David A. E. Pelteret

title.none: Freedman and Bourin, Forms of Servitude (David A. E. Pelteret)

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.030 06.10.30

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David A. E. Pelteret,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Freedman, Paul and Monique Bourin. Forms of Servitude in Northern and Central Europe: Decline, Resistanc, and Expansion. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe 9. Turnhout: Brepols, 2005. Pp. x, 499. $100.00 10-250316947. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.30

Freedman, Paul and Monique Bourin. Forms of Servitude in Northern and Central Europe: Decline, Resistanc, and Expansion. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe 9. Turnhout: Brepols, 2005. Pp. x, 499. $100.00 10-250316947. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

David A. E. Pelteret

This volume is the outcome of a conference in Göttingen in 2003 devoted to the theme of new forms of serfdom ("Nouveau servages"/"Die neuen Leibeigenschaften") in Central and Northern Europe between the thirteen and sixteenth centuries. It followed an earlier conference in Rome in 1999 that focused on servitude in the western Christian Mediterranean. This information is relevant, both to provide some sort of explanation for the title, which seems misleading, and for the subjects of papers included. It is difficult to see Normandy as a northern European region or the south-west of Germany as a central European one, though perhaps they could be so regarded in relation to, say, the Iberian peninsula. Those interested in the people who formed a significant proportion of the medieval European population should not allow this to deter them, for they will find in this book a wide-ranging collection of studies that will present them with novel insights and encourage them to think along new lines.

Historian are themselves historical players and hence products of their own age. The book might be best described as very much a European Union product: multilingual; subject to influence from America; both national and trans-national in outlook; somewhat confusing from an organizational point of view; impatient with past loyalties; rather "top-down" in approach towards its subjects.

The book contains five papers in English, five in French, and seven in German (the latter twelve with English summaries); the sources quoted include texts in Latin as well as pre-modern French and German (which fortunately are not too linguistically taxing). The editors, who provide a brief general introduction to the volume, have done a superb job: I noticed only a couple of trivial misprints, and the papers in English contain none of the linguistic oddity sometimes displayed in the academic writings of non-native speakers of the language.

The editors were inevitably in thrall to the subjects chosen by the conference contributors, who ranged well beyond the chronological limits of the conference theme. The collection has been organized into six parts: The Terminology of Serfdom, The French Case, The German Case: Geographic Diversity, The German Case: Serfdom and Revolt, The Danish Case, and Geographic Extensions, a section containing papers about regions that do not fit within the core of the EU: J.M. Bak on Hungary (which surely has the best claim of the lot to be Central European), Marian Dygo on Poland, and Christopher Dyer on England. The division works best for Denmark, where, for instance, Michael H. Gelting shows that the development of a generalized system of peasant dependence from the thirteenth century on was a consequence of changes in Danish legal procedure in the first half of that century. Danish legal practice is also seen as important by Jeppe Büchert Netterstrøm; from around 1500 landowners enlarged their control over their peasants through criminal prosecution. The national or linguistic divisions of "French" and "German" seem less justified.

In the capitalist EU "Marx" is a swear word and he does not appear in the Index of Names. Bak acknowledges that "second serfdom" (a specific object of attention at the conference) was a notion introduced by Marxist discourse but decides that a "detailed discussion of the Marxist usage and its usefulness...should be left for another occasion" (388). Dygo in her paper on the genesis of "second servitude" in Poland briefly summarizes the discussion among various Polish historians in the 1970s and 1980s on the legal position of Polish peasants between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, but does not disclose their ideological affiliations (if any). Slavery and serfdom have been so freighted with ideological baggage that it would be helpful if the philosophical background of scholars could be declared, especially in the case of studies written in languages not generally linguistically accessible to those outside the writer's own country. There is, in fact, much historiographical material scattered through the book: Tom Scott's discussion of south-west German serfdom, for instance, acknowledges the point by R. Köhn that the term Leibherrschaft used by some modern German social historians is "a historian's construction; the medieval sources never speak of dominium de corpore or similar such terms" (118). But more transparency of the kind acknowledged by Gelting is desirable: he notes that the dominant explanation for the change in a Danish society from free peasants to generalized dependence arose out of political circumstances obtaining in Denmark a century and more ago. The explanation is now felt to be "not only anachronistic and obsolete, but also impossible to justify from the medieval sources" (346). He notes with approval N. Hybel's recent book, perhaps significantly called Danmark i Europa 750-1300... .

One of the characteristics of serfs is that they are rarely given a direct voice in the sources. Source material is thus more than usually important and two papers may be selected to illustrate different ways in which sources may be exploited. The ARTEM database at Nancy now contains more than five thousand charters composed up to the year 1120 that are housed in French archives and libraries, and Michel Parisse draws on them for a semantic analysis of servile terminology, including the word mancipium . Parisse shows that the word (usually employed in the plural) is very rarely mentioned after the year 1000. He feels that it should not be translated definitively as "slave," since the situation of those so described is far from that of Roman slaves. Perhaps the explanation should rather be that the word retained a strong semantic sense of "slave" that was increasingly at odds with the socio-legal position of the persons concerned, and so the word passed out of use because it was sensed to be anachronistic.

Ghislain Brunel delves into a treasure-house of documents, a register of 786 records assembled by the cathedral chapter of Laon covering the period 1200 to 1460. The register reveals the chapter's shifting relationship with serfs in the region. More than half the documents record either enserfments (mainly women marrying serfs of the chapter; the record thereby protecting it against claims from other lords and helping to guarantee its servile rights in the offspring) or manumissions (some to enable serfs to become clerics). Brunel provides a series of charts drawn from the documents, ranging from entries into servitude to instances of formariage and mainmorte , and offers plausible explanations for the statistical variations. In addition to the latter two taxes the cathedral levied a taille , a "voluntary" tax on land that caused a revolt in 1338. The uprising was suppressed; nine men were hanged and six women branded. The evidence Brunel supplies suggests that, while the cathedral was able to call on the power of the king, the revolt had shaken the authorities: the goods of the executed men were restored to their inheritors; the king appointed two commissioners to find a solution for the conflict; and the taille was converted into an annual payment levied collectively on the region.

In general, the papers underline the diversity, both geographic and chronological, in the practice of servitude in the areas described. Heide Wunder shows that labour services were still demanded from the inhabitants of a village in Hesse-Kassel well into the eighteenth century (though they were not serfs in the traditional sense as they were free to marry and could sell their land); in England, on the other hand, serfdom largely died out during the sixteenth century, as Dyer mentions. In Normandy, land charters show that aspects of servitude, notably enforced labour services (corvées ), survived at least into the fifteenth century, as demonstrated by Denise Angers; in Baden and the Middle Rhine area, the researches of Kurt Andermann and Sigrid Schmitt explore how serfdom continued to evolve and even grew stronger as a result of the power strategies of the lords of Baden and electors Palatinate. In the south-west of Germany the attempt to throw off the shackles of serfdom was an important factor in the Peasants' War of 1525: Werner Rösener argues that a complex of reasons had led to a growth of serfdom there in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Yet in the Eastern Alpine region, in spite of several rebellions resulting from an increase in servile obligations, when the peasants were permitted to bring their grievances to a parliament following the armistice in Salzburg in 1525, "[t]he demand for the abolition of serfdom did not play any significant role there," as Heinz Dopsch observes (p. 338; my translation) and it survived in an attenuated form in the region until the eighteenth century. In Denmark Sealand introduced serfdom around 1500, unlike Jutland, even though the former was more urbanized.

As Christopher Dyer's paper on villeins, bondsmen, neifs, and serfs shows, there are still old questions that need to be resolved and there are others that can be asked. More papers like that of Julien Demade and Joseph Morsel on Eigenleute in Francia, with its strong sense of chronology and geography, well illustrated by accompanying maps, are desirbale. The diverse impact of native and Roman systems of law on serfdom in various parts of Europe could be explored further. Most human beings make some sort of peaceful accommodation with their circumstances. As Roger Sablonier notes in his paper composed for this volume, the serfdom of those subject to the Swiss Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln existed for long periods without conflict and the monastery could be flexible over its demands: indeed "[m]odern state territories have in the long run completely other, far tighter forms of control" (pp. 254-5; my translation). It would be interesting to delve further into the tactics employed by serfs to limit the power of lords and determine whether there was any commonality in the circumstances that drove some serfs to engage in active revolt against them.

The increasing availability of primary sources in electronic form allows for research on a scale hitherto not easily accomplished; more studies of the kind made by Michiel Parisse utilizing the ARTEM database should be increasingly possible. Not only current technology but also contemporary questions can be applied to medieval sources to investigate the shifting nature of servitude. Did medieval climate change in any way affect the social, economic, or legal position of serfs? What role did gender play, both within servile households and in relation to the power exercised by overlords?

Although one will learn much about aspects of serfdom from this book, the daily realities of a serf's life are less evident: animal husbandry, agricultural practice, social identity and intercourse, the impact of religious movements at a local level find little or no mention. To be fair, the sources inevitably tend to express the outlook of those who compiled and controlled those sources: as I have indicated, rarely was there call to present a serf's perspective--in the words of Vincent Corriol in his study of the servile terminology on the lands of the abbey of Saint-Claude in the Jura: "The practice of serfdom is an underground one" (p. 73; my translation). Nevertheless, this reviewer hopes that a future conference will build on the accomplishments of Göttingen meeting as represented by this absorbing volume to try to present the world from a serf's point of view.