In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Holy Roman Empire 1300–1650

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Interpreting Imperial Political Culture
  • Political Identity and the “German Nation”
  • Kings and Emperors
  • Territories, Towns, and Regional History within the Empire
  • Warfare
  • Gender History
  • Religious Change and Confessionalization

Renaissance and Reformation Holy Roman Empire 1300–1650
Duncan Hardy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0472


Between the High Middle Ages and 1806, much of Central Europe was encompassed by an entity called the Holy Roman Empire (Heiliges Römisches Reich in the German spoken by most of its inhabitants). The polity’s name derived from the claims of its rulers—elected as “kings of the Romans” and sometimes subsequently crowned “Roman emperors”—to be successors of Charlemagne and ultimately of antique Rome, and to be the defenders of the Catholic Church and Christendom. Debates continue about when exactly the “Holy Roman Empire” began. Both the 9th-century Carolingian and 10th-century Ottonian realms are contenders, although the Latin term sacrum Romanum imperium did not gain widespread currency until the 13th century. In the period c. 1300–1650, the focus of this bibliography, the Empire exhibited important differences from most other realms in Europe, notably in its elective system of monarchical succession, its residual claim to universal authority (to be co-exercised, in theory, with the papacy), and its exceptional fragmentation among increasingly autonomous principalities, bishoprics, lordships, and cities (often called “territories”). It also notionally housed emerging polities in their own right, such as the Swiss Confederation and the kingdom of Bohemia; their relationship with the premodern Reich remains a contentious historiographical issue. At the same time, it shared some basic characteristics with neighboring kingdoms, being a monarchy that governed in concert with an aristocratic community of estates at emerging representative institutions (the diets, or Reichstage, as they were known by around 1500), and a polity that came increasingly to be identified with a national community (the deutsche Nation). Recent decades have therefore seen lively debates about how the Empire ought to be defined and categorized, and how its “constitution” (Reichsverfassung)—or, in another idiom, its political culture—operated. While several ambitious long-term histories of the Holy Roman Empire have attempted to synthesize the unwieldy evidence, it is important to keep in mind the challenges of generalizing about such a large entity over many centuries. As well as exhibiting considerable diversity across space, the Empire changed substantially over time in several respects. A phase of dynastic competition in high politics before 1437 gave way to a near-monopoly of control over the imperial office by the Habsburgs thereafter. A “monistic” imperial government, theoretically coordinated top-down by monarchs, developed into a “dualistic” conception of power in which the imperial estates shared in governance via collective institutions. In some regions, a landscape of utterly fragmented and intertwined jurisdictions held by myriad competing actors was gradually replaced by more clearly defined and centralized territories arranged hierarchically under princely families. Finally, the division of the estates between Catholics and various Protestant confessions in the course of the 16th and early 17th centuries contributed both to calamitous conflict (the Thirty Years’ War) and to the reshaping of the imperial constitution to manage the new confessional configuration (the 1555 “Religious and Profane Peace” of Augsburg, the 1648 Treaty of Osnabrück). The long and rich tradition of regional history (Landesgeschichte) in the German-speaking lands has enabled these changes to be studied at the local as well as the central level, and recent scholarship has made clear that both perspectives are indispensable to understanding the Holy Roman Empire’s complex structures and dynamics.

General Overviews

Throughout the Holy Roman Empire’s existence, chroniclers narrated its long history, typically embedding it in the Carolingian and Roman past. A more secular and critical approach arose after the Reformation, giving rise to unfavorable comparisons with more powerful and centralized neighbors, most infamously in Samuel von Pufendorf’s 1667 characterization of the Empire as irregulare aliquod corpus et monstro simile. After the Empire’s dissolution, German nationalist historians throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries tended to portray the “Old Reich” of the late medieval and early modern period as an anachronistic obstacle to nation-state formation, harking back instead to the putative golden age of the medieval Hohenstaufen monarchs. After 1945 the study of the Empire as a polity fell out of favor, to be rejuvenated by a new generation of late medievalists and early modernists beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, including Moraw 1985 and Rabe 1989. This generation held a much less negative and nationalistically freighted view of the premodern past. Their approach expanded the parameters of constitutional history to include social structures and prosopographical studies. Recent German-language overviews that fall within this period, such as Boockmann and Dormeier 2005, by and large maintain the scholarly orthodoxies established by that generation, including Moraw 1985, which presented the concept of a late medieval “open constitution” giving way to “configured consolidation,” while incorporating some of the insights of more recent cultural and economic studies. Additionally, recent decades have witnessed an intensification of the debate over whether the Empire of the 16th through 18th centuries can be categorized as a state, with Schmid 1999 and Stollberg-Rilinger 2018 offering prominent arguments for each side of that debate. The 21st century has also seen a rapid expansion in Anglophone scholarship on the Empire, which had previously been extremely scarce. This has included Wilson 2016, a major synthesis for general audiences, and Whaley 2012, a detailed reappraisal of the Empire’s early modern history.

  • Boockmann, Hartmut, and Heinrich Dormeier. Konzilien, Kirchen- und Reichsreform, 1410–1495. Gebhardt – Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte 8. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2005.

    This entry in the “new Gebhardt” series (see Hesse 2017) covers the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th century: the reigns of Sigismund, Albert II, Frederick III, and the early years of Maximilian I. The book focuses especially on the projects for reform of both the Church and the Empire mooted at the general councils of the first half of the 15th century.

  • Hesse, Christian. Synthese und Aufbruch, 1346–1410. Gebhardt – Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte 7b. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2017.

    This book is part of the “new Gebhardt” multivolume history of Germany, a series which seeks to provide a widely readable but authoritative overview of each period it encompasses, anchored in a political narrative but also covering social, economic, and cultural themes, and incorporating the latest historiography. Hesse’s entry is a succinct yet nuanced guide to the reigns of Charles IV, Wenceslas, and Rupert of the Palatinate.

  • Moraw, Peter. Von offener Verfassung zu gestalteter Verdichtung: Das Reich im späten Mittelalter, 1250 bis 1490. Propyläen Geschichte Deutschlands 3. Berlin: Propyläen, 1985.

    The third volume in the authoritative “Propyläen History of Germany,” this book remains the standard overview of the late medieval Holy Roman Empire. As well as summarizing the state of knowledge about the German social and economic history of this era in the 1980s, it proposed an influential conceptual framework for political change, whereby the Empire developed from a medieval “open constitution” to an early modern “configured consolidation” in a dualistic crown-and-estates configuration.

  • Prietzel, Malte. Das Heilige Römische Reich im Spätmittelalter. 2d ed. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2010.

    This is a textbook aimed at the undergraduate level which helpfully summarizes key political events and developments between the 13th and early 16th centuries, all the while incorporating the main historiographical insights and debates up to the time of its publication.

  • Rabe, Horst. Reich und Glaubensspaltung: Deutschland 1500–1600. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1989.

    This is an accessible overview of political, social, religious, and economic history in the 16th-century Holy Roman Empire. It reflects the emerging consensus in the 1980s about the crystallization of an “imperial constitution” around 1500 and its shaping by confessionalization in the course of the 16th century.

  • Reinhard, Wolfgang. Probleme deutscher Geschichte, 1495–1806: Reichsreform und Reformation, 1495–1555. Gebhardt – Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte 9. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2001.

    This volume of the “new Gebhardt” series (see Hesse 2017) offers a brisk account of the institutional reforms experienced by the Holy Roman Empire under Maximilian I and Charles V, along with the events of the early Reformation. Other thematic chapters range across social, economic, and regional political history in the same time period.

  • Schmid, Georg. Geschichte des Alten Reiches: Staat und Nation in der Frühen Neuzeit 1495–1806. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1999.

    This is a deft summary of the Holy Roman Empire’s early modern history. Schmid argues controversially that the Empire was imbued with “complementary statehood,” bound up with the emerging notion of the German nation and the territories and estates, beginning with the “reforms” of 1495–1512 and iterating through constitutional landmarks in 1555, 1648, and beyond. This places his interpretation at one end of the debate over whether the Empire can be considered a “state.”

  • Stollberg-Rilinger, Barbara. The Holy Roman Empire: A Short History. Translated by Yair Mintzker. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvc778tr

    Originally published in German under the more accurate title Das Heilige Römische Reich Deutscher Nation: Vom Ende des Mittelalters bis 1806 (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2006), this is a popular summary of the prolific Stollberg-Rilinger’s insights into the early modern Holy Roman Empire’s operation. Opposing Schmid’s (Schmid 1999) language of statehood, Stollberg-Rilinger emphasizes the Empire’s uniqueness as an association of personally interrelated and hierarchical princes and estates, whose ritualized interactions were in and of themselves constitutive of the Reich as a body politic.

  • Whaley, Joachim. Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. Vol. 1, Maximilian I to the Peace of Westphalia, 1493–1648. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    This is the first of two volumes in a monumental, thematically comprehensive history of the Holy Roman Empire between 1493 and 1806. It is not merely a summary of the German historiography of various early modern themes. Throughout the volume, Whaley harnesses the topics under discussion to a broader argument about the ongoing vitality of the Empire and the adaptability of its institutions to the myriad social, religious, diplomatic, and military challenges it faced in the 16th and 17th centuries.

  • Wilson, Peter. Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674915909

    This is a breathtakingly ambitious distillation of a millennium of European history into a readable 900-page thematic overview of the Holy Roman Empire. It is a valuable introduction to the major topics in the Empire’s history by an expert early modernist, although it inevitably does not take into account many geographical and chronological specificities, particularly in the medieval period.

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