Éric Hassler, La Cour de Vienne 1680-1740. Service de l’empereur et stratégies spatiales des élites nobiliaires dans la monarchie des Habsbourg, Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013, 384 p. Index, Bibliographie, Appendices (Jeroen Duindam)
This book is the published version of a doctoral thesis defended in 2010 in Paris (Université Paris I – Panthéon-Sorbonne). Hassler’s work was supervised by Christine Lebeau and represents an ongoing high-level tradition of French research on Austria and Germany. The author seeks to deal with the court in Vienna not primarily as a centre of monarchical power, but as a point of orientation for noble elites in the Habsburg composite monarchy. This is a study about the agency and strategies of noble families loosely attached to the court through their nominal honorary office of chamberlain. The title of Hassler’s doctoral project, “une cour sans empereur’ indicates his focus on nobles in the urban landscape. The author traces the connections of families to the court, to the city of Vienna, to the regional capitals of Habsburg monarchy, and to the seigneuries of the families. His conclusions stress the emergence of a closely-knit group of families effectively and consciously combining court, city, province and seigneurie in their strategies. Around this small core group a wider network of noble families maintained relatively loose connections with the court. The emperor, in Hassler’s view, remained a relatively unobtrusive player.
La cour de Vienne is organised in three parts, each including three chapters. The introduction provides a well-balanced assessment of the historiography of the court, showing familiarity with the debate among French as well as English and German circles – worlds still too often unconnected. The first part, ‘De la cour à la cour virtuelle’ outlines the role of Vienna as ‘Kaiserstadt’, explains the functioning of the nominal office of chamberlain, and adds the regional and local centres to the equation. One conclusion clearly emerges: the court was never the only or inevitable pole of attraction for the chamberlains, whose service was haphazard and infrequent. The second part, ‘Une ubiquité aristocratique’, explains how the pull of Vienna and the court contributed to the mobility of noble families, who could never consider dropping their links to the provincial capitals with their estates assemblies or to their own family estates and seigneuries. Only the major players among the families, however, could effectively combine operating at all these levels. They developed into a network of related and competing court grandees maintaining key positions at court, in Vienna, and throughout the monarchy. The third part, ‘Une présence médiatisée’, shows how these upper-level families became a conspicuous presence in Vienna, through their palaces as well as through their omnipresence in urban media. Finally, it presents a detailed analysis of family networks .
This work, relying on numerous archives, published sources and a rich and varied literature, indisputably shows a high level of knowledge and competence. Its mixing of court history, history of elites, and urban history is mostly effective and convincing. The graphic materials (see table on p. 365-366) are on the whole useful, with the exception of those in printed in the annexes on p. 307-317. There is room for some doubts, however. The author’s choices and perspectives may be new for a French-language audience, but they reflect an established approach in the German-Austrian literature on the Habsburg court and on courts more generally. Andreas Pečar’s 2003 Die Ökonomie der Ehre. Höfischer Adel am Kaiserhof Karls VI., for instance, focuses on the agency and practices of the same noble groups in roughly the same period. Likewise there is a rich bibliography on the city of Vienna and the interactions between court and city more generally. While Hassler cites Pečar and is familiar with most other relevant works, he fails to make explicit in his general conclusions where he diverges from these previous authors. On the whole, his conclusions seem to fit into a now widely accepted view. There was no ‘domesticated nobility’ entirely dependent on the court in Vienna; honorary officers such as chamberlains were more often than not absent; emperors necessarily worked together with a group of families still wielding power in the regions. Vienna as a Kaiserstadt was hugely influenced by the carefully orchestrated presence of noble families; imperial ‘repreaesentatio maiestatis’ in this phase remained traditional and relatively modest.
In one respect Hassler seems to go further than most previous authors: he understates the power and agency of the emperor. I have doubts here. Pečar, among others making the same argument, plausibly underlined why and how the court remained of utmost importance for families seeking a status that went beyond the confines of their territories and provinces. Downplaying the role of the emperor works only as a comment on earlier naively ‘absolutist’ interpretations. Moreover, it should be fitted into a wider European context. At the end of his conclusion the author point to the relevance of his work for the study of other early modern courts. His careful analysis of the group of leading families and their strong grip on Vienna and the Habsburg monarchy as a whole, can profitably be compared to Leonhard Horowski’s 2012 study on the French court 1661-1789, Die Belagerung des Thrones, which depicts the stranglehold of a limited number of families on the French court and its numerous privileges and preferments.
In conclusion: Hassler’s careful and well-written analysis of nobles spatial strategies in Vienna deserves praise, yet it is not as innovative as the author himself states.