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Property, Production, and Family in Neckarhausen: 1700-1870.

David Sabean has been an assiduous student of Wurttemberg social history for well over two decades (his Landbesitz und Gesellschaft am Vorabend des Bauernkrieges was published in 1972). A firm command of the material and a wonderfully subtle approach to questions of method and interpretation are evident throughout the book under review. He has taken the construct "peasant society" and elevated this to a level of heuristic refinement which must inspire others venturing across similar terrain.

The focus is on relationships within a particular location: the village of Neckarhausen. Individuals do not stand alone; they assume an identity through their relations with others. Once that is recognized the historian must be drawn to a research strategy favouring "concrete contexts" over a "grand narrative of human progress" (p. 9). Drawing on the debate within anthropology about "writing culture," Sabean reconstructs village life in ways ever mindful of the danger of heedlessly substituting "his" story for "their" story. The result is a study rich in detail on the peculiarities of Neckarhausen while offering the non-German specialist guidance on how to approach analysis of a wide variety of elements implicated in the formation of village social life --property, discourse, marital relations, kinship, reciprocity. These defined the Neckarhausen experience, as did certain "regularities of context." If I understand him correctly, such regularities include the state, the family, the practice of partible inheritance, and production.

At one level Neckarhausen was a fairly autonomous social unit within which reciprocities, exigencies of production, and more defined behaviour. But it would be incorrect to envisage the village as a self-generating incubator, for all aspects of local life were still shaped within "the crucible of state power" (p. 26). For example, state officials regularly sided with local "patricians" in order to promote the disciplining of slovenly villagers and generally to facilitate the exploitation of the majority. While there is much emphasis on how state policies affected family life, questions of religious indoctrination remain peripheral because the material to support confident analysis is lacking. Sabean speculates that the church consistory in Neckarhausen participated in a broader church-state strategy of disciplining for order, sobriety, productivity.

Some of what the author has to say about Neckarhausen is not all that surprising. Spousal conflict appears to have been quite endemic with (often inebriated) men in the role of physical and verbal abusers. Violence was a male perogative as was cursing. Distraught wives had few options save to seek out the intervention of officialdom. Opprobrious language, specifically its use by men, mirrored the realities of hierarchy and gender within this society. At the same time, there is much here that is new, "revisionist" (the accepted models do not fit Neckarhausen). Rather than imagine the typical early-modern household as a self-sufficient unit, it may be more appropriate to recognize the inter-dependence of family production, its openness to external influences which necessarily compromised its integrity. Equally interesting is the enormous importance which he found to be attached to property. It is the key to understanding family strategies, having functioned as a disciplining agent without equal, and informed virtually all relations and discourse in Neckarhausen. Thus, such respect for one's elders as was found within the village, such morality as existed within the family, derived from an astute appreciation of the mechanism of exchange: respect of the young was due their elders because these controlled wealth. The amount of effort expended by the young on behalf of their parents was proportional to the amount of anticipated inheritance.

The hard constants of village life did not preclude movement or change. Over the period covered the logic informing state intervention appears to have shifted away from an obsession with fiscal concerns toward a preoccupation with ways of enhancing productivity. The growing pauperization of peasants residing within the core of Old Wurttemberg in the nineteenth century was related less to industrialization than to the expropriation and redistribution of local wealth upward as local power became concentrated in fewer hands. Conditions were exacerbated by the relentless pressure of state officials mandated to increase output, by an expanding population, and by the practice of partible inheritance which continued to fractionalize landholding. Additional changes affected the status of artisans (whose position was steadily weakened relative to that of peasants), the status of women, and parental authority. The differentiation of labour associated with the agricultural revolution redefined spousal relations. In the 1820s gender tutelage was abolished. Women used their centrality to production within the household to improve their position vis-a-vis their husbands, securing in the process rights which had earlier been denied them. As rural schooling became more firmly established the authority of parents over children declined. This, says Sabean, was symptomatic of a more general shift within the disciplining equation favouring extra-familial institutions. On the whole, village society became more rigidly stratified in the nineteenth century: artisans and wage-earners were excluded from local office and from kin networks which had earlier cut across "class" lines.

The overall thesis in the book is deceptively simple. Contrary to the image of the evolving family -- from premodern times to the present -- as a group whose corporate identity was gradually corroded by individuals and class, Neckarhausen illustrates a strengthening of kinship ties in the face of various pressures associated with modernizing change. It is just this kind of finding which justifies local studies and makes commonplace constructs ring hollow.

There is a great deal in this book to stimulate the imagination, though one wishes occasionally that Sabean had offered just a little more, ventured a bit further. Would it really be a "futile exercise," for example, to try to ascertain which aspects of the concept "house" derived from peasant culture and which were induced by an interventionalist state? The question has relevance for areas beyond the meaning of "house." Terms such as Hausvater were used by state officials to transmit specific values intended to promote orderliness and productivity. But Hausvater may also have reflected a fundamental patriarchalism central to peasant culture regardless of state policy.

In sum, this is an excellent book whose announced sequel will be certain to enhance further an already solid reputation for meticulous scholarship.
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Author:Wegert, Karl
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:1021
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