Thursday, March 30, 2023

Bob Scribner (ed) - Germany: A New Social & Economic History, 1450-1630, Volume 1

Bob Scribner's "new" social and economic history of Germany is part of an academic series of works aiming to give a detailed account of the rise of the modern German state. The books are aimed very much at students, and consist of a highly self-contained chapters that look at particular aspects of the period. This volume, covering the end of the Medieval era from 1450 until 1630, is a period that includes the Reformation and much of the Thirty Years War, so it is a meaty chunk of history. 

However reading the various chapters it is difficult to get a complete sense of the period itself. So while it is useful to read chapters on, for instance, the economic landscape (Tom Scott), Diet (Ulf Dirlmeier and Gerhard Fouquet) or Daily Life (Robert Jutte), it is sometimes difficult to remember how they fit into a bigger historical narrative. This is not to say that there is not much of interest here. Tom Scott opens the book with an excellent summary of the different historical trajectory of various parts of Germany. He notes how some areas differed radically from other parts of the country and other parts of Europe:

There was no widespread enclosure movement in northern Germany in the sixteenth century along the lines of England... In general, pastoralism in northern Germany tended to serve the market for both meat and dairy produce, whereas in the Alps there was a greater concentration upon dairying.. The sharply increased demand for meat from the urban centres of southern and western Germany could no longer be covered by purely regional supplies; instead the cities came to rely upon livestock imports driven on the hoof, often over immense distances. 

Such insights are important, but they felt repeatedly discontented from other chapters which leads on the one hand to some repetition and on the other to the loss of insight. At worst they end up making much of these chapters a series of fascinating insights and facts, rather than a cohesive argument. That said, some of the chapters are really useful summaries, Christian Pfister's chapter on Population traces the complex rise and fall of the German population, from around 9 million in 1500 to 1600 when the population was around 16 million. This great rise came on the back of a 14th century collapse, that decimated and depopulated whole areas. But even the early growth was enough to provoke discontent. Pfister notes that some rebellious peasants in 1525 drew up articles complaining about the shortage of arable land. 

But it is perhaps the growth of trade, and the development of early capitalism in this period, that is of most interest. Several articles examine the implications of this and note attempts to manage and control trade. From the 14th century cities like Cologne were developing extensive links, by the 15th century saw "long-distance trade to England and Danzig with iron, steel, tin and wire". Small towns were "taking on the character of subsidiary centres for the metropolis" with many other industries such as mining, becoming important for economies across the continent. 

The implications for this on communities and the family unit were profound. One of the most interesting chapters is Merry E. Wiesner's on "Gender and the Worlds of Work" which shows how the place of women was reinforced by a conscious approach to education that forced women into subordinate roles. Wiesner notes how studying women's names and identifies helps us understand gender and social roles and position in the period:

It is important to recognise... that 'the wife of a smith' is also an occupational title in the late middle ages and did not simply indicate marital status. That title carried with it a set of responsibilities and duties which the woman herself as well as her neighbours and associates, understood; it was not honorific in the way that calling the wife of a doctor 'die Doktorin' would be in the Eighteenth century. This conflation of occupational and marital title illustrates the fusing of work identify and family identity for women.

These roles were reinforced by a whole number of institutions of "church and state", and the state worried about how they might be upset. Wiesner quotes a clerical author who "commentated that letting the wife take charge would be as bad as the Peasants' Revolt, 'when the subjects wanted to be lords'." The Reformation, they note, furthered this process by defining women's role as "mothers". As Wiesner highlights:

Over the course of the next several centuries, women were excluded from some areas of production, but, more importantly, their productive tasks were increasingly defined as reproductive, as related to 'housekeeping'. Women worked, but what the did was no longer thought of as work.

This is an important insight, and shows how the developing capitalist world transformed what the family unit did and how it functioned. Crucially this was taken to the next level by the Protestant Reformation which "gave it a strong religious sanction by making worker or mother the ideal for all people, not simply the second class Christians who could not remain celibate".  They continue:

We often view the idea of separate spheres for men and women as a product of the nineteenth century, created by the Industrial Revolution, bourgeois notions of domesticity, and Victorian sexuality. I think we can see the roots of this idea much earlier, though the economic and physical structures which would allow actual separation developed more slowly... and would never develop for lower-class people. What did being in the nineteenth century... was the enshrinement of a gendered notion of work in statistical language, defining a man as a 'day labourer' but a woman who took in washing, sewed curtains in other people's homes, sold eggs from her own chickens and taught her children to read as a 'housewife' with none of these jobs contributing to the GNP. The gendered notion of work created in Renaissance Europe is to a great extent still with us.

I've dwelt on Wiesner's capture here partly because it reflects some themes I am focussing on myself, but more importantly because it exemplifies two things about this book very well. First the first rate scholarship in the pieces. Secondly however it shows how self contained the arguments are. Each of these chapters have something to offer the reader, and readers will perhaps focus on specific chapters. Reading the book from cover to cover was, at times, a slog - not least because it is a text book. But students of the period will find much of interest.

Related Reviews

Baylor - The German Reformation & the Peasants' War: A Brief History with Documents
Blickle - The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants' War from a new perspective
Bax - German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages

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