Matthijs De Visch, Portrait of Empress Maria Theresia, 1749 | Bruges, Musea Brugge, Groeningemuseum

Meaning & Religion
1717 - 1780
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Empress Maria Theresia

Enlightenment in Europe

Members of the Habsburg dynasty ruled for more than six centuries over large parts of Europe. In all that time only one woman sat on the throne: Maria Theresia. For forty years she ruled (with her other domains) over the Austrian Netherlands.

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In 1715 the southern part of the Low Countries passed from the Spanish to the Austrian branch of the Habsburgs. In 1740 Maria Theresia succeeded her father, when she was 23. As a woman she was not initially accepted by the great powers as heir to the throne.

Under her long rule the power of the central state administration grew, at the cost of the old counties and duchies. In economy, education and the judicial system Maria Theresia introduced reforms step by step. For example, she founded the Theresian high schools, the precursors of the athenaeums, with a uniform syllabus. Maria Theresia made her influence felt throughout Europe, also by pursuing a well-thought-out marriage policy for her numerous children.


Wikimedia Commons

The Martelaarsplein (square) (at the time Sint-Michielsplein) in Brussels was laid out in the 1770s in the Neo-Classical style, typical of the Enlightenment. The architect Claude Fisco (1736-1825), later a supporter of the Brabant Revolution, worked for the city.

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Enlightenment in Europe

From the 16th century on scientific discoveries succeeded each other rapidly. As a result, confidence grew in the power of human reason. In the 18th century that led to a broad cultural and philosophical movement in Europe: the Enlightenment. Thinkers like Voltaire, Immanuel Kant and David Hume fought against political and social oppression and all kinds of superstition. They argued for a reorganisation of society.

Various monarchs were inspired by the Enlightenment, including Maria Theresia. But they refused to take these ideas to extremes, because that would undermine their own absolute authority. For example, the French philosopher Montesquieu had argued for the separation of legislative, executive and judicial power. Spreading power across a parliament, government and judges would strongly limit the power of a sole ruler. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another French thinker, had actually put forward popular sovereigntythe principle that the highest authority lies with the people and a head of state must keep to laws and agreements with the population. as the basis of the state. The new radical ideas trickled slowly into the Austrian Netherlands.

The Enlightenment was to provide inspiration for two important revolutions at the end of the 18th century: the American Revolution of 1776 and the French of 1789. The revolutionaries proclaimed freedom and equality for all citizens, although it turned out in practice that people of colour and women remained in subordinate positions.

Focal points

Jozef II.

Bruges, Musea Brugge,, photo Hugo Maertens

Gertrude Cornélie Marie de Pélichy, Portrait of Emperor Joseph II, around 1780


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The Reforms of Joseph II

In 1780 Joseph II succeeded Maria Theresia as head of the Habsburg dynasty and ruler of the Austrian Netherlands. His rule was, even more than his mother’s, characterised by ‘enlightened absolutism’, which combined sole rule with enlightened ideas. Joseph II shared that style of government with other monarchs in the late 18th century, such as Catherine the Great of Russia and King Frederick of Prussia.

In the Austrian Netherlands Joseph II took the centralisation of state power a stage further. He wanted to organise and govern the whole society from the top down. This brought him into the field of among others the Catholic church.

Joseph II tried to bring religious institutions under the control of the state. His Edict of Tolerance opened the door to freedom of religion for Protestants and Jews. Civil courts were authorised to judge marital disputes. But Joseph II also intervened in internal religious matters. For example, he set up a general seminary for the training of priests, closed monasteries if in his view they were of no social use and drew up rules for pilgrimages and processions. People could no longer be buried in or around the church, but had to be interred in cemeteries outside residential areas.

Brabantse Omwenteling (1789-1790).

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-1903-A-23749

This cartoon from 1791, after the restoration of Austrian government, criticises the fanaticism of the conservative clergy during the Brabant Revolution (1789-1790).

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The Brabant Revolution

The reforms of Joseph II won him little applause. They went too far for the clergy and the conservative elite, for the few supporters of the Enlightenment not far enough. But the abolition of age-old administrative and judicial institutions was a bridge too far for everyone.

In October 1789 an armed rebellion broke out, first in the duchy of Brabant but soon in other territories too. The participants in the Brabant Revolution came mostly from the conservative wing (the Catholic clergy and people who saw their position threatened), but also from a progressive, democratically inclined bourgeoisie.

The rebels notched up some surprising military victories, in Hoogstraten, Turnhout and Ghent. In December 1789, led by the Brussels lawyer Hendrik van der Noot they entered Brussels in triumph. On 11 January 1790 they proclaimed the United States of Belgium, an independent and confederate republic. But the opposition between conservatives and progressives paralysed the revolution.

Joseph II died in February 1790, His brother, Emperor Leopold II, managed to restore Austrian order and nip the Brabant Revolution in the bud. Still, the days of the Austrian Habsburgs in the Low Countries were numbered. A few years later the new French republic conquered the Low Countries. It would go much further in its reforms than Maria Theresia and her successors.

Maria Theresia in Gent.
Wikimedia Commons

Inauguration of Maria Theresia as countess of Flanders on the Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market) in Ghent, 27 April 1744. The Vrijdagmarkt was traditionally the place where the Joyous Entry of the counts of Flanders was celebrated. Copper engraving by Frans Pilsen.

De Ferraris Oudenaarde.
Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium

The Austrian general Joseph de Ferraris (1726-1814) was commissioned by Maria Theresia to make a map of the whole area that is now Belgium. This is Oudenaarde and environs.

Villain XIII
Kruibeke, Kasteel Wissekerke, Wikimedia Commons

The aristocratic politician Jean Jacques Philippe Vilain XIIII (1712-1777) from Aalst, inspired by the Enlightenment, reformed the prison system. In the ‘Rasphuis’ (Grating House) in Ghent the unemployed, tramps and beggars ‘were given useful work to do’. Portrait by E. Vandenbussche.

Den Vlaemsche Indicateur.
Ghent, University Library

Den Vlaemschen indicateur promoted scientific progress. The magazine was published in Ghent, with support from Maria Theresia and Joseph II.

Slag van Turnhout.
Turnhout, vzw Herdenking Slag van Turnhout 1789

At the Battle of Turnhout during the Brabant Revolution the rebels inflicted a defeat on the Austrian army. The non-profit organisation Commemoration Battle of Turnhout 1789 keeps the memory alive (here in 1989).

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