Sub-Project D02: Josephinism, the Catholic Church, and the Provincial Nobility: Threat Constellations in Inner Austria


Josephinism, which itself constitutes a notion of social order, threatened traditionally accepted forms of social order propagated by the Baroque church and the landed nobility. Although Josephinism is used to refer to the entire set of enlightened/absolutist reforms introduced in the Hapsburg monarchy during the reigns of Maria Theresa and Joseph II, the key reforms were those associated with the church, that gave rise to the name of the term in the first place. Since the establishment of this new social order was questioned by the opposing powers that be and a competition between these notions of social order ensued, this project falls under the rubric of Project Area D (Competing Social Orders).

Existing scholarship has primarily examined Josephinism from the perspective of the monarch and the central state. As a result, scholarly attention has concentrated on the bearers of the Josephine reforms and the central territories of the Hapsburg monarchy, namely Austria, Bohemia and Hungary. For the most part, Josephinism has also been situated within the context of a more general theory of modernization that can be read in a positive or negative light.

Seen from another perspective, however, this conflict over the enlightened/absolutist reforms of Emperor Joseph II can also be analysed in terms of mutually exclusive notions of social order that stood in diametric opposition to one another. Each side therefore saw the other as a threat. Project D04 focuses on the competition over social order that ensued out of this threat situation. It principally rejects a teleological perspective in favour of a differentiated analysis of individual groups and notions of social order.

With its emphasis on discourse analysis, this project will more broadly contribute to a re-evaluation of the period around 1800 as a historical caesura. A more differentiated analysis of different groups will show that maintaining a categorical division between "pre-modern" and "modern" makes little sense. Especially because it is situated in the so-called "Sattelzeit" ("saddle period"), this project will make a fundamental contribution to the critical debates surrounding the dichotomy between "pre-modern" and "modern" and the re-assessment of traditional historical periodization.

Moreover, by concentrating on the "periphery" and emphasizing the mutual nature of the perceived threats, as well as by rejecting a teleological perspective regarding competitive historical situations, this project will introduce new approaches and frameworks into the field of scholarship on the Josephine reforms.

Project Team

Project Leader:

Prof. Dr. Anton Schindling

Ph.D. Students:

Philip Steiner, M. A.

Dennis Schmidt, M. A.

Student Assistant:

Markus Gerstmeier

Academic Disciplines and Orientation

Early Modern History

Project Description

As part of the CRC 923 "Threatened Orders" at the University of Tübingen, Project D02 "Josephinism, the Catholic Church and Rural Nobility: Constellations of Threat in Inner Austria" (Discipline: Early Modern History) investigates the complex antagonism between proponents and opponents of the enlightened/absolutist reforms introduced under the reign of the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) in Inner Austria (Styria, Carinthia, Carniola) by concentrating on the Inner Austrian nobility and the Inner Austrian Catholic clergy. The project focuses on Inner Austria for a number of reasons, including the fact that, compared to other Hapsburg territories, the threat constellations between Josephine reformers and their opponents were particularly poignant in the rural areas of Inner Austria, well away from the respective capital cities and imperial residences. Furthermore, additional research is needed on this geographic area in order to fill in gaps within the existing scholarship on Josephinism.

The public and private controversies surrounding the reforms of Joseph II, who ruled alone from 1780 onward following the death of his mother Maria Theresa, symbolise the opposing and mutually exclusive notions of social order propagated by different groups. The aim of the Josephine reform attempts was to create an efficient, modern, and above all, centralized bureaucratic system to the benefit of the "well-being" and "collective happiness" of the state. Moreover, in order to achieve this goal within the context of the old Catholic-dominated estate system of the Hapsburg monarchy, it thus seemed to be essential to limit the traditional privileges of the nobility and the Catholic Church incrementally or to eliminate them entirely. Logically, of course, this led to the development of competing notions of social order in which separate versions of individual threat scenarios were crafted using well-known and specific threat terminology and/or semantics. The experiences of threat that form the corpus of the project were indeed multi-faceted. The emperor, for example, felt himself doubly threatened: the opponents of his reforms presented an internal threat while Prussia's military success constituted an external threat.

The conservative wing of the Catholic clergy, on the other hand, perceived the efforts to introduce a state church subject to the will of the emperor as an existential threat. Decrees such as the Patent of Toleration and the Edict of Tolerance (which granted religious and civil rights to followers of Protestant, Greek Orthodox and Jewish religions) and measures taken against Baroque piety (limitations on pilgrimages, holidays, etc.), as well as the dissolution of monasteries and the issuance of guidelines for a more humble liturgy, moved those among the Catholic clergy who believed firmly in the principles of mono-confessionalism, Baroque piety, religious orders and scholasticism as part of education to take to the barricades. At the same time, however, enlightened clergymen and Josephinians within the Catholic Church, whose number should by no means be underestimated, also saw the continued existence of "bigotry" and a raging "superstitiousness" that was widespread among the clergy and the people as a threat to their spiritual beliefs. Given the deeply routed popular piety that existed at the time, it is also quite understandable that the radical cuts in terms of holidays and the actions taken against piety raised the hackles of a large proportion of the population. While the existence of these multi-layered antagonisms associated with the church had already become apparent during the reign of Maria Theresa, the discourse of threat truly intensified in wake of the edicts of tolerance first issued in 1781 and the dissolution of the monasteries that began in 1782.

On a secular level, the threat presented to the estate system by the newly constituted civil service and the loss of numerous privileges turned large portions of the landed nobility into fierce opponents of the Josephine reforms. Indeed, it was not without reason that the estates had formed the basis of the structure of social order at the time. Naturally, within this estate system and in the state constitution, the nobility who continually insisted on the preservation of their privileges was dominant. The participation of the estates and the autonomy of the states were key elements of the political system of the Hapsburg monarchy. As Josephinism shook these foundations of the existing social order, it was inevitable that conflicts of interest would emerge. These squabbles ultimately culminated in the conflict over the patent on taxes and rents on February 2, 1789. On the other side of the coin, there were also noblemen who actually supported the reform movement, but more detailed research still needs to be done in order to understand their role in these conflicts. By adopting a more differentiated approach, Project D02 clearly questions the validity of commonly held assumptions as to the homogeneity of the different groups involved in these conflicts. While looking at how the perceptions of threat generated notions of inclusion as well as exclusion, it also takes intermediary and extreme positions into account. Furthermore, the project examines the role that conspiracy theories certainly played in the dramatisation of threat scenarios. While some Josephine reformers surmised that a conspiracy of "ex-Jesuits" was at the root of the critical attacks, many Catholic clergymen believed that "freemasonry" was the catalyst behind the supposed evil that they faced.

Project D02 encompasses the dissertation projects of Dennis Schmidt and Philip Steiner, both of which promise to make a substantial contribution to scholarship on the Hapsburg Empire. Dennis Schmidt examines the conflict between Joseph II and the Inner Austrian clergy, while Philip Steiner more closely analyses the attitude of the Inner Austrian nobility toward the Josephine reforms. Both dissertations look specifically at experiences of threat, perceptions of threat, threat constellations, and the languages of threat used by actors representing different interests and, respectively, competing notions of social order.

In order to shed new light on this field of research, months of research in archives and libraries in Vienna, Graz, Salzburg, Klagenfurt and Ljubljana are planned.

Project-related Lectures and Publications

Schindling, Anton

Schmidt, Dennis

Steiner, Philip

Congresses, Workshops, and Conferences

Project-related Courses

Schmidt, Dennis

Steiner, Philip: