The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

Peeping through Bushes and Pestering Beautiful Girls: Maria Theresa’s Chastity Commission

This is what Casanova, the world’s most celebrated womaniser, had to say of his stay in Vienna in 1753: “Everything in Vienna is beautiful. There is lots of money and much luxury. But the vile spies, called the chastity commissioners, are the implacable pests of all beautiful girls.” What Casanova was referring to was the Chastity Police, revived by the Empress Maria Theresa. For Casanova the commissioners were bores and spoil-sports. The greatest spoil-sport, however, was the Empress herself. This was the widely-held opinion among anyone who was anyone in a city which vied with the Versailles of Louis XIV and saw itself as the capital of joie de vivre. An English traveller gives the following account of Viennese high society: “It is the established custom of every lady to have two husbands, one that bears the name and another that performs the duties (…) it would be a downright affront, and publicly resented, if you invited a woman (…) to dinner, without at the same time inviting her two attendants of lover and husband.” In a society which revelled in beauty, youth, and the pursuit of unrestrained pleasure the laws enacted by the Empress, a woman, past her prime, who had put on enormous weight and was no longer attractive, were received with a mixture of irritation and merriment. That the infidelities of Maria Theresa’s husband were not a very well-kept secret only added a note of desperation to the whole initiative of turning the Viennese court into a paragon of virtue. The Papal nuncio, with a down-to-earth sense of reality not uncommon among officials of the Church, expressed his doubts that “the Empress could find young women willing to come from Italy to Vienna only to lead the lives of Capuchin monks.” As the Empress was soon to find out, no one around her, starting from her own husband, had any intention of following the life-style of the Capuchin monks.

Tomb of Maria Teresa and her husband in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna

As is invariably the case, the chastity laws themselves produced some inconvenience, but also a great deal of amusement. Thinning out the shrubs in the Prater Park so that the agents of the Empress could monitor what was going on behind must have sounded as good of a joke then, as it does now. It was quipped that the only result from arresting and deporting prostitutes to villages was that “exceptionally beautiful women” could be seen in the most unlikely places. Making it illegal to hold conversations between men and women during dances provided an equally fruitful ground for jokes. The fountain in the Neuer Markt in Vienna, adorned with harmless-looking sculpture figures in the classical style, had managed somehow to offend the sensibilities of the commissioners and was removed (later it was put back in place). One can imagine that closing masked balls at 11 p.m. must have produced as much result as the closing down of pubs in Britain at the same hour in our time.

The fountain in the Neuer Markt in Vienna.

Some idea of the effectiveness of the chastity laws can be gleaned from the fact that Casanova, who described himself as “addicted to every kind of dissolute living,” was perfectly happy to come back to Vienna again. It didn’t appear he was bored at all or short of opportunities to enjoy himself. One wonders if debauchers as Casanova didn’t, in fact, get a kick out of evading the obstacles that the chastity commissioners were putting in their way.

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