Not-So Holy Roman Empire   1 comment

I’m not sure we can truly appreciate how the world worked in the Medieval era because we here in the United States are so used to the concept of self-governance and separation of church and state.

The Roman Empire had provided unity of most of western Europe. With the inclusion of Christianity as the exclusive religion of the Empire, it could dictate to the daily behaviors of European peasants. When the Empire went away, it became unsafe to travel the roads, cities became disease-ridden (because sewers want maintenance) and trade became very difficult beyond a few miles from any village. People craved the sense of unity that the Roman Empire had engendered and the concept of hierarchial political organization that called for one ultimate head over all existing states.

The Holy Roman Empire was an attempt to reacquire those ideals. It never completely worked. France and England, for example, never acknowledged any  real subordination to the emperor, although they recognized a vague supremacy in him. The German kings, once elected by the German princes, considered themselves entitled to become Roman emperor as soon as they could arrange the coronation, which was supposed to be done at the hands of the Pope. Whoever the ruler was, he considered the imperial title to establish his right to control Italy and Burgundy as well as Germany because of their potential source of power, wealth and prestige. The Empire’s vast size and diversity of population were serious obstacles to effective rule and good government.

Thus, the Roman Catholic Church was essential in solidifying secular control. Churchmen crowned the emperors, so actually sustained the Empire, considering it to be the Church’s secular arm, sharing responsibility for the welfare and spread of Roman Christianity and duty-bound to protect the Papacy. That’s how it worked in principle. However, the partnership seldom worked smoothly as one side of the other would try to dominate the other. There were frequent fluctuations in power and changes in the prevailing political and theological theories that various rulers and churchmen adopted.

From AD 962 to 1250, the Empire was dominated by strong emperors of the Saxon, Franconian, and Hohenstaufen dynasties, who were powerful enough to depose Popes they though to be unsatisfactory. They generally governed through existing officials such as counts and bishops rather than creating a direct administrative system. This made the Roman Catholic Church central to the needs of the state because the Church recorded births, coming of age (confirmation), marriages, and deaths. If a ruler needed a list of who was living in a particular area, say for an effective military levee, he had only to ask the Church for that information. As everyone who wanted to get into heaven was required to submit to Church dogmas like infant baptism and marriage rites, the peasants lined up for a virtual census, unaware that they were being tracked by the medieval equivalent of the NSA.

By cleverly entangling church with government, the Holy Roman Empire left people with little recourse. Romans 13 said Christians must obey. That the government sometimes asked you to do immoral things had been a good reason for early Christians to say “no”, but when the government was also the Church ….

Believers were between a rock and a hard place and every way they turned, there was no choice in the matter … unless they knew the Bible. Ah, yes, but so few did.

One response to “Not-So Holy Roman Empire

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  1. Reblogged this on aurorawatcherak.

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