In the Early Modern period, Germany did not yet exist as a state in the modern sense with national borders and institutions. The “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” (also known as the “Old Empire”) was a very loose and fragmented political entity that encompassed both secular and ecclesiastical territories. An emperor presided over this empire, but powers were distributed among various rulers.
It was not until the fourteenth century that this territory and political entity was identified as “German,” with the “Holy Roman Empire” becoming the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.” The differentiated political order and territorial fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation called for specific systems of order, symbols, and images that were unlike those from other countries.
The first four sources in this snapshot show how the political structure of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was depicted at different points in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The sources suggest that while the “Empire” could be perceived and portrayed as “German,” it did not necessarily have to be described as such. The last two sources make clear that the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and its constitutional framework were not uncontroversial. Here, a 1667 text by legal scholar Samuel Pufendorf (1632–1694) offers a critical take on the “Empire,” as does a caricature of its fall (1805).