Private academic debates and public knowledge: Hermann Conring’s analysis of the Holy Roman Empire at the University of Helmstedt

I wish to present my on-going research on another case I work on, Helmstedt 1620-1681. During this period, the University of Helmstedt was one of the most important ones in Germany. The university opened officially in 1576 and closed definitely in 1810. Studying the life at the university and the city is interesting from the point of view of privacy because it was religiously liberal by the days’ standards and formed a closed community with its own laws inside the city. This provoked many tensions. The production of knowledge is one of our foci, and here the interesting part is the relation between private lectures and public lectures, private lives and public lives of professors, and the publication or dissemination of novel ideas.

I presented recently the beginning of my work on Hermann Conring (1606-1681), a professor at Helmstedt, at the symposion “Practices of Privacy”, organised by my wonderful colleagues Natália da Silva Perez and Natacha Klein Käfer, who had to re-organise the whole conference to an online discussion platform.

In 1641, a student of Conring’s defended publicly a dissertation called ‘exercitatio’ On the Roman-German Emperor, based on Conring’s private lectures. These student theses were usually printed and published. The argument was that the German kings had no claim to continue the Roman empire. A year later, a book entitled New Discourse on the Roman-German Emperor was published under Conring’s name, but without the name of the publisher or the place. It was almost a fac-simile of the dissertation. Conring disavowed strongly authorship for this book in 1644 by publishing his own work, The Roman Empire of the Germans. He also claimed that the dissertation was the student’s own work, not reflecting entirely his views. However, the argument, which was a controversial one at the time, is roughly the same in all versions, and many sentences are similar. Fasolt in various articles and The Limits of History has therefore argued that Conring was the real “author” of all three. Conring’s 1644 book is, however, more detailed, more academic in its referencing and added resources.

There is no doubt that the New Discourse is Conring’s, if not in ownership, at least in meaning and spirit. We have therefore a case and a question mark, which have been investigated by Constantin Fasolt in several articles and a book. Why did Conring refused authorship for the Discursus Novus, and the Exercitatio? What Fasolt investigated was the question of authorship, and the question of meaning and intent by Conring. Building on this secondary literature and analysis, I want to investigate the question of privacy in developing knowledge and ideas, and the relation to public knowledge in 17th-century Helmstedt. It is a presentation of a work-in-progress by formulating thoughts and hypotheses for future analysis of primary sources. But before presenting the case, let me introduce you to Conring.

Hermann Conring

Hermann Conring (1606-1681)
From wikicommons

Hermann Conring was born in 1606 in Norden, Ostfriedland, and died in 1681 in Helmstedt. He can be considered as a typical “Renaissance man”: he was a polymath and applied the method of the humanists in his studies. He studied philosophy in 1620 in Helmstedt, with interruption due to the war and the plague. In 1625-1631 Conring studied in Leiden natural science and medicine. In 1632, Conring returned to Helmstedt as professor for two chairs (to save the university money) Natural Philosophy and Rhetoric. In 1636 he became professor of medicine and, in 1650, professor of politics (Politik). He taught and supervised students in philosophy, medicine, law, and politics.

Problem of the time

Holy Roman Empire 1648 (from wikicommons)

In 1642, when The New Discourse was published, the Thirty Years’ War was still decimating Europe. The Holy Roman Empire, led by the House of Habsburg, was the overall political organization ruling a collection of different states. Helmstedt was part of the Principality of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel ruled by the House of Welf, part of the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg. The Holy Roman Empire got its name from the claim of being the successor of the Roman empire. The German kings considered themselves successors of the Roman emperors and held their power from them. They would go to Rome to be crowned by the Pope.

Private lecture

In the catalogue of courses offered at the University of Helmstedt for the semester 1640, Hermann Conring gave a private lecture ‘Domi differet’ entitled De republica Germanica. Private lectures, unlike public ones that took place in the university building, took place at the professor’s home. Professors were called ‘Braut, Beer, und Küchen’ professors because students paid to live in their large house and were fed. They also followed the professors’ lectures in their private houses. My colleagues Natalie Patricia Körner and Johannes Ljungberg are working on the professors’ houses.

Conring’s house in Helmstedt (my own picture)

You can read more about the professors’ houses in Das Athen der Welfen, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, 2010, the third part “Der Professorenhaushalt” p. 129-167 is dedicated to this topic. Also, Elizabeth Harding, Der Gelehrte im Haus: Ehe, Familie und Haushalt in der Standeskultur der frühneuzeitlichen Universität Helmstedt (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2014), writes about the professors’ houses.


On 8 May 1641, Conring’s student name Bogislaus Otho von Hoym submitted Exercitatio de imperatore Romano Germanico, (Exercise on the Roman German Emperor), a public examination at the University of Helmstedt, presided by Conring. These public defenses were different than today’s in that they were supposed to demonstrate that the student had understood the professor’s lectures. The author of the dissertation was either the student entirely (rarely), the professor entirely (rarely), or both. In any case it was always based on the professor’s lecture and therefore the dissertations reflects the professor’s views. Otherwise, the student would not pass the examination. These dissertations were printed for the public defence.

These printed dissertations often ended with a separate set of briefly stated theses called corollaria. It is not exactly certain what they are, but they may be points, which validity the examined student had to prove. Questions that could be asked to the student to answer and substantiate.

Fasolt concludes that the Exercitatio was not a regular dissertation, destined to be forgotten as soon as defended. It dealt with a potentially explosive constitutional question about the legitimacy and origins of the Holy Empire. It must reflect Conring’s views during his lecture. However, Conring refuted being the author of the Exercitatio in his own publication later, De Germanorum imperio Romano.

Discursus Novus
Discursus Novus

The unauthorised published version of the Exercitatio, the Discursus Novus, is very similar except for some minor typographical details, as Fasolt’s analysis shows. Interestingly, some misprints were corrected, but others were not. For Fasolt, the two major differences are the first page with a different title and only Conring’s name, not the student’s, and the absence of corrolaries at the end. As Fasolt notices, this transforms the nature of the work from an obscure academic dissertation by a student to get a degree at the university, to a book, which reached a wider audience beyond the university.

This is most likely the main reason for provoking Conring’s anger, besides not getting paid for the book and the alleged ‘greed’ of the coward printer. As Conring remarked 30 years later, his radical ideas about the nature of the Holy Empire were exposed to the general public with an ‘insolent title’ that was ‘dangerous at a time when war was still raging’ (see Fasolt).

We do not know the circumstances of the publication of the New Discourse. Had von Hoym a hand in it? Was it someone who knew Conring’s lecture and the dissertation and thought it should reach a wider audience? Was it meant as a malicious way to expose Conring and his radical ideas, create trouble for him? Was it Conring himself, who tested the waters with his ideas, but then refuted the book?

We do have public expressions of Conring’s dissatisfaction with the New Discourse. In the preface to his De Germanorum imperio Romano he calls the book a ‘primitive supposititious child’, and was appalled by the damage done to his reputation. He claimed that he wanted nothing but the peace and quiet of his academic life, but now he was forced to leave his research and studies in medicine to write an answer to this book. As Fasolt notes, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. Conring did constantly show an interest in the legal and historical matter of the Holy Empire, by teaching and presiding students’ examinations on that topic throughout the 1630s.

Conring’s poem in Lampadius’s work

Moreover, as von Moeller notes, Conring started being interested in this topic after meeting and befriending Jacob Lampadius in 1632, who was then Counsel of the duke of Braunschweig. (61) A few years earlier, when Conring was a student at Helmstedt, Lampadius was teaching constitutional law. Conring expressed in his conversations with him his eagerness to study thoroughly and precisely the circumstances of the German empire. (62) Lampadius gave him the doctoral dissertation defended in Heidelberg under professor Reiner Bachoff (Bachofius) about the jurisdiction of the German empire. This gave him an overview of the latest state of the constitution. Conring liked the book so much that he asked Lampadius to work anew on it and publish it. 2 years later, Conring published it with a different title: De republica romano-germanica. He added 2 other small papers by Lampadius and de Thou’s description of Germany from (from his Historia sui temporis), published by Johann Maire in Leyden. Conring did not mention himself as editor, but he wrote 8 couplets to praise the work at the beginning. In these, Conring expressed for the first time the pride concerning its past, the pain concerning its present, and the faith in its future. Formerly, Germany had conquered Rome, the mistress of the world, and had taken the name and the power of the Romans. Today, the situation is dire and Germany is being defeated, but there is still hope: “tempus erit quondam, post cum sua busta resurgens hinc repetet vultus, juraque prisca dabit.” (my translation: there will be a time, some day, when, after having risen from its tomb, it [Germany] will return to appearances and it will surrender to the ancient laws.) Many years later, in 1671, Conring re-edited Lampadius’s work and added some supplements after he had made it often the basis of his lectures.

I have yet to examine this work and compare it to Conring’s own.

De Germanorum imperio Romano

Early 1644, and about half a year after Conring had a copy of the New Discourse, he published De Germanorum imperio Romano liber unus or One Book on the Roman Empire of the Germans. The subject is the same as Discursus Novus, but it is more detailed and better structured and argued. It has more quotations from primary and secondary sources.

The argument developed in De Germanorum imperio Romano is seemingly different from Discursus Novus and Exercitatio. The Exercitatio and Discursus novus arrived at the conclusion that the Roman Empire had either ceased to exist or been reduced to a shadow of its former self and the German Empire had risen in its place. De Germanorum imperio Romano distinguished between Germans and the Roman Empire, implying that there was no German Empire and concluding that the Roman Empire still existed. The German kings had a right to rule over the Roman empire and Conring accused the papacy of usurpation of imperial rights.

Or so it would seem. As Fasolt notes, Conring’s understanding of the ‘Roman Empire’ is double. When meaning the vast empire of beyond the city of Rome, Conring actually argued that it was defunct. In the second sense only, does Conring argue that it still exists: and it is limited to the city of Rome. So Fasolt sees two differences between the Exercitio and De Germanorum imporio Romano:

1.      Papacy’s control over city of Rome might be legitimate in Exercitio. In De Germanorum imperio Romano it is not.

2.      In Exercitatio, German kings were wasting their time when seeking control over the ‘Roman empire’ (understood as the city of Rome). In De Germanorum imperio Romano they were not.

Privacy analysis

Using the heuristic zones, what does this tell us?

First of all, it tells us that Conring’s real thoughts are absolutely private to him. We only have the external manifestations in the written words.

Second of all, we do not have any record of what he actually lectured in the privacy of his professor’s house to his students. We can only assume from the Exercitio and the published New Discourse, that this may have been the content of his lecture. We can also assume that he used Lampadius’s work for his lectures. We can deduce from the Exercitio and how Conring reacted to the Discursus Novus that what made him react was not the content, which was identical, but the extension of the audience beyond the university. By his own account, the Discursus Novus reached a wider readership in Italy, France, Spain, and England. At the time of the Thirty years war, Conring may have feared that his views could be used and misused as political weapon.

Exploring how legal and historical arguments moved from a private lecture of a few students destined to civil service, some of them noble as von Hoym, to a public defence by a student in the close community of a university, and then to a vaster public readership in Europe is what I shall focus on in the coming months.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.