Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
World History, and today we’re going to talk about the Holy Roman Empire. Which as Voltaire famously pointed out, was
not holy, or Roman, or an empire. But the Holy Roman Empire can help us understand
world history, especially during the reign of its most powerful emperor, the smart, and
sensible, and hard-working Charles Hapsburg, known as Carlos I in Spain, and Charles V
in the rest of Europe. So, lets frame it this way. In soccer, the World
Cup is like a pretty big deal, especially for me. Mr Green? Mr Green? But I’m not even good at soccer You’re actually not that bad Me From the Past, but the only two things you put into your body are Wendy’s
and cigarette smoke. And that… it’s not great for your athletic career.
In 2014, the final pitted Germany against Argentina and if that game had been played
in 1550, both of those teams would’ve had the same head of state.
The 2010 final between Spain and the Netherlands, again the same head of state – Charles V.
Unfortunately, the 1550 World Cup had to be postponed until after soccer was invented. So, Charles V ruled one of the biggest empires
in history, behind only Chinggis Khan, Joseph Stalin and Stalin’s successors in the Soviet
Union. In addition to claiming to rule most of Europe,
during Charles’ lifetime, (1500-1558), one of his dominions, Spain, laid claim to nearly
all of the New World outside of Brazil. And a few of his subjects — the miserable survivors
of the fleet of Ferdinand Magellan — became the first known humans to circumnavigate the
globe. Under Charles, the template for the colonization
of the Americas and the Christianization and treatment of its indigenous people was laid
down, and Charles gave his seal of approval to the Jesuit Order to convert Asia. He underwrote
the first Mission settlements to California, and began the process of turning the islands
known as the Philippines into Asia’s largest Spanish-speaking country.
But he wasn’t just a conqueror. Charles also hosted the Valladolid debates, the first-known
discussions of universal human rights — and he actively sought to end slavery for many.
Although, not for all, and he didn’t really succeed in ending it for anyone.
Yet, for all that, Charles V isn’t known as a giant of world history. I mean his realm,
the Holy Roman Empire, was ultimately, a failed state, and his reign a bitter disappointment,
even to himself. Trying to rule an empire stocked with rebellious
subjects including Martin Luther and with territory in two hemispheres, Charles V managed
to totally bankrupt his realm and that was kind of impressive.
Because he had access to the silver and gold of the new world, the Renaissance banking
fortunes of Italy and the Netherlands, and the military power of Spain.
In short, Charles V was to the Holy Roman Empire what Screech is to the Saved by the Bell alumni. By the time he died, crippled with gout and
malaria at the age of 58 – wait are we still talking about Screech? No, apparently we’re
talking about Charles V now. Anyway, the Holy Roman Empire was defaulting
on massive debts to its creditors. So among historians, the debate over whether
Charles could have been a successful emperor tends to break into two schools of thought.
One argues that the Holy Roman Empire was doomed to fail largely because it lacked the
nationalism that powered the rising nation-states like France and England.
But Voltaire was probably right, that the Holy Roman Empire was doomed from birth. Over
it’s 1004-year-history, the Holy Roman Empire never had the means of levying direct taxes,
or directly raising an army from its territory, which nearly always included what are today
Eastern France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, the Italian peninsula, and Czechoslovakia,
and at times stretched to the Netherlands, and Belgium, Hungary, Croatia, Poland, and
western Ukraine. Governing such a vast area is almost impossible,
especially when you have to have like you know people on horses to deliver messages.
These days, even with the internet, governing Europe isn’t that easy – Ask the European
Parliamentg how it’s going. So the HRE began in 800 CE as a marriage between
the Germanic warlord, Charlemagne, and the only sort of warlord-y Popes in Rome.
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire western Christendom was basically a flock
of rural warriors who reveled in trials by combat, Christian conversion through combat,
and, just generally combat. And Charlemagne shrewdly recognized that the
Church’s mainly literate hierarchy and command of tradition were his best possible instruments
for governing his battle loving feudal lords. So Charlemagne and Pope Leo III struck a deal;
Leo would bestow upon Charlemagne the authority and tradition of the Caesars, while Charlemagne
acknowledged the Church’s spiritual superiority over his secular power.
And the name for the agreement reflected the terms of the deal. Holy, because the Church
wanted top billing, Roman, to give Charlemagne maximum prestige among his feudal subjects,
and Empire, because they wanted it to be an empire.
Here’s a lesson in romance from history: marriages of convenience…. meh?
So the relationship between the popes and the emperors grew a bit rocky over time. In
the centuries after Charlemagne, one European warrior clan, the House of Hapsburg fought
to claim the Emperor’s throne, and to establish dominance over the Papacy.
And one of the tactics used by the Hapsburgs was to promote dynastic marriages between
Hapsburg cousins, thus keeping inheritances within the family and out of the hands of
the Church. This Hapsburg in-breeding worked politically,
but, over centuries, it brought out recessive family genes for mental illness and — most
famously — these oversized lower jaws that became Europe’s most-recognizable profile.
In short, in-breeding – great way to keep money in the family, maybe not the best way
to keep A++ kings in the family. The Papacy fought back and in 1356,the position
of Holy Roman Emperor was turned into an elected position. Candidates for the crown henceforth
needed to win support from at least four of seven “Electors.”
Now this didn’t prevent the Hapsburgs from reclaiming the throne, but it did force the
family to pay fortunes in bribes and favors to win it, because as always, money wins elections.
Charles was no exception and the bribes he paid to secure the his position as Emperor
in 1521 meant that he started off his rule in debt – which is never a great idea.
But wait, you say, now that he is Emperor he can just tap into a loyal group of subjects,
who will be more than happy to pay tax increases in order to pay off Charles’ debt.
But yeah, that’s not how the Holy Roman Empire worked. All right, let’s get to know
this Emperor in the Thought Bubble Charles’s parents came from two ambitious
dynasties. His mother, Juana, was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, whom you’ve probably
heard of. And from Juana, Charles laid claim not only to Spain but to parts of Italy, including
Naples and Sicily, as well as what became known as the Americas. Charles’s father
was the Duke of Burgundy, Phillip the Fair. And through Philip, Charles could claim the German
lands of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, Phillip’s father.
So Charles’s existence was pretty much a genetic engineering job designed to produce
a ruler of Spain and Germany. Only, Charles was neither Spanish nor German himself. He
grew up in Belgium, in the dukedom of Burgundy, which technically made him a French subject.
And ruling over so many disparate people was a recipe for trouble. Like, German peasants
in Frisia had revolted against the empire in 1515, but they weren’t nearly as troublesome
as the Germans living in towns. By the time Charles bought his throne in 1521, German
merchants had come to think of themselves as being guaranteed the rights to speak in
a parliament, to have a say in their taxes and even to form their own militias.
Protestantism was also a big headache for Charles, especially when Luther and his followers
claimed that they followed their consciences in matters of religion rather than the emperor’s
will. Charles thought that he solved this problem when he faced Luther at the Diet of
Worms in 1523, but that didn’t work out quite as planned.
Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, at the Diet of Worms Luther was so compelling when talking
about his faith that he became more popular – not less.
And shortly thereafter he began his famous German translation of the Bible.
So obviously, governing most of Europe was just a tremendous difficulty for Charles V,
but he also had to be the ruler of all of the Americas except for Brazil.
I can’t help but notice, Stan, that Brazil is always the exception in the Americas. And with the Spanish Conquistadors subjugation of the the American Indians by the late 1530s,
Charles’s life got even worse or arguably better.
Because he was richer and had more subjects which is the point of being an emperor I guess.
So unlike most of the Spaniards in Spain’s colonies, Charles actually showed some concern
for his native subjects, but he couldn’t really do much.
Like in 1520, after receiving a steady stream of complaints about how the native people
were being abused, Charles banned the granting of new encomiendas and ordered his officials
to phase out the old ones. And this worked … not at all. Hernan Cortes
and other leading conquistadors completely ignored Charles orders and just kept doling
out encomiendas. And then Charles sent new orders saying that
the Indians are “to live in liberty, as our vassals in Castile live…if you have
given any Indians in encomienda to any Christians you will remove them.”
Cortes responded, “The majority of the Spaniards who come here are of low quality, violent,
and vicious.” Well, I guess he was self-aware. Anyway, his
response amounted to – we could only get Spanish people to come here if they have the right
to exploit other humans. And then In 1526, Charles gave in and allowed
Cortes, and, later, Pizarro, to issue temporary encomiendas to their men.
Now so far, Charles isn’t looking so good in this story, so it might be useful to compare
his record to those of his contemporaries, who, in theory, ruled more coherent and governable
states. And it just so happens that Charles reigned
at the same time as two of Europe’s most notable proto-nationalistic leaders, England’s
Henry VIII and France’s Francis I of France. The bitterest rivalry was between Francis
and Charles, because Francis believed that Charles, as the Duke of Burgundy, which is
in France, was his subject. Charles, meanwhile, knew that Francis had
attempted to win the title of Holy Roman Emperor himself, and had warned the electors that
Charles was an unfit and despotic man. If we could just stop for a moment. Why on
earth would anyone fight to become the Holy Roman Emperor.
The two monarchs fought four separate wars against each other. And according to proponents
of nationalism, Francis should have had the advantage, right. Because he had unchallenged
power of taxation in France, and a religious class that was loyal to him, and a population,
or at least an elite, that all spoke French. But Charles’s troops won every war. Not
only that, in the course of the wars Charles’ troops managed to take Francis himself hostage
at the siege of Pavia, and sack Rome in 1527, ending the pope’s hope of becoming a real
player in secular politics, and, according to some scholars, ending the Italian Renaissance.
Charles also fought a war against Suleiman and the Ottomans, defeating them at Vienna,
although he wasn’t able to stop Suleiman from consolidating his control over the formerly
Habsburg territory of Hungary. But despite ruling this fractious, polyglot
empire rather than a compact national state, Charles did okay for himself.
Well at least by some measures – by other measure he was a total failure. Oh, it’s
time for the open letter. But first, let’s see what’s in the globe
today. Oh, it’s all of my past romantic relationships. An open letter to failure.
Dear failure, you’re so often in the eyes of the beholder, like what looks like failure
at one point in your life can later look like a wonderful success. I mean
Charles V had a lot of successes but ultimately he viewed his reign as a terrible failure.
That’s why he eventually abdicated and retired to a life of full time beer-drinking.
And then he split up his empire with his brother getting the Holy Roman Empire and his son
getting Spain. And that was probably marginally at least
a good thing for both the Holy Roman Empire and Spain.
In short, failure almost no person is merely a failure or even merely a success.
So enough with all these falsely constructed dichotomies failure, they are complete failure.
Best wishes, John Green. So, the story of Charles V reminds us of something
we learn again and again when studying World History: that there are multiple sides to
every piece of history. Yes, the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V
ceased to be Holy in the sense that it was no longer 100% Catholic, it was never Roman
since Latin wasn’t among the many languages spoken there…
And it wasn’t much of an empire because it was too diverse and spread out for Charles
really to have the power of an emperor. But as with most history, and many facebook
relationship statuses, and one Meryl Streep movie – it’s complicated.
But perhaps the one concrete lesson we can take away from the history of Charles V is
the benefits of acknowledging the limits of one’s power. Charles never did.
His imperial motto was plus ultra. And that means “further beyond,” but it could also
mean limitless. Charles sought to fuse Atlantic and Central Europe into seamless whole on
a scale the size of today’s European Union. He tried to stamp out the Protestant Reformation
and make his response, the Catholic Counter-Reformation global.
He tried to create new policies in the New World, while still defending old policies
in the Old World. And by trying to be the most powerful Emperor
in the most powerful empire in the history of the world he failed spectacularly.
There’s a lesson in that for all empires, and all nation-states, and even all people.
Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is filmed here in the Chad and
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