de en

Hier kommt das User Feedback

Phone E-Mail Info
Rich and Poor

Rich and Poor

Rich and Poor

Vorarlberg Historian Alois Niederstätter recounts the history of the Bregenzerwald. This time he casts light on the historical distribution of wealth in the valley.

When it was recently made public that the richest ten percent of the Austrian population own 56 percent of the net wealth, I remembered the data Mathias Moosbrugger had obtained from Bregenzerwald tax books as part of his thesis: In 1617, the share of the total wealth by the richest tenth in the municipalities of Au and Schoppernau amounted to approx. 51 percent. These facts may seem out of place in light of the fact that the Bregenzerwald was once considered an egalitarian “farmers’ republic.”

For the farmer, poet and social reformer Franz Michael Felder (1839-1869), however, this myth (which he spent a lifetime exposing) served to inspire his vision of a better future. In “Reich and Arm” (Rich and Poor), his second novel, he impressively addresses true extent of the wealth gap in his own village environment. For centuries, the basic pattern of social inequality hardly changed at all: small groups at the top dominated their immediate environment through wealth, the exercise of public office, close relationships with authorities, the honours and titles accorded to them, and the development of client and kinship networks.

Great importance was attached to the politics of marriage, which were oriented not only according to property but also to “status and name.” Not infrequently, the requirement of “marriage according to status” made it necessary to choose partners from amongst one’s own immediate family, even very closes relatives, for which a church dispensation was required. Josef Anton Feurstein, who planned to marry his cousin Anna Katharina Metzler, stated on this occasion: “If I want to marry appropriately according to my status, […] I am forced to marry such a close relative.” The bride’s statement also testifies to a pronounced sense of class: “If I really wanted to marry someone beneath my station, I would have to speak up myself, for no one would dare to ask for my hand in marriage for fear of receiving a negative answer. But I could not propose myself without being in breach of female modesty. Moreover, it would give rise to many suspicions detrimental to my honour: People would ask, what must really be going on to make her want to marry one so far below her class?”

“Multiprofessionalism” formed the basis for the prosperity of Bregenzerwald “respectability.” In addition to agriculture, trade was carried out, pre-industrial forms of production were used, inns were operated and money was lent in the form of mortgage-backed loans. When Johann Feurstein, the innkeeper of the Gams in Bezau, died in 1789, his list of outstanding capital loans included 230 debtors with a total amount of 21,000 guilders, which could have bought about 500 cows, a hundred times an average farmer’s livestock. In fact, nearly every second household in Bezau was in debt to Feurstein.

Joseph Anton Metzler (1753-1796) from Schwarzenberg, who was considered the richest man in the valley during his lifetime, traded in wood, cattle, cheese and wax. His business connections extended as far as Italy, Bohemia and Hungary, and he was also a textile manufacturer. Beneath such rich individuals were the middle class, which was quite a small portion of the population at just under a quarter of taxpayers. It was possible to improve one’s station, but it was far more common to descend into poverty. It didn’t take much: old age, misfortune or illness, failed harvests, or the cancellation of loans. Women often found themselves in precarious situations due to the death of their husbands.

By far, the majority of the valley’s inhabitants were members of the lower class. This included not only day labourers and servants, but also, as a result of continuous inheritance divisions, the vast majority of small farmers. Many of them relied on side work or seasonal labour migration. “Officially”, of course, only those who registered to receive modest support from private foundations, i.e. the only “social institutions” in existence at the time, were considered poor. A register of the poor kept in Bezau in 1809 lists about ten percent of the town’s inhabitants. Beyond that, the needy were allowed to beg, though this was only permitted in the Bregenzerwald region on Mondays and Fridays. By this point, it shall have been made abundantly clear that those longing for the “good old days,” i.e. an ideal world in history, shall search in vain.

Author: Alois Niederstätter
Issue: Winter 2021-22 Travel Magazine