I have no idea why I have such an interest in the history of the Holy Roman Empire, the long-lived confederation of Medieval and Early Modern European polities that Voltaire famously dismissed as neither holy, Roman or an empire. Perhaps it goes back to my early childhood, reading Hergé’s Tintin adventure, King Ottokar’s Sceptre, which featured the fictional Balkan kingdom of Syldavia? Or maybe watching the inestimable Peter Sellers in the 1959 Cold War satire, The Mouse that Roared, and tracking down the once acclaimed novel of the same name by the Irish-American writer Leonard Wibberley in my local library? (Which my mother had to borrow on my behalf as it was in the adult section.)
The real and imaginary territories of Mittleeuropa fascinate me, echoing on a grand scale the political landscape of late prehistoric and Early Medieval Ireland, which was similarly divided between a multiplicity of kingdoms and sub-kingdoms, and where tantalising glimpses of lost history are discernible in the genealogies and annals of the country’s later monastic scribes. However, in the records of Central and Eastern Europe one finds the added frisson of exoticism, of different languages and cultures existing cheek by jowl or melding together in a great melting pot of peoples stretching from the North Sea to the Adriatic.
In the late 19th century the scattered remnants of the Holy Roman Empire generated a literary genre of its own, the Ruritanian romance, named after the invented territory in Anthony Hope’s influential 1894 publication, The Prisoner of Zenda, a novel which subsequently saw several big and small screen adaptions. With their primary focus on the trials and tribulations of minor European aristocracies in minuscule principalities and dukedoms dotted around the eastern borderlands of the Continent, these tales also appealed to me because of their unintentional resemblance to Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 science-fiction novel, Dune, which every proper sci-fi nerd holds in almost biblical regard.
Fortunately I’m not alone in this interest. Scholars have devoted their entire careers to examining the multilayered patchwork quilt that was the Holy Roman Empire, any half-dozen of its territories providing enough lore to fill a lifetime of study. Despite trying to move to ebooks, my bookshelves still groan with the weight of stiff-spined hardbacks devoted to the subject (though they sit somewhat incongruously alongside splashy graphic novels and dystopian cyberpunk adventures).
However, proving that there is always something new to learn, I stumbled across an odd fact about the thousand year “empire” quite recently. In an off-kilter manner, the discovery began with the new AMC television comedy-drama, Lodge 49, which I’m watching at the moment. Looking up the origins of the laid back SoCal story, I was intrigued to find that the TV production was partly inspired by a cult novella, The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon. Published in 1966, the book describes the misadventures of a housewife, Oedipa Maas, as she possibly stumbles into a centuries-old conflict between two mail distribution companies, Thurn und Taxis and the Trystero.
Though this alone is quite intriguing (and I hope to find a copy of the story to read it for myself) what caught my attention was the statement that the first company actually existed, tracing its origins back to 1495 and the foundation of the Kaiserliche Reichspost or Imperial Mail of the Holy Roman Empire. That postal service survived more or less intact for four hundred years, becoming a successful private company, Thurn-und-Taxis Post, in 1806, until it was subsumed into the homogenising Kingdom of Prussia in 1867. During all that time it was controlled by the Princely House of Thurn and Taxis, an ennobled German family of distant Italian origin which is still extant in Bavaria.
If ever a historical setting called out for a story, or a whole series of stories, this is surely it. I can just imagine what tales might be weaved if one were to use the journeys of a postal messenger for the Kaiserliche Reichspost in 16th or 17th century Europe as the background. Something factually based or, if pushed into the 19th and 20th centuries, perhaps a narrative slightly more in the mode of a Dan Brown alternative history (though preferably with better writing). Or maybe even an adventure with a touch of fantasy fiction in it, not too distant from the late Terry Pratchett’s 2004 satire, Going Postal. I vaguely remember an interview many years ago with a female science-fiction author, perhaps Anne McCaffrey or Ursula K Le Guin, where the interviewer asked the obvious question: where do you get your ideas from? The reply was quite simple: from history.