Early History of Gottschee–Koèevje

Edward Skender


The history of local areas in Slovenia is important for two reasons. First, it is an excellent source of information about our ancestors, since many of their names have been recorded in a variety of documents that can be found in archives today. Secondly, knowing the local history allows us to put their lives into the context of the times. This will make a family history more than just a list of names, dates, and places.

Prior to the year 1848, local history in the Slovene lands was the history of the feudal domains and the Austrian provinces in which those domains were situated. It was not until the year 1848 that serfdom was fully and completely abolished in Austria.

The history of the feudal domain of Gottschee/Koèevje is a good example of the type of a feudal domain that existed in Carniola up to 1848.

The principal difference in the history of Gottschee and the history of other feudal domains in Slovene lands is that Gottschee was “colonized” by settlers from German-speaking lands. Many Germans settled in Carniola over the centuries as witnessed by the German origins of so many Slovene family names. But Gottschee was the only geographic area in Slovenia where the Germans were a majority of the population, and because they arrived there so long ago, they are considered a “native people,” a situation that remained until 1941.

Like all other areas in Slovenia, the history of Gottschee it is a product of the history of the province in which it was situated, namely the Duchy of Carniola.

[Map of Frontier Marches]

Carniola became part of the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne in the year 800, when the empire was legitimated by the Pope four years after Charlemagne’s field marshal, Count Erich of Görz-Tyrol, defeated the army of the Avars at the Battle of Cividale, in Friuli. Charlemagne did three things that are important for the future development of the Slovene lands:

First, he set the border of his empire along the Kolpa River. This border Kolpa is one of the oldest continuous international borders in Europe.

Secondly, Charlemagne and succeeding emperors set up a series of frontier marches to protect his empire. These included the Ostmark, which became Austria; the Styrian Mark, which is still today’s Steiermark in Austria and Štajerska in Slovenia; and the Windish Mark, which is today Carniola, or Kranjska in Slovenia.

One very important point to remember is that the incorporation of the Slovene lands into the Holy Roman Empire brought the Slovenians into the mainstream of Western Europe, where they remained for 1,118 years (until 1918). Ironically, now after a 70-year connection with Balkan lands, Slovenia is now returning to its ancient roots in Western Europe.

The third policy that Charlemagne and succeeding Holy Roman emperors initiated was the colonization of their border areas. In almost all cases, the borders of the Holy Roman Empire were thinly populated. When these borders were formed in the 9th century, they were in areas of Europe that were not yet fully Christianized, such as Saxony, Bohemia, Hungary, and Croatia. Hence, good, reliable, Christian colonists were needed.

The Holy Roman emperors were not “nationalists.” They did not pick and choose who would settle where; rather, they were “imperialists” bent on protecting the borders of their empire and the Catholic Christian faith. Thus, they sent to the borders of the empire any available farmer, knight, or craftsman who would move there, regardless of his ethnic group. However, because so much of the Holy Roman Empire consisted of German-speaking lands, it is only natural that many people sent to populate and fortify the frontiers were from German-speaking areas of the empire.

The Church and its bishops became politically powerful in the Holy Roman Empire. Much of their missionary activity was based in the border areas of the empire. As a result, many church organizations (monastic orders and missionary bishoprics) acquired extensive lands in the border regions of the empire.

[Map of Holy Roman Empire under the Hohenstaufens]

By the year 1150, under the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperors, we can see the border on the Kolpa, including lands all the way to Fiume on the Quarner Bay, were part of Carniola. Fiume, then known as St. Viet on the Pflaumb, was an important port for export of products from southern Carniola for centuries. Many Carniolan and Gottscheer merchants are recorded in the 1500s and 1600s as having transported goods to Fiume, as the ancient records of that port city and of the duchy of Carniola show.

In the 12th century, the emperors’ concerns about borders became even more real, as other countries, such as Venice, Hungary, and Byzantium began to develop as powerful competitors on the international scene. It was in the 12th century that Croatia and Hungary became a united kingdom.

[Map Showing Feudal Domains in Southern Carniola]

This map shows the dates of the establishment of some of the feudal domains in south central Carniola, where Gottschee is located. We see here that the border is being strengthened.

[Map Showing Feudal Domains in Carniola]

By the middle of the 13th Century, we see that there were already around 68 feudal domains in Carniola, most of which were centered around fortified castles. Forty of the 68 feudal places in Carniola were ruled by civil lords, and 7 of which were in lands ruled by various bishops, principally the Bishops of Brixen in South Tyrol, Freising in Germany, and Salzburg in Austria. Four of the domains were owned by monastic orders. In addition, there were 6 chartered cities and 11 market towns in Carniola.

Gottschee is not yet shown. It probably existed, but was of insignificant size to be included in this map.

The latter years of the 13th Century, and specifically the year 1273, is an important milestone, because this is the year that the Habsburgs, who were archdukes of Austria and Holy Roman Emperors, became also Dukes of Carniola, Carinthia, and Styria. These three provinces became part of their patrimony and were known as “crown lands” for many centuries thereafter. The Habsburgs were especially concerned about protecting and governing their crown lands, and they continued the policy of increasing the population in the border areas, which meant more people, more villages, more castles, and more noblemen to manage the newly created feudal domains.

[Map Showing Feudal Domains in Carniola and Primorska in the 14th Century]

One hundred years later we see the culmination of feudalism in Carniola and the emergence of powerful noble families as rulers -- the House of Cilly, the Andechs, Spanheimers, the Ortenburgs, the house of Görz-Tyrol, etc. These families were almost at the rank of princes of the empire -- and some were. They owned vast tracts of land that contained many feudal domains, and the nobles of lesser rank who lived in the many feudal domains within their lands owed them allegiance.

So did the church. We see here the lands controlled by the archbishops of Aquileia, Salzburg, Freising, and Brixen.

Founding of Gottschee

The feudal domain of Gottschee was established around the year 1263 as the result of a division of the Ortenburg lands among members of the that family, when Count Frederick of Ortenburg received the lands of Reifnitz/Ribnice southward “bis an der Chulp,” (as far as the Kolpa River) as the division agreement states.

Except for the central town of Reifnitz/Ribnice (which was founded already in the year 1083), this part of the Ortenburg lands was largely uninhabited because it was rough country. It was densely forested. The climate and rainfall were unpredictable. The land was bad, mostly porous Karst. It had droughts. It had frequent hailstorms. It was tough country that was difficult to farm, because every new farm created had to be cut from the forest. The native Slovenes knew this, which is why so few settled there prior to the coming of the Gottscheer Germans.

Following the feudal custom of making feudal domains more productive economically and militarily, Count Frederick recruited and sent from Ortenburg domains in Carinthia and Tyrol settlers to clear the lands and establish new villages in the whole area of Gottschee.

Gottschee itself was probably founded sometime around 1270. It is first mentioned in records of 1310, and more definitively in the year 1330, when the archbishop of Aquileia asks the Count of Ortenburg to nominate priests to be pastors for the parishes of Ossiunitz, Göttenitz, Gottschee, Pölland, and Reifnitz. Three of the towns mentioned in the archbishop’s letter -- Ossiunitz/ Osilnice, Göttenitz/Gotenice, and Gottschee/Koèevje -- were in the newly-established domain of Gottschee.

To get peasants to move from their estates in Carinthia to come to Gottschee, the Ortenburg lords granted special privileges, such as:

Large farmsteads, consisting of an entire Bavarian-size hide of land (about 50 U.S. acres), as long as the colonists would clear the allotted forest plots.

Documented rights to exclusive use of portions of the forest for building materials, hunting, trapping, and extraction of other resources, such as ferns for animal feed and food.

Right to buy, sell, and exchange their land and forest holdings amongst themselves.

Right to come and go as they pleased, a right no other group of peasants in Europe had at the time.

Relative few fees (tithes and taxes) as compared to the more developed parts of Carinthia and Carniola.

Expansion of the Domain of Gottschee

How many Carinthian and Tyrolean colonists took up the count’s offer is not known, but in the year 1370, the emperor “made available” 300 families from the area of Franconia and Thuringia in Germany for settlement in Gottschee as noted in a document from the archives of the archbishop of Aquileia. My guess is that these families had been involved in some sort of rebellion and were being “banished to the frontier” where they could cause less trouble.

Because of this influx, along with the growth of the original settlers, the Ortenburgs and their successors opened up new villages.

We can see the rapid growth of Gottschee domain by the fact that already in the year 1393, the town of Gottschee was raised to the level of a “market town” and accrued all the rights that market towns had in the middle ages.

The Ortenburg lords owned Gottschee until the year 1418, when the last Count of Ortenburg died and his estates in Carniola passed into the hands of the Counts of Cilli. When the last Count of Cilli died in a battle against the Turks at Belgrade in the year 1456, the Cilli lands in Carniola and Styria passed by inheritance agreement into the hands of the Habsburgs. Thus, all the individual domains, estates, and properties that had been personally held by the counts of Ortenburg and Cilli now became the personal properties of the Habsburgs -- who were also the ruling dukes of Carniola.

The Habsburgs originally governed their hundreds of new feudal domains in Carniola with appointed stewards. Gottschee had by this time evolved into three “manors” (Ämter) of Upper Gottschee, Lower Gottschee, and Rieg. Sometimes there were stewards appointed in each manor; at other times, one steward managed the whole domain for the absentee land lord.

Impact of the Turkish Invasions

That the Habsburg Emperors had a keen sense of the threats to the borders of the Empire is shown during the period when the Ottoman Empire was gobbling up the Balkan countries one after another and their armies began to reach the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. By the year 1463, the country of Bosnia was already under the control of the Ottoman invader.

Very shortly after this -- in 1469 to be exact -- the Ottoman Turks attacked the Holy Roman Empire exactly in the area Gottschee. This was the first of 12 major invasions of southern Carniola over the next 120 years. It is estimated that over 200,000 persons were taken prisoner in Carniola and Lower Styria during this time and sent to Bosnia to farm and produce goods for the Turkish army, or be sold into slavery in other areas of the Ottoman Empire. It was not until the ending of the 16th century that Gottschee and southern Carniola were able to feel secure again.

During the period of the Ottoman wars, Gottschee went on a “war footing”. All labor, agricultural production, and military resources were devoted to the defense of the border.

Habsburg Domain-Leasing Policy

The Habsburgs abandoned the idea of managing their many local domains (such as Gottschee) through appointed stewards and began a system of “leasing” these domains to nobles who would pay the Habsburg owner a large fee, in return for which the leasing lord would take all the tithes and taxes paid by the peasant subjects.

The first appointed lord leaseholders of Gottschee were the Counts Hohenwart, Thurn, and Ungnad, who were members of Ritter-families with ties to the Teutonic Knights who had Christianized and pacified Prussia and the Baltic lands, now in Carniola to defend against the new enemies of Christ and crown. In addition to governing Gottschee, these “border lords” had important military responsibilities. Many were captains of troops of soldiers. Those Gottscheer peasants not directly involved in military units were pressed into service as laborers, craftsmen, and wagoners for the supply and support of the border army.

[City Seal of Gottschee]

It was during this time, in the year 1471, Gottschee was elevated to the status of city, receiving a municipal charter and Burgrecht. In 1492, after the particularly disastrous Turkish attack of that year, and which almost completely destroyed the town of Gottschee, the emperor granted the people of Gottschee, Kostel, Pölland, and Reifnitz the famous Hausierpatent which allowed the residents of these domains to sell goods that they produced throughout the Habsburg lands of Austria and Germany. The Gottscheer Hausierer was well known throughout Germany and Austria well into the twentieth century.

[Blagay Family Tree]

From 1547 until 1613, the lord leaseholders of Gottschee were the Counts of Blagay. The Blagay’s had a profound impact on Gottschee. First, they were Croatians. Second, like their predecessors, they were military leaders on the military border of the empire. Third, they brought with them a number of settlers that were refugees from Croatia who had lost their homes during the Turkish wars. Many of these people settled in Gottschee and southern Carniola. These refugees are sometimes called Uskoks; but they (the settlers who stayed) seem to have been mostly Catholic Croatians and displaced Slovenes. It is during this period in the latter half of the 16th century, that we find the introduction of many Germanized Slavic names and Slavicized German names in Gottschee. The former occurred as the mostly Croatian and Slovenian immigrants arrived to occupy vacant farms; they were assimilated into the German-speaking community in Gottschee. The Slavicization of German names in Gottschee occurred because the Blagay lords brought with them stewards, judges, administrators, etc. who were Croatians, and who recorded many names in the Croatian fashion. As a result one sees many Gottscheer names ending with “itsch.”

The fourth impact of the Blagay rule was their attempt to institute the Croatian method of feudal administration in Gottschee. This was very different from the Austrian system and causes considerable conflicts in Gottschee, with its own method of established rights and privileges. As a result, there were frequent protests -- many of which were written down -- by the Gottscheer subjects against the “new rules and new impositions” which the Gottscheers regarded as violations of their “ancient privileges held from time immemorial.”

It is from the records of these peasants’ correspondence with the Habsburg archduke and his viceroy in Carniola that we get some of the best documentation of local history of Gottschee that is of genealogical use prior to the establishment of church records.

What are the documents of local history?

The Urbar

The most important and useful document for genealogists to seek prior to the beginning of church records is the Urbar. An Urbar is a land register. It records the names of all the villages, the landholders in the village, and the tithes, taxes, and fees that each land-register subject is responsible for paying.

[Urbar for Rieg, 1498 (3 pages)]

Here is a transcription of the Urbar for the year 1498 from the Gottscheer manorial district of Rieg. Urbars were prepared every time there was a change in ownership or leasehold of a feudal domain. The land-owner -- in this case the Habsburg archduke -- would commission a review and re-documentation of the subjects, villages, and revenues so that he could set a leasehold fee for the leasing lord. As a result, Gottschee has ancient Urbars from the years 1498, 1574, 1618, and 1642. By determining the houses and residents in a village, one can easily trace the owners as probably fathers and sons, or daughters and sons-in-law of a particular family.

Peasant Complaints to the Land Owner

I mentioned earlier that the Gottscheers are descendants of people who had probably rebelled in Thuringia and Franconia and were sent to the border.

Well, the Gottscheers seem to have never stopped rebelling and complaining. Complaining to the owner of Gottschee meant complaining to the most powerful man in Europe at the time -- the emperor himself, since he was the personal owner of the domain.

Records in Austria and Ljubljana are full of letters between peasant committees and the emperor-landowner. As a royal duchy, Carniola was governed by a Landeshauptmann (governor general) and a Viztum (viceroy). It is these individuals who responded to the Gottscheer peasants’ petitions and protests.

Here are some examples:

In 1476, we see the three brothers Caspar, Jörg, and Melchior Petritz (Petritsch) being granted rights to open an iron ore mining and smelting operation in Ossiunitz/Osilnice. The name Petritsch (Petric) still lives in Ko evje.

In 1541, we see Caspar Stöwenz (Sterbenz) receiving rights a patch of forest for his use in a complaint against Gregory Parthe(s) and Mathe Lucas.

In 1574, the royal leasehold commission was sent to Gottschee to prepare a new Urbar on the death of Count Stephan Blagay, which recorded the hides in at least 35 new villages that had been carved out of the woods, with the names of those who held temporary tax free status until the farms were made productive. Family names such as Lauretitsch, Verderber, Kropf, Plasman, Plesche, Thalian, Röthel, Stalzer, Hutter, Osanitsch, Maichin, Ramb (Rom), Ziegelfest are identified. Hans Sürge (Sirge) is steward of the domain.

In 1595, we see a serious rebellion against the new national defense tax (the weekly Pfennig) and the doubling of statutory labor (Robot) to support the war effort, with Hans Jonke from Mösel, Jörg Urbanitsch from Nesseltal, and Max Högler, Peter Jakhl(itsch), Luschar, Schwärschink (Sbaschnig), Krische, Eppich, being the principal spokesmen for the peasant’s refusal to pay the “new impositions.”

In 1599, we see a letter from Lady Elizabeth Blagay authorizing Stampfel, Loser, Sturm, Perz, Schuster, Kren, Novak, and Paar to open new hides (farms) in the area of Masern, in the northwestern part of Gottschee.

We even see the land-register farmers (Urbarsholden) loaning money to the count. In a promissory note form 1594, we see that the debtor count owed money to Adam Gröbner, Hans Verderber, Leonard Matzelle, Ulrich Tramposch, Mayor Ambrose Kump of Verderb, Mayor Gregor Lampeter of Hornberg, and Michael Kosler. All Gottscheer family names that exist to this day.

[Map of the Austrian Military Frontier District]

Above all, we see the contribution that Gottscheers (and presumably their neighbors in Tschernembl, Metlika, Pölland, Laas, and other southern Carniolan domains) in the building of the military frontier district. They provided hundreds of tons of food and fodder, hundreds of horses, oxen, and craftsmen to cut timbers, make shingles for roofs, cut and lay stone, and transport soldiers and military impedimenta. Examples include:

Statutory labor (Robot) of 300 men for the building of Karlovac (Karlstadt);

125 laborers and 60 horses for building the fort at Gomeria;

More statutory labor for hauling (Saumfahrt) for military convoys to and from Trieste, Fiume, Goricia, and Ljubljana to the military front.

132 farm horses and hundreds of laborers provided on an emergency impressment to build the defense works prior to the Battle of Knin, quite far to the south.

200 carpenters who labored over six months at places like Ogulin, Toun, and Ottoschatz, all whilst their farms back in Gottschee were being left unattended.

Later History of Gottschee

The Turkish threat eventually subsided with the development of the Austrian Military Frontier District, although there were still small Turkish cavalry raids into the area.

In 1642, the Counts of Auersperg purchased the Domain of Gottschee from Count Khisl, who had bought it in 1618 from the Habsburg emperor-owner.

[Picture of Gottschee Castle]

The Auerspergs build a magnificent palace in Gottschee as shown on this lithograph from Valvasor.

[Map of Gottscheer Villages]

Gottschee finally began to expand and prosper. Except for the French occupation in 1809, the area was largely at peace. Industrialization began to develop in the 18th century in the wood and mining sectors. Trade expanded, with Gottscheers exporting many products through the port of Fiume, but the main industry remained farming.

Gottschee grew to 176 villages organized into one city and 19 townships and 18 parishes. There are 595 Gottscheer family names, many of which are now common with Slovene surnames. By 1850, there were about 22,000 residents of the domain of Gottschee. This number dwindled thereafter as many emigrated to other parts of Austria, or to America.

Carniola also expanded in the 17th century. Whereas the duchy had 68 feudal domains in the 13th century, by the 17th century, it had, according to Valvasor, 312 feudal domains. Most of these feudal domains were about the size of an American county, although some were certainly smaller. Of the 312 domains in 1689, 161 were ruled by lords with German names, 62 were ruled by lords with Italian-sounding names, and 34 had lords with Slavic-sounding names. An additional 27 domains were owned by the royal family, that is, they were “Landfürstlich,” and another 21 domains were properties of the church, either ruled by abbots of monasteries or by the provincial heads of religious orders, such as the Jesuits, or by various bishops, near and far. Slovenia had already become what it claims to be today -- the Crossroads of Europe.

Documents for Local History

In addition to maps showing the feudal domains, its villages, townships, and parishes, and the all-valuable Urbars, there are plenty of documents related to each feudal domain in historic Slovenia. For Gottschee, there are over 100 books and significant articles in scholarly journals that talk about the history and culture of the domain. In addition, in later years, local publications, such as farmers’ almanacs carried lengthy articles on the history of the local areas where they were sold.

The Slovenes are a highly literate and literary people. One might imagine that there is a significant body of local historic information for all of the former domains in Slovenia. Perhaps one mission the Slovenian Genealogical Society International might consider is organizing itself into local chapters that could identify and collect and translate into English significant works of local history, much as the Gottscheer Heritage and Genealogy Association is doing for that area.

Indeed, Dr. Stanislav Juznic, has just completed a comprehensive History of Kostel, and translated it into English. This might be a model for scholars and researchers in the other 312 feudal domains in Carniola, as well as those domains in Štajerska and Primorska.

As for the Gottscheers themselves, they left a strong cultural legacy which is also part of the history of Slovenia. That legacy is well-described in the presentation of Dr. Mitja Ferenc.