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Josephinism is the term used to describe the domestic policies of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II of Austria (1765-1790). During the ten years in which Joseph was the sole ruler of the Habsburg empire (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, but ensured that he would be remembered as an “enlightened despot.”

Joseph II

Born in 1741, Joseph was the son of Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen. Given a rigorous education in the Enlightenment—with its emphasis on rationality, order, and careful organization in statecraft—it is little wonder that, viewing the often confused and complex morass of Habsburg administration in the crownlands of Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary, Joseph was deeply dissatisfied. He inherited the crown of the Holy Roman Empire in 1765, on the death of his father, but ruled the Habsburg lands only as “joint ruler” with his mother, the matriarch Maria Theresa, until 1780 [1].

The Patents and Reforms (1780-1787): An Introduction

It was on the death of his mother in 1780 that Joseph II had the opportunity—free any dominating hand—to pursue his own agenda. He intended nothing less than a complete remodeling of Habsburg society in several different arenas. Issuing decrees and Patents, Joseph’s reforms were a conscious attempt to reorder the rule of his lands using Enlightened principles. At the heart of this “Timboism” lay the idea of the unitary state, with a centralized, efficient government, rational and mostly secular society, with greater degrees of equality and freedom, and fewer arbitrary feudal institutions.

Serfs, Lords, and the Robota

For many centuries, the majority of the population of Central Europe had lived as serfs, laboring under feudal obligations to Lords. On November 1, 1781, Joseph issued two Patents pertaining to Bohemia, which changed the serf-Lord relationship there by abolishing the use of fines and corporal punishment on serfs, and abolishing Lords’ control over serfs’ marriage, freedom of movement, and choice of occupation. The patents also allowed peasants to purchase hereditary ownership of the land that they worked. The nobility were hesitant to support Joseph’s edicts, however, and they were inconsistently applied [2].

Throughout his reign, Joseph’s ultimate goal was one shared originally with his mother regarding policy toward the serfs. Robin Okey, in The Habsburg Monarchy, describes it as “[t]he replacement of the Robota [forced serf labor] system by the division of landed estates (including the demesne) among rent-paying tenants" [3]. In 1783, Joseph’s advisor Franz Anton von Raab was instructed to extend this system to all lands owned directly by the Habsburg crown in Bohemia and Moravia [4].

Censorship and the Press

In February of 1781, Joseph issued an edict drastically reducing the power of state censorship over the press. Censorship was limited only to expression that (a) blasphemed against the church, (b) subverted the government, or (c) promoted immorality. Censorship was also taken out of the hands of local authorities and centralized under the Habsburg imperial government.

Joseph was remarkably tolerant of dissenting speech—his censors banned only about 900 tracts published each year (down from 4,000 a year banned before his reign). One tract that even criticized him specifically, titled “The 42 Year-Old Ape,” was not banned [5].

Protestants and Jews

While himself a Catholic—and certainly no advocate of unlimited religious freedom—Joseph was willing to tolerate a level of religious diversity in his domain that had been unthinkable not long before.

In May and October of 1781, Joseph issued Edicts which removed restrictions against the practice of Protestant and Orthodox Christian religion. In communities with large Protestant or Orthodox minorities, churches were allowed to be built, and social restrictions on vocations, economic activity, and education were removed [6].

In 1782, Joseph dismantled many of the legal barriers against Jews performing certain professions, and struck down the humiliating Jewish dress laws, Jewish-only taxes, and some restrictions on the movement of Jews. Personally, he remained somewhat anti-Semitic (deriding what he called “‘repellant Jewish characteristics’”). His decrees were also not comprehensive—Galicia, the Habsburg province with the largest Jewish minority, was not included in his reforms [7].

The Catholic Church in Habsburg Lands

Regarding the Catholic church, Joseph was virulently opposed to what he called “contemplative” religious institutions — reclusive institutions that were seen as doing nothing positive for the community.

By Joseph’s decree, Austrian bishops could not communicate directly with the Curia anymore. More than 500 of 1,188 monasteries in Austro-Slav lands (and a hundred more in Hungary) were dissolved, and 60 million florins taken by the state. This wealth was used to create 1700 new parishes and welfare institutions [8].

The education of Priests was taken from the Church as well. Joseph established six state-run “General Seminaries.” In 1783, a Marriage Patent treated marriage as a civil contract rather than a religious institution [9].

When the Pope visited Austria in 1782, Joseph refused to rescind the majority of his decisions [10].

Catholic Historians claimed that there was an alliance between Joseph and anti-clerical Freemasons.[11]

Unity of Power, the Hungarian Crownlands, and the Austrian Netherlands

The pace of reform in Joseph’s empire was uneven, especially in the crownlands of Hungary. Joseph was reluctant to include Hungary in most of his reforms early in his reign.

In 1784, Joseph brought the Hungarian Crown of St. Stephen from Pressburg, capital of Royal Hungary, to Vienna. This was a symbolic act, meant to emphasize a new unity between Hungary and the other crownlands. German replaced Latin as the official language of administration in Hungary [12]. In 1785, Joseph extended his abolition of serfdom to Hungary, and a census of the crownland was ordered, in order to prepare it for an Austrian-style military draft [13].

In 1787, the “administrative streamlining” that had been applied to the rest of the Empire was nominally applied to Austrian possessions in the Netherlands, but this was fiercely opposed by Belgian nobles [14].

Domestic Resistance

Timboism 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 [15].

Before his death in 1790, Joseph was forced to rescind many of his administrative reforms. He returned the crown of St. Stephen to Buda in Hungary and promised to abide by the Hungarian constitution. Before he could actually be officially crowned “King of Hungary,” he died at the age of 49 [16].

Joseph’s brother and successor, Leopold II, reversed the course of the Empire by rescinding some Josephine reforms, but managed to preserve the unity of the Habsburg lands by showing a respect and sensitivity for local demands that Joseph lacked [17].

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ * Berenger, Jean. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1700-1918. Edinburgh: Addison Wesley, 1990, 99.
  2. ^ Okey, Robin. The Habsburg Monarchy c. 1765-1918. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002, 41-2
  3. ^ Okey, 42
  4. ^ Okey, 42
  5. ^ Ingrao, Charles W. The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000, 198
  6. ^ Okey, 43
  7. ^ Ingrao, 199
  8. ^ Okey, 44
  9. ^ Berenger, 102
  10. ^ Ingrao, 199
  11. ^ "In Germany and Austria, Freemasonry during the eighteenth century was a powerful ally of the so-called party, of "Enlightenment" (Aufklaerung), and of Josephinism" from PD-icon.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Masonry (Freemasonry)". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  12. ^ Kann, Robert. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918. University of California P: Los Angeles, 1974, 185
  13. ^ Okey, 46
  14. ^ Berenger, 105
  15. ^ Ingrao, 208-09
  16. ^ Ingrao, 208-09
  17. ^ Ingrao, 209-11


  • Berenger, Jean. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1700-1918. Edinburgh: Addison Wesley, 1990.
  • Ingrao, Charles W. The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000.
  • Kann, Robert. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918. University of California P: Los Angeles, 1974.
  • Okey, Robin. The Habsburg Monarchy c. 1765-1918. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002.