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Abstract Henry Cohn



Representing Political Space at a Political Site: the Imperial Diets of the Sixteenth Century


Henry Cohn, Department of History, University of Warwick


The Holy Roman Empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries has been described by a number of historians (Peter Moraw, Volker Press, Georg Schmidt et al) as not a state, but a political system. Using Niklas Luhmann’s sociological conceptualization, this approach treats the rulers of Germany as agents with varying degrees of both power and sovereignty who react towards one another in accordance with their estimation of their own interests and the likely reactions of others, and within the legal and other rules of the system. Moreover, the strength of both the king/Emperor and the regional hegemonial princes depended on their degree of affinity of interest with, and influence over, others of lower rank within their sphere. Spatial proximity was one important element in this configuration. When added to the view of Peter Blickle and others that popular uprisings and local communities were another independent element in the political system, an approach to ‘political space’ emerges (although this term is not used) which is akin to that outlined in Wayne TeBrake’s Shaping History.


Personal encounter is crucial to any system based more on clientage than command. In the absence of a capital city in the Empire, and considering the great distance of the Habsburg court from the main German centres, the imperial diets which met on average every two years in southern and western German imperial cities acquired, from the late fifteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries, an enhanced role as unique meeting places for the German ruling elites, where their sense of German unity could be represented both symbolically and by means of agreed political resolutions and legislation.


The imperial city chosen for a diet struggled to cope with the need for accommodation for thousands of visitors for periods of up to six months, occasionally longer, and to provide venues for a variety of activities, both political and cultural, apart from the formal sessions of the diet. Both the Emperor and the estates conducted at the time of diets a range of business more akin to government than to legislation or political consultation, though these more ‘parliamentary’ functions also proved time-consuming and cumbersome.


The period of preparation for a diet as well as the session saw written and face-to-face exchanges between the constituent parts of the Empire and its ‘centre’ in both the person of the Emperor and the institution of the Reichstag. The problems of distance and the competing interests of regional politics determined whether or not princes even attended the diets, so that most of them sent delegates most of the time, with consequences for the procedures and effectiveness of the deliberations. At the formal sessions, interminable quarrels about precedence in ceremonies and debates delayed proceedings until compromises were reached. Similarly, the problems of governing a vast country by a royal court and a diet which often did not see eye to eye were partly resolved by delegating certain functions to regional ‘circles’ at a level between the princes and the exiguous central institutions. The flexibility of the system at this period was further demonstrated in the growth of alternative representative assemblies in the later sixteenth century and in the diet’s assignment of religious space between the contending parties in 1555.