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The Foundation of the Holy Roman Empire

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Foundation of the Holy Roman Empire

Historians like to joke that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. Its story begins in the year 962, when Otto I of the Carolingian dynasty became emperor of West Francia and Lotharingia—in other words, all the land between France on one side and Poland on the other. Otto’s inheritance, with only minor border adjustments, would be handed down for the next nine hundred years as a hereditary monarchy.

At first, this culturally Franco-Germanic Christian state was referred to simply as the Roman Empire; Otto assumed the imperial title to enhance his own prestige and to impress upon the world that he was the ruler of all of Christian Europe (quite an exaggeration on his part, as there was extensive Christian territory outside his realm). The name Roman Empire also paid tribute to Charlemagne’s role as the titular successor to the empire of the Caesars. In the 1100s, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa added the word Holy to the name, to distinguish the Christian “Roman Empire” from its pre-Christian predecessor. Of course, the empire was not Roman in any respect; it was well north of the Italian peninsula and its ethnic and linguistic roots were Germanic, Slavic, and Viking.

The “empire” was actually a collection of seven independent kingdoms and counties: Mainz, Cologne, Trier, Rhine, Saxony, Brandenburg, and Bohemia. They were called electorates because the monarch of each one was an elector—that is, he cast a vote in the selection of each new Holy Roman Emperor. In fact, the throne was passed down within the family, as in all other hereditary monarchies, but when an emperor died, the electors met to hold a formal vote on who would be the successor.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at: 

Europe - From Byzantine Empire to AD 1000 Practice Test

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