- Lords’ Rights and Peasant Stories: Writing and the Formation of Tradition in the Later Middle Ages by Simon Teuscher
Jacob Grimm (1785–1863) was not only a master raconteur of old German fairytales, but also a collector of folk customs, which were thought to be points of entry into a historical past that would reveal the true spirit of the German volk. Nineteenth-century historians, as well as more recent scholars, saw customary law as evidence of traditional, and even popular, practices that were prevalent in pre-modern or primitive societies. Grimm’s Weistümer, a collection of customs and seigniorial privileges drawn from late medieval sources, is one of Teuscher’s major sources in his examination of the making of customary law during the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries in the present-day Swiss midlands. This work aspires to contribute to a larger conversation begun by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou and further complicated by Michael Clanchy’s From Memory to Written Record on the divide that seemingly separated oral and literate cultures in the Middle Ages. If oral traditions by their very nature change over time as they are transmitted to later generations, do written customs actually preserve the memory of non-literate cultures of the past? Teuscher’s book transcends this question by instead addressing the arguably far more important issue of juristic documents as the products of a writing culture that heavily relied on oral testimony. Since literate officials shaped and often translated legal records, such as depositions, into Latin or an appropriate legalese, this process of transmission ostensibly obscures the “real” voices of the past. One may not be able to summon fully the authentic voices of the peasants and recreate an accurate picture of their traditions, but it may be possible, Teuscher argues, to draw some general conclusions about the larger cultural forces at play in the preservation of legal memory, the making of custom, and how oral communication was understood to function at certain points in time.
The introductory chapter provides an overview of the major historiographical issues in the field of customary law, especially how anthropologists and legal historians have complicated the distinctions between orality and literacy, and the nature of lordship under the Savoyards. Teuscher does not assign the transition from an oral (defined chiefly by its lack of written records) to a literate (defined chiefly by its emphasis on documentation) culture [End Page 344] to a precise period, but the development of inquiry procedures, as discussed fully in chapter 1, seems to indicate the expansion of bureaucratic systems across Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Local officials used two methods of inquiry to examine and verify the customs and rights of lordship: witness depositions and law declarations. The first procedure was an inquisitio that examined the testimonies of relevant witnesses; the second, by contrast, involved the lord’s noble representatives and the wealthier members of the peasantry coming together in formal, ritualistic gatherings to regulate local matters and proclaim the customs of the manor, evidence for which is contained in the Weistümer. Major changes took place around the year 1300 that made the inquisitio a far more rigorous process with respect to questioning witnesses and verifying customary law; the change in this procedure ultimately reflected the increasing influence of the Roman-canonical method of inquest.
In chapter 2, Teuscher attempts to clarify the ways in which medieval people experienced the rights of lordship in their everyday lives as described in these witness depositions. Teuscher points out that these documents paint an image of lordship that was static and antiquated, but the conflicts between lord and peasant, or even between two rival lords, were often disputes between various groups with competing interests at stake. The witness depositions again take center stage in chapter 3, which considers how these records were made in the first place. Teuscher makes clear that the creation of custom must be analyzed within the context of manuscript production. He examines...