Maria Theresia of Austria (1717-1780): a working mother of 16

Maria Theresia is a well known historical figure in Austria, sometimes regarded as somewhat of a founding mother of the country. She indeed must have been a very impressive woman. The last of the House of Habsburg, she did not only rein the Habsburg dominions, but as a female heiress, fight fiercely for her inheritance. Her achievements in reforming and ruling the empire are manifold: amongst others, she introduced schooling for all children and smallpox inoculation.

Only a few years before she took over the Austrian Empire after her father’s death in 1740, she married Francis Stephen of Lorraine. She stayed in power for 40 years and gave birth to 16 children. I have always wondered how she did it. Despite the help of numerous staff available to her, the physical, emotional and practical demands of caring for such a lot are huge. It was a time when death of children was common and expected. This, of course, does not mean it did not affect the parents deeply. In order to better understand how Maria Theresia experienced motherhood, I re-read an old, but good biography with lots of citations of original letters and documents (Mraz & Mraz 1979).

Some of these extracts give a glimpse of the life of a woman of very high status in the Baroque period. Of course, her first and foremost responsibility was to give the rein a (male) heir. Having children in quick succession was therefore paramount. It was known that breastfeeding suppresses fertility, so it is unlikely she breastfed her children (at all, or for long).

The first three children were girls, born 1737, 1738 and 1740. The eldest daughter died at age three, the third daughter shortly after birth. In 1741, the longed-for heir Joseph II was finally born during the War of the Austrian Succession. A popular song at the time gives insight into common infant feeding practices:

Loßma dem Kindel a Mueßelein kocha, Laß ihn bei Leib kai Mongel net seyn, Thut ihm fein wacker Semel drein brocken, Daß es fein hübsch stille thut schweg’n. (Let us cook pap for the little child, do not let him suffer physical discomfort, put pieces of roll in it, so he will be nice and quiet).

It was fashionable at the time to feed children with pap, a semisolid food made of flour or bread cooked in water or milk (cf. Obladen 2014). I did not find any information on how Joseph II was actually fed. It seems likely he had a wet nurse. All children had their own nannies (called Aya or Ayo) and a large number of support staff. One of Maria Theresia’s daughters was particularly skilled artistically and painted Isabella’s (Joseph II’s wife) confinement. In this picture, the baby is fed with a spoon. It is, however, painted after one of Cornelis Troost’s paintings and thus hardy qualifies as a historical source (Mraz & Mraz 1979: 204-205).

Isabella of Parma's confinement, painted by Maria Christina

Isabella of Parma’s confinement, painted by Maria Christina

Maria Theresia’s lying in after each birth lasted about a month; after that, a ceremony was held in church to welcome her back and the baby into the community. A lively and energetic woman, she was almost constantly pregnant during the first 20 years of her rein. This did not prevent her from attending numerous social events, balls and parties. She also asserted that she would have gone into battle herself, had she not been almost always pregnant.

Being pregnant and having children was seen as a God-given state of being, although it sometimes became a burden. In a letter dating to 1748, pregnant with her 10th child, she wrote: “…ich fürchte, ich werde noch mehr (Kinder) bekommen, und wenn der liebe Gott mir die Kinder, welche ich habe, erhalten möchte, wäre ich recht zufrieden, mit zehn Schluß zu machen; den ich fühle, dass es mich schwächt und recht altern läßt und für alle Kopfarbeit wenig fähig macht.” (…I fear I will have even more children, and if God preserved the children that I already have for me, I would be content to leave it at ten; because I feel it makes me weak and lets me age and does not support brain work. – Mraz & Mraz 1979: 197).

Each birth was dangerous and recognized as such. Maria Theresia had many relatives that suffered death in childbirth. Her sister, Maria Anna, for example, expected her first child 1744 and Marie Theresia expressed her concern in a letter to her: “Seit dem ersten dieses Monats habe ich keinen Augenblick mehr Ruhe, und ich denke unablässig an diese Niederkunft. Ich weiß, was eine solche bedeutet, und so denke ich nur mit Schrecken daran…” (From the first of this month I have no second of peace and I keep thinking about the birth. I know what giving birth means and think of it with horror…).

Her concern was justified. After a long and difficult birth Maria Anna gave birth to a stillborn baby; she died two months later from post-partum complications (Mraz & Mraz 1979: 175). Maria Theresia’s favourite daughter Maria Christina, the only one that had been allowed to marry the love of her life, also experienced a traumatic birth of a daughter in 1767. The baby died shorty after the birth and the marriage remained childless.

Maria Theresia cared deeply for her family. A great threat for her loved ones was smallpox. She contracted the disease herself; two of her own children and two children in law died from smallpox, one daughter remained scarred for life after recovery. The smallpox inoculation came too late for them. As a revolutionary and completely new concept of preventing disease, the Treatments first met a lot of resistance, but the ruling family spearheaded its introduction by having four children inoculated in 1768.

Maria Theresia’s last child was born 1756 and she was widowed in 1765, which left her devastated. As a mother, she took great care to select the right carers for her children and actively participated in their education. Of the 16 children, 10 survived Maria Theresia (a good success rate for the Baroque period). With her adult and married children, she kept up a forth-nightly correspondence with mirages of instructions and advice, and a fair amount of nagging. Her greatest joy was to engage with her grandchildren, of which she had over twenty at the time of her death. The wisdom she acquired raising her own children is well expressed in a letter to Marie Antoinette on occasion of the birth of her first daughter in 1778:

Die Wahl der Leute, die mir der Pflege dieses kostbaren Kindes betreut werden sollen, machen mir noch Sorge. Eine mangelhafte Pflege kann das Schlimmste anrichten, und ich wünsche, daß die Frauen nichts selbständig tun dürfen, sondern sich in allem den Anordnungen des Arztes zu fügen haben, genau wie es hier bei uns ist. Bei Kindern im ersten Lebensjahr hängt alles von guter pflege ab, damit meine ich eine vernünftige Pflege, die der Natur gerecht wird – keine gewickelten Windeln, die beengen und viel zu warm machen, den Magen nicht mit Kindspapp oder Brei überladen, vor allem für eine gute und gesunde Amme sorgen, was in Paris nicht so leicht sein wird.“

“The choice of people to look after the care of this precious child still worries me. Inadequate care can cause the worst, and I wish that the women should not do anything independently, but have to follow all the instructions of the doctor, just like it is here with us. Everything depends on good care for children in the first year of life, and I mean reasonable care, doing nature justice – no swaddling, which restricts movement and makes them too hot, no overloading the stomach with pap or porridge, and make sure to find a healthy and good wet-nurse, which will not be easy in Paris. ” (Mraz & Mraz 1979: 230).


Mraz, G., and G. Mraz. 1979. Maria Theresia: ihr Leben u. ihre Zeit in Bildern und Dokumenten. München: Süddeutscher Verlag.

Obladen, M. 2014. Pap, gruel, and panada: early approaches to artificial infant feeding. Neonatology 105(4): 267-274.

Seifert, A. 2007. Maria Theresia von Österreich als Mutter: GRIN Verlag.


About Katharina

Katharina is a prehistoric archaeologist working at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her main research interests include the archaeology of the human body, gender, identity and personhood as expressed through funerary practices and art. She specialises in the Bronze and Iron Ages of Europe. As a mother of two young boys, she gathered some practical experience in addition to her theoretical interest in motherhood.
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One Response to Maria Theresia of Austria (1717-1780): a working mother of 16

  1. I was very impressed when I read how the Empress had her teeth extractions planned to coincide with when she was in labor, to consolidate the pain into one horrible, but practical session. remarkable woman


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