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Lecture explores ancient empire’s reputation

| Monday, September 14, 2015

Professor emeritus of the University of California at Berkeley, and Notre Dame class of ’59 alumnus Thomas Brady said in a lecture Friday that the Holy Roman Empire – which at its height stretched from eastern France to the Baltic lands — has until recently been misconstrued and misrepresented by academics and non-academics alike.

Specifically discussing the period between 1450 and 1650, which scholars often term the long 16th century, Brady said the Empire’s loosely defined borders and obscure political construction both contribute to the “traditional Western European image of German backwardness versus progressive Franco-British civilization.”

“This view of German culture was famously enshrined in a very pretentious comment by the French philosopher François Arouet, known as Voltaire,” he said. “He sneered at what he called ‘this agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire [and which] was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.’”

However, Brady said the traditionally negative portrayal of the Holy Roman Empire is unfair and inaccurate, and that historians over the last 40 years have increasingly viewed the Empire in a more positive light.

He said his own interest in the Holy Roman Empire arose during his undergraduate years at Notre Dame, where he experienced an intense “pedagogical pressure in favor of Europeanism.”

In this environment where European studies figured prominently, Brady said he began to struggle with the issue of understanding the complex political dynamics of the Holy Roman Empire.

Unfortunately, he said, relatively few American scholars at that time displayed interest in the topic owing to the Empire’s intricacy and its clear contrast to the countries of France, England and Spain.

“The greatest difference between these lands, and the more consolidated kingdoms of France, England and Spain, was that the Empire so long preserved its configuration into many relatively small, secular polities ruled by princely dynasties, bishop and archbishops, abbots and abbesses, free knights and self-governing peasant communities,” Brady said.

Having spent a major portion of his academic career attempting to understand the Holy Roman Empire, Brady said the focus of his research has concerned the Empire’s communal institutions, as opposed to the legacy of its unstable member states.

He said he believes the comparative resilience of the Empire’s communal institutions depended on several distinct characteristics.

First, he said, spanning from the 13th to 18th centuries, the Empire’s imperial high courts and regional parliaments helped to some degree to unite its disparate principalities. Furthermore, he said state-building took place in a regional rather than national setting, which allowed Central European principalities to retain “far more control — local control — of their institutions and [bear] far less crushing burdens of taxation for military and imperial purposes.”

Finally, he said the Church operated as a stabilizing force in the cultural and political life of the Empire, and that there was a “remarkable interpenetration of secular and ecclesiastical institutions of authority.”

However, he said because different Church dioceses preserved different languages and dialects, the Empire as a whole was unable to maintain linguistic — and therefore political — unity. The result, he said, was that the Holy Roman Empire could never fully imitate the consolidation and cohesiveness of other Western European states.

Brady’s lecture introduced librarian Julie Tanaka’s new exhibit of texts from the Holy Roman Empire, which is currently on display in the Rare Books and Special Collections room of the Hesburgh Library.  After Brady concluded his speech, Tanaka offered some remarks concerning the inspiration behind her three-year-long project collecting manuscripts and images from the long 16th century.

“Behind this exhibit is my own fascination with this period that claims to be a century … and my fascination with an entity which is this German thing — Germany — almost having somewhat of an identity crisis,” she said. “Was it an empire? Was it a kingdom? Maybe it was just a loose grouping of lands.”

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