because many judges were equally convinced that tougher discipline was
required to curb the opposition of their colleagues. The personal papers
of the leading protagonists in the struggles against the parlements before
1771 are littered with projects for edicts of discipline, and the weed-
ing out of alleged opposition ringleaders, and many such attempts were
made, notably in BesanÂ¸ on, Paris, Pau and Rennes.37 During the crisis in
Toulouse of 1763, ď¬rst president FranÂ¸ ois de Bastard even drafted a com-
prehensive plan for the abolition of the Parlement, the reimbursement
of its ofď¬cers and their subsequent exile while a new court was created
composed of loyal subjects who would be subject to a law of discipline
33 BN MS Fr 6680, fo. 136.
34 An argument repeated uncritically by M. Antoine, Louis XV (Paris, 1989), pp. 567â“610.
35 B[iblioth` que]M[unicipale de]B[esanÂ¸ on] Collection Chiď¬‚et 59, fos. 263â“4, duc de
Randan a la Cour, 19 February 1757.
36 AN H1 630, fo. 96, Dâ™Aiguillon to comte de Saint-Florentin, 18 August 1764.
37 Egret, Lâ™opposition parlementaire, pp. 133â“81 and Swann, Politics and the Parlement,
Political culture in Louis XVâ™s France 235
governing their conduct.38 It would be difď¬cult to get much closer to
the actual programme implemented by Maupeou, and his revolution was
clearly an accident that had long been waiting to happen.
This authoritarian theme can also be detected when we examine the
attitude of Maupeouâ™s supporters towards French history. By the sec-
ond half of the eighteenth century it was common to see cardinal de
Richelieu denounced as a tyrant, and his ministry was described as a
â˜despoticâ™ interlude in the remonstrances of the Parlement of Rennes.39
Even Louis XIV was liable to public criticism for his infamous declara-
tion of February 1673, restricting the right of remonstrance, which the
Parlement of Toulouse labelled as an attack on â˜national libertyâ™.40 Yet
for a staunch supporter of Maupeou, like Puget de Saint-Pierre, a minor
literary ď¬gure and author of a history of the Druse of Lebanon, it was the
ministry of Richelieu that â˜had given the people liberty, prepared for the
brilliance of Louis le Grand and the complete consolidation of author-
ity under Louis le Bien-aimÂ´ â™.41 Others took up the theme, including
the pro-government author of Ils reviendront: ils ne reviendront pas, who
praised the â˜grand Richelieuâ™ for overcoming faction and compared him
to the chancellor with the verse:42
If the great Richelieu, to save the patrie,
Knew how to lower les grands and tame heresy;
Maupeou, even greater still, without sword or combat,
Saved by an edict, the monarch and the state.
This attempt to tie the reforms of Maupeou into a broader tradition
of French history, in which Richelieu and Louis XIV were seen as tri-
umphing over the forces of internal dissension that had spawned the civil
wars of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, was combined with
an attack on the unpatriotic conduct of the parlementaires. They were
regularly reminded that they had obeyed the far more draconian mea-
sures of Louis XIV, and their current conduct was attributed to a desire
to imitate the English parliament. Much of the criticism was ironic, or
38 Quoted in Bastard dâ™Estang, Les parlements de France: essai historique sur leurs usages, leur
organisation et leur autoritÂ´ (2 vols., Paris, 1857), II.314â“15.
39 BMD 22981 (I), Remontrances du parlement de Bretagne, 29 janvier 1771, p. 12.
40 BMD 22981 (II), Remontrances du parlement de Toulouse, 6 avril 1771, p. 37.
41 A[rchives du Minist` re des]A[ffaires]E[trang` res] C[orrespondance]P[olitique]F[rance]
1375, â˜Premier mÂ´ moire sur lâ™administration, octobre 1774â™, fo. 109.
42 Ils reviendront: ils ne reviendront pas, pp. 41â“2. The actual verse read:
Si le grand Richelieu, pour sauver la patrie,
SÂ¸ ut abaisser les grands et dompter lâ™hÂ´ rÂ´ sie;
Maupeou, plus grand encore, sans glaive ni combat,
Sauva, par un edit, le monarque et lâ™Â´ tat.
236 Julian Swann
mocking in tone, as in Le songe dâ™un jeune parisien, where the author
recounts a tale of a young man whose head is turned by the prospect
of imitating the exploits of the orators of the House of Commons.43 In
his dream, he ď¬nds himself seated on one of a hundred golden thrones,
while the monarch with a wobbly crown is held captive. Then, in what
was clearly intended to be an analogy with recent events, the king struck
back. Moving forward with majesty a voice rang out that the king is king
and the magistrates were there to render justice not rule, and their thrones
turned to dust. Yet there was also an element of fear within this and other
pamphlets, with references to the lessons of the English civil war and to
the fate of Charles I. Moreover, the pro-Maupeou authors tapped into a
long-standing concern about contamination by the troublesome â˜English
spiritâ™ which was seen as a growing threat, an â˜infectionâ™ or a â˜gangreneâ™
that would invade the body politic of France.44 From the 1750s, if not
before, the opposition of the parlements and especially the Jansenists
was classed as â˜republican disloyaltyâ™, and writers such as Puget de Saint-
Pierre were convinced that it had succeeded in infecting the bourgeoisie of
Pugetâ™s proposed remedy not surprisingly involved doses of â˜purgingâ™
and â˜quarantineâ™, by expelling the guilty magistrates and sending the
remainder to healthier provincial climes, to cities such as Poitiers, Tours
or Troyes, where they would no longer ď¬nd â˜nourishment for their delir-
iumâ™.46 Admittedly he overlooked the fact that they might in turn infect
the provincials, but he was not alone in proposing remedies for the ideo-
logical contagion carried by the parlements. As Keith Michael Baker
has noted, the government propagandist Jacob-Nicolas Moreau had long
sought to assemble an â˜ideological arsenalâ™ designed to rebut their con-
stitutional arguments, and through the sÂ´ance de la ď¬‚agellation and other
royal statements a robust and uncompromising deď¬nition of sovereignty
had been presented to the public.47
It is difď¬cult to measure the impact of the governmentâ™s propaganda,
although the general consensus among modern historians suggests that
the majority of the French population remained hostile to Maupeou. The
43 Le songe dâ™un jeune parisien (n.p., n.d.), pp. 338â“9.
44 Ibid., pp. 355â“9. For a particularly interesting example, see AN 01 352, fo. 430,
â˜MÂ´ moire sur les parlements et les pays dâ™Â´ tatsâ™, written at the end of the Seven Yearsâ™
45 Puget de Saint-Pierre, AAE CPF 1375, â˜Second mÂ´ moire sur lâ™administration, octobre
1774â™, fos. 113â“14. Similar ideas were expressed during earlier crises, notably that of
1757, AN 164 AP 1, â˜MÂ´ moire sur les troubles actuels et sur les moyens de les faire
cesser, juin 1757â™.
46 AAE CPF 1375, â˜Second mÂ´ moire sur lâ™administration, octobre 1774â™, fo. 114.
47 Baker, Inventing the French Revolution, pp. 59â“85.
Political culture in Louis XVâ™s France 237
chancellor himself remains one of the great enigmas of the eighteenth
century, his true thoughts and intentions supposedly lost in the ď¬res that
destroyed ď¬rst the archives in the Tuileries and then his family chateau.
Yet even if the Paris Commune and the allied bombers had not done
their worst, it is unlikely that we would have learnt much more about a
man whose inability to put quill to paper was a running joke among his
contemporaries. It is this shortage of genuine Maupeouana that makes his
compte rendu, delivered to Louis XVI in 1789, so fascinating.
Rather than simply offer a belated vindication of his policies, Mau-
peou offered a critique of the ills supposedly plaguing society, deploring
the lack of â˜civic educationâ™ and the nefarious consequences of modern
teaching methods.48 As he interpreted matters, the authority of teachers
weighed too heavily upon their pupils, and as a result the words â˜order
and obey are for them only the expressions of tyranny and servitude,
that this once accepted shapes for the rest of their lives their opinions
on the nature of government and the submission that it requiresâ™.49
The solution was to follow the practice of the ancients and use the
older children as intermediaries between pupils and teacher â˜thus accus-
tomed from the cradle to command and to obey their equals, citizens
know how to command without pride, and obey without a murmur and
they will neither exaggerate the rights of authority, nor the hardships of
The chancellor was not the last statesman to look to the civic edu-
cation of the next generation as a means of fostering â˜public virtuesâ™,
and his vision of classical education was clearly one designed to produce
Spartans rather than Athenians. Although not presented to Louis XVI
until 1789, these ideas almost certainly dated from the reign of his pre-
decessor and may well have been based upon an earlier work drafted by
Maupeouâ™s gifted secretary, Charles-FranÂ¸ ois Lebrun.50 Whatever the
truth of the matter, the content of the compte rendu dovetailed neatly with
the thoughts of others writing in the early 1770s. The author of the Dia-
logue entre un ofď¬cier franÂ¸ois qui revient de Corse, for example, argued that it
was time to teach children a â˜Catechism of the French citizenâ™.51 Among
the maxims to be absorbed were such gems as the â˜king rules by the grace
of Godâ™, that he dispenses â˜justice and is not a despotâ™ and that it was
impossible to separate the concept of the nation from his person. Puget
de Saint-Pierre, on the other hand, urged the government to codify the
fundamental laws of the kingdom beginning with the principle that
the king was â˜sole legislator and sole masterâ™ and continuing to include
48 49 Ibid., p. 603.
Quoted in Flammermont, Chancelier Maupeou, p. 602.
50 51 Dialogue entre un ofď¬cier franÂ¸ ois et son neveu, p. 36.
Ibid., pp. vâ“vi. c
238 Julian Swann
the rights of property and of personal liberty as well as more predictable
ingredients such as the Salic Law of succession.52
These projects were a clear sign that many who backed the revolution of
1771 were conscious that something more than a simple call for â˜silence,
respect obedienceâ™ was required to win the battle against the parlements.
Yet what the chancellorâ™s apologists offered was an authoritarian philoso-
phy that clearly owed as much, if not more, to the Counter Reformation as
it did to Enlightened absolutism. Subjects were to be instructed in a state
catechism, learning a creed that would set the principle of the absolute
and unfettered power of the monarchy in stone. The aim was to make
future political and constitutional wrangling of the type that had sup-
posedly made the revolution of 1771 necessary impossible. Henceforth
the kingâ™s servants could carry out their orders with military precision
and any individual or institution bold enough to challenge them could
be suitably punished. The ideal was a regimented state, with obedient
ofď¬cers exercising authority over silent and respectful subjects. It was as
if the contemporary enthusiasm for imposing Prussian army discipline
on wayward French troops was to be applied to society as a whole.
The parlementaire response
The attempts of Maupeou and his propagandists to present the parlemen-
taires as disobedient rebels provided the justiď¬cation for their harsh, even
cruel treatment by the chancellor.53 The magistrates were understand-
ably anxious to counter the charge that their own disloyalty was the cause
of their misfortunes and drew upon their own legal and political culture
to defend their position. Many of the arguments they employed were
deeply traditional, but the bitter experience of being dispossessed of their
ofď¬ces and exiled for a long period certainly caused some to think more
critically about the legitimate exercise of royal power as the revolution of
1771 crystallised long-standing fears about the threat of despotism.
From the perspective of the judges, perhaps the most crucial prob-
lem was the attitude of Louis XV himself. The lettres de cachet and other
orders emanating from Versailles were all signed â˜Louisâ™, and, in the-
ory, they represented the express commands of an adult king who had
been on the throne for over ď¬fty years. Most biographers of Louis XV
continue to peddle the same threadbare line that in 1771, exhausted by
52 AAE CPF 1375, â˜Second mÂ´ moire sur lâ™administration, octobre 1774â™, fo. 113. He was
not alone in considering projects for codifying the fundamental laws with the aim of
breaking the power of the parlements, see AN BB 30 9, dos. O.
53 For more details, see my â˜Disgrace without Dishonour: The Internal Exile of French
Magistrates in the Eighteenth Centuryâ™, forthcoming Past and Present (2007).
Political culture in Louis XVâ™s France 239
constant opposition, the king struck back imposing his authority with
majesty encapsulated in the curt phrase â˜je ne changerai jamaisâ™.54 Con-
temporaries were certainly conscious that the monarch was jealous of his
authority, but they would have been amazed by the suggestion that he had
been suddenly transformed into a determined ruler. The attitude of pres-
ident dâ™Ormesson de Noiseau, who had long observed the king at close
quarters, provides a helpful insight into the impact of his intervention on
13 April 1771. In his diary, he noted that the kingâ™s tone had â˜frightened
the whole assemblyâ™, but a few days later doubts about the veracity of his
contribution had surfaced.55 He recounted that it was Maupeou who had
passed the note to the king with an underlined instruction â˜it is necessary
to pronounce these words angrilyâ™. It was not long before the humorists
were at work, and dâ™Ormesson records an alleged conversation between
the duc de Nivernais and Mme du Barry.56 The kingâ™s mistress asked
impatiently why there was still so much opposition to Maupeou, even
after the monarch had stated â˜je ne changerai jamaisâ™ so decisively. The
duke replied, â˜Madame, when the king said that, it was of you that he
was thinking.â™ Perhaps it would be going too far to say that Louis XV had
become a bad joke for his subjects, but his failure to convince them that
he was personally directing government policy certainly made it easier
for Maupeouâ™s opponents to defend their actions.
Doubts about the kingâ™s real intentions could only reinforce the par-
lementaires in their determination to resist Maupeou, but there were also
deep-rooted cultural factors behind their stance. As in other quarrels with
the crown, the parlementaires were inspired by the ideal of the parfait mag-
istrat, justifying opposition on the grounds of conscience as well as by
a venerable tradition of political theory that permitted resistance on the
basis that it was in the best interests of a king deceived by evil ministers.
There were many references to chancellor dâ™Harlayâ™s legendary retort to
if it is disobedience to serve well, the Parlement ordinarily commits that fault and
when it discovers a conď¬‚ict between the absolute power of the king and the good
of his service, it judges one preferable to the other not through disobedience, but
through duty to its ofď¬ce and conscience.
54 Antoine, Louis XV, pp. 909â“92, and F. Bluche, Louis XV (Paris, 2000), pp. 169â“80.
55 AN 156 mi 74, fos. 64, 69. Dâ™Ormessonâ™s comments were clearly second hand, but the
changing tone illustrates the existence of widespread doubts about the kingâ™s commit-
ment to Maupeouâ™s policies.
56 AN 156 mi 74, fo. 74.
57 The phrase was picked up by, among others, the procureur Regnaud, BN MS Fr 13733,
â˜Histoire des evÂ´ nements arrivÂ´ s en France par m. Regnaud ancien procureur au par-
lement de Parisâ™, fo. 37; 13734, fos. 97, 99.
240 Julian Swann
However, the events of 19â“20 January 1771 and Chaumont de La
Galazi` reâ™s mantra of â˜silence, respect obedienceâ™ of 13 April were inter-
preted as a direct challenge, requiring a considered and detailed response.
For many, Chaumontâ™s stance was little short of treasonable, betraying
the king and the nation by failing in his primary duty of giving coun-
sel. The magistrates were, however, anxious to provide a more thorough
explanation of their own position, and president Saron spoke for many
when he declared that:58
we have never ceased to give the king, by our silence and prompt obedience,
marks of our respect for his sovereign orders and an example to all of his subjects
of the most profound submission to everything which carries the imprint of his
In developing his argument, Saron could point to the fact that the exiles
had suffered disgrace without public protest or complaint.
Yet the magistrates who served Maupeou had also made much of the
fact that they had followed the dictates of conscience, bowing to the kingâ™s
explicit orders in the form of a lettre de cachet. The obvious problem for the
disgraced parlementaires was to explain why it was permitted to obey one
lettre de cachet and not another. While in exile, councillor Angran actually
wrote a brief essay on the subject.59 His solution was the conventional one
based upon the argument that in France, unlike the Ottoman Empire,
the kingâ™s authority was limited and as a result:
the king cannot demand of me, under the specious pretext that I owe everything
to his authority and to his wishes, that I sacriď¬ce to his arbitrary will . . . my
property, my liberty, my profession and my honour.
Angran thus rejected the argument of his political opponents who believed
that the ď¬rst duty of the royal ofď¬cer was to serve and that of the subject
to obey. The celebrated ď¬rst president of the Cour des Aides, Lamoignon
de Malesherbes, had reached similar conclusions, treating the protests of
those who served the crown in obedience to a lettre de cachet as nothing
more than a sham designed to cover their dishonour.60
Such an interpretation had deep roots, and Omer Talonâ™s maxim that
the kingâ™s subjects were â˜free men and not slavesâ™ was called upon to
explain that there were legitimate limits to obedience.61 As the Parlement
of Rennes reminded Louis XV in 1764, his government should never
58 AN 156 mi 75, fos. 210â“11, â˜Projet de lettre de m. le president de Saron a m. le duc `
de La Vrilli` re ou a m. le chancelier ou a tous les deuxâ™. The letter is undated, but was
e ` `
written in the autumn of 1771.
59 BPR Collection Le Paige 571 (III), â˜Lettre dâ™un conseiller au parlementâ™, fo. 257.
60 Remontrances de la cour des aides, du 18 fÂ´vrier sur lâ™Â´dit de dÂ´cembre 1770, et lâ™Â´tat actuel du
e e e e
parlement de Paris.
61 Flammermont, Remontrances, II, pp. 421â“2.
Political culture in Louis XVâ™s France 241
impose that â˜blind and servile obedience which only exists in the heart
of the most vile slave, who betrays the most precious interests of he
who commands rather than dare to displease himâ™.62 Only in despotic
regimes was â˜resistance a crime and obedience the only virtueâ™, and the
real service was to be prepared to tell the king unpleasant truths.63 As
the Cour des Monnaies explained to Louis XVI in August 1787: â˜the
obedience of magistrates is not a passive obedience which recognises no
other laws than those of absolute authority, but a considered obedience,
an assent . . . which cannot survive without a full and complete liberty
of suffrageâ™.64 Another to pick up this theme of legitimate opposition
was the avocat, Blondel, who at a ceremony marking the recall of the old
Parlement in 1774 eulogised the â˜Enlightened obedienceâ™ of its mem-
bers which made them willing to endure hardship and even the sacriď¬ce
of their tribunal in order to â˜open the eyesâ™ of the king and protect the
Thus both sides of the political divide could claim in good faith to have
responded with silence, respect and obedience to the kingâ™s orders. Those
who had answered the chancellorâ™s call stressed their submission to the
monarchâ™s will, whereas their opponents offered a more complicated for-
mula. They claimed to have a duty to counsel the king, to speak out and
oppose what they believed to be unjust. Yet once their conscience was
discharged, they too would submit in respectful silence when presented
with a lettre de cachet of exile. Both professed almost identical sentiments
and yet a real chasm lay between their respective conceptions of what con-
stituted loyal service or even of political culture. What for one side was
necessary counsel appeared as insolence, even sedition, to the other, while
respectful submission for one camp was nothing better than dreadful ser-
vility to their opponents. These sentiments were reinforced by conď¬‚icting
interpretations of history, the rights of the crown, the legitimate duties of
the subject and of the implicit rules and values that lay at the heart of old
regime political life.
Such divisions were not new, they had existed with varying degrees of
intensity throughout the reign of Louis XV. For much of the time, damag-
ing conď¬‚ict was avoided because both crown and parlements could derive
beneď¬t from abiding by the rules of judicial politics. Yet there was always
a current of thought that believed the parlements represented a real dan-
ger to royal authority and that the solution lay in draconian measures
62 BMD MS 1329, â˜Remontrances du parlement de Bretagne, du 12 janvier 1764â™, fo. 83.
63 BMD 22981 (II), ArrËtÂ´ de la cour des comptes, aides et ď¬nances de Normandie, du 18 avril
1771, pp. 12â“13.
64 AN KK 1326, ArrËtÂ´ de la cour des monnaies, du 22 aoË t 1787, fos. 42â“3.
65 BPR LP Collection Le Paige 573, fo. 96, Discours prononcÂ´ par M. Blondel, avocat, a
lâ™ouverture des audiences de la Tournelle, le samedi 3 dÂ´cembre 1774, pp. 1â“2.
242 Julian Swann
modelled on those employed by Louis XIV. These sentiments were com-
mon among both military ofď¬cers and the senior echelons of the Catholic
clergy, but they also found favour with some in the royal administration
and even the parlements without whom Maupeouâ™s revolution would
have been impossible. Yet the France of 1771 was very different from
that of 1673. Louis XIVâ™s humbling of the parlements was the work of a
young, dynamic monarch ď¬ghting a major and initially glorious war at the
head of a kingdom with fresh and painful memories of civil strife. Perhaps
more importantly, the severity of his legislation restricting remonstrances
was tempered by concessions in other ď¬elds.66 The revolution of 1771,
on the other hand, was the work of a hated minister, acting for the aged
and unpopular king of a country, which, while at peace with itself, had
recently been humiliated in war. It was an inauspicious launch pad for a
political upheaval of such magnitude and we should not be surprised that
it was unpopular nor that it ultimately failed.
Maupeouâ™s revolution is rightly viewed as a watershed in the history of
the French monarchy. The chancellorâ™s assault on the parlements went
beyond the normal exchange of judicial politics and appeared to be an
attempt to change the rules by which France was governed. Such fears
could only be heightened by the emphasis upon the virtues of absolute
obedience and the efforts of the propagandists to equate the duties of civil-
ian and military ofď¬cers. In the face of this onslaught the parlementaire
opposition remained steadfastly loyal, although some excitable commen-
tators were convinced that all France needed was a prince of the blood
to raise his standard for the kingdom to face revolt and civil war.67
Public discussion of such topics was clearly taboo. However,
Malesherbes did dare to broach the subject in his personal papers.68
He envisaged a situation whereby government abuse of power and the
threat of tyranny would â˜force the nobility to arm, the clergy to mount
the pulpit and people to mutinyâ™. In such circumstances, he believed that
it would be better for the parlements to take the lead by issuing arrËts e
66 J. J. Hurt, Louis XIV and the Parlements: The Assertion of Royal Authority (Manchester,
2002), has recently argued that Louis XIV adopted a draconian approach towards the
parlements. However, the argument of A. N. Hamscher, The Parlement of Paris after the
Fronde, 1653â“1673 (Pittsburgh, 1976), that the kingâ™s treatment of the courts involved
careful management and cooperation as well as coercion remains, in my opinion, more
67 Regnaud, BN MS Fr 13733, â˜Histoire des evÂ´ nementsâ™, fos. 55â“6.
68 AN 162 mi 9, â˜Eclaircissements sur les observations recueillies des conversations de m.
le chancelier de Lamoignonâ™, fos. 36â“55.
Political culture in Louis XVâ™s France 243
de dÂ´fense because â˜it would be much easier [for the crown] to treat with
them than with the people or the armyâ™.69 When he considered possible
scenarios for arrËts de dÂ´fense, Malesherbes identiď¬ed a situation whereby
the king ordered the â˜ď¬nanciers to levy taxation arbitrarily at bayonet
pointâ™.70 His fear was very much part of his broader preoccupation with
ď¬scal maladministration and it inspired his personal campaign for the
re-establishment of the Estates General. However, his concern about the
danger posed by growing army involvement in the civilian administration
was in tune with a wider concern in parlementaire circles that govern-
ment was becoming more militarised â“ an issue of even greater resonance
after Gustav IIIâ™s successful coup of August 1772 against the Riksdag in
As dedicated students of Montesquieu, the parlementaires were well
aware of his warning that the possession of professional troops was one of
the reasons why monarchies degenerated into despotism.71 The frequent
employment of the military to implement the various policies against
the parlements in the second half of the eighteenth century could only
add to their unease. The issue came to a head in the autumn of 1763,
when the crown sought to maintain high rates of taxation in the after-
math of the disastrous Seven Yearsâ™ War.72 Military commandants were
sent to register these laws in the provincial parlements and they were
equipped with sweeping orders to take whatever measures they deemed
necessary to overcome opposition. Trouble ď¬‚ared in Rouen and Greno-
ble, but it was in Toulouse that the situation developed into a serious
political crisis. Rather than submit to the authority of the commandant,
the duc de Fitz-James, the Parlement of Toulouse passed an arrËt de e
dÂ´fense. Incensed by the opposition, Fitz-James struck back placing the
magistrates under house arrest for more than a month, ď¬rm in his con-
viction that as the bearer of the kingâ™s orders he was above reproach.
Yet a change of ministry at Versailles transformed the situation. Fitz-
James was ordered to release his prisoners and they then struck back
by attempting to arrest him. To his immense shock, the duke received
lukewarm support from the government and he was eventually recalled
in semi-disgrace. Not surprisingly, Fitz-James was outraged, arguing that
he had done no more than carry out his orders, while his supporters
headed by his formidable wife demanded that he be compensated with a
69 Ibid., fo. 54. ArrËts de dÂ´fense were orders issued by the parlements which could, in theory,
forbid tax collectors to carry out their duties under pain of prosecution. Not surprisingly,
the legality of such arrËts was hotly disputed.
70 71 Echeverria, The Maupeou Revolution, p. 52.
72 Hudson, â˜The Parlementary Crisis of 1763â™, and Swann, Politics and the Parlement,
244 Julian Swann
marshalâ™s baton and that the â˜cowardlyâ™, â˜low bornâ™ parlementaires be suit-
Fitz-James and his wife failed to reverse government policy, but the
dukeâ™s conduct in Toulouse provoked intense discussion about the role
of the military in the civil administration. Most of the parlements drafted
remonstrances relating to the affair, and the Parlement of Paris in par-
ticular made efforts to draw a distinction between the nature of civil and
military obedience.74 The court argued that in external military affairs,
the king had an obligation to defend his people against aggression and
in such circumstances â˜blind obedience is a duty, is a virtueâ™. However,
in matters of internal civil administration the situation was very differ-
ent as the aim was to sustain subjects in their rights. The military could
play no part in this process because they owed their liberty and property
not to the power of their swords, but to the law â˜which commands or,
to be more precise, the sovereign commands by the lawâ™. Nor was the
Parlement impressed by the argument that Fitz-James was just obeying
orders. It argued that his mistake was to interpret them in such a rigorous
fashion, tyrannising the people over whom he had been given authority
rather than using his inď¬‚uence to persuade the monarch in their favour.75
Such conduct threatened the liberty of the people and the stability of the
throne and risked transforming France into a military despotism where
sovereign power was in the hands of those â˜who should be nothing more
than its instrumentsâ™.76
The political crisis in Toulouse was quickly followed by the even
more dramatic and inď¬‚ammatory Brittany affair, which featured a clash
between another imperious military commandant, the duc dâ™Aiguillon,
and the Parlement of Rennes. The causes of the quarrel were complex
and institutional and personal rivalries were key components. However,
the catalyst was provided by an attack upon dâ™Aiguillonâ™s administration
of the corvÂ´e, which he had been employing to improve the road network
as part of the provinceâ™s defences against the British. The Parlement of
Rennes alleged that he had abused his position, linking his actions to the
broader critique of the threat of despotism posed by the military com-
mandants, â˜who believe everything is permitted, they no longer respect
anything, the property holder is no longer sure that tomorrow he will still
possess his house and his ď¬eldsâ™.77
73 BN MS Fr 6834, fo. 102, duchesse de Fitz-James to marquise de Baulpry, December
74 Flammermont, Remontrances, II, pp. 423â“40, esp. pp. 428â“30.
75 76 Ibid., II, p. 428.
Ibid., pp. 424â“8.
77 Quoted in B. Pocquet, Le pouvoir absolu et lâ™esprit provincial: le duc dâ™Aiguillon et La
Chalotais (3 vols., Paris, 1900â“1), I.318.
Political culture in Louis XVâ™s France 245
Once the crisis broke, the principal target of both the duke and the
government in Versailles was RenÂ´ Caradeuc de La Chalotais, a distin-
guished judge and literary ď¬gure, who was subjected to trial and impris-
onment on the ď¬‚imsiest of evidence. In his defence, La Chalotais penned
several remarkable memoirs and he left his readers in no doubt about
the source of his tribulations, attacking, among other things, the min-
istry, dâ™Aiguillon and the Jesuits. However, much of his ď¬re was con-
centrated upon the nefarious consequences of allowing the military to
become involved in civil administration:78
accustomed to command absolutely, they have been persuaded that in civilian
life the same obedience was necessary against citizens as in a battle against the
enemy. And, to maintain an odious inquisition and to put the nation in irons,
they have been made into enemies of their compatriots and obliged to hold their
bayonets permanently raised against them. It is for these generous defenders of
the patrie to see if their profession is degraded or not by a base and mercenary
La Chalotais had the duc dâ™Aiguillon ď¬rmly in his sights when he wrote
these lines, but he was also critical of those military men who had served
the crown as gaolers or carried out draconian orders against the par-
Such arguments were given even greater force by the heavy involvement
of the army in Maupeouâ™s revolution of 1771. Military commandants like
the ducs de Fitz-James, Randan and Richelieu were to the fore in imple-
menting the edicts abolishing the parlements, while soldiers distributed
lettres de cachet exiling the magistrates and guarded the chancellor and
his servants as they staged their revolution. As he reď¬‚ected upon these
developments, the exiled Malesherbes noted that his father, chancellor de
Lamoignon, had compared the kingâ™s failure to back Fitz-James in 1763
to that of Charles I in abandoning the Earl of Strafford.79 He added:
there are today good citizens who have more modern principles and a more
republican soul, who will see this affair in another light, what barrier against
tyranny, they ask, if there is no limit to the excesses that a [military] commandant
can commit with impunity under the protection of the title that he holds and in
brandishing the kingâ™s orders as a pretext.
As he contemplated the problem in his study, Malesherbes was again
prepared to think radically:80
78 Troisi`me mÂ´moire de monsieur de La Chalotais, procureur gÂ´nÂ´ral au Parlement de Bretagne
e e ee
79 80 Ibid., fos. 66â“7.
AN 162 mi 9, â˜Eclaircissementsâ™, fos. 67â“8.
246 Julian Swann
speaking frankly, it would perhaps be useful to change the constitution of the
kingdom, it would perhaps be better to live in a country where the military power
was not at the disposition of the king alone; but in France are we resolved for this
Ultimately he was reluctant to answer his own rhetorical question, but
he admitted that until it was decided a soldier should not be â˜arrested
by the Parlement for carrying out his ordersâ™. To be fair to Malesherbes,
he was no closet revolutionary and his musings were those of a man who
had spent three years in exile thinking about the implications of what
he genuinely believed was an ill-judged policy pursued by a despotic
Yet he was not alone and another diligent commentator on the political
crisis, the procureur Regnaud, drew similar conclusions. He lamented the
fact that it was the military that had served as Maupeouâ™s instrument in his
fateful project, â˜as if they ceased to be citizens in devoting themselves to
the service of arms, as if the troops were not men of the nation, to protect
and not oppress itâ™.81 A series of anonymous pamphlets reinforced the
theme that the military could not simply hide behind the excuse that they
were just obeying orders.82 In one of the more radical of these, it was
argued that the citizen should not risk his honour and his virtue by car-
rying out orders blindly. Instead, the examples of military commandants
such as the ducs de Beauvau and Duras, who had refused to serve Mau-
peou, were equated with seventeenth-century ď¬gures like Lesdigui` res or
the vicomte dâ™Ortez, and even classical heroes including Marcus Teren-
tius, who had all refused to obey unjust orders.83 The author ď¬nished
with a resounding appeal:84
Obey authority without question, despotism cries to us; obey rather nature, jus-
tice, the patrie cries the general interest whose voice was made at all times to
During the reign of Louis XV, these bold appeals would not trouble the
good order of the French army, although their subsequent impact on the
ofď¬cer corps in the later crisis of 1788â“9 should not be underestimated.
What they do reveal, however, is the real fear that the threat of military
despotism had created in the minds of Maupeouâ™s opponents. This was
not a rhetorical, abstract danger conjured up to blacken the reputation of
81 BN MS Fr 13733, â˜Histoire des evÂ´ nementsâ™, fo. 241.
82 Echeverria, The Maupeou Revolution, pp. 52â“3.
BPR Collection Le Paige 915, Lettre a M. Le comte de â—â—â— , ancien capitaine au regiment
de â—â—â— sur lâ™obÂ´issance que les militaries doivent aux commandements du prince (n.p., 1774),
pp. 7, 16. The pamphlet was ď¬rst published in April 1774 and was reprinted in 1787 or
84 Ibid., p. 25.
Political culture in Louis XVâ™s France 247
the chancellor, but a genuine concern born of practical experience that
was exacerbated by the tendency of his apologists to present complex
political choices in the stark terms of will you obey: yes or no?
Political stability depends, in part, upon shared values and expectations
and a common appreciation of the rules, conventions and rituals â“ the
political culture â“ by which government is conducted. There can never
be complete agreement about these factors, but throughout much of the
reign of Louis XV there was sufď¬cient consensus between crown and par-
lements to make judicial politics work. A mutual respect for traditional
rights and practices ensured that despite frequent crises the business of
government was transacted in a manner that was advantageous to both
sides. The involvement of the parlements in the law-making process pre-
vented the king from appearing despotic, while the magistrates derived
immense prestige and honour from their privileged status. The religious
and ď¬scal disputes after 1748 certainly weakened that consensus; the rev-
olution of 1771 shattered it.
Maupeou was confronted with a political crisis of a complexity and
magnitude that would have taxed the most gifted statesman. His solution
was to strike out at his opponents, deliberately tearing up the rulebook
of judicial politics and the rituals and conventions that had underpinned
government since at least 1715. In its place, he sought to redeď¬ne political
authority in an authoritarian fashion, presenting his work as a return to the
traditional virtues of strong royal government associated with Richelieu
and Louis XIV. It is true that the medicine was sweetened with a dash
of reform that was enough to convince Voltaire, and many subsequent
historians, that here was a French version of Enlightened absolutism.
The occasional wistful comparison with affairs in the realm of the King
of Prussia raises the question of whether or not there was an attempt
to emulate the political approach of the widely respected Frederick II.
â˜Silence, respect obedienceâ™ might be interpreted as a Gallic version of
the Prussian â˜pay up, join up, shut upâ™, an authoritarian, disciplined route
to state modernisation similar to that imposed on the French army with
The examples of later authoritarian French governments such as the
Jacobin or Bonapartist regimes, or even more modern republican ones, do
suggest that a regimented, bureaucratic mentality of state service would
ď¬nd fertile soil in which to develop. Yet whereas Frederick II, Joseph II or
Napoleon I could draw strength from their armies, projecting an image of
themselves as servants of the state or patriot kings, Louis XV could make
no such claims. Not for nothing was he cast as a despot, with Maupeou
248 Julian Swann
as his grand vizier, his power still feared, when in reality it was draining
away. Here lay the great error of those who thought that to govern with
the majesty of Louis XIV or Frederick II it was sufď¬cient to apply harsh
measures to recalcitrant institutions and discipline to the population as
a whole. What they failed to realise was that these and other successful
rulers had reinforced their authority through other means, and that for
power to be wielded effectively it needs ď¬rst of all to be seen as legitimate.
Any attempt to connect the revolution of 1771 to a tradition of state
modernisation must, therefore, be treated with caution. While a small
number of Maupeouâ™s allies may have harboured dreams of reforming
the French state, the majority were motivated by fear of a seemingly
rising tide of insubordination. The revolution of 1771 was reactionary
in the sense that it sought to turn the clock back to a more orderly and
submissive era, a supposedly golden age that had ď¬‚ourished under Louis
XIV. As a result, a broad swathe of opinion saw despotism rather than
reform in the chancellorâ™s policies and they failed to put down roots as a
consequence. By putting so much emphasis on the concept of obedience,
the chancellorâ™s supporters had run straight into a wall in the form of
another conception of French political culture, supported by a venerable
tradition of political theory, stressing the duty of the magistrate to give
counsel, to speak the truth even at the risk of incurring the sovereignâ™s
displeasure. To remain silent in the face of injustice was a crime because
as counsellors they should act according to conscience, not obey orders
blindly in the manner of soldiers on a battleď¬eld.
Under the pressure of Maupeouâ™s extreme restatement of the royal
authority and the bitter personal experience of exile, the loss of their
ofď¬ces and the interference of the military in the civil administration, the
parlementaires began to develop a more radical critique of arbitrary power.
Fearful of the threat of despotism, they argued publicly for the rule of law,
institutional checks on royal power and in favour of greater individual
liberty. By the accession of Louis XVI in 1774, Maupeou had, therefore,
succeeded in shattering the governing consensus, leaving the ruling elites
badly divided about what constituted legitimate government and many
fearful of despotism. Without a common political culture, or at least a
shared understanding of the rules and rituals underpinning the exercise of
power, the monarchy was severely weakened and was in serious need of
an alternative source of legitimacy. One obvious solution was a revival
of representative government and not for nothing did Turgot, Necker
and Calonne consider reforms involving revived municipal, provincial or
even national bodies. Here was the political legacy of the crisis of 1771,
and although it may not have led directly to the revolution of 1789, no
interpretation of the causes of that great upheaval is complete without
reference to Maupeouâ™s revolution.
12 Joseph II, petitions and the public sphere
Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Tim Blanning, both in his book on Joseph II and in his Culture of Power,
has held up the emperor as an example of a ruler who, like Frederick the
Great and George III â“ though each in quite different ways â“ knew how
to exploit the developing public sphere. Not only did Joseph change the
Austrian Monarchyâ™s censorship system so that anti-Catholic, progres-
sive and critical writings could be published, but he had a â˜surprisingly
deft touch for gesture politicsâ™ â“ for example, when taking and driving a
peasantâ™s plough in Moravia in 1769, or when founding the Nationalthe-
ater in Vienna in 1776. When the Danube burst its banks and ď¬‚ooded
parts of Vienna in 1785, the emperor at once took charge of the rescue
operation.2 He was determined that his very numerous decrees should
be widely published, whereas his ofď¬cials liked to keep them, as hith-
erto, semi-secret, partly no doubt so that they could interpret and apply
them as they pleased.3 Ernst Wangermann has recently produced new
evidence that Joseph and his ministers commissioned or rewarded some
of the pamphlets that supported government policy, as had already been
well known in the case of the vitriolic anti-Establishment pamphleteer
Simon Linguet, who supported the emperorâ™s claims on the Bavarian
succession and over the opening of the Scheldt. Joseph actually offered
asylum in Belgium to both Linguet and the radical Raynal, author of
the anti-colonialist Histoire des deux Indes.4 Blanning has also identiď¬ed
Joseph as in many respects a proponent of modernisation, deď¬ning as
1 I am most grateful to Dr M. Hochedlinger for reading and commenting on this article.
2 T. C. W. Blanning, The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture (Oxford, 2002), p. 264;
my Joseph II (Cambridge, 1987) (henceforth J.II, I), p. 338; Osterreich zur Zeit Kaiser
Josephs II. (exhibition catalogue, Melk, 1980), p. 469.
3 This difference of opinion between Joseph and his ofď¬cials, esp. Hatzfeld, but sometimes
even Kaunitz, was often apparent, e.g. over the toleration and serfdom patents. (C. von
Hock and H. I. Bidermann, Der osterreichische Staatsrath (Vienna, 1879), pp. 76â“8, 335â“
4 E. Wangermann, Die Waffen der PublizitÂ¨ t (Vienna, 2004); D. G. Levy, The Ideas and
Careers of Simon-Nicolas-Henry Linguet (London, 1980), esp. ch. 6.
250 Derek Beales
modern, for example: â˜centralised and anonymousâ™ as opposed to â˜local
and personal governmentâ™; â˜indirect, bureaucraticâ™ as opposed to â˜direct,
personal social controlâ™; and â˜media-basedâ™ as opposed to â˜personal com-
The concept of the â˜growth of the public sphereâ™, whether in Haber-
masâ™s own formulation or in the adaptations of others, is far from easy to
deď¬ne or summarise.6 It must in any case be questionable whether it is
possible to convey Habermasâ™s meaning adequately in English now that
the translations of his Offentlichkeit as â˜the public sphereâ™, his bÂ¨ rgerlich
as â˜bourgeoisâ™ and his Vorstellung as â˜representationâ™ have taken hold. But
what Habermas evidently means â“ and this is my formulation â“ is some-
thing like â˜growing political interest and activity â“ using the word âpolit-
icalâ in the broadest sense â“ on the part of citizens who had no formal
standing in such matters, and the consequent need of rulers to abandon
or temper their grandeur if they were to exploit such public interest and
I have never been able to regard emphasis on such developments as very
novel. Like Blanning I was taught by David Thomson, who encouraged
me to read ancient works like C. S. Emdenâ™s The People and the Constitution
(1933) and H. Jephsonâ™s wonderfully named The Platform: Its Rise and
Progress (1892).7 More recently, major contributions to the theme like
Herbert Butterď¬eldâ™s George III, Lord North and the People (1949), G.
RudÂ´ â™s Wilkes and Liberty (1962), E. C. Blackâ™s The Association (1963) and
John Brewerâ™s Party Politics and Popular Opinion in the Early Years of George
III (1975) were all written without beneď¬t of Habermas. These works all
bring out the signiď¬cance for the public sphere in Britain of a regularly
meeting sovereign parliament, whose proceedings were becoming ever
better reported, and one house of which was elected by an electorate of
signiď¬cant size. Because of the presence of this institution, a very large
number of inhabitants of the British Isles had some political standing, as
voters, non-voting participants in elections, attenders of county meetings
and petitioners.8 No German state had anything like such an assembly
in the eighteenth century. The meetings of Estates were not public, they
seldom discussed general issues and, in so far as their members were
elected, it was very rare for the elections either to be public or to involve
5 Blanning, Joseph II (Harlow, 1994), pp. 20â“1.
6 What follows depends heavily on Blanningâ™s work and on J. V. H. Melton, The Rise of the
Public in Enlightenment Europe (Cambridge, 2001).
7 See my article on Thomson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).
8 Cf. F. Oâ™Gorman, Voters, Parties and People (Oxford, 1989).
Joseph II, petitions and the public sphere 251
more than a handful of people.9 And since the Hungarian diet was never
called between 1764 and 1790, the only operational assemblies with a
serious degree of public rapport in the Monarchy of Joseph II were those
in the Netherlands â“ which I shall refer to as Belgium â“ pre-eminently the
Estates of Brabant. There, as virtually nowhere else in the Monarchy â“
or indeed on the continent, before the French Estates General met in
1789 â“ the public could to some degree inď¬‚uence the Estates who could
then make a stand against the ruler.10
So the public sphere in nearly all countries was conď¬ned to â˜political
interest and activity on the part of citizens who had no recognised stand-
ing in such mattersâ™ â“ that is, no vote, no chance to participate in an
election even as a non-voter, and no hope of a place in a public assembly.
Comparison between the position in Britain and that in central Europe â“
and, still more, the suggestion that their public spheres were similar â“
is therefore inherently problematic. To take another indicator, all over
the continent Freemasonry, with its semi-secret gatherings of citizens
claiming to reject intolerance and social distinctions, and meeting to dis-
cuss philosophical questions, was viewed with a mixture of suspicion and
alarm by the authorities and came to be regarded as having promoted
the French Revolution. In Britain it was just one group of clubs among
many others that operated without causing anxiety before 1792, different
only in that it was patronised by royalty and was considered so loyal and
â˜in great measure directed to charitable purposesâ™ that it was expressly
exempted from the Combination Act of 1799 which banned other secret
Joseph exempliď¬ed many of the ways in which eighteenth-century rulers
â˜abandoned or tempered their grandeurâ™ â“ or their Vorstellung in Haber-
masâ™s baroque paradigm. Joseph drastically reduced the size and cost
of the Habsburg court, the number of court functions, its social signiď¬-
cance, its participation in religious ceremonies and its role in government.
Once he had become sole ruler, he rarely visited Maria Theresaâ™s beloved
and ostentatious Schonbrunn, and the house he built for himself in the
Augarten was a mean, plain villa. He regarded it as a recommendation
9 Cf. F. L. Carsten, Princes and Parliaments in Germany (Oxford, 1959). I am grateful for
Dr W. Godseyâ™s help on these points.
10 On the Hungarian diet, in English, B. K. KirÂ´ ly, Hungary in the Late Eighteenth Century
(London, 1969), esp. pp. 82â“7. The Transylvanian diet met once under Joseph, but only
for formal business. On Belgium, e.g. J. L. Polasky, Revolution in Brussels, 1787â“1793
(London, 1987); L. Delplace, Joseph II et la rÂ´volution brabanÂ¸onne (Bruges, 1891).
11 The quotation is from the Act, most of which is printed in E. N. Williams (ed.), The
Eighteenth-Century Constitution (Cambridge, 1960), pp. 429â“31. See J. M. Roberts, The
Mythology of the Secret Societies (London, 1972).
252 Derek Beales
for the prince and princess of Wurttemberg that they â˜vivent on ne peut
pas plus bourgeoisementâ™ (live as domestically as possible).12
He belonged to the tradition of soldier-monarchs established by the
kings of Sweden, especially Charles XII, and by Peter the Great of Rus-
sia, and continued by Frederick William I and Frederick the Great of
Prussia. Joseph greatly admired both Peter and Frederick, he had him-
self undergone serious military training, he attended at least two military
camps in most years and he regarded it as his duty to command his armies
in war. He always slept on a hard bed to keep himself inured to army con-
ditions and he wore undress uniform on all occasions when ceremony did
not require him to wear other garb. This tradition, rivalling and utterly
different from that of the supposedly dominant example of Louis XIV
and Versailles, had as much as either Enlightenment or embourgeoisement
to do with the elevation of simplicity, economy, efď¬ciency, standardisa-
tion, utility and religious toleration into the catalogue of royal virtues and
Joseph did not emulate Frederickâ™s contributions to belles-lettres or his
correspondences with philosophes. On the other hand, some of his mea-
sures and circulars, often bearing the imprint of his personal style, were
widely publicised and admired: especially the censorship reform, the
toleration patent and other church reforms, the abolition of Leibeigen-
schaft (personal servitude) and his â˜pastoral letterâ™.14 For those who wrote
and read newspapers and pamphlets, however, the most conspicuous of
Josephâ™s attempts to reach out beyond the traditional constraints of royal
behaviour were his personal austerity and economy, his affability and
readiness to speak civilly to anyone of whatever rank, especially during
his extensive travels incognito, and his extraordinary accessibility to indi-
vidual petitioners. These hallmarks of his style as monarch had become
widely known and celebrated from the time of his visit to Italy in 1769,
eleven years before he had the power to legislate, and still more after his
12 Dictated memorandum for Leopold of Tuscany, 19 February 1781 (A. Ritter von Arneth,
Joseph II. und Leopold von Toscana. Ihr Briefwechsel von 1781 bis 1790 (2 vols., Vienna,
1872), I.327). For the court more generally my J.II, I, pp. 154â“61.
13 The most persuasive account of this tendency is in V. Bauer, Die hÂ¨ ď¬sche Gesellschaft in
Deutschland (Tubingen, 1993). It was almost ignored by Norbert Elias, whose overrated
work, translated as The Court Society, dominated court studies for too long; and it has
not been given its full due even by J. Duindam, Vienna and Versailles: The Courts of
Europeâ™s Dynastic Rivals, 1550â“1780 (Cambridge, 2003), although he does point to many
of Eliasâ™s weaknesses. Cf. M. Kaiser and S. Kroll, MilitÂ¨ r und ReligiositÂ¨ t in der FrÂ¨ hen
a a u
Neuzeit (Munster, 2004), esp. M. Hochedlingerâ™s essay in the volume (pp. 97â“120) on
the enlistment of Jews in the Austrian army in 1788â“9.
14 F. Venturi, Settecento riformatore (5 vols., Turin, 1969â“2002), esp. vol. IV, part 2, pp. 615â“
779, is particularly valuable in showing how widely some of these documents were read
in Italy, and also contains useful material on Josephâ™s Italian visits of 1769 and 1775.
Joseph II, petitions and the public sphere 253
journey to France in 1777.15 So far as I know, none of these traits has
been much discussed in relation to the public sphere. I wish in this chapter
to suggest that this neglect is unjustiď¬ed, especially with reference to his
eliciting and treatment of petitions. The petitions themselves have been
neglected: even Blanning and the great Mitrofanov, while they mention
them, do not dilate on them. I have come to think they deserve greater
The word â˜petitionâ™ presents an immediate difď¬culty. That is what the
requests and complaints that Joseph received are usually called in English.
When writing in French, Josephâ™s usual word is â˜plaintesâ™, sometimes
â˜requË tesâ™. In the Belgian archives also they are called â˜requË tesâ™. In
German they are commonly called â˜Bittschriftenâ™ or â˜Beschwerdenâ™.
There are quite a lot of other possible German or adopted German words:
â˜Anliegenâ™, â˜Bitteâ™, â˜Eingabeâ™, â˜Gesuchâ™ and â˜MajestÂ¨ tsgesuchâ™, â˜Klageâ™
and â˜Klageschriftâ™, â˜Supplikâ™ from Italian, and â˜Vorstellungâ™. In sources of
the 1780s â˜memorialsâ™ is often used in French, German and Italian forms.
It is instructive to look at the title index of the British Library catalogue.
Titles containing the word â˜petitionâ™ run into thousands, but nearly all
are in English, and almost conď¬ned to the sorts of petitions famous in
British constitutional history, mostly submitted to the crown from parlia-
ment or from large bodies of people to parliament, often on great political
issues. The word â˜petitionâ™ hardly appears in German before the nine-
teenth century, when it has a similar meaning. â˜ReprÂ´ sentationâ™ is often
used in French for institutional petitions. â˜Bittschriftâ™ is rather more fre-
quent. â˜Supplicaâ™ ď¬gures only in titles relating to the papacy. There are
also in the catalogue many printed Gravamina put before the emperor
and other German rulers by established bodies, especially at the time
of the Reformation. â˜RequË teâ™ is very frequent, but nearly always with
reference to France or Belgium.16
In the case of Joseph II, a very large majority of the so-called petitions
presented to him were individual complaints or requests rather than insti-
tutional protests. Joseph did receive petitions on behalf of constituted
bodies. But it seems clear that he was chieď¬‚y interested in the petitions of
individuals rather than in those of such bodies, most of which, like guilds,
15 See my J.II, I, esp. pp. 380â“2.
16 On terminology as well as the substance see A. Wurgler, â˜Suppliche e âgravaminaâ nella
prima et` moderna: la storiograď¬a di lingua tedescaâ™, Annali dellâ™Istituto storico italo-
germanico in Trento 25 (1999), pp. 515â“46. I owe this reference to Prof. C. Capra. On
nineteenth-century so-called Petitionen in Germany see J. H. Kumpf, Petitionsrecht und
offentliche Meinung (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1983). The only book-title containing â˜Beschw-
erdeâ™ in the Cambridge University Library is Die Beschwerden Irlands gegen England of
254 Derek Beales
brotherhoods and Estates, he wished to abolish or curb as â˜sinister inter-
estsâ™, defenders of privilege and opponents of his reforms. He suppressed
the Hungarian county assemblies in 1785 (though he had to revive them
in 1787) and he removed from the recalcitrant Estates of Tyrol their right
to petition him.17
The scale of petitioning to Joseph was vast, as is especially well attested
for his travels. On his trip to the Banat in 1768 he received at least many
hundreds of petitions. In Italy in 1769 the tally was 5,000. In Transyl-
vania in 1773 the total was estimated at 19,000.18 Taking all his travels
into account, he must have received something approaching 100,000. But
he did not conď¬ne the practice to his travels. When he was in Vienna â“
which, despite all his travels and military camps and visits to Laxenburg,
was most of the time â“ after dictating, writing and seeing ministers for
a few hours he would receive petitioners who had been queuing in the
corridor outside his suite of ofď¬ces in the Hofburg, known as the Con-
troleurgang. Johann Pezzl said in his Sketches on Vienna that it was always
thronged with â˜projectors, ofď¬cials fallen on hard times, widows, orphans,
ex-monks and nuns, ofď¬cers, builders, peasants etc.â™, mostly armed with
petitions. In September 1782 Count Karl Zinzendorf, one of Josephâ™s
ministers, saw him â˜on the Controleur-Gang with a man who was pre-
senting him with a calculation about the Apocalypse and a number of
people in rags kneeling to present him with petitionsâ™.19 According to
Pezzl, Joseph would emerge to receive them several times a day.20 Josephâ™s
brother Leopold, recording what he saw on his visit to Vienna in 1784,
said the emperor began receiving petitioners at 11 oâ™clock each day. He
added that people came to the Controleurgang not only to petition but
17 A. SzÂ´ ntay, Regionalpolitik im alten Europa (Budapest, 2005), pp. 61â“95; H. Reinalter,
â˜Tyrol in josephinischer Zeitâ™, in Osterreich zur Zeit Josephs II. (see n. 2 above), p. 125.
Josephâ™s relationship with the numerous Estates of his provinces remains to be elucidated.
But he could sometimes give them serious attention: Zinzendorf recorded in his diary for
23 October 1783 (Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv, Vienna (HHSA)) that on the previous
Saturday Joseph had spoken to the Estates of Lower Austria â˜avec beaucoup de noblesse
les exhortant a songer serieusement a rectiď¬er le cadastreâ™.
18 J.II, I, pp. 267â“8, 361. For Transylvania, Heydendorffâ™s autobiography in S. Pascu (ed.),
Izvoarele rascoalei lui Horea (many vols., Bucharest, 1983), Series B, vol. I, p. 12. Prof.
Owen Chadwick generously gave me a copy of the early volumes of this series. On
petitions to Joseph during his travels, K. KulcsÂ´ râ™s chapter, â˜Die Quellen zu den Hofreisen
im Habsburg-Lothringischen Familienarchiv aus der Jahren 1766 bis 1788â™, in J. Pauser,
M. Scheutz and T. Winkelbauer (ed.), Quellenkunde der Habsburgermonarchie (16. â“ 18.
Jhdt.).Ein exemplarisches Handbuch (Munich, 2004), pp. 108â“19. Dr KulcsÂ´ r has worked
on the very large number of petitions preserved in Budapest for the 1770s, but not, so
far as I know, on the 1780s. Although Joseph ceased to write Reisejournals when he was
sole ruler and hence supplied much less information to historians, his power to deal with
petitions was clearly greater when he was sole ruler.
19 HHSA: Zinzendorf diary, 12 September 1782.
20 J. Pezzl, Skizze von Wien (Vienna, 1789â“90), pp. 186â“8. He spelled it Kontrollorgang.
Joseph II, petitions and the public sphere 255
also to admire the remarkable spectacle of men and women of every class
gathering to approach the emperor in person.
Six years earlier Leopold had ď¬ercely denounced Josephâ™s practice:
[He] gives no audiences and receives no one except on the Controleur-Gang,
where his servants bring . . . the lowest, the most disreputable and the most infa-
mous individuals. All passers-by can see there the scrufď¬est girls and procurers,
since he is much attracted by such low and dirty women, whom he pays well. He
readily believes what these humble persons tell him and on the strength of it acts
outrageously against everyone . . . and on the basis of the smallest suspicion . . .
makes sure that they are investigated.21
Leopold, who during his visits to Vienna lived in the Hofburg, was in the
best position to observe such scenes. But his animus against his brother
is only too evident in his apparent refusal to see any merit or advantage
whatever in the emperorâ™s contacts with ordinary people.
It is quite impossible to estimate how many petitions he must have
received in Vienna â“ presumably, millions all told.22 Although no doubt
most of the petitioners in the Hofburg came from the Vienna area, visitors
from further aď¬eld would take the opportunity to go there, as did a dep-
utation from Transylvania including Horia, who was to lead the peasant
revolt there in 1784.23 As when abroad, Joseph had them all looked into
as a matter of priority by the ofď¬cials, and some reply given.24 One of
the brochures of the Broschurenď¬‚ut is called Joseph II on the Controleur-
Gang, or Various Scenes from the Present Reign. It is a series of playlets in
which Joseph receives seven petitioners: a semi-literate ofď¬cial, someone
with a complaint against an ofď¬cial, a widow hoping for support for her
daughter, the father of a dead soldier, a parish priest, an idle nobleman
and an ex-nun. All except the nobleman and the begging widow receive
a kind welcome. Whether this pamphlet rests on speciď¬c personal knowl-
edge or vaguer general awareness of Josephâ™s behaviour it is impossible to
say.25 But these contemporary accounts, together with several pamphlets
about the emperorâ™s travels, show that writers admired and popularised
21 Leopoldâ™s MS â˜Relazioneâ™ of his visit to Vienna, 1784 (HHSA FA Sbde 16) (henceforth
â˜Relazioneâ™); A. Wandruszka, Leopold II. (2 vols., Vienna, 1964â“5), I.344.
22 F. Reinohl in L. Bittner (ed.), Gesamtinventar des Wiener Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchivs
(5 vols., Vienna, 1936â“40), II.173â“8, says that no lists or indexes of petitions survive
for Joseph IIâ™s reign, although some do for Leopoldâ™s, and more for subsequent reigns.
See now M. P. Schennach, â˜Supplikationenâ™, in Pauser et al., Quellenkunde, pp. 572â“84,
valuable but not concerned with the later eighteenth century.
23 When, how often and where Horia met Joseph are disputed questions, but that he took
petitions to him is undoubted (see the mass of material in the volumes referred to in n.
24 Leopold, â˜Relazioneâ™.
25 Ibrahim Goether, Joseph II. im Controleur-Gang (Vienna, 1782). This pamphlet is in the
Austrian History Centre library at Stanford University. I owe thanks to Professor Peter
Stansky and Dr Peter Frank for enabling me to work there.
256 Derek Beales
the emperorâ™s practice.26 Even the British Annual Register joined in the
praise, with reference to the Belgian journey:
The free audience, without state, difď¬culty in the approach, guards, or witnesses,
which he afforded to all manner of persons who desired it, gained equally the
hearts of those who applied, and of all who heard of their reception; while the
patience with which he heard, examined, and sifted into, complaints and involved
relations, was no less astonishing than his affability was captivating to the people.27
By this route his encouragement of petitioning unquestionably enters the
How does this behaviour compare with that of other eighteenth-century
rulers? Individual petitions to modern British kings seem to be rare. So far
as I know, they have not been studied. I feel pretty sure that no Hanoverian
king set aside time each day to receive petitions, though I understand
that the monarchs were sometimes waylaid by individual petitioners as
they walked in the royal parks. The court of the Bourbons of France
was in principle accessible, but there seems to have been no systematic
reception of petitioners. The cahiers of the French Revolution, produced
by every designated community in France, are something wholly different
again, petitions from constituted bodies or districts, collective rather than
individual, addressing fundamental political issues. But they were not
elicited until the Estates General were called in 1788.28
Much work has been done in recent years, mainly under the inspira-
tion of Peter Blickle, on early modern petitions from German peasants
to Estates or to rulers against mistreatment by their lords. But this work
does not seem to extend very far into the eighteenth century. The prac-
tice, if not the right, of petitioning rulers was enshrined in Roman law and
hence seems to have been in principle accepted in all states whose legal
systems derived from that source.29 In Denmark, where after the 1660s
the rulerâ™s absolutism was on paper complete, petitioning by individuals
was recognised as a necessary corrective or safety-valve, while represen-
tations from groups or institutions were considered subversive. But the
Danish kings were not noted for their travels, and the ruler contemporary
with Joseph, Christian VII, was disabled by schizophrenia.30
The other Enlightened despots of the eighteenth century offer a closer
comparison with Joseph II. Frederick William I and Frederick II are well
26 See n. 49 below for the pamphlets relating to his Belgian journey of 1781.
27 Annual Register, 1783 (2nd edn, 1800), p. 11.
28 A useful study in English is R. Chartier, â˜From Words to Texts: The Cahiers de dolÂ´ances
of 1789â™, in his The Cultural Uses of Print in Modern France (Princeton, 1987), pp. 110â“44.
29 For this paragraph see Wurgler, â˜Supplicheâ™, see n. 16 above.
30 I owe my knowledge of the Danish situation to Dr T. Munckâ™s generous help and his book
The Peasantry and the Early Absolute Monarchy in Denmark, 1660â“1708 (Copenhagen,
Joseph II, petitions and the public sphere 257
known for having made inspection tours and received many petitions as
they travelled. Frederick William I came to resent the practice and at one
point threatened all future petitioners with hanging â“ perhaps jocularly.
Frederick II, of course, was much more civilised in his behaviour, and
in 1770 direct access to him was ofď¬cially described by civil servants
as â˜beyond priceâ™ â“ though still as a boon rather than a right. He spent
much time â“ every day, it is said â“ reading and acting on petitions. But
he did not seek them out or make a point of being available and talking
to the petitioners.31 Catherine the Great had a quite different approach.
She thought Joseph had â˜ruined his health with his eternal audiencesâ™.32
She decreed in 1765 that a peasant who tried to present her with a petition
should be condemned to a monthâ™s hard labour for the ď¬rst offence, for
a second offence to a public punishment and a yearâ™s hard labour, and
for a third offence to public whipping and perpetual exile.33 In Josephâ™s
Monarchy the people threatened with punishment were the lords who
tried to prevent or penalise peasants approaching the emperor.
Josephâ™s practice, then, seems to have been unique in its scale and
outreach. If it did not ruin his health, it was certainly extremely time-
consuming. Why did he adopt it? The answer is to be found in his writings,
especially the famous memorandum on the state of the Monarchy which
he submitted to his mother, Maria Theresa, just after he became Holy
Roman Emperor and co-regent of the Austrian Monarchy in 1765. In it
he rashly told her how he would run things if he were in charge:
[Having chosen my ministers, I shall say to them:] I entrust this department to
you, you will govern it in my name, but with the same authority as if I were doing
it myself . . . I shall never listen to anyone with an axe to grind, or to underlings,
so long as you are serving me well. But . . . since I give the whole universe freedom to
bring me their complaints, and [since I] have the truth of the complaints rigorously
examined, you must expect that, if I observe in you partiality or weakness, you
will receive blame . . . May I never ď¬nd in you the faults of malice or injustice,
personal interest or deceit! You may be sure that the purest blood, ď¬fty yearsâ™
service, your entire family and connections, and everything that I hold dear,
would not stop me for a moment from punishing you in the most ignominious,
painful and conspicuous manner before all Europe.34
31 See H. Lehmann, â˜Zum Bittschriftwesen in fridericianischer Zeitâ™, Jahrbuch fÂ¨ r branden-
burgischen Landesgeschichte 55 (2004), pp. 77â“92. Dr T. Biskup kindly supplied me with
a photocopy of this article. For the 1770 reference, Acta Borussica XV (Berlin, 1936),
p. 379: access to the king is â˜unschÂ¨ tzbarâ™.
32 P. von Mitrofanov, Joseph II (2 vols., Vienna, 1910), I.275.
33 I. de Madariaga, Politics and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Russia (London, 1998),
pp. 137â“8. Professor de Madariaga generously gave me a copy of this collection. I owe
thanks to Prof. S. M. Dixon for his help here.
34 Alfred von Arneth, Maria Theresia und Joseph II. Ihre Correspondenz (3 vols., Vienna,
1867â“9), III.342â“3 (italics mine).
258 Derek Beales
When he became sole ruler in 1780, he did not initially spell out this
attitude quite so strongly to his ministers, most of whom he took over
from his mother. But there seems to be no doubt that he adhered stead-
fastly to this conception of â˜complaintsâ™ or â˜petitionsâ™ as a check on his
ministers and ofď¬cials. Every so often they would receive from him what
his brother Leopold called gridate (scoldings or bawlings-out),35 often in
thoroughly disagreeable terms, sometimes citing evidence from petitions
Joseph had received. The ministers understood only too well how dire the
consequences might be. Even Charles Liechtenstein and his wife, prince
and princess of the empire, he military governor of the city of Vienna,
she the leading light in the circle of Dames that the emperor frequented,
were reduced by one of Josephâ™s rebukes to a state of panic about the
entire future of their family.36 In 1782 a delation terminated the career
of Count Heinrich Blumegen, the Austro-Bohemian chancellor.37
Bound up with this intention to discipline his ministers and ofď¬cials
with the aid of petitions was his insistence on the sovereignâ™s duty to
travel. Unlike other sovereigns, he says, he does not intend to see only
through othersâ™ eyes and to depend on hearsay. Of course, he went on,
one will not see everything and will only be able to do limited good.
But if you return several times, you see the changes, you listen to the complaints,
you get to know [whom] to employ in the future, you judge the actions of the
others . . . and ď¬nally you judge â“ more or less â“ the capacity and zeal of the
He offered other genuine reasons to his mother when proposing later
that he be allowed to travel extensively: he felt, for example, the need to
supplement the information available in Vienna, and he wished to see the
lie of the land in all his provinces for military purposes. He certainly loved
getting away and seeing new things and rushing about, unconstrained by
etiquette: Lacy remembered him once saying â˜If only I could be simply
Count of Tyrol, and travel far and wide in a barouche!â™39 But the funda-
mental purpose of his journeys within the Monarchy remained to check
up on his ofď¬cials. Count Philipp von Sinzendorf, who was personally
35 Leopold, â˜Relazioneâ™.
36 See the letters between Princess Charles and her sister, Countess Ernest Kaunitz, in late
1780 (portions of which are printed in A. Wolf, FÂ¨ rstin Eleonore Liechtenstein (Vienna,
1875), pp. 151â“3) after Joseph had decided that the prince had exceeded his authority
in putting in hand the building of a barracks with Maria Theresaâ™s but not the War
Departmentâ™s approval. Fortunately, a concerted attempt by their friends to mollify
37 K. Gutkas, Kaiser Joseph II. (Vienna, 1989), pp. 226â“7.
38 See n. 34: the quotation from p. 359 (italics mine).
39 HHSA: Zinzendorf diary, 31 May 1790.
Joseph II, petitions and the public sphere 259
close to the emperor, was obviously echoing what he knew were Josephâ™s
sentiments when, presenting a report to him in 1786, he wrote:
From my standpoint the only good system is one that enables the prince to see
in every single village whether his orders are carried out, and whose fault it is if
they are not. Your Imperial Majesty, who every year undertakes arduous travels
through his far-ď¬‚ung states, is the only reliable and non-partisan judge of whether
this dual aim is achieved under the present arrangements.40
These were impossible aspirations, but they were an integral part of
Josephâ™s unique view of monarchy â“ not uniquely sensible or uniquely
successful, but unlike any other rulerâ™s. In his mind, placed by God or
â˜Providenceâ™ in the position of an absolute ruler, it was his duty and func-
tion, ď¬rst, to take all decisions personally on his own responsibility â“ no
doubt after having previously sounded out his ministers, but not neces-
sarily paying attention to their advice. It was not their business â˜to treat
his orders as though they were prosecuting counsel dealing with submis-
sions by a plaintiff â™. Once he had made his decision, it was their duty,
as he repeatedly put it, in his â˜pastoral letterâ™ and elsewhere, to enter
into his manner of thinking and to act in that spirit.41 Secondly, it was
also he alone whose duty it was to judge how well his local ofď¬cials were
carrying out his orders, and he who would decide when and how they
should be replaced. He considered many of them to be lazy, negligent
and incapable, and oppressive towards ordinary citizens.42 To carry out
these duties he needed the maximum possible information both about his
lands and about his ofď¬cials. From within the bureaucracy he would have
as a guide the Conduitelisten which at the beginning of his reign he had
required to be kept for all ofď¬cials, the equivalent of modern â˜appraisalsâ™.
As he had proposed in 1765, in 1781 he had given full authority over each
ministry to its head and had placed on the ministers the responsibility to
comb the Conduitelisten for signs of inefď¬ciency, disobedience or corrup-
tion among ofď¬cials, and report them to him. Outside the bureaucracy,
he would listen to the complaints and petitions of ordinary people. The
combined evidence of Conduitelisten and petitions would enable him to
40 Sinzendorfâ™s report is printed by G. Otruba, â˜Uber das erblÂ¨ ndische Commerce 1786.
Eine Denkschrift Philipp Graf Sinzendorfsâ™, Mitteilungen des oberÂ¨ sterreichischen Lan-
desarchivs 8 (1964), pp. 502â“12.
41 E.g. Hock and Bidermann, Staatsrath, p. 143; H. Klueting (ed.), Der Josephinismus
(Vienna, 1995), pp. 334â“40, prints most of the pastoral letter in German: the ď¬rst point
(p. 334) was that the ofď¬cials were to grasp â˜den wahren Sinnâ™ of all his decisions and
decrees â˜und deren absehen sich ganz eigen mache[n]â™.
42 These criticisms appear, for example, in his RËveries of 1763 and the Bohemian Relation
of 1771. See my Enlightenment and Reform in Eighteenth-Century Europe (London, 2005),
260 Derek Beales
â˜judge whether his orders were being carried out, and whose fault it was if
they were notâ™. His obsession with petitions, like his obsession with travel,
was not just an eccentricity, amiable or otherwise. Both, in his mind, were
necessary instruments of government.
In the pastoral letter that he sent to all departments at the end of
1783 he laid down a rather more practical version of this programme. He
envisaged inspections of provincial ofď¬ces by the centrally based heads
of their departments either â˜every year or in any year when suspicion of
dilatory or inefď¬cient administration arisesâ™. The inspectors must travel
to the localities concerned, â˜listen to everyoneâ™ and â˜ď¬nd out especially
what opinion the public has of each [ofď¬cial]â™. Among his motives was
certainly the desire to protect ordinary people from the â˜despotismâ™ of
ofď¬cials. But the only point in the pastoral letter where he acknowledged
that he should be held to account was with regard to the expenditure of
his subjectsâ™ money.43
Study of the petitions comes up against archive problems. No one, so
far as I know, has attempted to ď¬nd out, for the whole Monarchy, how
many of the petitions presented to Joseph survive. For this period they
scarcely ď¬gure in the catalogue of the Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv in
Vienna; and those presented to the emperor in the Hofburg have evidently
been lost. Professor Carlo Capra found many abstracts of petitions in the
Milan archives and noticed that some original petitions had been used
by archivists as convenient folders for other documents. Large numbers
of petitions exist in the Hungarian national archives and work has been
done on those Joseph collected on his visit to the country in 1770.44 They
are most readily accessible in Belgium, where they were well studied by
Eug` ne Hubert.45
There are a number of obvious difď¬culties in dealing with such petitions
as are available. In some cases at least, the petitions were abstracted, as
for Milan, and so the originals may not exist, or they may exist in a
different place from the abstracts. Great lists were made of the petitions
in at least some instances, as we shall see, but one wonders whether even
they are complete. I have myself worked only on the Belgian collection in
Brussels â“ there may well be others in other Belgian towns â“ and to a
small extent on a Hungarian batch of 1786.46 In many cases a decision
43 Klueting, Josephinismus: quotations from p. 339.
44 I am grateful here for information and guidance from Professor Capra and from Dr K.
KulcsÂ´ r. See n. 18 above.
45 E. Hubert, â˜Le voyage de lâ™empereur Joseph II dans les Pays-Basâ™, in MÂ´moirese
couronnÂ´s . . . par lâ™AcadÂ´mie royale . . de Belgique 58 (1899), ch. II.
46 On Belgium see the next note. The Hungarian ď¬les I saw in this context were Mag-
yar OrszÂ´ gos LevÂ´ ltar, Budapest (MOL), Departamentum publico-politicum 230.d
(1785/6) and C 53 464.
Joseph II, petitions and the public sphere 261
is recorded, but I have never been able to follow the complete path of
a single petition from presentation to Joseph through consideration by
the bureaucracy to a decision and its transmission to the petitioner. I
have rarely seen a letter conveying a decision to a petitioner. But it is
quite conceivable that huge numbers of petitions and related documents
remain to be studied for large parts of the Monarchy. If they do, this is
surely a wonderful subject for future research.
Hubertâ™s work on Josephâ™s visit to Belgium in 1781 provides much
detail which is probably of general application.47 He arrived with-
out warning at Luxembourg on 31 May 1781, taking rooms at the
Seven Swabians and introducing himself as â˜count of Luxembourg, and
emperorâ™. He at once sent for the astonished president of the provincial
council of Luxembourg and instructed him to announce to the public
that he would immediately give audience to anyone who wished to speak
to him or to present a petition. Everywhere he went, as well as doing
other more obvious things like meeting the members of the council, the
deputies of the Estates and the magistrates, taking a military parade,
attending mass, seeing the higher clergy and viewing the fortiď¬cations,
he set aside time to receive petitions, commonly from eleven till three.
He generally, but not invariably, insisted on petitions being written. He
would speak to the petitioners, receive their documents, perhaps discuss
the case, have them listed by a secretary and then pass them, sometimes
with a comment, to the appropriate authority. He required the depart-
ments to give them priority and to report to him in due course what had
It is hardly surprising that the majority of the petitions can be cate-
gorised as â˜selď¬shâ™, that is, concerned with the particular problems of
individual petitioners and not, at least explicitly, raising broader issues.
For example, there are requests to waive the fee payable to become a
â˜bourgeoisâ™ or to practise a profession. Applicants seek jobs, pensions or
poor relief, or to be freed from the corvÂ´e, still surviving on some estates.
Some petitions involve disputes over land and over hunting rights. Others
concern privileges, or requests to be ennobled. Convicted criminals, or
their relatives, ask for pardon or remission. Disputes within the Church
47 For what follows on Belgium see Hubert, â˜Voyageâ™; W. Ravez, Tournai et le Tournaisis
pendant la rÂ´volution brabanÂ¸onne (Tournai, 1937), pp. 10â“12; J. Roegiers, â˜Die Reise
Josephs II. in den osterreichischen Niederlanden, Osterreich zur Zeit Josephs II. (see n. 2
above), pp. 85â“8. I have worked through ď¬les 1343 and 1346 of Royal Archives, Brussels,
Conseil privÂ´ , PÂ´ riode autrichienne, A124, RequË tes a Joseph II (9 ď¬les, 1343â“51) and
ee e `
used a prÂ´ cis of Starhembergâ™s responses to petitions in HHSA Rep. DD Abt. A: Belgien:
VortrÂ¨ ge 12 (1782â“5), undated but evidently from early 1782. In the same part of the
archive Starhembergâ™s letters to Kaunitz: Berichte 253.
262 Derek Beales
are not uncommon: priests claim that they are being denied their tithe
or a new appointment; a nunnery wishes to be allowed to take dowries
from new nuns, although it has recently been forbidden. A signiď¬cant
group is concerned with trying to obtain the revival of the loi de Beaumont,
i.e. village self-government, which had been abolished in 1775.48 The two
largest batches which, taken together, amount to complaints on general
issues of policy concern the complexity, cost and delays of legal pro-
ceedings and the interruption to trade and the associated costs caused
by the great number of tolls levied by the numerous authorities in the
different provinces. The least typical petitions are, of course, the most
interesting: a complaint from the civilian musicians of Brussels that the
army musicians are muscling in on their patch in the local Vauxhall; a
diatribe against the negligence of nobles in bringing miscreants to their
courts, on account of the costs incurred; an appeal by a visionary curÂ´ who
after ten yearsâ™ reading has found a way to make all HMâ™s subjects happy,
with special reference to the abolition of corporal punishment; requests
for funding for a cancer cure; and an anonymous denunciation, in cap-
ital letters, of the excessive number of clergy in the university town of
Prince Starhemberg, the resident minister in Brussels, reported on 12
June that he had many people â˜working ď¬‚at out to list all the petitions that
have been presentedâ™, and on the 19th that two-thirds had already been
passed to the relevant departments. He said: â˜I am applying the greatest
acceleration to referring these petitions.â™ In August, after Joseph had left,
he sent to Vienna altogether thirty-seven annotated lists.
It has to be said that in the great majority of cases, as in the Hungarian
sample I looked at, the eventual decision of the authorities â“ sometimes
after a delay of more than a year â“ was that nothing could be done,
or that the petitioner should go through the ordinary legal channels. It
quite often turned out that the petition related to a lawsuit already in
progress. Perhaps the successful petitions were preserved somewhere else,
and perhaps the petitions that revealed misconduct on the part of ofď¬cials
were also separated out.
Josephâ™s visit to Belgium stimulated the appearance of several bro-
chures, and it is there that one is told of successful petitions by individuals.
Taking them with a pinch of salt, we learn that he gave a centenarian a
pension, helped to fund the training of a sculptor, aided the victims of a
serious ď¬re and exempted the affected village from taxes for three years.
48 On the loi de Beaumont and the petitions relating to it, Hubert, â˜Voyageâ™, pp. 118â“28;
G. Trausch, Le Luxembourg sous lâ™ancien rÂ´gime (3rd edn, Luxembourg, 1993), pp. 30,
33, 87, 101.
Joseph II, petitions and the public sphere 263
These were obviously rare matters which Joseph could settle without
getting in the way of established procedures.49
Especially since the sources appear to be inadequate, it is very difď¬-
cult to assess the impact of the petitions on the government. They cer-
tainly made the ofď¬cials work harder for a time, though no doubt, as
Starhemberg complained, this led to delays in routine matters. Some
petitioners probably received better treatment from the courts than they
might otherwise have done. Most interesting is the question how far they
inď¬‚uenced Joseph himself and his policies. His mother always maintained
that he learned nothing on his trips because he had made up his mind
what his policy was before he went. This must be true on some subjects.
No amount of petitions would have caused him to retain contemplative
monasteries or to abandon his still secret plans to reform the government
of Belgium in order to make it uniform with that of his other dominions.
He was against the principle of sale of ofď¬ces, which was the method
of recruitment of judges in Belgium. But, when it came to his quizzing
Starhemberg and the council about the provinceâ™s affairs, Joseph began
with ten items out of thirty-three about the judges and the courts, and
he speciď¬cally mentioned the petitions as evidence of unnecessary cost,
complication and delay. That he gave these issues such high priority sug-
gests that he was directly inď¬‚uenced by the petitions. Equally, the many
complaints he received about interruptions of trade strengthened his own
objections to them. When in Milan in February 1784, he complained to
Leopold that, though he spent three hours a day receiving petitions, none
of them seemed to him to be of any importance.50 He clearly considered
this unusual and expected better.
Henri Pirenne, the famous medievalist, professor of history at Ghent,
wrote a prize-winning history of Belgium, still justly cited. In it he devotes
a few pages to the visit of Joseph II, whom he loathes. The historian claims
that the emperor learned nothing about the country during his visit. â˜The
greater part of his time was spent in government ofď¬ces, where, naturally,
no one dared contradict him.â™51 This, as I have shown, is utterly false. The
ofď¬cials certainly argued against some of his comments. More important,
Pirenne does not mention the petitions at all, or any of Josephâ™s contacts
with ordinary people. What riled Pirenne particularly was that Joseph
declared â˜the stuff [pate] of the nation is Dutch with a bad French veneer
49 The main pamphlets are Le voyageur bienfaisant, ou Anecdotes du voyage de Joseph II., dans
les Pays-Bas, la Hollande etc., en 1781 (3rd edn, Paris, 1781); PrÂ´cis du voyage de S. M.
lâ™Empereur Joseph II. en Hollande (Amsterdam, 1781), containing a good deal on Belgium
50 Arneth, Joseph II. und Leopold II., I.203.
51 H. Pirenne, Histoire de Belgique (Brussels, 1921), V.392â“3.
264 Derek Beales
on topâ™. Pirenne was a prominent representative of the francophone elite
of Belgium in the interwar years, concerned, to put it mildly, to downplay
the Flemish element in Belgian society and history. His bookâ™s prize came
from France. On the very point that Pirenne objected to, Joseph was
obviously right, at least so far as the northern and western provinces
Among the more signiď¬cant of his numerous other journeys were the
three he made to Transylvania, from the second of which, that of 1783,
comes the best picture we have of Josephâ™s practice with petitions. It comes
from the autobiography of M. C. von Heydendorff, a lesser ofď¬cial.52
I was in Hermannstadt the whole time His Majesty was there, and took part in
both the national and religious business; and, since its character and the way it was
handled were especially signiď¬cant, and the presence of a ruler in a country, espe-
cially one like Transylvania, led to several notable events, I want my descendants
to know what sort of times and business Iâ™ve lived through.
The whole world of Transylvania was now in part fearful, in part hopeful, in
part curious as to what [Joseph] would do. All was quiet enough for the ď¬rst few
days, although the governor, the general commanding and the president were
received in audience, and petitioners of all types, high, low, young, old, from all
the Transylvanian nations, especially Vlachs [Romanians], gathered in front of
HMâ™s lodging and handed in memorials in great numbers, which in the absence
of formalities they could easily do, since HM had no other guard except one
musketeer . . . from the local garrison, and he was forbidden to stop anyone
entering the lodging.
So everyone, even down to the lowest of the low, could get into the house and
on to the top step that led into the antechamber through which one entered the
imperial chamber. Distinguished persons went freely into the antechamber. HM
frequently came out into the antechamber, and so it was easy to get an audience.
HM spoke there to anyone who had brought no special request [Anliegen], but
anyone with a particular request Joseph took into his chamber and inquired into
the circumstances. The PÂ¨ bel [common people] took up the entire staircase. HM
came out often, roughly every quarter of an hour, to the top step of the staircase.
There the PÂ¨ bel laid their memorials at HMâ™s feet, and he took them very rapidly
without entering into a conversation with the petitioners, gave most of them to the
guards standing by, who then took them by the armful into the emperorâ™s ofď¬ce,
where extracts were made of them and they were sent to Vienna for further action,
whence later would come the relevant orders . . .
The question arose for the representatives of the Saxon nation and Evangelical
religion, what should be done while HM was there? [They had much on their
minds, the recent removal by Joseph of their privileges as one of the three privi-
leged â˜nationsâ™, and of their special property rights, together with the introduction
52 It is printed in Pascu, Izvoarele, Series B, vol. I, pp. 16â“18.
Joseph II, petitions and the public sphere 265
of equality, ConcivilitÂ¨ t, between all the nations and religions, including the hith-