The Holy Roman Empire



The Structure of the Holy Roman Empire

Although the Habsburgs held the title of Holy Roman Emperor for nearly four centuries, the title was not hereditary and their power over the decentralized empire was limited and separate from their reign over the territories under the Habsburg rule.

Learning Objectives

Describe the structure of the Holy Roman Empire, focusing on its relation to the Habsburg dynasty and the lands under their rule

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Holy Roman Empire was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806. The German prince-electors, the highest-ranking noblemen of the empire, usually elected one of their peers to be the emperor. The empire evolved into a decentralized, limited elective monarchy composed of hundreds of sub-units, and the power of the emperor was limited.
  • The Habsburgs held the title of Holy Roman Emperor between 1438 and 1740 and again from 1745 to 1806. Although one family held onto the title for centuries, the Holy Roman Emperor was elected and the position never became hereditary. This contrasted with the power that the Habsburgs held over territories under their rule, which did not overlap with the Holy Roman Empire.
  • The various Habsburg possessions never really formed a single country—each province was governed according to its own particular customs. Serious attempts at centralization began under Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II, but many of these were abandoned. The Holy Roman Empire was also not a centralized state but its fragmentation was much more dramatic.
  • The division between the positions of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Emperor of the Austrian Monarchy is best illustrated by the circumstances around the War of the Austrian Succession. At its end, Maria Theresa was recognized as the head of the Austrian Monarchy, but it was her husband, Francis I who was eventually granted the title of Holy Roman Emperor.
  • At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire saw significant administrative changes. In 1804, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, who was also ruler of the lands of the Habsburg Monarchy, founded the Empire of Austria. In doing so, he created a formal overarching structure for the Habsburg Monarchy as he foresaw either the end of the Holy Roman Empire or the eventual accession as Holy Roman Emperor of Napoleon.
  • In 1805, the leaders of some imperial territories proclaimed their independence and signed a treaty with France. Eventually, Francis II agreed to the Treaty of Pressburg (1805), which in practice meant the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1806, the Confederation of the Rhine was established, putting an end to the Holy Roman Empire.

Key Terms

  • Treaty of Pressburg: An 1805 treaty between Napoleon and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II as a consequence of the French victories over the Austrians at Ulm and Austerlitz. It was signed in Pressburg (now Bratislava), at that time in Hungary, by Johann I Josef, Prince of Liechtenstein and the Hungarian Count Ignaz Gyulai for Austria and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand for France.
  • War of the Austrian Succession: A 1740–1748 war that involved most of the powers of Europe over the question of Maria Theresa’s succession to the realms of the House of Habsburg. The war included King George’s War in North America, the War of Jenkins’ Ear (which formally began in 1739), the First Carnatic War in India, the Jacobite rising of 1745 in Scotland, and the First and Second Silesian Wars.
  • Imperial Recess: A resolution passed by the Reichstag (Imperial Diet) of the Holy Roman Empire in 1803 and ratified by the Emperor Francis II. It proved to be the last significant law enacted by the Empire before its dissolution in 1806.
    The law secularized over 70 ecclesiastical states and abolished 45 imperial cities.
  • Confederation of the Rhine: A confederation of client states of the First French Empire formed initially from 16 German states by Napoleon after he defeated Austria and Russia in the Battle of Austerlitz. The Treaty of Pressburg,in effect led to its creation. It lasted from 1806 to 1813 and its members were German princes from the Holy Roman Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806. The term Holy Roman Empire was not used until the 13th century and the office of Holy Roman Emperor was traditionally elective, although frequently controlled by dynasties. The German prince-electors, the highest-ranking noblemen of the empire, usually elected one of their peers to be the emperor and he would later be crowned by the Pope (the tradition of papal coronations was discontinued in the 16th century). In time, the empire evolved into a decentralized, limited elective monarchy composed of hundreds of sub-units, principalities, duchies, counties, free imperial cities, and other domains. The power of the emperor was limited and while the various princes, lords, bishops and cities of the empire were vassals who owed the emperor their allegiance, they also possessed an extent of privileges that gave them de facto independence within their territories.

The Habsburg Dynasty and the Holy Roman Empire

The Habsburgs held the title of Holy Roman Emperor between 1438 and 1740 and again from 1745 to 1806. Although one family held the title for centuries, the Holy Roman Emperor was elected and the position never became hereditary. This contrasted with the power that the Habsburgs held over territories under their rule, which did not overlap with the Holy Roman Empire. From the 16th century until the formal establishment of the Austrian Empire in 1804, those lands were unofficially called the Habsburg or Austrian Monarchy. They changed over the centuries, but the core always consisted of the Hereditary Lands (most of the modern states of Austria and Slovenia, as well as territories in northeastern Italy and southwestern Germany); the Lands of the Bohemian Crown; and the Kingdom of Hungary. Many other lands were also under Habsburg rule at one time or another.

The various Habsburg possessions never really formed a single country—each province was governed according to its own particular customs. Until the mid 17th century, not all of the provinces were even necessarily ruled by the same person—junior members of the family often ruled portions of the Hereditary Lands as private apanages. Serious attempts at centralization began under Maria Theresa and especially her son Joseph II in the mid to late 18th century, but many of these were abandoned following large-scale resistance to Joseph’s more radical reform attempts.

The Holy Roman Empire was also a decentralized state; in fact, its fragmentation was much more dramatic than that of the Habsburg Monarchy. It was divided into dozens—eventually hundreds—of individual entities governed by kings, dukes, counts, bishops, abbots and other rulers, collectively known as princes. There were also some areas ruled directly by the Emperor. At no time could the Emperor simply issue decrees and govern autonomously over the Empire. His power was severely restricted by the various local leaders. The Emperors were unable to gain much control over the lands that they formally owned. Instead, to secure their own position from the threat of being deposed, they were forced to grant more and more autonomy to local rulers. The division between the positions of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Emperor of the Austrian Monarchy is best illustrated by the circumstances around the War of the Austrian Succession. The war began under the pretext that Maria Theresa was ineligible to succeed to the Habsburg thrones of her father, Charles VI, because the existing law precluded royal inheritance by a woman. At the end, Maria Theresa was recognized as the head of the Austrian Monarchy while her husband, Francis I, was eventually granted the title of Holy Roman Emperor. When Francis died in 1765, Maria Theresa continued to rule the Habsburg lands, but her son, Joseph II, secured the title of the Holy Roman Emperor. However, he gained the rule over the hereditary territories of the Habsburgs only after his mother’s death fifteen years later.

The End of the Holy Roman Empire and the Austrian Empire

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire underwent significant changes. In 1803, the Imperial Recess was declared, which reduced the number of ecclesiastical states from 81 to only 3 and the free imperial cities from 51 to 6. In 1804, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, who was also ruler of the lands of the Habsburg Monarchy, founded the Empire of Austria comprising all his lands. In doing so, he created a formal overarching structure for the Habsburg Monarchy as he foresaw either the end of the Holy Roman Empire or the eventual accession as Holy Roman Emperor of Napoleon, who had earlier that year adopted the title of an Emperor of the French. In 1805, the leaders of some imperial territories proclaimed their independence and signed a treaty with France, becoming French allies. Eventually, Francis II agreed to the humiliating Treaty of Pressburg (1805), which in practice meant the dissolution of the long-lived Holy Roman Empire and a reorganization under a Napoleonic imprint of the German territories lost in the process into a precursor state of what became modern Germany. In 1806, the Confederation of the Rhine was established, comprising 16 sovereigns and countries. This confederation, under French influence, put an end to the Holy Roman Empire.

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The Austrian Empire in 1812

The Austrian Empire was a multinational empire and one of Europe’s great powers. Geographically it was the second largest country in Europe after the Russian Empire. It was also the third most populous after Russia and France, as well as the largest and strongest country in the German Confederation.

The Pragmatic Sanction

The Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 was an edict issued by Charles VI to ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter, but it was contested after Charles’ death in 1740, resulting in the War of Austrian Succession.

Learning Objectives

Explain the contents of the Pragmatic Sanction and its intended purpose

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Pragmatic Sanction was an edict issued by Charles VI on April 19, 1713, to ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter. It did not affect the office of Holy Roman Emperor because the Imperial crown was elective, not hereditary, although successive elected Habsburg rulers headed the Holy Roman Empire since 1438.
  • In 1703, Charles and Joseph, the sons of Leopold, signed the Mutual Pact of Succession, granting succession rights to the daughters of Joseph and Charles in case of complete extinction of the male line, but favoring Joseph’s daughters over Charles’s because Joseph was older.
  • Charles soon expressed a wish to amend this pact to give his own future daughters precedence over his nieces. Securing the right to succeed for his own daughters, who were not even born yet, became Charles’s obsession. The Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 was the first such document to be publicly announced and as such required formal acceptance by the estates of the realms it concerned.
  • For 10 years, Charles VI labored with the support of his closest advisor Johann Christoph von Bartenstein to have his sanction accepted by the courts of Europe and by Habsburg’s hereditary territories. All the major empires and states agreed to recognize the sanction, but some Habsburg territories, including Hungary and Bohemia, did not initially accept it.
  • After Charles VI died, Prussia and Bavaria contested the claims of Maria Theresa on his Austrian lands. The refusal to accept the Sanction of 1713 resulted in the War of the Austrian Succession.
  • Maria Theresa’s husband was elected Holy Roman Emperor as Francis I in 1745. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 finally recognized Maria Theresa’s rule over the Habsburg hereditary lands. In accordance with tradition, Maria Theresa held the title of the Holy Roman Empress as wife of the Emperor.

Key Terms

  • The Pragmatic Sanction: An edict issued by Charles VI in 1713 to ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter. The Head of the House of Habsburg ruled the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Croatia, the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Italian territories awarded to Austria by the Treaty of Utrecht, and the Austrian Netherlands. The edict did not affect the office of Holy Roman Emperor because the Imperial crown was elective, not hereditary, although successive elected Habsburg rulers headed the Holy Roman Empire since 1438.
  • Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle: A 1748 treaty, sometimes called the Treaty of Aachen, that ended the War of the Austrian Succession. It was signed 1748 by Great Britain, France, and the Dutch Republic. Two implementation treaties were signed at Nice in 1748 and 1749 by Austria, Spain, Sardinia, Modena, and Genoa.
  • the Mutual Pact of Succession: A succession device secretly signed by Archdukes Joseph and Charles of Austria, the future Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, in 1703. It stipulated that the claim to the Spanish realms was to be assumed by Charles, while the right of succession to the rest of the Habsburg dominions would rest with his elder brother Joseph. The pact also specified they would both be succeeded by their respective heirs male. Should one of them fail to have a son, the other would succeed him in all his realms. However, should both brothers die leaving no sons, the daughters of the elder brother (Joseph) would have absolute precedence over the daughters of the younger brother (Charles), and the eldest daughter of Joseph would ascend all the Habsburg thrones.
  • War of the Austrian Succession: A war (1740–1748) that involved most of the powers of Europe over the question of Maria Theresa’s succession to the realms of the House of Habsburg. The war included King George’s War in North America, the War of Jenkins’ Ear (which formally began in October 1739), the First Carnatic War in India, the Jacobite rising of 1745 in Scotland, and the First and Second Silesian Wars.

The Pragmatic Sanction of 1713

The Pragmatic Sanction was an edict issued by Charles VI on April 19, 1713, to ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter. The Head of the House of Habsburg ruled the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Croatia, the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Italian territories awarded to Austria by the Treaty of Utrecht ( Duchy of Milan, Kingdom of Naples and Kingdom of Sicily), and the Austrian Netherlands. The Pragmatic Sanction did not affect the office of Holy Roman Emperor because the Imperial crown was elective, not hereditary, although successive elected Habsburg rulers headed the Holy Roman Empire since 1438.

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The Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, Act of Emperor Charles VI.

Because Charles VI had no male heirs and earlier arrangements favored his brother’s daughters, he needed to take extraordinary measures to avoid a succession dispute. Charles was ultimately succeeded by his elder daughter Maria Theresa (born 1717). Despite the promulgation of the Pragmatic Sanction, however, her accession in 1740 resulted in the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession.

The Mutual Pact of Succession

In 1700, the senior (oldest, first-in-line) branch of the House of Habsburg became extinct with the death of Charles II of Spain. The War of the Spanish Succession ensued, with Louis XIV of France claiming the crowns of Spain for his grandson Philip and Leopold I (Holy Roman Emperor) claiming them for his son Charles. In 1703, Charles and Joseph, the sons of Leopold, signed the Mutual Pact of Succession, granting succession rights to the daughters of Joseph and Charles in case of complete extinction of the male line, but favoring Joseph’s daughters over Charles’s because Joseph was older.

In 1705, Leopold I died and was succeeded by his elder son, Joseph I. Six years later, Joseph I died leaving behind two daughters, Archduchesses Maria Josepha and Maria Amalia. Charles succeeded Joseph according to the Pact, and Maria Josepha became his heir presumptive. However, Charles soon expressed a wish to amend the Pact to give his own future daughters precedence over his nieces. Securing the right to succeed for his own daughters, who were not even born yet, became Charles’s obsession. The previous succession laws had also forbidden the partition of the Habsburg dominions and provided for succession by females, but they had been mostly hypothetical. On April 19, 1713, the Emperor announced the changes in a secret session of the council. The Pragmatic Sanction was the first such document to be publicly announced and as such required formal acceptance by the estates of the realms it concerned.

Recognition and Failure

For 10 years, Charles VI labored with the support of his closest advisor Johann Christoph von Bartenstein to have his sanction accepted by the courts of Europe and by Habsburg’s hereditary territories. All the major empires and states agreed to recognize the sanction. Hungary, which had an elective kingship, had accepted the house of Habsburg as hereditary kings in the male line. It was agreed that if the Habsburg male line became extinct, Hungary would once again have an elective monarchy. This was also the rule in the Kingdom of Bohemia. Maria Theresa, Charles’ daughter who succeeded her father following his death in 1740, still gained the throne of Hungary (the Hungarian Parliament voted its own Pragmatic Sanction in 1723). Croatia was one of the crown lands that supported the Sanction of 1713, which eventually resulted in Maria Theresa making significant contributions to Croatian matters.

After Charles VI died, Prussia and Bavaria contested the claims of Maria Theresa on his Austrian lands. The refusal to accept the Sanction of 1713 resulted in the War of the Austrian Succession, in which Austria lost resource-rich and strategically located Silesia to Prussia as well as the Duchy of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla. The elective office of Holy Roman Emperor was filled by Joseph I’s son-in-law Charles Albert of Bavaria, marking the first time in several hundred years that the position was not held by a Habsburg. As Emperor Charles VII, he lost his own country, Bavaria, to the Austrian army of his wife’s cousin Maria Theresa and soon died. His son, Maximilian III Joseph, Elector of Bavaria, renounced claims on Austria in exchange for the return of his paternal duchy of Bavaria. Maria Theresa’s husband was elected Holy Roman Emperor as Francis I in 1745. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 finally recognized Maria Theresa’s rule over the Habsburg hereditary lands. In accordance with the tradition, Maria Theresa held the title of the Holy Roman Empress as wife of the Emperor. She lost the title with her husband’s death in 1765, although she remained the ruler of the Habsburg lands until her death fifteen years later.

Empress Maria-Theresa

Maria Theresa introduced reforms that improved her empire’s economy, military, education, public health, and administration but left the feudal social order intact.

Learning Objectives

Analyze Empress Maria-Theresa’s reforms and policies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Maria Theresa (1717 – 1780) was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg. She was the sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Transylvania, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands, and Parma. By marriage, she was Duchess of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, and Holy Roman Empress.
  • Maria Theresa was a devout Roman Catholic and believed that religious unity was necessary for a peaceful public life. Consequently, she explicitly rejected the idea of religious tolerance.
  • Maria Theresa implemented significant reforms to strengthen Austria’s military, financial, and bureaucratic efficiency. However, she did not manage to change her lands’ deeply feudal social order based on privileged landlords and oppressive forced labor of the peasantry.
  • Maria Theresa invested in reforms that advanced what today would be defined as public health. Her initiatives included the study of infant mortality, countering wasteful and unhygienic burial customs, and inoculation of children.
  • Wishing to improve Austria’s bureaucracy, Maria Theresa reformed education in 1775. In a new school system based on the Prussian one, all children of both genders had to attend school from the ages of 6 to 12. Education reform was not immediately effective.

Key Terms

  • the War of Austrian Succession: A war (1740–1748) that involved most of the powers of Europe over the question of Maria Theresa’s succession to the realms of the House of Habsburg. The war included King George’s War in North America, the War of Jenkins’ Ear (which formally began in October 1739), the First Carnatic War in India, the Jacobite rising of 1745 in Scotland, and the First and Second  Silesian Wars.
  • the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713: An edict issued by Charles VI in 1713 to ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter. The Head of the House of Habsburg ruled the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Croatia, the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Italian territories awarded to Austria by the Treaty of Utrecht, and the Austrian Netherlands. The edict did not affect the office of Holy Roman Emperor because the Imperial crown was elective, not hereditary, although successive elected Habsburg rulers headed the Holy Roman Empire since 1438.
  • Jansenist: An advocate of a Catholic theological movement, primarily in France, that emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination. The movement originated from the posthumously published work of the Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen, who died in 1638. Through the 17th and into the 18th centuries, it was a distinct movement within the Catholic Church and was opposed by many in the Catholic hierarchy, especially the Jesuits.

Maria Theresa

Maria Theresa (1717 – 1780) was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg. She was the sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Transylvania, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands and Parma. By marriage, she was Duchess of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Holy Roman Empress. Although her father Charles VI ensured that his daughter, the first woman in the dynasty, would succeed him as the ruler of the Habsburg lands (the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713), the title of Holy Roman Emperor was neither hereditary nor ever held by a woman. The refusal of Prussia and Bavaria to accept Maria Theresa’s rule in 1740 after her father’s death resulted in the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48). In its aftermath, Maria Theresa was recognized as the ruler of the Habsburg lands. However, her title of Holy Roman Empress meant that she was in fact the wife of the Emperor, Francis I, who secured the title as one of Austria’s gains in the same war.

Although Maria Theresa was an  absolutist conservative, this was tempered by pragmatism and she implemented a number of overdue reforms, which were responses to the challenges to her lands but not ideologically framed in the Age of Enlightenment.

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Maria Theresa by Martin van Meytens, 1742, the National Gallery of Slovenia

After several diplomatic failures and military defeats in the 1730s, Austria seemed to be declining or even on the verge of collapse. After her forty-year reign, Maria Theresa left a revitalized empire that influenced the rest of Europe through the 19th century.

Religion

Maria Theresa was a devout Roman Catholic and believed that religious unity was necessary for a peaceful public life. Consequently, she explicitly rejected the idea of religious toleration but never allowed the Church to interfere with what she considered to be prerogatives of a monarch and kept Rome at arm’s length. She controlled the selection of archbishops, bishops, and abbots. Her approach to religious piety differed from that of her predecessors, as she was influenced by Jansenist ideas. The empress actively supported conversion to Roman Catholicism by securing pensions to the converts. She tolerated Greek Catholics and emphasized their equal status with Roman Catholics. Convinced by her advisors that the Jesuits posed a danger to her monarchical authority, she hesitantly issued a decree that removed them from all the institutions of the monarchy. Though she eventually gave up trying to convert her non-Catholic subjects to Roman Catholicism, Maria Theresa regarded both the Jews and Protestants as dangerous to the state and actively tried to suppress them. The empress was arguably the most anti-Semitic monarch of her time yet like many of her contemporaries, she supported Jewish commercial and industrial activity.

Administrative and State Reforms

Maria Theresa implemented significant reforms to strengthen Austria’s military and bureaucratic efficiency. She employed Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Haugwitz, who modernized the empire by creating a standing army of 108,000 men paid for with 14 million gulden extracted from each crown-land. The central government was responsible for the army, although Haugwitz instituted taxation of the nobility for the first time. Under Haugwitz, she centralized administration, a task previously left to the nobility and church, along Prussian models with permanent civil service. She also oversaw the unification of the Austrian and Bohemian chancellories in May 1749 and doubled the state revenue between 1754 and 1764, though her attempt to tax clergy and nobility was only partially successful. However, these financial reforms greatly improved the economy.

In 1760, Maria Theresa created the council of state, which served as a committee of experienced people who advised her. The council lacked executive or legislative authority, but nevertheless was distinguishable from the form of government employed by Frederick II of Prussia. Unlike the latter, Maria Theresa was not an autocrat who acted as her own minister. Prussia would adopt this form of government only after 1807. In 1776, Austria outlawed witch burning and torture. It was later reintroduced, but the progressive nature of these reforms remains noted. Despite all these reformist efforts, Maria Theresa did not change her lands’ deeply feudal social order based on privileged landlords and oppressive forced labor of the peasantry.

Public Health

Maria Theresa invested in reforms that advanced what today would be defined as public health. She recruited Gerard van Swieten, who founded the Vienna General Hospital, revamped Austria’s educational system, and served as the Empress’s personal physician. After calling in van Swieten, Maria Theresa asked him to study the problem of infant mortality in Austria. Following his recommendation, she made a decree that autopsies would be mandatory for all hospital deaths in Graz, Austria’s second largest city. This law – still in effect today – combined with the relatively stable population of Graz, resulted in one of the most important and complete autopsy records in the world. Maria Theresa banned the creation of new burial grounds without prior government permission, thus countering wasteful and unhygienic burial customs. Her decision to have her children inoculated after the smallpox epidemic of 1767 was responsible for changing Austrian physicians’ negative view of inoculation.

Education

Aware of the inadequacy of bureaucracy in Austria and wishing to improve it, Maria Theresa reformed education in 1775. In a new school system based on the Prussian one, all children of both genders had to attend school between ages 6 an 12. Education reform was met with much hostility. Maria Theresa crushed the dissent by ordering the arrest of those who opposed. The reforms, however, were not as successful as expected since no funding was offered from the state, education in most schools remained substandard, and in many parts of the empire forcing parents to send their children to school was ineffective (particularly in the countryside, children were seen as valuable labor force and schooling as a way to take them away from work). The empress permitted non-Catholics to attend university and allowed the introduction of secular subjects such as law, which influenced the decline of theology as the main foundation of university education. Educational reform also included that of Vienna University by Swieten from 1749, the founding of the Theresianum (1746) as a civil service academy, and other new military and foreign service academies.

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Maria Theresa as a widow in 1773, by Anton von Maron

Maria Theresa was devastated by her husband’s (Francis I) death. Their eldest son, Joseph, became Holy Roman Emperor. Maria Theresa abandoned all ornamentation, had her hair cut short, painted her rooms black, and dressed in mourning for the rest of her life. She completely withdrew from court life, public events, and theater. She described her state of mind shortly after Francis’s death: “I hardly know myself now, for I have become like an animal with no true life or reasoning power.”

Joseph II and Domestic Reform

As a proponent of enlightened absolutism, Joseph II introduced a series of reforms that affected nearly every realm of life in his empire, but his commitment to modernization engendered significant opposition, which eventually led to a failure to fully implement his programs.

Learning Objectives

Contrast Joseph’s domestic reforms with those of his mother

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Joseph II became the absolute ruler over the most extensive realm of Central Europe in 1780. Deeply interested in the ideals of the Enlightenment, he was always positive that the rule of reason would produce the best possible results in the shortest time. He issued edicts, 6,000 in all, plus 11,000 new laws designed to regulate and reorder every aspect of the empire. He intended to improve his subjects’ lives but strictly in accordance with his own criteria.
  • Josephinism  is notable for the very wide range of reforms designed to modernize the creaky empire in an era when France and Prussia were rapidly advancing. However, it elicited grudging compliance at best and more often vehement opposition from all sectors in every part of his empire.
  • In 1781, Joseph issued the Serfdom Patent, which aimed to abolish aspects of the traditional serfdom system of the Habsburg lands through the establishment of basic civil liberties for the serfs. It was enforced differently in all the various Habsburg lands but serfdom was abolished in the Empire only in 1848.
  • Joseph continued education and public health reforms initiated by his mother. Elementary education was made compulsory and higher education was offered for a select few. Joseph created scholarships for talented poor students and allowed the establishment of schools for Jews and other religious minorities. In 1784, he ordered that the country change its language of instruction from Latin to German, a highly controversial step in a multilingual empire. He also attempted to centralize medical care in Vienna.
  • Probably the most unpopular of all his reforms was his attempt to modernize the highly traditional Catholic Church and make the Catholic Church in his empire the tool of the state, independent of Rome.
  • Joseph’s   enlightened despotism  included also the Patent of Toleration, enacted in 1781, and the Edict of Tolerance in 1782. The Patent granted religious freedom to the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Serbian Orthodox and the Edict extended religious freedom to the Jewish population.

Key Terms

  • the Serfdom Paten: A 1781 decree that aimed to abolish aspects of the traditional serfdom system of the Habsburg lands through the establishment of basic civil liberties for the serfs. Issued by the enlightened absolutist emperor Joseph II, it diminished the long-established mastery of the landlord, allowing the serf to independently choose marriage partners, pursue career choices, and move between estates.
  • enlightened despotism: Also known as enlightened absolutism or benevolent absolutism: a form of absolute monarchy or despotism inspired by the Enlightenment. The monarchs who embraced it followed the participles of rationality. Some of them fostered education, allowed religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and the right to hold private property. They held that royal power emanated not from divine right but from a social contract whereby a despot was entrusted with the power to govern in lieu of any other governments.
  • the Edict of Tolerance: An edict issued in 1782 by Joseph II of Austria that extended religious freedom and some civil rights to the Jewish population in the Habsburg empire. It allowed Jewish children to attend schools and universities and adults to engage in certain professions as well as eliminated previous restrictions, including forcing the Jewish population to wear gold stars.
  • Josephinism: The collective domestic policies of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor (1765–1790). During the ten years in which Joseph was the sole ruler of the Habsburg Monarchy (1780–1790), he attempted to legislate a series of drastic reforms to remodel Austria in the form of the ideal Enlightened state. This provoked severe resistance from powerful forces within and outside of his empire.
  • the Patent of Toleration: An edict issued in 1781 by the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II of Austria. It extended religious freedom to non-Catholic Christians living in Habsburg lands, including Lutherans, Calvinists, and the Eastern Orthodox. Specifically, these members of minority faiths were now legally permitted to hold “private religious exercises” in clandestine churches.

Joseph II

Joseph II was Holy Roman Emperor from 1765 to 1790 and ruler of the Habsburg lands from 1780 to 1790. He was the eldest son of Maria Theresa and her husband, Francis I and thus the first ruler in the Austrian dominions of the House of Lorraine, styled Habsburg-Lorraine. As women were never elected to be Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph took the title after his father’s death in 1765 yet it was his mother who remained the ruler of the Habsburg lands. However, Maria Theresa, devastated after her husband’s death and always relying on the help of advisors, declared Joseph to be her new co-ruler the same year. From then on, mother and son had frequent ideological disagreements. Joseph often threatened to resign as co-regent and emperor. When Maria Theresa died in 1780, Joseph became the absolute ruler over the most extensive realm of Central Europe. There was no parliament to deal with and Joseph, deeply interested in the ideals of the Enlightenment, was always positive that the rule of reason would produce the best possible results in the shortest time. He issued edicts, 6,000 in all, plus 11,000 new laws designed to regulate and reorder every aspect of the empire. He intended to improve his subjects’ lives but strictly in accordance with his own criteria. This made him one of the most committed enlightened despots.

Josephinism

Josephinism (or Josephism), as his policies were called, is notable for the very wide range of reforms designed to modernize the creaky empire in an era when France and Prussia were rapidly advancing. However, it elicited grudging compliance at best and more often vehement opposition from all sectors in every part of his empire. Joseph set about building a rational, centralized, and uniform government for his diverse lands but with himself as supreme autocrat. He expected government servants to all be dedicated agents of Josephinism and selected them without favor for class or ethnic origins. Promotion was solely by merit. To impose uniformity, he made German the compulsory language of official business throughout the Empire. Joseph’s enlightened despotism and his resulting commitment to modernizing reforms subsequently engendered significant opposition, which eventually culminated in an ultimate failure to fully implement his programs.

Tax, Land, and Legal Reform

To equalize the incidence of taxation, Joseph ordered a fresh appraisal of the value of all properties in the empire. His goal was to impose a single and egalitarian tax on land and thus modernize the relationship of dependence between the landowners and peasantry, relieve some of the tax burden on the peasantry, and increase state revenues. Joseph looked on the tax and land reforms as being interconnected and strove to implement them at the same time. The various commissions he established to formulate and carry out the reforms met resistance among the nobility, the peasantry, and some officials.

In 1781, Joseph issued the Serfdom Patent, which aimed to abolish aspects of the traditional serfdom system of the Habsburg lands through the establishment of basic civil liberties for the serfs. It was enforced differently in all the various Habsburg lands. The nobility in Bohemia refused to enact its provisions, while the Transylvanian nobles simply refused to notify the peasants in their region about this emancipation document. The Hungarian estates claimed that their peasants were not serfs, but “tenants in fee simple, who were fully informed as to their rights and duties by precise contracts” and continued to restrict these “tenants.” In contrast, the peasants of the German-speaking provinces were actually aided by the Patent. The Patent granted the serfs some legal rights in the Habsburg monarchy, but it did not affect the financial dues and the physical corvée (unpaid labor) that the serfs legally owed to their landlords, which it practice meant that it did not abolish serfdom but rather expanded selected rights of serfs. Joseph II recognized the importance of further reforms, continually attempting to destroy the economic subjugation through related laws, such as his Tax Decree of 1789. This new law would have finally realized Emperor Joseph II’s ambition to modernize Habsburg society, allowing for the end of corvée and the beginning of lesser tax obligations. Joseph’s latter reforms were withdrawn upon his death and the final emancipation reforms in the Empire were introduced only in 1848.

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Joseph II is plowing the field near Slawikowitz in rural southern Moravia in 1769.

Despite the attempts to improve the fate of the peasantry, Joseph’s land reforms met with the resistance of the landed nobility and serfdom was not abolished in the Empire until 1848.

Joseph inspired a complete reform of the legal system, abolished brutal punishments and the death penalty in most instances, and imposed the principle of complete equality of treatment for all offenders. He ended censorship of the press and theater.

Education and Public Health

Joseph continued education and public health reforms initiated by his mother. To produce a literate citizenry, elementary education was made compulsory for all boys and girls and higher education on practical lines was offered for a select few. Joseph created scholarships for talented poor students and allowed the establishment of schools for Jews and other religious minorities. In 1784, he ordered that the country change its language of instruction from Latin to German, a highly controversial step in a multilingual empire.

By the 18th century, centralization was the trend in medicine because more and better educated doctors were requesting improved facilities. Cities lacked the budgets to fund local hospitals and the monarchy wanted to end costly epidemics and quarantines. Joseph attempted to centralize medical care in Vienna through the construction of a single, large hospital, the famous Allgemeines Krankenhaus, which opened in 1784. Centralization, however, worsened sanitation problems causing epidemics and a 20% death rate in the new hospital, but the city became preeminent in the medical field in the next century.

Religion

Probably the most unpopular of all his reforms was his attempt to modernize the highly traditional Catholic Church and make the Catholic Church in his empire the tool of the state, independent of Rome. Clergymen were deprived of the tithe and ordered to study in seminaries under government supervision, while bishops had to take a formal oath of loyalty to the crown. As a man of the Enlightenment, he ridiculed the contemplative monastic orders, which he considered unproductive. Accordingly, he suppressed a third of the monasteries (over 700 were closed) and reduced the number of monks and nuns from 65,000 to 27,000. Marriage was defined as a civil contract outside the jurisdiction of the Church. Joseph also sharply cut the number of holy days to be observed in the Empire and forcibly simplified the manner in which the Mass (the central Catholic act of worship) was celebrated. Opponents of the reforms blamed them for revealing Protestant tendencies, with the rise of Enlightenment rationalism and the emergence of a liberal class of bourgeois officials.

Joseph’s  enlightened despotism included also the Patent of Toleration, enacted in 1781, and the Edict of Tolerance in 1782. The Patent granted religious freedom to the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Serbian Orthodox, but it wasn’t until the 1782 Edict of Tolerance that Joseph II extended religious freedom to the Jewish population. Providing the Jewish subjects of the Empire with the right to practice their religion came with the assumption that the freedom would gradually force Jewish men and women into the mainstream German culture. While it allowed Jewish children to attend schools and universities, adults to engage in jobs from which there had been excluded, and all Jewish men and women not to wear gold stars that marked their identity, it also stipulated that the Jewish languages, the written language Hebrew and the spoken language Yiddish, were to be replaced by the national language of the country. Official documents and school textbooks could not be printed in Hebrew.

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The Emperor by Anton von Maron, 1774.

Josephinism made many enemies inside the empire—from disaffected ecclesiastical authorities to noblemen. By the later years of his reign, disaffection with his sometimes radical policies was at a high, especially in the Austrian Netherlands and Hungary. Popular revolts and protests—led by nobles, seminary students, writers, and agents of Prussian King Frederick William—stirred throughout the Empire, prompting Joseph to tighten censorship of the press.