- Babes in Bondage?Debt Shifting by German Immigrants in Early America
This book, intelligently and limpidly written, builds on several decades of scholarship on conflict resolution in early medieval Europe. It is a welcome harvest of the best insights on the topic, deployed in an analysis of judicial disputes in the Pyrenean province of Catalonia—the ecclesiastical province of Narbonne. As Bowman explains, this choice is warranted by a rare wealth of Catalan documents for the elsewhere usually document-poor tenth and eleventh centuries; it also allows him to enter the (mostly) French debate on the existence of a feudal revolution (henceforth FR), and convincingly so.
The FR thesis—which posits a violent transformation of society and institutions in most areas of Western Europe, with slightly different chronologies but all circa 1000 C.E.—has drawn much on Catalan evidence. In that region, it is asserted, an older order, based on the public power of counts and courts, that employed Romano-Visigothic law and favored the written proof broke down between 1020 and 1060. This period of anarchy saw a privatization of power, the demise of public courts, a recourse to the coercive appropriation of land, and a decline of legal adjudication in the favor of extrajudicial compromise brokered by informal bodies.
Bowman's findings lead him to argue for some "gradual changes" [End Page 122] but in the main for "important continuities" without "dramatic ruptures." Property disputes involved violence before and after 1020. Adjudications involved a written proof in 55 percent of recorded disputes between 980 and 1020; they did drop, but only to 40 percent, between 1020 and 1060. Counts, countesses, or viscounts presided adjudicating bodies in 55 percent of the disputes from 980 to 1020, and 44 percent between 1020 and 1060. Members of the professionalized class of judges were present in both periods at about the same level, in 64 percent and 61 percent of cases, respectively. There was only a narrow increase in the preference for compromise over unequivocal judgment. The major change may be in the cohesiveness of the milieus involved: Tribunals co-presided by a count (or countess) and a bishop, a hallmark of the earlier era, became much rarer; so did the presence of a team of judges, as opposed to a lone judge.
Bowman seldom draws explicitly on disciplines other than history, possibly because the terms of the debate on the FR already owe much to an older conceptual trunk shared by history and the social sciences that has posited, since at least Coulanges, an antithesis between law and ritual.1 Advocacy and dissent have thus run in a fairly predictable course around the concept of "ritual": In the FR model, the violent breakdown of the old order and the weakening of Catalan public institutions were correlated with a rise in "irrational" and ritual forms of proof. Conversely, critiques of the FR have drawn from structural-functionalist anthropology to argue that weak public institutions do not entail generalized violence, and to demonstrate how peace making works under such conditions. Bowman has tried to show that liturgical penal clauses ("ritual" maledictions and curses upon those who would go against the provisions of a legal grant or settlement) constantly coexisted with legal penal clauses, and had comparable force.
The relationship between literacy and orality also constitutes an important theme in this book: Bowman demonstrates that throughout the period, and the crisis from 1020 to 1060 in matters of law, oral and written were inextricably intertwined. Disputes combined oral testimonies and written charters. Institutions took care to prepare for potential challenges to their rights by periodically having their documents inspected and read aloud to create human "aural" and visual memories that might later be consulted if necessary. Adjudicating bodies had a slight preference for the written proof, but by no means did it systematically trump solid human witnessing. Written and oral testimonies were equally open to challenges and interpretations. In the historiography of the European Middle Ages, the issue of orality is often discussed with reference to Vansina; Bowman chooses not to re-engage the Africanist ethnological models.2 This decision is in conformity with his delicate, understated [End Page 123...