The Medieval Review 13.01.10

Teuscher, Simon. Lords' Rights and Peasant Stories: Writing and the Formation of Tradition in the Later Middle Ages. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 320. $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4368-0. . .

Reviewed by:

Paul Freedman
Yale University

This intriguing and important book has several purposes. One is to call into question the conventional understanding of Weistümer, documents that purport to be villagers' oral statements of local bylaws made before their seigneurial masters. These proliferated in southern parts of the Empire in the fourteenth and especially fifteenth centuries, and ever since they were first collected and published in seven volumes by Jacob Grimm Weistümer have been regarded as authentic recitals of customary law in the vernacular voice of the peasants. They often include colorful folkloric practices on the order of the rule from Fällenden (near Zürich) that chickens could wander from their yard only as far as their owner could throw a sickle from his roof using his left arm while clutching his left armpit hair with his right hand (132). Teuscher convincingly shows that the Weistum formula of local peasants declaring customs before a lord is neither a transparent example of the organic nature of medieval society (pace Otto Brunner and his followers) nor a codification of immemorial custom. Weistümer turn out to be artful, contingent, negotiated and closely related, and not conceptually or chronologically behind written culture.

The crafted archaism and deliberate vernacular naiveté of the Weistümer undermine a historiography of modernization that posits a crucial shift from an oral to a literate society. On the contrary, written and oral testimony and determination of laws were not stages of development; rather, they overlapped. Villagers were not in a world of their own, cut off from knowledge about the administrative norms of centralized authorities.

A third aspect of Teuscher's dissent from historians' orthodoxy is to question the very categories of lords and peasants as they appear in these collections of customs and in witness depositions inquiring into common regulations. Lords seldom actually dealt with these matters directly, especially as Weistümer, far from being representative of miniature lordships of the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, actually come into being at the behest of larger jurisdictions such as that of the counts of Savoy or of the canons of the Grossmünster of Zürich which consolidated localities in what is now western Switzerland. Immediate lordship rights were exercised by local elites who might appear as ordinary peasant inhabitants in one document and then as office-holders in another. Those giving testimony and those receiving it were often of similar status.

The unfamiliarity of the region to most medievalists in English-speaking countries will make this book slightly challenging to read. The area under consideration lies between Zürich and Lake Geneva along an east-west axis and the Jura and the Alps for the north-south orientation. Unfortunately no map is supplied and--given the complexity of medieval lordship--a modern map of Switzerland is only partially helpful. The region chosen is useful because of the presence of Romance as well as Germanic vernaculars. Despite their past importance for erudite advocates of German nationalism and identity, Weistümer were not restricted to German-speaking lands. In this case some of the most interesting records come from the monastery of Romainmôtier, the town of Lausanne and the Vaudois and Jura territories of the rulers of Savoy.

Teuscher is not the first to have questioned the transparency of the Weistümer as sources for ancient remembered law. Gadi Algazi saw the lord's summoning of the villagers as a coercive occasion whereby seigneurial exactions were dressed up as immemorial custom. Teuscher does not follow this interpretation because, among other things, he does not see the categories of lords and peasant as clearly opposed. His main concerns are to take issue with the supposed orality of these regulations and to look at law and society as interactive rather than seeing one as a reflection of the other (the German tradition identified with Brunner) or regarding law as a later rationale for "real" economic relations (the French social history tradition). Law as reflected by the Weistum is shaped by particular controversies and circumstances, adaptable and yet presented as if the document codifies stable rules and attitudes. Weistümer are colorful and archaic not because we are witnessing the replacement of orally-reported custom by text, but because relatively impersonal lordships used what could pass as custom to justify and extend their administrative procedures backwards in time. It is not the folk that admire "good old law" but rather the bureaucrats. The Weistümer did not really present long-standing oral regulations in written form, but rather resulted from specific negotiations. They therefore need to be considered along with court records of litigation that produced declarations from witnesses about the normal rules in a particular locality. These witness testimonies, Weisungen, are the background for the Weistümer so that the latter emerged from specific questions, legitimating regulations derived from particular controversies and written documents.

Other historians besides Teuscher such as Karl-Heinz Spiess (cited here, 134) have examined legal declarations of manorial courts in relation to Weistümer, but always in search of some way of defining and contextualizing Weistümer according to some fairly rigid taxonomy. Teuscher's originality is in seeing the Weistum as an aspect of lordship--as one among a set of options, not as a definitive statement of law or of custom. His conclusions are fortified by his very close familiarity with the web of villages, jurisdictions and extremely precise (or at least petty) customs on the order of matters touching trespassing hens. The Latin versions of many Weistümer were drawn up earlier than the seemingly unrehearsed, oral German vernacular transcriptions and the colorful details of the latter are elaborations on the straightforward older Latin text. At the village of Meilen, temporarily pawned by the Zürich Grossmünster, the Latin document allows the provost to collect the best animal from a peasant's estate as a death tax, but the later German version goes on to explain that if there is no livestock, the lord's representative will have to be satisfied with the "Han uf dem Sädel oder die Katz bi dem Für" (the cock from the roof ridge or the cat by the fire).

Similarly older Weistümer, such as a record of 1266 for Apples (subject to Romainmôtier), contain stipulations related to the settlement of disputes and are intended to be the basis for future manorial court declarations. This litigious context is eliminated in the Plaict of Apples in 1327 which copies the earlier regulations but presents them as codifications of ancient custom. Teuscher depicts a singular set of examples of late medieval pseudo-archaism that have misled generations of historians.

What was all of this in aid of? Here again it is only through intimate understanding of lordship that the motives and cultural setting can be reconstructed. The coalescence of villages and other fragments of land was hardly on the order of nascent nation-states but rather the work of what passed in pulverized and varied Swiss territories for efficient and large administrations. Weistümer were tools to put together regulations that had different origins and documentary backgrounds so that they applied to a particular place. The advantage of the Weistum is that, however chatty and folksy in style, it is impersonal as regards lordship--being supposedly immemorial custom, the Weistum is valid no matter who rules the jurisdiction, therefore disguising seigneurial transfer and facilitating consolidation. The vernacular, the orality and the picturesque details of Weistümer legitimate lordship but hardly reflect either genuine old custom or exclusively oral transmission.

Other historians and literary scholars have taken issue with the exaggerated or over-literal presentation of the supposed transition from orality to literacy. Brian Stock long ago described what he called "textual communities" in which actual ability to read was gradated, and what would now be considered illiteracy did not prevent groups of ordinary people from resorting to documents or having an understanding of their contents via other parties. In his study of the English Rising of 1381 Steven Justice emphasized the documentary competence of the insurgents who circulated letters and broadsides and demanded the production of charters of liberty from beleaguered abbeys. Where Teuscher is most novel in undermining historical assumptions is in the nature of the Weistümer as artifacts, reflecting neither folk custom nor the imposition of the seigneurie but rather as forms of law that both describe and influence social practices.