HRE dudes

Book Review: Heart of Europe, A History of the Holy Roman Empire

Flip through a historical atlas of Europe. Starting at AD 100, there is only Rome. North of the Danube circle dozens of obscure Latinate names designating Germanic tribes.

Fast forward 900 years and a vaguely recognizable Europe seems to be taking shape. France, England, Poland are all there, albeit a bit contorted. If your curiosity was piqued, you could easily find an entire book, dedicated to the history of any one of those countries, including its early development:

On that same map, c. 1000, you would also find a quite novel political entity–The Holy Roman Empire. It dominates central Europe, what is now Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, northern Italy and France’s eastern borderlands. But now try to find out more. Where can you turn?

Sure, there are general histories of Medieval Europe. There are also histories of Germany that cover its pre-unification metamorphosis. But rare are books dedicated to the Holy Roman Empire explicitly, although there are a few. Most recently came Joachim Whaley’s two-part Germany and the Holy Roman Empire (2012). Whaley’s book is packed with information and analysis, which is exciting for history buffs and academics. But those with a more casual interest are out of luck.

That changed last month. Heart of Europe, A History of the Holy Roman Empire by Oxford professor Peter H. Wilson at last filled the gap. It is a readable, non-specialist book on the “other” Roman Empire. But you will be disappointed if you are looking for an enthralling, narrative history. While readable, Wilson’s book fails to bring much order from the chaos that was the Holy Roman Empire.

Not for lack of trying. Most of the book focuses on defining the Empire by tracing the development of its institutions and political structure. It is organized thematically around four sprawling parts: ideal, belonging, governance and society. These are subdivided into three sections covering topics such as Christendom, kingship, lands, identities and so on. Of course, much of the material in each subsection overlaps with the others. The book ends up being 12 thousand-year mini-histories of central Europe.

Wilson is a star of Medieval and early Modern central European history. His 2009 The Thirty Years War, Europe’s Tragedy is one of the few comprehensive treatments of the subject in English. He also wrote an earlier book: The Holy Roman Empire 1495-1806, which is little more than a hundred pages and likely served as the shell of Heart of Europe. He writes well, but only over the short term. If modern journalism had existed since 800, one could easily mistake Heart of Europe for an anthology of newspaper clippings.

Thematic and Narrative History

The thematic approach works well for covering such a sprawling topic. Any entity that lasts for a millennium is bound to assume many forms throughout its existence. Its initial forms may all be extinct by its end. Try thinking of one thing that binds Romulus’ monarchy to the waning centuries of Byzantium. Early Rome was a pagan, Latin-speaking city-state in central Italy led by a king–2000 years later its legal successor was a Christian, Greek-speaking rump-state on the Bosphorus led by a notional Emperor. Similarly the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne had little in common with the entity that called itself by the same name in 1806 (no one even bothers trying to connect the HRE with ancient Rome anymore.) Focusing on themes prevents the author from having to constantly interrupt a narrative to explain background information, and prevents readers from misinterpreting historical events through the prism of their own experience.  

So I understand why Wilson took the thematic approach. But I wish he had not. For one thing, Whaley already did it. Wilson seems to have set out to write a book that was at least semi-popular, but then got bogged down in analyzing institutions and historical forces. In each section we encounter historical events, but we never quite find out what happened. Wilson repeatedly glosses over the coronation of Charlemagne or the Battle of Lechfeld or The Seven Years War, but never actually explains them. It is as if we already know the event, or will find out more later. Instead the reader is left to glean bits here and there. Only at the very end, when Wilson describes the dissolution of the Empire, does there seem to be a story. The whole book feels like a giant introduction to a narrative that never materializes.

I know academic snobs will call me a philistine. But the narrative approach to history works so much better in a long-form popular history. Take for example John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium trilogy. A skillful author can work in critical points about social structure, religious doctrine and what-have-you while maintaining a narrative. Narrative history is the easiest way to cover a lot of ground quickly and pleasurably.

Wilson seemed to be trying to strike a compromise between narrative and analysis. But the reader cannot follow an ongoing drama, and has to be satisfied with snippets of the story which are used only to illustrate the themes. Historical personages cannot play the role of central characters, they appear only as data. Most readers will have trouble with this focus, because so many of the people and events of the Empire’s history are, unfortunately, obscure.

The best way to do that is to write chronologically. History needs heroes, battles, and eccentricities. Once you know enough of the characters and the plots, you begin to feel yourself on familiar ground. Only then does analytic history feel worthwhile. No matter how many times I try to read Dvornik’s The Slavs in European History and Civilization, I give up after a couple paragraphs because I don’t want to read an analysis of the Czech Church the 13th century. But give me an equally boring and analytic treatment of Greek or Roman history, and I will love every page of it. You have to know the characters to care about ‘underlying factors’ and ‘perceptions.’

You might as well read sections of Heart of Europe at random. Trying to read straight through, I got the sense that Wilson was loosing a journalistic stream-of-consciousness. I wanted to sink deeper into the material, but at every turn, Wilson changed the subject. If you do read the book, do so quickly and absent-mindedly.

On the bright side, it is encouraging to see academic historians making an effort to light up the obscure corners of Western history. If Westerners are ever to rediscover a sense of identity, they will need heroes and turning points. Like movies and novels, Popular history can play a critical role in shaping the public consciousness–instilling a common knowledge of who they are as a people. It can serve as the link between scholarly findings and popular culture. Sadly, Heart of Europe falls short.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *