History and Historiography

Anarchy in the Holy Roman Empire

Some excerpts from Peter H. Wilson’s “Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire.”

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.

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. 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.

THE EMPIRE SPEAKS

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. 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.

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.

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.47 Censorship 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.48Education 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.

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.54In 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’.

IMPERIAL PATRIOTISM

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.59The 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.

Low Cost Government

One reason was that the changes made since the Staufers had enabled it to retain a lightweight, low-cost form of royal government which no important participant saw any reason to abandon now. Princes and cities enjoyed considerable individual autonomy, but discharged ‘public’ functions at their own expense, freeing the emperor from having to organize and pay for this. The other reason was that the emperor’s main task was considered to be maintaining internal peace, not waging external war. Peace was intended to be permanent, whereas war was always presented as a necessary exception. This meant that apologists for greater royal power in the Empire could not use the fiction employed in France, England and Spain that new taxes were short-term emergency measures. Instead, it remained politically unacceptable to develop centralized institutions capable of sustaining the king’s permanent interference in his subjects’ lives. Regular taxation was equated with ‘eternal servitude’ inimical to ‘German freedom’.

Feuds

The south and west were particularly prone to disorder, thanks to their dense and complex feudal hierarchy that fragmented jurisdictions, creating numerous points for potential friction. The disputes were not ‘private’ wars, but recognized legal practice, since the Empire permitted subjects to seek redress through feuding. This practice had been contained in the past, because feuds generally remained small scale, involving seizure or destruction of property, rather than full military operations. However, feuding increased in intensity and scale as princes waged multiple conflicts using their mediate vassals as surrogates, while many lesser vassals acted on their own initiative to preserve or widen their autonomy. Franconia saw 278 noble feuds between 1440 and 1570, with a peak from 1460 to 1479, followed by a second, lesser one from 1500 to 1509. The proportion of feuds pitting nobles against princes rose from 40 per cent during the first peak to 53 per cent in the second, compared to feuds amongst nobles accounting for only 15 per cent. Most feuds involved intimidation, arson, looting, cattle rustling and kidnapping, with killings rarely being premeditated since an opponent’s death negated the feud’s purpose of compelling him to admit publicly to being in the wrong. The numerous cases of peaceful resolution are easily forgotten. The cliché of the rapacious ‘robber barons’ was an urban myth, fostered from this period onwards as part of a wider critique of nobility. Burghers themselves waged feuds, also burning villages and destroying crops belonging to hostile lords. Moreover, aristocratic concepts of honour were being embraced by others, spreading the use of the feud: 258 feuds were waged by Bavarian peasants and other commoners between 1450 and 1500.

Taxation

The quotas were recorded in an official register (Matrikel), with that prepared in 1521 becoming a benchmark for all future assessments.The matricular system was preferred because it enabled fief-holders and magistrates to conceal their true wealth. The initial Common Penny proved difficult, because hardly any territories possessed adequate tax registers, as they had few direct levies of their own. Registers were time-consuming to prepare, but their real problem was how they revealed personal and communal wealth to outsiders. Cities were particularly concerned that sensitive financial information would simply add to the desire of neighbouring princes to intrude on their autonomy. Quotas were only loosely related to actual wealth, because they were assigned in roughly descending order according to the titular status of each fief. For example, from 1486 all electors were assessed the same despite their considerable disparities in wealth. Quotas had additional political advantages, since the amounts in the registers were only ever intended as a basic guide and could be summoned as multiples or fractions as the case demanded. The fief-holders and magistrates had to meet the emperor to agree the size and duration of the grant, allowing them the opportunity to influence its use as well. Quotas eased military planning by fixing contingent sizes and also enabled the emperor to see more clearly who was dodging their responsibilities.

Vassals were responsible for raising, equipping, training and maintaining their troops, ensuring that the Empire’s central bureaucracy remained small compared to those of western European monarchies. Frankfurt’s city treasurer was sworn in as Reichspfennigmeister in 1495 to receive Common Penny payments remitted by fief-holders and magistrates. The post remained temporary, limited to individual tax grants authorized by the Reichstag, until made permanent in 1543.

The Kreis Assemblies

The development of the Kreise created a second, regional level of representation as their growing responsibilities required their members to meet frequently by the mid-sixteenth century. The status of Kreis Estate was always wider than that of imperial Estate, ensuring that more fiefs were represented in the Kreis Assemblies (Kreistage) than at the Reichstag. The assemblies reflected the differing composition and regional politics of each Kreis. The Bavarian Assembly met as a unified plenary body, whereas that in Swabia began with three benches, adding two more when the minor ecclesiastical and secular fiefs were admitted with full votes – in contrast to their marginalization in the Reichstag. Kreis membership continued to fluctuate, especially through the admission of counts who gained votes for minor lordships not represented in the Reichstag. The emperor could not require a Kreis to admit new members. Status exclusivity also played a role at this level, but generally existing members were willing to admit new ones because this increased the number of overall contributors to common burdens: Westphalia admitted five new members between 1667 and 1786.

The southern and western Kreise were the most vibrant, because of the French threat and because they had the largest memberships, who relied on the assemblies to resolve disputes and organize peace, security and defence. Eighteenth-century Franconia had 23 qualifying fiefs and cities, but 33 actual members because several minor counties and lordships were shared by different princely houses. Its assembly met 322 times between 1517 and 1791, before remaining in permanent session until dissolved in 1806. Bavaria’s material power was balanced by the more numerous smaller members all with full votes in the Bavarian Assembly, which met 85 times between 1521 and 1793. The Lower and Upper Saxon Kreise were dominated by Hanover, Brandenburg and Saxony, whose assemblies no longer convened after 1682 and 1683 respectively, though other forms of consultation continued. The Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies were the main forms in what was a wider representational culture that produced other forms during the sixteenth century. The Kreis Assemblies could meet together as a Reichskreistag, while both they and the Reichstag developed committee structures to handle specific judicial, military and financial affairs. Reichstag committees were reorganized as more formalized Imperial Deputations after 1555. The electors enjoyed uncontested rights of self-assembly and convened their own congresses into the mid-seventeenth century, but the Reichstag’s permanence after 1663 rendered most of these other forms superfluous.

Reichstag Procedure

The emperor held the Right of Proposition, allowing him to open the Reichstag by presenting proposals to be discussed. In practice, imperial Estates and even private individuals could petition the directors of the three corpora to place items on the agenda. Each corpus debated in a separate room, consulting periodically through a process known as ‘correlation’ with the intention of reaching a consensus to be presented as a recommendation (Reichsgutachten) for the emperor’s approval. In practice, envoys often met separately outside the meeting hall. The emperor was free to veto a proposal, request further debate, or approve it as a full decision (Reichsschluß) to be included in the printed ‘recess’ (Reichsabschluß) issued at the close of each Reichstag.

The majority principle evolved separately within each corpus, beginning with the electors, followed by the cities in 1471, and finally for all decisions following Maximilian’s recommendation in 1495. However, reaching a decision was often arduous, because each corpus followed a practice known as Umfrage, inviting each member in strict hierarchical sequence to respond to the imperial proposition. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was not permitted; each member had to voice an opinion and these were often long or deliberately ambiguous. There was no show of hands or other method that might have allowed precise counting. Instead, the corpus’s director had leeway in deciding what the majority was. The process of correlation also lacked firm rules, especially as the overall majority was not decided simply by counting votes across all three colleges. The civic corpus was disadvantaged by the convention that the electors and princes only consulted it once they had agreed between themselves, though the Peace of Westphalia (1648) confirmed their right to participate in correlation.

The 1424 assembly in Nuremberg agreed that decisions were binding even on those who failed to attend and this spread to the later Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies. The rule had to be repeated, notably in 1512, because it broke the earlier convention allowing lords to demonstrate disagreement by absenting themselves or leaving an assembly early. Insistence on binding decisions encouraged a new form of delaying tactic, also facilitated by the transition to written political communication. Whereas the spiritual and lay lords were individuals expected to represent themselves, the imperial cities were communes that already provided written instructions for their envoys in the fifteenth century. Likewise, the imperial abbesses were excluded on gender grounds from attending in person and had to send a male official. Indirect representation opened the door to Hintersichbringen, or referring back to absentee masters on the grounds of inadequate instructions, allowing an imperial Estate to dodge awkward issues without openly opposing them. The practice was already criticized in 1495 when it was tacitly agreed to restrict referring back to genuinely important issues. The imperial proposition was generally now published in advance to force Estates to provide effective instructions. However, envoys remained bound to their masters, unlike the Reichskammergericht judges, who swore loyalty to the court, and referring back remained justifiable if circumstances changed during a Reichstag session, as occurred relatively often.

These practices help explain the slow pace of imperial politics, which later generations have often been quick to censure. The primary function of the Reichstag and the Kreis Assemblies was to legitimate political action. Imperial reform created a mass of documented decisions and recorded precedents, translating what had often been customs into written laws that remained uncodified and that might offer several potentially competing arguments. Participants were concerned to find the ‘right’ basis for common action, since this would encourage more effective compliance with decisions. There was a tendency to leave difficult matters unresolved to allow time to chivvy dissenters, rather than risk the disruption that might ensue if they were coerced. As with justice, politics in the Empire was more about managing than resolving problems and was in many ways more realistic and often more humane than methods employed in other countries. It was not necessarily less ‘modern’ than the practices of some later systems: the practice of shunting difficult matters to committees where they might be hijacked by special interests is, for example, just as characteristic of contemporary US politics. Like Congress, the Reichstag was also a venue for political theatre, offering the opportunity to address a wider public, rally support, and legitimate what were initially merely opinions and claims.

Empire is Not a State

…the remit of the Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies was far broader than those of most European assemblies, which were limited to debating royal policy and deciding how far to back it with taxes. In addition to indeed doing this, the Empire’s institutions worked out policy implementation, including specialist tasks like military regulations, exchange rates and law codes. They also proved sufficiently robust to absorb the shocks from the Reformation without the violence experienced in France and the Netherlands. Although unable to prevent the Bohemian Revolt that caused a devastating civil war between 1618 and 1648, the same framework ultimately still provided the means to resolve that conflict and stabilize the Empire.

Nonetheless, the Empire merely modified existing institutions rather than developing new ones after the mid-sixteenth century. It failed to combine the legitimacy of governance with political power to forge a modern government. Instead, power and legitimacy remained separate. The emperor, Reichstag and other institutions remained accepted as legitimate, but lacked the means to implement decisions, leading some historians to categorize the Empire as a ‘political system’ rather than a state. However, others have drawn attention to the complementary character of the Empire’s development, which grew much more pronounced with imperial reform. The territories did not develop in opposition to the emperor, but as part of the Empire’s overall evolution. Rather than seeking to displace the territories, imperial reform incorporated them as the Empire’s infrastructure. Thus, imperial institutions served to find and legitimate common policies, while the territorial administrations implemented them. The system cohered, because no element could dispense entirely with the others.

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