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.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain and the Importance of Research

[THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS!]

Although novels are fiction, research is an important part in the process of making the story of the novel both probable and plausible. The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan is an example of how authors can simultaneously succeed and fail when researching a novel.

Let me explain.

81svWyDFCeLThe Strain is the first part of a trilogy about how a vampire virus spreads among humans in North America and brings an end to the world as we know it. The main characters are Ephraim Goodweather, MD and CDC specialist, his colleague Nora Martinez and vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian.

The novel begins with a Boeing 777, which only minutes after landing at JFK Airport in New York becomes stranded on the taxiway, all its systems are shut down and everyone aboard are seemingly dead. In the cargo hold, a mysterious coffin filled with soil is discovered.

For a story such as The Strain to be plausible, the implausible elements—vampires taking over the world—need to be grounded in reality. This is achieved by del Toro and Hogan through extensive research. The set-up of the story—the Boeing 777 landing at JFK and the dead passengers being examined by Ephraim and his team, followed by the autopsy procedures of the Chief Medical Examiners Office in New York—is told in such detail that the text sometimes resembles a technical manual more than it does a novel. For example, for the JFK rescue crew to enter the aircraft, they need to cut a hole in the fuselage. This procedure is described as follows:

All commercial aircraft were constructed with certain “chop-out” areas. The triple seven’s chop out was in the rear fuselage, beneath the tail, between the aft cargo doors on the right side. The LR in Boeing 777-200LR stood for long range, and as a C-market model with a top range exceeding 9,000 nautical miles (nearly 11,000 U.S.) and a fuel capacity of up to 200,000 liters (more than 50,000 gallons) the aircraft had, in addition to the traditional fuel tanks inside the wing bodies, three auxiliary tanks in the rear cargo hold—thus the need for a safe chop-out area. (p. 25)

The tool needed to cut through the chop-out area of the fuselage is described in the  paragraph immediately following:

The maintenance crew was using an Arcair slice pack, an exothermic torch favored for disaster work not only because it was highly portable, but because it was oxygen powered, using no hazardous secondary gases such as acetylene. (p. 25)

The detailed descriptions of tools and procedures continue when the bodies are examined on site and when they are undergoing postmortems. The reader is provided with information on what victims of carbon-monoxide poisoning look like (p. 45), the procedures of so-called “canoeing” during autopsy (p.125) and the treatment of human brains in formaline (p. 125–126). At times, the authors even stop the action to provide an explanation:

Eph searched around wildly for anything that would help him keep this guy away from him, finding only a trephine in a charger on a shelf. A trephine is a surgical instrument with a spinning cylindrical blade generally used for cutting open the human skull during autopsy. The helicopter-type blade whirred to life, and Redfern advanced […].” (p.174)

In summation, del Toro and Hogan seem to have written a well-researched novel in which to place their vampire tale.

Or have they?

Let’s take a look at three instances where in-depth research seems to have been done, but in fact either has been done poorly or not at all.

1) How to remove facial makeup
After reading the detailed accounts provided by the writers, it comes as a surprise when one of the characters, a rock star named Gabriel Bolivar, sits down in his bathroom to remove his makeup and the following description of the procedure is provided:

Bolivar staggered off the bed and back into his bathroom and his makeup case. He sat down on the leather stool and went through his nightly ministrations. The makeup came off—he knew this because he saw it on the tissues—and yet his flesh looked much the same in the mirror. (p. 149)

If the authors had been consistent in their description of procedures, a detailed account of Bolivar’s “nightly ministrations” would have been provided. I am sure a cosmetologist would have loved to have answered any of their questions.

2) A occultation is still an eclipse
Shortly after the Boeing 777 lands at JFK a solar eclipse occurs. This is a total eclipse that lasts several minutes and is crucial to the development of the plot. The authors provide the following explanation (emphasis added by del Toro and Hogan):

The term solar eclipse is in fact a misnomer. An eclipse occurs when one object passes into a shadow cast by another. In a solar eclipse, the moon does not pass into the sun’s shadow, but instead passes between the sun and the earth, obscuring the sun—causing the shadow. The proper term is “occultation.” The moon occults the sun, casting a small shadow onto the surface of the earth. It is not a solar eclipse, but in fact an eclipse of the earth. (p. 77)

Is this true that we all have been calling a fascinating astronomical phenomenon by the wrong name? The answer to that question is both yes and no.

Britannica.com defines an eclipse as a “complete or partial obscuring of a celestial body by another. An eclipse occurs when three celestial objects become aligned.” The encyclopedic entry goes on to explain that there are many different types of eclipses, of which occultation is one. Therefore, “solar eclipse” is not a misnomer and “occultation” is not the only proper term. An occultation is a kind of eclipse. However, when writing a horror story it makes for a good set-up if a word containing the root “occult” can be used as a foreshadowing of what is to come.

3) What did the Romans ever do for the Poles? Absolutely nothing.
Abraham Setrakian is a Holocaust survivor who has dedicated his life to hunting the vampire that arrives in New York on the ill-fated Boeing 777. He first encountered the creature at Treblinka when it came to feed off weakened concentrations camp prisoners. Determined to stop the creature, Setrakian starts asking around among the other prisoners.

In the months since the Sardu-Thing’s first visit, Setrakian—obsessed with the notion of defeating such evil—learned as much as he could from other local prisoners about an ancient Roman crypt located somewhere in the outlying forest. There, he was now certain, the Thing had made its lair […]. (p. 177)

During the Treblinka uprising in 1943, Setrakian is one of the prisoners who manages to escape and avoid capture. He immediately sets out to locate the creature’s lair and succeeds.

He had heard of Roman ruins through camp hearsay from native Poles. It took him almost a week of roaming, until one late afternoon, in the dying light of dusk, he found himself at the mossy steps at the top of an ancient rubble. Most of what remained was underground, with only a few overgrown stones visible from the outside. A large pillar stood at the mound of stones. [—] It was also impossible to stand there at the dark mouth of these catacombs and not shudder. (p. 287)

There are several issues that need to be discussed concerning the creature’s lair.

One problem is that del Toro and Hogan can’t seem to decide whether the lair is a “crypt” or a “catacomb.” A crypt is a “vault or subterranean chamber, usually under a church floor.” There is no indication in the text that a church had stood at the site of the lair.  A catacomb, on the other hand, is an underground cemetery and the term is used exclusively for such cemeteries in and around the city of Rome.

But the terms used to described the lair are not the main problem. The main problem is the fact that the lair is described as Roman. Why is this a problem? It is a problem because the Roman Empire never included what is today Poland and the location of the Treblinka concentration camp. The sheer fact that Roman ruins are found in the Polish forest is historically inaccurate.

At its height the Roman Empire reached as far south as North Africa, as far east as present-day Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel, as far west as Spain and as far north as England. In the northeast, the Roman Empire reached to the rivers of the Rhine and the Danube. The Rhine runs through cities such as Strasbourg on the German-French border and Basel in northern Switzerland. The Danube runs through Vienna in Austria, Budapest in Hungary and Belgrade in Serbia.

Roman_Empire_mapMap of the Roman Empire from 510 B.C.E to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Roman_Empire_map.gif

Why del Toro and Hogan decided to make the lair of the creature explicitly Roman, I can’t understand. I am currently reading part two of the trilogy and so far there has been no mentioning of why the lair is of Roman origin, indicating that this particular piece of information is of no consequence to the development of the story. Moreover, the result of this decision is that I, the reader, begin to question everything else they throughout the novel have claimed to be established facts.

On the whole, The Strain is an entertaining read. It’s a fast-paced attention-grabbing adventure that brings back horror to vampire lore, written by two authors who take a keen interest in technology and medical science. However, if you want to come across as a credible storyteller, you can’t research only the things that interest you and ignore those that don’t.

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

Sources:
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan The Strain (Harper, New York, 2011)
Britannica.com Eclipse
Britannica.com Crypt
Britannica.com Catacomb
Britannica.com Limes
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Treblinka Death Camp Revolt

Note:
Thank you to Ida Östenberg, scholar and researcher of Classical Studies, Department of Historical Studies, University of Gothenburg.
The .gif map of the Roman Empire has been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.
The book cover of The Strain has been downloaded from Amazon.com