Secular Jurisdiction (1783–1850)


The secu­lar matri­mo­ni­al juris­dic­tion was intro­du­ced in parts of the Habs­burg Mon­ar­chy with Joseph II’s Mar­ria­ge Patent of 1783. With this Patent the matri­mo­ni­al juris­dic­tion over all non-nobles, or com­moners, were han­ded over to the local courts. In the cities the magis­tra­tes’ courts were tho­se respon­si­ble and in the coun­try­si­de the seig­nio­ri­al patri­mo­ni­al courts. Tho­se per­sons belon­ging to the nobi­li­ty were sub­or­di­na­te to spe­ci­fic courts (Land­recht).

Joseph II’s Mar­ria­ge Patent defi­ned mar­ria­ge as a civil con­tract, howe­ver, it gene­ral­ly adhe­red to the regu­la­ti­ons of canon law when it came to the dis­so­lu­ti­on of a mar­ria­ge. It spe­ci­fi­cal­ly ruled that the “[mar­ria­ge] bond could under no cir­cum­s­tan­ces be dis­sol­ved as long as both mar­i­tal part­ners are ali­ve.” (§ 36). Catho­lic mar­ried cou­ples who could, or wis­hed to, no lon­ger live tog­e­ther could the­re­fo­re still app­ly only for a divorce of bed and board. The dis­so­lu­ti­on of the mar­i­tal bond, and the pos­si­bi­li­ty of remar­ry­ing while the mar­ria­ge part­ner was still living the­re­with con­nec­ted, remai­ned the pri­vi­le­ge of only non-Catho­lic sub­jec­ts.


The secu­lar matri­mo­ni­al laws after 1783, in con­trast to canon law, dif­fe­ren­tia­ted bet­ween con­sen­su­al and non-con­sen­su­al divorces. In the first three years fol­lo­wing the imple­men­ta­ti­on of Joseph II’s Mar­ria­ge Patent dis­pu­ting mar­ried cou­ples could be divorced from bed and board only with con­sen­su­al agree­ment. As of 1786, both pos­si­bi­li­ties were allo­wed.

Asi­de from divorces from bed and board, which, in con­trast to the ear­lier prac­tices of the eccle­si­asti­cal courts, were no lon­ger to be limi­ted in length, the mar­ried cou­ples also resol­ved their con­flic­ts con­cer­ning the con­se­quen­ces resul­ting from their divorce at the magistrate’s court or the local court respec­tively. Nume­rous mar­ried cou­ples made their demands in regard to the divi­si­on of pro­per­ty, the regu­la­ti­on of main­ten­an­ce claims or cus­to­dy of child­ren. In addi­ti­on to this one can also find requests for a “sepa­ra­te place of resi­dence” or “pro­vi­sio­nal main­ten­an­ce” for the dura­ti­on of the divorce pro­cee­dings in the court records.

In con­trast to the time peri­od befo­re 1783 the remai­ning files from the secu­lar courts con­tain almost exclu­si­ve­ly divorce pro­cee­dings. After 1786 the court of Lower Aus­tria was respon­si­ble for liti­ga­ti­ons invol­ving annulment (Hof­de­kret), the poli­ce aut­ho­ri­ties for “unaut­ho­ri­zed sepa­ra­ti­ons” and mar­i­tal con­flic­ts.

Andrea Grie­seb­ner, trans­la­ti­on Jen­ni­fer Blaak

Fur­ther: 1. Magis­tra­te of the city of Vien­na (1783-1850)