Between Myth and History: The Genealogy of the Habsburgs

Marquard Herrgott, Genealogiae Diplomaticae Augustae Gentis Habsburgicae.

Printed in three volumes in 1737 in Vienna by Leopold Johannes Kaliwoda.

If you travel from Basel to Zurich on the A3, you’ll pass through the handsomely named ‘Habsburg tunnel’. And in fact, the scanty remains of the castle you can see from the motorway are the base from which the House of Habsburg conquered the world. The Habsburg emperors themselves didn’t know much more than that about their ancestors, which gave the historiographers they paid enough leeway to fabricate a noble lineage in which Hercules himself appeared as the family’s ancestor.

Today, we can only chuckle at the idea that a rather insignificant noble family from Aargau could have been descended from a Greek hero. But who taught our historians how to distinguish between fact and fiction? Today’s book will take us back to the origins of a discipline that is absolutely essential for this: diplomatics, the study of the correct analysis of historical documents.

Genealogy, Historical Documents and What It’s All For

Of course, there are still people today who like to trace their family ancestry. A nice hobby, but nothing more. Back in the 16th century, however, when genealogy was enjoying its first heyday, it was of existential importance: only those who could prove that all four of their grandparents had been nobles were able to claim the privileges of nobility for themselves. Conversely, all the counts and Imperial Knights who had, at some point, been forced by economic factors to marry the daughter of a rich (non-noble) commoner now had a problem. They had to touch up their family trees.

And they weren’t the only ones doing this. Rulers also paid imaginative humanists to fill in all the gaping holes in their genealogy with vivid fantasy ancestors of as high a class as possible. Drawing inspiration from Virgil’s or Homer’s epics was the least they were expected to do!

And then there was the matter of the historical documents. Of course, documents had always been forged. The Donation of Constantine is an excellent example of this. But in the 16th century, the forgery business boomed. Because this is when the ‘Reichskammergericht’ (one of the highest judicial institutions in the Holy Roman Empire) in Speyer started its work. Whenever somebody asserted their rights, the Reichskammergericht’s judges demanded documents from them. Now, many customary rights had never been certified in an official document! So, those desperate prosecutors often had no choice but to write the missing documents themselves. And who could tell back then that these documents had not been around for 100 years, but perhaps just 100 days?

Jesuits versus Benedictines

And this created a fundamental problem. Whenever there was a dispute between two parties, one of them would produce some historical documents, the other would deny that they were genuine – even in ecclesiastical matters. And this raised the question of how the authenticity of historical documents could be proved beyond a doubt. The Jesuit Daniel Papebroch grappled with this question in 1675. He researched the accuracy of various legends of saints and declared the Merovingian charters of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés to be entirely false, because the statements they contained did not match up with his hypotheses.

Naturally, the Benedictine monks who lived in the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés were furious about this. Because the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which at that time was located just outside Paris, was actually a Merovingian establishment that had served as the burial place of Merovingian rulers for centuries. In the abbey’s library, original documents of Merovingian kings really had been preserved as closely guarded, high-status treasures. It was simply outrageous that somebody (a Jesuit, no less!) had dared to attack the time-honoured charters of the Benedictines of St.-Germain-des-Près. But he had messed with the wrong monks! After all, Saint-Germain-des-Prés was where the Congregation of Saint Maur was based.

Like the Jesuits, the Maurists were a reformed order, but they were established a little later, shortly before the Thirty Years’ War to be precise. The Benedictine Congregation of Saint Maur had made it their mission to research church history. Saint-Germain-des-Prés was therefore full to bursting with brilliant church historians. And here was some Jesuit trying to convince them that their historical documents were worthless!

Frater Jean Mabillon scrupulously examined all of the original charters and, in 1681, published a fundamental work on diplomatics and the authentication of historical documents. The term ‘diplomatics’ – derived from the Latin word ‘diploma’, meaning ‘charter’ – describes the study of historical documents. Unfortunately, the MoneyMuseum is not in possession of this great work, but Mabillon’s research spread among many historians of the Order of Saint Benedict, including in Saint Blaise Abbey in the Black Forest.

Marquard Herrgott

In 1724, the Benedictine monks of Saint Blaise Abbey sent a promising Brother – who was also the nephew of the husband of the abbot’s sister, which I’m sure had nothing to do with it… – to study at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Près. This young man, who was very interested in history, was to complete his studies there.

And indeed he did: Brother Marquard returned so worldly and highly educated that the estates of Further Austria considered him the right man to represent them as an envoy in Vienna. At this point, we should remember that until 1806, large parts of the Breisgau region belonged to the Habsburg Empire. The cities of Freiburg, Breisach, Waldkirch and Rheinfelden were equally subject to Habsburg rule as the Abbeys of Saint Blaise, Saint Trudpert or Wonnetal – just to name a few examples.

Marquard Herrgott was therefore one of hundreds of ambassadors in Vienna who had to try to somehow attract the Emperor’s attention. Marquard Herrgott managed it very skilfully: he decided to work out the genealogy of the House of Habsburg using the principles he had learned at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Près. Naturally, this research sparked the interest of the imperial family!

The Imperial Documents on the Genealogy of the House of Habsburg

But the book published by Marquard Herrgott in 1737 was also very impressive! Three thick volumes of Latin text as well as all sorts of documents reflecting the history of the House of Habsburg. The purpose that this monumental work was supposed to serve is indicated all too clearly by the title engraving. Hercules – who, don’t forget, is the mythical ancestor of the House of Habsburg, identifiable by his lion pelt and club – together with Fortitude – the personification of courage with a column over her shoulder – is placing a bust of Emperor Charles VI on a pedestal in a circle of his ancestors. At his feet crouch little putti, who are disposing of the heads of ancestors who cannot be traced and must therefore be cleared away. Above Charles floats Fama, who proclaims the reputation of the imperial house with her trumpet and, in her right hand, holds the ouroboros, a serpent biting its own tail, which was therefore interpreted as a sign of the eternal glory of the House of Habsburg.

In the foreground, we see Industria, the personification of hard work with her oil lamp, directing the various angels and putti as they write down the history of the Habsburgs. At her feet huddles the defeated Chronos, the god of time, who is easily identifiable by his scythe. Thanks to all the historical documents surrounding him, this book will ensure that nothing more will be forgotten with the passage of time. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, points her finger at Charles VI, thereby attributing the credit for the historical research to him.

A Scientifically Accurate Reproduction of the Historical Documents

So, what was so special about Marquard Herrgott’s history of the House of Habsburg? Well, it wasn’t centred around myths, legends or time-honoured lore, but rather around historical documents, published using the very latest scientific techniques. The proponents of the Enlightenment in the Habsburg Empire – especially Emperor Charles VI – were fascinated by the fact that these documents actually provided proof for many things that, up to that point, had remained mere claims. Herrgott even had the engravers produce a kind of facsimile of the historical documents, thereby providing as accurate a reproduction of the texts, seals and shapes of the parchment as was possible before the invention of photography.

Marquard Herrgott may have written a rather dry, academic book, but he enhanced it with numerous copper engravings, which impressed even those who weren’t able to read Latin text fluently and who therefore could not access the academic content of the publication.

Emperor Charles VI was so pleased with this work that he not only formally honoured Marquard Herrgott, but also appointed him his advisor and historiographer. And of course, in this role, the envoy of Breisgau was perfectly positioned to promote the concerns of his employers. He did that for decades, until he fell out of favour with Charles VI’s daughter Maria Theresa.

Let’s finish with a short postscript, because Marquard Herrgott’s work had real consequences. For example, in 1739, just two years after Marquard Herrgott had published his book, the Abbott of the Swiss Königsfelden Monastery at the foot of Habsburg Castle had the Habsburg crypt opened, doubtless to remind the Habsburgs of the close connection and take advantage of it.

And when the Abbott of Saint Blaise Abbey feared that his monastery could be secularised, he made a rescue attempt by bringing the bones of the early Habsburgs into his monastery. He wanted to be irreplaceable as the memorial church of the Austrian people. He failed. The monks of Saint Blaise Abbey were driven out and they took the Habsburg bones with them to their new home, Saint Paul’s Abbey in the Lavant Valley in Carinthia, where they still rest to this day.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

The Munich Digitalization Center (Münchner Digitalisierungszentrum) has a complete digitized copy of Herrgott’s Genealogiae Diplomaticae Augustae Gentis Habsburgicae.

Find out more about Emperor Maximilian I. and the book collection of the Habsburgs from the Austrian National Library (in German).

Learn more about the coins of the Habsburgs in this CoinsWeekly article.

An exhibition about the history of the Benedictine Saint Blaise Abbey was recently featured at the Augustinermuseum in Freiburg im Breisgau.

Text bewerten