Maria Theresa: the Habsburg empress revisited

Maria Theresa, by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1762.

Maria Theresa, by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1762.

On 26 February 2018, Tobias Heinrich (Kent) and Avi Lifschitz (Oxford) convened a study day at Queen’s College (Oxford) to mark the tercentenary of the birth of Maria Theresa, empress of the Habsburg Empire from 1740 to 1780. Leading scholars came together from across Europe for a day of interdisciplinary talks and discussion about the enduring ‘myth’ of Maria Theresa. These talks provided a fascinating window into the life and rule of this formidable empress, covering a range of topics including the representation of Maria Theresa from her own time into the present day, her correspondence with her daughter Marie Antoinette, her succession to the throne as a woman, her social and political networks, and the Catholic Enlightenment.

In the first session, Werner Telesko (Austrian Academy of Sciences) presented a paper entitled ‘Maria Theresa: the making of a myth. Old questions and new insights’. Telesko highlighted the way in which the proliferation of idealized portraits, etchings and symbols, standardized the idealized representations of the empress in the eighteenth century as empress, mother, and widow. Telesko demonstrated how the myth of the empress continued thereafter to be adapted to suit contemporary needs, Maria Theresa becoming the ultimate embodiment of ‘being Austrian’ in the national memory. Catriona Seth (All Souls College, Oxford) presented her work, ‘A well-tempered correspondence? The letters of Marie Antoinette and Maria Theresa’. Seth revealed the way in which Maria Theresa deployed her daughters in her imperial ambitions through marriages abroad, managing these royal alliances through correspondence. She kept careful tabs on the one who made the most prestigious marriage, treating Marie Antoinette as a dependent in need of counsel even after she was crowned queen of France. Maria Theresa dictated with whom her daughter was allowed to maintain correspondences, implored her above all to produce an heir to the throne (demanding constant updates of her daughter’s reproductive status), and urged her to heed the advice of the Austrian ambassador Mercy, Maria Theresa’s eyes and ears in France.

Letter by Marie-Antoinette to her mother Maria Theresa, 9 July 1770.

Letter by Marie-Antoinette to her mother Maria Theresa, 9 July 1770.

In the second session, William O’Reilly (Trinity Hall, Cambridge) gave his paper, ‘“All the king’s men”: Maria Theresa and the Holy Crown of St Stephan’, a fascinating reflection on the problem of female succession and the history of the legal gymnastics involved in answering the question: is the heir a child, or a woman? O’Reilly underscored how Maria Theresa came to be seen as a man in the person of a woman in order to rationalize her succession to the throne, forming her royal image in imitation of Queen Mary I. Thomas Wallnig (University of Vienna) concluded the second session with a provocative paper entitled ‘After 2017: is new research on Maria Theresa possible?’. Wallnig answered his own question, at least in the beginning, in the negative, paying homage to the substantial scholarship on Maria Theresa that has been completed to date. Proposing to move beyond biography, correspondence, and her family, Wallnig ultimately turned to the promise of digital humanities and network analysis for reframing the questions, opening up new avenues for historical inquiry and making room for future innovative studies of the empress.

The study day concluded with a keynote lecture by leading eighteenth-century historian Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (University of Münster), ‘Maria Theresa and the Catholic Enlightenment’. Stollberg-Rilinger began her talk highlighting Maria Theresa’s vexed relationship with the Enlightenment. Maria Theresa viewed the philosophes as having ‘ni foi, ni lois, ni honnêteté’. She was in favour of upholding the authority of tradition and disliked the philosophes’ entitlement to think on their own. Yet what emerged through Stollberg-Rilinger’s analysis of Maria Theresa’s policies regarding the Church was in fact a woman fully confident in her capacity to think for herself. Stollberg-Rilinger demonstrated how Maria Theresa cracked down on the Church when the problem of exorcists became a major issue in the public sphere, asserting her sovereign rule over the Church as she claimed the authority to settle religious matters. In claiming the power of decision-making and the power to define what was faith versus charlatanism, Maria Theresa asserted her divine right to rule as sovereign, even over the Church.

Kaiserin Maria Theresia im Kreise ihrer Kinder, by Heinrich Füger, 1776.

Kaiserin Maria Theresia im Kreise ihrer Kinder, by Heinrich Füger, 1776.

Wallnig is right to point out that a figure as prominent as Maria Theresa has been studied exhaustively, with countless studies dedicated to her alone. The eighteenth century is full of such figures – rulers, philosophes, political theorists, artists, writers, and countless others – that continue to captivate us dix-huitiémistes and inspire our work. Yet while Wallnig asked what more we can possibly do on Maria Theresa in the twenty-first century, I found myself leaving Queen’s College thinking about what Maria Theresa can teach us about why eighteenth-century studies matter today. One might ask, how could an afternoon of talks dedicated to a single person answer that question?

Yet in that afternoon, we thought about how we can leverage twenty-first-century technology to find openings in well-trodden fields, and make new discoveries and contributions to eighteenth-century scholarship. We considered the role of media in the construction of glorified images of political figures, and the appropriation of historical figures to serve contemporary purposes. We thought about the problem of women and power through the lens of the letters between a mother and a daughter: not only how a woman acquires and holds onto power, but more strikingly the negotiation of identity as a woman in power, negotiating the political and the personal, the identity of empress versus mother. We grappled with how to justify the right of a woman to rule, and what to do when a title is intended for a man: Rex versus Regina. And lastly, in what proved particularly prescient, we wrestled with the question of where power lies – with the Church or with the State – and who has the power to define faith versus charlatanism, what we could transpose to our current political moment as fact versus fiction.

– Chloe Edmondson (Stanford)

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