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2. Governance
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1. Witnesses and Families   |   2. Governance   |   3. The Reformation   |   4. Confessions

A. Holy Roman Empire.

The early modern Empire inherited a dual legacy from the High Middle Ages: the Imperial monarchy and the German feudal order. Then, the fourteenth-century depression of populations and economies weakened the large structures of authority – Empire and Church – in favor of what may be called “dispersed sovereignty.” The era of recovery around 1500 promoted a revival of royal authority together with strong dynastic principalities, autonomous city-states, and a high degree of communal self-administration in the villages of many lands. The Imperial monarchy was elective, not hereditary. Upon an emperor’s death, the Imperial electors met to select a successor, and the one chosen was crowned German king (called “King of the Romans”) and emperor-elect. Until the mid-sixteenth century, he became emperor only by papal coronation.

The monarchy’s greatest weakness was the instability of the royal succession, as a remedy for which Emperor Charles IV (r. 1346-78) issued the Golden Bull in 1356. It fixed in law the number, duties, and rights of the seven royal electors, four temporal (Bohemia, Palatinate, Saxony, and Brandenburg) and three spiritual (Mainz, Cologne, and Trier). The electors’ lands held in fief were declared to be indivisible, and their electoral duties and procedures were defined by law. When, in the following century, the Imperial Diet [Reichstag] began to take parliamentary shape, the electors formed its senior chamber, while the princes (around fifty bishops and a dozen dynasties) formed the second, and the fifty or so Imperial cities the lowest chamber.

The Golden Bull did not immediately end disputes about royal successions or halt the dispersal of power. At the election of 1410, when King Sigismund got only two votes, a wag quipped, “In Frankfurt behind the choir stool, a king was elected by a child and a fool.’’ The monarchy’s central problem was its penury. Because the royal domain had disappeared, the king’s real power depended on his hereditary possession of a considerable dynastic principality. The promising reign of Emperor Fredrick III (r. 1440-93), which began with a royal progress through many Imperial lands, was followed by a long sequestration in the tumultuous Austrian lands. The revival of the Imperial monarchy began after the election and royal coronation of his son, Maximilian I (r. 1486/93-1519). On this occasion, the Empire displayed itself in symbol and ritual of a sort that had not been seen for generations. Maximilian was a deliberate renovator of the Imperial monarchy who understood that the exercise of power required a union of image, word, and deed. He had a powerful sense of his dynasty as his destiny, and saw himself as the true heir to Frederick II, Otto the Great, and Charlemagne.

This symbolic revival of the monarchy coincided with an actual reform of Imperial governance under Maximilian and his heir, Charles V (r. 1519-56), which fixed the monarchical office’s standing and limitations for the next three centuries and kept it firmly in the Habsburg dynasty’s hands. The chief acts of the Imperial Reform unfolded at the Imperial Diets between 1495 and 1521. They began with the great Imperial Diet of Worms in 1495. Each of the reforms enacted or at least discussed at Worms aimed to strengthen Imperial (if not necessarily the emperor’s) governance: a Public Peace, abolition of the feud, and an arrangement for policing the Empire (Imperial Circles); a new scheme of direct taxation, an Imperial supreme court, and an executive council staffed by both the king and the leading Imperial estates. The reforms were negotiated with the Diet, not dictated by the king, and behind them stood not Maximilian but the archbishop of Mainz and his party of estates. The formula for this new regime, “emperor and Empire” [Kaiser und Reich], denoted the dual nature of supreme authority in the Empire.

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