Early Modern Times – enlightened Habsbolutism

Early Modern Times - enlightened Habsbolutism

Dear readers,

This is the final post from my recent trip to central Europe. With smiles through my tears, I bid farewell to Cesky Krumlov–knowing that ’tis better to have Krumloved and lost than never to have Krumloved at all–and spent a few days in the former Habsburg imperial capital of Vienna. This was a fitting conclusion to my central European tour this summer, as the aristocratic families who presided over Krumlov from the middle ages to the twentieth century–the Rozmberks, Eggenbergs, and Schwarzenbergs–were fiercely loyal to the Catholic Habsburgs. In the early modern period especially, these aristocrats sought favour at the imperial Hofburg in Vienna: in culinary terms, their preferences were not for rebellious Czech dumplings, but rather Habsburgers and Wieners.

Lest such Catholic genuflection before the Austrian Ring of Power be regarded as regressive toadyism in contrast to the hotbed of Hussitism and Protestant revolt in central Bohemia, we should recall that Enlightenment principles are associated with the reigns of such eighteenth-century Habsburg rulers as Empress Maria Theresa and her son (co-regent and later successor) Joseph II. Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Cesare Beccaria, and Immanuel Kant admired these and other powerful monarchs (including Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great) because of rather than despite their absolutist politics: as long as they implemented rational policies, the rule of law (mostly, or at least sometimes), and promoted liberty of thought and expression (for scholars only), enlightened absolutists were praised for keeping the unruly passions of the vulgar masses in check. While philosophers might enjoy freedom of the pen, the liberties of the swinish multitude were certainly penned in.

During my visit to the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, I was gratified to gaze upon paintings by such European masters as Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio, Brueghel, and Rembrandt, as well as imperial curiosities like Habsburg automatons (aka ‘Austromatons’ according to the XXIIIrd edition of Early Modern Times’s Department of Portmanteaus Annual List), including der Schiffsautomat of the seventeenth-century Emperor Rudolf II (see this video): a self-propelled mechanical galleon complete with moving musicians, soundtrack, and cannon-fire. Thus the material glories of the Habsburg empire were in full display, including famous paintings of Vienna (as pictured above, by the eighteenth-century artist Bernardo Bellotto) and portraits of the ‘enlightened Habsbolutists’ mentioned above.

What visitors to the museum might not realise is the turbulent history of such monarchs. For example, the War of the Austrian Succession of 1740-48 was triggered by the prospect of a female Habsburg empress, Maria Theresa: a female Austrian ruler would be barred from becoming Holy Roman Emperor, just the sort of pretext ambitious rivals like Frederick the Great needed to enlarge their dominions at the expense of the Habsburgs. Forgotten, however, amidst the great-power conflict of eighteenth-century Europe was the struggle over the rights to further offspring of large flightless (but very fast) birds, the War of the Ostrich-Egg Succession against Empress Maria-the-Racer. While Maria Theresa’s reign witnessed enlightened reforms, her successor Joseph II was (despite the unflattering depiction in the Milos Forman film Amadeus) more radical in his policies: he not only granted greater civil rights to Jews and Czechs, but went further in protecting serfs from the depredations of their feudal masters, and finally abolished serfdom in the Habsburg empire towards the end of his short reign (just a brief shower, really) from 1780-90. His successor and brother Leopold would, under pressure from the nobility, undo many of these changes. Less well-known is the even briefer but catastrophic two-day reign of the cataleptic Habsburg emperor Doze-Off the Second, who reluctantly accepted the extraction of fruit liquids by non-Austrians and embarked on a mad campaign to eliminate sharks from the Danube who were preying on wave-riders: if he is remembered at all, it’s for the toleration of juice and protection of surfers.

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Shark Extermination Studies Program

Page Break