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Books in Brief

Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire, by Peter H. Wilson (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard, 942 pp., $39.95).  Professor Wilson of Oxford University argues that the history of the Sanctum Imperium Romanum, despite its centrality to the history of Europe and its immense longevity (it lasted for more than a millennium, twice as long as the Roman Empire), has commonly been written piecemeal, as the history of its component parts that, in modern times, became Germany and ten other states.  This is a mistake, Wilson says, as the Holy Roman Empire’s history is a significant part of the Continent’s collective development.  Because the empire was neither a nation-state nor a federation of states in the modern sense, it has been viewed by writers like Pufendorf, Voltaire, and James Madison as a “monstrosity,” an institutional failure, and, as Voltaire memorably put it, a laughable misnomer (“neither holy, Roman, nor an empire”).  Their criticism goes for modern Germany herself, seen by modern historians as “a delayed nation.”  But, as Wilson shows, the empire was not a failure but a unique historical creation; an empire lacking a stable heartland, a capital city, and centralized political institutions.  The imperial foundation, or original justification, was its conceptual function as Western Christianity’s “secular...

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