The Imperial title
Another aspect of examining the origins of the Holy Roman Empire is to examine the history of the Imperial title itself. In other words, the history of the title gives us some understanding of the history of the empire itself.
The Holy Roman Emperor’s standard designation was simply, originally and officially “August Emperor of the Romans.” In Latin this was translated as “Romanorum Imperator Augustus.” In native German the title was translated as Kaiser der Römer.
Let me expand on this a little further. In German-language historiography, the term Römisch-Deutscher Kaiser (“Roman-German Emperor”) is used to distinguish the title from that of Roman Emperor on one hand, and that of German Emperor (Deutscher Kaiser) on the other, the title held by the Hohenzollern Emperors from 1871 until 1918.
The English term “Holy Roman Emperor” is modern shorthand for “Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire” and not corresponding to the actual historical style or title. In other words, the adjective “holy” is not intended as modifying “emperor.” The English term “Holy Roman Emperor” gained currency in the interbellum period (the 1920s to 1930s); formerly the title had also been rendered “German-Roman Emperor” in English.
The Empire was considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be the only legal successor of the Roman Empire during the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Since Charlemagne, the realm was merely referred to as the Roman Empire. The term sacrum (“holy”, in the sense of “consecrated”) in connection with the medieval Roman Empire was used beginning in 1157 under Friedrich I Barbarossa. “Holy Empire”: was the term added to reflect Friedrich’s ambition to dominate Italy and the Papacy. The form “Holy Roman Empire” is attested from 1254 onward.
In a decree following the Diet of Cologne in 1512, the name was changed to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (German: Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation, Latin: Sacrum Imperium Romanum Nationis Germanicæ), a form first used in a document in 1474. The new title was adopted partly because the Empire lost most of its territories in Italy and Burgundy to the south and west by the late 15th century, but also to emphasize the new importance of the German Imperial Estates in ruling the Empire due to the Imperial Reform.
By the end of the 18th century, the term “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” fell out of official use. Contradicting the traditional view concerning that designation, Hermann Weisert has argued in a study on imperial titulature that, despite the claims of many textbooks, the name “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” never had an official status and points out that documents were thirty times as likely to omit the national suffix as include it.
In a famous assessment of the name, the political philosopher Voltaire remarked sardonically: “This body which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
The title of emperor in the West implied recognition by the pope. It was the pope who had the power to create an emperor. But as the power of the papacy grew during the Middle Ages, popes and emperors came into conflict over church administration. The best-known and most bitter conflict was that known as the investiture controversy, fought during the 11th century between Heinrich IV and Pope Gregory VII.
The office of Holy Roman Emperor was traditionally elective, although frequently controlled by dynasties. As we have seen since 911, the various German princes had elected the King of the Germans, technically, King of East Francia, from among their peers. The King of the Germans would then be crowned as emperor following the precedent set by Charlemagne.
Beginning with the reign Heinrich II (1002–1024, emperor from 1014) the title King of the Romans (Latin: Rex Romanorum; German: König der Römer) was the title used by the German king following his election the mostly German prince-electors, the highest-ranking noblemen of the empire. Technically they would retain the title “King of the Romans”, until they were officially crowned emperor by the Pope. However, the Papacy’s hold over the emperor wained greatly after the Protestant Reformation as many states became officially Protestant despite the Habsburg emperors remaining Roman Catholic.
Charles V was the last emperor to be crowned by the pope, and his successor, Ferdinand I, merely adopted the title of “Emperor-Elect” in 1558. Despite holding the title Emperor-Elect and forgoing the papal coronation the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire were still simply referred to as emperor. As we began this blog entry, we have seen that the final Holy Roman emperor-elect, Franz II, abdicated in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars that saw the Empire’s final dissolution.
Having read its complex history I see the Carolingian Empire that began with Charlamagne as a “Frankish Empire” and was the first phase in the evolution of the Holy Roman Empire. This Frankish Carolingian Empire eventually died out in 924. Then, with the Revival of the Imperial title under Otto the Great, I view this act as a transition from Frankish Empire to the creation of a “German Empire” which is what came to define the Holy Roman Empire in its essense. As a Germanic Empire it helped foster and grow a diverse German culture signifying an important part of German history.