Mar 28, 2010

The Holy Roman Empire, by Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce's seminal history of the Holy Roman Empire was written first in 1866 and went through numerous editions. The particular edition I just read was published in the early 1900s, and reprinted in the 1960s. Despite its old age, Bryce's work has proven its worth by remaining, while not the epitome of modern scholarship on the subject, certainly still quite relevant. The only thing the book lacks is breadth. As noted in the prologue, Bryce set out to write a purely political history of the Empire, with much attention to religion, and absolutely no attention paid to anything else. Cultural historians need not look here, unless they are lacking political background. Therefore, as a modern work of history, Bryce's book is inadequate, but it succeeded quite well at what it aimed to do.

Bryce takes us chronologically from the original Roman Empire up to the (contemporary) present day, 1866. He is adept at tracing common threads as well as developments and evolutions from the former to the latter. This makes sense, as his main historiographical goal is to point out that what wasn't important was whether the Holy Roman Empire was in fact holy, roman, or an empire, but that it can be defined by a certain sentiment and desire that remained true to itself throughout the Empire's thousand-year history. In his work, we see the beginning of the realm of the history of ideas, and the beginning of the understanding that ideas are quite palpable, tangible things that can affect the course of history.

The greatest pleasure in reading this book is Bryce's writing. Historians, and other academicians, simply do not write like they used to. The writing is fluid, strong, visual, powerful. Though it tends to suffer from a bit too strictly enforced chronological organization, the book still reads almost as easily as a novel. If scholars only started to write like Bryce again, we would perhaps not see such a lack of interest in reading and history that exists today.


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