The Structure of the Empire

The history of the Holy Roman Empire challenges notions that nationhood and nationality are predetermined by shared ethnicity and language. The territories gathered within its borders constituted a diverse, multiethnic, and highly decentralized confederation of states and jurisdictions, loosely allied under an elective, rather than hereditary, monarchy. Although historically associated with Germany, the empire in the Middle Ages spread well beyond German-speaking lands. Its multilingual character was acknowledged in the Golden Bull of 1356, the equivalent of its constitution, which encouraged electors and their successors to learn German, Latin, Italian, and Czech as official languages. By the late Middle Ages, the imperial Diet, or deliberative assembly—later known as the Reichstag—provided the means through which the empire’s many territories and free cities came to convene and negotiate among themselves. The structure of the Reichstag is reflected in a grand two-page spread from the “Nuremberg Chronicle,” a popular universal chronicle covering the history of the world from Creation to the Last Judgment. The three colleges (collegia), or governing bodies of the empire, are represented in a schematic fashion. At top are the seven prince-electors, followed by various ranks of nobility as well as representatives from the free imperial cities. By the eve of the Reformation there were as many as fifty-three principalities within the empire, lending it its familiar patchwork character.