfth century. Eastward migration and conquest greatly complicated matters, with the number of dialects identified subsequently rising from 12 between 1150 and 1250 to 18 across the following 250 years. Notably, the spread of New High German northwards from southern Germany after 1350 displaced northern Low German, which developed subsequently in the north-west as Dutch, a word itself of course deriving from Deutsch.10

The linkage between Germany and the Empire was reinforced by the gradual displacement of Latin by German as an administrative language from the thirteenth century, about two centuries before English replaced either Latin or French for political and administrative communication in England.11 The public peace proclaimed at Mainz in 1235 was the first significant constitutional document issued for the entire Empire in German. By 1300 German was increasingly used for charters, reflecting the larger number of laity holding office rather than clergy proficient in Latin. German accounted for half the documents produced by the Upper Bavarian chancellery across the first 25 years after its adoption in 1290. The use of Latin was reduced to technical and legal terms, except in Habsburg administration, where it continued to be used to communicate with Hungarians for the next four centuries. The administrative use of German helped to standardize it well ahead of the language reforms promoted by eighteenth-century intellectuals. The numerous lordly and civic authorities between Nuremberg, Eger, Würzburg and Regensburg began corresponding in a common, south German form after the mid-fourteenth century. This was adopted by the imperial chancellery in 1464 and thereafter by territorial governments like that of electoral Saxony. The advent of printing around 1450 accelerated this, because imperial institutions rapidly exploited the new media to distribute laws, decisions and information across the Empire. Luther’s famous German Bible had to be retranslated into Low German to reach Baltic coast readers, but the imperial chancellery style was already adopted by north German territorial administrations around 1500 thanks to their communication with the Reichstag and other institutions. This contrasts with the problems of standardizing Italian. Despite the identification of the Tuscan dialect with Italian high culture since the Renaissance and its subsequent dissemination through printed literature, it failed to establish itself as the predominant form until official measures imposed after Italian unification in 1861.

Other languages in the Empire withered through failing to establish a written form. Prussian, Kashubian and Polabian all died out by 1700, though Sorbian continues to the present day thanks to its use by the Lusatian Estates, which adopted it as the official language of Protestant education in their territory. Romansh disappeared in the Vorarlberg, but survived in neighbouring Rhetia. Likewise, Slovene died out in Styria, but developed a written form in parts of Hungary, as had Yiddish already much earlier. Czech was written from the thirteenth century and thrived from the 1390s thanks to its use in imperial administration under the Luxembourgs and subsequent place within Hussitism. Thus, while German was linked to the Empire, the Empire itself was multilingual. The Golden Bull of 1356 specified German, Latin, Upper Italian and Czech as imperial administrative languages. The imperial chancellery used the language of the intended recipients from about 1370. Although German became the primary language after 1620, the Reichshofrat continued using Italian in its dealings with imperial Italy.12

Language was already politically sensitive before the Empire standardized official communication. Migration since the twelfth century sharpened language and ethnicity as factors shaping identity and demarcating access to resources in the areas of recent western settlement beyond the Elbe. Subsequent population growth added pressure by the 1320s when north German towns like Brunswick revised their guild regulations to exclude Wends and other non-German speakers.13 These distinctions continued to matter in daily life in these regions, but dissipated as use of the Slavic languages decreased.


It was not until the ‘culture wars’ of the high Renaissance that language moved closer to its modern role as a key determinant of national identity. Renewed tensions with the papacy around 1400 contributed to this, as did the renegotiation of imperial-papal relations through the concordats of the later fifteenth century (see pp. 72–3). Critiques of papal corruption blended with the interests of Humanists in articulating national origins and identity, because words and other outward manifestations like clothing were regarded as indicative of inner morality and character. Tropes that had already appeared in the thirteenth century emerged now in more virulent form. German was supposedly the most ancient and purest language and a general marker of cultural superiority over the Welsch; this was a blanket pejorative term for all ‘Latin’ foreigners, chiefly French and Italians, but also including on occasion Poles, Hungarians and others.

Criticism of cultural and sartorial values was an expression of deeper anxieties stirred by greater social mobility and the perceived erosion of the status distinctions delineating corporate groups. These pressures were most acute in towns. One manifestation was the series of sumptuary laws regulating clothing, such as that issued in Leipzig in 1452 which restricted the use of styles and fabrics in an attempt to stop servants being mistaken for masters. Another ordinance, from 1431, targeted an unauthorized group counterculture by forbidding journeymen to wear shoes of a common distinctive colour.14 Efforts to regulate appearance stimulated the discussion of whether there was – or should be – a distinctive national dress. Conrad Celtis called for imperial legislation to encourage a more ‘German’ appearance. Germans allegedly wore smart, restrained and simple clothes reflecting their honesty and integrity. By contrast, the Welsch were slovenly and promiscuous, especially – of course – their women, who sported low-cut, garish dresses, jewellery and ridiculous hairstyles. Hans Weigel’s illustrated Costume Book published in 1577 depicted a soberly dressed woman from Metz in contrast to a brightly attired French woman in a deliberate attempt to demonstrate that Metz was still ‘German’ despite having been captured by France in 1552 (see Plate 18).

The discussion of national costume reveals the difficulties that Germans encountered in trying to define their identity through culture and ethnicity. Intellectuals could not agree whether they should don allegedly authentic Germanic garb or current fashions more in line with their present needs. In short, there was no actual national dress. As the Leipzig city council remarked in 1595, ‘the clothes the people of the German nation wear almost always change from one year to the next’.15 The same was true for other aspects of culture like painting, music, literature and architecture, all of which exhibited regional more than national characteristics. Beyond trumpeting the invention of printing as the Germans’ gift to humanity, there was little else intellectuals agreed on as distinctly national about German culture.16 All these efforts missed the point. It was the Empire’s inclusive diversity that made it distinctive and enabled its numerous inhabitants to identify with it.

Nowhere is this clearer than in attitudes to German-speakers beyond the Empire. In early modernity there was a wider German-speaking cultural community, which extended along the Baltic shore through Polish Prussia and Courland into Estonia and beyond. However, none of these peoples were considered politically German, despite some of them living in places once associated with the Empire that in no way was considered a ‘Greater Germany’. The Baltic Germans likewise found it easier and more expedient to identify with their home province, while those in Poland regarded the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as guarantor of their own identity and rights.17


The Humanist discussion of national identity raised consciousness of the distinction between the Empire’s traditional transnational character and its more specific association with Germany. Central to this debate was the rediscovery of Tacitus’s Germania, written in AD 98. Few in the Empire had read it before a manuscript copy was taken to Rome in 1451 and then rapidly disseminated through Humanist intellectual exchange. A Latin printed edition appeared in 1470, followed by a German translation in 1526. The book’s impact was magnified by the dearth of information on the early Germans. Tacitus in fact never visited Germania, but wrote an informed, fairly even-handed description of the German tribes, including the sensational story of Arminius (Hermann), who defeated Quinctilius Varus’s Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9.18

Like all sophisticated texts, Germania could be read in multiple ways. Italian Humanists seized on Tacitus’s description of German vices of excessive eating and drinking as corroborating existing stereotypes. The German response was mixed. One strand took an anti-Roman course, exemplified by Ulrich von Hutten, who played on Tacitus’ depiction of Germans as noble savages defeating decadent Romans in his own anti-papal polemics of the early sixteenth century. Combined with those advocating linguistic and cultural purity, this line of argument rapidly developed the trend to articulate a distinct German national identity in opposition to similar identities voiced elsewhere in Europe. The experience of the church council at Constance (1414–18) already fostered a sense of aGermania nacio, which grew as a rallying cry against both papal tax demands and the Ottoman threat. The Reformation added impetus, but Hutten’s critique was much broader than Luther’s better-known Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation(1520), which was limited to church reform.19

These discussions made a lasting impact through providing concepts and images to express the new national idea. The female figure of Germania had appeared as a captive Amazon on Roman coins, but was reinvented by Maximilian I ‘as mother of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation’ in the early sixteenth century. She remained the embodiment of the Empire as virtuous and pacific, reappearing as a symbol of Liberty during the 1848 Revolution before becoming militarized as a bloodthirsty Fury in the late nineteenth century.20

Meanwhile, thanks to Tacitus, German Humanists were able to remind their Italian counterparts that the Romans had never conquered Germany, whereas the Germans had plundered Rome. The coincidence of this discussion with the renewed sack of that city by Charles V’s army in 1527 seemed to underscore their point, but it was not until 1643 that Hermann Conring drew the full, logical conclusions and rejected any connection between Rome and the Empire, arguing that the ancient Roman empire had collapsed long before Charlemagne was crowned emperor. However, for most people Tacitus simply proved the long-standing argument of imperial translation that the Germans, as conquerors of Rome, were its worthy imperial successors.

These arguments caused considerable problems for Protestants, who realized that the logic of anti-Romanism opened them to charges of being unpatriotic. The Roman Catholic Humanist Johannes Cochlaeus directly accused Luther of this, because his depiction of the pope as Anti-Christ challenged the legitimacy of imperial rule and its glorious tradition of defending the church. The Protestant theologian Philipp Melanchthon and the historian Johannes Schleiden responded by explicitly embracing imperial translation to support their calls for the emperor to renew the church by embracing the Reformation. The idealization of medieval emperors continued to serve Protestant agendas into the mid-seventeenth century by implying criticism of the current Habsburg emperors as beholden to the pope. In short, the Empire was too much part of Protestant Germans’ identity to be jettisoned in their break with Rome. Instead, Protestant intellectuals and princes tried to appropriate ‘German’ language and culture as their own and to present Catholics as unpatriotic. In practice, their efforts fell far short of what later generations expected of true Germans. The Fruitful Society (Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft), established in 1617, was the most famous of these national cultural endeavours. Although dedicated to the purity of the German language, it accepted Scots, Swedes, Italians and others as members and published most of its works in Latin.21

German Freedom

Mutual accusations of lack of patriotism peaked during the Thirty Years War, with Protestants accusing Catholics of selling the Empire to Spanish Jesuits and the pope, while Catholics blamed Protestants for inviting in Danish, Swedish and French invaders. The fact that both sides claimed to be upholding the imperial constitution drew attention to this as a possible bridge between them. The funeral sermon for Archbishop-Elector Anselm Casimir of Mainz in 1647 noted that it would have been politically advantageous for him to have accepted an alliance offer from France, yet he had remained steadfastly loyal to the emperor and Empire. The elector’s Lutheran neighbour, the landgrave of Hessen-Darmstadt, praised him as a ‘true patriot’ for his efforts at the Westphalian peace congress to persuade Catholic hardliners to offer Protestants more acceptable terms to end the war.22

While it might require modification, all believed the constitution offered the best protection for their ‘German freedom’. This was broadly similar to other aristocratic expressions of freedom such as Polish and Hungarian ‘liberty’, ‘free-born Englishmen’ and la liberté de la France. All combined demands for autonomy with claims to participate in politics. Those constituting the political ‘nation’ should be free to pursue their lives without undue royal interference, yet were entitled to share government with the king. There were other concepts of freedom, but it would be wrong to divide these into rival ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ forms.23 Neither was inherently more progressive or democratic. Civic freedom often led to oligarchy, while supposedly ‘aristocratic’ arguments could promote republican government (see pp. 519–22, 533–62 and 594–602). Symbols and arguments remained open to a variety of uses prior to the emergence of a more rigid left–right ideological spectrum after the French Revolution of 1789.

The Humanist articulation of German identity extrapolated ‘liberties’ from Tacitus’s account of the Germans as an unconquered, free people. The parallel process of imperial reform provided a new institutional framework to embed these into the imperial constitution. Crucially, this entailed that German freedom depended on belonging to the Empire rather than emancipation from it. This was a major factor blunting any potential for Protestantism to become a separatist political movement. Furthermore, it ensured that freedom was expressed as specific liberties, not uniform, equal and universal Liberty. Finally, it bound together the imperial Estates and the corporate social groups, since all were mutually dependent in maintaining the Empire as the collective guarantor of their own special status.

It was this combination that made German freedom distinct from its equivalents in other countries, where writers claimed or invented broader underlying ‘common’ liberties, such as ‘national law’ (ius patrium) in France or ‘the common custom of the realm’ emerging in early seventeenth-century England. Some German writers embraced elements of this, like Conring in the early seventeenth century, or the historian Jacob Paul von Gundling around one hundred years later. However, they still inverted the standard pattern: rather than championing an underlying set of universal freedoms, they celebrated the Empire as an overarching system protecting numerous local and specific liberties. To most Germans, a universal system of freedoms was equated with tyranny since it threatened their cherished distinctiveness.24


Multiple Voices

The Empire’s polycentric structure necessitated different ways of communicating identity to those in more centralized states. Without a single capital, the Empire always lacked the cultural synergies produced by the concentration of creative, political and financial resources in a single, dominant city like Paris or London. This, however, also brought with it unique strengths. The Empire avoided the cultural tensions between capital and province, court and country, found in other monarchies. Instead, cultural production and the expression of attachment diffused more evenly throughout the Empire, extending a sense of ‘ownership’ more broadly both geographically and socially.

It is perhaps doubtful that these conditions encouraged greater artistic creativity, as has been claimed.25 Nonetheless, the Empire produced the two innovations of the early modern ‘communications revolution’: printing and a regular postal network. Political decentralization frustrated censorship and control, while the absence of a single capital distributed cultural activity, patronage and educational opportunities more evenly.26 Modern Germany still benefits from having more theatres and opera houses than any other European country, while cultural life is also still fairly evenly spread in Austria and Italy. However, we should not exaggerate the level of activity nor its impact on the broader population. It is always easier to analyse images and symbols than to understand how they were received by their audiences.

Both Carolingian and Ottonian rule are associated with a Renaissance, or revival and reinterpretation of classical antiquity, while similar, less extensive developments have been identified during the Staufer era. The Carolingian Renaissance was particularly important as the primary transmitter of ancient Roman imperial models and for the articulation of a Christian moralized politics. This gave Charlemagne and his successors an idea of what an imperial court should look like, but theirs was never a carbon copy of ancient Rome. Moreover, the Carolingian Renaissance did not penetrate far beyond the clergy; indeed, many of the clergy implicitly criticized the emperor for failing to match their ideal of a Christian Roman monarch.27

The Carolingians made a lasting adaptation of imperial Rome to Frankish sensibilities in that their political-cultural practice was about presentation, not representation. The emperor needed to be present among a select, immediate audience of great lords, rather than be represented through a coherent strategy of images and propaganda intended for a wider but physically distant audience. Much of medieval imperial politics was about creating and managing opportunities for the emperor to engage personally with the political elite. This was a permanent structural characteristic, because the Empire’s monarchs remained itinerant into early modernity. Consequently, the earliest imperial symbols needed to be portable, and it was only under much-changed circumstances that the Luxembourgs and especially the Habsburgs developed a representational court culture closer in essential form to both ancient Rome and their European monarchical contemporaries.


The imperial crown was the Empire’s most obvious and enduring symbol. As in so many ways, Charlemagne set an important precedent in using a crown denoting divine reward for true faith, rather than the ancient Roman practice of a laurel wreath symbolizing military victory. Custom maintained that the ‘Charles Crown’ (Karlskrone) was always used after 800. The surviving imperial crown is certainly very old, but even by the fifteenth century some doubted it was actually Charlemagne’s. Multiple detailed studies by art historians have failed to establish exactly when it was made, as it was clearly modified several times. The general consensus remains that it was produced for either Otto I’s coronation in 962 or that of his son (Otto II) as co-emperor in 967.28 The octagonal design is said to represent Jerusalem, while each plate is richly decorated with images of Christ and Old Testament kings. The crown is ‘closed’ by an arch from front to back denoting its imperial status, in contrast to ‘open’ diadems of mere kings. It was reserved for imperial coronations by the twelfth century, with separate royal crowns used in German, Italian and Burgundian coronations. These secondary crowns never attained the same semi-sacral quality and were often melted down or pawned. There were additional ‘private’ crowns symbolizing purely secular authority. These were scarcely royal day wear – Rudolf II’s gold crown from 1602 weighs 3.9 kilograms. Although not the last to be made, Rudolf’s crown survived to become the Habsburgs’ dynastic symbol and was used on a revised coat of arms to denote their new Austrian imperial status in 1804 (see Plate 14).29

Many other treasures accumulated by the thirteenth century. Like the crown, several existed in multiple copies, or were replaced or altered. Byzantine influence was strong, thanks to Constantinople’s association with ancient Rome and its significance as a source of holy relics. However, the Empire’s rulers and craftsmen displayed innovation of their own. The Ottonians invented the crowned cross combining secular and spiritual images to underscore their holy mission. Otto I added a cross to the imperial orb (Reichsapfel), which, by the eleventh century, had replaced the staff as the symbol of earthly rule.30

The Holy Lance (Sacra Lancea) contained the ‘victory-bringing nail’ said to have come from Christ’s cross; it had been acquired around 925 by Henry I from Rudolf II of Burgundy. Its potency as a symbol of divinely ordained rule was heightened through association with the Ottonian victory over the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955 and over the Roman rebels in 1001. Around 1000, Otto III sent copies to Boleslav Chrobry and (possibly) Stephen of Hungary as part of his recognition of them as the Empire’s junior partners.31 Three swords became part of the imperial insignia, including the Gladius Caroli Magni that was said to be part of Charlemagne’s booty taken from the Avars, having previously belonged to Attila the Hun, though it was most likely made a century later using an east European sabre. It was worn by emperors at their coronation.32

The Imperial Cross is a spectacular item allegedly containing a piece of Christ’s cross once belonging to Charlemagne. Again, its provenance is controversial, but it certainly played an important part in religious processions by the eleventh century. Other important relics included an (alleged) thorn from Christ’s crown, a tooth from John the Baptist, a chip from Christ’s crib, a piece from his carpenter’s apron, the table-cloth from the Last Supper and – for once genuine – Charlemagne’s own Bible, as well as St Stephen’s Purse, containing that saint’s blood, which was placed on a table during royal coronations in Aachen. The sacral significance of these items emphasized the emperor’s position as Christendom’s pre-eminent ruler and his holy mission. However, some items from other cultures were incorporated, notably the spectacular coronation robes with their palm-tree and camel motifs made by Islamic craftsmen in Sicily, which were acquired by the Staufers, and the red Chinese silk Eagle Dalmatic embroidered with 68 eagle medallions, probably made for Louis IV. By that point, the imperial insignia formed a recognized collection recorded in inventories that did not question them as both authentic and timeless objects. Albrecht Dürer’s painting of Charlemagne from 1510 shows the emperor wearing the imperial crown, the Eagle Dalmatic and the Islamic robes (see Plate 2).

Seals were another potent symbol, used to authenticate charters and other documents issued by the imperial chancellery. Carolingian seals and coins followed ancient Roman practice in showing the ruler’s head in profile. This practice continued in West Francia until the end of the Carolingian era, but had already shifted in the east by 899 to show the monarch’s whole body posed in profile as a triumphant warrior. The Ottonians invented a new form in 962 showing the emperor frontally, enthroned, crowned and holding a sceptre and orb as symbols of majesty. Later Ottonian seals got bigger, thicker and more imposing, while after 998 the Ottonian emperors began issuing metallic seals like popes, thereby elevating important charters to ‘Golden Bulls’. The Ottonian style became the model for royal seals across Europe.33

Ottonian seals and court liturgy reflected the changed, more elevated and sacral monarchical ideal, adding images emphasizing the ruler’s proximity to God alongside the more traditional prayers for divine protection. Whereas Carolingian images often showed the emperor surrounded by nobles or intellectuals, those of the Salian era reflected the more command-style monarchy by placing the emperor apart, often as a significantly larger figure than his retinue. The sacral element waned after the 1070s and monarchs appeared more obviously as mortals, especially in regnal and dynastic sequences of miniature portraits. Images became increasingly lifelike after 1300, perhaps in reaction to the imposters claiming to be the long-dead Frederick II, as well as reflecting new ideas of the self. Charles IV had over seventy portraits of himself distributed systematically across the Empire. Again, this reflected a fundamental political shift. As imperial rule came to rest in hereditary territorial possessions under the Luxembourgs, emperors no longer showed themselves so often directly to their important subjects through the traditional royal progress. Portraits offered an easily portable substitute. Charles is presented recognizably with large eyes, a high forehead and high cheekbones. His son Sigismund was also shown distinctively in portraiture with a mass of blond hair and a forked beard. Presentation as individuals heightened the significance of the ‘authentic’, unchanging insignia symbolizing the Empire’s enduring character: all the Luxembourg portraits, like those by Dürer, show each emperor wearing the same imperial crown.34

While the crown and royal portraits identified the monarch, the Empire increasingly became associated with the image of an eagle. Eagles already symbolized empires and armies in the ancient world and formed part of Byzantine iconography. An imperial eagle adorned the palace in Aachen at least by the time of the humiliating raid by the West Frankish king Lothar in 978, and also appeared atop Otto III’s orb. It is clearly associated with the emperor from Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ onwards, appearing on all important items associated with the emperor like his coat of arms, insignia, coins, tents and battle flag. The eagle remained single-headed until the later twelfth century, when double-headed versions appeared on civic coats of arms and devices associated with the emperor. By the mid-fourteenth century, the double eagle was firmly fixed as an imperial bird distinguishing it from single-headed royal or princely eagles. Sigismund used a single-headed eagle as king before adopting a double-headed one at his imperial coronation in 1433, but this practice ceased with Maximilian I’s adoption of the elected imperial title in 1508. Maximilian fixed the double eagle to the Habsburg coat of arms, making it a dynastic symbol as well – this was briefly contested in the 1740s by Charles VII, the one non-Habsburg emperor of early modernity, who had the double eagle painted onto Bavarian army flags. Sigismund added halos for the eagle’s heads in 1433 to symbolize the Empire’s holy character, as well as a crown. After 1612, the imperial vicars used an uncrowned double eagle in their periods of office during imperial interregna.35

The double-eagle image spread rapidly throughout the fifteenth century, being embraced by groups as diverse as German students at Bologna University to members of the Hanseatic League, as well as being disseminated in print as broadsheets or illustrations in books about the Empire. The rise of the imperial princes proliferated other, single-headed eagles. In most cases, the eagle changed from the original imperial black to red (Brandenburg, Tirol), or red-and-white-striped (Hessen, Thuringia). The Teutonic Order adopted a black eagle before this bird became the Empire’s primary symbol, and the black eagle was carried over to Prussia once the Hohenzollerns were raised as kings in 1701. Savoy also retained a black eagle into the nineteenth century, while Tuscany adopted a black double eagle combined with the Tuscan arms during the era of Habsburg rule.36

The eagle had originally been golden until the late thirteenth century, when gold became the most common colour for any background field, for example on flags or coats of arms. The papacy adopted the purple of ancient Rome, but the Empire favoured gold, black, red and white, although in no firm combination. The Staufer imperial battle flag was red with a white cross, persisting today as the Swiss flag. The red-white combination was also adopted by numerous princely dynasties and imperial cities.

The century after 1450 saw rapid change in imperial imagery, reflecting both the transition to a more formalized mixed monarchy, the establishment of Habsburg imperial rule, and the invention of new media like printing. Older elements like the Christian hero persisted into Maximilian I’s reign, but were joined by revived classical images, notably the emperor as Hercules or as Jupiter presiding over a new Olympus. Although pagan, such symbols acquired new value through Renaissance Humanism, which cemented their association with political virtues like justice, clemency and peace. These symbols were also attractive after the Reformation, which made some Christian imagery politically problematic in a state with two recognized faiths. The classical world also supplied numerous non-human motifs that could be employed to symbolize the Empire’s more collective character extending beyond just its monarch. For example, the electors were already described in the Golden Bull of 1356 as the ‘pillars of the Empire’. Pillars, obelisks and columns all symbolized solidity, peace and justice. Other images conveyed more partisan interpretations, reflecting the imperial constitution’s contested character through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For example, presenting the Empire as a ship suggested it required a strong emperor as helmsman.37

Images of the emperor diverged under the Habsburgs. Their status as dynasts ruling their own extensive hereditary possessions was represented in magnificent portraits showing them generally full length, but almost always alone, except for collective family portraits. When shown in their imperial role they were surrounded by the electors or representatives of all the imperial Estates.38 The political changes are further reflected in attempts to fix the increasingly complex status hierarchy in a new device known as theQuaternionen, showing the imperial Estates as figures or heraldic devices and first appearing in a fresco created in Frankfurt for Sigismund around 1414. Written descriptions soon spread, followed by printed engravings from the mid-fifteenth century that generally displayed the Estates against a background of a black double eagle. The electors were either omitted or shown as a rank of seven figures at the top. The other status groups followed in sequence below: dukes, margraves, landgraves, burgraves, counts, lords, knights, imperial cities, villages and peasants (see Plate 19). The Quaternionen were always schematic. There were invariably more in reality than the four members displayed for each group, while the locations presented as villages and peasants were often actually additional towns. Nonetheless, these images remained very popular until about 1600 when they were displaced by more accurate information on the actual composition of the imperial Estates, especially the printed lists of those summoned to the Reichstag, as well as by published maps and descriptions of the Empire.39

Symbolic innovation declined after the mid-sixteenth century, again reflecting the end of imperial reform and the broadly stable character of the Empire’s constitution thereafter. The triumphal arches used by Maximilian II (1570) and Matthias (1612) for their entries into Nuremberg were virtually identical to that erected for Charles V in 1541.40 The scale and scope of artistic patronage certainly broadened under Rudolf II, but much of it was too highbrow and esoteric to serve as effective propaganda. The most enduring creation was a heightened image of the emperor as victorious conqueror of the Turks and defender of the peace, an image that returned with the renewed wars against the Ottomans in the later seventeenth century.41 Habsburg imperial imagery became more overtly Catholic around 1600, leaving no doubt of the emperor’s own faith. However, Ferdinand III already sought to recover the more neutral, cross-confessional position that had been occupied by his predecessors in the mid to late sixteenth century, presenting himself as Solomon symbolizing wisdom and virtue rather than zealotry. Piety was increasingly turned outwards against external enemies, notably Louis XIV, who was criticized as disturbing Christendom’s peace in contrast to the emperor as guarantor of order. Ferdinand also embraced the new artistic forms associated with the baroque, notably opera, and displayed some talent as a musician and composer himself. However, these innovations increasingly reflected changing taste and Habsburg dynastic objectives but produced no new representations of the Empire.


Places also acquired symbolic importance through events like royal elections, coronations and assemblies, as well as more permanently as palaces or tombs. It was characteristic of the Empire’s political order that it used multiple locations rather than a single capital. The number of places with imperial associations grew over time, especially with the changes of ruling dynasty into early modernity since each royal family had a different geographical power base. Although some locations fell out of use, many never lost their significance entirely, while others like monasteries or towns unilaterally expressed their attachment to the Empire through furnishing ‘emperor’s halls’ (Kaisersäle) and imperial portrait galleries.

Locations of symbolic importance were used throughout the Empire, but the preference for Germany was already obvious under the Carolingians. Aachen in the extreme west of Germany was the favoured royal palace and place of royal coronations for most of the Middle Ages. Charlemagne’s stone throne, as well as the rather more portable Imperial Bible and St Stephen’s Purse, were stored here, while the rest of the insignia travelled with the emperor. After the renewed civil wars around 1100, Henry V stored the insignia in his strong castle of Trifels in the Palatinate. They resumed their travels under the Staufers, before being entrusted to the Cistercian monks at Eussertal monastery until 1273 when they were scattered to various castles except for coronations. The move to more territorially based imperial rule under Charles IV was reflected in the concentration of the insignia, first in St Vitus Cathedral in Prague and then in the Karlstein castle between 1356 and 1421. The Hussite insurrection prompted their removal to Nuremberg, which remained the official repository until the French Revolutionary Wars.

The absence of a permanent capital discouraged the construction of the kind of representational buildings found in other European monarchies.42 An itinerant emperor needed lots of palaces and could not invest heavily in a single site. Some medieval construction was nevertheless very impressive. Charlemagne and Otto III commissioned deliberately imposing buildings at Aachen, while the Ottonians developed Goslar and the Salians constructed Speyer’s huge cathedral as their royal tomb. The difference only really became noticeable in early modernity when other monarchies built lavish palaces like the Escorial in Spain and Versailles in France or, in Russia’s case, an entirely new capital at St Petersburg. The contrast grew more obvious with the proliferation of fashionable new princely residences at Ludwigsburg, Herrenhausen, Nymphenburg, and elsewhere across Germany. From 1663 the permanent Reichstag continued to meet in Regensburg’s old Gothic town hall, suggesting to some visitors that the Empire was stuck in the distant past (see Plate 20). The city’s construction of a new hall immediately next door at the beginning of the eighteenth century accentuated the distinction between old and new.

Print Culture

The early modern media revolution greatly extended the audience for imperial imagery, facilitating the shift from a culture of presentation to one of representation. Elements of presentation continued into the late eighteenth century, but performative acts like coronations and assemblies now reached far more people through their dissemination in the printed word and image. These developments coincided with the Empire’s consolidation as a mixed monarchy, entrenching the decentralization of expressions of identity and inhibiting the emergence of a single, coherent representational culture.

Print culture spread rapidly. Within fifty years of its introduction around 1450 into western Europe by Johannes Gutenberg, 62 German cities operated about two hundred presses and within another 25 years over 11 million books and prints were in circulation. Contrary to received views of Germany as a land of poets and thinkers before the nineteenth century, print played a central role in politics from the outset. Frederick III immediately appreciated the new media’s potential, commissioning 37 works before his death in 1493. His son Maximilian I was a master of spin, publishing a further 129 works within the first seven years of his accession alone.43 A talented writer himself, Maximilian revived the practice of crowning imperial poets laureate that had previously featured only fitfully in Italy, thereby expanding patronage of Humanist intellectuals and associating imperial power with fashionable art forms. The new imperial institutions matched the emperor’s rush to print. The first printed report from a Reichstag appeared after the 1486 meeting, giving précis of the speeches. A semi-official record of all decisions appeared as the Corpus Recessum Imperii after 1501, well ahead of Hansard, which only began recording British parliamentary proceedings in 1774. Well before then, the Reichstag had emerged as a key political information hub, publishing far more information about its deliberations than any other European representative institution.44 These developments demonstrated the Empire’s shift from a presentational culture based on the personal presence of the emperor to one of representation mediated through print and images. To late eighteenth-century observers this appeared to render the Empire lifeless as its envoys at the Reichstag communicated through letters and memoranda, rarely gathering in the hall for speeches. From a twenty-first-century perspective this virtual political reality appears almost post-modern.

However, it was already obvious that the authorities could not monopolize the new media. The papacy had already attempted censorship in 1487 by ordering all printed works to be submitted to the approval of the archbishops of Mainz, Cologne, Trier and Magdeburg prior to sale. Maximilian swiftly excluded papal influence by asserting that censorship was an imperial prerogative, which itself was a demonstration of the Empire’s ability to respond to circumstances. Publishers initially cooperated because an imperial licence offered copyright protection, enabling them to prosecute pirate printers through the new imperial supreme court, or Reichskammergericht. Johannes Reuchlin’s discussion of Judaism was the first book to be banned, in 1512, but censorship only really became an issue once Luther had been outlawed by the Edict of Worms in 1521. By then it was too late in his case, as 700,000 copies of his works were in circulation.

The Empire adapted, abandoning the unrealistic goal of total control in favour of measures intended to influence content. The Imperial Book Commission was established in Frankfurt in 1569, reflecting that city’s status as the centre of Europe’s book trade. Additional legislation was intended to curb scandal, libel and polemic rather than stifle debate. Like the other sixteenth-century institutional changes, these measures contributed to the Empire’s complementary structure by providing a regulatory framework to be enforced by imperial Estates in their own territories.45 Regional differences in practice reflected the decentralization. Prussia was perceived as the state most tolerant of religious works (something that was not entirely true), while Austria and Bavaria were regarded as reactionary. Saxony was the most liberal overall, because it wanted to promote Leipzig as a rival centre of the book trade. In practice, censorship was often haphazard and handled variously by courtiers, librarians and university rectors.46 Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Lessing and other leading authors used pseudonyms to avoid unpleasant repercussions as territorial governments tried to extend control during the later eighteenth century. Meeting resistance from the increasingly politicized reading classes, many territories then relaxed or abandoned censorship around 1800. Throughout, the Empire’s decentralized structure facilitated relatively free expression, in contrast to France, where 183 people were imprisoned in the Bastille between 1760 and 1789 for breaching censorship laws.47Censorship resumed after the dissolution of the Empire in 1806, because consolidation into fewer states made it easier to oversee, while the spectre of French revolutionary terror increased its acceptance amongst readers.

Decentralization contributed to an equally diverse educational landscape, as each principality and even large city wanted to have its own university. The Empire’s first university was founded in Prague in 1348, relatively late compared to Bologna (1088) or Paris (1170). However, the Empire had 45 universities by 1800, compared to 22 in France and 2 in England. The absence of a national church was another stimulus, since each territory wanted the full range of educational opportunities aligned to its own faith. Provision in Protestant territories was generally better and included even girls’ elementary education in some Calvinist territories by the late sixteenth century. Nonetheless, many Catholic villages also had basic schooling, with the proportion of them providing it in the duchy of Jülich rising from a quarter in the sixteenth century to 90 per cent in the eighteenth century. Attendance was already mandatory in many territories by 1700, with provision in smaller principalities often far ahead of larger ones like Austria and Prussia. By the late eighteenth century, the two German great powers controlled half of the Empire’s territory, yet they had only 10 universities between them, compared to 35 across the other principalities and imperial cities. The Empire’s demise saw 20 of these universities closed by 1826, including Rinteln and Herborn, largely through the process of territorial consolidation. By 1500, literacy already stood at 5 per cent, with a peak of 20 per cent in large cities, while the overall rate reached 25 per cent by 1806, better than in France but behind parts of Britain.48

Education and literacy were relatively evenly spread, with almost every town having its own lending library by the eighteenth century.49 The educated public were served by the world’s first postal network, deliberately promoted through the grant of imperial privileges in 1490, creating a communications system transcending both geography and political decentralization. Already open to private customers in 1516, the network of post horses and coach routes connected most of the Empire within a century, allowing Europe’s first regular newspapers to develop through a commercially viable distribution network, 26 years ahead of France.50 The Empire had its first daily paper from 1635, some 67 years ahead of England. The expansion of territorial governments created additional markets for specialist journals on agriculture, economics, health, finance and military affairs. There were over two hundred commercial publishers in the Empire by the 1770s, while the number of authors tripled across 1760–91 to reach 8,000, or twice as many as in France, which had roughly the same population. Although this period was celebrated as the great age of German literature, luminaries like Goethe and Schiller sold only 2,000–3,000 copies of each new book, whereas Zacharias Becker’s Advice Booklet for Peasants sold over a million. This reflected the primarily practical orientation of public communication in the Empire as earlier religious and political controversies gave way to an interest in problem-solving.51

Constitutional Commentary

The advent of print both encouraged and facilitated public discussion of the Empire. Known as Reichspublizistik, this constitutional commentary reflected a central character of imperial politics by remaining an endless dialogue without a universally accepted conclusion. Not only was the constitution never codified, but the mountains of official documents and public commentary added to the difficulty of defining it by providing evidence for endless exceptions to supposed general rules. The indefatigable Johann Jakob Moser wrote around one hundred volumes only to conclude that ‘Germany is governed the German way’.52

Careful examination of these publications reveals that, while attitudes changed towards the Empire across early modernity, mainstream opinion remained broadly favourable. Disagreements were fiercest between the 1570s and 1640s, while some aspects were increasingly criticized after 1750, but no major thinker advocated substantial change. Even during the most heated exchanges the situation was broadly similar to that in Britain after 1689, when Whigs and Tories worked within the same constitution whilst disagreeing over details. Both Germany and Britain contrasted with late eighteenth-century France, where many leading intellectuals concluded that the Bourbon monarchy was no longer fit for purpose.

The fundamental issues were already articulated in 1458 by Enea Silvio Piccolomini, future Pope Pius II, who posed a rhetorical address to the Empire’s princes: ‘Of course you recognize the emperor as your king and lord, but he clearly exercises his authority like a beggar, and his power is effectively nothing. You only obey him as far as it pleases you and it pleases you as little as possible.’53 Imperial politics appear here as a zero-sum game where the growth of princely power erodes that of the emperor, casting doubt whether the Empire was even still a monarchy. The Reformation intensified discussions by broadening ‘German freedom’ to include religious liberties. Faced with a seemingly implacably Catholic emperor, many Protestants argued that the Empire was really an aristocratic republic, or a commonwealth, in which the emperor was merely first among equals, like the Venetian doge. The concept of indivisible sovereignty advocated in the 1560s by the French philosopher and jurist Jean Bodin pushed discussions towards sharper categorization through his distinction between the outward form of government and its legal power (sovereignty). Thus, he argued, while the Empire might have the trappings of monarchy with regal symbols, it was in fact a commonwealth, because real power rested with the princes and was exercised through the Reichstag.

Catholics and also moderate Lutherans like Gottfried Antonius and Dietrich Reinkingk mounted a spirited defence of the Empire as monarchy; Reinkingk was even ennobled by Ferdinand III for arguing in 1655 that the emperor had supreme power once elected. Reinkingk was the monarchists’ last hurrah, because the Thirty Years War revealed both the emperor’s lack of supreme power and the dangers should he ever obtain it. The aristocratic counterblast was restated in an influential tract by Bogislav von Chemnitz, writing under the pseudonym Hippolithus a Lapide in 1643. Chemnitz was working for the Swedes and his book was symbolically burned by the imperial executioner. Not surprisingly, Prussia reissued Chemnitz’s work in 1761 at the height of the Seven Years War when it also challenged Habsburg imperial authority.54

In fact, Chemnitz’s interpretation was already politically unacceptable to most imperial Estates once Ferdinand III accepted revisions to the imperial constitution in the Peace of Westphalia (1648). This rejected both the monarchical and aristocratic interpretations in favour of a middle course advocated by writers like Dominicus Arumaeus and Johannes Limnaeus, who, in turn, reworked ideas already voiced around 1500 that the Empire was a mixed monarchy in which the emperor held the initiative, but shared important powers with the imperial Estates. Westphalia’s main significance was to widen the circle sharing governance beyond the electors to include all imperial Estates. Moreover, it was clear by the 1680s that shares would remain unevenly distributed along the status hierarchy, limiting how far the junior Estates could influence policy, but equally ensuring they were not excluded altogether. This countered Bodin’s either/or approach with its insistence that sovereignty was either wholly wielded by the emperor or exercised through the Reichstag, Instead, power was diffused through the Empire’s different authorities, making them interdependent.

Samuel Pufendorf pushed the mixed-monarchy interpretation further through comparative analysis with other European states. Pufendorf’s views gained currency thanks to his subsequent fame as Germany’s first professor of natural law and his status as a leading intellectual. Like Chemnitz, he published his De statu imperii Germanici in 1667 under a pseudonym (the fantastically titled Severini de Monzambano). Pufendorf rejected attempts since Bodin to fit the Empire into the standard categories of states, arguing instead it was an ‘irregular body’. His choice of the term ‘monstrosity’ to express this was immediately controversial and he deleted it from later editions of his book.55 Pufendorf profoundly influenced how the Empire came to be interpreted after 1806, because he argued it had declined from a regular monarchy into an irregular one during the Middle Ages. He also revived Piccolomini’s sharp dualist interpretation by arguing that while the Empire was an irregulare Corpus, its component principalities were regular monarchies. Pufendorf believed this was the root of all its political problems, because the princes were trying to break free, while the emperor was trying to reassert monarchical authority. Finally, his comparison with other European states presented the Empire as weak, because it lacked the central institutions found in France and elsewhere.

However, numerous other writers disputed that an ‘irregular body’ should necessarily be an inferior one and continued Pufendorf’s historical analysis with more positive conclusions. Alongside Moser, Johann Pütter also contributed around one hundred volumes on the constitution, while Johann von Ludewig published a German translation of the Golden Bull with 2,500 pages of commentary. The verbosity of these authors represented the Empire through words in the way other states were projected in the timber, brick and stone of their royal palaces and parliaments. Their inability to suggest any alternative to existing conditions underlines the broad contentment with what Arch-chancellor Dalberg described as ‘a permanent Gothic structure that might not conform to all the building regulations, but in which one lives securely’.56


German Attachment to the Empire

The concept of attachment to a fatherland (patria) gained currency with Humanist discourse and first appeared in the German form Vaterland in relation to the Empire in 1507.57 Humanists’ interest in civic engagement refashioned the patriot as someone actively promoting the common good, and further elaboration of this idea extended it later to encompass all inhabitants. Imperial patriotism varied considerably, as did its equivalents in other countries, but it has usually been considerably underestimated.58

The Empire’s sense of itself was filtered through how it saw its place in Europe. As earlier sections of this work have shown, the ideal of the Empire as a Christian pan-national order persisted into early modernity, weakening any trend to more essentialist definitions of its inhabitants as a single nation determined by narrow criteria like language or ethnicity. Attitudes to outsiders were filtered through perceptions of the threat they posed to Christianity and ‘German freedom’. This complicated relations with countries like France, Denmark and Sweden, all of which embraced varieties of Christianity regarded with hostility by at least some of the Empire’s inhabitants after 1517, and all of whom invaded, claiming to uphold controversial interpretations of the imperial constitution. This ambivalence only disappeared as French expansionist policies under Louis XIV after 1667 were perceived as a general threat transcending religion and political status. Louis was accused of seeking an illegal ‘fifth monarchy’ that would displace the Empire’s pre-eminent position and threaten its subjects’ liberties. Francophobia incorporated earlier tropes associated with the Turks as an existential threat to Christian civilization.59

The extent to which Austrians and Czechs identified with the Empire is hard to assess, partly through a lack of research, but also because their loyalty to the emperor during the Habsburg era was indistinguishable from allegiance as his direct subjects. There was a distinct Czech identity by early modernity, but this was clearly neither fixed nor always opposed to ‘German’, ‘European’ or many other possible identities.60 Patriotism was understandably strongest in Germany, which for many eighteenth-century writers was synonymous with the Empire. Recourse to the imperial supreme courts offers one quantitative measurement of the intensity and regional spread of engagement with the Empire. The two supreme courts – the Reichshofrat and Reichskammergericht – received 220,000 cases between 1495 and 1806, with the majority coming from the areas with the greatest political fragmentation. This is not entirely surprising. Since the courts were designed to resolve disputes between imperial Estates, it is natural that their business would reflect how these were concentrated, in the south and west. Rather more surprising is that after several centuries on the margins of imperial politics, the north German principalities and cities chose to use the courts as soon as they were established.61

Italian Views

Italians were conscious of Italia as a distinct country, but the idea of the Empire as ‘foreign’ stems largely from the nineteenth-century Risorgimento and from German nationalists condemning medieval emperors for pursuing the ‘illusion’ of power south of the Alps. The emperor’s status as king of kings made him appear less immediately ‘German’ to Italians. Many did oppose imperial expeditions and protested at the furor teutonicus, but all emperors attracted at least some local support. Contemporaries did not view the choice as between ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ rule, but as about who could best deliver peace and justice. Otto I’s intervention in Italy in 951 was not a conquest of a ‘foreign’ country, but the deposition of Berengar II, whom Pope John XII condemned as a tyrant.62 The root problem was that the intermittent character of the emperor’s presence in Italy inhibited the kind of working relationship that usually existed north of the Alps. The tendency to resort to force undermined claims to provide peace and justice. This deepened with the reception of Gregorian anti-imperial propaganda during the Investiture Dispute (1070s–1122), and the articulation of Ghibelline and Guelph sentiment during the Staufer era (1138–1254). Nonetheless, calls for the libertas Italiae voiced by the Lombard League were not campaigns for national independence, but protests against Staufer ‘tyranny’.

Ghibelline sentiment persisted during the prolonged imperial absences after 1250 amongst those like Dante and Petrarch who believed only a strong imperial presence could provide the order that Italy so urgently needed. The papacy’s ‘Babylonian Captivity’ in Avignon after 1309 increased interest, while many opposition groups within Italian towns hoped the emperor could liberate them from their local opponents. Given such unrealistic expectations, most imperial visits inevitably disappointed. Charles IV was criticized for appearing more concerned to extort money than address local problems. Moreover, Italian cities were accustomed to self-governance and resented paying for the expensive imperial entourage. The Pisans rioted in May 1355, setting fire to the palace where Charles and his wife were staying. The imperial couple were forced to flee naked into the street and order was restored only after considerable bloodshed.63

Guelph and Ghibelline sentiment gradually converged during the fourteenth century with all agreeing that politics were about asserting local civic autonomy relative to immediate neighbours, whilst still admitting the emperor had some role as suzerain. Emperors continued to visit Italy on average once a decade across the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but made only one appearance between 1452 and 1496 (in 1469), before returning amidst the very different circumstances of Habsburg imperial rule and the Italian Wars. The assignment of the Habsburgs’ Italian possessions to Spain after 1558 also made the emperor appear more distant. By the eighteenth century, Genoese authors advocating their republic’s sovereignty criticized the Empire as an Imperio di Germania that should stay north of the Alps. Other, lesser communities and lords continued to look to the emperor and Reichshofrat to protect their privileges in ways similar to their German counterparts. However, its strong associations with Germany and the fact that it only encompassed northern Italy rendered the Empire suspect in the eyes of later Italian nationalists. The same appears broadly true for Burgundy and the countries that emerged from it after 1797.

Only Aristocrats?

If the results of this regional survey are perhaps not so surprising, the social spread of imperial patriotism proves more unexpected. The general conclusion has been that the Empire mattered little outside the small elite of petty princes who depended on it to preserve their autonomy.64 There is no doubt that the imperial princes identified their prestige and autonomy with the Empire’s continued well-being. They often wanted to improve their own position, but only relative to their rivals. As Duke Ernst August of Hanover expressed it in 1682: ‘It is not in the interests of this House to detach itself from the emperor and Empire, but on the contrary to remain firmly bound to them, since there is no more reliable security than in the Empire. And if the Empire were to go under, I do not see how this House can maintain its liberty and dignity.’65

His contemporary, Georg Friedrich of Waldeck, asked ‘Where outside the Empire can one find such freedom as is customary within it?’ While leading princes sought crowns elsewhere in Europe, they continued to engage in imperial politics. The elector Palatine commissioned two copies of the imperial crown in 1653 to give substance to his new title of Arch-Treasurer, awarded as part of the Westphalian settlement.66 As the emperor’s immediate vassals, the imperial knights also identified closely with the Empire. Although territorial nobles were encouraged to be loyal to their prince as immediate lord, they also looked to the emperor, because only he could grant the coveted status of full immediacy. The close juxtaposition of the different territorial nobilities combined with their relatively small size to encourage individuals to seek careers across the Empire. Often criticized by contemporaries as provincial hicks, most German nobles were at least aware of wider intellectual, educational, scientific, military and political networks. They saw themselves as a distinct ‘nation’ within a broader European aristocracy. Many families had branches in Burgundy, Italy, Bohemia and outside the Empire. Like educated commoners, they saw no contradiction between cosmopolitanism and multiple, more focused loyalties.67

The Empire’s decentralized structure never employed a large staff. For most of the Middle Ages the ‘imperial personnel’ barely extended beyond the imperial chapel and the emperor’s immediate household. Ruprecht gave the post of councillor to just 107 men across his reign (1400–1410). The establishment of permanent central institutions increased numbers somewhat after the 1490s. At least seven hundred people were employed at the Reichstag in the 1780s, with another 150 at the Reichskammergericht; but even adding the Reichshofrat, the chancellery and other agencies, the total is unlikely to have been more than 1,500.68 Unlike other large states in early modernity, the Empire lacked permanent armed forces that might otherwise have served to encourage ‘national’ loyalty.

However, to look for such institutions would miss how the decentralized structure created numerous layers of engagement and identification. All imperial Estates sent envoys and agents not just to the Reichstag but to each other. The Empire defined their world. Only a few of the larger principalities maintained representatives at foreign courts by the eighteenth century. These roles had been performed by clergy during the Middle Ages, providing another example of the imperial church’s significance to the Empire. The spread of educational opportunities from the high Middle Ages led to the rise of the ‘learned’ (Gelehrten), recruited largely from patrician families, who formed the backbone of most territorial administrations throughout early modernity. Like their noble counterparts, they were often highly mobile, working in several courts and imperial cities across their careers, which often included stints at the Reichstag or other institutions – like Goethe, who was a legal trainee at the Reichskammergericht before becoming a minister in Sachsen-Weimar. The experience of these men was as much imperial as territorial.69 Some, like Goethe, were ambivalent about the Empire, while others, like Moser, were enthusiasts. Those serving larger territories could be more critical, but the Hohenzollerns’ Reichstag envoy, Count Görtz, lamented the Empire’s demise and chose to retire in Regensburg rather than return to Prussia.70

Rather more significantly, identification with the Empire stretched far deeper than the political and administrative elite. Despite their problematic relationship with many emperors, the Empire’s Jews continued to pray for their welfare until 1806. Evidence that attachment extended beyond such official acts is provided by the blessings to the emperor recorded in family memory books (see Plate 9). Although Frankfurt Jews were confined to their ghetto on election days, they were included after 1711 in the homage ceremonies to new emperors. Jews performed homage ceremonies in four other imperial cities, though Worms council successfully petitioned to have the one there stopped. The episode perfectly demonstrates how identification with the Empire worked. The Jews saw their participation in such ceremonies as a way to assert their own corporate identity, while Christian city councillors sought to prevent this to achieve the opposite. Individual communities could also see the Empire as a framework for common action, exemplified by the Franconian Jews who in 1617 prosecuted the bishop of Bamberg on behalf of all their co-religionists to prevent him from requiring them to wear a star badge. Far from heralding a new dawn, many Jews perceived the Empire’s demise as a disaster, since it removed the legal protections that had been corporate in line with their own visions of community, unlike the individual freedoms granted by post-1806 states.71

The imperial cities also found emperors to be problematic patrons and so already during the twelfth century these cities emphasized their relationship to the Empire as transpersonal. Later medieval emperors relied on the cities to accommodate them during their royal progresses, and their entry was always a cause for lavish celebration. Frederick II’s third wife, Isabella Plantagenet, was greeted by 10,000 people when she arrived in Cologne in 1235. Royal entrées became increasingly elaborate around 1500 as the Habsburgs fused Italian and Burgundian ideas with classical examples supplied by Humanist scholars. Emperors’ arrivals were now marked with elaborate triumphal arches, decorated floats and obelisks. The practice continued into the late eighteenth century, though modified in line with changing styles to include processions of state coaches and military parades. Arrivals for imperial elections, coronations and (until 1663) Reichstag openings were on an especially grand scale: 18,000 people participated in the procession of the electors into Frankfurt for the 1742 imperial election, equivalent to half the city’s population.72

Imperial cities replaced palaces as the Empire’s political venues during the fifteenth century, not just for events involving the emperor, but also for the numerous gatherings of imperial Estates, either in official gatherings, like the regional (Kreis) assemblies, or for their own alliances and congresses. Accommodating these activities could be burdensome, especially with the additional security costs during periods of tension, but such events also brought valuable business into the city and offered communities opportunities to express their own identity and place in the Empire.73 Augsburg built an imposing new city hall from 1618 to 1622 prominently displaying the imperial double eagle on the portico in the hope of encouraging the Reichstag to choose it as a venue, as well as a statue of Emperor Augustus to stress its origins as a Roman imperial city.74 Nuremberg was another city proud of its imperial traditions, which had been cemented in 1424 when Sigismund entrusted it with conserving the insignia. These had been displayed publicly since 1315, becoming an annual event each Easter from 1350. Nuremberg’s conversion to Protestantism ended this tradition in 1524, because of the Lutheran critique of relics, but the city council refused to release the insignia to the still-Catholic Aachen, which repeatedly petitioned to replace Nuremberg as custodian.75

Attachment to the Empire extended to ordinary, rural inhabitants as well, despite the growth of numerous intervening layers of lordship between them and the emperor. Indeed, the emperor’s relative distance and absence from daily life appears to have heightened the sense of reverence, and his rare appearances were a source of great curiosity and celebration. This extended even in death: Otto I’s corpse took 30 days to travel the relatively short distance (130 kilometres) from Memleben for burial in Magdeburg so that it could be seen by the crowds along the route. The bishop of Speyer refused to bury Henry IV in his cathedral in 1106, because the king died under papal excommunication. However, peasants stole the earth from atop his grave outside to scatter on their fields, believing it would improve fertility. Sigismund’s corpse was allegedly left seated on a stool for three days when he died at Znaim in 1437 to enable the crowds to file past.76

1. The two swords theory: St Peter presenting a pallium to Pope Leo III and a flag to Charlemagne (Lateran palace).

2. Charlemagne as portrayed by Albrecht Dürer in about 1512, wearing the imperial crown and holding the sword and sceptre.

3. Napoleon contemplates Charlemagne’s crown and stone throne in Aachen. The real crown had in fact been removed by the Austrians (late nineteenth-century painting).

4. Carolingian troops besieging towns (ninth-century manuscript).

5. The act of Canossa 1077. Henry IV kneels in front of Matilda of Tuscany to seek her mediation, while Abbot Hugh of Cluny looks on from the left.

6. The furor teutonicus. Archbishop Balduin of Trier splits the skull of an Italian opponent during Henry VII’s Roman expedition of 1312.

7. The last papal coronation of an emperor. Charles V and Clement VII in the coronation procession at Bologna in 1530.

8. Charles V as victor at the battle of Mühlberg, 1547, by Titian. The armour shown in the portrait is preserved in the royal palace in Madrid.

9. Identification with the Empire. A bag made by a Jewish craftsman around 1700 displaying the imperial eagle.

10. Charles V flanked by the Pillars of Hercules and the imperial eagle adorned with the Habsburg Order of the Golden Fleece, c.1532.

11. Charles VI points to Charlemagne’s crown, showing the continued significance of the Empire for the Habsburgs in the eighteenth century.

12. The banquet for Joseph II’s coronation as king of the Romans in Frankfurt, 1764. Note the place settings for the princes who failed to attend in person.

13. The three ecclesiastical electors officiating at Joseph II’s coronation in 1764.

14. Francis II depicted as emperor of Austria in 1832, wearing the Habsburg imperial crown made for Rudolf II in 1602.

15. Figures representing the Slavs, Germans, Gauls and Romans pay homage to Emperor Otto III.

16. The link between locality and Empire. A sequence of three Salian monarchs stands above a corresponding row of abbots of St Emmeram monastery.

The popular enthusiasm to celebrate Francis II’s coronation in 1792 was doubtless heightened by the closure of all the inns and a ban on alcohol sales until his election was completed. However, an analysis of south German sermon texts shows real concern for the welfare of the imperial family.77 One reason was the widespread identification of the emperor as the peasants’ protector. A collection of popular stories from 1519 recounted how German peasants had aided Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ in a mythical siege of Jerusalem, while six years later within days of the peasant rebels’ bloody defeat at Frankenhausen at the foot of the Kyffhäuser Mountain there were rumours that Barbarossa would awake to avenge their innocent blood.78

Changes in judicial practice after the peasants’ defeat opened access to the Empire’s supreme courts, and one quarter of the Reichshofrat’s cases were brought by ordinary inhabitants. So many peasant delegations arrived to petition the emperor that some Viennese inns specialized in accommodating them. Although the Habsburgs tried to restrict direct access in favour of official judicial channels in the eighteenth century, in 1711 three hundred peasants managed to accost the newly elected Charles VI and were delighted at his promise of action. They were still hopeful seven years later, but the likelihood of disappointment was high. One faction in a long-running dispute in Hauenstein in south-west Germany came close to repudiating allegiance to the Habsburgs in 1745. Nonetheless, Hauenstein peasant leaders who had petitioned the emperor gained personal prestige, encouraging several to invent stories of audiences and promises of help. Faith in imperial justice persisted, with unfavourable verdicts blamed on unsympathetic judges rather than on either the emperor or the system.79

Imperial court records reveal that ordinary folk possessed a relatively sophisticated understanding of the Empire’s complex constitution and their place within it. The two supreme courts were often called to arbitrate jurisdictional disputes and sent commissioners to gather evidence, including questioning peasants. Those in larger principalities were less certain of details, but still regarded the Empire as the collective home of many communities, while the inhabitants of smaller territories frequently displayed detailed knowledge of how their lord related to the wider constitutional order. Peasants were prepared to send delegations to the Reichstag to see whether their ruler was overcharging them on imperial taxes. The literate recorded events like Reichstag meetings and electoral congresses in their diaries. Imperial mandates were publicly posted or announced by pastors at Sunday service, while other news travelled by word of mouth and until 1739 the Turkish Bells rang out during wars against the Ottomans.80


Germany’s Double Fatherland

The growth of princely dynasties provided additional foci for identity by early modernity. As rulers of the second largest territorial bloc in the Empire, the Hohenzollerns offered a potential alternative to attachment to the Habsburgs. King Frederick the Great deliberately promoted an image of Prussia’s ‘power and splendour’ to other Germans whilst actively curtailing his own subjects’ identification with the Empire. The traditional prayers for the emperor were banned throughout Prussia after June 1750, while Berlin city centre was remodelled as an imposing European-class capital. However, Frederick’s direct military challenge to Habsburg pre-eminence after 1740 placed him in the awkward position of instigating civil war within the Empire after a century of internal peace. His propaganda ignored his own blatant disregard for the liberties of neighbouring Lutheran principalities to present Prussia as defending Protestant German liberties. However, he refrained from returning to the full-blown confessional polemic of the Reformation era. Instead, Protestant Prussia was associated with progressive government and true German values, whilst the Catholic Habsburgs were castigated for mismanagement, Ultramontanism and the suppression of German freedoms. The obvious inability of Austria and its powerful international allies to defeat Prussia in 1740–45 and 1756–63 appeared to corroborate these arguments.81

However, Frederick and his immediate successors did not seek a ‘national’ role and had no idea of the ‘historic mission’ attributed to them by later pro-Prussian historians. Frederick disdained German literature and culture, corresponded in French, and regarded himself as belonging to a cosmopolitan elite of Enlightened monarchs and thinkers. Yet his prominence made him a pan-German figure and, by default, associated Prussia with arguments for national renewal: his victory over a combined French and imperial army at Rossbach in 1757 was celebrated by some as a ‘national’ triumph.82

Count Pergen, the man in charge of Joseph II’s coronation as king of the Romans in 1764, covertly hired Friedrich Carl von Moser to counter Prussian propaganda and help rebuild Austrian influence after the Seven Years War. Like many intellectuals, Moser was already disillusioned with Frederick’s obvious cynicism and set about his task with energy to match that of his father, Johann Jacob. Four important works appeared between 1765 and 1767, of which Of the German National Spirit and Patriotic Letters were deservedly the best known. These attacked the ‘double fatherland’ of distinct Protestant and Catholic Germanies fostered by Prussian propaganda, arguing instead that German national identity was best served by the Empire’s constitution. Moser believed this was now endangered by princely despotism and disregard of imperial law, and he called on all Germans to unite behind the emperor. The Habsburgs were so pleased that they considered the rare step of raising Moser’s salary, but soon abandoned this once they spotted he had included them in his critique by distinguishing between ‘good imperial’ (gut Kayserlich) and ‘good Austrian’ policies. The Habsburgs also realized that Moser’s attempt to cast Prussia as an ‘imperial enemy’ akin to France or the Ottomans was proving divisive. Moser was quietly removed and he was assigned instead a minor administrative post in 1770.83

Moser proved so troubling because he clarified the questions facing the Empire in the later eighteenth century. In addressing what constituted the true nation, Moser was quite conservative in emphasizing the imperial constitution nearly thirty years after Prussia’s open challenge to Austria forced people to confront the gulf between formal status and the actual distribution of power. This made it impossible to discuss national identity without addressing the issue of imperial reform, which in turn raised the question whether freedom was best safeguarded by the current constitution, princely territorial states or greater individual rights and political participation.

The Politics of Sensibility

Possible alternative forms of attachment were exemplified by Joseph II’s coronation, the event that prompted Moser’s secret contract. Joseph’s entry into Frankfurt on 29 March 1764 surpassed all previous entrées and his cavalcade included 95 six-horse coaches processing to the din of a 300-gun salute and two hours of continuous bell-ringing.84 Writing in 1811, Goethe recalled feeling ‘that the whole affair took on a motley, unsatisfactory, often tasteless appearance’, especially the empty tables at the coronation banquet, attended by only three electors and one prince, in contrast to the nearly sixty princes and counts present for Charles VII’s coronation in 1742 (see Plate 12). The troops employed in crowd control at Joseph’s coronation used excessive force, at one point opening fire and killing a 19-year-old girl. Before his arrival, Joseph had written to his mother dismissing the event as ‘une vraie comédie’. His view was undoubtedly coloured by grief at his wife’s death only four months before, though this did not stop him eyeing up the princesses in attendance. Afterwards, he wrote again to his mother: ‘Yesterday’s ceremony, I must confess, is superb and august. I tried to carry it off decently, but without embarrassment. His Majesty the Emperor [Francis I] has admitted to us that he could not keep back his tears; they say the same thing happened to almost the whole congregation.’

Joseph’s experience indicates the Empire’s potential to appeal to the new politics of sensibility, which added programmatic ‘nationalism’ to the previously largely descriptive ‘nation’ identifying a distinct people. Nationalism required emotional and active engagement to promote the nation as the supreme form of social organization. The debate moved beyond the Humanists’ ‘culture wars’ over which nation had the best claim to a classical pedigree, to promote new forms of distinctiveness based on allegedly innate social and ethnic characteristics. Nationalism assumed several partly contradictory forms, but can be labelled ‘Romantic’ due to the emphasis on sentiment and the essentialist articulation of the nation as a superior transcendental force – what has aptly been called ‘a secular religion’.85 One of the earliest German advocates of this passionate engagement was Thomas Abbt, whose poem Death for the Fatherland (1761) said it all, radically reordering traditional virtues to place sacrifice for the nation ahead of saintliness. Romantic nationalists considered it unacceptable to discuss identity in a language other than German and they began constructing a national history and literary canon to exclude people, events and works that did not fit their essentialist criteria. This entailed rejecting the pre-modern tradition of the Germans as a collection of different tribes whose distinct cultures and freedoms were guaranteed by the imperial constitution. Cultural and linguistic uniformity became the only acceptable basis for a nation state or, as Johann Gottfried von Herder put it more poetically: each nation could only have one language as the true expression of its soul. ‘Foreign’ forms had to be rejected as threatening national purity. These included not only the French and Italian influences that hitherto dominated elite musical and cultural life, but also the non-German customs and languages persisting across the Empire.86 The closure of French theatre troupes began in 1757 as part of general economies in courtly expenditure during the Seven Years War, but continued from the 1760s with the foundation of new ‘National’, or German-speaking, theatres and opera houses in Hamburg, Vienna, Mannheim, Berlin and elsewhere.

The Romantic nationalists of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ era from the 1770s are now celebrated as Germany’s literary giants, but in their day largely failed to find the employment they sought in territorial administrations and universities. Their calls for national renewal were undoubtedly sincere, but also influenced by their own experience of having to forge their networks outside established circles. Their distance from the traditional order was magnified in many cases by personal disappointment after placing unrealistic hopes in Joseph II or Frederick II of Prussia to lead their national revival. Those who did find official posts, like Goethe, were noticeably less hostile to the Empire. The broader population remained strongly attached to territorial and local identities, which appeared better served by the Empire’s loose political order than by the kind of integral nation advocated by Romantics.87

Joseph’s long reign (1765–90) meant there was no further imperial election until 1790, by which time the French Revolution was already transforming circumstances. Joseph preferred travelling incognito to the traditional pomp of an imperial progress, thereby further adding to perceptions of the old order’s irrelevance. He missed the opportunity of attempting what the British monarchy would do under Queen Victoria to align itself with more populist nationalist sentiment by inventing new ‘traditions’.

For all their limited appeal, the Romantic nationalists had made an important point: by 1800 the Empire indeed appeared antiquated and inadequate compared to their vision of a bright new national utopia. Acceptance of their critique rapidly gained ground once the Empire dissolved amidst the pressures of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, as the circumstances fitted the nationalists’ calls for the old order to die in order for Germany to be reborn. The situation after 1815 witnessed repeated disappointments as it proved impossible to agree on what constituted the nation. The liberal ideal of a family of friendly nations was replaced by a competitive survival of the fittest. The acceptance of essentialist definitions of identity condemned Europeans to fruitless struggles over the optimal size of invented nation states. The creation and maintenance of larger states has entailed marginalizing or obliterating traits perceived as inimical to dominant national cultures, whereas the desire for self-determination has threatened to fragment parts of the European continent into ever smaller pieces. Seen from this perspective, the Empire’s ability to accommodate different identities within a common framework assumes a new significance.

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