Lords Ask, Peasants Answer: Making Traditions in Late Medieval German Village Assemblies
By Gadi Algazi
Between History and Histories: The Making of Silences and Commemorations, edited by Gerald Sider and Gavin Smith (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997)
Introduction: In the western parts of later medieval Germany, subject peasants were invested with the authority to tell the local law (weisen). Sworn representatives of peasant communities declared the law at least once a year in the assembly, attended usually by all male full-members of the community in question. The norms, rights, and rules which they expounded were claimed to have been handed down to them from their ancestors. As a rule, they were not read out from record but reconstructed orally in a complex ceremonial dialogue between lords and peasant jurors. The lord or his representative put the questions; the peasant jurors were to give binding answers.
The lord summoned the assembly on traditional dates, often three times a year. On the evening prior to the assembly the lord arrived at the village and received food and lodging from the peasants. The assembly was ceremoniously opened the following morning, a privileged space was marked off from its surroundings and a special peace was proclaimed. In the middle the peasant jurors, often called Schoffen, formed a circle, along with the chairman of the court, usually the lord or his local representative. After the presence of all the peasants obliged to appear in court had been verified, the laws were related by the peasant jurors, a practice known in German as Weisung. The specific contents of the Weisung differed from one lordship to another; it almost invariably included the lord’s main claims vis-a-vis his peasants – labour dues and rents – and enumerated peasants’ collective obligations. A typical Weisung might also comprise descriptions of fines and penalties, regulations concerning rights of common, rules pertaining to modes of inheritance, stipulations of the local land-market, weights and measures and so on. The declaration could also address village affairs and sometimes also some peasant counter-claims vis-a-vis the lord. Peasant Weisung encompassed yet more rights and claims pertaining to the inner workings of rural lordship. Peasant jurors often proclaimed who the lord of the community in question was and in what capacity he was ruling; they reported the rightful claims of the territorial and how powers of jurisdiction were to be allocated among different lordships represented in the village; they also provided minute descriptions of the boundaries of lordships and communities.