William D. Godsey, Jr. Nobles and Nation in Central Europe: Free Imperial Knights in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xi + 306 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-83618-0.
Reviewed by Todd Berryman (Department of History, Hendrix College)
Published on H-German (July, 2006)
Nobles into Germans
William Godsey has written a highly insightful portrayal of the Holy Roman Empire's imperial nobility during its crucial century of outward decline. Specialists will be pleased that this volume is no mere historiographical digest of recent works. Rather, it is the product of exhaustive research conducted in nearly two dozen public and private archives within Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany. For this reason, Godsey consistently offers his readers not only fresh perspectives, but also fresh material.
Godsey's work comes during a period of renewed interest in Europe's historical nobilities. Within the context of Central Europe, the study of the so-called high nobility (Hochadel or Reichsstände) has particularly benefited from this resurgence of scholarly activity. But literature on the free imperial knights (Reichsrittershaft) nevertheless remains sparse. Indeed, Godsey's book represents the first English-language monograph on the subject.
Although some debate persists about how many families belonged to the free imperial knights by the end of the eighteenth century (estimates range from 350 to above 500), Godsey skillfully manages this otherwise unwieldy topic by limiting his analysis to the 108 "knightly houses active in the second half of the eighteenth century in Electoral Mainz." Of these, he is particularly interested in the 60 families "represented in Mainz's cathedral chapter" (p. 8).
Two classic studies have dominated the historiography of Electoral Mainz: F. G. Dreyfus's account of the electorate's socioeconomic conditions during the second half of the eighteenth century and T. C. W. Blanning's later study on the transformation of Mainz's political institutions during roughly the same period. Mainz's notable and highly controversial archbishop-elector, Karl Theodor von Dalberg, has also enjoyed consideration by biographers. But the free imperial knights of Mainz have received far less treatment, and Godsey's project seeks to rectify that. It should be immediately noted, however, that Godsey's analysis extends well beyond the geographic scope of Mainz, which serves only as a starting point for this study. Godsey thus follows members of its nobility who--because of the upheavals brought by Napoleon Bonaparte's invasions and territorial consolidations of Central Europe--abandoned their ancestral homeland in great numbers and resettled in other German territories, where they endured a "forced assimilation into the nobilities of neighboring states" (p. 6).
One of the most salient components of Godsey's monograph is its framing. While many works involving the Holy Roman Empire's nobility logically culminate either with the Final Recess of the Imperial Deputation (Reichsdeputationshauptschluß) of 1803 or with the dissolution of the empire in 1806, Godsey has chosen to transcend what he calls "the great divide around 1800" (p. 6) and offer instead a more long-term analysis that extends through 1850. It therefore becomes incumbent upon him not to limit his attention to the free imperial knights as an institutional identifier, but to focus his attention on the evolution of the noble culture surrounding the families under investigation. He writes: "A look at nobles across the dividing line of revolution furthermore raises the question of the relationship between their much discussed late-eighteenth-century crisis of legitimacy and the drastic, revolutionary shift in the meaning of the 'nation,'" which is an important consideration, for "nobles, after all, had traditional claims to being the nation" (p. 2).
While the French Revolution may have inspired self-actualized introspection on the part of the nobility even on the right bank of the Rhine, Napoleon's invasions and subsequent meddling within Central Europe demanded much more. With the dismantling of the Holy Roman Empire, the future prospects of the free imperial knights (whose previous status made them "immediate" (reichsunmittelbar) to the emperor, appeared bleak.
Godsey estimates that as many as one-third of Mainz's electoral nobility fled their ancestral homeland after 1792 and resettled in what would become the Austrian Empire. These emigrant knights were drawn there by their historic ties to the emperor, out of hope of security and protection and by the simple fact that many other emigrant knights had not fared well at the hands of territorial princes under whose sovereignty they had been subsumed. In contrast, "the hereditary lands of the Hapsburgs absorbed and assimilated those nobles who rejected social change, remained attached to the imperial and pedigreed past, and did not want a 'German' future" (p.11). But those who did remain--or who resettled into other Germanic, non-Habsburg realms--found themselves on a different path. Godsey contends that the study of these families over an extended period of time permits him "to compare 'Austrians' with 'Germans'" (p. 11).
That comparison is telling, as Godsey traces how those who became part of "the 'German' nobility shifted culturally in a much more marked way toward the bourgeoisie than did the Hapsburg aristocracy" (p. 12). The "German" (as opposed to "Austrian") transition was one "from a society of Estates to a cultural-national community" based upon a Herderian cultural conception of national belonging (p. 49). This reinvention of the German nobility in the nineteenth century "brought the hereditary order in Germany no privileges, but did provide it with a new form of legitimacy" (p. 71). What greatly facilitated this development was the new concept of an "ancient nobility" (Uradel), a term first printed in a 1788 article by the Göttingen scholar, Christoph Meiners. That concept, according to Godsey (who traces its evolution in great detail), opened up a space in which "the old noble and the new cultural nation" could eventually fuse together. "The notion of Uradel," Godsey writes, "with its extensive and attendant cultural-historical associations, embedded the nobility within the 'nation,' indeed made it indistinguishable from the 'nation'" (pp. 251-252).
Godsey thus remains unconvinced by the assertions of Heinz Reif, who argued that in its transition to modernity, the Central European nobility underwent minimal change and persisted in its disconnectedness from non-nobles. Godsey equally objects to the more recent revisionist ideas posited by Georg Schmidt, who has contended that the Holy Roman Empire already constituted a nationalized "empire-state" (Reichs-Staat) in the eighteenth century. Rather, Godsey insists that, throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, "as the concept of "nation" evolved, then so did that of nobility" (p. 251).
William Godsey has presented scholars with exciting insights into the process by which eighteenth-century cosmopolitan nobles became nineteenth-century Germans. It should be noted that Godsey's work is not suitable for summer beach-reading, and some readers will clearly find fault with the stylistic aspects of his presentation. But those who are willing to navigate their way through the book's pages will certainly find the author's intricate analysis highly rewarding, especially in regard to his treatment of national culture. There he presents the notion that, through a process of self-reconceptualization, nineteenth-century "German" nobles increasingly found themselves inhabiting an evolutionary and expansive cultural space defined as the nation.
. Ronald G. Asch, ed., Der europäische Adel im Ancien Regime. Von der Krise der ständischen Monarchien bis zur Revolution (ca. 1600-1789) (Cologne: Böhlau, 2001); Jonathan Dewald, The European Nobility, 1400-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Mark Edward Motley, Becoming a French Aristocrat: The Education of the Court Nobility, 1580-1715 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); and Jay M. Smith, Nobility Reimagined: The Patriotic Nation in Eighteenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).
. Johannes Arndt, Das niederrheinisch-westfälische Reichsgrafenkollegium und seine Mitglieder, 1653-1806 (Mainz: Zabern, 1991).
. F. G. Dreyfus, La Societe urbaine et rhenane et particulierement a Mayence dans la seconde moitie du XVIIIe siecle 1740-1792 (Paris: Armand Colin, 1968); and T. C. W. Blanning, Reform and Revolution in Mainz, 1743-1803 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974).
. Konrad Maria Färber, Kaiser und Erzkanzler. Carl von Dalberg und Napoleon am Ende des Alten Reiches (Regensburg: Mittelbayerische Druckerei- und Verlags-Gesellschaft Regensburg, 1988); and Hans-Bernd Spies, ed., Carl von Dalberg, 1744-1817. Beiträge zu seiner Biographie (Aschaffenburg: Geschichts- und Kunstverein Aschaffenburg, 1994).
. Heinz Reif, Adel im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1994); and idem, Westfälischer Adel 1770-1860. Vom Herrschaftsstand zur regionalen Elite (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1979).
. Georg Schmidt, Geschichte des alten Reiches. Staat und Nation in der Frühen Neuzeit, 1495-1806 (Munich: Beck, 1999).
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Todd Berryman. Review of Godsey, William D., Jr., Nobles and Nation in Central Europe: Free Imperial Knights in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850.
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