A complex of lands in western and central Europe that was ruled first by Frankish and then by German kings for 10 centuries, from Charlemagne's coronation in 800 until the renunciation of the imperial title in 1806. The empire and the papacy were the two most important institutions of western Europe during the Middle Ages.
The Roman title of emperor, which had lapsed in western Europe in the 5th century, was revived in 800 by Pope Leo III and conferred on Charlemagne, king of the Franks. After another lapse when the Carolingian line died out, the title of emperor, or Holy Roman emperor, was borne by successive dynasties of German kings almost continuously from the mid-10th century until the abolition of the empire.
The Latin phrase sacrum Romanum imperium actually dates only from 1254, though the term holy empire reaches back to 1157, and the term Roman empire was used from 1034 to denote the lands under the emperor Conrad II. The term Roman emperor is older, dating from Otto II (d. 983). The term Holy Roman emperor is a convention adopted by modern historians; it was never officially used. The prospective heir to the throne was called king of the Romans.
The territory of the empire originally included what is now Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, eastern France, the Low Countries, and parts of northern and central Italy. But its sovereign was usually the German king, and the German lands were always its chief component; after the mid-15th century, it was known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
Originally allied with the papacy, the empire became involved in a long struggle with the popes for the leadership of Christian Europe between the mid-11th and the mid-13th century. Weakened by the effects of this struggle, the empire was further shaken by the 16th century Reformation, during which a split developed between the Catholic emperor and those German princes who adopted Protestantism. A series of conflicts followed, climaxed by the Thirty Years' War, which devastated Germany in the period 1618–48. After 1648, the empire was simply a loose collection of semi-independent states under the nominal authority of the emperor. In this period the French writer Voltaire described it as “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”
In spite of their bitter quarrels, the empire and the papacy remained closely associated throughout the Middle Ages, and until the beginning of the 16th century the German king, having been elected emperor by the leading German princes, was then crowned by the pope. Maximilian I. (1459-1519) (reigned 1493–1519) was the first emperor not to be so crowned; his successor, Karl V. (1500-1558), did have a papal coronation in 1530, but the custom was abandoned in the war-torn period that followed, and it was never revived.
Beginning in the early 15th century, the imperial title and the German kingship became virtually hereditary in the Austrian House of Habsburg (Habsburg-Lorraine after 1740), although formal elections were still held. On Aug. 10, 1804, after Napoleon Bonaparte had declared himself emperor of the French in a bid to usurp the Holy Roman emperor's traditional primacy among European monarchs, Francis II, last of the imperial line, adopted the title “emperor of Austria.” Two years later, on Aug. 6, 1806, he resigned the old title of Holy Roman emperor altogether.
The German Empire of 1871–1918 was often called the Second Reich (empire) to indicate its descent from the medieval empire; by the same reasoning, Adolf Hitler referred to Nazi Germany as the Third Reich.
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