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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 Two

Part II.

The merits of the old Empire were not long since the subject of a brisk
controversy among several German professors of history. The spokesmen of the
Austrian or Roman Catholic party, a party which ten years ago was not less
powerful in some of the minor South German States than in Vienna, claimed for
the Hapsburg monarchy the honour of being the legitimate representative of the
mediaeval Empire, and declared that only by again accepting Hapsburg
leadership could Germany win back the glory and the strength that once were
hers. The North German liberals ironically applauded the comparison. 'Yes,'
they replied, 'your Austrian Empire, as it calls itself, is the true daughter
of the old despotism: not less tyrannical, not less aggressive, not less
retrograde; like its progenitor, the friend of priests, the enemy of free
thought, the trampler upon the national feeling of the peoples that obey it.
It is you whose selfish and antinational policy blasts the hope of German
unity now, as Otto and Frederick blasted it long ago by their schemes of
foreign conquest. The dream of Empire has been our bane from first to last.'
It is possible, one may hope, to escape the alternative of admiring the
Austrian Empire or denouncing the Holy Roman. Austria has indeed, in some
things, but too faithfully reproduced the policy of the Saxon and Swabian
Caesars ^1. Like her, they oppressed and insulted the Italian people: but it
was in the defence of rights which the Italians themselves admitted. Like
her, they lusted after a dominion over the races on their borders, but that
dominion was to them a means of spreading civilization and religion in savage
countries, not of pampering upon their revenues a hated court and aristocracy.
Like her, they strove to maintain a strong government at home, but they did it
when a strong government was the first of political blessings. Like her, they
gathered and maintained vast armies; but those armies were composed of knights
and barons who lived for war alone, not of peasants torn away from useful
labour and condemned to the cruel task of perpetuating their own bondage by
crushing the aspirations of another nationality. They sinned grievously, no
doubt, but they sinned in the dim twilight of a half-barbarous age, not in the
noonday blaze of modern civilization. The enthusiasm for mediaeval faith and
simplicity which was so fervid some years ago has run its course, and is not
likely soon to revive. He who reads the history of the Middle Ages will not
deny that its heroes, even the grandest of them, were in some respects little
better than savages. But when he approaches more recent times, and sees how,
during the last three hundred years, kings have dealt with their subjects and
with each other, he will forget the ferocity of the Middle Ages, in horror at
the heartlessness, the treachery, the injustice all the more odious because it
sometimes wears the mask of legality, which disgraces the annals of the
military monarchies of Europe. With regard, however, to the pretensions of
modern Austria, the truth is that this dispute about the worth of the old
system has no bearing upon them at all. The day of imperial greatness was
already past when Rudolf the first Hapsburg reached the throne; while during
what may be called the Austrian period, from Maximilian to Francis II, the
Holy Empire was to Germany a mere clog and incumbrance, which the unhappy
nation bore because she knew not how to rid herself of it. The Germans are
welcome to appeal to the old Empire to prove that they were once a united
people. Nor is there any harm in their comparing the politics of the twelfth
century with those of the nineteenth, although to argue from the one to the
other seems to betray a want of historical judgment. But the one thing which
is wholly absurd is to make Francis Joseph of Austria the successor of
Frederick of Hohenstaufen, and justify the most sordid and ungenial of modern
despotisms by the example of the mirror of mediaeval chivalry, the noblest
creation of mediaeval thought.

[Footnote 1: Written in 1865: Austria, taught by adversity, has turned over a
new leaf since then.]

We are not yet far enough from the Empire to comprehend or state rightly
its bearing on European progress. The mountain lies behind us, but miles must
be traversed before we can take in at a glance its peaks and slopes and
buttresses, picture its form, and conjecture its height. Of the perpetuation
among the peoples of the West of the arts and literature of Rome it was both
an effect and a cause, - a cause only less powerful than the church. It would
be endless to shew in how many ways it affected the political institutions of
the Middle Ages, and through them of the whole civilized world. Most of the
attributes of modern royalty, to take the most obvious instance, belonged
originally and properly to the Emperor, and were borrowed from him by other
monarchs. The once famous doctrine of divine right had the same origin. To
the existence of the Empire is chiefly to be ascribed the prevalence of Roman
law through Europe, and its practical importance in our own days. For while
in Southern France and Central Italy, where the subject population greatly
outnumbered their conquerors, the old system would have in any case survived,
it cannot be doubted that in Germany, as in England, a body of customary
Teutonic law would have grown up, had it not been for the notion that since
the German monarch was the legitimate successor of Justinian, the Corpus Juris
must be binding on all his subjects. This strange idea was received with a
faith so unhesitating that even the aristocracy, who naturally disliked a
system which the Emperors and the cities favoured, could not but admit its
validity, and before the end of the Middle Ages Roman law prevailed through
all Germany ^1. When it is considered how great are the services which German
writers have rendered and continue to render to the study of scientific
jurisprudence throughout Europe generally, this result will appear far from
insignificant. But another of still wider import followed. When by the Peace
of Westphalia a crowd of petty principalities were recognized as practically
independent states, the need of a code to regulate their intercourse became
pressing. Such a code Grotius and his successors formed out of what was then
the private law of Germany, which thus became the foundation whereon the
system of international jurisprudence has been built up during the last two
centuries. That system is, indeed, entirely a German creation ^2, and could
have arisen in no country where the law of Rome had not been the fountain of
legal ideas and the groundwork of positive codes. In Germany, too, was it
first carried out in practice, and that with a success which is the best, some
might say the only, title of the later Empire to the grateful remembrance of
mankind. Under its protecting shade small princedoms and free cities lived
unmolested beside states like Saxony and Bavaria; each member of the Germanic
body feeling that the rights of the weakest of his brethren were also his own.

[Footnote 1: Modified of course by the canon law, and not superseding the
feudal law of land.]

[Footnote 2: Holland was then practically German.]

The most important chapter in the history of the Empire is that which
describes its relation to the Church and the Papacy. Of the ecclesiastical
power it was alternately the champion and the enemy. In the ninth and tenth
centuries the Emperors extended the dominion of Peter's chair: in the tenth
and eleventh they rescued it from an abyss of guilt and shame to be the
instrument of their own downfall. The struggle which Gregory the Seventh
began, although it was political rather than religious, awoke in the Teutonic
nations a hostility to the pretensions of the Romish court. That struggle
ended, with the death of the last Hohenstaufen, in the victory of the
priesthood, - a victory whose abuse by the insolent and greedy pontiffs of the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries made it more ruinous than a defeat. The
anger which had long smouldered in the breasts of the northern nations of
Europe burst out in the sixteenth with a violence which alarmed those whom it
had hitherto defended, and made the Emperors once more the allies of the
Popedom, and the partners of its declining fortunes. But the nature of that
alliance and of the hostility which had preceded it must not be misunderstood.
It is a natural, but not the less a serious error to suppose, as modern
writers often seem to do, that the pretensions of the Empire and the Popedom
were mutually exclusive; that each claimed all the rights, spiritual and
secular, of a universal monarch. So far was this from being the case, that we
find mediaeval writers and statesmen, even Emperors and Popes themselves,
expressly recognizing a divinely appointed duality of government - two
potentates, each supreme in the sphere of his own activity, Peter in things
eternal, Caesar in things temporal. The relative position of the two does
indeed in course of time undergo a signal alteration. In the days of Charles,
the barbarous age of modern Europe, when men were and could not but be
governed chiefly by physical force, the Emperor was practically, if not
theoretically, the grander figure. Four centuries later, in the era of Pope
Innocent the Third, when the power of ideas had grown stronger in the world,
and was able to resist or to bend to its service the arms and the wealth of
men, we see the balance inclined the other way. Spiritual authority is
conceived of as being of a nature so high and holy that it must inspire and
guide the civil administration. But it is not proposed to supplant that
administration nor to degrade its head: the great struggle of the eleventh and
two following centuries does not aim at the annihilation of one or other
power, but turns solely upon the character of their connexion. Hildebrand,
the typical representative of the Popedom, requires the obedience of the
Emperor on the ground of his own personal responsibility for the souls of
their common subjects: he demands, not that the functions of temporal
government shall be directly committed to himself, but that they shall be
exercised in conformity with the will of God, whereof he is the exponent. The
imperialist party had no means of meeting this argument, for they could not
deny the spiritual supremacy of the Pope, nor the transcendant importance of
eternal salvation. They could therefore only protest that the Emperor, being
also divinely appointed, was directly answerable to God, and remind the Pope
that his kingdom was not of this world. There was in truth no way out of the
difficulty, for it was caused by the attempt to sever things that admit of no
severance, life in the soul and life in the world, life for the future and
life in the present. What it is most pertinent to remark is that neither
combatant pushed his theory to extremities, since he felt that his adversary's
title rested on the same foundations as his own. The strife was keenest at
the time when the whole world believed fervently in both powers; the alliance
came when faith had forsaken the one and grown cold towards the other; from
the Reformation onwards Empire and Popedom fought no longer for supremacy, but
for existence. One is fallen already, the other shakes with every blast.

Nor was that which may be called the inner life of the Empire less
momentous in its influence upon the minds of men than were its outward
dealings with the Roman Church upon her greatness and decline. In the Middle
Ages, men conceived of the communion of the saints as the formal unity of an
organized body of worshippers, and found the concrete realization of that
conception in their universal religious state, which was in one aspect the
Church, in another, the Empire. Into the meaning and worth of the conception,
into the nature of the connexion which subsists or ought to subsist between
the Church and the State, this is not the place to inquire. That the form
which it took in the Middle Ages was always imperfect and became eventually
rigid and unprogressive was sufficiently proved by the event. But by it the
European peoples were saved from the isolation, and narrowness, and jealous
exclusiveness which had checked the growth of the earlier civilizations of the
world, and which we see now lying like a weight upon the kingdoms of the East:
by it they were brought into that mutual knowledge and co-operation which is
the condition if it be not the source of all true culture and progress. For
as by the Roman Empire of old the nations were first forced to own a common
sway, so by the Empire of the Middle Ages was preserved the feeling of a
brotherhood of mankind, a commonwealth of the whole world, whose sublime unity
transcended every minor distinction.

As despotic monarchs claiming the world for their realm, the Teutonic
Emperors strove from the first against three principles, over all of which
their forerunners of the elder Rome had triumphed, - those of Nationality,
Aristocracy, and Popular Freedom. Their early struggles were against the
first of these, and ended with its victory in the emancipation, one after
another, of England, France, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Burgundy, and Italy.
The second, in the form of feudalism, menaced even when seeming to embrace and
obey them, and succeeded, after the Great Interregnum, in destroying their
effective strength in Germany. Aggression and inheritance turned the numerous
independent principalities thus formed out of the greater fiefs, into a few
military monarchies, resting neither on a rude loyalty, like feudal kingdoms,
nor on religious duty and tradition, like the Empire, but on physical force,
more or less disguised by legal forms. That the hostility to the Empire of
the third was accidental rather than necessary is seen by this, that the very
same monarchs who strove to crush the Lombard and Tuscan cities favoured the
growth of the free towns of Germany. Asserting the rights of the individual
in the sphere of religion, the Reformation weakened the Empire by denying the
necessity of external unity in matters spiritual: the extension of the same
principle to the secular world, whose fulness is still withheld from the
Germans, would have struck at the doctrine of imperial absolutism had it not
found a nearer and deadlier foe in the actual tyranny of the princes. It is
more than a coincidence, that as the proclamation of the liberty of thought
had shaken it, so that of the liberty of action made by the revolutionary
movement, whose beginning the world saw and understood not in 1789, whose end
we see not yet, should have indirectly become the cause which overthrew the
Holy Empire.

Its fall in the midst of the great convulsion that changed the face of
Europe marks an era in history, an era whose character the events of every
year are further unfolding: an era of the destruction of old forms and systems
and the building up of new. The last instance is the most memorable. Under
our eyes, the work which Theodoric and Lewis the Second, Guido and Ardoin and
the second Frederick essayed in vain, has been achieved by the steadfast will
of the Italian people. The fairest province of the Empire, for which
Franconian and Swabian battled so long, is now a single monarchy under the
Burgundian count, whom Sigismund created imperial vicar in Italy, and who, now
that he holds the ancient capital, might call himself 'king of the Romans'
more truly than Greek or Frank or Austrian has done since Constantine forsook
the Tiber for the Bosphorus. No longer the prey of the stranger, Italy may
forget the past, and sympathize, as she has now indeed, since the fortunate
alliance of 1866, begun to sympathize, with the efforts after national unity
of her ancient enemy - efforts confronted by so many obstacles that a few
years ago they seemed all but hopeless, but now crowned with a success which,
if it be not yet complete, has in it all the promise of completeness in the
future. For if the name of German Empire does not denote a united monarchy,
it does nevertheless denote not only a nation but also a state, - a state
whose strength lies in the community of interests and feelings among its
members, and in which this unity of sentiment, based upon the glorious
memories of the Middle Ages, built up by the literature of more recent times,
cemented by the last great struggle against France, promises to grow in each
succeeding generation more hearty and more trustful. On the new shapes that
may emerge in this general reconstruction it would be idle to speculate. Yet
one prediction may be ventured. No universal monarchy is likely to arise.
More frequent intercourse, and the progress of thought, have done much to
change the character of national distinctions, substituting for ignorant
prejudice and hatred a genial sympathy and the sense of a common interest.
They have not lessened their force. No one who reads the history of the last
three hundred years, no one, above all, who studies attentively the career of
Napoleon, can believe it possible for any state, however great her energy and
material resources, to repeat in modern Europe the part of ancient Rome: to
gather into one vast political body races whose national individuality has
grown more and more marked in each successive age. Nevertheless, it is in
great measure due to Rome and to the Roman Empire of the Middle Ages that the
bonds of national union are on the whole both stronger and nobler than they
were ever before. The latest historian of Rome, after summing up the results
to the world of his hero's career, closes his treatise with these words:
'There was in the world as Caesar found it the rich and noble heritage of past
centuries, and an endless abundance of splendour and glory, but little soul,
still less taste, and, least of all, joy in and through life. Truly it was an
old world, and even Caesar's genial patriotism could not make it young again.
The blush of dawn returns not until the night has fully descended. Yet with
him there came to the much-tormented races of the Mediterranean a tranquil
evening after a sultry day; and when, after long historical night, the new day
broke once more upon the peoples, and fresh nations in free self-guided
movement began their course towards new and higher aims, many were found among
them in whom the seed of Caesar had sprung up, many who owed him, and who owe
him still, their national individuality ^1.' If this be the glory of Julius,
the first great founder of the Empire, so is it also the glory of Charles, the
second founder, and of more than one amongst his Teutonic successors. The
work of the mediaeval Empire was self-destructive; and it fostered, while
seeming to oppose, the nationalities that were destined to replace it. It
tamed the barbarous races of the North, and forced them within the pale of
civilization. It preserved the arts and literature of antiquity. In times of
violence and oppression, it set before its subjects the duty of rational
obedience to an authority whose watchwords were peace and religion. It kept
alive, when national hatreds were most bitter, the notion of a great European
Commonwealth. And by doing all this, it was in effect abolishing the need for
a centralizing and despotic power like itself: it was making men capable of
using national independence aright: it was teaching them to rise to that
conception of spontaneous activity, and a freedom which is above law but not
against it, to which national independence itself, if it is to be a blessing
at all, must be only a means. Those who mark what has been the tendency of
events since A.D. I789, and who remember how many of the crimes and calamities
of the past are still but half redressed, need not be surprised to see the
so-called principle of nationalities advocated with honest devotion as the
final and perfect form of political development. But such undistinguishing
advocacy is after all only the old error in a new shape. If all other history
did not bid us beware the habit of taking the problems and the conditions of
our own age for those of all time, the warning which the Empire gives might
alone be warning enough. From the days of Augustus down to those of Charles
the Fifth the whole civilized world believed in its existence as a part of the
eternal fitness of things, and Christian theologians were not behind heathen
poets in declaring that when it perished the world would perish with it. Yet
the Empire is gone, and the world remains, and hardly notes the change.

[Footnote 1: Mommsen, Romische Geschichte, iii. sub fin.]

This is but a small part of what might be said upon an almost
inexhaustible theme: inexhaustible not from its extent but from its
profundity: not because there is so much to say, but because, pursue we it
never so far, more will remain unexpressed, since incapable of expression. For
that which it is at once most necessary and least easy to do, is to look at
the Empire as a whole: a single institution, in which centres the history of
eighteen centuries - whose outer form is the same, while its essence and
spirit are constantly changing. It is when we come to consider it in this
light that the difficulties of so vast a subject are felt in all their force.
Try to explain in words the theory and inner meaning of the Holy Empire, as it
appeared to the saints and poets of the Middle Ages, and that which we cannot
but conceive as noble and fertile in its life, sinks into a heap of barren and
scarcely intelligible formulas. Who has been able to describe the Papacy in
the power it once wielded over the hearts and imaginations of men? Those
persons, if such there still be, who see in it nothing but a gigantic up
as-tree of fraud and superstition, planted and reared by the enemy of mankind,
are hardly further from entering into the mystery of its being than the
complacent political philosopher, who explains in neat phrases the process of
its growth, analyses it as a clever piece of mechanism, enumerates and
measures the interests it appealed to, and gives, in conclusion, a sort of
tabular view of its results for good and for evil. So, too, is the Holy
Empire above all description or explanation; not that it is impossible to
discover the beliefs which created and sustained it, but that the power of
those beliefs cannot be adequately apprehended by men whose minds have been
differently trained, and whose imaginations are fired by different ideals.
Something, yet still how little, we should know of it if we knew what were the
thoughts of Julius Caesar when he laid the foundations on which Augustus
built: of Charles, when he reared anew the stately pile: of Barbarossa and his
grandson, when they strove to avert the surely coming ruin. Something more
succeeding generations will know, who will judge the Middle Ages more fairly
than we, still living in the midst of a reaction against all that is
mediaeval, can hope to do, and to whom it will be given to see and understand
new forms of political life, whose nature we cannot so much as conjecture.
Seeing more than we do, they will also see some things less distinctly. The
Empire which to us still looms largely on the horizon of the past, will to
them sink lower and lower as they journey onwards into the future. But its
importance in universal history it can never lose. For into it all the life
of the ancient world was gathered: out of it all the life of the modern world
arose.