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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 11:225–230.


Social Justice Reduced to the Privileged Estate

Noble Academies in Eighteenth-Century Hungary


One of the cornerstones of the social policies of Enlightened Absolutism in the Habsburg Empire [or Habsburg Lands] was the demand for equal contribution by various social groups to the “common good.” The noble estates could no longer enjoy their feudal privileges without being “useful subjects”, that is without sharing the tax burden with the commoners and performing services in the state apparatus and/or the army. To be able to cope with ever growing complexity of duties, the nobility needed extensive training. The education of the nobility [on Catholic or religious bases] could hardly be described as a priority for Habsburg absolutism in the age of secularisation of education. Working out a new school system and curriculum, broadening the access to education to new social strata and various nationalities of the Habsburg Empire, the reconsideration of the whole concept of education for noblemen, its forms and social function became an important element of the social policies of Maria Theresa and Joseph II.

A key element of the educational policies of Enlightened Absolutism was the establishment of academies for the male offsprings of the nobility. Unlike colleges, gymnasia and boarding schools under the patronage of the Catholic Church, noble academies established in the Habsburg Empire in the mid-eighteenth century, were under direct control by the state. They provided extensive knowledge of laws, economics and foreign languages, and their graduates were intended to fill leading positions in the state apparatus, the army and the church hierarchy. This paper presents a general overview of the system of noble academies in Hungary, with special attention to institutions which Hungarian noblemen attended and the curricula they followed. It also discusses the imperial pattern of the reform of noble education in Hungary and the outcome of this half-a-century-long experiment.

The reform of the education of male noble offsprings was closely related to the underlying changes in the social policy of the Habsburg Empire. Habsburg absolutism aimed at the centralization of [the administrations] of the heterogeneous lands and provinces of the Monarchy, in order to replace the estates with an efficient and obedient bureaucracy. Wishing to deprive the nobility of feudal privileges, the government in turn, wanted to compensate them by giving them a chance to earn social status and prestige, due to competence and professionalism. The nobility on their part, rightly viewed education as an asset, as a precondition of a successful career, and noble academies which provided specific training for future civil servants quickly became extremely popular among aristocrats and lesser the nobility alike. Access to modern education turned into an instrument of social and cultural policy of the absolutist state.

By the mid-eighteenth century the Austrian authorities had decided to build on a system of educational institutions rigidly controlled by the state superseding already existing noble colleges run by the Jesuits and Piarists. Starting at the top, in 1746 they opened the Theresian Academy in Vienna which soon turned into the most elitist school of the Monarchy. It became the model to follow and the proving ground for new educational schemes later widely used all over the Monarchy. It was designed as a “melting pot” where young nobles from different lands of the Monarchy were to be taught to love their common Austrian homeland which in many respects existed only in the minds of their tutors. Hungarian historians traditionally paid tribute to the prominent role of this institution,1 which had broken the isolation of Hungary from the Hereditary Lands, broadened political and cultural horizons of the Hungarian ruling elite and brought up a brilliant cohort of politicians, military commanders and clergymen.

Since the 1750s a Piarist gymnasium in Josefstadt in Vienna had acquired an important role in the education of Hungarian nobles. Count Jacob Löwenburg, a privy and court councillor who had been serving in Upper Hungary, in his last will ordered the establishment of four scholarships (for two Hungarian and two Austrian nobles) at the Josefstadt gymnasium. Quite soon the gymnasium became famous under the name of Löwenburg College (Löwenburgisches Konvikt) and was placed under the special patronage of the Viennese court. The Court Treasury (Hofkammer) used to cover expenses on education for more than one Austrian noble each year.2 There were some other short-lived attempts to establish scholarships for Hungarians in Vienna (for instance, the Chaos (Kautz) Foundation with twelve scholarships for Hungarian nobles) but in the long run they did not play any significant role.3

The absolutist state exercised direct control over admission to the Theresianum through the selection of candidates and distribution of scholarships. The latter was a crucial element of educational policies towards the noble estate. Annual incomes of the bulk of the nobility was not high enough to cover the costs of the education of their, often numerous, offspring. Since 1749 ten scholarships had been annually paid by the Extraordinary Fund of the Court Treasury as a sign of royal benevolence to personae gratae at the Viennese court.4 By 1751 a set of academic foundations was created from the incomes of rich abbeys in Lower Austria and Hungary. They were to provide financial support for young men of both aristocratic and gentry stock, whose fathers had proved their loyalty to the House of Habsburg with years of devoted service in the army or state apparatus.5 It was implied that rich aristocratic families should educate their children at their own expense. Nevertheless, aristocrats had never lost an opportunity to apply for and get financial support from one of the foundations.

Hungarian nobles were eligible to apply for scholarships, officially reserved for the Hungarian nation, to the Btaszk foundation. It got its name from the abbey of Archangel Michael of Btaszk in Tolna County in Hungary. After the death of the Arch-Bishop of Vienna, Cardinal Sigismund Kollonitz, who had bequeathed all his possessions to “pious causes”, Maria Theresa ordered the incorporation of the abbey into the Theresian Academy and allocate 8,000 fl. of its annual income for ten scholarships to support five German and five Hungarian nobles. It was emphasised, that the foundation should be managed separately from the Hungarian Treasury Chamber.6 The Hungarian Chancellery was required to present lists of candidates and provide reasons for their admission, but the final decision was always made in Vienna, in a form of benign resolution. Moreover, the number of Hungarians sponsored from the Hungarian quota never was higher than five. The usual practice was to grant places reserved for Hungarians to sons of influential courtiers of non-Hungarian origin. For instance, in 1778 a place from the Hungarian quota was given to Leopoldo Lagusio, the son of the court physician of the grand duke of Tuscany.7 As a result the Btaszk foundation could neither meet the growing demands of the Hungarian nobility for modern education, nor satisfy the ruling elite, which was subordinated to and dependent on the Austrian authorities.

Initiatives undertaken by the Hungarian authorities in the 1760s testify to the fact that the political elite were concerned with the essential need to reform the system of noble education regarding this issue among its prior political tasks. In 1763 Chancellor Count Ferenc Esterházy in the little town of Szenc founded the first Economic College in Hungary. Designed to satisfy the growing demand of the state for economists, financiers, engineers, the College gave impoverished nobles a chance to provide for the future of their children by means of modern education.8 In 1767 an ordinary noble college in Vác on the initiative of Cardinal Christopher Migazzi was transformed into the Theresian Academy placed under the patronage of Maria Theresa, and modelled on the Viennese prototype.9

Both colleges were badly financed and hardly made ends meet. These remote places where students were to live in poorly furnished rooms and wear shabby clothes could, hardly attract the offsprings of aristocratic families. On the other hand, the lower layers of the nobility jumped at any chance to get away from poverty, uncertainty, lack of social prestige. Those who wanted to win the support of the state in the form of scholarships were to be trained in professions the state needed most: accounting, tax-collecting, cartography and so on. In both institutions the state exercised direct control over the distribution of scholarships, regarded scholarships as a reward for the fathers’ loyalty, devotion and zeal, and reserved quotas to educate sons of the Chamber officials (six in Szenc, four in Vác) at the expense of the state. In the Vác Theresianum there were up to four scholarships for young nobles from Croatia and up to six from Transylvania.

A new stage in the evolution of noble education began after the dissolution of the Society of Jesus (1773) and creation of the Commission on Education of the Vice-Royal Council (1774). The Commission, headed by Count Ferenc Balassa who had graduated from the Viennese Theresianum, dealt with a wide range of problems, including acquisition of the Jesuits’ property, realisation of the Ratio Educationis and, among others, admission to the noble academies. The most important project carried out in the late 1770s was the foundation of the Theresian Academy in Buda as an integral part of the University transferred in 1777 from Tyrnava (Nagyszombat) to the ancient capital of Hungary.

The political elite viewed the Buda Academy as the best school of the kingdom modelled on and playing the role of the Viennese Theresianum. The Academy was to admit twenty students of aristocratic stock, twenty nobles and ten sons of the Chamber officials.10 The Commission had foreseen to the smallest details of how the new institution was to function, up to the design of the uniform and the food rations for the students.11 The Commission on Education stated that “the noble youth at the Buda Theresian Academy should not get education less perfect or less corresponding to Her Most Sacred Majesty’s benign intentions, than at the Viennese Theresianum. Moreover, Her Most Sacred Majesty most kindly ordered to furnish the Theresian Academy in Buda with the best moderators and such individuals who had been serving at the Viennese Theresian Academy as vice-rectors or prefects with much glory and demonstrated their best qualities”.12 In 1779 the Hungarian and Transylvanian Chancelleries agreed to create six scholarships for young nobles from the Principality.13 In 1780 the Empress officially incorporated the abbey of Pécsvárad in Baranya County into the University and entrusted the Hungarian Chamber with the right of full control over financial matters.14 (Similar demands in regard to the Btaszk Foundation were omitted.)

By 1779 the Commission on Education could not cope with the flow of applications from those who longed to place their children in a noble academy. It was decided to transfer responsibility for selecting relevant application to directors of school districts. If earlier the Commission had mainly been concerned with the dignity of the applicant’s family, now preference was given to the academic progress of the child. The network of noble academies turned into a system with a strict hierarchy. Different institutions met different needs: impoverished nobles sought to send their children to any college at the expense of any foundation, the top bureaucracy longed for the most prestigious schools, – the Theresianum in Vienna or Buda. For example, the Vice-Royal Council sponsored the son of councillor József Aszalay, who was in charge of the Theresian Academy in Buda, and the empress approved the candidature by the exclusion of three other applicants.15 By contrast, the Commission refused a retired soldier of the Orthodox faith from Gömör county referring to the fact that “the Academy in Buda had been raised for distinguished candidates and sons of parents with merits, and the applicant did not fall under this category”.16

A system of education centred on rewarding the fathers satisfied less and less both the enlightened state and Hungarian society. Having turned noble colleges and academies into a scheme of social and financial support of the nobility, the authorities still faced the problem of training competent civil servants. It was asserted that the child should be placed at the centre of the school system, his talents and erudition, not his forefathers’ merits, should be the criteria of admission. Joseph II, who demonstrated little interest in the preservation of noble privilege and institutions, viewed noble academies as old-fashioned institutions which no longer satisfied either society, or the absolutist state.

In 1794 the emperor, having broken the continuity with the social philosophy and practice of the Theresian age, dissolved all noble academies in the Monarchy on the pretext that access to education should be based on “diligence and talents”, and not on the right of birth. Now young men of both noble and non-noble origin had received the right to choose any institution to attend, provided their academic progress (confirmed by an official evaluation and proved by the district school director), corresponded to the requirements of the respective school.17 Since the feudal system survived and some elements abolished by the Emperor were restored shortly after his death, some academies were reopened in the 1790’s and preserved their elite-status until 1849. Recent publications of the Austrian historian Gernot Stimmer on Austrian elites in 1848–1970 show that principles of admission to privileged educational institutions and a phenomenon described as Korporationnepotism survived many social changes and is being successfully practised in modern civil societies.18

Efforts made by the Hungarian political elite to reform the system of noble education, although first inspired by the Viennese pattern, were soon adjusted to Hungarian social and cultural realities. In historical perspective these efforts could be considered as an interrupted or unfinished attempt to realise the principle of social justice restricted to the noble estate and to make the nobility serve the “common good” in exchange for the preservation of their exclusive social status in the age when thousands of educated non-nobles wanted their share in the sphere of politics and culture.




See: Ernő Fináczy, A magyarországi közoktatás története Mária Terézia korában. Vol I–II. (Budapest, 1899); Éva H. Balázs, “Freimauerer, Reformpolitiker, Girondisten”, in Éva H. Balázs, Ludwig Hammermayer et al. (eds.), Beförderer der Aufklärung in Mittel- und Osteuropa: Freimaurer, Gesellschaften, Clubs (Berlin, 1979); Kosáry D. Mûvelõdés a XVIII. századi Magyarországon. (Budapest, 1980).


For names of the nobles whose education at the Löwenburg College was paid from the Court Treasury see: Hofkammerarchiv (hereafter HKA). Kammeralzahlamt Bücher (KZAB). No 261 (1774–1777). S. 143–148.


On the Viennese Theresianum, Löwenburg College and Chaos Foundation see: Anton v. Geusau. Geschichte der Stiftungen, Erziehungs- und Unterrichtsanstalten in Wien, von den ältern Zeiten bis auf gegenwärtiger Jahr. Aus echten Urkunden und Nachrichten. (Wien, 1803).


HKA. Österreichische Gedenkbücher. 1749. S. 578. Nr. 275.


Magyar Országos Levéltár [Hungarian National Archives; hereafter MOL]. A57. Libri Regii. 42. köt. 1751–1752. p. 205–207.


HKA. Hoffinanz. Registerbücher. 1751. Protocolle. Bd. 1227. S. 266.


MOL. A39. 51/1778, 206/1778.


MOL. A1. 260/1763.


János Kisparti, A Váci Theresianum története. (Vác, 1914).


HKA. Ungarisches Camerale. Fasc. 41. 787. 90/1777. Fol. 1050.


MOL. A39. 2895/1777.


MOL. A39. Acta generalia. 5702/1779. pp. 45–47.


MOL. B2. 946/1779; C67. 1779. Universitas Budensis. Fasc. 30. 159 cs. No. 80.


MOL. A39. 1503/1780.


MOL. C67. 1779. Universitas Budensis. Fasc. 30. 159 cs. No. 15; A39. 2567/1779.


MOL. A39. 2891/1779.


MOL. A39. 4152/1784.


Gernot Stimmer, Eliten in Österreich, 1848–1970. (Wien, Köln, Graz, 1997).