Peter Wilson’s HEART OF EUROPE, or The Holy Roman Empire, the Central-European Colossus, Explained

Say “the Holy Roman Empire” and you are likely to get one of four responses.

The person you are speaking to thinks you are talking about the Roman Catholic Church.

The person thinks you mean the Roman Empire.

You get the knee-jerk reply, “It wasn’t holy, Roman, nor an empire,” the person most likely unaware that they are quoting French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire.

You get a blank stare.

The Holy Roman Empire is arguably the best kept out-in-the-open secret of pre-modern European history. Located at the center of the European continent, it was a dominating force in European politics, religion, and warfare for nearly one thousand years.

It was in the Holy Roman Empire that the Roman Catholic Church faced its first major secular opposition through the Investiture Controversy. It was in the Holy Roman Empire that Martin Luther published his 95 Theses. It was in the Holy Roman Empire that Protestantism as a third branch of Christianity developed. It was because of decisions made in the Holy Roman Empire that Spain became an Empire in and of itself. The Holy Roman Empire is where the Thirty Years War, the most destructive military conflict on the European continent, second only to World War II, was fought. The Thirty Years War ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, negotiated and signed in the Holy Roman Empire, and which continues to influence international politics to this day. The Holy Roman Empire is the First Reich to Adolf Hitler’s Third.

And still so few have heard of it.

One reason for the obscurity of the Holy Roman Empire could be that it is notoriously difficult to define. Starting with when the Empire existed, there is consensus that it ended in 1806 when it was dissolved to prevent Napoleon Bonaparte from getting his hands on the Imperial title. But when did it begin? Some scholars say with Charlemagne (9th century), some with Otto I (10th century). When did the Empire get its name? No one really knows. What is the Empire’s name? Well, that depends.

Another reason for the Empire’s obscurity could be that the vocabulary we use today to explain geopolitical territories lacks the words to describe what the Empire was. In one way, Voltaire was right; the Holy Roman Empire was not holy, not Roman, and not an Empire. Granted, there was an Emperor who ruled over it, which by definition makes it an Empire. Furthermore, this Emperor claimed to be the successor of the Emperors of the actual Roman Empire. But when the Holy Roman Empire came into existence, Rome had been gone from the European continent for more than three hundred years.

Moreover, the territory the Holy Roman Emperor ruled consisted of a plethora of political and judicial entities–secular and clerical, alike–who all had a different relationship to the Emperor as a person and as a sovereign. To complicate matters further, the Emperor didn’t inherit his position; he was elected by an Electoral College. Whom these Electors elected depended as much on politics and alliances as it did on pedigree. The extent of the lands that the Emperor ruled depended on the person, meaning that depending on the martial prowess of the medieval Emperors or the family ties of the early-modern Emperors, the Holy Roman Empire stretched and contracted based on who was elected Emperor.

To avoid having to get into the intricacies of the Holy Roman Empire at any given time when discussing medieval and early-modern European history, “Germany” has become sort of a short-hand, which in one way is correct because the Empire did cover much of what is Germany today, and over time, it became formally known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. But it is also incorrect because the Holy Roman Empire included parts of what is today Austria, France, BeNeLux, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Italy.

Swedish historian Harald Gustafsson perhaps says it best when he describes the Holy Roman Empire as “a complicated entity that floated around the map of Central Europe for a thousand years.” (my transl.)

In an attempt to make sense of this complicated thing that floated around on a map and claimed to be something it was not, historian Peter H. Wilson wrote his book Heart of Europe (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020). Similar to the subject it tackles, the book is a colossus, clocking in on 1,008 pages (one page for each year the Empire existed?).

Instead of tracing the Empire’s history chronologically, Wilson comes at it thematically. Each chapter deals with one aspect of the Empire’s complicated existence. Still, the internal structure of each chapter is chronological so that once you get to the end of the book, you also get to the end of the Empire.

The thematic structure works well because it enables the reader to pick and choose what to read and delve deeper into. It also works well because where most histories of the Empire focus on its early-modern history, this approach gives ample room to discuss the Empire’s medieval history, without which the developments of the early-modern period would be difficult to understand (e.g., the explosiveness of the Reformation can only be fully understood if you are aware of the severity and the repercussions of the Investiture Controversy).

The problem with the thematic structure is that it becomes difficult to locate where specific turning points in the history of the Empire are explained. Same thing with terms of art, which in the case of the Empire’s government bureaucracy are numerous and often in German. The book contains a glossary and an index, but the glossary is quite short and the index quite long, which results in neither of them being particularly helpful. There is a chronology, but because the Empire existed for as long as it did, the chronology is 55 pages long and still only skims the surface.

The book contains several maps that chart the development of the Empire from its beginnings to its end, and present some of the many Leagues that formed as a result of shifting political, religious, and dynastic alliances over the centuries. The maps are detailed and meticulous, and provide a welcome visual aspect to the complicated internal structure of the Empire. Also included are the family trees of the most significant family groups and dynasties that dominated the position of Emperor in the Middle Ages and the Early-Modern Period.

Peter H. Wilson’s Heart of Europe is a much-needed deep dive into the complicated history of the Holy Roman Empire, the knowledge of which is crucial to the understanding of European history, from the Middle Ages until today.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

History Judges But Who Is Presiding Part 2: Joan Wallach Scott’s ON THE JUDGMENT OF HISTORY

In 2014, I wrote a post here on The Boomerang about a phrase I kept hearing and which puzzled me, “History will judge…” Pundits and politicians alike were throwing this phrase around as if there in the future existed a panel of historians expected to pass judgment on humanity based on our actions (or in-actions).

Since I wrote that blog post six years ago, this phrase has come into even heavier rotation as chaos and morally ambiguous behavior became the norm on behalf of members of our executive branch, and, to some extent, our legislative branch as well.

I am not alone in thinking about the use of this phrase. Historian and Professor Emerita Joan Wallach Scott became puzzled by it in 2019 when a friend of hers commented on the anti-climax of the Mueller Report by saying that history would judge those who worked to corrupt the democracy of the United States.

This exchange sent Wallach Scott on an investigative journey to find the origins and the meaning of the concept of history as an agent of judgment. The result of that journey is the book, On the Judgment of History (Columbia University Press, 2020).

To investigate the meaning of this concept, Wallach Scott presents three case studies–the Nuremberg Trials following World War II, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa following the dismantling of Apartheid, and the movement for Reparations in the United States. What binds these case studies together is that they “explore the different ways in which the idea of the state as the embodiment and enactment of history operated.” (p. xx). Moreover, they engage directly with the nation state as the telos of history; they highlight the connection between nation states and racism; and they demonstrate the use of the nation state as the impetus for what the people involved intend to achieve. In the case of the Nuremberg trials, the goal is the conviction of the war criminals who perpetrated the Holocaust. In the case of South Africa’s TRC, a path forward out of Apartheid. In the case of the Reparations Movement, a reckoning with the United States’ original sin, slavery.

The case studies are based on extensive and impeccable research, as would be expected of a historian of Wallach Scott’s caliber. It raises several important questions, explicitly (“Could the nation state exist without racism at its core?” (p. xxii)) and implicitly (What is the purpose of history?) In her case studies, Wallach Scott demonstrates how history has been utilized (Nuremberg), deferred (South Africa), and challenged (the US). In the end, however, the case studies only partially succeed in addressing the issue at hand, namely why we today refer to history as an impartial, moral judge.

Wallach Scott shows us where the idea of History as Judge comes from by stating that it “is associated with the Enlightenment belief that there is but one History, which moves in an ever-improving direction: forward, upward, cumulatively positive.” (p. xv) Because of its origins in the Enlightenment, this One History of forward-moving positivity is inherently European, male, white, colonial, Christian (Protestant, to be exact), intrinsically intertwined with the development of the nation state, and the view of the nation state as the culmination of human civilization (or the nation state as telos).

To answer the question of why this phrase has caught on the way it has, Wallach Scott states that in an increasingly secular age, History has become the “righteous Judge of the Universe.” (p. 76) That is to say, where people used to turn to God on Judgment Day for the separation of sheep and goats, we now turn to History in a future deferred.

These conclusions have led me to the following conclusions of my own.

First, as Wallach Scott concludes, the idea of History as a moral judge is an expression of increased secularism in the United States. But, it is also an expression of the normalization of Apocalyptic Christianity in the American mainstream. Writes Wallach Scott, “The unveiling of the role of race in the economic history of the United States explodes long-standing, congratulatory progressive histories as myth. [—] This acknowledgment is a form of restitution and it opens the possibility for reclaiming the lost promise of justice, the messianic hope of the judgment of history.” (My italics.) Wallach Scott’s decision not to delve deeper into this view of history is the book’s lost opportunity.

Second, there is a conspiracy at the heart of American history and the argument over what that conspiracy is, is the reason for the seemingly irreconcilable polarization in American society today. I agree with Wallach Scott’s conclusion that “appeals to the judgment of history […] function more as consolatory polemic in the present than as evidence of deep confidence in the future.” (p. 82) There is no doubt that American society is in crisis. Until we can start having a constructive conversation about the buried secrets of our past, we will continue to be a society in crisis. History will not save us, because, as Wallach Scott also states, History with a capital H is written by a group of highly trained and specialized professionals known as historians. It is not a force of its own.

Finally, the idea of History as a Moral Judge of Good and Evil is an American idea and based on American values, which in the mainstream are Christian (Protestant, to be exact) values. Of the three case studies that Wallach Scott presents, two use history to pass judgment and one does not. It is not a coincidence that the two in question (Nuremberg, Reparations) involve Americans in leading roles. The third (the TRC) was an internal South African affair. As a historian trained and educated entirely outside of the American educational system, I reacted to the use of the phrase “History will judge” already in 2014 because the idea that such a notion is even possible was (and is) completely alien to me.

On the Judgment of History by Joan Wallach Scott is a thought-provoking book that opens up for discussion on the role of history and what history is and can be. Ultimately, the book misses its mark because in its choice of case studies, it becomes a demonstration of the belief that the internal concerns of the United States are also the concerns of the world.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Book Review Round-Up

I’ve been reviewing some interesting books for Foreword Reviews lately, and I thought I’d share those reviews with you. Hopefully they will introduce you to books you might be interested in reading. Enjoy!


Mary McAuliffe, Paris, City of Dreams. Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Creation of Paris. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).
The re-creation of Paris from a medieval urban maze to the city of lights and boulevards comes to life in Mary McAuliffe’s historical exposé Paris, City of Dreams.




Sam Van Schaik, Buddhist Magic. Divination, Healing, and Enchantment through the Ages (Shambala Publications, 2020).
Sam Van Schaik’s historical investigation Buddhist Magic reveals the significance and historical roots of magic in modern Buddhism.





Lynn M. Hudson, West of Jim Crow. The Fight against California’s Color Line. (University of Illinois Press, 2020).
California’s history of racist legislation against Black Americans is brought to light in Lynn M. Hudson’s West of Jim Crow.



In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Range by David Epstein. A Book on How to Reinvent the Wheel.

photo of golden cogwheel on black background

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on

Whenever I am asked what I do for a living, I say that I am a historian, nothing more nothing less. Most other historians I know are more specific in their reply. They can mention the time period they are experts in–medievalist, early-modernist, ancient. Or, they state the geographical region–Americanist, Europeanist, Africanist. Sometimes they mention the specific field of research to which they dedicate their professional life–literary history, language history, art history, Church history, to name a few.

Taken together, my work as a teacher and a scholar covers a time period of 5,000 years, it spans a geographical area that reaches from Scandinavia to Canada, the Arctic, Central Asia and North Africa, and it crosses disciplinary boundaries.

If I were to declare myself to be anything, I would say that I am a general historian. A generalist, I suppose. And if you ask author David Epstein, it’s us generalists who hold the future in the palm of our hand.

9780735214484In his book Range. Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Epstein argues that the generalist has a greater chance at success than the specialist. Generalists are masters of more than one complex issue. They are well-versed in more than one field. They are skilled at handling people. They seek out environments that will spark their creativity and make them think outside their usual box. They ask broad questions. They use critical thinking. All this knowledge provides them with experiences that make them unique and irreplaceable, while the specialist becomes a highly skilled person working at an advanced conveyor belt. A 21st century version of the Renaissance Man vs Taylorism, if you will.

According to Epstein, if you want to be successful, it is better to go wide than to dig deep.  Epstein argues that society would be better suited for the challenges of the 21st century if children and young adults were allowed to receive a broad education where they are only allowed to specialize late, if at all.

The problem with Epstein’s argument is not the argument itself, but the evidence he provides. To make his point, Epstein uses case studies, which are all in support of his argument. None of them adds a critical stance, which would have added heft to Epstein’s own thinking. After all, an argument without a counterargument is not an argument; it’s an opinion. And if there is no counterpoint, then how can we asses the validity of the point being made?

Epstein’s case is further weakened by the fact that his case studies come from the worlds of sports, finance, STEM, and business. Not one case study is from the liberal arts or humanities. Why is this important? Because what Epstein spends almost 300 pages arguing in favor of is an education in the liberal arts, and he does this without mentioning liberal arts, or the humanities, even once.

In other words, Range claims to point out a path to the future but what it does is reveal the one-sidedness and the lack of a generalist approach inherent in the person of its own author. Instead of advocating in favor of the liberal arts, a generalist education program invented during the Middle Ages and still taught in universities across the United States, the only thing that Epstein and Range actually achieve is arguing in favor of reinventing the wheel.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.



Valkyrie. Excellent New Book on Women of the Viking Age.

Sometime during the second half of the 11th century, a Swedish woman named Gerlög went to Torbjörn the Skald and asked him to do something for her. Gerlög’s daughter Inga had recently died, and as Inga’s only living relative, Gerlög came to inherit her own daughter. To avoid any accusations of having come into her inheritance by unlawful means, Gerlög needed to make a public statement of the course of events that led up to her inheriting Inga. Torbjörn the Skald was knowledgeable in runes, and this is the message that Gerlög hired him to carve into the bedrock.

U 29 Hillersjöhällen

The Hillersjö Hill where Gerlög explains how she came to inherit her daughter, Inga. Source: U 29, the Swedish National Heritage Board.

Interpret, you! Germund was given Gerlög as his wife when she was a maiden. Then they had a son, before he (Germund) drowned. And the son died after. Then she was given Gudrik as her husband. He… this… Then they had children. But only one girl survived; her name was Inga. Her Ragnfast in Snottsta was given as his wife. Soon after he died and then the son. And the mother (Inga) came to inherit her son. Then she was given Erik as her husband. Soon after she died. Then Gerlög came to inherit Inga, her daughter. Torbjörn the Skald carved the runes.

9781788314770This inscription is known as the Hillersjö Hill (Hillersjöhällen) and is included in Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s new book Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020). Valkyrie is a history of the Viking Age that places the women of the time at the center of the story.

The Viking Age is commonly viewed as a time dominated by men where women are barely visible, but Viking society couldn’t function without a tight relationship between men and women. To run a farm, both men and women were needed, which means that women participated in those supposedly all-male Viking expeditions that invaded and settled all the way from Newfoundland in North America to the shores of the Caspian Sea in Central Asia. Because without both men and women working together, those settlements wouldn’t have survived and the iconic Viking ships wouldn’t have been able to set sail.

Jóhanna’s contribution to the study of Viking history and society is immense. In her book, she successfully views the Viking Age from the point of view of its women and in doing so, she refreshingly and unapologetically pushes Viking men to the side.

Her use of source material is broad. In addition to using the sagas, she also uses rune carvings, grave goods, and other archaeological artifacts. Personally, I appreciate the inclusion of the rune carvings seeing as they are the only texts where the Vikings speak to us directly, many of them women like Gerlög. Rune carvings are mainly found in Sweden and using them as source material broadens the view of the Viking world, which all too often ends up focused on the British Isles, France, and Iceland in translation.

Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World provides a new perspective on old knowledge by letting Viking Age women take center stage and speak to us in their own voices.

In the words of my friend the Australian, I shall return.