Rulers on the Road: Itinerant Rule in the Holy Roman Empire, AD 719–1519

Abstract

Itinerant rule, rule exercised through traveling, was a common pre-modern form of governance over weakly centralized states. Yet, not much is known about the characteristics and drivers of rulers’ itineraries which determined the reach of their states. We argue that rulers maximize the payoff of their travels by targeting areas lacking trustworthy agents. We test this argument by focusing on the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) in the period AD 919–1519. We reconstruct emperors’ itineraries from data on more than 78’000 dated, and geolocated activities they engaged in and measure the presence of close agents by recurring to emperors immediate family members and their geolocated titles. Exploiting the significant negative shock of the Great Interregnum 1250-1273 on the power of emperors, we expect strong and secure, pre-1250 emperors to frequent areas not controlled by their relatives. Relatively weak, post-1273 emperors, however, should spend relatively more time in family-ruled territories to counter threats originating from them. Exploiting credibly exogenous variation across emperors and dynasties, our analysis corroborates these expectations. Shedding light on an understudied pre-modern political phenomenon, our findings help us better understand how the HRE developed into a decentralized and fragmented political unit.