Although the great power that ruled central Europe for over a millenium is widely known today as the Holy Roman Empire, that name was never used in official documents. To its contemporaries, it was simply, “the empire” (p. 19). Although there are as many definitions of empire as there are historians, the one used by Wilson is apt: it is defined by its unwillingness to limit its physical boundaries.

This book is organized thematically which, when combined with the detailed chronological appendix, leads to a broad overview of the period. One theme is how, during this period, European political culture was very much one of personal presence (although this declined in the Ottonian period). Perhaps this is why Europeans and Americans were earlier to develop comfort with doing business in distant, abstract ways such as contracts rather than in person agreements (p. 269). By 1250 or so it became common to exercise authority in writing, and to summon lesser nobles by letter rather than by Gerald (p. 365-367). Being absent from the assembly also allowed the ruler to ignore certain disputes (p. 419).

The middle period of the empire also saw the emergence of a middle class, the Burghers. However, their rights were not portable between cities. If a burgher moved to a new city, he would have to apply (and pay) for recognition of his rights to conduct commerce (p. 243). Trade fairs (p. 464ff) were an opportunity to conduct international trade on a level playing field.

Several other miscellaneous notes will also be familiar to readers of Seeing Like a State:

  • Libraries were political instruments. By having the most comprehensive archive of documents, the pope could produce documentary support for his political claims (p. 54).
  • Censuses and military service quotas were used as to prevent some rulers from free riding on the defense budgets of others (p. 404-5)
  • The Black Death and agricultural failures around the same time led to market specialization and increased bargaining power of labor (p. 494-5)