Luca Scholz

Visualizing Political Complexity in the Holy Roman Empire

An assemblage of several hundred polities of varying size, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation formed one of the densest political landscapes in European history. Historians often struggle to describe its complexity in spatial terms. The evolving vocabulary proposed to grasp the Empire’s peculiar spatial make-up has included such different concepts as fragmentation, entanglement, network, and, more recently, fractality.

The vivid conceptual repertoire employed to describe the Empire stands in contrast to the relatively simple graphical conventions with which the Empire’s political order is conventionally represented on maps. The maps with which historians and their collaborators have visualised the Empire’s political order often emphasize contiguity, boundedness, and order, struggling to convey the forms of territorial competition, cooperation, and ambiguity that were so characteristic of the pre-modern German lands and its neighbors.

The maps presented here offer three attempts, by contemporaries and historians, to graphically represent overlapping or shared claims of dominion that were common across the Empire. Each map is drawn at a different scale: that of the settlement, of the territory, and of the road network. While the joint dominion of a condominium like Umstadt engendered legal and administrative rather than spatial intricacies, the map of Fürth and the map of safe-conduct claims in the Empire’s south-west offer cogent attempts to visualize distinctly spatial forms of political complexity.

Plan of the Town of Fürth

Grund-Riß des Fleckens Fürth

Johann Georg Vetter

1717 [reproduction from 1958]

Courtesy of Stadtarchiv Nürnberg, A 4/IX Nr. 70.

The town of Fürth offers a good example for the entangled and overlapping claims of dominion that were so common in the Holy Roman Empire. Over several centuries, the Prince-Bishopric of Bamberg, the Principality of Ansbach, and the Free Imperial City of Nuremberg claimed and contested each other’s authority over the town. While this triple dominion (Dreiherrschaft) engendered endless friction and dispute, the competition between the rulers could also empower the inhabitants and contributed to making the town an important center of Jewish life. The interest of this map, commissioned in 1717 by the Principality of Ansbach, lies in the detail in which it employs color to break down the town’s political division at the level of individual houses and properties.

Map of the district of Umstadt with its tithable towns, joint between Hesse-Darmstadt and the Electoral Palatinate

Karte von dem zwischen Kurpfalz und Hessen-Darmstadt gemeinschaftlichen Oberamt Umstadt mit den Zentorten

G.C.W. Beck


Staatsarchiv Wertheim, R-K Nr. 475.

Condominia, territories in which multiple rulers shared and exercised their rights jointly, were a common form of political organization in the Holy Roman Empire. Although condominia have often been described as inefficient and conflict-prone, joint dominion repeatedly proved to be a flexible and long-lived form of rule. This map shows the condominium of Umstadt, a district that from the late fifteenth century until 1803 was ruled jointly by the Electoral Palatinate on the one hand and, with variations, the Counts of Hanau, the Landgraves of Hesse, and the Landgraves of Hesse-Darmstadt on the other. The map only indicates the district’s joint dominion verbally, a reminder that the complexities generated by condominia were more of a legal and administrative rather than of a spatial nature.

Safe-Conduct Roads in the Area of Worms-Würzburg-Strasbourg-Ulm around 1550

Geleitstrassen um 1550 im Raum Worms-Würzburg-Straßburg-Ulm

Meinrad Schaab, Wilhelm Matzat, Wilfried Beutter


Kommission für geschichtliche Landeskunde in Baden-Württemberg and Landesvermessungsamt Baden-Württemberg, eds. Historischer Atlas von Baden-Württemberg Map X, 1 (Stuttgart: 1982).

This map represents roads on which rulers in the south-western parts of the Holy Roman Empire held or claimed rights of safe-conduct. Safe-conduct (Geleit) was an important and frequently contested title that polities used to control, protect, and extract economic, political, and cultural capital from roads and rivers across the Empire. The map attempts to visualize the claims of rulers in one of the most politically dense regions of the Holy Roman Empire. The map’s visual argument is noteworthy because it does not frame territorial claims as contiguous, enclosed polygons and because of the rich graphical language that encodes the ways in which these polities shared, alternated, claimed, or disputed their control of the roads.

Luca Scholz (University of Manchester) is a scholar of European and digital history who is particularly involved in the relationship of political authority and human mobility, interactions with and perceptions of the atmosphere, and the use of geospatial and computational methods to study the past. His first book, Borders and Freedom of Movement in the Holy Roman Empire (2020), is a history of free movement in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, one of the most politically fractured landscapes in European history. He earned a PhD in History at the European University Institute in Florence.