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?”