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Slovenian Nobility

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Coat of arms from the 16th century,
BSB Cod.icon. 307, Sammlung von Wappen
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Maja Žvanut wrote in her book ‘From a Knight to a Nobleman’ that a nobleman was above all a man who indeed, with regard to the opportunities provided by his status, stood out within society. However, this status also burdened him with a lot of responsibilities, as within his surroundings he encountered much distress of that time, war, diseases, religious conflicts, high prices, poor harvests, and natural disasters. The farmer and the nobleman had a common homeland; they shared the same fear of death and eternal condemnation.

In 1335 began the last stage of Carniola being formed into a duchy, a process that was roughly completed in 1500. Its territory had only ever been slightly changed until 1918 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was abolished. The history of the formation of Carniola in the latter Middle Ages is full of the ups and downs of numerous feudal lords who fought for control of the country. In the last quarter of the 13th century they were joined by the Habsburgs, who came out of those scuffles as the main winners, amongst other things, due to their vitality and good luck in concluding marriage contracts.

In 1282, the German King Rudolph I of Habsburg enfeoffed his two sons the then area of Carniola, i.e. three years after he had turned it over for management by his allies, the Counts of Gorizia-Tyrol for lending him 20,000 marks. Another branch of this family, from Gorizia, acquired at the same time the former estate of Višnja Gora in Lower Carniola, the so-called Slovenian border area. The Gorizia-Tyrol branch became extinct upon the death of Duke Henry of Carinthia (1335) and the Habsburgs took over Carniola. During the following decades they were gradually connecting dominions towards the direction of the Adriatic Sea (Postojna, Lož, Vipava), partly by force and partly by purchasing and inheriting. A nice piece of territory belonged to them in accordance with the mutual Contract of Inheritance from 1336, after the Istrian branch of the Counts of Gorizia had become extinct in 1374 (Pazin, county Metlika Slovenian border area) but it was only gradually annexed to Carniola. Within the process of rounding up their possession the few remaining counts and free lords revolted against them: Ortenburgs, Counts of Celje and Duino, their heirs Lords of Walsee, and Diocese of Freising and Brixen Upper Carniolan estates. The 15th century was critical for the Habsburgs; the Dynasty was internally split, frictions increased between individual branches, and often resulted in even armed conflicts. It culminated when the Counts of Celje (Cilli) were elevated to the rank of princes of the Empire in 1436, holding in their hands three counties, which at that time represented almost half of today's Slovenian territory.

In 1364 Rudolf IV Habsburg appointed himself "Duke of Carniola". Ljubljana at that time functioned - at least partially, as the capital of the new Duchy. The nobility insisted the new ruler visit the land and let them bow down before him but it had already been done by Maximilian I through the Commissioners. After his death, the representatives of the Inner Austrian lands bowed before the new prince Charles V. in Augsburg.

Emperor Maximilian I. boasted of speaking multiple languages, amongst them apparently also the Slovenian language, which was appreciated by him as a means of communication with some foreign rulers. He is also known for his conviction that ‘Linqua Sclavonica’ was most prevalent amongst all languages. An eloquent example is the use of Slovenian by Sigismund (Žiga) von Herberstein (1486-1566). In his autobiography he wrote that he was taught German and Slovenian at home in Vipava. Later on, when the Emperor sent him to Moscow as a diplomat, he wrote in the preface of his book ‘Moscow Notes’ that he had to thank his diplomatic career to his knowledge of Slovenian, as it was precisely the reason why the Emperor sent him to Moscow.

Slovenian was widespread amongst the aristocracy and bourgeoisie; it was even used in discussions of philosophical and theological issues. This is evidenced by the words of Primož Trubar claiming that Bonomo, the Bishop of Trieste, sometimes discussed in his court the works of Virgil, Erasmus and Calvin in the Slovenian language. According to the latest findings, the Slovenian language was in principle used throughout the Middle Ages for conversation amongst the nobility, and also later in the new world. Throughout history, the Slovenian language was preserved and used within the highest circles, such as in the first half of the 13th century at the court of Berhnard von Spanheim, the Duke of Carinthia and at the court of Tomaž Hren, the Prince-Bishop of Ljubljana in the early 17th century. There are also examples of feudal oaths in Slovenian, such as the text of feudal oath in the Slovenian language for the Bishop of Gurk’s vassals in 1637, which was held at the Church of Maria Saal in today‘s Austrian state of Carinthia. The Austrian professor of Slavic languages Otto Kronsteiner therefore says: "The existence of the thousands of years old German Austria is a prejudice and falsehood. Austria has always been multicultural with its central area initially being dominated by the Slovenians. Slovenian was the provincial language, not only in Carniola and Carinthia but also in Styria, i.e. in the Kingdom of Carantania."

Duke Arnulf of Carantania, a member of the Carolingian Empire and the great-grandson of Charles the Great who like his father undersigned himself "Rex Carantanorum", was as the last Carolingian crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in 896. In documents from Carantania, originating from the 10th to the 12th century, we can find many names of Slovenian nobles, such as Sebigoj, Tešino, Negomir, Trdogoj, Rogič, Mila, Svetimir, Helica, Slavko and others, most of them coming from the vicinity of Maria Saal (Gospa Sveta), Karnburg (Krnski grad) and Jauntal (Podjuna). Even in Upper Styria there are documents, preserving Slovenian noble names such as Trdosav and his wife Slava (12th cent.), the name of the crown vassal Trdogoj from the Mura valley (11th cent.), and the name of the free woman Dobronega. The domestic Carantanian nobility mostly fused with the German one, gradually adopting German names and surnames, as far as when the new era began between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Sources indicate that the Slovenian language was utilised within the highest aristocratic circles, even in cases where the nobles had Germanic first and family names, irrespective of their ethnic origins. Thus, in the first half of the 13th century the Duke Bernard Spanheim of Carinthia welcomed Ulrik of Liechtenstein with the Slovenian greeting: "Buge waz primi, gralwa Venus!", although the Spanheim family originated from the Rhineland. In the verses of the last medieval singer - Troubadour - Oswald Wolkenstein at least twenty Slovenian verses or phrases can be found. Some of the Slovenian noble families germanised their names, the others preserved them, such as Plešavic, Naglič, Smrekar, Kerščaner, Mušlic, Osolniker, Križanič, Rob, Rohič, Palik, Hrobat, Pregl, Kanižar, Grebinčič, Pečaher, etc.

Leading members and chairmen of the 17th century established Academie Operosorum were mostly of Slovenian descent. The first president of the Academy was Count Janez Krstnik Prešeren, son of a farmer and a relative of the poet France Prešeren, and the secretary was Janez Gregor Dolničar (1662-1714), also a member of the Academy of work, which introduced the Slovenian language into Church officiate and ceremonies.

The role of the Slovenian language in letters and interpersonal relationships changed with the accession of Emperor Joseph II., son of Empress Maria Theresa, who tried to reign "from above" to make Austria a Germanic state, at which he also largely succeeded. Empress Maria Theresa had at her court quite a lot of nobles from Carniola; amongst them were the Auerspergs from Turjak, Prince and Count Cobenzl, Count Lanthieri, Baron Lazarini, Countess Rosalie Edling, and Janez Filip who was a conference minister in Vienna and in the end ambassador at the Court of Paris.

Drago Medved