Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction (1558–1783)



The mar­ried coup­le Her­bert and Her­ber­tin came befo­re the Vien­nese Eccle­si­asti­cal Court for the first time on August 19, 1658; only seven weeks after get­ting mar­ried. Johann Chris­toph Her­bert deman­ded that his wife return to him and resu­me mar­ried life, she had run away wit­hout rea­son only five days after the wed­ding. Anna Maria Cla­ra Her­ber­tin sta­ted the rea­sons for her flight to be phy­si­cal aver­si­on (he had bad breath and was incon­ti­nent) and [her husband’s] alco­ho­lism, vio­lence and impo­tence. Her hus­band objec­ted to all the­se alle­ga­ti­ons and accu­sed the plain­tiff of aban­do­ning him wit­hout rea­son. The hea­ring ended wit­hout a sett­le­ment. The lawy­ers Dr. Lang and Dr. Bech­toldt both depo­si­ted bail to ensu­re that the plain­tiff and the defen­dant would not with­draw from the pro­cee­dings through flight.

The argu­ment which the wife pre­sen­ted as her explana­ti­on for aban­do­ning her hus­band was recor­ded by the court clerk as fol­lows:

[Johann Christoph Herbert] takes his drawn sword and pistols to bed with him. Secondly, his breath stinks so badly that no one can live with it, and, if you permit me to say, he urinates and also leaves everything else under himself in the bed, and keeps himself so unclean that she can also for these reasons not have sexual intercourse with him. Thirdly, he is impotent… He can therefore not satisfy her in terms of conjugal rights ... 



The sepa­ra­ti­on or divorce of mar­ria­ges was sel­dom an act which occur­red wit­hout any pro­blems. When tho­se invol­ved did not come to the court when sum­mo­ned, when someo­ne fled, or igno­red the court orders the con­sisto­ry often requested assi­s­tan­ce from the secu­lar aut­ho­ri­ties. Only very sel­dom does one find docu­ments which show that the eccle­si­asti­cal court its­elf app­lied coer­ci­ve mea­su­res.

In June 1665 Ursu­la Grieb­le­rin could no lon­ger stand living with her vio­lent hus­band. After Lucas Grieb­ler him­s­elf admit­ted to repeated­ly hit­ting his wife the Vien­nese con­sisto­ry gran­ted a two-year sepa­ra­ti­on with the con­di­ti­on that Lucas Grieb­ler was to stay away from the plain­tiff and her room and com­ple­te­ly abstain from coha­bi­ta­ti­on under thre­at of per­so­nal arrest. Not wan­ting to accept this, he pro­tested direc­t­ly at the hea­ring, say­ing he wis­hed to go to her room imme­dia­te­ly. Due to his defi­an­ce the con­sisto­ry saw its­elf forced to have Lucas Grieb­ler arrested by the court cur­sor and impri­son­ed with only bread and water until he vowed to impro­ve his beha­vi­or. After four days he was released.

15 June 1665
Grieblerin Ursula versus husband Lucasen Griebler.

The plaintiff lamented the ferocity and shows her black eyes, as he deplorably maltreated her, she wants nothing from him, requests only a tolerance. 

The defendant admits to having hit her, tells that she did not come to see him or send him anything when he was in jail, claims she is an evil woman.

Conclusion: Due to the fact that the severe beating was admitted to and that no improvement to his behavior can be expected, but rather that one has to fear still more evil doings, a tolerance of two years is approved. The husband was to stay away from the plaintiff and her room and was to completely abstain from cohabitation under threat of personal arrest.

The defendant does not agree with the tolerance, instead he declared emphatically that he would not comply. He was arrested, the court cursor was ordered to give him only bread and water until he shows an improvement in his behaviour.

Stayed under arrest until the 19th of June, on which day the arrested, requesting release, promising that he would not offend her [his wife] neither with words nor with deeds and would not enter her room, was released. He is entitled to lodge his complaint, if he thinks he has one.



On 18 Novem­ber 1776 Kla­ra Freyin von Sum­mer­au and Gott­fried Frei­herr von Sum­mer­au appeared befo­re the Vien­nese Con­sis­to­ri­al Court. The wife then sta­ted that a peace­ful coha­bi­ta­ti­on was not pos­si­ble and requested to be allo­wed to for­bid her hus­band to enter their dwel­ling and to live sepa­ra­ted for a cer­tain amount of time. Kla­ra Freyin von Sum­mer­au listed the rea­sons for this request for “tole­ran­ce” – as the time peri­od of the sepa­ra­ti­on was refer­red to – as fol­lows:

her husband had held her tightly all the time, he had made various serious threats against her, his behavior is very indecent, his body and clothing are always unclean, he stays away all night for suspicious reasons, he walks around the house with his shirt open in front of the children and the household servants, he sets a bad example for these people and wishes for sexual practices against the nature.



Ägyd von Liech­tens­tern, clerk at the Impe­ri­al Chan­cel­le­ry of the Emperor (Reichs­hof­kanz­lei), approa­ched the Vien­nese Con­sisto­ry in Decem­ber 1781. Accord­ing to his state­ment he could no lon­ger bear to live with his wife in the home of his father-in-law Karl Fritz von Rus­ten­feld. Ägyd von Liech­tens­tern sta­ted to the court that under the roof of his father-in-law he “[had to] live sepa­ra­ted from his wife and that he [was] trea­ted qui­te mali­cious­ly”. He requested from the eccle­si­asti­cal court that his wife should be orde­red to coha­bit with him at his dwel­ling. Karl Fritz von Rus­ten­feld said in her defence that

his daughter could never be forced to cohabit with such a man, a man who has abandoned himself so extremely to the vice of masturbation that it has become a matter of habit and through which he has acquired the malady of epilepsy, occasional brain dysfunction, fits of fury, emaciation and an inability to procreate. 


In his argu­men­ta­ti­on the father-in-law reli­ed on the exten­si­ve reper­toire of wri­tings on the mas­tur­ba­ti­on deba­te. Perhaps he had read one of the works writ­ten by the Swiss doc­tor Simon Augus­te Tissot, who spo­ke out against the vice of mas­tur­ba­ti­on in his works.

Tissot, Simon Augus­te: Ver­such von denen Krank­hei­ten, wel­che aus der Selbst­be­fle­ckung ent­ste­hen (An essay on the ill­nes­ses which ari­se from the prac­tice of mas­tur­ba­ti­on), Frankfurt/Leipzig 1760.


In 1784, under the pseud­onym “Arnold”, the wri­ter Johann Rau­ten­strauch published a three part book­let ent­it­led “The weak­nes­ses of the Vien­nese. From the manu­scripts of a tra­vel­ler”. In this work one finds inte­res­ting descrip­ti­ons of (bour­geois and noble) Vien­nese dai­ly life. Rau­ten­strauch com­men­ted on “mar­ria­ge”, the “reluc­tan­ce to mar­ry”, “com­pul­si­ve gamb­ling” and “make up”. He made fun of the cri­tics of the Jose­phi­ne Mar­ria­ge Ordi­nan­ce of 1793 which intro­du­ced the so cal­led “sepa­ra­ti­on of the mar­ria­ge” (= Sepa­ra­ti­on of the mar­ria­ge bond with the opti­on to remar­ry) for all non-Catho­lic cou­ples and the uncon­tested divorce (=divorce from bed and board wit­hout the opti­on to remar­ry) for catho­lic cou­ples.

Even though divorce (of the marriage bond) was not allowed, one could hear the complaints of married couples, tired of each other, on a daily, even on an hourly basis at the Viennese archiepiscopal palace. The holy bonds of marriage, having been declared indissoluble, are being broken. 

The law was finally forced to allow the separation of the marriage bond, which is even more appalling than the divorce of the marriage itself. Uncontested divorces (from bed and board) are very common in Vienna. In this way the most holy laws lose their power and glory. During the time of the divorce (from bed and board) the man always has to provide his wife with maintenance payments, while she may have ruined him through her bad economic practices or insulted him through improper behavior. 

Tho­se who are inte­rested in the “weak­nes­ses of the Vien­nese” can find the book­lets at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na on Phai­dra, a repo­sito­ry for the per­ma­nent secu­re sto­rage of digi­tal assets.

Andrea Grie­seb­ner / Susan­ne Hehen­ber­ger, trans­la­ti­on Jen­ni­fer Blaak

fur­ther: Secu­lar Juris­dic­tion (1783–1850)