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Empire and Imperialism

OverviewEvolution Of Europe

While the medieval use of the terms empire and imperial is usually seen as restricted to the Holy Roman Empire, in fact this was not the case. Several other medieval rulers referred to themselves as emperor and their possessions as an empire, or were said to have possessed imperium over a variety of peoples. The Ecclesiastical History of England, by the scholar and theologian Bede (672 or 673–735), referred to Anglo-Saxon rulers who possessed imperium over those who dwelled beyond the bounds of the king's own kingdom. Some Anglo-Saxon kings also seem to have used the imperial title in the tenth century. The title also was employed by some Spanish monarchs. At least one Visigothic ruler, Reccared (r. 586–601), was labeled an emperor. Subsequently, the king of León in the tenth century and a king of Castile in the eleventh century claimed imperial status as a consequence of their conquests. The use of the imperial title by rulers other than the kings of Germany gradually faded, however.

The fact that the terms emperor and empire were not employed by most European rulers does not mean, however, that European rulers were not in some sense imperialists. The various kingdoms that developed in medieval Europe were in fact composed of numerous smaller jurisdictions that had come under the authority of a single dynasty as a result of conquest, marriage, inheritance, and so on. Spain, for example, was composed of the former kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, and León. Likewise, Anglo-Saxon England at one time consisted of seven kingdoms that eventually came under the control of King Alfred (r. 871–899) and his family. One might even describe medieval Europe as consisting of a collection of miniature empires.

In the long run, the medieval concept of empire has been judged in a variety of ways. German scholars have often asserted that the efforts of medieval German rulers to control Italy, one of the kingdoms of the empire and the seat of the ancient Roman Empire, distracted them from their true task, the development of a German national kingdom, and therefore lay the basis for the modern German state. Others have seen the claims of the medieval emperors as a kind of fantasy that could never be fulfilled. For others, the great battles between the popes and the emperors was a disaster for the development of Europe. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, however, the notion of a Europe united under pope and emperor suggests a forerunner of the European Union.


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Carlyle, R. W., and A. J. Carlyle. A History of Mediaeval Political Theory in the West. 6 vols. Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood, 1903–1936.

Fanning, Steven. "Bede, Imperium, and the Bretwaldas." Speculum 66 (1991): 1–26.

Folz, Robert. The Concept of Empire in Western Europe from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century. Translated by Sheila Ann Ogilve. London: Edward Arnold; New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Heer, Friedrich. The Holy Roman Empire. Translated by Janet Sondheimer. New York: Praeger, 1968.

Koebner, Richard. Empire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Muldoon, James. Empire and Order: The Concept of Empire, 800–1800. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.

Pagden, Anthony. Peoples and Empires: A Short History of European Migration, Exploration, and Conquest, from Greece to the Present. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Sullivan, Richard E., ed. The Coronation of Charlemagne: What Did It Signify? Boston: D. C. Heath, 1959.

James Muldoon

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEmpire and Imperialism - Overview - Roman Imperium, Christian Conceptions, Holy Roman Empire And Church Versus State, Evolution Of Europe