Howard Hotson

Small is Beautiful: Territorial Fragmentation and Intellectual Activity in the Holy Roman Empire, c.1550-1700

Intellectual Geography / Monday 5 September, 2011

Although intellectual historians have grown adept at relating the abstract ideas of individuals to concrete, local circumstances of time and place, we have not yet fully grasped how the organisation of intellectual activity across broader expanses of space has affected the development of intellectual traditions over longer periods of time. The most general aim of this paper is to initiate our exploration of the potential fertility of rooting intellectual history more fully, not merely in ephemeral historical events, but in enduring geographical conditions as well.

In the paper, this objective will be pursued by focusing attention on the Holy Roman Empire, where the consolidation of political and confessional authority on a territorial rather than a national basis powerfully shaped intellectual activity throughout the post-Reformation period. Challenging the long-standing assumption that the political and confessional fragmentation of the Empire rendered it intellectually backward, this paper will argue that this process also multiplied intellectual centres and cultural options, thereby lending unique vitality to some areas of intellectual and cultural life and pushing German intellectual traditions in some of their most distinctive directions.

Since intellectual activity is most firmly rooted in institutions of higher education, the point of departure for this analysis will be the distinctive pedagogical and intellectual traditions rooted in territorially based systems of higher education in central Europe. From there the paper will expand in conclusion to consider other areas of intellectual and cultural activity stimulated by the proliferation of centres competing on a relatively level playing field. If time permits, some attention will be given in conclusion to the impact of physical geography on central European intellectual life as well.