Irregulare Aliquod Corpus Et Monstro Simile: Can Historical Comparisons Help Understand the European Union?

18 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2010 Last revised: 31 Aug 2010

Date Written: August 28, 2010


The historian and political philosopher Samuel Pufendorf in 1667 famously described the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) as "an irregular body much like a mythical beast" – I hesitate to employ the usual rendering "monster" since although monstrum does have a pejorative connotation it seems less strong in Latin than in English. Rather than something repellent or threatening what Pufendorf had in mind was probably more like a unicorn, a centaur, or a chimera, which combine features that nature assigns to separate and unmixable species. The context in which Pufendorf wrote was the contemporary debate about which of the classical political categories – more particularly, democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy – the empire fell into. Each position had its defenders. But Pufendorf argued that although the empire seemed to contain elements of each of those categories it did not fit any of them; hence it was "irregular", a monstrum. Its existence contradicted received wisdom – the more so the longer it continued. Thus, a century after Pufendorf Voltaire would observe that the reasons that led to the collapse of the (west) Roman empire of antiquity were less obvious by far than the reasons that should long since have led to the collapse of the HRE, except that somehow it just went on regardless. Similarly, the European Union (EU) today presents itself as something very much sui generis, something that seems to defy comparison – except that that very fact actually invites comparison with the HRE. And it is not the only similarity. Both the HRE and the EU combine institutional complexity with cumbersomely slow decisionmaking; both have influential common institutions while lacking a central power; both have great difficulty formulating a common foreign policy, and while some members have quite impressive military capabilities their common organisation lacks military weight or ambition. Yet for all their apparent shortcomings both the HRE and the EU have never been challenged fundamentally by their members, which have always seen greater advantage in sticking with the organisation than in leaving it. On the other hand, there are also fundamental differences between the two which must call in question the validity of any comparison. The proposed paper will examine these issues. The aim is to achieve a better understanding of the EU and more generally of the utility of comparing political structures across periods.

Keywords: Holy Roman Empire, European Union, Samuel von Pufendorf

Suggested Citation

Osiander, Andreas, Irregulare Aliquod Corpus Et Monstro Simile: Can Historical Comparisons Help Understand the European Union? (August 28, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Andreas Osiander (Contact Author)

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin ( email )

Unter den Linden 6
Berlin, 10099

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