title.none: Response to Dees on Algazi (Kaminsky)

identifier.other: baj9928.9903.010 99.03.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X


publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999


type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medeival Review

The Medieval Review 99.03.10

Reviewed by:

A reply to Robert Dees's review of Gadi Algazi's Herrengewalt und Gewalt der Herren im spaeten Mittelalter, TMR 98.12.11,

by Howard Kaminsky

Florida International University


On 22 December 98 you published a review by Robert Dees of Gadi Algazi, Herrengewalt und Gewalt der Herren im spaeten Mittelalter: Herrschaft, Gegenseitigkeit und Sprachgebrauch (Frankfurt am Main and New York: Campus, 1996). Interested in the issues raised by the book (and the work of Otto Brunner which it attacks), and having myself reviewed it at some length (in Speculum 73 [1998]: 799-802), I read Dees's piece with particular interest, to get his critical judgement of the book. What I found, alas, was no critical judgement at all but a long, detailed summary couched in a hymn of unqualified and uninterrupted praise, whose only function can be to promote the book among those not inclined to read it in German. This is press agentry, not scholarship -- something perhaps to be expected in a fan magazine or the popular press (a shorter piece of puffery, very similar in tone, was in fact written for a German newspaper by Anthony Grafton), but even there it would raise questions about its qualification, motivation, and agenda. In what follows I list only the most obvious objections to Dees's across-the-board praise, without implying that Algazi's book is not a valuable contribution to scholarly discussion of its subject; readers interested in specifications of both its merits and defects are referred to my review noted above.

(1) THE LORDS' PROTECTION OF THEIR PEASANTS: Brunner argued that the peasant-lord relationship was one of mutuality, the lords' protection being given in exchange for the peasants' rents and services; Algazi challenges Brunner's use of evidence on this point and Dees duly writes that Algazi has shown that in every case Brunner falsified his sources. That even a respected his- torian like Brunner could made mistakes is not only possible but certain; but that his magnum opus, which has determined the course of German constitutional history for more than fifty years, consisted of nothing but fabrications, which went unrecognized by German scholars for all that time, is to say the least improbable. One can only look at the sources. Here, out of many relevant examples, I offer one (taken from my review) of how Algazi's results were obtained: On p. 56, following up Brun- ner's citation of a pawn agreement of 1452, he quotes a passage that Brunner omitted: (p. 56) "[the lord] should protect [beschirmen] the people to the best of his ability ... and [und] not oppress them beyond their customary rents, labor services, and traditions...." Algazi's comment, that "Schirmen here is used in the sense of 'let stand'" (sc. not in the sense of pro- tection from outside attack), is either purely inept or to be explained by his taking "and" to mean not "also" but something like "namely," even though the ordinary sense of "and" is addi- tive. Why he chose the abnormal reading can only be guessed; the effect of it, of course, is to convict Brunner of falsification and that may be why, but the fact remains that it is not Brunner who falsifies. Dees is aware of this case but passed over it in silence.

(2) In standing for Algazi's treatment of the noble feud as violence directed against the peasants, rather than -- as Brunner claimed -- a legitimate means of pursuing one's rights, Dees misses another chance to get things right -- the feud was evi- dently both. He merely reproduces Algazi's literary sources that say the feud was directed against peasant insubordination and repeats his author's arguments to show that the legitimacy of a given feuder's claim was decided not by some superior rule of justice but by whether he won. He has not understood Brunner's point: the legitimacy of the feud lay in the nobles' inherent right to wage war, which was accepted by pretty much everyone; the legal issue between the feuding parties was something else, and in the absence of a sovereign state it was resolved by the feud itself, a trial by battle invoking a divine judgement, which was revealed by who won. It is an elementary distinction but evidently not elementary enough. I agree with Algazi, by the way, that the sociology of the noble feud reveals it to have been a means of repressing the peasants, but the one dimension of understanding does not liquidate the other.

(3) If Dees's intention were not so focussed on puffing the book in question he might have paid some attention to one of its most obvious inner contradictions, between the claim that the lords' alleged protection of their peasants meant nothing more than refraining from unduly oppressing them, and the claim that the noble feud was nothing but violence directed against peasants. For if one concedes the latter point, for the purpose of argument, then one can hardly avoid rejecting the former: in a world of nobles feuding with each other -- with whatever sociological import -- the peasants of one lord surely needed his protection against the depredations of his feuding enemy. That Algazi could overlook this point and thereby blatantly prejudice his argument can perhaps best be explained in terms of his creative ardor; Dees's silence on the matter needs a different explanation.

The explanation is not hard to find; it is simple and has to do not with scholarship but with politics, ethnicity, culture wars, and the generation gap. Algazi's book is an attack on the ideas of Otto Brunner's Land und Herrschaft first published in 1939. Brunner was a Nazi and his book was adorned with Nazi slogans fore and aft; moreoever his doctrine of "constitutional history" (Verfassungsgeschichte), rejecting bourgeois-liberal statist history in favor of something allegedly more "voelkisch," resonated with the Nazis' official ideology, as did his positive evaluation of the noble feud in the face of bourgeois-liberal exaltation of peace and order. Otherwise his reconstruction of the late-medieval aristocratic order was remote from anything deducible from Nazi "voelkisch" principles, which is why his book could remain cogent after the Nazi slogans were removed and, even after 1945, remain dominant in Germany more or less to the pre- sent, despite growing criticism from the 1970s on.

Algazi's book is not the first work written in German to have attacked Brunner's ideas because of their author's past but it is certainly the most frontal assault. It is, moreover, the work of an exceptionally strong mind whose argumentation is backed up by extensive reference to the sources, and some of these arguments are either right or possibly so. A gift from the gods, so to speak, for all those in Germany and outside who rejoice to see the wicked old Nazi Goliath brought down by the virtuous, still- youthful, Marxising, Israeli David! Never mind that David's slingshot is loose and unreliable: the resulting misses can be concealed by not mentioning them, and the untouched complexities of the theoretical issues can be smothered under the emetic flow of uncritical laudation. And anyone who, like the writer of this letter, has tried to appreciate Brunner's insights in despite of Brunner's enthusiasm for the Third Reich can be neutralized by insinuations that he is soft on Nazism. I note, finally, that although the idea that the political commitments of a scholar have something to do with the value of his scholarly work is more or less standard in the PC world inhabited by Mr. Dees, it has nothing else to recommend it and neither it nor the polemic it inspires belongs in a scholarly journal.