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Rebellion, Community and Custom in Early Modern Germany.

Rebellion, Community and Custom in Early Modern Germany. By Norbert Schindler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xiv plus 311 pp. $80.00).

This collection of essays is the English translation of a volume that appeared in 1992 under the German title Widerspenstige Leute. Studien zur Volkskultur in der fruhen Neuzeit. Inspired by the work of Natalie Zemon Davis (who wrote a foreword to the English edition), E.P. Thompson, Gramsci and Bourdieu among others, Schindler explores German popular culture from the perspective of historical anthropology. He is particularly interested in conflicts and reciprocal influences between popular ritual practices and traditional aristocratic ruling elites, as well as the emerging bureaucratic regimes of the territorial states.

In "Habitus and lordship: the transformation of aristocratic practices of rule in the sixteenth century," Schindler portrays the Lord of a small Swabian territory, Count Gottfried Werner von Zimmern (1484-1554), as a transitional figure. Traditional knightly culture was crumbling under the impact of state-building, but the Count was not yet bound into the civilized sociability of emerging court society. Still fully immersed in local popular culture, Gottfried knew how to 'embody' his authority over his subjects in face-to-face interactions, whether through "threatening gesture" (31) or carnivalesque camaraderie.

In "The world of nicknames: on the logic of popular nomenclature," Schindler interprets popular nicknames as a concise way to convey social information in an urban environment. Members of marginal groups were particularly likely to bear nicknames. Neutral or even admiring in tone, their nicknames show, Schindler argues, that popular culture, as opposed to "the powerful," "continued to consider outsiders as part of itself and treat them as such" (76). This conclusion is problematic, since Schindler gives no indication of who accorded the nicknames, and thus whose values they expressed. Gleaned largely from criminal interrogation records, it seems likely that the nicknames reflect the values of the criminal milieu more than they express solidarity with social outsiders within popular culture at large. Here Schindler portrays popular culture as more inclusive than it really was.

In "Carnival, church and the world turned upside-down: on the function of the culture of laughter in the sixteenth century," Schindler draws on Bakhtin to emphasize the corporeality of carnival ritual. Young men, always the dominant group in carnival, delighted in gender inversion and body theatre, engaging in "body contact rites" (136), brawling, shoving, smearing one another with dirt. Aristocrats, not yet withdrawn from popular culture, participated enthusiastically, though on their terms: "aristocratic culture depended on a whole arsenal of 'close contact' hegemonic practices in order to come out on top of the social confrontation of the body" (142). At the expense of their subjects, aristocrats had the last laugh.

Schindler further explores themes of inversion in "'Marriage-weariness' and compulsory matrimony: the popular punishment of pulling the plough and the block." In a popular ritual of rebuke, young men rounded up women who had not taken a husband by Shrove Tuesday, and yoked them to a plough, forcing them to pull it--an inversion of the sexual division of labor, since plowing was men's work. Part degradation, part courtship ritual, the event concluded with a banquet and dance. Schindler traces changes in form and meaning of the ritual, under the impact of the Protestant Reformation, Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the disciplinary intervention of the state. Peasant still practicing the ritual in the eighteenth century had completely forgotten its original meaning; by the nineteenth century it was subject to folkloristic revival.

In "Nocturnal disturbances: on the social history of the night in the early modern period," Schindler chronicles elites' efforts to colonize the night. The Counter-Reformation Church sought to wrest control of the night from disorderly groups of unmarried young men and tavern-goers, or from even more nefarious forces. Church bells rang on Walpurgis Night to disrupt witches' sabbaths, and the church orchestrated Good Friday processions at night, an attempt that was ultimately abandoned because of popular "excesses" perpetrated under cover of darkness. After their abolition, Good Friday processions were quickly forgotten--"an indication that even a hegemonic cultural authority such as the Catholic Church could not simply create traditions at will" (201).

In the "Origins of heartlessness: the culture and way of life of beggars in late seventeenth-century Salzburg," Schindler analyses one of the last major witch-hunts, the "Zauberjackl" trials in the Archbishopric of Salzburg (1675-90) that claimed hundreds of victims. Old women were the stereotypical victims of earlier witch-hunts, but this hunt focused on vagrants and beggars, mostly boys and young men. To explain this shift in victims' profile, Schindler argues that deepening subsistence crises "destroy(ed) traditional compassion" (246). Growing numbers of vagrants adopted more aggressive tactics, including threats of witchcraft, to extract ever scarcer resources. Peasants who turned beggars away feared their revenge. However, Keith Thomas described this very dynamic to explain the prosecution of old female beggars as witches. (1) The targeting of boys and young men in Salzburg might be part of a larger shift in the social construction of the witch. In the last phase of the European witch-hunt, prosecutions focused increasingly on children instead of old women, regardless of their social status. (2) Schindler's assertion that state and church deliberately scapegoated beggars as sorcerers as "a political strategy ... to deepen the chasm between the population and inconvenient marginal groups" (282) is not sufficiently documented. The strength of this essay lies in Schindler's rich description of the daily life of Salzburg beggars. Reading interrogation records "against the grain" (238), to glean information incidental to the charge of witchcraft, Schindler reconstructs family networks, migration patterns, begging techniques, violence suffered at the hands of potential donors, and beggars' fantasies of revenge.

This reviewer agrees with Natalie Zemon Davis' observation in the foreword: "Some readers may find this historical vision too schematic, both in regard to the authorities and in regard to the lower orders. Peasants and artisans ... were themselves implicated, sometimes as initiators, in the transformations in morality and religion in the early modern period." (xiii) That said, this book provides a vivid introduction to the distinctiveness and variety of early modern German popular culture. Schindler's reconstruction of the theatre of power in the microinteractions of daily life, and his analysis of ritual as contested terrain, appropriated by different groups, changing in form and content according to context, are particularly interesting.


1. Keith Thomas, Religion and Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England (New York, 1997), 547-560.

2. Lyndal Roper, "'Evil imaginings and fantasies': child-witches and the end of the witch craze," in Ulinka Rublack, ed., Gender in Early Modern German History (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 102-130.

Kathy Stuart

University of California, Davis
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Author:Stuart, Kathy
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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