Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/325

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national tradition, or upon anything more solid than the habit of respect for an ancient house. Moreover, the ecclesiastical States might have been, and both the small nobility and the wealthy numerous and active free towns actually were, permanent counterpoises to the absolute supremacy of the greater feudatories in a way to which French history supplies no parallel. All medieval history shows how the possibilities of despotism lurked even in the most decrepit of feudal monarchies, and how the most disorderly of feudal barons could be constrained to use their swords to further national ends.

Even in its worst decay the German kingship still counted for something. "The King of the Romans," as the German King was styled before the papal coronation gave him the right to call himself "Roman Emperor," was still the first of earthly potentates in dignity and rank. The effective intervention in European affairs of a German King so powerless as Sigismund of Luxemburg would have been impossible but for the authority still associated with the imperial name. The German Kings had indeed no longer a direct royal domain such as gave wealth and dignity to the Kings of France or England. They were equally destitute of the regular and ample revenue which ancient custom or the direct grant of the Estates allowed the Kings of France and England to levy in every part of their dominions. But the habit was now established of electing on each occasion a powerful reigning prince as Emperor, and a virtually hereditary empire was secured for the House of Luxemburg and afterwards for its heir and sometime rival, the House of Habsburg. The Emperors thus possessed in their personal territories some compensation for their lack of imperial domain proper. And feudalism was still sufficiently alive in Germany to make the traditional feudal sources of income a real if insufficient substitute for grants and taxes of the more modern type. The imperial Chancery issued no writ or charter without exacting heavy fees. No family compact between members of a reigning house, no agreement of eventual succession between neighbouring princes, was regarded as legitimate without such dearly purchased royal sanction. Even where the Emperor's direct power was slight his influence was very considerable. He no longer controlled ecclesiastical elections with a high hand; but there were few bishoprics or abbeys in which he had not as good a chance of directing the course of events as the strongest of the local lords, and his influence was spread over all Germany, while the prince was powerless outside his own neighbourhood. All over Germany numerous knights, nobles, ecclesiastics, and lawyers looked forward to the Emperor's service as a career, and hope of future imperial favour often induced them to do their best to further the imperial policy. If indirect pressure of this sort did not prevail, the Roman Court more often than not lent its powerful aid towards enforcing imperial wishes. There was no great danger that the feeble monarchs of this period would excite general