“The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman, nor an Empire.” For the historian, Voltaire's famous quip has three aspects: 1) What did Voltaire mean by it in 1756 when he wrote the line in his Essay on Customs? 2) How did contemporaries, including the Austrian Habsburgs, understand it? 3) Does the quote accurately describe the events the Philosophe is discussing (Charles IV of Bohemia and the Golden Bull of 1356)? Voltaire in fact exaggerates the weakness of the Empire in both 1356 and 1756, and uses an anachronistic standard to evaluate both: the quasi nation states of the 1750s. The three parts of the imperial title had changed in meaning during the four centuries after 1356. The jibe nonetheless reflects something of the thought of Voltaire and the French Enlightenment.

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