Voltaire and the Holy Roman Empire

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In his 1756 work An Essay on Universal History, the Manners, and Spirit of Nations, Voltaire famously quipped that the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) was “not in any way Holy, Roman, nor an Empire”. Variously branded a falsehood or upheld as a deft insight, Voltaire’s remark sheds a revealing light on the philosophies of the French Enlightenment. Although influenced by a philosophical distaste for and limited understanding of the empire, his challenge amounts to more than unsubstantiated wit.

The Holy Roman Empire first came into being on 25 December 800, when Pope Leo III pronounced Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans. Passing between the Carolingian, Widonid and Bosonid dynasties, the title lapsed with the death of Berenger I in 924. It was revived in 962 by Otto the Great, and from the early 15th century onwards the Hapsburg dynasty ruled the empire. Over 1000 years the HRE’s territories changed dramatically, first sprawling across France, Italy and Rome, before retreating ever further into Germany until its final dissolution in 1806. Voltaire wrote in the twilight year of the empire, as its power was fading fast, but his view was also a historical one, pertaining to the many different periods of the empire.

Voltaire’s first charge against the empire – and perhaps the most subjective – is that it is not “Holy”. To Voltaire, a staunch secularist, the idea of an empire itself being “Holy” was at best uncomfortable; indeed, the main argument of the Manners, and Spirit of Nations was that superstition, including religion, must be emphatically rejected by an enlightened state. Yet the Empire’s appeal to holiness had been ironclad from its inception; both Charlemagne and Otto I reigned with the explicit approval of their contemporary Popes, with Charlemagne’s title declaring him “Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God”. But despite this unambiguous Papal connection, the title ‘Sacrum Imperium’ only began to be used in 1157, and the title “Sacrum Romanum Imperium” was only used from 1254. 

Furthermore, Papal approval of the HRE and its emperors was not uninterrupted. The Investiture Controversy of the late 11th and early 12th centuries saw conflict between the Pope and Emperor over the authority each would hold in the empire. Ostensibly about whether the Emperor and his feudal lords had the right to install bishops in their domains, the conflict was rooted in the church’s attempts to achieve supremacy over the empire. In 1075 Pope Gregory VII issued 27 pronouncements his Dictatus Papae, declaring that the Pope alone could use the imperial insignia (symbols of temporal power), that the Pope had the authority to depose the Emperor, and that the Emperors had no ground to criticise the Pope. These challenges to his authority infuriated Emperor Henry IV; and while the Investiture Controversy was eventually settled at the 1122 Concordat of Worms, the Dictatus Papae were later championed by Popes Alexander III, Innocent III, Innocent IV and Boniface VIII.

The founding tradition of the Pope performing the emperor’s coronation came to an end in 1530 with the crowning of Charles V, as the ceremony gave the Church the ultimate power to grant the title of Emperor. Far from Charlemagne’s original boast of being “crowned by God”, later Emperors called themselves ‘Imperator Electus Romanorum’, emphasising that their authority came from being elected by the German princes. Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger writes in her book The Holy Roman Empire – A Short History that “during the early modern period, the connection between the emperor’s title and a coronation by the pope was broken once and for all. King Maximilian I started calling himself ‘elected emperor’ in 1508 without having been crowned by the Pope.” From this point forth, the Papal element of the Emperor’s sovereignty became a near-irrelevant afterthought, as Emperors consistently claimed their title on the basis of election alone. The diminishing role played by the Pope in the empire not only casts doubt on its holiness, but also gives us a picture of a Church that only supported the Empire when it was politically convenient or profitable to do so.

Finally, whether or not the Pope even had the authority to confer the title of “Holy” remains controversial. Christianity itself had split into the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in the Great Schism of 1054, while Martin Luther’s 95 Theses founded the Protestant Reformation in 1517. By the late 17th century the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment saw the emergence of new deist and even atheist philosophies. As a secularist, Voltaire therefore saw little reason for an entire Empire to be deemed “Holy” based purely on the words of the Pope.

Voltaire’s second assertion is that the HRE was not Roman. Indeed, Charlemagne was Frankish and his successor dynasties Germanic in origin. Upon its creation, the Empire didn’t even rule Rome, and while Otto III briefly brought the city under the HRE’s control, it was soon lost. However, the Emperors claimed that their Roman identity was not based on geographical or territorial factors. Instead, it was built on the idea of translatio imperii – a mystical concept that the rulership of the original Roman Empire, having fallen in the 5th Century, was an inheritance that had been transferred to the Holy Roman Empire. Stollberg-Rilinger notes that “almost all German kings also possessed the title of ‘Roman emperor’,” arguing that translatio imperii was “obviously a fiction”. 

To an extent, the title of “Roman” was inseparable from that of “Holy”. Charlemagne’s Papal coronation was arguably an act of transforming himself from a king of one Germanic tribe (the Franks) into a ruler with universal aspirations and a sacred aura. But also, it was a long-held Catholic doctrine that the Roman Empire was the last of four ‘worldly empires’, at the fall of which the Antichrist would appear. With no Antichrist yet forthcoming, the Catechism had to consider that Rome had not yet fallen, and thus that the Holy Roman Empire had truly continued on from it through translatio imperii.

As time went on the Emperors increasingly ignored any semblance of a Roman identity, instead focussing on their real power base, Germany. Indeed, in its later years, the HRE became referred to more aptly as ‘The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation’. Joachim Whaley notes in his book Central European History and the Holy Roman Empire that it had “largely shed its concern with Italy and the papacy”. As such without any firm basis to tie the HRE to ancient Rome beyond the nonsensical idea of translatio imperii, we can conclude that Voltaire was right.

Voltaire at last argues that the HRE was not even an empire. Stollberg-Rilinger writes that “while it existed, the Empire was most commonly imagined as a loose political body. It contained very different members, or ‘limbs’, that formed individual ties to a common overlord, or ‘head’ (the emperor), through oaths of personal fealty.” In the 16th century, attempts were made to bring the empire under greater central control, as Emperor Maximilian I reorganised his domain into six 6 ‘Imperial Circles’ – administrative units designed to facilitate the stricter enforcement of imperial rule. The power of Hapsburg rule over the empire perhaps peaked in the mid-16th century under the rule of Charles V. However, central control diminished in the centuries that followed, lending credence to Voltaire’s assertion.

Different definitions of empire, however, make things less clear cut. Michael Doyle’s book Empires highlights a distinction between the total control of another state’s internal and external policies – a true empire – and control or influence over another state’s foreign policy, which constitutes non-imperial hegemony. For most of its history, the HRE could probably qualify as the latter. However, by the time of Voltaire the German duchies and princedoms which formed the empire paid only lip service to the emperor, continuing to participate in the ceremonial elections of new emperors despite openly pursuing independent foreign policies. This is most clearly illustrated by the aggressive expansionism of Prussia or the accession of the Electors of Hanover to the British throne, both done in careless disregard of the opinions of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Overall, though intended only as an off-the-cuff witticism, Voltaire’s famous quip is a revealing assessment of the HRE. It must not, however, be considered devoid of faults or watertight in its inception. The HRE was a centuries-old institution that manifested itself in countless different forms, and Voltaire’s quote should serve only as an introduction to its historical study, as opposed to its final judgment.

Whaley, Joachim. “Central European History and the Holy Roman Empire.” Central European History 51, no. 1 (2018): 40–45. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26567797.

James Bryce, The Holy Roman Empire, 6th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1922), 

Edwin Hermann Zeydel, The Holy Roman Empire in German Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1918

Brodek, Theodor V. “Socio-Political Realities in the Holy Roman Empire.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 1, no. 3 (1971)

Stollberg-Rillinger, Barbara (trans. Mintzker, Yair)- “The Holy Roman Empire: A Short History”, 2018, Princeton University Press

Doyle, Michael W.- “Empires (Cornell Studies in Comparative History)”, Cornell University Press, 1986

Pihlajamäki, Heikki; Dubber, Markus D.; Godfrey, Mark- “The Oxford Handbook of European Legal History”, Oxford University Press, 2018