Top 12 Books: The Holy Roman Empire

Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor
Charlemagne Crowned by Pope Leo III, December 25th, 800. SuperStock / Getty Images

Depending on your definition, the Holy Roman Empire lasted over either seven hundred or a thousand years. Throughout this period the geographical borders constantly changed, and so did the institution's role: sometimes it dominated Europe, sometimes Europe dominated it. These are the top books on the subject.

In this slim, but affordable, volume, Wilson explores the broad nature of the Holy Roman Empire and the changes that occurred within it, while avoiding unnecessary, perhaps even unfair, comparisons to 'successful' monarchies and the later German state. In doing so, the author has produced an excellent overview of the subject.

The first volume of a monumental two-part history, ‘Germany and the Holy Roman Empire Volume 1’ contains 750 pages, so you’ll need the commitment to tackle the pair. However, now there are paperback editions the price is far more affordable, and the scholarship is top notch.​

While you can understand how three hundred busy years would have produced the material to fill more than 1500 pages, it’s down to Whaley’s talent that his work is consistently fascinating, inclusive and powerful. Reviews have used words like magnum opus.

It’s another large volume, but Wilson’s history of this large and complicated war is both excellent, and our recommendation for the best book on the subject. If you think the list is a bit Wilson heavy at the top, that’s probably a sign he’s a pre-eminent figure.

Written as an introduction for mid to higher level students and general readers, this book is concise, clear in its explanations and modest in price. The text has been divided into numbered sections to allow for easy navigation, while diagrams, maps, reading lists and sample questions - both essay and source based - are scattered liberally throughout.

In this book, Hughes covers the major events of the period, whilst also discussing the possibility and nature of a 'German' culture and identity within the Holy Roman Empire. The book is suitable for general readers and students, especially as the text notes previous historical orthodoxy. The volume also has a nice reading list, but too few maps.

The first of a three-part​ series (volume 2 is equally good, covering the period 1630 - 1800) this book presents several historians' work, some of which is usually available only in German. The emphasis is on new interpretations, and the text covers many issues and themes: this book will thus be of interest to all.

Fellow emperors such as Charles V may have overshadowed Maximilian II, but he is still a prominent and fascinating subject. Sutter Fichtner has used a large range of sources - many little known - to create this excellent biography, which examines Maximilian's life and works in an eminently fair and readable manner.

This analytical study of ‘Germany’ during the early modern period is longer than Wilson’s short introduction given above but shorter than his mammoth look at the whole Holy Roman Empire. It’s aimed at the older student and is a worthwhile read.

Scott deals with the German-speaking peoples of Europe, located largely within the Holy Roman Empire. As well as discussing society and economy, the text also covers the changing political structure of these lands, both geographically and institutionally; however, you will need a background knowledge to fully understand Scott's work.

Part one of a large two-part study on the Habsburg Empire (the second volume covers the period 1700 - 1918), this book focuses on the lands, peoples, and cultures ruled by the Habsburgs, the perennial holders of the Holy Roman Crown. Consequently, much of the material is important context.

Subtitled 'The Holy Roman Empire and Europe 1618 - 1648', this is one of the better books on the Thirty Years War. A modern examination, Asch's text covers a range of topics, including the crucial conflicts in religion and state. The book is aimed at mid to higher level students, balancing straightforward explanations with a historiographical discussion.