The Reforms of Maria Theresia and Joseph II: The Enlightenment in Austria

This is an essay I wrote for a class I took in the fall of 2016, titled “Austrian Cultural History.” I’ve decided to publish it here because… why not?
The Enlightenment took longer to arrive in the Holy Roman Empire than it did for the other superpowers of the time, but arrive it did. Thanks to the lack of a strong bourgeois class within the population of the Empire, however, Enlightenment did not spring up from below as it did in France. Instead, it was applied from the top down, by the reigning monarchs of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine: Maria Theresia and, later, Joseph II. Under those two rulers (arguably three, because Leopold II, the Emperor following Joseph II, seemed to have plans to continue the works of his predecessors before he died) the Holy Roman Empire felt numerous changes to bring it more in line with the Enlightened thinking of the day.
The Enlightenment brought numerous changes to Europe as a whole, but undoubtedly the furthest-reaching area in which those changes were made was the realm of civil rights. Under the Habsburgs, these changes were limited, as “Enlightened monarchs saw it as their duty to think for their subjects.”1 The largest change implemented in the Habsburg empire was the abolition of serfdom, a slow and complex process that occupied Maria Theresia and her son Joseph II during their respective reigns. Maria Theresia began the process, granting her peasant subjects many of the rights previously afforded only to free tenants. The peasantry was endowed with freedom of movement, the ability to marry without the explicit approval of their liege lord, and freedom to choose their own occupation – though what was granted on paper and what was granted in effect were different. Also notably absent from the list of rights granted to the peasants was freedom from personal service to their liege lord – it was Maria Theresia’s opinion that doing so would lead to the complete dissolution of the lord/subject relationship, eventually causing a complete slide into anarchy.2
Under Joseph II, the expansion of the rights of the peasantry continued – though, in his characteristic fashion, it was done too rapidly and wound up causing more problems than it solved. With the tax and urbanarial regulation of 1789, Joseph II converted the requirement of personal service to their liege lord into a monetary burden, a 30% tax intended to replicate the work accomplished by the traditional system under which two of every five working days were filled with working the lands of the liege lord.3 What he failed to account for was the fact that the agrarian areas in which this was to take effect did not work on a monetary economy like Vienna and the other cities of the empire, but almost entirely on barter. Prepared for argument from the liege lords, Joseph was surprised by the vehemence of the resistance offered by the peasants themselves – the very people his reform had been intended to help.4 Joseph II also brought about other civil rights reforms, beginning with decreasing the amount of censorship in public – though, it should be noted, he replaced it with strong disincentives for those producing works that didn’t match the utilitarian party line. He also enacted legal reform that meant the laws treated all, from the peasantry to the nobility, equally. Unlike his mother, he even opted to halt the use of capital punishment. In this regard he was once again more utilitarian than humanitarian: his Code of Substantive Criminal Law of 1787 replaced capital punishment with life sentences of hard labor, in order “to give the government the benefit of a wretched criminal’s toil.”5
The Enlightenment also brought with it an increasing concern for public health. While Joseph II focused on the construction of public hospitals, Maria Theresia focused more on altering the policies of her empire in order to effect change. Under her reign, vaccination came to the Holy Roman Empire – thanks in no small part to her willingness to have her own children vaccinated. Having used her own flesh and blood to prove the efficacy of the then-unpopular concept, she began to expand the use of vaccination further, going so far as to host a dinner at her Schönbrunn Palace for the first group of children to be vaccinated. She also made provisions for the increasing of medical knowledge, creating a law that made autopsies mandatory for all hospital deaths in the city of Graz – a mandate that produced one of the most thorough records in all of Europe.
For Joseph II, public health reform was an easy decision – not only was it the humanitarian thing to do, but it also met his utilitarian goals: “healthy subjects meant a healthy state.”6 Foremost of his projects was the construction of the Allgemeines Krankenhaus, and the accompanying  Guglhupf (née  Narrenturm), the first such construction the Empire had ever seen.7 Rather than regarding the poor, the ill, and the insane as a single group that should be avoided at all costs, he saw that their problems were distinct and should be treated separately. This focus on public health went further: he opened both the Parter and the Augarten to the public, ignoring the complaints of nobles regarding the lower class invasion of their formerly private rectums. were being invaded by the lower classes.8 He also ordered the cobbling of all the streets within the Viennese city proper, and instituted both a law requiring those new streets by wetted twice a day to prevent dust and a system of prisoner labor to provide such maintenance as the city needed.9
But once again, Joseph had his failings: in the regard of public health, it was his overzealous attempt to regulate the ways in which the Viennese could bury their dead. For the sake of efficiency, he created a system by which the bodies of the dead were put in mass graves, rather than taking the amount of space and effort that individual graves required. What was universally regarded as a step too far, however, was the reusable coffin – a wooden construct into which the body would be laid. The funeral (also regulated down from a miniature Baroque pageant, in the true Viennese style, to something as time-efficient as reasonably possible) would be carried out, and then the priest would release a mechanism, opening the bottom of the coffin and unceremoniously dropping the body therein into the grave below. This affront to the sensibilities of his subjects could not be borne, and after only four months he was forced to retract the decree that created the system of reusable coffins in the first place.10
Though Joseph II is rather famous for having attempted far grander reforms than his mother, there was one area in which he left her changes largely untouched: education. This is perhaps because education was the one area in which Maria Theresia’s reforms were on the same grand scale that Joseph himself preferred to work. Education was also the area that likely would have caused her the most personal anguish, being a large break from the way she herself was raised. Under Maria Theresia, the absolute control of the Austrian education system was finally wrested from the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church and instead placed firmly under the auspices of the state. While the educational system as a whole was not secularized – Maria Theresia was a steadfast believer in the tenets of the Catholic Church, while Joseph II at least recognized the utility of religion in the daily lives of his subjects – the colleges were allowed to expand from the realm of theology, and the long-standing requirement that the students be Catholics themselves was removed. For the lower levels of education, Maria Theresia acted the caring grandmother, creating a school system based on the one used in Prussia that was mandatory from the age of 6 up until the students were 12 years old. She was quite vehement in ensuring that it would take effect, as well: those who resisted the new system were arrested. Perhaps she could have stewed less dissent if she had provided for the costs of the education, but the education was not free; though the seizure of the assets of the Jesuit Order had provided some income that was put towards the new system, this was not able to meet the full cost of the education system.11 Between the cost of textbooks and the cost of tuition itself, the newly implemented schools were none too popular with the parents of the freshly-minted students.
For Joseph, this system was apparently satisfactory. He left it almost entirely untouched, though he did reduce the stature of some of the smaller universities of the realm, judging those in Prague and Vienna to be sufficient to meet the needs of his grand bureaucracy.12 As in all things, he was a utilitarian, and intervened with the university programs to ensure that all their work was for practical purposes: “[Joseph] supported general education only to the extent that the material benefits for society were demonstrable.”13 The only large change he made came as part of a larger edict, by which the institutions of the imperial government as a whole changed their formal language from Latin (or, in some cases, the local language) to German, helping to consolidate the governance of the Empire.
Unlike in the field of education, in the realm of religion Joseph II was far more willing to create change than his mother. Under Maria Theresia, religious reform was so limited as to be nearly nonexistent. She argued that religious freedom was something that “no Catholic prince can permit without heavy responsibility,” and, by and large, wanted little to do with the regulation of the church.14 Her sole aim, with regard to the Church, was to ensure the “primacy of government control in Church-state relations.”15
Joseph II stands in contrast to her restraint towards ecclesiastical affairs. As his reign began, he issued the Patent of Tolerance, granting permission for Jews and Protestants to practice whichever religion they so chose.16 Barring certain architectural limitations, they were also permitted to construct places of worship for their religions. He was not, however, in favor of unbridled religion: even as he was allowing other to practice theirs, he began to limit the ways in which faith could be displayed. The regulations he produced, spanning everything from how long a sermon could last to how many candles were permitted at the altar, “occasionally assumed the character of pettiness.”1718 The aforementioned burial changes were a part of this crusade of efficiency, one of the most visibly unsuccessful aspects of it. But by far the largest of his religious reforms was his nationalization of roughly half of the 2,000 monasteries in Austria and the collection of some 60 million Gulden in taxes and seized assets.19 The resulting funds were placed in a Religious Fund (Religionsfond) that was used to fund the construction and maintenance of a wave of parish churches, striving for an ideal by which “no one should be more than an hour’s walk from his local church.”20
The core of Joseph’s religious reforms was the idea that Catholicism, and religion in general, was a tool of the state. There is even some evidence that he considered the foundation of a Church of Austria, taking religion from an area where it was regulated by the state to a realm in which it was directly controlled.21 As part of these efforts, he made numerous other changes to bring the Church to heel: marriage was made from an ecclesiastical into a civil procedure; the number of religious holidays recognized by the state was reduced; and joining monasteries was discouraged, in no small part by banning the taking of monastic vows before the age of 24.2223 His concept of ‘modernized Catholicism’ was not only a Catholicism obedient to the state, it was one that did as little as possible to interfere with the productivity of the populace, instead encouraging the subjects of the empire to work for the collective betterment of the state and her people.
There were other reforms, of course, though none quite so far-reaching as those mentioned above. No discussion of Maria Theresia’s changes would be complete without a mention of the “comprehensive reforms” of the Empire’s military that she was forced to make in her struggle to hold the throne.24 In order to support her new military machine, she also became responsible for the construction of a new centralized bureaucracy, “adapting ancient institutions to modern needs.”25 Many of the new institutions she created are still functional today, including “the Officers’ Military Academy at Wiener Neustadt and the ‘Theresianum’ Diplomatic College in Vienna.”26 In doing so, she increased the status of Vienna as a whole, making it even more than before the heart of the Empire.27
Of Joseph II’s reforms, many have been left unmentioned – he was rather prolific in that regard. Unlike his predecessors, who left the Baroque palaces of Vienna and Austria, he focused on the construction of public goods – hospitals, orphanages, barracks, and so on.28 He continued his mother’s expansions of the city of Vienna, not only cleaning the streets but also lighting them, and enforcing the clear labelling of streets and houses.29
Maria Theresia, known as the ‘daughter of one age and mother of another,’ marked the beginning of the Enlightenment in the Holy Roman Empire. Though she herself wasn’t fully in favor of the ideals of the era, she nonetheless made numerous changes to help modernize her realm, starting with the requisite military and bureaucratic reforms needed for her to remain on the throne, but then expanding to some civil rights reforms and the educational system for which she is still known today. Her son, Joseph II, was truly an Enlightened emperor – though one who was far less effective, in the long run, than she was, thanks to the overzealous nature of his numerous reforms. Nonetheless, between the two of them they were able to make a great deal of progress towards bringing Enlightened ideals to the Holy Roman Empire.


Kann, Robert A.: “A History of the Habsburg Empire: 1526-1918”
Lehne, Inge and Johnson, Lonnie: “Vienna- The Past in the Present: A Historical Survey”
Parsons, Nicholas: “Vienna: A Cultural History”
Rickett, Richard: “A Brief Survey of Austrian History”

  1. Lehne-Johnson, 70 
  2. Kann, 196 
  3. Kann, 198 
  4. Kann, 199 
  5. Kann, 180 
  6. Lehne-Johnson, 64 
  7. Parsons, 186-187 
  8. Lehne-Johnson, 64-66 
  9. Lehne-Johnson, 66-67 
  10. Lehne-Johnson, 67 
  11. Kann, 193 
  12. Kann, 194 
  13. Kann, 192 
  14. Parsons, 176 
  15. Kann, 187 
  16. Lehne-Johnson, 61 
  17. Rickett, 65 
  18. Lehne-Johnson, 63 
  19. Parsons, 185-186 
  20. Parsons, 186 
  21. Kann, 184 
  22. Kann, 180 
  23. Kann, 189 
  24. Kann, 160 
  25. Rickett, 63-64 
  26. Rickett, 63-64 
  27. Lehne-Johnson, 58 
  28. Lehne-Johnson, 67 
  29. Lehne-Johnson, 70