Originally published in 1993, this book has become an underground classic of sorts during the ensuing years. Like many other scholars interested in family history and the medieval German nobility, I have frequently sought a copy in used bookstores in Europe and online--but without success. As the introduction to this new, second edition explains, there is a good explanation for all my fruitless searching. The book had an original print run of 750 copies and soon sold out on the strength of numerous positive book reviews, yet for many years the publisher, Franz Steiner Verlag, showed no interest in issuing a second edition. Finally, in 2014, a university student emailed the author asking why there had never been a second edition of this hard-to-find but important book; the author forwarded the email to the press (an excerpt from this email is included in the new introduction as well), and this eventually led to the appearance of the edition under review. The original 1993 text has not been altered, not even to make minor corrections; the text is preceded by a page-and-a-half list of corrigenda. However, this edition does include an excellent new thirteen-page introduction in which the author reflects on the book's legacy and discusses new scholarship in the field of medieval kinship and family studies since the work's initial publication.
What makes this such an important work, deserving of a second edition? Two answers are worth emphasizing here. First, it was originally published at a time when medieval historians in both Europe and North America were actively debating questions about the structure of medieval noble lineages. Karl Schmid, Georges Duby, Constance Bouchard and John Freed--to name only a few prominent scholars in these debates--all make appearances in this book (Spieß's willingness to engage with scholars and scholarship from outside the German-speaking lands has long been one of the hallmarks of his career). And yet, the period covered by Spieß's book is the later Middle Ages--not the period from the ninth to the twelfth century that has traditionally been the focal point of these debates. By starting his study in the thirteenth century, Spieß overcomes one of the foremost obstacles that has long bedeviled scholars of the nobility in the earlier period. Simply put, he has evidence: lots of it. In Germany, the number of extant marriage contracts, inheritance agreements, testaments and other family records explodes after the year 1250 or so. The rich archival and narrative sources make it possible for him to discuss marriage strategies, succession patterns, kinship networks and other aspects of family life at a level of detail that is quite simply unimaginable for earlier centuries. As a result, this book is one of the best studies we have about noble families during the medieval period.
Second--and I borrow this argument from the 2014 student email that led to this new edition--the book is primarily a close analysis of its source material. As a result, even if some of the debates about noble family structure discussed in this work are no longer as central to medieval scholarship as they once were, the book remains immensely valuable because Spieß presents his evidence in a clear and user-friendly fashion. The book includes more than fifty charts that report quantitative data drawn from his reading of archival records. For example, there are charts that detail the amounts of the cash dowries recorded in marriage contracts for the noble families he investigates. Other charts report the average marriage ages for German noblemen and noblewomen, average family sizes, and how many sons in individual generations of individual families married and how many entered the Church. What emerges from these charts is a strong sense of the diversity of family strategies pursued in some of the leading lineages of the German nobility; primogeniture was not the norm. More importantly, Spieß's quantitative data makes it possible to analyze German noble lineages within the broader context of European family structures. Almost twenty-five years after its original publication, this book can still be employed to compare/contrast the families of the late medieval German nobility with families from others times and places, thanks to Spieß's decision to present his evidence in a readily accessible form.
I do not want to imply, by emphasizing the charts and quantitative material, that this is a dense and highly technical book. On the contrary, it is a pleasure to read. While Spieß discusses numerous specific examples of marriage negotiations, inheritance partitions and family relationships drawn from his sources, he never forgets to treat these as case studies designed to illuminate broader themes and issues. The reader must not keep track of particular individuals, or remember the genealogies of specific lineages, in order to follow the arguments in this book. Spieß consistently provides clear summaries and section conclusions that tie his examples together and explain the wider significance of his findings. The work is also laid out in a coherent fashion. The six main chapters concern the beginning of new families via marriage negotiations, contracts, and weddings; husbands', wives' and widows' property rights; inheritance customs and provisions for children; marriage strategies; family relationships and family self-consciousness; and extended kinship networks. At the core of all these chapters is Spieß's analysis of published and unpublished sources for fifteen noble families from the region of the Main and middle Rhine Rivers. These are not princely lineages but rather lineages from the next level of the noble elite: comital families and the families of leading lords (Herren). These lineages include the counts of Katzenelnbogen, Leiningen, Nassau, Rieneck, Solms, Sponheim and Wertheim as well as the lords of Bickenbach, Eppstein, Falkenstein, Hanau, Hohenlohe, Isenburg-Büdingen, and Rodenstein.
The only real disappointment with this second edition is the quality of the paperback book itself. The first edition was not of especially high quality either, and this problem has not been solved. My review copy's binding is already failing after only a single reading, and since this is a book that I will open frequently in order to consult particular charts or sections, I fear the volume will soon start to fall apart. Nevertheless, I am pleased to at long last have a copy of this important book on my shelf. For historians of the medieval family, the medieval nobility, and medieval German society, this is a work that will remain useful for years to come.