In the Austrian Netherlands (today's Belgium/Luxembourg), the Arenberg family practised intensive agriculture on polders and thus generated income. Nobles also granted loans and thus boosted the economy. © Bernard C. Ridderbosch (1785), Private collection

“Follow the money” is one of the principles underpinning solid research. In her FWF-funded project Veronika Hyden-Hanscho, from the Institute for Habsburg and Balkan Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, is exploring the economic activities of the nobility. Under the title “Income, Management and Economic Thinking (IMET)” she is investigating the political elite of the time in terms of its significance for economic life, which is an underrepresented aspect of nobility research. “Traditionally, research on the nobility is concerned with representation, that is to say the expenditure side, or studies of individual families. I opt for a structural analysis of the revenue side – that is, where their money came from – and the economic role of the nobility for the Habsburg Monarchy between the 17th and 19th centuries,” explains Hyden-Hanscho.

Not interested in any specific proof of payment for a magnificent garment, she would prefer to inspect the entirety of accounting records and correspondence. She wants to move away from spotlights on individuals and anecdotal analysis towards capturing this social class as a group. Hyden-Hanscho has already completed the collection of data in Vienna, Prague, Klagenfurt and Brussels and included ten families in her sample. As it turns out, noble families were active in various sectors in the Monarchy. They helped to build structures for proto-industry and trade, as well as tourism and banking.

Disparate archives – geographical regions

In the Czech Republic, Belgium and Austria Hyden-Hanscho vetted – or commissioned somebody to vet – archives of aristocratic and ruling families to collect meaningful documents on estate administration, offices, production sites and land ownership. Some of the data sources were divided up, some were private and others publicly accessible. For her Elise Richter project, Hyden-Hanscho selected several families from the Bohemian-Austrian heartlands, which had strong economies and were marked by early industrialisation. These families cultivated marriage networks among themselves and made up the majority of the nobility found at the court in Vienna. On the other hand, the study also includes families from the Duchy of Carinthia who were active in mining and the steel industry and some from the economically progressive province of the Austrian Netherlands (today's Belgium/Luxembourg), which were far removed from the Viennese court.

Lend me some money and I'll give something back

The historian’s extensive research provides evidence that noble families were significantly involved in the development of a functioning system of payment transactions and private credit from the early modern period onwards. At that time, landed property was already recognised as collateral and thus provided a basis for loans to other nobles, to subjects, but also to the monarch. With the issue of bonds, a kind of loan contract with agreed interest rates, money could circulate in the country and state. “You could make a lot of money with money. Credit involved everything from tiny amounts to gigantic sums. It was issued to the emperor via sovereign bonds as an advance for the war chest, and to other nobles for purchases, transactions or dowries. So far, this credit network has been completely overlooked.”

Helping out with money also served to obtain (lucrative) offices in the state and at court for one's own family. The fiefdom system functioned in a similar way – the Paar family from Styria, for example, held the postal system in fealty for some time. In the manorial system, the nobility acted on behalf of the rulers. Tax collection and administration were linked to land ownership, and the noble families had to provide administrative structures such as patrimonial jurisdiction and financial administration, and later also schools. The larger and more cohesive an estate was, the more cost-effective the system was, as was the case in Bohemia, for instance. When estates were small and fragmented, as they were in the Alpine region, profitability was definitely not a given.

In Bohemia, numerous families operated textile manufactories (linen, wool, mixed fabrics), the best known of which was the Waldstein family. © Herman Freudenberger: The Waldstein Woolen Mill. Noble Entrepreuneurship in Eighteenth-Century Bohemia, Boston 1963

Agriculture, industry, mining and a spa

In addition to money lending, land cultivation was another source of income for the nobility, because the owner had the right to exploit raw materials produced or found there. This meant agriculture, either on large areas as in Bohemia in particular, or in the form of mountain farming in alpine regions. In the Austrian Netherlands, the Arenberg family practised intensive agriculture on polders, i.e. on land reclaimed from the sea by means of dikes. The mining industry, including specialised processing, also generated an income, for example for the Lodron family in Carinthia. In Bohemia, numerous families operated textile manufactories (linen, wool, mixed fabrics), the best known of which was the Waldstein family. The textiles they had produced, traditionally woven and spun at home, were transported to manufactories and proto-industrial production complexes for centralised processing. At the end of the 18th century, one family in Bohemia already ran a spa business which was the precursor of a tourist infrastructure.

Success factors for aristocratic entrepreneurs

There is one widespread assumption that Veronika Hyden-Hanscho is already able to refute on the basis of her research. Noble rank was definitely not lost as a result of commercial activity. From the 18th century onwards, members of the nobility also invested in trading companies or the establishment of banks. It was always their subjects who did the actual work, but economically successful families definitely acquired expertise and were involved in business activities, for instance by promoting sales or drawing up specific instructions for manufacturing operations. They were not just passive owners, but made conscious decisions.

Access to labour is not the only difference Hyden-Hanscho sees between non-noble and noble business undertakings, or between economic success or failure. Unpaid socage service did not necessarily involve working in the fields, it could also be done in manufacturing units or transport. Skilled labour, however, was always paid, and proto-industrial work in the putting-out system was also paid in line with what was usual at the time. “While the nobility had access to socage labour and was entitled to it, this was not a genuine locational advantage. Rather, it was the totality of resources a noble landowner enjoyed, such as land, rights and subjects, or economic subsidies – initially granted via privileges and, since Empress Maria Theresa, in the form of cheap loans, which were granted by committees in which the nobility was represented.” Marriage policy was also one of the nobility’s advantages whenever estates could be merged. However, marriages for the sake of increasing assets also existed in the bourgeoisie.

Describing the revenue side

In a society based on estates, inequality is the norm. In such an unequal society, the nobility had the edge in terms of land ownership, marriage policy and lucrative offices, but the working conditions of the common people were equally bad in all economic enterprises. Hyden-Hanscho is recording her research results in a monograph to be published in early 2025. This will be the first publication to describe how the income of the nobility was composed, and it will present her findings on credit, proto-industries, the estate management, but also debt management and bankruptcies. Despite all their privileges, members of the nobility could also go bankrupt or pay for castles, pomp and splendour.

Personal details

Veronika Hyden-Hanscho studied History and German Philology in Graz and Poitiers and received her PhD in 2011 with a thesis resulting from the FWF-funded research project “Cultural Transfer from the South Atlantic to Central Europe, 1640-1740”. She was a lecturer for Austrian culture at the University of Wrocław (Poland) from 2011 to 2013 and a project team member at the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Historical Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences between 2013 and 2017. She is currently an Elise Richter fellow at the Institute for Habsburg and Balkan Studies of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. In autumn 2021 she was a visiting researcher at Ghent University (Belgium). Her areas of expertise are economic and social history, cultural history, nobility research, social network analysis and fiscal-military state research, especially in the Habsburg Monarchy.


Hyden-Hanscho, Veronika: Habsburg War Finance and Noble Credit-Brokerage in the Southern Netherlands under Charles VI, in: William D. Godsey und Petr Mat’a (Hg.): The Habsburg Monarchy as a Fiscal-Military State. Contours and Perspectives 1648–1815, Proceedings of the British Academy 247, Oxford University Press 2022, S. 249–266

Hyden-Hanscho, Veronika: State services, fortuitous marriages and conspiracies: Trans-territorial family strategies between Madrid, Brussels and Vienna in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in: Journal of Modern European History 2020

Godsey, William D., Hyden-Hanscho, Veronika (Hg.): Das Haus Arenberg und die Habsburgermonarchie. Eine transterritoriale Adelsfamilie zwischen Fürstendienst und Eigenständigkeit (16.–20. Jahrhundert), Schnell & Steiner 2019