As far as news from Poland, I regret to inform your highness that things are going very unhappily for us there…all of Lithuania and Prussia are lost to us as well…
We tend to think of our modern world as the first great information age, but already during the sixteenth century, news was traveling swiftly across the world and the Medici court was the largest clearing-house for information. The grand dukes received dispatches from all over the globe. Through news reports known as avvisi, as well as from ambassadors and spies placed at the royal courts of Europe and the Middle East, missionaries in South America, and emissaries to China, the Medici were kept informed of the latest breaking world news.
Much political information also came through personal letters such as this one, written to the Grand Duchess Johanna. Married to Francesco I de’ Medici, Johanna was the thirteenth child of Ferdinand von Habsburg and received frequent correspondence regarding her brothers and sisters. In this letter, Baron Siegfried Preiner updates the grand duchess on the latest news from her brother, the Emperor Maximilian II von Habsburg. The letter contains a curious mixture of the political and personal. For instance, Preiner relates that because of the events in Eastern Europe, ‘His Imperial Highness is rather depressed’. But family news from such an important family was of the highest value. The letter was translated from German into Italian for the benefit of Francesco and his aides, containing as it did, so much political information.
Dated 26 July 1576, the letter begins with an account of popular uprisings against the emperor not only in Poland, but also in Lithuania and Prussia. The territories of the Holy Roman Empire, which Voltaire famously derided as ‘neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,’ extended during this period throughout not only the regions of modern-day Germany and Austria, but also Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, eastern portions of France, and much of Eastern Europe-Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia. This letter conveys the emperor’s increasing difficulty holding together such diverse linguistic and ethnic groups.
Not only was the empire divided by national differences, but the Reformation, spearheaded by Martin Luther barely 60 years earlier, had ignited discord. Preiner writes from the Imperial Diet at Regensburg (or Ratisbon), where a historic conflict between Catholics and Protestants was raging, yet he does not mention religious division to the grand duchess, presumably because her religious views were far to the right of her reforming brother Maximilian. Preiner does, however, mention the many other woes facing the Habsburg Emperor, such as the threat posed by the troops of the Ottoman Empire: ‘The Turks have all arrived at our borders, creating havoc and overrunning the lands’. Maximilian and Johanna’s father, Emperor Ferdinand, had successfully held off the Turks in their siege of Vienna in 1529, but as divisions within the empire grew, this was just the opportunity Sultan Murad III had been looking for to renew an Ottoman attack on Austria.
Not only was the empire suffering from religious discord, rebellions, and Turkish invasion, but a fierce epidemic was raging. The dreaded Black Death, which had first struck Europe in 1348, recurring regularly until as late as the eighteenth century, had reappeared. The year 1576 marked the peak of a particularly virulent attack that affected Italy, Sicily, and northern Europe, which Preiner describes briefly: ‘Concerning the plague, which as far as I understand is fairly widespread in Italy, the same torment has begun to afflict Vienna and many places in Austria; God have mercy and relieve us of this scourge’.
Though things look very bad, apparently all is not lost. Preiner ends his letter on a cheerful note, concluding with the good news that the emperor’s health is looking up. Maximilian, though only 49, had been suffering from heart disease and other ailments for some time, and had given cause for serious concern over his succession. Just a month earlier, in fact, Preiner had written Johanna, notifying her that Maximilian had suffered a heart attack. (Indeed the Emperor Maximilian would die in Regensburg just three months later in Regensburg.) Yet, apparently having no better news to report, Preiner triumphantly announces to the Grand Duchess that ‘His Imperial Majesty’s hemorrhoids are much improved’. It is perhaps this misplaced sense of cheerfulness, more than any other single remark in the letter, that conveys the truly bleak outlook at this moment in the history of the Habsburg empire. Though in this age the personal was indeed political, and the monarch’s body was the site of the body politic, it was unlikely that a little Preparation H could cure the ills that ailed the empire.