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Career of Charlemagne, by Guizot, Francois P. G.

Life of Charlemagne

World History Center

Holy Roman Empire, The
Book: Chapter XXI: Conclusion.
Author: Bryce, James
Date: 1901

 

Page Twenty One

Part I.

After the attempts already made to examine separately each of the phases
of the Empire, little need be said, in conclusion, upon its nature and results
in general. A general character can hardly help being either vague or false.
For the aspects which the Empire took are as many and as various as the ages
and conditions of society during which it continued to exist. Among the
exhausted peoples around the Mediterranean, whose national feeling had died
out, whose faith was extinct or turned to superstition, whose thought and art
was a faint imitation of the Greek, there arises a huge despotism, first of a
city, then of an administrative system, which presses with equal weight on all
its subjects, and becomes to them a religion as well as a government. Just
when the mass is at length dissolving, the tribes of the North come down, too
rude to maintain the institutions they found subsisting, too few to introduce
their own, and a weltering confusion follows, till the strong hand of the
first Frankish Emperor raises the fallen image and bids the nations bow down
to it once more. Under him it is for some brief space a theocracy; under his
German successors the first of feudal kingdoms, the centre of European
chivalry. As feudalism wanes, it is again transformed, and after promising
for a time to become an hereditary Hapsburg monarchy, sinks at last into the
presidency, not more dignified than powerless, of an international league. To
us moderns, a perpetuation under conditions so diverse of the same name and
the same pretensions, appears at first sight absurd, a phantom too vain to
impress the most superstitious mind. Closer examination will correct such a
notion. No power was ever based on foundations so sure and deep as those
which Rome laid during three centuries of conquest and four of undisturbed
dominion. If her empire had been an hereditary or local kingdom, it might
have fallen with the extinction of the royal line, the conquest of the tribe,
the destruction of the city to which it was attached. But it was not so
limited. It was imperishable because it was universal; and when its power had
ceased, it was remembered with awe and love by the races whose separate
existence it had destroyed, because it had spared the weak while it smote down
the strong; because it had granted equal rights to all, and closed against
none of its subjects the path of honourable ambition. When the military power
of the conquering city had departed, her sway over the world of thought began:
by her the theories of the Greeks had been reduced to practice; by her the new
religion had been embraced and organized; her language, her theology, her
laws, her architecture made their way where the eagles of war had never flown,
and with the spread of civilization have found new homes on the Ganges and the
Mississippi.

Nor is such a claim of government prolonged under changed conditions by
any means a singular phenomenon. Titles sum up the political history of
nations, and are as often causes as effects: if not insignificant now, how
much less so in ages of ignorance and unreason. It would be an instructive,
if it were not a tedious task, to examine the many pretensions that are still
put forward to represent the Empire of Rome, all of them baseless, none of
them effectless. Austria clings to a name which seems to give her a sort of
precedence in Europe, and was wont, while she held Lombardy, to justify her
position there by invoking the feudal rights of the Hohenstaufen. With no
more legal right than a prince of Reuss or a landgrave of Homburg might
pretend to, she has assumed the arms and devices of the old Empire, and being
almost the youngest of European monarchies, is respected as the oldest and
most conservative. Bonapartean France, as the self-appointed heir of the
Carolingians, grasped for a time the sceptre of the West, and under her lately
fallen ruler aspired to hold the balance of European politics, and be
recognized as the leader and patron of the so-called Latin races on both sides
of the Atlantic ^1. Professing the creed of Byzantium, Russia claims the
crown of the Byzantine Caesars, and trusts that the capital which prophecy has
promised for a thousand years will not be long withheld. The doctrine of
Panslavism, under an imperial head of the whole Eastern church, has become a
formidable engine of aggression in the hands of a crafty and warlike
despotism. Another testimony to the enduring influence of old political
combinations is supplied by the eagerness with which modern Hellas has
embraced the notion of gathering all the Greek races into a revived Empire of
the East, with its capital on the Bosphorus. Nay, the intruding Ottoman
himself, different in faith as well as in blood, has more than once declared
himself the representative of the Eastern Caesars, whose dominion he
extinguished. Solyman the Magnificent assumed the name of Emperor, and
refused it to Charles the Fifth: his successors were long preceded through the
streets of Constantinople by twelve officers, bearing straws aloft, a faint
semblance of the consular fasces that had escorted a Quinctius or a Fabius
through the Roman forum. Yet in no one of these cases has there been that
apparent legality of title which the shouts of the people and the benediction
of the pontiff conveyed to Charles and Otto ^2.

[Footnote 1: See Louis Napoleon's letter to General Forey, explaining the
object of the expedition to Mexico.]

[Footnote 2: One may also compare the retention of the office of consul at
Rome till the time of Justinian: indeed it even survived his formal abolition.
The relinquishment of the title 'King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland,'
seriously distressed many excellent persons.]

These examples, however, are minor parallels: the complement and
illustration of the history of the Empire is to be found in that of the Holy
See. The Papacy, whose spiritual power was itself the offspring of Rome's
temporal dominion, evoked the phantom of her parent, used it, obeyed it,
rebelled and overthrew it, in its old age once more embraced it, till in its
downfall she has heard the knell of her own approaching doom ^1.

[Footnote 1: I speak, of course, of the Papacy as an autocratic power claiming
a more than spiritual authority.]

Both Papacy and Empire rose in an age when the human spirit was utterly
prostrated before authority and tradition, when the exercise of private
judgment was impossible to most and sinful to all. Those who believed the
miracles recorded in the Acta Sanctorum, and did not question the Isidorian
decretals, might well recognize as ordained of God the twofold authority of
Rome, founded, as it seemed to be, on so many texts of Scripture, and
confirmed by five centuries of undisputed possession.

Both sanctioned and satisfied the passion of the Middle Ages for unity.
Ferocity, violence, disorder, were the conspicuous evils of that time: hence
all the aspirations of the good were for something which, breaking the force
of passion and increasing the force of sympathy, should teach the stubborn
wills to sacrifice themselves in the view of a common purpose. To those men,
moreover, unable to rise above the sensuous, not seeing the true connexion or
the true difference of the spiritual and the secular, the idea of the Visible
Church was full of awful meaning. Solitary thought was helpless, and strove
to lose itself in the aggregate, since it could not create for itself that
which was universal. The schism that severed a man from the congregation of
the faithful on earth was hardly less dreadful than the heresy which excluded
him from the company of the blessed in heaven. He who kept not his appointed
place in the ranks of the church militant had no right to swell the rejoicing
anthems of the church triumphant. Here, as in so many other cases, the
continued use of traditional language seems to have prevented us from seeing
how great is the difference between our own times and those in which the
phrases we repeat were first used, and used in full sincerity. Whether the
world is better or worse for the change which has passed upon its feelings in
these matters is another question: all that is necessary to note here is that
the change is a profound and pervading one. Obedience, almost the first of
mediaeval virtues, is now often spoken of as if it were fit only for slaves or
fools. Instead of praising, men are wont to condemn the submission of the
individual will, the surrender of the individual belief, to the will or the
belief of the community. Some persons declare variety of opinion to be a
positive good. The great mass have certainly no longing for an abstract unity
of faith. They have no horror of schism. They do not, cannot, understand the
intense fascination which the idea of one all-pervading church exercised upon
their mediaeval forefathers. A life in the church, for the church, through
the church; a life which she blessed in mass at morning and sent to peaceful
rest by the vesper hymn; a life which she supported by the constantly
recurring stimulus of the sacraments, relieving it by confession, purifying it
by penance, admonishing it by the presentation of visible objects for
contemplation and worship, - this was the life which they of the Middle Ages
conceived of as the rightful life for man; it was the actual life of many, the
ideal of all. The unseen world was so unceasingly pointed to, and its
dependence on the seen so intensely felt, that the barrier between the two
seemed to disappear. The church was not merely the portal to heaven; it was
heaven anticipated; it was already self-gathered and complete. In one
sentence from a famous mediaeval document may be found a key to much which
seems strangest to us in the feelings of the Middle Ages: 'The church is
dearer to God than heaven. For the church does not exist for the sake of
heaven, but conversely, heaven for the sake of the church ^1.'

[Footnote 1: 'Ipsa enim ecclesia charior Deo est quam coelum. Non enim
propter coelum ecclesia, sed e converso propter ecclesiam coelum.' From the
tract entitled 'A Letter of the four Universities to Wenzel and Urban VI,'
quoted in an earlier chapter.]

Again, both Empire and Papacy rested on opinion rather than on physical
force, and when the struggle of the eleventh century came, the Empire fell,
because its rival's hold over the souls of men was firmer, more direct,
enforced by penalties more terrible than the death of the body. The
ecclesiastical body under Alexander and Innocent was animated by a loftier
spirit and more wholly devoted to a single aim than the knights and nobles who
followed the banner of the Swabian Caesars. Its allegiance was undivided; it
comprehended the principles for which it fought: they trembled at even while
they resisted the spiritual power.

Both sprang from what might be called the accident of name. The power of
the great Latin patriarchate was a Form: the ghost, it has been said, of the
older Empire, favoured in its growth by circumstances, but really vital
because capable of wonderful adaptation to the character and wants of the
time. So too, though far less perfectly, was the Empire. Its Form was the
tradition of the universal rule of Rome; it met the needs of successive
centuries by civilizing barbarous peoples, by maintaining unity in confusion
and disorganization, by controlling brute violence through the sanctions of a
higher power, by being made the keystone of a gigantic feudal arch, by
assuming in its old age the presidency of a European confederation. And the
history of both, as it shews the power of ancient names and forms, shews also
within what limits such a perpetuation is possible, and how it sometimes
deceives men, by preserving the shadow while it loses the substance. This
perpetuation itself, what is it but the expression of the belief of mankind, a
belief incessantly corrected yet never weakened, that their old institutions
do and may continue to subsist unchanged, that what has served their fathers
will do well enough for them, that it is possible to make a system perfect and
abide in it for ever? Of all political instincts this is perhaps the
strongest; often useful, often grossly abused, but never so natural and so
fitting as when it leads men who feel themselves inferior to their
predecessors, to save what they can from the wreck of a civilization higher
than their own. It was thus that both Papacy and Empire were maintained by
the generations who had no type of greatness and wisdom save that which they
associated with the name of Rome. And therefore it is that no examples shew
so convincingly how hopeless are all such attempts to preserve in life a
system which arose out of ideas and under conditions that have passed away.
Though it never could have existed save as a prolongation, though it was and
remained through the Middle Ages an anachronism, the Empire of the tenth
century had little in common with the Empire of the second. Much more was the
Papacy, though it too hankered after the forms and titles of antiquity, in
reality a new creation. And in the same proportion as it was new, and
represented the spirit not of a past age but of its own, was it a power
stronger and more enduring than the Empire. More enduring, because younger,
and so in fuller harmony with the feelings of its contemporaries: stronger,
because at the head of the great ecclesiastical body, in and through which,
rather than through secular life, all the intelligence and political activity
of the Middle Ages sought its expression. The famous simile of Gregory the
Seventh is that which best describes the Empire and the Popedom. They were
indeed the 'two lights in the firmament of the militant church,' the lights
which illumined and ruled the world all through the Middle Ages. And as
moonlight is to sunlight, so was the Empire to the Papacy. The rays of the
one were borrowed, feeble, often interrupted: the other shone with an
unquenchable brilliance that was all her own.

The Empire, it has just been said, was never truly mediaeval. Was it
then Roman in anything but name? and was that name anything better than a
piece of fantastic antiquarianism? It is easy to draw a comparison between
the Antonines and the Ottos which should shew nothing but unlikeness. What
the Empire was in the second century every one knows. In the tenth it was a
feudal monarchy, resting on a strong territorial oligarchy. Its chiefs were
barbarians, the sons of those who had destroyed Varus and baffled Germanicus,
sometimes unable even to use the tongue of Rome. Its powers were limited. It
could scarcely be said to have a regular organization at all, whether judicial
or administrative. It was consecrated to the defence, nay, it existed by
virtue of the religion which Trajan and Marcus had persecuted. Nevertheless,
when the contrast has been stated in the strongest terms, there will remain
points of resemblance. The thoroughly Roman idea of universal
denationalization survived, and drew with it that of a certain equality among
all free subjects. It has been remarked already, that the world's highest
dignity was for many centuries the only civil office to which any free-born
Christian was legally eligible. And there was also, during the earlier ages,
that indomitable vigour which might have made Trajan or Severus seek their
true successors among the woods of Germany rather than in the palaces of
Byzantium, where every office and name and custom had floated down from the
court of Constantine in a stream of unbroken legitimacy. The ceremonies of
Henry the Seventh's coronation would have been strange indeed to Caius Julius
Caesar Octavianus Augustus; but how much nobler, how much more Roman in force
and truth than the childish and unmeaning forms with which a Palaeologus was
installed! It was not in purple buskins that the dignity of the Luxemburger
lay ^1. To such a boast the Germanic Empire had long ere its death lost
right: it had lived on, when honour and nature bade it die: it had become what
the empire of the Moguls was, and that of the Ottomans is now, a curious relic
of antiquity, over which the imaginative might muse, but which the mass of men
would push aside with impatient contempt. But institutions, like men, should
be judged by their prime.

[Footnote 1: Von Raumer, Geschichte der Hohenstaufen, v.]

The comparison of the old Roman Empire with its Germanic representative
raises a question which has been a good deal canvassed of late years. That
wonderful system which Julius Caesar and his subtle nephew erected upon the
ruins of the republican constitution of Rome has been made the type of a
certain form of government and of a certain set of social as well as political
arrangements, to which, or rather to the theory whereof they are a part, there
has been given the name of Imperialism. The sacrifice of the individual to
the mass, the concentration of all legislative and judicial powers in the
person of the sovereign, the centralization of the administrative system, the
maintenance of order by a large military force, the substitution of the
influence of public opinion for the control of representative assemblies, are
commonly taken, whether rightly or wrongly, to characterize that theory. Its
enemies cannot deny that it has before now given and may again give to nations
a sudden and violent access of aggressive energy; that it has often achieved
the glory (whatever that may be) of war and conquest; that it has a better
title to respect in the ease with which it may be made, as it was by the
Flavian and Antonine Caesars of old, and at the beginning of this century by
Napoleon in France, the instrument of comprehensive reforms in law and
government. The parallel between the Roman world under the Caesars and the
French people in the days of the last-named monarch is indeed less perfect
that those who dilate upon it fancy. That equalizing despotism which was a
good to a medley of tribes, the force of whose national life had spent itself
and left them languid, yet restless, with all the evils of isolation and none
of its advantages, was not necessarily a good to a country then the strongest
and most united in Europe, a country where the administration is only too
perfect, and the pressure of social uniformity only too strong. But whether
it be a good or an evil, no one can doubt that there is a sense in which
France represents, and has always represented, the imperialist spirit of Rome
more truly than those whom the Middle Ages recognized as the legitimate heirs
of her name and dominion. Like her, the French people have a deep-rooted
belief that to them it naturally belongs to lead the world and control the
policy of neighbouring states: like her, they regard war not as a sometimes
necessary evil, but as a thing to be enjoyed for its own sake, a noble,
perhaps the noblest employment of human force and genius. And in their
political character, whether it be the result of the five centuries of Roman
rule in Gaul, or rather due to the original instincts of the Gallic race,
there may be found a claim, better founded than any which Napoleon put
forward, to be the Romans ^1 of the modern world. The tendency of the Teuton
was and is to the independence of the individual life, to the mutual
repulsion, if the phrase may be permitted, of the social atoms, as contrasted
with Keltic and so-called Romanic peoples, among which the unit is more
completely absorbed in the mass, who live possessed by a common idea which
they are driven to realize in the concrete. Teutonic states have been little
more successful than their neighbours in the establishment of free
constitutions. Their assemblies meet, and vote, and are dissolved, and
nothing comes of it: their citizens endure without greatly resenting outrages
that would raise the more excitable French or Italians in revolt. But,
whatever may have been the form of government, the body of the people have in
Germany always enjoyed a freedom of thought which has made them comparatively
careless of politics; and the absolutism of the Elbe is at this day ^2 no more
like that of the Seine than a revolution at Dresden is to a revolution at
Paris. The rule of the Hohenstaufen had nothing either of the good or the
evil of the imperialism which Tacitus painted, or of that which the
panegyrists of the lately-fallen system in France were wont to paint in
colours somewhat different from his.

[Footnote 1: Meaning thereby not the citizens of Rome in her republican days,
but the Italo-Hellenic subjects of the Roman Empire.]

[Footnote 2: Written in 1865.]

There was, nevertheless, such a thing as mediaeval imperialism, a theory
of the nature of the state and the best form of government, which has been
described once already, and need not be described again. It is enough to say,
that from three leading principles all its properties may be derived. The
first and the least essential was the existence of the state as a monarchy.
The second was the exact coincidence of the state's limits, and the perfect
harmony of its workings with the limits and the workings of the church. The
third was its universality. These three were vital. Forms of political
organization, the presence or absence of constitutional checks, the degree of
liberty enjoyed by the subject, the rights conceded to local authorities, all
these were matters of secondary importance. But although there brooded over
all the shadow of a despotism, it was a despotism not of the sword but of law;
a despotism not chilling and blighting, but one which, in Germany at least,
looked with favour on municipal freedom, and everywhere did its best for
learning, for religion, for intelligence; a despotism not hereditary, but one
which constantly maintained in theory the principle that he should rule who
was found the fittest. To praise or to decry the Empire as a despotic power
is to misunderstand it altogether. We need not, because an unbounded
prerogative was useful in ages of turbulence, advocate it now; nor need we,
with Sismondi, blame the Frankish conqueror because he granted no
'constitutional charter' to all the nations that obeyed him. Like the Papacy,
the Empire expressed the political ideas of a time, and not of all time: like
the Papacy, it decayed when those ideas changed; when men became more capable
of rational liberty; when thought grew stronger, and the spiritual nature
shook itself more free from the bonds of sense.

The influence of the Empire upon Germany is a subject too wide to be more
than glanced at. There is much to make it appear altogether unfortunate. For
many generations the flower of Teutonic chivalry crossed the Alps to perish by
the sword of the Lombards, or the deadlier fevers of Rome. Italy terribly
avenged the wrongs she suffered. Those who destroyed the national existence
of another people forfeited their own: the German kingdom, crushed beneath the
weight of the Roman Empire, could never recover strength enough to form a
compact and united monarchy, such as arose elsewhere in Europe: the race whom
their neighbours had feared and obeyed till the fourteenth century saw
themselves, down even to our own day, the prey of intestine feuds and their
country the battlefield of Europe. Spoiled and insulted by a neighbor
restlessly aggressive and superior in all the arts of success, they came to
regard France as the persecuted Slave regards them. The want of national union
and political liberty from which Germany has suffered, and to some extent
suffers still, need not be attributed to the differences of her races; for,
conspicuous as that difference was in the days of Otto the Great, it was no
greater than in France, where intruding Franks, Goths, Burgundians, and
Northmen were mingled with primitive Kelts and Basques; not so great as in
Spain, or Italy, or Britain. Rather is it due to the decline of the central
government, which was induced by its strife with the Popedom, its endless
Italian wars, and the passion for universal dominion which made it the
assailant of all the neighbouring countries. The absence or the weakness of
the monarch enabled his feudal vassals to establish petty despotisms,
debarring the nation from united political action, and greatly retarding the
emancipation of the commons. Thus, while the princes became shamelessly
selfish, justifying their resistance to the throne as the defence of their own
liberty - liberty to oppress the subject - and ready on the least occasion to
throw themselves into the arms of France, the body of the people were deprived
of all political training, and have found the lack of such experience impede
their efforts to this day.

For these misfortunes, however, there has not been wanting some
compensation. The inheritance of the Roman Empire made the Germans the ruling
race of Europe, and the brilliance of that glorious dawn has never faded and
can never fade entirely from their name. A peaceful people now, peaceful in
sentiment even now when they have become a great military power, acquiescent
in paternal government, and given to the quiet enjoyments of art, music, and
meditation, they delight themselves with memories of the time when their
conquering chivalry was the terror of the Gaul and the Slave, the Lombard and
the Saracen. The national life received a keen stimulus from the sense of
exaltation which victory brought, and from the intercourse with countries
where the old civilization had not wholly perished. It was this connexion
with Italy that raised the German lands out of barbarism, and did for them the
work which Roman conquest had performed in Gaul, Spain, and Britain. From the
Empire flowed all the richness of their mediaeval life and literature: it
first awoke in them a consciousness of national existence; its history has
inspired and served as material to their poetry; to many ardent politicians
the splendours of the past have become the beacon of the future ^1. There was
a bright side even to that long political disunion, which can hardly be said
to have yet disappeared. When they complained that they were not a nation,
and sighed for the harmony of feeling and singleness of aim which their great
rival seemed to display, the example of the Greeks might have brought them
some comfort. To the variety which so many small governments have produced
may be partly attributed the breadth of development in German thought and
literature, by virtue of which it transcends the French hardly less than the
Greek surpassed the Roman. Paris no doubt is great, but a country may lose as
well as gain by the predominance of a single city; and Germany need not mourn
that she alone among modern states has not and never has had a capital.

[Footnote 1: See especially Von Sybel, Die Deutsche Nation und das
Kaiserreich; and the answers of Ficker and Von Wydenbrugk; also Hofler,
Kaiserthum und Papstthum, and Waitz, Deutsche Kaiser von Karl dem Grossen bis
Maximilian.]