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The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.


"The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman, nor an Empire. " For the historian, Voltaire's famous quip has three aspects: 1) What did Voltaire mean by it in 1756 when he wrote the line in his Essay on Customs!1 2) How did contemporaries, including the Austrian Habsburgs, understand it? 3) Does the quote accurately describe the events the Philosophe is discussing (Charles IV of Bohemia and the Golden Bull of 1356)? Voltaire in fact exaggerates the weakness of the Empire in both 1356 and 1756, and uses an anachronistic standard to evaluate both: the quasi nation states of the 1750s. The three parts of the imperial title had changed in meaning during the four centuries after 1356. The jibe nonetheless reflects something of the thought of Voltaire and the French Enlightenment.


The adage "The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire" has become so well known that it is often repeated as if it were a self-evident truth. It appears in college textbooks (see Palmer 1995, 213) and scholarly documentary videos (see the 1998 Films for the Humanities historical documentary series Medieval Mind, Part 5 where it appears as the last line of the documentary). Online sources such as, McGraw Hill, and give "answers" to the meaning of the famous quote. Some answers are nonsensical. Voltaire's line appears on t-shirts, key chains, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs. The remark ranks with Petrarch's "Babylonian Captivity" as a shorthand description of the Avignon papacy (Renna 2010). Voltaire himself in his Essai sur les Moeurs et I'Esprit des Nations follows this tradition by noting that "even today" the Romans call Pope Clement V's move to Avignon the start of the Babylonian Captivity (Voltaire 1827, Vol. 2, Ch. 68, 441). Not long after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire [henceforth HRE] in 1806 Voltaire's witticism entered the discourse of nineteenth-century cleverisms, along with the "Sick Man of Europe," "to meet your Waterloo," and "the Great Game." The author of the quote would perhaps be pleased to know that it has been extended far beyond its immediate context, where it appears almost as a throw-away line, into the realm of metaphor. It has evolved into a cliche for exposing fancy titles for political territories which exaggerate their importance.

But is it true? Was the HRE indeed neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire? The answer of course depends on how one defines each of the three terms. Certainly at every stage of the HRE's existence from 962 CE, when a pope crowned Otto I the Great emperor, to 1806, the three aspects of the political entity possessed some significance, even if sometimes in a process of change (see Muller 1990; Erdmann 1943; Zeumer 1910; Scales 2010, 71-92). It is often forgotten that Voltaire wrote the renowned phrase not primarily as a reference to the HRE of the time he wrote it in 1756, but as a closing line at the end of his treatment of the Golden Bull of 1356. Almost as an aside, he inserts a reference to his day, the HRE in 1756: "Ce corps, qui s'appelait et qui s'appelle encore [emphasis added] de saint empire romain, n'etait en aucune maniere ni saint, ni romain, ni empire" (Voltaire 1827, 423). Note the shift from the imperfect to the present tense. To be sure, Voltaire's allusions to contemporary circumstances appear frequently in his historical writings, which at times can be openly presentist (Brumfett 1958, Ch. 3-4; Force 2009; Leigh 2004; Pierse 2008, Ch. 1-5). The thrust of the passage in question is a description of how the Golden Bull of 1356 came into being. He makes the issuing of the Bull the culmination of the deteriorating position of the Emperor Charles IV, who concocted the scheme as a ploy to disguise his actual weakness. That 1756 was the fourth centennial of the Bull was not lost on the Philosophe, who considered the title of HRE just as frivolous in 1356 as it was in 1756. Throughout Chapter 70 of the Essai Voltaire ridicules Charles IV's attempt to save face after being stripped of what little authority he had. But for Voltaire the miscreant is Clement VI (1342-52), not Louis of Bavaria. He explains the pageaijtry of the banquet ceremony as the expression of this papal sleight of hand.

What does the famous wisecrack reveal about the thought of Voltaire? About the French Enlightenment? About the political reality of the HRE in 1756? About the thinking at the Schonbrunn Palace? About the HRE in 1356? I will argue that the key to the meaning of the triad HRE lies in the third term, "Empire." Voltaire's facile attempt to project the Empire of 1356 to the Empire of 1756 rests on misunderstandings of both Empires. Voltaire's description of the election and coronation of Charles IV of Luxembourg seems more of a comment on the state of affairs on the eve of the Seven Years War than a chronicle of mid-fourteenth-century events.

To understand Voltaire's intent in making this memorable epigram, the passage must be examined in the setting of the Essai sur les Moeurs et I'Esprit des Nations, where it appears at the end of Chapter 70, itself concerned with the events leading up to the Golden Bull of 1356. For example, Chapters 2369, seemingly an arbitrary array of selections taken uncritically from several chronicles, focus on the history of the HRE from Louis the Pious to the Avignon papacy. But in Chapters 68-70 Charles IV appears at the close of a process in which the popes attempted to wrest Italy from the Empire. Thus Voltaire's memorable quotation appears at the close of Chapter 70 as a kind of summary.

Although most popes in the Essai are portrayed as devious power-seekers who want only to expand the Papal States and their wider temporal powers over secular princes everywhere, Pope Clement VI effectively set up the crowning of Charles IV by having Louis of Bavaria (d. 1347) deposed in 1346. Clement's successor, Innocent VI (1352-62), permitted Charles IV to be crowned king of Italy and then Emperor in Rome in order to further his control over contested areas in Italy. Since Charles IV had virtually no power, beholden to the princes who selected him, he resorted to, narrated by Voltaire in a derisive tone, the charade of a ceremony in which each of the Seven Electors performed a ritual at the coronation banquet. Voltaire apparently does not know that the court celebration was actually a reenactment of the same rite performed at the banquet of Otto I, the first king of the Romans (later called Emperor in 962). In 936 there were four electors (Swabia, Bavaria, Franconia, Saxony) for the election and subsequent events (Heer 1968). Contrary to what Voltaire would have us believe, contemporaries in 1356 did not interpret this re-enactment of the first Holy Roman Emperor--a common title for the Emperor by the mid-fourteenth century--as demeaning to the princely participants. Voltaire ridicules the splendor of the event as evidence of Charles IV's de facto subordination to the princes. For the Philosophe the Bull's reference to the Emperor as the caput mundi simply underscores Charles' political impotence (see Pierse 2008). Charles has no business calling himself a "Roman" Emperor since he rules from Prague, not Rome. And he controls barely any territory outside Bohemia, and certainly not in Italy. The villains are for Voltaire the supreme pontiffs, who, since Otto I, have manipulated the German kings as they attempted to strengthen their hold on Italian lands. Since the pontiff is not "Holy" he cannot impart sacredness to any person or office. There is nothing Holy about the HRE. Voltaire rarely has a bon mot for popes: John XII, Gregory VII, Urban V, and Hadrian IV cared only for personal power; Clement V preferred to stay in Avignon so he could fleece the French Church; but Alexander III was one of Voltaire's good popes (see Brumfett 1958).

The Philosophe says not a word about Charles IV's herculean effort to associate the HRE with "Saint" Charlemagne (Frederick Barbarossa's antipope had him canonized in 1165) and the newly acquired relics (of Charlemagne and of the Passion) at Prague. These actions in fact contributed significantly to the sacredness of Charles' official position (see Hillenbrand 1978; Nagy and Schaer 2001; Monnet and Schmitt 2010; and Smith 2001).

Charles IV's promotion of pilgrimage to Aachen and other sacred sites proved highly successful (see Opacic 2007). Even the advancement of Charles' patron saint, Wenceslas, gave a special status to Bohemia and its venerable traditions (see Thomson 1950, 10-16; Rosario 2001, Ch. 3-4; Opacic 2007).

Voltaire's mockery of the Golden Bull of 1356 does little justice to the immense success of Charles IV's tour de force at the time and afterwards (see Petersen 1966; Barraclough 1963, 315-21; Zeumer 1908). Unprecedented in European history, the electoral procedure established by the document (see Yale University's Avalon Project at for an English translation) was essentially followed down to 1806. Clearly the states and cities of the Empire, large and small, found much utility in the Bull's provisions. Voltaire seems oblivious to the advantages Charles IV received from the proclamation, not the least of which was the end of disorder and uncertainty in the Empire. The Emperor's achievements were remarkable (Jarrett 1935; Patze 1978). With consummate skill Charles IV convinced the princes of the benefits which accrued to all participants. Charles' accomplishment in bringing relative concord to the divided Imperium was a political miracle. He prudently ignored the pleadings of Innocent VI and Petrarch. Voltaire's lampoon of Charles IV as the puppet of Clement VI and Innocent VI misrepresents the principal role the Emperor played in formulating and implementing the Bull (see Muller-Mertens 2007).

Voltaire's purpose in portraying Charles IV as a feeble ruler at the behest of popes should be assessed in the larger context of the entire Essai. As the full title suggests, the author places medieval imperial-papal disputes in the wider setting of world history. Going beyond the chronological confines of the Siecle de Louis XIV he widens his notion of social history to include religion, beginning from the earliest natural religion, which sounds a lot like the Deism Voltaire favors, and down to the priest-dominated culture of the Middle Ages. Thus Voltaire's denigration of the Holy and the Roman--the glorious Roman Empire was in fact governed by power-mad barbarians, who imposed a tyrannical pax in the name of civilization--negates all three prongs of the HRE at the time of the Golden Bull. Voltaire's perspective through much of the Essai is presentist and polemical, as a way to both praise and belittle the Europe of the 1750s. While his theme of universal history is in some ways original, his uncritical borrowing from chronicles gives his Essai an air of superficiality and naivete. Since Voltaire's depiction of medieval Europe is largely negative, it is not surprising that the HRE of Charles IV would appear as an anachronistic and pretentious adoption of the three points of the imperial attributes which were empty of practical and constitutional meaning. While Voltaire can be surprisingly objective and insightful, particularly in the Siecle de Louis XIV and the Histoire de Charles XII, his historical writings tend to be moralistic and didactic. The implication in the Essai is that the progress of the human mind and the arts is steadily moving forward, even if often at uneven rates. While he seems much in step with the mid-Enlightenment, he is displeased with the widespread ignorance of antiquity, arbitrary justice, limits on free speech and writing, and ecclesiastical policies. Oddly, his wrath against the infame exceeds that directed against the Parlements, the royal government, and the sword nobility; in fact the Church was the least effective obstacle to the ideals Voltaire held dear. For Voltaire, like Plutarch, history was a bin full of good and bad examples of behavior to be imitated and avoided. The HRE in this sense was one of the bad examples which limp along carried by the dead weight of tradition. The Philosophe implies that the HRE today somehow impedes the progress of the human esprit. Despite professing cosmopolitanism and universalism, the Philosophe could be unashamedly patriotic (Pierse 2008, 26-30 and 151-54; Dagen and Barrovecchio 2006, 10 and 62-77).

Voltaire's misreading of the HRE at the time of Charles IV may be partially the result of not knowing that the term HRE was rarely used before the fourteenth century (Heer 1968. Ch. 1-6; Mitchell 1985, Ch. 4-7). While he seems vaguely aware that Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans in 800 and later Otto I was made Emperor in 962, he appears less cognizant of the pronounced Roman component in the Hohenstaufen conception of the Empire. He apparently thinks that the designation of the triple title was the invention of land-grabbing popes, particularly during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (Voltaire 1827, Ch. 46-49). Voltaire should have known that the Holy (sacrum) was not added to the imperial title until 1157 (Heer 1968), and then merely to affirm that the Empire was sacred, that is, consecrated, in itself, and not because of the crown bestowed by the supreme priest. The constitutive act of creating the Empire was the election at Frankfurt and the crowning at Aachen, followed by the Iron Crown of Lombardy at Pavia or Milan. There was already much discussion at the time of Frederick Barbarossa as to the constitutional function of the final act at St Peter's in Rome. The title of HRE was first adopted in 1254 to assert the German king's full imperial rights by virtue of his status as king of the Romans (Bryce 1913, Ch. 13; Moraw 1979, 1-24; Seibt 1978). Voltaire mistakenly assumes that Charles IV's adoption of the title of HRE was a sign of weakness because it did not correspond to the previous use as the mark of a German state (which the title of HRE never was). While it is true that Charles IV surrendered his de iure rights (always in dispute) to the territorial princes (especially the six Electors, excluding Bohemia), he was simply acknowledging the political realities of the autonomous princes, who themselves were grateful that the wars involving the supporters of Louis of Bavaria had ended. It might be noted that even the imperial theorists, such as Lupoid of Bebenberg and Conrad of Megenberg (also a moderate papalist), constructed their conceptual models on the "German" core of the Empire, with Italy and Burgundy as the two most important states on the periphery (see Hirschi 2012, Ch. 4; Miethke and Fliieler 2004, 233-409; Renna 2013).

If Voltaire in his fabled gibe is merely utilizing the HRE of 1356 to send a message to the HRE of 1756, what was that message? How did the imperial court at Vienna understand the title? Did Voltaire apply it anachronistically to the Empire of Maria Theresa? Did the Habsburgs attach meaning to the tripartite appellation?

In point of fact all three parts were profoundly important for the Austrian Habsburgs. The Empire was "Holy" not because of the exceptional virtues of the individual Emperors, but because the office itself was divinely bestowed by means of both heredity and election and functioned as the promoter of the true faith. Charles V's twin columns included scenes from the life of St. Borromeo. The Habsburg claim to rule the Empire was based in religious history (Wheatcroft 1995, 215-217;). Liturgical pomp continued with Maria Theresa, but much reduced (Heer 1968, 253). Many ecclesiastical rulers remained fixed to outmoded ideas of a "Catholic" HRE, but they continued to lose privileges under Maria Theresa and especially Joseph II.

This attribute was an element in the received tradition, and did not require analysis. For the Emperors Leopold I, Joseph I, Charles VI, Charles VII (a non-Habsburg), and Francis Stephen the "Holy" simply meant Catholic, as opposed to the Protestant territories in the northern part of the Empire. The devout Maria Theresa certainly viewed the Monarchy as a bulwark of Catholicism, although in practice she often ignored the wishes of popes and her own prelates. Given the political realities, no Emperor could be insensitive to the Protestant members in the north and scattered about, not to mention foreign alliances. Like her predecessors, Maria Theresa did not distinguish clearly between the Monarchy and the Empire. In some sense she envisioned the entire Empire as a mainstay of all Christendom, and a fortress against the Muslim Turks (Macartney 1969, 141-47).

For Maria Theresa the HRE was "Roman" as the heir to the Roman Empire, Roman law, the achievements of Roman civilization, Charlemagne, Otto I and his successors, and the Habsburg emperors since Maximilian I (if not since Rudolf in 1273). By the Translation of Empire the Habsburg Emperors were by tradition still the rulers of the world de iure, although this designation had become a mere formality for Charles V (Wilson 2011; Birdal 2011, Ch 5; Scales 2012, Ch. 5-6). Roman images, such as the imperial eagle, were omnipresent. The adoption of the double-headed eagle in c. 1404 was probably incorporated from the Byzantine banner, in which the two heads represented the two jurisdictional realms of Christendom, temporal and spiritual, state and Church. The implication is that the Emperor controls both spheres. There is no hint of any intermediary, such as a pope, by which these two powers acquired such authority. The halo around both heads drives home the Holy function of both aspects of the Empire. The single crown over both heads was adopted for the 1438 imperial banner, as the Ottoman threat increased. Emperors had their own banner, such as that of Charles VI in 1737, which exaggerates the prominence of the golden diadem. Understandably, Francis I includes Lorraine in the shield although Maria Theresa had pressured her husband to abandon Lorraine in exchange for the imperial crown. The variations of the imperial heraldry since the famous Quaternion Eagle of 1510 by Hans Burgkmair--which holds 56 shields!-- reflect the changing fortunes of the HRE. What is important for our purposes here is the Roman overlay which serves to unify, however obliquely, the disparate parts of the HRE. The German and Habsburg elements are of course integral to the visual images of the Empire.

In his travels in and around Berlin, Voltaire would have seen numerous imperial symbols on flags and artwork. This lover of mammon would have held many a thaler, first issued in 1741, with the bust of Maria Theresa, a coin which was accepted as standard at the Bavarian monetary convention of 1751. The stunningly beautiful thaler proudly displays the double-headed imperial eagle, crowned and protective of her "possessions" contained within the shield. Maria Theresa is portrayed as the Queen of Bohemia and Hungary, Archduchess of Austria, Duchess of Burgundy, and Countess of Tyrol. Here are all three attributes of the HRE in one phrase, in more or less equal prominence, joined to Habsburg ancestral lands: a veritable political program! Coins have often served as ideological statements, since at least the creation of the drachma. Abbreviated as "D.G.R. Imp. Hu. Bo. Reg.": Dei Gratia Romanorum Imperatrix, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia; this is as succinct a summary of the HRE as could be imagined. Voltaire would surely have been pleased by the coin's motto: iustitia et dementia. The legacy of Rome is nicely integrated into the present reality of the Habsburg Monarchy cum Empire. The new thaler is not utopian fantasy, but a shorthand statement of political reality mixed with conventional symbolism.

It seems strange, moreover, that the guest in Potsdam paid no attention to the intense discussion which was then taking place in the universities and courts of central Europe. Since Westphalia in 1648 the greatest legal minds were struggling with the place of public law in the Empire and its components. Hermann Conring was one of the catalysts who sought ways to make public law more German, while not jettisoning the Empire's legacy of Roman jurisdiction (Gross 1973, 255-88). The Thirty Years War convinced him to search German history for principles on which to build the imperial constitution, which required a new balance between the estates and the Emperor. For the next century and a half legal scholars in the universities examined Roman and German sources in an attempt to provide a sound juridical basis for the HRE. Conring's successor, Gabriel Schweder, labored to show that the Empire had developed independently of the ancient Roman Empire (Gross 1973, 288-92). He argued from German precedents, such as the Golden Bull. A contemporary, the Saxon Samuel Pufendorf (1632-94), was much studied at Schonbriinn Palace, even by Prince Joseph (II) (Gross 1973, 311-28). Pufendorf entered the discussion of public law by granting particular rights to the Elector Palatine. He tried to show that the post-Westphalian constitution in Germany could work effectively in the current age. After all, the constitution did in fact operate very well, even during the wars of Louis XIV. In the spheres of administration and conflict-resolution the imperial judicial machinery proved surprisingly efficient. Even during the War of the Austrian Succession when one member state, Prussia, attacked another, the cooperation among the member states, especially the smaller, served to restrict the extent of the hostilities. Voltaire never mentions these legal discussions and jurisdictional activities, even though he seems very knowledgeable about the events of the early phase of the War.

Pufendorf's influential On the State of the Empire (1667) sought to retain the imperial "majesty," yet within the framework of the existing states (Gross 1973, 318-24). His work on German public law was intended to provide a more workable political constitution. Many scholars after Pufendorf continued his practical approach to the German situation. The interest in using history as a more independent discipline had many adherents, as can be seen in the work of Johann Jacob Mascov (1689-1761). This focus on history served to put public law in the context of historical evolution, freed from normative patterns taken from previous eras (Gross 1973, 375-81). There was no paradigm for the HRE, which was somehow a unity yet without historical precedent. The HRE was a reality, the product of the genius of the German people.

No author of the eighteenth century better illustrates this pragmatic method of making public law a separate discipline than the great Johann Jacob Moser (1701-85) (Walker 1981), who may have actually met Voltaire during the latter's stint at Potsdam. (Moser was at Wurttemberg in 1751.) One problem that concerned Moser was the growing independence of the Imperial Diet at the expense of the Emperor (Francis Stephen). For Moser the positive law was the key to keeping an equilibrium between the various states, including the cities, and the imperator. His massive studies of public law were intended to ensure a community of mutual respect for each other's laws. He describes the rights of the Emperor and the estates, which together formed a kind of sovereign state. Moser strongly approved of the imperial constitution just as it was. The Golden Bull and previous agreements were made between the Emperor and the estates, yet always subject to current needs when the balance had to be maintained. The greatest legal mind of the age thus devoted his life to "strengthening the unifying forces inherent in the public law of the Empire for the sake of preserving the Empire" (Gross 1973).

Was the HRE in 1756 an "Empire"? Of course it was not a "state" as was the kingdom of France, as a bona fide member of the "state system," to use a later term, of the eighteenth century. It was not the Habsburg Monarchy, even if the latter functioned in fact as the quasi-jurisdictional and administrative pivot of the HRE. In many ways this administration and jurisdiction machinery worked quite well (Blanning 1994; Coy et al. 2010). How could Voltaire not know the difference between the Monarchy and the Empire? Perhaps the point of his HRE barb was to sneer at Maria Theresa for pretending that the two entities were the same, when actually they were not. Perhaps he was making light of the title of "Empire" as if it were on the same level as the Ottoman Empire or the Russian Empire. Contrary to what Voltaire affects to believe fifteen years after the fact, Frederick's invasion of Silesia in 1740 shocked Europe. The shock was not because of some legal nicety that one member of the imperial club, the HRE, attacked another. Rather it was the manner in which he did it: without a formal declaration of war or stated pretext. There was also the unilateral nature of the invasion, the brutality of the occupation, the contempt shown for previous treaties and also the Pragmatic Sanction, the surprising strength of the Prussian armed forces, the cynical response of France and other states who rushed to exploit the act, the perceived uncertainty of subsequent events, and the fear of foreign alliances which would lead to proxy hostilities given the delicate balance of power in central Europe. When Maria Theresa herself, albeit under pressure, joined in the partition of Poland in 1772, nobody commented that the HRE was not behaving like a proper Empire. Perhaps Voltaire implies by the aside "even now" (the HRE is not even now any of the three constituent parts) is that the HRE does not have the military muscle of a modern "nation state" (to use a nineteenth-century term). While Voltaire probably cared not a whit for Silesia, he may have been critical of Maria Theresa for being so obstinate in her unwillingness to give up this part of Bohemia. In 1756 Voltaire may have thought it reckless to risk a European conflict for some land which was now beyond recovery. The issue for the Philosophe may be Austria's weakness in not measuring up to a genuine military power in the center of Europe. As one who hated war, Voltaire believed any kind of international mechanism--although he was rarely specific--was desirable to prevent such conflicts. He naively believed that Vienna--did he appreciate the Turkish threat?--could keep the greater states in the imperial system in check so that the arts of humankind could proceed forward. Might he have become disheartened by the rumors of English aid to Prussia and the Diplomatic Revolution at Versailles in 1756? Without much consistency, Voltaire was reluctant to condemn his fairweather (sometimes supportive, sometimes critical) patron, Frederick II, for his land-grabs. Yet for all Frederick's mistreatment of his distinguished guest--who wrongly assumed he would be welcomed as a chief advisor to the Solomon of the North--they never lost respect for each other. There is much yet to be learned about the relationship between Voltaire and Frederick: the comprehensive study of Voltaire and Frederick has yet to be written (see the Aldington translation of the letters 1927; Mayfield 1965; Todd 1971; and Strachey 1915 for early explorations of the relationship).

While Frederick was hardly the enlightened ruler Voltaire expected him to be, neither was Maria Theresa, although Maria Theresa's considerable reforms were unrecognized by Voltaire (Crankshaw 1983; Macartney 1969; Von Arneth 1971; Ingrao 2000). The Philosophe's contempt for Maria Theresa's weakness can be detected in his writings (see Oeuvres Completes, Chapter 5, 193-207) and Maria's pro-Catholic policies in her early years must have disgusted Voltaire. He may have had, however, fewer misgivings about her anti-Jewish legislation. Voltaire should have directed his criticism not at Maria Theresa but at his Prussian protege, whose invasion of Silesia weakened the integrity of the HRE more than anything she did (see Crankshaw 1983; Ingrao 2000). Indeed, Maria Theresa was pursuing a quiet revolution (passed over by her French critic): the transformation of the HRE into a more tightly knit center, that of Austria and Hungary, later to become the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (2) An astute observer of Vienna in the late 1750s would have been impressed by Maria Theresa's achievements within the Empire. In one of the greatest turnarounds in Habsburg history she rose from the political underworld of 1741-45, when her very throne was in doubt. After these dark days she expanded the authority of her various offices--and added some--with consummate skill. And, during the Seven Years War, Maria Theresa managed to play one enemy off against the other, while taking advantage of her new-found ally, France. Against the odds, she managed to retain the integrity of the Empire, although, to her regret, not Silesia. Better than anyone, Maria knew how to utilize the centrifugal forces within the Empire to the advantage of her ancestral territories.

Ironically, when the end of the HRE did come, in 1806, the one nation that came to Maria Theresa's aid in 1756 against Prussia and England was the very one that destroyed it! Napoleon decided that the western half of the HRE should effectively be in the sphere of influence of France. Now there would be but a single Empire, not centered in Vienna.


From a broader historical perspective, what is the historical significance of Voltaire's immortal quip?

1. It reveals something of the thought of Voltaire and the French Enlightenment. Modern European states should be moving in the direction of Deism, material and cultural progress, international cooperation in the promotion of justice, natural rights, and concord. The HRE is contrary to an enlightened monarchy, which for some philosophes should be strong enough to advance reason, science, tolerance, and universal values. In the context of 1756, Voltaire appears to direct his remark to his nemesis, Maria Theresa, and in qualified favor of his former patron in Berlin. The sarcastic comment reflects the ideals of the Enlightenment in general in the sense that the HRE was, for many philosophes, a fortress of tradition, Catholic intransigence, and pre-modern states which rested on a myriad of loyalties and not rational government. Modern states should operate in some kind of unison and be discouraged from expansion.

2. It tells us that the threefold attributes (Holy, Roman, and Empire) had undergone considerable change since the Late Middle Ages. Although the triplet in 1356, the historical period Voltaire is referring to in his dictum, was itself capable of multiple meanings, Voltaire seems unaware of how contemporaries in the 1350s understood each of the three forms. Voltaire was alluding specifically to the Golden Bull of 1356, which he portrays as a dictate of the Electors foisted upon Charles IV, who attempted to mask his de facto helplessness before the real power of the seven Electors as well as the pope in Avignon. Voltaire is unclear whether the instigator is the Emperor or the Electors. He pokes fun at the new Emperor for shrouding his political impotence in an ostentatious ceremony. Modern historians of the mid-fourteenth-century HRE see the actual events of 1356 differently. Charles, the Electors, and the other members of the Empire were in fact well aware of the power relationships among the principals. They were grateful to Charles for ending the disputes with Louis of Bavaria. All were intensely alert to the historical ties to Charlemagne, Otto I, and the Roman Empire. To dismiss the complex political situation in 1355-56 with a flippant jest does not advance our understanding of the period.

3. It conceals how the HRE was perceived and actually operated in the mid-eighteenth century. The HRE operated very well in many respects, especially in the realms of administration and jurisdiction. For too long the weakness of Austria in the face of Frederick's aggression in Silesia has overly influenced modern historians, particularly German scholars in the early twentieth century. There has been a great deal of scholarly research on the Empire from Charles V to Francis II since the 1970s and recent studies have tried to offset this imbalance.

4. It perpetuates the misconception that the HRE in the later Middle Ages was a fiction, devoid of unity, purpose, and power. But in fact, contemporary perceptions and the political reality of the Empire in the 1350s were more complicated than Voltaire would have us believe. The Roman and imperial aspects of the German Empire were reduced in strength after 1314, but Voltaire's overstatement is misleading. Charles IV was the creature neither of the pope nor the Electors. The imperial coronation of 1355 and the Golden Bull of 1356 are seen nowadays as expressions of an Empire in flux. It would not be accurate to think of the fourteenth-century HRE as a departure from some normative archetype, such as that of the era of Barbarossa. The Empire of 1356 was not the Empire of 1156. To hold up some romantic ideal from the past by which to evaluate later developments does little to comprehend either period. A parallel misrepresentation of the medieval Church would be to invent a normative (apostolic) body which was devoid of greed and ambition for the first century, and employ it as a standard by which to judge the Church in later centuries; this was precisely what was done during the Avignon papal era with the idea of the primitive Ecclesia. If taken too seriously, Voltaire's comment, perhaps intended simply as an aside, can impede our discernment of the HRE during the days of Charles IV of Bohemia. Too. often non-historians in modern times select incidents from history to make them relevant for modern applications, irrespective of their original meanings. Whatever the motive, bad history is bad history.

Why then does the quote persist? Maybe it has enjoyed a long life because we want it to be true. It conveniently conforms to some modern assumptions about the nature of political, and ecclesiastical, power: rulers conceal their self-serving motives with high principle. Indeed, idealism of any sort is often the object of cynicism. While Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned, the belief that he did fits our preconceptions about the Julio-Claudians. Perhaps Marie Antoinette did not say that the peasants should eat cake, but it mirrors the stereotype about her indifference to their plight. Even if Archimedes did not jump out of the bathtub shouting, it suits our notion of detached, solitary geniuses. And, above all, the Donation of Constantine from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, which was believed because it proved useful for all sides. We moderns have difficulty making sense of the medieval HRE, which seems unique and foreign to modern nation states. It is much easier to give the nod to the off-hand remark of the philosopher-critic, immortalized in his portrait-busts with his characteristic sneer.

Napoleon effectively abolished the HRE in 1804 when he crowned himself Emperor of the French. Inadvertently and ironically this act acknowledged the high esteem the HRE continued to enjoy even then. We might imagine the following dialogue on the eve of August 6, 1806, when Napoleon dissolved the venerable HRE:

"Surely, your majesty, you can't be serious! How can you even think of abolishing that most venerable of empires'1 The empire created by Rome! Have you no sense of tradition? "

"Abolishing? Absolutely not! I am restoring it to its former glory! 1 am the new Charlemagne! I am the new Caesar! The Holy Roman Empire is now translated to Paris, the new Rome!"


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Barraclough, G. 1963. The Origins of Modern Germany. New York: Capricorn.

BIRDAL, M. J. 2011. The Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans. London: Tauris.

Blanning, T. C. W. 1994- "Empire and State in Germany, 1648-1848." German History 12 (2): 220-236.

Brumfett, J. H. 1958. Voltaire Historian. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bryce, J. B. 1913. The Holy Roman Empire. London: Macmillan.

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Thomas Renna

Saginaw Valley State University

(1) An earlier version of this article was presented in the Medieval Studies Section of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters conference on March 22, 2013 at Hope College. I thank Saginaw Valley State University for providing generous grants for my research.

(2.) Hungary was not part of the Habsburg inheritance. Relations between the Hungarian magnates and the HRE were always uncertain since the time of Charles V. Since Charles VI needed their recognition of the Pragmatic Sanction, he permitted them to have their own Diet. When in 1741 it appeared that she would lose much more than Silesia, Maria made an astonishingly dramatic move by deciding that she "would call them to arms and throw herself on their mercy" (Crankshaw 1983, 77).
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Date:Mar 22, 2015
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