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Lords' Rights and Peasant Stories

Lords' Rights and Peasant Stories: Writing and the Formation of Tradition in the Later Middle Ages

Simon Teuscher
Translated by Philip Grace
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Lords' Rights and Peasant Stories
    Book Description:

    In the mid-nineteenth century, Jacob Grimm published a collection of late medieval records of local law-called Weistümer-that was scarcely less comprehensive than his famous collection of fairy tales. As with the fairy tales, Grimm assumed that before their transcription, people had handed these down orally from time immemorial. His interest in these customary laws arose from their seemingly folkloristic notions of custom and from their poetic narratives about ritualized encounters between lords and peasants, capturing an oral tradition from an unsophisticated time. Grimm's readings are still used today as a basis for theories about oral societies in the premodern West and contemporary non-Western societies and the modernizing effects of writing. As Simon Teuscher contends, however, those aspects of legal texts that have been considered since Grimm to be vestiges of a traditional preliterate popular culture were eventually rooted in relatively advanced and learned techniques of writing, jurisprudence, and administration. Lords' Rights and Peasant Stories uses examples from German- and French-speaking Switzerland to investigate what legal order meant to individuals and to a society at the eve of the early modern period. Teuscher deals with legal documents not only as texts, but also as objects. The book takes the materiality of documents seriously and reconstructs cultural techniques of their production and social practices of their use. Lords' Rights and Peasant Stories suggests the need to rethink master narratives about transitions from oral to literate societies. It explores the local dimensions of processes of state-formation and the emergence of modern notions of law in western Europe. Students of rural society and village organization will find here a discussion of local power distribution that is inspired by social anthropology, that looks beyond simple antagonisms between lords and peasants, and that insists on the role of state servants and the unconscious effects of their writing practices.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0881-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    Law is, in the modern conception, inextricably linked with writing. Whether we consult legislation, fill out forms, or deal with stacks of files, we cannot imagine contemporary legal life without written documents. By contrast, late medieval law, which was conveyed through speech instead of through writing, has an exotic allure that has long fascinated researchers. In the mid-nineteenth century, Jacob Grimm published a collection of late medieval records of local law—called Weistümer—that was scarcely less comprehensive than his famous collection of fairytales.¹ As with the fairytales, Grimm assumed that, before their transcription, people had handed these down orally...

  4. CHAPTER 1 Two Inquiry Procedures
    (pp. 23-58)

    Perhaps the best-known description of a ritualized inquiry procedure regarding unwritten law appears in the fourteenth-century Weistum of villages belonging to the cloister of Engelberg in Aargau. Jacob Grimm placed this account at the beginning of his collection of Weistümer. The abbot of Engelberg was to appear before the village court in the company of a chaplain, his provost, the parish priest of the village of Stans, and a knight. In addition, he was to bring along a hunting falcon, a dog trained for hunting birds, and two greyhounds. The wife of the maior, the local manorial official, was to...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Dealing with Lordship Rights
    (pp. 59-91)

    Between 1469 and 1471 Savoyard courts handled an inheritance dispute between the high noble brothers Guillaume and Hugues de Chalon regarding the small lordships of Grandson, Montagny, Belmont, and Echallens in the Pays de Vaud. Commissioners of the court interrogated approximately sixty witnesses. To determine their loyalties—according to the standard court procedure of the time—the witnesses were asked what their relation was to the two brothers in the conflict. Almost half of those examined stated that they had sworn an oath of loyalty to Guillaume before his brother had made a claim to the lordships. Two witnesses explicitly...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Deposition Records: Techniques of Transcription and Narration
    (pp. 92-131)

    “Gernung von Leissigen said that he had seen how two men of the Stalder family were hunting a stag near the village of Leissigen and chased it into the lake. They had a dog, whose name was Frank, who swam after the stag. And when other fellows in a boat moved toward the stag, both of the Stalders shouted at them that they should be careful of the dog and not drown him because he was so dear to them.” This statement from a witness deposition from the last quarter of the fifteenth century concerned a dispute that had virtually...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Weistümer: Microcosms of Law
    (pp. 132-165)

    How could a peasant know how far his chickens could wander from his yard without giving his neighbors grounds for complaint? The village law of F̀ällanden, near Zürich, recorded in the fifteenth century, answers this question unambiguously: The peasant should take a sickle and climb with it onto the roof ridge of his house; he should place his right hand under his left armpit so that he can grab a bunch of armpit hair. With his left hand, he should then take the sickle by the point and throw it. His chickens were allowed to roam as far as he...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Styles of Document Usage
    (pp. 166-196)

    In 1513, witnesses from the vicinity of the cities of Bern, Luzern, and Solothurn were examined regarding the schemes of an individual named Bernhard Sässeli. Sässeli had tried to recruit mercenaries for the French king, despite the cities’ firm prohibition against such practices.¹ Sässeli rode from village to village to argue his case in taverns and at spontaneously summoned assemblies.² According to the statements of witnesses, in the middle of his speeches he sometimes drew a document from his breast pocket which he said had been issued by high officials of the French king. It allegedly promised the peasant communes...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 197-206)

    In the end there is only one way to approach the late medieval process of writing down laws and its social implications: by examining the documents that the process produced. This book has focused on the records of local laws—primarily Weistümer and witness deposition transcripts—from the area of the present-day Swiss midlands. The study investigated not only the textual contents of these documents but also how they were deployed as objects. This study uncovered the astoundingly dynamic changes in the practices by which unwritten laws were established and implemented (Chapters 1 and 2), recorded (Chapters 3 and 4),...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 207-254)
    (pp. 255-284)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 285-292)
    (pp. 293-293)