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The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe's History

3.75  ·  Rating details ·  693 ratings  ·  102 reviews
'Hugely impressive... Wilson is an assured guide through the millennium-long labyrinth of papal-imperial relations' Literary Review

A great, sprawling, ancient and unique entity, the Holy Roman Empire, from its founding by Charlemagne to its destruction by Napoleon a millennium later, formed the heart of Europe. It was a great engine for inventions and ideas, it was the ori
Paperback, 1008 pages
Published March 28th 2017 by Penguin (first published February 23rd 2016)
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Start your review of The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe's History
The historian facing an unmanageably large topic has a few strategies open to her. She can knuckle down and simply plough through in chronological order – in the manner of, let's say, Diarmaid MacCulloch's History of Christianity (which is great). Another solution is to do what Simon Winder did in Danubia: throw up your hands and say, ‘Fuck it, this is impossible, so here's a few choice historical anecdotes and some postcards from my city-break to Vienna.’ This can work surprisingly well, too, i ...more
Justin Evans
A beautifully designed book that is almost entirely unreadable: less a monograph than an encyclopedia. There is, no doubt, very good reason to write the history of the HRE in this order (Sections: Ideal, Belonging, Governance, Society). Wilson gets to avoid the perils of Great Man History (i.e., it's totally fatuous), and the perils of Materialist History (i.e., it's totally fatuous). He gets to privilege the very hip no-really-ideas-matter-a-lot perspective of contemporary history.

The form doe
Sep 11, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, history
If you like your history bone dry, this is the book for you! Clearly superior to a series of Wikipedia entries, so who can complain? The notes for the most part refer to secondary sources, but hey, there are an awful lot of them. Wilson has wisely included lists of the emperors and kings in the back of the book, without which most readers would be lost. Some will surely be lost anyway. There were times when I had that feeling – e.g. whenever he lumped several centuries together. Besides this ten ...more
Heart of Europe is one of those books which can rightfully be called a tome: a sprawling history of the Holy Roman Empire from its beginnings with Charlemagne to its dismantling by Napoleon to the ways in which the Empire has been used and abused by modern historians and politicians. I'm giving it a four stars out of five largely out of sheer respect for the mastery of such a wide range of sources and scholarship that are needed to write such a work. Peter Wilson is clearly steeped in knowledge ...more
Anna Spark
Jan 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Majesterial. I'd assume this will be the standard English-language history for some time. From a UK perspective, very depressing in its examination of other, less nationalostic ways of building legal and governmental systems.

A shame it was published just before the wretched brexit vote, and thus does not cover this in iys closing chapter on the Empire's legacy in the EU..
Lyn Elliott
I do hate giving up on a book, but I’m giving up on this one, because it needs solid sustained attention which I’m not willing to give it - I’m reading for general interest and satisfaction in learning about wider European history, not taking a course.
His decision to tackle the complexities of the Empire in themes means that the chronology bounds all over the place, and periods don’t come together as a whole.
Not a book for the intermittent reader.
heavy, requiring constant back-and-forth between chapters, but a highly recommended book that should adorn any collection of history books for the interested non-specialist as a fundamental reference to both the Empire, medieval and pre-modern Germany and Europe more generally

I would recommend first giving an overview of the book, than starting to read whichever topics one is interested in most and then just follow the arguments through the book, rather than trying a sequential read which will m
Aug 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
Peter Wilson has written a long and fairly thorough history of the Holy Roman Empire, which started with the coronation of Charlemagne and ended in 1806 (or thereabouts depending on who you read).

What can you say about a 1000 year old empire that died? Quite a lot it seems. After all, the history of the empire overlaps with much of European history up through the 19th century. The problem with this, of course, is that there is an unbelievable amount of complexity at work here and it is pointless
Nov 04, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Hard to get through because it was too dense. It's probably not a bad history on the subject, but not a very rewarding read and in the end I don't really believe I've got to know the empire and its rulers better. If at all I've read an account about general European history, a rather dry and technical account. This is a book only for those really interested on the topic and with prior knowledge, or for the student who needs the information for his/her thesis. ...more
In brief: An incredibly comprehensive macro history of the Holy Roman Empire, from its founding to dissolution, with the general thesis of “No, no, this actually existed, it was important, and it was not actually backwards. Historians who say otherwise are being ahistorical.”

Thoughts: How do you review what is pretty clearly the work of decades? When you’re not entirely sure you understood everything, because there was just so much to understand?

About how you write such a book, I think: by compa
Feb 08, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I could only get through the first quarter or so of this massive book. As others have said, this is not a chronology of events, but rather the ideas are organized by theme. But to cover such a huge amount of time by theme means that characters jump in and out of the narrative and huge time spans are covered in adjoining paragraphs. This allows for zero flow to the book, and I couldn't establish any understanding or connection with any particular time or people. As history I'm sure this is accura ...more
Dry as a dinosaur’s bone, chaotic, boring... Much as I love the subject, this is clearly not the book I expected. I had to leave it before I went mad, or, worse still, started to hate History ;)
Alenka of Bohemia
Jan 18, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This beautifully executed and designed book is a real undertaking. I decided to go with an audiobook (funnily enough narrated by a guy called Napoleon) and I am glad of it because otherwise, I would be reading this until the next year. That said this is an excellently researched and presented study of the Holy Roman Empire, its justice system, its nationalities, its ambivalent relationship with the Catholic church and many other aspects. I imagine it would work best as a reference book. But just ...more
Scriptor Ignotus
Jan 09, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: general-history
If people today consider the Holy Roman Empire at all, they do so merely to reflect on Voltaire's quip that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. For modern secular commentators, the Empire embodied all of the ugliest aspects of the medieval order, which, since the time of the French Revolution, we have so justly dispensed with: it was a hideous, formless, bloated, and bewildering array of overlapping political, legal, and ecclesiastical jurisdictions. It was weak, inefficient, corrupt, ...more
Leif Biberg Kristensen
This book was a chore to get through, but it was worth it. I was on the brink of laying it aside to read something else several times, but I was afraid that if I did, I wouldn't have managed to get back and finish it. As far as I know, this is the only modern, comprehensive work available in English about the Holy Roman Empire. The history of HRE is important for everyone with a wish to understand modern Europe and its roots. Peter H. Wilson does an admirable job of laying out the different aspe ...more
Alex Putnam
The author seems to have sat down before the word processor and written down his admittedly broad knowledge without much care for chronology or theme but with an overuse of passive voice and excessive wordiness. You may fill in his gaps with your own knowledge or Wikipedia but really what's the point? ...more
Apr 06, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, audio, 2010s
The Holy Roman Empire is a fairly ghostly figure in the working-Joe's understanding of Western Civ, since it doesn't seem quite "like" any other entity on the historical stage, and because it -- well, try this: When and how did the Holy Roman Empire come to an end? Do you know? I sure didn't.

So, what we have here is a good-as-comprehensive analytic history of the HRE, weighing in at about one page per year of the Empire's existence. Don't expect each year to get its own page, of course, because
Sep 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A comprehensive and authoritative retelling of the Empire that rejects the previous narrative that it was a failed German nation-state unable to keep up with the modern world. Rather, changes in Europe and in the 'heart of Europe' were what led to the specific features of modernity as we know it. Wilson's main contribution is in distilling several decades of German scholarship for an anglophone audience, and is essential reading if only for its detailed history on imperial government, politics, ...more
Feb 18, 2021 rated it it was ok
It feels unbelievably harsh to rate this book so low. But I've been reading it since Summer 2020 and thought of giving up multiple time, so it's got to be like this. The reason it is not 1 star is because I can see the sheer mountain of work that went into it and there are chapters like Chapter 13 that are genuinely at the pace that I wanted.

Overall, this is a very dry version of what Roger Crowley does (well) in his books.

Wilson took the decision to not arrange this chronologically, arguing the
May 24, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very thorough history of the HRE. You will understand its machinery and how it worked. I think Wilson’s structuring of the work along thematic lines helps with understanding the inner workings of the HRE (which has been criticized here). Though I agree with some that it can make it difficult to keep the chronology straight while reading it. It could benefit from a little more chronological focus in the individual sections, but all-in-all, you will understand the motivations of all the major pl ...more
Pieter Baert
Nov 19, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Extremely detailed and good for history buffs with an interest in the holy Roman Empire.

The book is written thematically, not chronologically. This makes it often difficult to read and I'd advise it only if you have at least a very good basic knowledge on Holy Roman Emperors. I would not advise reading this book if you do not know who Otto I, Henry the Fowler or Frederick III are.
This makes it a read only for a selective audience.
Tadas Talaikis
Nov 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Interesting, but totally unreadable, jumps from one point to another, from one time to another.
Jan 07, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Probably 2.5 stars. This is a graduate course in Central European History that investigates the Holy Roman Empire thematically and not chronologically. Accordingly, you have to have a pretty good sense of the timeline already to follow the constant bouncing from one time period to another to follow the threads of the author's argument.

I picked up this book after reading Italian history and listening to a podcast on the Italian unification. I wanted to know more about the political history behin
Oscar To
Jun 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A masterwork, charting a course through hundreds of years of history into a clear narrative converting a byzantine (pun intended) history into manageable segments that build upon one another.

A necessary read for anyone wanting an understanding of the often misunderstood Holy Roman Empire, this tome produces both a narrative of the events that shaped the Empire as well as looking at the fine points that defined it.

The book is split in sections based on specific areas such as religion or justice a
Robert Monk
Aug 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
I read this as a part of my mission to learn more about medieval Germany (often neglected in other books). There is a bunch of that in this massive book, though it continues the story up through 1806 and the dissolution of the Empire.

(Forgive the overstretched joke that's coming.) One might say that this book is Roman in its structure, because rather than sticking to a chronological path it jumps around by topic, much as Roman biography used to do. It's Imperial in its goals and... well, I gues
Joseph Halstom
This was a chore. The Empire was an extremely complicated organization and unfortunately Wilson has not made it any easier to understand. Rather than a history, he examines how the Empire was perceived and functioned and the structure he uses leaves the general reader, at least this general reader baffled much of the time.

I've read reviews that Wilson has no structure. That is not true; it is a structure that he lays out in clear terms in his introduction. Basically there are four sections each
Erika Harlitz-Kern
Say “the Holy Roman Empire” and you are likely to get one of four responses.

The person you are speaking to thinks you are talking about the Roman Catholic Church.

The person thinks you mean the Roman Empire.

You get the knee-jerk reply, “It wasn’t holy, Roman, nor an empire,” the person most likely unaware that they are quoting French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire.

You get a blank stare.

The Holy Roman Empire is arguably the best kept out-in-the-open secret of pre-modern European history. Locat
Danny Adams
May 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My initial inclination was to give this four stars rather than five, before I realized that it was a personal bias getting in the way: Heart of Europe isn't exactly arranged chronologically, or exactly arranged thematically, but rather a mix of both, which threw me a bit at first. But setting aside that bias jumped the rating to five stars, because it is an excellent book that gives a thorough history of a part of European history that has traditionally been ignored all too often.

To summarize W
Jason Charewicz
Dec 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an excellent text which provides a great analysis over a long period of time. It is not a big for a casual reader with a vague interest in the Empire. It is a test for the historian, even if the historian is a mere amateur or enthusiast like myself.

The history of the Empire is told not primarily as a chronicle, but as the necessary background to help understand the Empire, the Imperial personalities, and the mythology and ideology of the Empire as it developed, changed, and encountered o
Drake McCrary
I found it to be rather cumbersome and overly complex, which ironic given the subject matter. There were however some interesting and useful nuggets of information though I could have done without the long explanation of imperial tax code. Overall I think it could be rather helpful as a source reference but I wouldn't recommitted it if you are just trying to get an introduction to the Holy Roman Empire. ...more
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Early Modern Europe, Holy Roman Empire, Military Revolution 3 8 Apr 14, 2017 11:47PM  

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Peter H. Wilson was G. E. Grant Professor of History at the University of Hull. He is now the Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford.

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