Hallstatt turned 700 years old this year. On the 21st of January of 1311, Elisabeth of Kärnten, Görz und Tirol, Duchess of Austria and Queen of Germany, granted Market Rights to this small town in the Salzkammergut of Austria. With this grant, Hallstatt came officially into existence, that is to say, it received its present name.
We know, of course, that people have lived there for much longer than that. In the valley high above Hallstatt, the Hochtal, salt mines date back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. The salt miners of Hallstatt traded their salt for goods via a network of trails and roads that connected their industry to just about all of Europe. The Iron Age Hallstatt Culture is named for the rich burials in the necropolis of the Hochtal, but we don’t actually know what Hallstatt was called, then, or even if there was a settlement on the shores of Lake Hallstatt, as there is today.
When Queen Elisabeth granted Market Rights, Hallstatt received control over its administration. In effect, it became an administrative entity – a Market Town.
Market Rights meant Hallstatt could hold markets on certain days of the week in a designated place, the market place. The location of that square has remained the same throughout the centuries. Even today its still at the heart of town and the place for the occasional outdoor market, like the annual Christkindl Market.
The Market Place was designated as a place for peaceful trade. Even people from out of town could enter the market square, buy and sell produce or other goods, and be assured that they could do so without concern for their safety or property. Any conflicts were settled on the spot, without resort to formal court proceedings.
In addition to market rights, Elisabeth also granted rights to produce and trade salt to 12 prominent citizens These 12 men and their heirs effectively became the Salt Lords of Hallstatt, and their dynasties endured for centuries. The grant ensured them and their descendants of considerable wealth for hundreds of years to come.
Beginnings of Factory Town and Salzkammergut
The grant also initiated a salt industry centered on Hallstatt. The salt lords set up huge salt pans to refine rock salt from the mines in the Hochtal, and then shipped the finished product down the rivers Traun and Danube to European markets. Entire guilds sprang up in support of this industry – miners, carpenters, salt refiners, boat builders and river men are just a few of the trades which became intimately connected to the salt commerce. Hallstatt, almost as soon as it had been officially recognized as a unique entity, also became a well managed factory town.
With her grant, Queen Elisabeth also put the Salzkammergut on the map. The area now known as the Inner Salzkammergut was dedicated to one purpose, producing and exporting salt. It consisted of the areas around Hallstatt, the salt mining communities in the Aussee Region across the lake, as well as towns and lands as far down river as Bad Ischl and Gmunden. Its tightly managed salt industry drew on all of the resources of the region. For hundreds of years everything in the Inner Salzkammergut — mountains, forests, waters, roads, people and animals – stood in the service of salt commerce.
The White Gold of the Habsburgs
Elizabeth of Austria and Tirol was an extremely capable woman, who quite possibly was the guiding hand behind the rise of the Habsburgs at that time, and granting rights to produce salt was a shrewd move. With this move, she conferred power and responsibility to a few families, already in some state of prominence and wealth, while holding on to ultimate control. While the salt industry ensured the wealth of several families for generations, it made the Habsburgs even richer. Wealth derived from salt mines of Hallstatt and the Salzkammergut filled the coffers of the imperial court for the duration of their rule, right up to WWI. Not without reason, salt from the Salzkammergut was called the white gold of the Habsburgs.
The Salzkammergut also became the play ground of the Habsburgs. During his 86 year long life, the next to last emperor of Austria-Hungary, Kaiser Franz Josef I., spent all but three of his summer vacations in the district. The Habsburgs maintained a large villa in Bad Ischl, where he stayed during summer months, and hunted and hiked in the mountains all around. (He was mostly carried around in a sedan chair).
Queen Elisabeth kept oversight of the salt industry until her death on Oct 28, 1313. Shortly after she granted Market Rights, she built a large administrative complex just off the market square in Hallstatt. She reserved one of the buildings for her own use whenever she stayed in town.
Much of the administrative complex was destroyed in the fire of 1750, but the former residence of Queen Elisbeth still stands. Until recently it housed the Hallstatt Museum, and it is one of the many photographed and admired buildings of Hallstatt.
The Hallstatt we see today in many ways exists as a legacy of the Habsburg empire. In the summer its over-run by tourists and one has to look closely for evidence of the Kaiser family. But it’s not necessary to look much further than the town name and the town square – which had its beginnings with the Habsburgs and still remains as a beautiful landmark, nearly one hundred years after the demise of the Habsburg dynasty.