Imperial Electioneering: The Evolution of the Election in the Holy Roman Empire from the Collapse of the Carolingians to the Rise of the Ottonians
By Louis T. Gentilucci
Undergraduate Paper, Gettysburg College, 2014
Abstract: The Holy Roman Empire had an electoral process for choosing the Holy Roman Emperor. The heritage of this unique medieval institution can be traced through from Charlemagne empire to the Ottonians. The Empire of Charlemagne had several serious problems that led to its collapse. In the wake of this collapse, the lords of Germany asserted their power and chose leaders for themselves. Between the fall of the Carolingians and the rise of the Ottonians, Germany moved toward an elected kingship with a ducal power base. Only when Otto I became emperor was there a marriage between the German electoral system and the title of Holy Roman Emperor, resulting in the Holy Roman Empire of the late medieval period.
Introduction: The Holy Roman Empire was a unique institution in the medieval world. While it claimed a heritage from the Caesars of Rome and the Carolingian emperors, its institutions reflected a unique and somewhat confusing heritage. Technically, the Ottonian dynasty, of which Otto I, 962-973, received the title of emperor from the Pope, was anointed in the tradition of Charlemagne. By that time, however, the Empire Charlemagne founded had been splintered apart. Otto I was able to form a kingdom out of some of the warring factions and amass the power needed to have the Pope declare him emperor. But his Empire had diverged greatly from the one of old. Now, though the emperor was the central authority of the Empire, he was chosen by the princes of the Empire through an election. This election set the Holy Roman Empire apart from the Carolingian Empire and the rest of Europe. This strange political development would define the Holy Roman Empire and central Europe for centuries to come.
The Holy Roman Empire has been a focal point of historiographical debate for centuries. The post-Roman emperors of Western Europe have been the highlights of “great man” history, ranging from the legends of Charlemagne to the ambitions of Otto III to the tragic death of Barbarossa. However, the idea of studying the actually government and institutions of the Holy Roman Empire became highly popular after it had ended. Following the complete demise of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 at the hands of Napoleon, the value of the old system came to the fore of political debate.