| Interview

“The Golden Bull became a protective shield with a quill”

Interview with Eva Schlotheuber about the first basic law of the Holy Roman Empire

Professor Eva Schlotheuber
© khk

People have probably heard of the Golden Bull of 1356, which is considered one of the most important constitutional documents of the Holy Roman Empire and remained in force for exactly 450 years. What comes to mind are perhaps the prince-electors, whose position as electors of the monarch was enshrined in the Bull. But what does all this have to do with the pope? A great deal, as Eva Schlotheuber explains in the interview. The historian has dealt extensively during her one-year fellowship at the Kolleg with the tensions between emperor and pope in the late Middle Ages that led ultimately to Charles IV issuing the Golden Bull. She also explains how studying the way that law and politics functioned in the medieval period can help us understand our present better.

Professor Schlotheuber, when you look back on your fellowship at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg, what expectations did you have beforehand, and were these met?

After five intensive years as chair of the VHD (Association of German Historians), I was very much looking forward to the research year at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg; the prospect of having time for research was quite appealing. The book project on the Golden Bull, the first basic law of the Roman-German Empire, has long occupied me, and of course has a lot to do with medieval legal culture. The large and wide spectrum of expertise in legal history at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg in Münster was therefore great and a unique opportunity to pursue my research.

You are investigating the formative contexts and the effects of the Golden Bull. What was the specific context in which it came into being?

The Golden Bull of 1356 comes across as a harmless “collection of privileges”, but the circumstances in which it came into being were quite dramatic. It was issued in an extremely fraught situation, and by no means expressed Emperor Charles IV’s sovereign will to power or the Empire’s strength. Much was at stake, since the church had managed to exert increasing influence over the election of the German monarch, the most important personnel decision in the Empire. Because the Roman-German king, if elevated to emperor, was patron of the church, the pope had demanded from the turn of the 13th century the right to check the ‘ability to rule’ of the church’s patron, which gave the Curia far-reaching rights of intervention: namely, as a prerequisite for the legitimate exercise of power (right of approbation), the pope would need to approve the candidate at the time of the king’s election; and, in the event of a vacancy on the throne, he could substitute for the monarch and exercise his rights (papal imperial vicariate). These were deep interventions in the constitution of the Roman-German Empire, a constitution regulated only by customary law and one still unwritten. The constitutional crisis was due to the emperor’s hegemonic position of power, which made him rival to the pope. The imperial title secured the Empire a position of supremacy in Europe, but also brought it into what Pope Innocent IV (r. 1243-1254) termed a “special relationship” (specialis coniunctio) with the Curia. The Empire with its unwritten constitution was at a disadvantage in this ‘relationship’, since it offered little protection against a professionalised papal Curia that had been able to fall back for centuries on written law (namely, the universally valid canon law), as well as on learned legal scholars and a functioning administration. Whether the ruler would succeed in laying down the imperial rights in writing in a basic law was therefore in the 14th century a question of the Empire’s very survival.

Seal of the Trier specimen of the Golden Bull with the portrait of the Emperor
© Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart/Wikimedia Commons (gemeinfrei)

What in your view were the most important provisions of the Golden Bull, and was new law actually established here or did it merely codify old customary laws?

This is a question that has long vexed researchers, but I believe that it is ultimately not the issue. What is the issue is that the papal Curia accepted the electoral system laid down in writing in the Golden Bull of the Roman-German king, who could later be elevated to emperor. The Golden Bull thus became a protective shield with a quill with regard to central imperial rights, since it tacitly revoked both the right of approbation and the papal imperial vicariate. But, in doing so, it not only stabilised the Empire and encouraged the autonomy of the territories (which researchers have worked on for many decades), but foremost succeeded in addressing a fundamental weakness of the previously unwritten imperial constitution. A central problem had been that the Curia could in the event of conflict call on the prince-electors to elect a counter-king or, in the case of political division, cast the deciding vote in the election of a king. The popes argued that it was them that had transferred the right to choose a king freely to the electors, making the latter “servants of two masters” – namely, not only of the Roman-German king, but also of the pope. As such, they were no longer able to enforce collectively binding decisions without the pope, such as the election of the king, and the political system of the Empire was thus severely impaired. The Golden Bull, which committed the electors to king and emperor alone, put an end to this structural weakness of the imperial constitution, which had been growing since the disempowerment and extinction of the Hohenstaufen dynasty in the mid-13th century – but it was a solution at a high price.

"The agreements reached between the pope and the emperor permanently changed the emperorship"

What did the Bull mean for the long-term relationship between emperor and pope?

The Golden Bull largely pacified the relationship, which had been riven by decades of bitter fighting. But the agreements reached in advance between the pope and the emperor permanently changed the emperorship and curtailed its hegemonic reach significantly. Outside the borders of the empire, the emperor now had only privileges of honour. This agreement was therefore necessary so that the emperor did not come into conflict with canon law when exercising his rights. The situation of the Empire was tricky because, in their struggle against Charles’ predecessors, and above all Emperor Henry VII and Louis the Bavarian, the popes had issued decrees that were incorporated into the Corpus iuris canonici, and that greatly restricted the scope of action available to the supreme secular power. How the Golden Bull came about therefore reveals a fascinating process of negotiation between the two supreme powers over complex political conflicts whose roots reach far back into history. It also reveals a dynamic of law and politics that developed in the late Middle Ages, one that would play a significant role in the formation of statehood.

A special relationship: Since the early Middle Ages, the Roman-German emperors were crowned by the Pope, in this case Otto III by Gregory V in an illustration from c. 1450.
© Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg

You refer to the Golden Bull at one point as the Empire’s “first written constitution”. Yet, it probably has little to do with constitutions in the modern sense. What do you mean by this term, and how does it help us understand the Bull better?

One of the important insights that I gained from discussions in the Kolleg was not to use the term “constitution” for the Golden Bull and to refer instead to the Empire’s first Basic Law. The Bull does not aim at the comprehensive regulation of rights, and nor is it typically structured into two parts, a section detailing fundamental rights and an organisational section. But the historical processes associated with the Golden Bull are still very interesting today because, like modern constitutions, it regulates the relationship between political power and legal obligation. When Niklas Luhmann states that the legal content of a constitution lies in ruling out the abuse of political power, then this applies precisely to the Golden Bull’s defensive function against papal rights of intervention.

"Knowledge of the Middle Ages enables us to understand better ourselves as a society also with regard to the global world"

And vice versa: Does knowledge of medieval legal and constitutional cultures also help us understand our present better?

Globally, very few states today function as we define modern states. Understanding other social developments and social systems that function according to different norms is therefore central and necessary for us to find our way in a global world and respond wisely. Medieval society is our own history, but it followed different underlying principles, which is why we generally find it foreign today. But that is precisely why looking back gives us a great opportunity to see how our current ideas and norms came into being in the first place. The historical development of Europe was by no means inevitable; it resulted from many coincidences. Studying the history of the pre-modern era is not only fascinating; it can also help us understand that our beliefs, being the result of historical processes, are open to change and will inevitably evolve. Knowledge of the Middle Ages and the pre-modern era as a whole therefore enables us to understand better both ourselves as a society also with regard to the global world, and not least the complicated relationship between politics, law and social diversity.

The questions were posed by Lennart Pieper.

About the Author

Prof. Dr. Eva Schlotheuber holds the Chair of Medieval History at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. She was a fellow at the Kolleg from April 2022 to March 2023. Her research interests include the history of education and libraries, 14th century political theory and governance, and the history of culture and religious orders.