- Writing Peasants: Studies on Peasant Literacy in Early Modern Northern Europe
The two editors of this wide-ranging collection of articles express their hope that it “will stimulate further research into sources written by the peasant himself and into the function of the written word in peasant societies in general” (8). To some extent the book succeeds in doing that, but not entirely. This book is the fourth in a series based on proceedings of conferences on peasant writing. The first conference was held in Cloppenburg, Germany, in 1983, the second one in Kiel, Germany, in 1989 and the third at the manor of Julita, Sweden, in 1992. The conference that Writing Peasants is based on was held in Copenhagen in 1998. Thus, for more than twenty years a group of highly productive scholars has pursued the theme of peasant writing and peasant literacy in Northern Europe. At first peasant diaries as interesting historical sources had all the attention, as can be seen in the title chosen in 1989 for the annual news-letter: Research on Peasant Diaries or Forschungen zur Bäuerlichen Schreibebüchern, since then published by the International Association for the Research on Peasant Diaries or Internationale Assoziation für die Erforschung bäuerlicher Schreibebücher. This is therefore a thriving field of study, and a fairly detailed bibliography compiled by Klaus-Joachim Lorenzen-Schmidt can be consulted at http://www.sfn.uni-muenchen.de/schreibkultur/. It needs, however, to be brought up to date.
Gradually, a more ample perspective has taken over within the group and even the concept of “peasant diaries” turned out to be more than just plain and simple diaries, but rather “a large and diversified group of writings belonging to peasant society” (11), as the editors explain. Consequently, at the meeting in Copenhagen the more general concept of peasant literacy in rural areas in the pre-industrial and early-industrial period was treated, with special emphasis on literary models that influenced peasant writing. Participants also debated “whether the study of ‘peasant diaries’ was going through a crisis.” In one sense the answer was affirmative, according to the editors, “since some of the most ambitious collection campaigns have now been completed and since the study of the ‘diaries’ in some respects seems to have run out of steam.” In another sense, however, it seemed not to be the case: “It now seems that the study of the whole mass of writing material, diaries as well as other sorts of material, will give us an understanding of rural man that can be gained in no other way...This fact should, and we believe it will, guarantee a broader field of studies on writing peasants” (16). [End Page 263]
So, my question is, does this renewal show in the book? As so often, the answer is both yes and no. Most of the 14 articles are written within the approach already familiar from earlier conferences, which mainly consists in presenting a specific source and discussing it from one or more angles. In many of the articles, however, there is an original perspective with new areas of study being defined, original questions being put and illuminating findings being presented, although not often with the stimulating arguments that the editors dream of in their introduction.
The first four articles renovate the field of peasant writing by concentrating on an earlier period than has been habitual, that is before 1700. Kerstin Sundberg writes somewhat vaguely on peasant writing in a specific Swedish region in the seventeenth century, stating that it is not possible to “draw conclusions from a few examples of a general point of view” (23), but doing it all the same and concluding somewhat insipidly that “the written word seems to have been important” (29). Lorenzen-Schmidt provides us with an overview on early peasant literacy in Schleswig-Holstein, which means the period between 1450 and 1600, trying to pinpoint when and why peasants started to write, connecting that kind of activity with...