The Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire. Throughout the whole period of feudal anarchy, the ideal of an empire and an emperor whose authority must be confirmed by a papal coronation at Rome survived. This idea was upheld by the popes who sought the support of a strong temporal ruler in their contests with the Italian princes. It was also kept alive by the ambitions of those German rulers who governed a part of Charlemagne’s empire and who hoped to regain the whole. In the tenth century, the German king Otto added Italy to his dominions and was declared emperor by the pope. With his coronation, the Holy Roman Empire began.

The Roman world in its demise bequeathed to the medieval period the ideals of a world empire and a world church. With its common law and language, Roman rule had created political unity. Christianity, with its belief in one God before whom all men are equal, had established spiritual unity.

The coincidence of the boundaries of the Roman Empire and the Christian church made them appear as parts of a universal movement toward world unity. The rise of the pope to the position of monarch in the church and the reestablishment of an emperor in the West seemed the final steps in this process, The theory of a time when the only conception of civil or religious order was submission to authority required that both the church and the state should be governed as monarchies.

The Holy Roman Church and the Holy Roman Empire were thus the same thing in two aspects, uniting church and state, and representing the dual divine and human nature of the founder of Christianity. The pope, as its spiritual head, ruled men’s souls. The emperor, as its temporal head, governed men’s actions. Opposition or conflict between the pope and the emperor was initially inconceivable, with mutual cooperation essential for perfect unity.

In theory, the emperors claimed a wider jurisdiction than the German duchies and the Italian provinces over which they exercised some authority. They regarded themselves as successors of the old Roman emperors and as feudal suzerains of the other European kings. In practice, they could not develop this imperial ideal and feudal overlordship into actual sovereignty.

On the contrary, the attempt to combine Germany and Italy increased the prevalence of feudalism and local division in both. The feudal conception of the emperor’s power prevented him from exercising real authority. The Italians despised the Germans as barbarians and were constantly in revolt against their foreign rulers.

The popes, who wished the emperors to be their allies but not their masters, and who wished to rule independently in their territory, always opposed imperial efforts to unify Germany and Italy, and finally became the chief rivals of the emperor for supreme headship in the empire.

By the latter part of the eleventh century, the imperial authority had become little more than a name in Italy, and the increased secular authority of the pope brought about the struggle between political and spiritual authority with which medieval political philosophy is chiefly concerned.

Political theory in the Middle Ages was not based on an observation of the actual conditions that existed in political institutions, nor was it derived by induction from the past. It was partly inherited from the Greek and Roman world and partly deduced from the principles of metaphysical theology that were crystallizing into scholasticism. No two systems could be more unlike the ideal Hole Roman Empire which dominated men’s minds and the actual feudal regime in which this same man lived.

The One Centralized the other local, the one resting on a sublime theory, the other the rude offspring of anarchy, the one gathering all power into the hand of an irresponsible monarch, the other limiting his rights and authorizing resistance of his commands, the one demanding the equality of all citizens as creatures equal before Heaven, the other bound up with an aristocracy the proudest and in its gradations of rank the most exact that Europe had ever seen.

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