Nov 9, 2006

Book Review: The Habsburgs - Embodying Empire

The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire Wheatcroft, Andrew

New York: Viking Press, 384 pages

Wheatcroft is a lecturer in the Department of English Studies at Scotland’s University of Stirling, and one of his areas of specialization is in the textual and graphic presentation of the Habsburg dynasty. He has published numerous books related to the historical representation of intellectual thought in print and graphic media. In The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire Wheatcroft traced the lineage of the Habsburg dynasty from Rudolf I through the 1918 Finis Austriae and continued up to the 1993 wedding of Archduke Karl to Francesca, the daughter of Baron Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemizza.

The author attempted to create more than a mere list of rulers and domains, but rather a cohesive narrative that captured the essence of the Habsburg mentalité and legacy. Of paramount concern to Wheatcroft was source material that contained textual and visual representations of Habsburg figures. Reminiscent of the concepts of self-fashioning developed by Stephen Greenblatt, the author argued that Habsburg rulers actively created and recreated their public personae, keeping eyes on both history and posterity. The result was a book that provides a sympathetic – but not sycophantic – examination of the House of Habsburg within a context that is both impressionistic and analytical.

The text follows a chronological approach, with chapters that revolve around a particular theme derived from noteworthy Habsburg personages. Accompanying the text are several sections of paintings and photographs covering over 600 years of Hapsburg lineage, which provide readers with visual representations of the textual analysis. One unfortunate problem with the inclusion of these beautiful images is likely an inherent editorial decision based on expediency; readers must search through the various image groupings to find the particular material being discussed. Still, one might first peruse the illustrations - gathering an impressionistic overview at the outset – and then delve into the text. The author provided footnotes throughout the book, included a 21-page bibliography, and produced detailed family trees to follow the sometimes-convoluted lineage of the various branches of the Habsburgs.

Habsburg heraldryLeft: Habsburg heraldry

As an avowed anti-monarchist, a social historian, and one who bristles at the mere hint of elitism and aristocracy, this reviewer approached The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire with no small degree of disdain. After all – how many texts on dead European monarchs does the world really need? Yet Wheatcroft’s work neatly avoids succumbing to the temptation of aristocratic glorification, and the author developed convincing arguments for the historicist assessments of the Habsburg rulers he profiled.

One of the Habsburgian themes explored by Wheatcroft was the concept of a universal emperor, in which the House of Habsburg (through its control over the title of Holy Roman Emperor) would be able to fulfill the Divine admonition in the Reformatio Sigismundi to “prepare the way for the Divine Order.” The Habsburgs thus viewed their status as the foremost European aristocratic house to be of Divine will, and that their mission to extend Habsburg rule over Europe and beyond to possess God’s blessing. Wheatcroft argued that the Habsburg ideal of universal emperor first became manifest with the ascension of Maximilian I as HRE in 1493; this was most evident in his decision to assume the title of Elected Roman Emperor (Erwählter Römischer Kaiser), ending the custom that the Holy Roman Emperor was required to be crowned by the pope. Wheatcroft also included a number of passages from Maximilian’s autobiographical works that demonstrate that the Emperor was keenly involved with and aware of the effort to create an image of Maximilian as an annointed ruler with a saintly lineage who would bring order to the world.

Habsburg heraldryLeft: Medallion of the Order of the Golden Fleece

The preoccupation of the Habsburgs with the chivalric Order of the Golden Fleece is another theme dissected by Wheatcroft, and the monarch most closely associated with the Golden Fleece was Charles V. The order was founded in 1430 by Duke Philip III of Burgundy as a means to legitimize his efforts to elevate his position to that of a king, and sovereignty of the Order passed to the Habsburgs with the marriage between Habsburg Archduke Maximilian to Mary of Burgundy in 1477. Wheacroft argued that the order was conceived as an organization that blended classical and Christian elements in its textual and artistic symbolism:
The golden ram stood for the simple ideals of chivalry and presented them as an answer to the manifold exigencies of a chaotic world. The knights, like the Round Table of the Arthurian legend, would reverse the spirit of discord, would begin to restore order to a world where the forces of the Antichrist were about to conquer. (Images of the Antichrist were now often depicted with the features of the Turk, seen as coarse and cruel). These heroes, the new Argonauts, were to be the most selfless, loyal, and dedictaed men in Christendom and this new unifying power would emerge from the dukedom of Burgundy, always foremost in chivalry.
The Habsburgs, argued Wheatcroft, “expressed their mission and their objectives obliquely, through a kind of code…exchanged between those who readily understood its meaning,” and the author provided numerous examples of this Habsburgian use of images and text that functioned as a sort of dynastic cryptography. Frederick III coined the acronym AEIOU (“Alles Erdreich Ist Österreich Untertan,” or “The whole world is subject to Austria”) that appears on family crests, minted coins, and royal buildings. Upon his election as Grand Master of the Order of the Golden Fleece, Charles V created a personal emblem with two classical columns rising from the sea with the phrase Plus Ultra (“still further”); this was seen as a transcendent symbols that defied the ancient Greek belief that ne plus ultra was etched onto the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) as a warning to ships not to sail further to the west. Leopold I frequently commissioned artwork that drew a linkage between his reign and Divine blessing, and his artists placed the monogram of Christ (IHS – In Hoc Signo) in portraits to reiterate this desired connection. Emperor Franz Joseph developed the acronym KK (also written k.u.k or k-k for “kaiserlich und königlich”) to denote the union between Austria and Hungary after 1867.

Franz Joseph ILeft: Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I

Wheatcroft’s text serves as both a useful introduction to the House of Habsburg as well as an important reinterpretation of the dynasty, and belongs on the shelves of scholars and knowledgeable general readers, although undergraduates might struggle with the more complex intellectual themes; some basic familiarity with early modern and modern European history would be helpful in the course of reading this text. One leaves The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire not with a collection of facts, dates, and trivia, but rather with heightened sense of the intellectual dynamics that shaped the formation of the evolving Habsburgian image, as well as a more literary understanding of one of Europe’s most enduring aristocratic families. Traditional scholars might disagree with some of Wheatcroft’s interpretations, but his book challenges readers to examine the active process by which the Habsburgs sought to manipulate their corporate image.

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