- Lords’ Rights and Peasant Stories: Writing and the Formation of Tradition in the Later Middle Ages by Simon Teuscher
This work is a highly specialized, perhaps confronting study of oral and customary law traditions outside of, and not originally influenced by, jus commune, or Roman and canon law.
In existence since the eleventh century, Weistümer are written forms of law that influence and inform social practices. Jacob Grimm, who published [End Page 317 ] this collection of late medieval records of local law in the mid-nineteenth century, and others assumed that Weistümer were simply the written record, as recounted by villagers before their lord or his representatives, of oral traditions or customary law. Teuscher’s examination of the late medieval processes of writing down laws uncovers the dynamic changes in the practices by which unwritten laws were established, recorded, and implemented. He dismisses the original historical assumption that Weistümer show a transition of oral, customary laws to written forms of law and instead demonstrates that these should be viewed as separate, overlapping processes, not as one stage superseded by the other.
Concise definition of terms and the use of relevant maps would have made this work more easily accessible to those unfamiliar with the political, social, and economic experiences of people in the areas under study. The diversity of the source materials is extensive and covers non-German speaking areas: they are drawn from an area bounded by the foothills of the Alps in the south, the mountain ranges of the Jura in the north, Lake Geneva in the west, and the vicinity of Zürich in the east. Such a large area, now a single nation-state, is used to underscore the main concern of this work, which is to introduce directions for inquiry that have emerged from a focus on regional examples.
Teuscher’s study shows that Weistümer do not represent a large number of isolated, small lordships, but resulted from compilation and amalgamation. Combining Weistümer with deposition records indicates that villagers did not exist in microcosms but in a world that was encompassed by the administrations of centralized authorities. The depositions underline the importance of reconsidering the actual nature and status of lords and peasants, as lords rarely dealt directly with witness depositions concerning common regulations. Officeholders, who were often of the same social status as the deponent, undertook this activity: in one document an individual is described as a peasant, while the same individual can be an officeholder in another.
The previous historical perceptions of what categorized lordship and lord-peasant relationships needs to accommodate much larger and overarching jurisdictions, for instance, the consolidation by the counts of Savoy or by the canons of the Grossmünster of Zürich. Teuscher’s research shows Weistümer, as an aspect of lordship, was one of many available options but did not provide a defining statement of either law or of custom. [End Page 318]