03.04.04, Groebner, Liquid Assets, Dangerous Gifts

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Livia Visser-Fuchs

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.004


Groebner, Valentin. Pamela E. Selwyn, trans.. Liquid Assets, Dangerous Gifts: Presents and Politics at the End of the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Pp. viii, 248. ISBN: 0-8122-3650-5.

Reviewed by:
Livia Visser-Fuchs

This is a fascinating book on a fascinating subject, the kind of subject that all medieval scholars are confronted with regularly, but rarely think about twice, precisely because it is so familiar. The giving and receiving of gifts of whatever kind is regularly mentioned in narrative and archival sources, but usually taken for granted by student of these texts. Much has been written on medieval gift-giving in the last two decades, mainly from an anthropological viewpoint, or focussing on early medieval donations to religious communities. The present book is concerned purely with secular gifts in a civic context and limits itself to the region of the Upper Rhine, with Basel as its centre because of the richness of its sources, between 1400 and 1550; this geographical limitation does not lessen its general interest in any way.

In the Introduction the author sets out the purpose, limitations and plan of the book, emphasising his interest in the language, the words used to designate gifts throughout the period. He also discusses some of the sociological aspects of his subject, the all-pervading work of Marcel Mauss and his theory of the gift as a "total social phenomenon," which turned it from an object of study into a scientific model, and the views of other scholars. One of the most memorable phrases in this section is the remark that "for several hundred years, the 'genuine' gift had apparently always just recently disappeared," reminding one of the illusion, common to all ages concerning many aspects of society, that people in the past were better, more virtuous and, for example, more chivalric than our contemporaries. We are also reminded that, obviously, the only gifts we know about are those that are recorded, that all gifts had a "darker side" of evil intentions and unfulfilled promises, and that giver and receiver were not alone, there was always an "audience" that put its own interpretation on the act of giving. Groebner emphasises that gifts were not legally binding, but were "efficacious because they could not be demanded by law."

Chapter 1, Liquids and Pronouncements, looks at the recording of gifts by various categories of people, which was shaped by commercial practice and often maintained over long periods. To cities like Basel, whose account books survive amazingly intact from 1371 until the end of the sixteenth century, "gifts were politics" and all kinds of gifts and recipients were registered -- if they were worthy of being remembered: wine, fish and money, to messengers, minstrels, cities and princes. The author points out that these records had their own agenda and were at the time only accessible to very few officials, who were supposed not to reveal such matters of civic policy. Of overwhelming importance were the gifts of wine, the "liquid assets" of the book's title, which, contrary to what one might expect, were not all consumed on the occasion of their presentation, but mostly carried away in specially made jugs bearing, for example, the city's coat of arms. In German (and, e.g., Dutch) the word for "giving" and "pouring" is the same (schenken). Gifts of wine in particular often occurred in connection with questions of legitimacy. They did not in themselves make a contract legal and binding, but they did make such contracts public.

Gifts could be presented to anyone, but preferably, of course, to those who contributed to the honour or well-being of the giver, in this case the city of Basel, and were carefully graded according to the status and usefulness of the recipient, such as the Emperor himself, or herrn Erasmo Roterodamo -- or the threat posed by him, such as the Swiss troops that marched past Basel in 1469 on their way to plunder Alsace. On another occasion, after the battle of Nancy, Swiss troops were actually encouraged to pillage the houses of canons and curates by gifts of malmsey and sugar. Gifts also contributed to the donor's good name at home and abroad. Fifteenth-century political treatises recommend gifts to learned men, merchants and travellers; performing artists were rewarded, minstrels, musicians, and heralds. Particularly messengers and the actual bearers of gifts were presented with money, cheese or cakes. The importance of information was closely related to the speed with which it was delivered and couriers -- genuine or false -- paid accordingly.

Within the city itself gifts were presented to its own office holders -- Chapter 2, Offices -- such as guards and customs officers, who received a very small regular salary supplemented by a large variety of payments in kind or money. The Strasbourg executioner, to give but one remarkable example of around 1509, was allowed the clothes of executed felons and as a consequence his wife had a stall at the second-hand clothing market. Many such gifts to officials and others in authority were obviously far from voluntary and some were actively demanded. They thus took on a more negative aspect and Groebner argues that towards the end of the fifteenth century, in some contexts at least, gifts were more often "invisible" and a distinction began to be made between 'secret' and 'public' ones. In Chapter 3, Manners of Speaking, he discusses the fact that more important than the gifts themselves became the way they were talked about. He introduces the word miet, which can perhaps be described as a gift that one should not accept. A link is here made between venality and the body: the hands that accept the bribes, the skin of the unjust judge, flayed alive for corruption, and effeminacy and (homo)sexuality, which made men and women sell themselves. According to the author, the language used to describe these matters runs them together, creating an atmosphere of deception and betrayal, invisibility and secrecy.

Chapter 4, Pensions, argues that the word for invisible gifts -- those that should not be accepted -- occurs with increasing frequency at the time of the great conflict between Burgundy and the Swiss and the word "pension" came to dominate. Such regular annual payments became so common that the author is able to say: "The political structures of the early Swiss Confederacy emerged along with and by means of these payments [by e.g. Louis XI of France]. Briefly put, the early modern political elite of the Swiss Confederacy was created by French, Italian, and Austrian funds." The most reprehensible pensions were the secret ones; some of these caused the downfall of their recipients and repeated attempts were made to stop them altogether. Heinrich Brennwald in his Schweizerchronik dated the year 1501 by drawings of a purse on a belt for the M, five jolly curved fishes for the C's and one French gold coin for the I (fig. 8): in this year the people revolted and killed several of those who were accepting French pensions, without any permanent effect.

Chapter 5, continues this subject by focussing on Pensions in Basel, 1501-1522, including Hans Holbein's 1521/22 painting for the town hall which showed several scenes of classical legendary justice. Chapter 6, Instruments, re-covers the ground to draw some conclusions and categorize gifts and their function. First, they are media of communication, publicizing rather than creating a relationship, but also essential for the obtaining of the kind of information that we nowadays receive through the postal service, adverts, telephone books etc., but in the period under discussion was carried by messengers, made accessible by doorkeepers, registered by clerks, and provided by "information brokers," the professional middlemen in this "intelligence" network. Secondly, gifts were liable to be described in evil terms and become a political risk, and thirdly, they could lead to competition rather than cooperation, as in Erasmus' story of the king, the peasant and the courtier. Finally, there is an analysis of how the Reformation, and especially Zwingli in his sermons, used the vocabulary of gift giving and receiving to emphasise the decadence of his hearers, foreign money, according to him, corrupted morals, material luxury followed and the morality and decency of women in particular were endangered. The Swiss past before the Burgundian wars became an golden age of virtue, a view echoed by later historians.

The book is attractively produced, the dust wrapper showing two female figures tempting St. Anthony with gifts of wine and money; there are endnotes, an extensive bibliography and an index. The translation is perfect in the sense that it is virtually unnoticeable, little reminds the reader of what may have been, in the author's own words, "a heavy-handed and somewhat old-fashioned German-style Habilitationsschrift."

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Livia Visser-Fuchs