Is "Holy Roman Empire" a place in 1720?

+9 votes
I changed the birth location from "Holy Roman Empire" to a place in Germany for the profile of Johannes Schell (Schell-127), and then it was changed back to "Holy Roman Empire." Is this an actual location in 1720? I thought it was Germany by then.
WikiTree profile: Casper Schell
in The Tree House by David Thomson G2G6 Mach 1 (13.2k points)
retagged by Maggie N.
It certainly existed in 1720, but you can't automatically assume any random German was from the HRE. I'd just put "Europe".
I didn't realize how little I knew about German history until today. I was under the impression that the Roman Empire fell over a thousand years ago. Someday (probably soon) I will do some serious reading about the history of Europe.
The Holy Roman Empire was just named after the Roman Empire. It didn't really have that much continuity with the original Empire. Charlemagne managed to get the Pope to invest him with the title of Emperor of the Romans in 800 AD, so the HRE was called the HRE not so much because it was a successor to the Roman Empire, but because its emperor was theoretically the Emperor of the Romans. Back in those times, people didn't really think in terms of states as chunks of land with a particular border but rather chunks of land under a particular ruler. They didn't start putting the "Holy" on it until long, long after Charlemagne either.
Thanks all for the informative answers in this thread. It was difficult to pick a "best" answer. I am truly humbled by my ignorance on this topic. Some of the answers mentioning Alsace, France have also helped me to better understand my several other ancestors who came from this area. I want everyone to know I truly appreciate your knowledge.
David, Thanks for your comment of April 3, 2019: I wholly agree. I too am "history short."

10 Answers

+3 votes
Best answer
Having a good many ancestors from a variety of places within what was then the Holy Roman Empire, the way I solve such problems is to go to the wikipedia. org article for the city or village in question and read the history sub-section for the city.  Whatever political unit was in power in the city at the DOB I list, then HRE, then the current status of the place in parentheses.  I consider listing the POB as a means 1) of learning history, which can give an idea of the life of the profile subject, and 2) where possible birth or other records MIGHT be found.  

      I have an ancestor who was born around 1620 in the city of Stettin (we assume, the name is badly misspelled or transliterated).  This was in the HRE at the time, but part of the Duchy of Pomerania, which was loosely allied with the HRE, and which would explain an ancestor of "Dutch" ancestry (the Netherlands was in the process of emerging from the HRE at the time) being able to go from Stettin to the Netherlands (Plattdeutsch or something close to it and to what is now Niederlandse being sort of a lingua franca along the North Sea and HRE-controlled Baltic Sea coasts).   He took off for what is now New York in about 1640, just when the 30 Years' War was re-shaping the map of Europe.    Now Stettin is Polish territory;  the Duchy of Pomerania did not long survive the 30 Years' War.

     The HRE WAS a cohesive political unit at one time, but the course of history, especially the 30 Years' War (ended 1648) battered its unity steadily.  Parts of it more or less became "independent", and even fought against each other at times, but it still remained until 1806, at least as a construct, if a powerless one.

     The HRE had NO continuity with the earlier Roman Empire of the Caesars:  such could be attributed to the Byzantines, like Edward Gibbon did, but even that Empire changed so much during the 500-800s A.D. that few would really consider it the same political unit.   The Roman Empire of the Caesars is considered to have officially "ended" in 476 A.D., but if one reads the histories of the areas involved, it was not so simple even as that.  What became the "HRE" were the territories which the ethnic-German Ottonian rulers were able to conquer around 1000 A.D.  These included Rome, and the idea of "Rome" in an empire's name lent prestige and moral authority to rule to the polity of the day.  But the city of Rome played only a relatively small part in the politics of the empire, mostly being a bone of contention between the germanic northerners and the local "Italianoids" who wanted more autonomy.

     History has not treated political units in the ways in which we consider them today, especially in Europe.  Some sub-divisions of "Empires" were at odds with and stronger than the purported rulers of the Empires themselves.  Boundaries were flexible at best and often disputed.  Loyalties of sub-rulers would come and go like the seasons.  Often religious beliefs of the rulers, family connections, or even ethnicities would play a bigger role in the politics of an area than would the official nomination.
by Dan Sparkman G2G6 Mach 2 (21.8k points)
selected by Culley Schweger Bell
Well stated!  It is very difficult for most non-historians to understand that "nationality" is a very modern construct dating from about the mid-19th century.
I like your method of including the location name for the correct period of time along with a modern geographical place name. This combination allows someone reading the profile to know where to research now for more information.
+9 votes
Wikipedia says it was legit - and covered some parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - up until 1806 so yes, 1720 could be correct. Francis II was the last Holy Roman Emperor and he seems to have been forced to Abdicate in 1806.
by Robynne Lozier G2G6 Pilot (940k points)
Sorry if I put words into you mouth, David.
Correct.  I have ancestors from the Principality of Lippe and the prince of Lippe was an elector to the HRE.  I have 1850 citizenship papers from an ancestor from Lippe which is described as an  "elector".  The correct place of birth should be Lippe, not HRE.
The HRE was abolished in 1806, so in no event would it be correct to place an 1850 event in it. Some of the electors continued to use their electoral titles, but the state no longer existed.
Ben, that is a common criticism of Wikipedia, but I dare you to change it to say the Holy Roman Empire is a ham sandwich.  That change will be reverted within the hour (and I won't have anything to do with it).  There are bots and live people that monitor for vandalism.

That's not to say occasional errors creep in or aren't noticed, I've been a Wikipedia editor for 12 years now, and have seen a few errors or deliberate falsehoods/partisan point-of-view comments, but it's rare, and never on a page that gets a lot of visits.
I've been a Wikipedia editor for at least 15 years, maybe more, and I think it's true "ham sandwich" wouldn't last, but there are a lot of glaring errors that go by. Recently, I discovered that someone removed all references to Selim II as Selim the Drunkard (typical revisionist PoV edit) back in December of 2017 and no one noticed until I happened to look at it last week. It's a system that works for obvious vandalism, but it strongly favors people who have nothing better to do and are really obsessed with representing their PoV. That statement about the HRE sounds really PoVish to me.
I mean, 1683, Siege of Vienna - WTF? Is some nimwit seriously going to argue that the HRE wasn't a central factor there?

Here's a challenge for you-go remove that statement about how "1648 marked the effective end of the Holy Roman Empire" and buckle down for 2 weeks of edit warring  with some guy who sleeps in a room filled with Frederick the Great memorabilia.

True enough.  But maybe there's a compromise "1648 marked a decline in the HRE ..."  I don't know enough about it to do that myself though. Some people do really get hung up on the minutae and don't want to give an inch, other times, as long as you have a good source, you can do as you like.

On some of those pages you can learn a lot more about the subject by looking at the Talk page and see what people want to include or exclude.  

Side note, I would like a Talk page system on WikiTree rather than this system of posting messages back and forth on different pages (possibly a project page and then two personal profiles) and trying to figure out what the order of the conversation was.

Now I'm in the mood for a Holy Roman Ham Empire Sandwich. frown

There was no HRE after 1806.
+9 votes
The Holy Roman Empire was a confederacy of semi-independent kingdoms that elected their emporer.  In in were the modern nations of Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy (northern part only), and the Vatican City.  As Voltaire stated, it was not Holy, not Roman, and certainly not an Empire. Southern Italy and Sicily was at that time The Kingdom of Two Sicilies. The nation of Germany came into being in 1870, just before Italy was united as a nation.

People are not always aware of the history.
by David Hughey G2G Astronaut (1.6m points)
+9 votes

I'm thinking that it would be nice if somebody could put together a handy reference to changing place names in Europe for WikiTreers to use, as has been done for North America.

by Greg Slade G2G6 Pilot (444k points)
If you use the place name suggestions when filling out the data fields, you have the list--at least sort of.  At least it prompts you to think, before inserting a name.
This is a handy map showing how it changed over time.  It's a little lengthy, but you can skip ahead to the time frame you're interested in.  You can see how complicated the political system was.
Kathy, the problem with the suggestion list is that sometimes the name is so long you don't see the years. This is the reason why I like Greg's suggestion
+8 votes
The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was officially abolished in 1806, when Napoleon defeated the Prussians and the Austrians and forced them to sign the papers officially ending what had been a rather meaningless jumble of feudal states for several hundred years. But yes, be careful to make sure your German speaking ancestor was from one of the member states before putting that as place of birth. There were German speaking Cantons in Switzerland and much Alsace was annexed by the French in 1648.
by Daniel Bly G2G6 Mach 5 (59.3k points)
+9 votes

Germany as a country began in 1871.  The first date is when Germany was recognized as a region, on February 2nd, 962 AD. The second date is January 18th, 1871 when Germany became a unified state. Finally, October 3rd, 1990 was when East Germany and West Germany were united to form the present Federal Republic of Germany.Feb 27, 2018

 The Holy Roman Empire was a feudal monarchy that encompassed present-day Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech and Slovak Republics, as well as parts of eastern France, northern Italy, Slovenia, and western Poland

It was created by the coronation of the Frankish king Charlemagne as Roman emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in the year 800, thus restoring in their eyes the western Roman Empire that had been leaderless since 476

The first official use of the full term "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" in 1474 acknowledged that the empire had been for some time a German political unit in all practical terms.

Historians speak of the "centrifugal forces" that pulled the empire apart in the late eighteenth century. Its two largest principalities, Habsburg Austria and Hohenzollern Brandenburg-Prussia, expanded eastward in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, each tapping sources of authority and power outside the empire; the rulers of Saxony and Hanover did the same by accepting crowns in Poland and Great Britain. The lesser territories of the empire, the so-called "Third Germany," focused more attention on the empire, but competition between Austria and Brandenburg-Prussia, the rigidity of the treaties of Westphalia, and the ponderous pace of imperial institutions combined to leave the empire politically impotent. A series of reforms in 1803 came too late to restore political relevance to the empire and could not prevent its elimination, through the abdication of Emperor Francis II (ruled 1792–1806), at the instigation of Napoleon. The tradition of the empire died, and its revival was not seriously discussed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

by Laura Bozzay G2G6 Pilot (673k points)
I'm pretty sure Germania was recognized as a region well before 962 AD.

Germania was definitely a geographic region during the (not-so-holy) Roman Empire.  But I suppose it was not a "state" in the modern sense of the word.  I often assign "Germany" to my ancestors who lived before Germany existed in order to not create confusion--at least the general region is correct. If a city or region is known, that is obviously better than the generic "Germany."  The Holy Roman Empire question is complex because the boundaries change (a lot) over time.   My opinion is that Holy Roman Empire should be avoided as a place name on Wikitree, even though it might be technically correct for the person in the profile.  As food for thought, would one assign the birth location of Jesus as Israel,  Nazareth, Galilee or Roman Empire?

Ben my answer quoted (and  I gave the URL) from the world atlas.   

Personally I think WT needs a choice of using location as it is known today and location as it was known at the time.   Because so many people entering the data have absolutely no idea how to even research these names in many cases.  

At least if we can put Germany it gives an idea of the larger area but it is not correct so flies in the face of WT guidelines.
I still recommend "Europe." Just because someone has a German name doesn't mean they're from "Germany," whatever one conceives it to cover.
+11 votes

First of all, WikiTree wants us to use the names as they were in existence at the time, and nobody within the Holy Roman Empire used English as their common language. Ergo, "Holy Roman Empire" for any location is incorrect wherever and whenever it was used.

Germany as a political entity didn't exist before 1871 (except for a brief period from the 1848 March Revolution until the Spring of 1849), and not all areas belonging to the German Empire thereafter were within the Holy Roman Empire during its existence. The end of the Holy Roman Empire came de facto on 6 Aug 1806 when Emperor Franz II abdicated and released all imperial subjects from their duties to the Emperor. De jure the Holy Roman Empire did not end because it would have required the consent of the Reichstag which never happened.

With respect to Casper Schell, since there seems to be a good possibility that he was Dutch, he would not have been from the Holy Roman Empire since the Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Provinciën was not part of it in 1720.

by Helmut Jungschaffer G2G6 Pilot (544k points)
I would add that another possibility for the birthplace of Caspar Schell--as mentioned in his Wikitree biography--is the Palatine region of what is today German/France.  Most Schell families I have encountered in the USA stem from a handful of German Palatines.  This region was very fragmented politically during the time of Caspar's migration, so whether or not the particular village of his birth was a part of the Holy Roman Empire might not have a non-ambiguous answer.
+12 votes

Holy Roman Empire is as vague as a birth location as United States or Europe.  If you know the city where he was born, if you google the history of the place you can usually determine which kingdom it was in.  By searching the history of that kingdom by the date of the birth, you can usually determine the name of the place.

If your ancestor was born in Stuttgart, you have many possibilities based on the year of birth:

1083-1495, "County of Wurttemburg, Duchy of Swabia."

1495-1803, "Duchy of Wurttemburg, Holy Roman Empire."

1803-1806, it was the "Electorate of Wurttemburg."

1805-1918, "Kingdom of Wurttemburg."

1918-1933, "Free People's State of Wurttemburg, Weimar Republic."

From 1933 onward, modern Germany.

I'm all for investigating the exact name of the place where your ancestors are from and using that historic title - takes a bit more work but in the end, it is more accurate.

by SJ Baty G2G Astronaut (1.1m points)
I like this answer.  If one knows the village/city of birth, then it is easy to determine the (political) location at birth.  If not, then "Holy Roman Empire" might be simply wrong.  In such a case, I'd prefer "Germany" as a location--despite the fact that the state of Germany did not exist until the 19th century. Between these two extremes, there are the kingdoms that existed at various geographic regions at various times.  If you can figure this out from the sources, then that is the most accurate location for Wikitree.
I disagree, if you don't know the place in 17xx then using Europe is better than using Germany, if you don't believe part of the Empire.  The individual could just as easily be from Bohemia, Czechia, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Russia France or the Ukraine, etc., as modern Germany.  German speakers settled in many parts of Europe.  If you don't know where, then Heiliges Romisches Reich works as well as anything else.
You can also start typing Stuttgart in the birth or death field, and WikiTree will provide a number of choices, you pick the one appropriate for that time (it has a range by each one, although in my browser that often gets cut off and I can't see it).
+3 votes
If you type in the village/city name in the birth/death location field, WikiTree will pop up a list of choices for the region/state it was in, some of them with a time range listed, and you can choose the most appropriate one (or if you really want, type your own).

Then in the bio section you can make a comment if you want.  In my case, my German ancestors were born in what was technically Saxony when they emigrated to the U.S. In some censuses, passenger lists, etc it will be listed as Saxony, Prussia or Germany.  I've even seen Saxony crossed out and Germany added (probably because by the time of the census, German unification had occurred).
by Rob Neff G2G6 Mach 6 (60.3k points)
+1 vote
Holy Roman Empire would be the broadest location name possible in a list for a place within that state at the time. In line with the location style guide and using the local language, I think you would want to use "Sacrum Imperium Romanum" before 1784 (when Joseph II replaced official Latin with German) and "Heiliges Römisches Reich" from 1784 on.
by Trevor Powell G2G1 (1.2k points)

Ah, the intricacies of what it means to use the local language! While Latin was indeed the official language of the Holy Roman Empire until the 18th century, it was not spoken anywhere in the Empire outside churches and a few administrative offices. It was not even used exclusively for official imperial business (see for example Maria Theresia's Edikt über das Münzwesen from 1746). Sacrum Imperium Romanum, therefore, has really no place in the location field and the name in the local language should be used instead.

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