Local Jurisdictions in Feudal Austria

Local jurisdictional authority in Austria was held by Seigneurs prior to 1848. Seigniorial authority was granted by the Emperor to individuals who reigned as lord over their Manor (Herrschaft). These lords interjected themselves into every aspect of their subjects' lives by assessing taxes and wielding authority over land usage, marriage, death, and all commerce. Thus, civil records created within a Manor are referred to as Herrschaft or Seignorial records.

In 1848 a modern court system was implemented in Austria, and the Seigneurs were instructed to transfer all records needed to continue administration of justice to the recently established district courts (Bezirksgerichte). This generally included all Herrschaft records back to circa 1750-1800. The earlier records, those that had been closed prior to 1750, were transferred to Kreisgerichte.

The Seignorial records of the sixty-four Lower Austrian Bezirksgerichte (BG) are stored at the Lower Austrian (Niederösterreichische) State Archives (Landesarchiv) facility in Bad Pirawarth, near Vienna, and document the more recent time period. The Herrschaft records of the four Lower Austrian Kreisgerichte (KG), consist of the older documents and are stored at the Landesarchiv in St. Pölten.

It should be noted that not all Seignorial records were transferred to the modern government's custody. Significant quantities of these records remain in private hands or have become a part of other institutions' archival collections.

Sample Herrschaft Seals 

Herrschaft Seal (Siegel) Gallery

Feudal Records with Genealogical Significance

(Special thanks to the Niederösterreichische Landesarchiv for use of these Herrschaft record samples.)

These records are very helpful to the researcher in establishing difficult family relationships, differentiating between individuals and families with similar given and surnames, documenting family locations, arrival and departure dates, and so forth. Seigniorial records supplement existing church records, and in those instances where church records do not exist for a given period of time, these civil records provide an indispensable resource for genealogical research. In one recent find, it was noted that an ancestor purchased a small house, garden, and leather working shop from the widow of a leather master who had lived there but recently died. Such knowledge is not only interesting, but it can provide a critical lead in identifying family members. His son was also a leather worker, but in attempting to create a link to the individual who was ultimately identified as his grandson, the occupation proved to be a very important first clue. The intricacies involved with finding and deciphering Herrschaft record entries generally necessitate professional assistance.

Link to Introduction of Seignorial Records hosted by FamilySearch.org

Link to Lower Austrian Seignorial Records organized by Herrschaft Name

Steps to Locate Your Ancestor's Herrschaft Record Entries

  1. Decide on the event that you would like to document – your ancestor's marriage, death, or real property purchase for example.
  2. Determine where this event took place. This is critical, but locating the Herrschaft in which your ancestor resided can be very challenging. In some instances multiple Herrschafts were represented in one village. That is to say that Seigniorial authority was held by different lords at the same time within a given village or community, and that your ancestor's Herrschaft affiliation was based on where they lived in their village. This scenario appears to be something of an exception rather than the general rule, but it is based solely on the circumstances of the locality where your ancestor lived. There is also the possibility that Herrschaft affiliation could have changed over time as manors were divided or boundaries realigned.
  3. A two-volume reference set was published in 1795 and again in 1822 entitled, Topographischer Landschematismus ober Aechtes Berzeichniß which may be used to identify the Herrschaft in which your ancestor resided. These volumes are arranged alphabetically by name of village or locality. Bear in mind that a locality's current spelling may vary dramatically from its spelling in 1795 or 1822, and that you may not find every location listed in these books. They are available for use at the Niederösterreiche Landesarchiv in St. Pölten and also at their facility in Bad Pirawarth. [I am not sure if Seigniorial records finding aides were also digitized and made available through FamilySearch.org.]
  4. Isolate the date or at least a range of years in which the desired event took place. Church records can often provide you with concrete marriage and death dates. Baptismal records may also provide insight into when a family established residency in a particular area. This will help determine whether the record you are seeking is part of the Landesarchiv's KG or BG collections and therefore whether it is stored in St. Pölten or Bad Pirawarth respectively. (Please see the section above entitled, "Local Jurisdictions in Feudal Austria.") Call or email the Landesarchiv in advance to confirm where the records are stored that you seek, as it is quite a distance between the two repositories if you were to get their location wrong!
  5. Having determined in which Herrschaft to search, a range of dates in which the desired event occurred, and the proper Landesarchiv facility to visit, you are now ready to dive into the KG and BG collections! Finding aids for both KG and BG records are fairly straightforward once you get the lay of the land. Those covering the four Kreisgerichte (KG) are segregated into binders, and each Herrschaft has been assigned a unique number. As an example, the KG-Krems binder contains a listing for each Herrschaft under its jurisdiction; therefore you will find within it a listing for "KG-Krems, 173. Herrschaft Pöggstall." Under this section you will see reference to specific books (Bücher) and loose documents (Akten) associated with this Herrschaft and other dependant Herrschafts. By searching down the list for a particular kind of record, you will be able to determine what documentation exists for a particular time period in the desired location. This same pattern generally holds true when using the BG finding aids. KG and BG finding aids also cross-reference each other under their respective Herrschaft listings. Currently (2005), KG finding aids are stored in large yellow binders, and newly retyped BG finding aids are in small red binders.
  6. Once a particular book or set of documents has been identified in a finding aid, Landesarchiv staff will have you fill out a form requesting it to be brought from storage for viewing in their research area. [As a professional archivist, I must tell you that the staff at both Niederösterreiche Landesarchiv locations are fantastic! These records are now available online via FamilySearch.org. Please see links above.]
  7. In many of the books you will find surname indexes to assist you in locating the desired entry. Look in the beginning, end, and throughout the book for such an index. In those instances where an index does not exist, you may need to search through the record page by page. One thing may save you time in this arduous task. Depending on the type of record, you will quickly see how the book and its entries are arranged, whether chronologically, geographically, etc. If you know a specific event date or under which municipality (Amt/Gericht) a particular locality was assigned, you can often cut quite a bit of time off your search. In those instances, narrow your search by finding the date range or geographical subdivision where you most likely will locate the entry. A few moments studying the arrangement of entries and organization of the record may save you time in the end.
  8. Now that you have found an entry, the really challenging part begins! Herrschaft records utilize vocabulary and handwriting scripts that are extremely difficult to decipher, not to mention the inherent difficulty of discerning the meaning of their content. I have been studying these entries regularly for over six years, and I still need professional assistance on occasion to confirm more complex details from their pages. The information these records contain may be so valuable at times that this kind of effort and expense is well warranted! For example, in one parish baptismal records were destroyed for a fifteen-year period during which my ancestor was born. Although some circumstantial evidence existed, the only original documentation that proved a link between my ancestor and his father is contained in the father's Inventurprotokoll. Based on the link provided by one Herrschaft entry, this line was extended an additional three generations back to circa 1600.

Ing. Felix Gundacker of the Institute for Historical Family Research (IHFF) - Niederösterreichische Landesarchiv; St. Pölten, Austria

Niederösterreichische Landesarchiv (NÖLA) Web Site

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