Posted by Richard on  UTC 2016-10-01 09:03

Franz went out of his way to ensure that Andreas von Riedel (1748-1837) received especially harsh treatment. Sixty years in a dungeon! The sentence is morbidly ridiculous: Riedel, 46-years-old at the time of the sentence, would be required to live until he was 106 before being let out. Franz's more enlightened ministers did everything they could to secure an appropriate treatment of Riedel but, after months of submissions, argument and debate, Franz got his way.

The roots of dislike

Franz had developed an early detestation for Riedel, who had been Franz's mathematics teacher in Florence. Summing up all the many contradictory accounts, we are left with a picture of Riedel as a benign but strict teacher who never allowed Franz to relapse into his characteristic laziness. Riedel also seems to have used mockery as a disciplinary instrument, a technique which appears to have wounded his young pupil deeply. Franz also hinted that Riedel did not wear his learning lightly and that he had intimidated him.

Riedel's character was flawed, certainly unsuited to the role of teacher. From his later life we know that he seems to have preferred to associate with intellectual inferiors, in which circle he could show off his own brilliance without challenge. The other side of the coin was that in the company of social or intellectual superiors he became obsequiously subservient.

The boy Franz, who knew from an early age that he would succeed as emperor, may have had to accept his uncle Joseph's sarcasm and mockery with good grace, but Riedel was such a social inferior that telling off the headstrong teenager demanded a surer touch. Not only was Riedel's personality questionable, he had to deal with a pupil whom we would now regard as psychologically damaged, who would wail and scream without reason, throw wild temper tanrums and who obsessively chewed his nails. Teaching Franz seems to have been a battle of wills between the two – Riedel may have had a temporary victory but would lose disastrously in the end.

We can imagine the relief Riedel must have felt when his troublesome pupil, by now a 16-year-old, was at last carted off to Vienna in June of 1784 to start his apprenticeship as Emperor in waiting. Franz's own relief at finally getting away from his mathematics teacher was probably muted by the thought that for the next few years he was to be an insect under Uncle Joseph's microscope. We really have to feel some sympathy for the youngster.

Riedel stayed behind and continued his teaching duties in Leopold's family for another four years, most notably with the young Ferdinand. According to Riedel he got on well with Archduke Leopold during the Florentine years, with and without Franz: they shared many common interests and cultivated an easy, informal relationship. However, when Leopold was called to Vienna on the death of his brother to become the new emperor he did not immediately invite Riedel to join him there.

Some say that Riedel went to Vienna in the company of Leopold's family, but what is certain is that he did not receive any fixed employment from Leopold once there. This fact suggests that Riedel's boastings of his easy converse with Leopold in Tuscany, contained in statements written during his interrogation, may have been just that, boastings that were characteristic of another Riedel trait: his need for recognition.

Back to Vienna

Without receiving any invitation from Leopold to go to Vienna, Riedel, after much indecision, decided to relocate there anyway, in the hope of obtaining some position from the new emperor, to whom, he would have us believe, he had been so close. Absolutist rulers are fickle – they can afford to be – and Riedel, despite much antechambrieren– hanging around in reception rooms for audiences – received no official position that we know of. We know that Riedel gave Leopold the text of his constitutional thesis on 31 July 1791 and that Riedel seems to have taken part in Leopold's reactivation of his constitutional project for Tuscany during the last months of Leopold's life. He may also have played some role in Leopold's private collection of spies and agitators, but it may just as well have been that Leopold, in these dangerous times, kept the impetuous and credulous Riedel at arm's length, allowing the restless agitator to get on with his writing and pot-stirring whilst ensuring deniability.

Throughout his trial Riedel could never claim that Leopold had ever instigated or sanctioned his agitation. We have an image of Leopold the political artist, subtle in a way that Joseph could never manage, 'standing behind his creation, paring his fingernails'.

For the brief two years of Leopold's reign the restless Riedel dipped his finger in political activism and made like-minded friends and met fellow agitators. On Leopold's death Riedel's future was now in the hands of the former mathematics pupil whose tantrums and neuroses he had had to put up with for five long years, a pupil whose dislike for his teacher is also evident. After Leopold's death Franz ennobled his former teachers and found them government posts, above all Colloredo, the man who had supervised Franz's upbringing. Riedel, uniquely among them, was left out in the cold.

There is a small puzzle here: Riedel was made a baron in October 1792, six or so months after Franz's accession. It seems that Riedel had asked Leopold to grant him this title to facilitate his espionage work for him. A similar favour was done for that other secret advisor of Leopold's, Ignaz Martinovics, a cleric who was given the rank of Abbot. Franz let Riedel's ennoblement through, perhaps it was a consolation prize for being ignored by Franz in every other respect.

We can only suppose that his closeness to Leopold and his association with that monarch's dreams of a constitutional monarch in Tuscany made Riedel extremely suspect for Franz, whose distate for constitutions in any form, whether monarchical or not, we have already noted. The last thing Franz wanted, now that he was confronted with the 'worst of times' in France, was a constitutional dreamer in his court.

Franz had seen Riedel at close quarters through the clear eyes of a child and disliked what he saw: the vanity, the self-importance, the egotism. In Florence, according to Colloredo, Riedel had once made himself look like a 'clown and a confused gabbler' in front of Joseph during one of the latter's visits. This statement may be considered to be unfair, possibly being just motivated by professional jealousy, but what remains as the bottom line in this complex calculation is that Colloredo had high and powerful positions under Franz the emperor – well above his abilities some would say – whilst Riedel the mathematics teacher was ignored except for a minor ennoblement. Franz knew exactly the sort of person he was dealing with in Riedel.

Franz Mesmer and a close escape

'Idle hands make work for the devil' we say. The saying was true for Hebenstreit composing his Latin revolutionary verses during the tedious hours of military life and it was true for Riedel, too. His constitutional brain still active in unemployment, he had become the senior, pivotal figure of the Viennese Jacobins, especially dangerous because of his former high position and well-connected background. He was the nexus that held the conspiracy together. From his days in the Florentine court Riedel seems to have enjoyed the limelight and the attentions of princes and courtiers. Now, once more, he became the centre of a circle of respectful admirers.

Whilst Leopold was still alive Riedel had become a passionate follower of Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), the charismatic, handsome quack who was peddling magnetic healing and hypnotism around Europe – Da Ponte and Mozart parodied Mesmer's techniques in the opera Così fan tutte (1790). It was Gilowsky, the corpse later hanged just before Hebenstreit, who introduced Mesmer to Riedel. Riedel had had an interest in arcana since his childhood. Now, with time on his hands, he helped to propagandize Mesmer's work, even, according to Gilowsky, arranging for a meeting between Leopold and Mesmer in Leopold's private apartment.

It strikes us as strange to find someone trained as a mathematician and military engineer showing such gullibility.[1] Under normal circumstances the association with Mesmer was foolish at best, in the present climate it was extremely dangerous. Despite making his money from the patronage of the gullible aristocracy Mesmer had republican sympathies. He was anyway a controversial figure, his 'animal magnetism' theories were hotly debated. He was also a foreigner and therefore subject to special attention in the febrile atmosphere of wartime Vienna.

He was arrested in November 1793 during a stay in Vienna, was kept in police arrest for a while but said nothing incriminating. He was released on 4 December and expelled from the country.

During this time Riedel was terrified that the police would find out about his Jacobin activities from Mesmer or something in Mesmer's possession. This time, however, he got away with it. But not for long.

The same betrayal by Degen that led to Hebenstreit also led inevitably to Riedel, the centre of the circle. He was arrested in the swoop that picked up Hebenstreit, during the night of 24 July 1794.

A teenager's revenge

Franz followed every detail of the interrogation and prosecution of his former teacher. He was active in blocking all pleas for mitigation or mercy in Riedel's case and interfered behind the scenes in his proceedings to push the court into giving Riedel just about the the worst sentence he could have: sixty years of incarceration under the hardest conditions in a fortress dungeon. Riedel was a civilian and the death penalty could not be applied; he was not Hungarian so could not be shipped back to face the executioner's axe there; it had to be the dungeon for a very long time.

After being sentenced in July 1795 he spent an hour a day for three days on the Schandbühne, a raised 'shaming platform' on which the prisoner was chained with a placard on his chest detailing his crimes. Despite the downpour on the first day a large crown turned up to view his humiliation. On public display, the short, stocky, round-faced civilian Riedel could not exude the charisma that the cavalry officer Hebenstreit had done seven months before:

No one had any sympathy for him; everyone was disgusted by him. Even the dear Sun seemed not to want to look at him and hid behind black clouds. On the first day it began to rain terribly and the writing on the placard was washed out. Nevertheless, the rain could not wash from his face the image of his crime and his perverse heart.[2]

Most of the other prisoners had to endure such humiliations, too. Riedel, at least, avoided being branded on both cheeks with a gallows symbol. He was then transported in August to the fortress of Kufstein for imprisonment, leaving Vienna at midnight in order to avoid public notice. He was ordered to be treated and held as an 'especially dangerous man'. He was put into dungeon cell no. 1 of the 13 cells in the 'Emperor's Tower' (Kaiserturm) in Kufstein and was henceforth only to be known by the number of his cell. He was at no time allowed to leave the cell and permanently held on a chain from the wall to an iron band fastened around his waist. Leopold, shortly after his accession, had expressly forbidden the keeping of prisoners permanently chained. Five years later this ban seemed to have been forgotten.

Let us also remember at this point that Franz Seraph von Spaun had been held in Kufstein – without charge or trial – since 1793. Since prisoners had no contact with each other and were known and addressed only by their cell number it seems unlikely that Spaun and Riedel will have known of each other. Spaun will probably also have known nothing of the Jacobin trials that had followed his own detention.

Whereas the other prisoners survived on a miserable 20 Kreuzers per day, Riedel had to survive on 4 Kreuzers, another way of saying that, as far as Franz was concerned, Riedel's death could be expected to take place soon – the sooner the better, in fact. Franz really must have hated him.

A year later in August 1796 Kufstein was threatened by the French advance. The prisoners were moved to the fortress of Schlossberg in Graz. If anything, the conditions were were worse than in Kufstein. The prisoners were kept chained up in two Casematten, or large dungeons, with hardly any light and fresh air. The dungeons had been partitioned with boards into 21 individual cells.

Their chains weighed nearly 50 pounds and disprupted work and sleep. The foetid air, the diet of bread and water, the hard conditions turned these miserable beings into near corpses of skin and bones. Tuberculosis, dropsy and scurvy killed them off within a short time and even the healthiest and strongest man would not survive this extreme punishment beyond four years.[3]

In April of the following year, 1797, the prisoners were moved again. The French had captured Mantua, meaning that Graz was now in danger. Riedel was sent to the fortress of Munkács in Hungary, where he would spend another nine years in a dungeon. The cells were only five feet high – why do you need more height when you are kept permanently in chains? – and the walls between cells were two feet thick. There was a small wood-oven to prevent prisoners freezing to death during the Hungarian winter. Still on his 4-Kreuzer diet he had to endure appalling hunger that 'made him weep'.

Five indescribable years would pass under this regime until, in 1802, Riedel's conditions were improved. Nearly all the other prisoners in Munkács were pardoned and released in that year. Not quite all: in the meantime one had died and one gone mad. Our other hothead, Franz Seraph Spaun, who was not held continuously in Munkács, was released in 1801.

The fortress commander, one of the few heroes in our tale, at great personal risk took pity on Riedel and caused his lot to be improved in small ways. However, your friends can be your worst enemies. In 1804 a former fellow inmate of Riedel's wrote to Franz with an appeal for clemency, mentioning how Riedel communicated – as Spaun had done in his time – with fellow inmates by knocking on the dungeon walls. He also attached to the letter two of the poems that Riedel had written in prison.

The effect of the appeal was just the opposite of what the friend had intended. Communication between prisoners was supposed to be forbidden and Riedel should have had no access to writing materials. At the beginning of 1805 Franz set up a commission to investigate why his direct instructions for the severity of Riedel's imprisonment had come to be ignored. There was much for the commission to find. Riedel's wall-tapping system was of particular interest. The small ameliorations that had been allowed by the commander, a night lamp, for example, and in his cell a number of forbidden objects such as a chessboard.

The commission's report is full of fascinating insights into the behaviour of prisoners in extremis. Riedel had knitted socks using hair from his own beard. Using soot from his stove he had written a poem of 3,000 lines on the wall of his cell. In the end, the fortress commander was pensioned off in disgrace and only just avoided having to pay for the costs of the commission, Riedel's 3,000-line epic was painted over and lost forever and his hamstered possessions removed. Can we imagine such a psychological blow?

The Abbey of Brünn

We don't know what softened Franz's heart slightly – very slightly – towards Riedel. Even Franz could hardly begrudge Riedel his efforts to make his imprisonment more bearable; he certainly blamed those whose duty it had been to keep it less bearable, right up to the highest levels of the army. In August of 1805, ostensibly on health grounds – though such delicate sentiments had never worried Franz before – Franz set his underlings the task of finding a suitable abbey that could accommodate Riedel.

The cogs of the imperial bureaucracy turn slowly and it took a year of thinking before a solution was found, meaning another year in the Munkács dungeon for Riedel. Their cogitation finished, the great ones of the administration finally decided on the Friars Minor Capuchin Abbey of Brünn (then in Moravia, now 'Brno' in the Czech Republic). The great minds had thought of everything: the abbey must not have young novices, who could be dazzled and misled by Riedel; it shouldn't be near any dissident colonies, which Riedel might bring to revolt; it should not be near a border, thus offering an easy escape route. Despite all the cogitation by the best brains of the Empire, the decision to send Riedel to Brünn would turn out to have one major flaw.

Riedel, now 58 years old, arrived in Brünn in June 1806, showing all the signs of great remorse. Franz was paying for the costs of keeping Riedel in the monastery out of his personal account, which, remarkable at first glance, emphasises how personally Franz took the punishment of Riedel.

The effect on Reidel of the move to the abbey was like that of rain on a dormant desert plant: suddenly after 11 years of isolation he was in the middle of humanity once more. Instead of the sensory deprivation of a dungeon, he now had a corner room that looked out on the lively courtyard. He could have books, write letters that were scarcely censored and – how wonderful! – have visitors. There were depressive moments – not surprising after so much misery – but a circle of friends formed around him and the desert plant was fed with that most vigorous of nutrients: being the centre of attention.

His letters to friends show us that within eight months of arriving in Brünn, the old Riedel is back with us: vain, arrogant, precious, affected and unteachable, full of misplaced intellectual self-assurance and political fanaticism together with a pathological craving for recognition and respect. It is as though the last terrible 12 years had never been. Much as it pains your author to say anything good about Franz II/I, he was proved right about Riedel. Franz was 11 years old when Riedel arrived to teach him mathematics. He knew Riedel probably much better than most people. He knew how unremittingly dangerous he was. He knew very well just what he was dealing with.

The French arrive

Before Riedel could politically crash and burn once more, as he surely would have done, the French arrived in Brünn in October 1809. Napoleon's troops under Marshal Davoût (1770-1823) had moved on from their occupation of Vienna – the bombardment of which our composer Franz Peter Schubert experienced in the Stadtkonvikt– and taken Brünn, the capital of Moravia. The one thing that the great minds of Franz's court had failed to consider had occurred. Some of the troops were quartered in the Abbey, allowing Riedel to make contact with Davoût and talk himself free. The friend of France was now under French protection and tied to Davoût's coat tails.

He left Brünn for Vienna on 14 October 1809. In a first step he was sent to Vienna. Franz, holed up with his court in exile in Hungary for the duration of the French occupation of Vienna, was desperate to have Riedel recaptured. That desperation tells us much about Franz's obsession with Riedel, that in the midst of such a disastrous situation, his court in exile and his capital in enemy hands, the Emperor turned his attention to the whereabouts of his old teacher.

Hasty investigations were carried out to track him down. At first the fact of Riedel's escape from Brünn was kept secret: with Vienna in disarray and under French control it was conceivable in nervous minds that Riedel was assembling conspirators to finish off the revolution he had wanted to start in 1794. Finally, after the French had left in January 1810, wanted posters appeared appealing for information. Riedel, however, was long gone. Accompanied by a French captain he had left Vienna at the end of October and made his way to Mainz, arriving on 11 November 1809.

Just as a great event in history, the Napoleonic invasion of Austria, had caught up with him in Brünn and effected his release, one more great event now caught up with him and made his position distinctly worse, blighting the rest of his life. On 1 April 1810 Napoleon married Archduchess Marie-Louise, Franz II/I's daughter.

That statement should really have an exclamation mark at its end. Clio, the muse of history, clearly enjoys her ironies. Seventeen years before this wedding the French mob had hacked off the head of one Austrian queen, Franz's aunt, only now to watch Napoleon, their new Emperor, acquiring his very own Austrian queen. The French and the Austrian Emperors were now dynastically united and Riedel's bitterest enemy had become his protector's father-in-law.

Riedel lingered in Mainz until August 1810, then was taken to the salt works in Bad Nauheim, well out of the way of prying eyes, where he was given some things to do for Davoût to keep him quiet. It was not a particularly happy time for Riedel: hidden away from his circle of fans. He lived 'like a hermit in the Thébaïde', a reference to St Anthony in the Egyptian desert, that model for all hermits.

Davoût finally let him leave for Paris. He arrived there on 4 December 1811, just over two years after he had been freed in Brünn. He initially stayed at Marshal Davoût's house for a couple of weeks, which, in the new circumstances, was a diplomatic risk, before finding himself an apartment in Paris.

The outlaw

He received a small pension from Davoût – half of what he had initially expected – and was now facing a winter in Paris living in poverty. In his despair he begged for some money from his old friend Mesmer, now in Constance, which at least helped him a little with his immediate problems. He had no money, was wearing tattered old clothes that he, who had always been vain about his appearance, was ashamed to be seen in and, worst of all by far, he had no friends. He dare not draw attention to himself. He was so bitter and depressed by his circumstances that in May 1813 he wrote to Mesmer that he had been better off in Brünn or even in his dungeon in Munkács. We can well imagine it: at least in Brünn he had some celebrity. Here he had to blend in with the crowd and remain unknown for the remainder of his inevitable decline into decrepitude.

The French were never going to support this throwback to their revolutionary days. Franz Mesmer, his friend for the last 25 years, died in 1815, and with him his lender of last resort. For the first time in his life Riedel had to work freelance for a living. He gave poorly paid private lessons in languages and mathematics. Since his own apartment was a hovel, the 64 year-old had to go arduous distances to his students' houses to earn a pittance.

His situation was made even worse on 6 April 1814, when Napoleon was forced to abdicate and go into exile. A Bourbon monarch – yet another Louis, yet another set of regnal roman numerals we have to memorise, now XVIII, getting larger and larger – was back on the throne of France and Riedel's position was even more hazardous as the great powers of Europe tried to reconstruct what had been lost in 1789. After Napoleon's 100 day return and his subsequent defeat at Waterloo his former protector Marshal Davoût found himself on the losing side, even though he was kept back in Paris and didn't personally fight alongside Napoleon at Waterloo. He was exiled and lost his titles and income for about a year. Riedel, now completely on his own, went underground and travelled around for some time, apparently under an alias.

The end in the wilderness

Despite the weak health that had kept him out of the army as a young man and had been the justification for removing him from the dungeon in Munkács to the abbey in Brünn he had survived ten years of fierce incarceration and privation and was now destined to spend another 23 years of poverty in France. About those years we know very little. In his last years he was supported by a French friend. He died at the astonishing age of 89, notably under his own name in Paris on 15 February 1837. He left about 200 books, otherwise nothing of value: some old furniture, crockery and clothes. After all the outstanding debts and costs were taken into account he died broke.

His time had passed with the destruction of the Jacobin plot all those years ago in Vienna. He had at least outlived his tormentor and former pupil Franz by almost two years. What satisfaction if any Riedel had drawn from that we do not know. It may have been the reason that he was able to at least die under his own name. He had survived, at least – unlike Hebenstreit and Gilowsky, the hanged, Prandstätter who died in a dungeon and the six headless Hungarians, but like Franz Seraph Spaun and the other troublesome intellectuals of his time what talents he had were neutered by his own country.


  1. ^ Our curt dismissal of Mesmer as a quack reflects the mainstream of opinion then as now. In fairness we should mention the case in support of Mesmer presented by Stefan Zweig in his book Die Heilung durch den Geist: Mesmer - Mary Baker-Eddy - Freud, Insel-Verlag, Leipzig, 1931. Zweig argues that Mesmer should be considered to be an important figure of the Scientific Revolution in his investigations of the physical basis of mental states.
  2. ^ Eipeldauerbriefe, 21. Heft, 4. Brief,S.40. quoted in Körner, Riedel, p. 270.
    Deswegn hat auch kein Mensch Mitleiden mit ihm ghabt; sondern alls hat ihn verabscheut. So gar d' liebe Sonn hat'n nicht an- scheinen wolln, und hat sich unter d' schwarzen Wolkn versteckt. Es hat auch den ersten Tag schrecklich z' regnen angfangen, und da hat der Regn d' Schrift auf der Schandtafl ausglöscht, aber aus sein Gsicht hat er sein Verbrechen und sein verstocktes Herz nicht wegwaschen können.
  3. ^ Körner, Riedel p. 300, quoting a 'Bericht an die Vereinigte Hofkanzlei und den Kaiser am 20.9.1790' for Emperor Leopold II:
    Die beinahe 50 Pfund wiegenden Fesseln behinderten sie in der Arbeit und im Schlafe. Die eingesperrte Luft, die Nahrung mit Brot und Wasser und das hatte Lager verwandelten diese Elenden in Halbleichen und Todtengerippe. Auszehrung, Wassersucht und Skorbuti- sche Fieber rafften sie in kurzer Zeit weg, und auch der gesündeste und stärkste Mann konnte diesen äußersten Grad der Strafe über vier Jahre nicht aushalten

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