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Weben und uberleben in Laichingen, 1650-1900: Lokalgeschichte als Allgemeine geschichte.

By Hans Medick (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1996. 708pp.).

Hans Medick's big new book carries us into the middle of two major controversies. The first is the extensive scholarly discussion surrounding the concept of "proto-industrialization." This analytical category was first elaborated in detail in the volume, Industrialization before Industrialization, published in German in 1977 by Medick, Peter Kriedte, and Jurgen Schlumbohm - all then colleagues at the Max Planck Institut fur Geschichte in Gottingen.(1) Since then Kriedte, Schlumbohm, and another scholar formerly affiliated with the institute, David Sabean, have published sophisticated monographic studies of widely differing local communities in Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries.(2) Medick's new book thus caps the series of studies that this group launched in the 1970's. The book also articulates Medick's position in a second controversy: the sharp debate that still reverberates in Germany between those like Medick who advocate a turn to the "history of everyday life" (Alltagsgeschichte) by means of "micro-history" and those like Jurgen Kocka who insist that, whatever their method, historians should keep their eyes on the "big structures and processes."(3)

The empirical focus of Medick's study is the linen weavers of Laichingen, a village in the stony "raw alps" of Swabia in Wurttemberg. Medick follows them in detail from the early 18th century to 1900. This is a dense book - exhaustively researched, extensively argued, and erudite. It is also, in Medick's words, "experimental." This stems from his starting point and sources.

The conceptual starting point is proto-industrialization. Laichingen offers a richly documented case to test the hypotheses put forward in the model of European proto-industrialization that was proposed in the 1970's and has been qualified since. Laichingen's weavers in the 18th and 19th centuries fit the model's most basic characteristic: as commercial markets for cloth grew in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, more and more men in this rural community took up linen weaving on hand looms in their households. Already in 1722, 73 out of 211 householders in the village were weavers; by 1797 the weavers constituted 248 out of 364 households, and in 1880 they still represented 281 out of 408. Most of them combined craft production with some degree of farming. In various regions of early modern Europe this kind of rural handicraftsman, who had to rely on both craft production and farming for subsistence, was a source of cheap labor for merchants seeking manufactured goods to sell in distant markets, thus helping to fuel the growth of market-oriented rural industries - proto-industries - that reached their greatest extent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Medick probes the dynamics of the process in Laichingen, seeking out specifically the interrelationships between it and other material and cultural dimensions of local life. For this purpose the documentary sources are rich. In Wurttemberg during this period, when anyone married or died, an official inventory of the person's movable and immovable property was compiled. Using 645 marriage inventories and 833 death inventories for 1748-1820, Medick is able not only to trace trends in the material wealth and possessions of different categories of people over time but also to discern patterns of accumulation and depletion within individual lives between marriage and death. From the parish registers for 1658-1880, Medick has reconstituted 2,594 marriages and is able to link these to the inventories to recreate the multi-generational material histories of individual families. He supplements these materials with information on earnings from tax rolls and with descriptive insights from documents such as pastors' visitation reports and protocols by government officials.

The richness of the sources permits Medick to attach to this particular case study a large methodological significance. He sees it as an example of the benefits of "micro-history." His argument is that only by reconstituting different dimensions of the lives of discrete individuals and small groups through such thickly compiled local sources can we really ascertain the interrelationships between different spheres of experience. Aggregate concepts and statistical averages cannot by themselves lay bare the existence of relationships or their precise nature and variety.

But in fact Medick's book is much more than pure "micro-history." He stresses that his purpose is to write not a "history of details" (Detailgeschichte) but rather "a history of the whole in its details" (Detailgeschichte des Ganzen), in other words, an account of the concrete ways in which "big" structures and processes, especially capitalism and the bureaucratic state, both formed, and were transformed by, the everyday behavior of flesh-and-blood people. As a result of this approach, Medick's book proceeds on three different but closely interrelated levels. On the most empirical level it is an exploration of what the sources tell us about the proto-industrialization of Laichingen. And on this level Medick frequently takes the reader through the detailed decoding of individual sources and cases, making reading the book a veritable exercise in historical method. He follows closely the protocols that describe the sometimes violent confrontation between the weavers' guild and the Urach Trading Company in the 1750's, pointing out the "theoretical sense" in the vocabulary used by the weavers. He scrutinizes the itemizations in individual marriage and death inventories to reconstruct, for example, the factors involved in the loss of a value of 178 Gulden in the twenty-year marriage of the weaver-cottager Johann Jakob Weinmar and his spinner-wife, Ursula. Or he reproduces the minute descriptions of the wardrobes of the weaver Mangold, who wore a respectable brown coat, and the gravedigger Laichinger, who wore a more modest gray one, but who, along with his wife, had some items in festive red that suggested a certain disregard of formal convention.

On a second level Medick constantly introduces and informs this analysis with a discussion of the relevant scholarly literature on Central Europe and Wurttemberg. Thus the volume includes sections that amount to detailed historiographical essays on, for example, cameralist policy in the German states of the Old Regime, the peculiar political-social structure of ducal government in Wurttemberg, the particular character of industrial development in Wurttemberg, and Lutheran pietism in the German Southwest. On a third level Medick places Laichingen and Wurttemberg within the context of the scholarly discussion of the"big" trends and structures that have affected the modern West, particularly the extensive empirical work on proto-industrial capitalism, pre-industrial and industrial population patterns, and the development of the administrative state.

What picture does the "history of the whole in its details" unearth for Laichingen? Medick devotes the first half of the book to the character of proto-industrialization in the village. In a basic way Laichingen in the 18th and early 19th centuries fits the model developed by Medick and others in the 1970's. Agriculture played a central role in the material survival of the weavers. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, 85-90% of the weavers owned some land; the proportion of those who owned at least a small farm was considerable: 60% in 1743, 50% in 1797, 43% in 1880. These facts and some of the individual examples Medick describes in detail show that weavers sought, whenever at all possible, to supplement their weaving income with agricultural production. Medick marshalls an imaginative array of other evidence to show that land was crucial in determining a weaver's ability to accumulate material goods and ride out bad times like the "hunger crisis" of 1816.

But if Laichingen conformed to the proto-industrial model in these basic characteristics, there are several important ways in which it did not. First, in most other regions merchants seemed to expand production in the countryside precisely because land poverty and the absence of guild protections forced cottage producers to work for prices that were significantly below those of guild craftsmen in the towns. But in Laichingen the rural weavers did belong to a guild, and it defended their interests with vigor. Their situation also had another special twist. Whereas later historians of the 18th century often have viewed guilds as protectionist and have portrayed the monarchs as trailblazers of free enterprise, in the case of Laichingen the roles were exactly reversed. It was the ducal government that sought to increase textile manufacturing and government revenues by granting a marketing monopoly to the Urach Trading Company. In contrast, it was the weavers' guild that effectively subverted that monopoly in the name of "free trade for the guild." Using the language of market economics, the weavers rejected standardized prices in favor of negotiated prices that would cover their "costs." They demanded a "legitimate profit," to assure that they could remain "free" rather than become "mere wage workers" in "servitude" to the "lords of trade."

Second, the original model of proto-industrialization pinpointed a pair of direct relationships between land poverty and proto-industrial producers. It postulated that proto-industry developed in rural areas where at least a portion of the population was so land-poor that it would move easily into low-paying cottage production in order to survive, in other words, that it was the poorer classes who became the rural weavers. The model postulated further that the spread of proto-industry, by encouraging earlier marriage and therefore population growth in these groups, produced a disproportionate increase in the lower classes, and, in this sense, a structural "proletarianization."

Medick makes clear that neither of these hypotheses has turned out to be generally valid. Empirical case studies by others have revealed a wide variety of possibilities. Laichingen also presents a complicated picture. To be sure, when weaving spread dramatically from the 1720's to the 1790's, the greatest increase did occur in the lower ranks of the property hierarchy - among the poor, the cottagers, and the smallholders. Correspondingly, the size of the average holding among the small landowners declined, and the number and proportion of the "structurally poor" in the population grew. To this degree Laichingen conformed to the original proto-industrial model and to many other localities captured in case studies. But throughout the process not only land-poor smallholders and cottagers but also owners of self-sufficient farms went into weaving. Moreover, earnings from weaving permitted many smallholders to significantly increase their total wealth, enabled a growing number (although a declining proportion) of weavers to own large farms, and provided the basis for some of the latter to develop into small-scale traders in finished cloth. Thus, it was not only the poorer villagers who went into weaving, and the spread of this proto-industry seems to have brought material improvement rather than proletarianization to numerous people at all levels of society.

Third, the early proto-industrialization theories outlined a particular proto-industrial population pattern, or "demo-economic system." They speculated that earnings from industrial activity encouraged more numerous and earlier marriages, the latter of which resulted in more children per marriage, and a consequent growth spurt in the total population. Again, as Medick points out, case studies have shown that this was not a consistent pattern. Laichingen, too, diverged from it. During the spread of weaving, from the 1730's to about 1820, total population remained relatively static. Increased cash earnings did not reduce the age of marriage. Age-specific marriage fertility was exceptionally high compared to other areas, but it was matched by a massively high rate of child mortality: from 1690 to 1880 the infant mortality rate stood at 35-40%; among children under five years of age over 50% died. Medick explores the reasons behind this. He concludes that many women, partly because of the heavy labor demanded of them in agriculture, failed to nurse their newborn, which reduced the babies' chances for survival. In addition, the Laichinger in general tended to view the fate of their young with a religiously-based fatalism.

In the end Medick's extensive testing of the hypotheses of the proto-industrial model seems to point to two major conclusions. First, the original model is most revealing in directing us to the extent and dynamism of rural industry in early modern Europe. In the microcosm of Laichingen, as in Europe in general, attention to the behavior of these cottage producers shows how distorted was our old picture of an "immobile" rural society in the Old Regime. But here in Laichingen, as in other case studies, many of the specific linkages postulated in the theory have not been born out by empirical research. In fact, although Medick might disagree, it may be time to quietly abandon the term proto-industrialization, with the word's inherent developmental implications, and return, with a new appreciation and perspective, to the old terms, rural industry and cottage industry.

Medick's careful analysis of proto-industrialization in Laichingen also yields a second conclusion, of both specific and general relevance. His study of the 18th century reveals a type of "small industry" that has persisted as a regional particularity in Wurttemberg into the 1990's. The Laichingen weavers of the Old Regime met the poverty of their natural environment and the modest opportunities offered by weaving with a combination of grinding hard work, perseverance, resourcefulness, and combativeness. While continuing to farm the barren soil, they took advantage of the economic opportunity offered by the growing demand for woven cloth to become small-scale independent craftsmen; sometimes they combined these activities with odd jobs like gooseherding or schoolteaching. They used their guild to uphold their own interest in free trade and thwart the domineering aspirations of the privileged merchants of Urach. In some cases they developed into energetic and modestly successful weaver-merchants, who served as middlemen between local producers and the markets, developed highly personal regional networks of credit, and ploughed their acquired wealth into land or safe interest-bearing loans. Medick presents Laichingen's weavers in the Old Regime as people who were not simply objects of outside forces but rather actors who displayed considerable adaptability and resilience in patching together a frugal existence within the raw conditions of "Wurttemberg's Siberia."

This character was tested in the 19th century. Beginning with the "hunger crisis" of 1816-17, linen weaving suffered under massive temporary and long-term pressures. But in one of the most intriguing chapters in the book Medick describes how the resourcefulness already evident in the 18th century enabled the Laichinger to adapt to new conditions now. Small-scale textile entrepreneurs, helped by financing and educational initiatives from Wurttemberg's practical-minded bureaucracy, led the transformation of linen weaving in Laichingen into specialization in high quality goods - especially table and bed linens in the latest fashions - that were produced on modernized handlooms. The weavers quickly adapted. Then in the 1870's some went to work in three new factories - still on handlooms - while the majority continued to work at home, many now as skilled outworkers for piece wages, and some still as small independent producers and travelling marketers of their fine wares. The first mechanized factory was established only in 1904; it introduced a new phase in the survival of weaving in the village, in a more and more restricted scope, which lasted until 1994. These adept weavers continued to maintain a sense of independence and security by holding on to small scale agriculture: in 1880, 87% still owned some land. In the 1970's Medick found similar circumstances among factory weavers on his first research visits. Thus the Laichinger served as exemplars of the popular Swabian maxim, schaffe, schaffe, Hausle baue - "work, work, and build a house." Meanwhile, the focus on hard work, adaptability, a constant upgrading of skills, and the production of specialized, high quality goods for niche markets became a characteristic of the whole Wurttemberg regional economy, typified today by companies like Daimler-Benz, Bosch, and IBM.

In the second half of the book Medick pursues the interrelationships between the Laichingers' economic existence, social behavior, and culture. Here the detailed listings of clothing and books in the marriage and death inventories produce eye-opening insights.

Clothing, Medick hypothesizes, constituted a "culture of appearance" (Kultur des Ansehens), a means by which individuals and groups gave symbolic expression to their social position and moral self-definition. That clothing was used as a conscious social demonstration Medick highlights in an imaginative analysis of the extreme case of the cooper Goesele, who in 1809 was punished with nine hours in the workhouse for appearing - aggressive and defiant - in workday clothes before ducal officials. Medick's detailed, nuanced, and evocative analysis of the value, types, and colors of clothing over time yields a complicated and fragmented picture. But two tendencies emerge: first, among all groups in Laichingen, during the proto-industrial boom years of the 18th century, wardrobes increased markedly in absolute value and as a percentage of movable wealth; within this broad trend the weavers increased their wealth in clothing more than the non-weavers, and in both categories wives increased the value of their wardrobes more than husbands. But, second, this dynamism did not shake the old social hierarchy in the village's "culture of appearance." Distinctions in types of clothing and in the willingness or unwillingness to adopt new fashions persisted; what changed were some of the forms of expression in the clothing appropriate to different statuses, such as the upgrading by poor weavers of traditional work-clothes into festive or formal wear, or their switch from brown to blue Sunday outer-coats (while the prosperous weavers stuck to brown), or their addition of silver buttons to their coats. In short, the proto-industrial cash economy was accompanied by the acquisition of more and more varied clothing but not by a significant change in the established social hierarchy of appearance. Although Medick does not drive home the point here, this behavior seems consistent with the economic values that he found among the weavers, values that stressed resourceful persistence and security rather than dramatic acquisition.

One of the most astonishing revelations of the marriage and death inventories is the strong presence of books: over 95% of all inventories from 1748 to 1820 included books; of the 536 death inventories of married men and women, 93% had at least five books and 70% had at least 9 books; weavers owned more books on average (12.6) than any other group except the wealthiest artisans, tavern-keepers, and the educated. The Laichinger were especially book-rich compared to other communities in early modern Europe, including the burghers in the nearby university town of Tubingen. Moreover, the books were not simply dead family heirlooms or mere decoration. Medick compares marriage and death inventories in individual cases to show how books were brought to the marriage as personal possessions rather than wedding gifts and how people increased and changed the make-up of their personal libraries over time, getting rid of some books, acquiring others, sometimes shifting from one taste to another.

Over 80% of the books in the death inventories were religious. At marriage brides and grooms brought mainly bibles, hymnals, and devotional works to their union, and in the course of the marriage devotional works came to overshadow by far all other categories of religious and secular works. The content of these books sheds light on the religious sentiments of their owners. While some of the "old works of consolation" (alte Troster) by pietistic Lutherans like Johann Arndt remained popular, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, they were overtaken by the works of more modern Lutheran pietists like Johann Friedrich Starck. These modern pietists did not preach the old Lutheran focus on the afterlife but instead portrayed the way to God as the narrow stony path of hard work through the trials and tribulations of our poor life on earth. In short, the Laichinger, precisely during the period of proto-industrial expansion, embraced religious literature that sanctified their everyday labor at the loom and in the field. It was this suffering-laden "school of the cross" - not economic success and acquisition - that brought religious salvation and inner peace. Medick's exposition of this outlook is crowned by a wonderful color plate of a devotional wall illustration depicting "the broad and the narrow path."

With the pinpointing of this religious ethic in the extensive book collections of the Laichinger Medick unearths a major cultural root of the mentality that informed so much of the behavior that he described in the earlier chapters. The Laichingers' hard-working adaptability as weavers and farmers, their use of their meager earnings to accumulate and hold on to small pieces of land, the tendency of even the more successful among them to plough their profits into land and safe interest-bearing investments rather than seek big gains by becoming more venturesome entrepreneurs, the Laichingers' fatalistic passivity in the face of high infant mortality, their restriction of innovation in clothing to changes in form and color within the established social hierarchy of appearance - all were manifestations of the determination to achieve salvation, peace, and self-validation by making whatever effort and whatever changes were necessary in order to eke out a modest existence in the hard-scrabble world in which God had placed them.

This is exciting stuff. Medick's analysis of Swabian pietism closes the circle that he began to mark out in the first chapters. The sweep of his analysis is captivating. It validates his claim for the value of this kind of micro-history as a method that can identify the specific character of the intersections between different spheres of social experience.

In view of this, it is puzzling that Medick neglects a potentially important element of everyday life in Laichingen: local politics, the relations of authority and domination within the community. One document highlights the point. On page 306 Medick introduces his discussion of population in Laichingen by quoting a long passage written by Pastor Georg Christian Sigel in 1800. Sigel lamented the stagnation of Laichingen's population and explained, "The cause is that no new houses are permitted to be built, the commune freed no area for the building of new houses." The pastor went on to claim that this tended to discourage and delay marriage. Medick does not take up this specific lead in the source. His own careful and plausible interpretation attributes delays in marriage ultimately to paucity of means among poorer Laichinger to acquire housing. But would the supply of housing not make a difference in this regard? And if the commune was restricting the supply, who was making that decision and in whose interests?

In a similar vein, although Medick describes in dramatic detail the battle of the weavers' guild against the capitalists of the Urach Trading Company, he does not deal at all with the guild's policing of the weavers themselves - not to mention their journeymen and apprentices - and the local economy. Sheilagh Ogilvie, on the basis of her research on the weavers of worsteds in the nearby Nagold Valley, has stressed the powerful role that local governments and guilds played in determining the particular character of proto-industrialization there. Surveying the burgeoning literature of proto-industrialization in different areas of Europe, she has suggested that the effects of social institutions on costs constituted probably the single most important determinant of variations in the pattern of proto-industrialization in different communities.(4) This would seem to be a promising line of inquiry.

Medick's apparent disinclination to pursue institutional power and policies within the village community may be related to the way in which he conceives the story he tells. At base, he casts it as a story of the Laichinger as a community dealing - warily, resourcefully, perseveringly - with larger forces that extended beyond their horizon. Although Medick otherwise consistently pays careful attention to differences among the Laichinger, in that basic dialectic he portrays them as a relatively cohesive community of "little people," seeking to carve out their own world, colored by Lutheran pietism, while negotiating their way in relation to the "big structures" of modernization, specifically capitalism, as personified in the "lords of trade," and the bureaucratic state, as represented by the duke's officials. When facing the merchants of Urach or the officials of the duke in the 18th century, or when adapting to new circumstances in textile production in the 19th century, Laichingen's weavers appear as a group. When they select clothing, they respect in common an established social hierarchy. When they acquire books, they tend to move toward a particular kind of Lutheran pietism.

Medick clearly has respect and empathy for the little people of Laichingen - and by the end of his book the reader does too. He closes his introduction in a manner reminiscent of E. P. Thompson, affirming that this study "gives priority to seeking out the company of the gravedigger, weaver, and laborer Christoph Laichinger; the poor seamstress Christina Schamler; or the rebellious cooper Michael Goesele - in the effort to give names and form to the 'voiceless brief of the dead' (Siegfried Kracauer) and at the same time to do justice to the historian's commitment to 'truth and method'" (p. 37).

But this raises questions. By focusing so sharply on the Laichingers' relations with capitalism and the state, is Medick not really defining their concerns and experiences from the "centrist" perspective that he finds to be such a danger in the approach to social history advocated by scholars like Jurgen Kocka and Hans-Ulrich Wehler? Of course, Medick's agenda is different. In his methodological writings he has made clear that he seeks to avoid - even counter - the "optimism about progress" (Fortschrittsoptimismus) that he attributes to those historians, and, by means of the study of everyday life, give due attention to the "costs" exacted by the modern big structures. But by directing his attention in this way, Medick risks succumbing to the kind of romanticized and nostalgic picture of the little people against which Kocka and Wehler have warned. Certainly attention to the exercise of authority and domination by village institutions would inject a more divisive, contentious element into the picture of everyday life in Laichingen. David Sabean has described vividly the degree to which factionalism, violence, and fear could permeate the relationships among villagers in Wurttemberg, replete with denunciations, verbal intimidation, spitting, and occasional bloody thrashings.(5)

It is not surprising that in their relationships with outsiders or their local agents the Laichinger would conceive of themselves as a group and behave collectively. But what about all of the hours and days when they faced each other? If we want to view the lives of the Laichinger "from within," was it not their neighbors with whom they had to deal most frequently and most carefully? What were the "costs" exacted by those relationships?

These doubts and questions are not meant to detract from Medick's achievement. They are precisely the kinds of big questions to which this imaginative and pathbreaking work of engaged analysis leads us.

Department of History Syracuse, NY 13244-1090


1. English translation: Industrialization before Industrialization: Rural Industry in the Genesis of Capitalism (Cambridge, UK, 1981). For good recent summaries of subsequent research, critiques, modifications, and reaffirmations, see Continuity and Change 8, #2 (1993), especially the contributions by Sheilagh Ogilvie; Wolfgang Mager; and Kriedte, Medick, and Schlumbohm.

2. Peter Kriedte, Eine Stadt am seidenen Faden: Haushalt, Hausindustrie, und soziale Bewegung in Krefeld in der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts (Gottingen, 1991); Jurgen Schlumbohm, Lebenslaufe, Familien, Hofe: Die Bauern und Heuerleute des Osnabruckischen Kirchspiels Belm in proto-industrieller Zeit, 1650-1860 (Gottingen, 1994); David Warren Sabean, Property, Production, and Family in Neckarhausen, 1700-1870 (Cambridge, UK, 1990); idem, Kinship in Neckarhausen, 1700-1870 (Cambridge, UK, 1998).

3. A recent juxtaposition of statements by Medick and Kocka in Winfried Schulze (ed.), Sozialgeschichte, Alltagsgeschichte, Mikrohistorie (Gottingen, 1994), pp. 33-51. A broader discussion by Medick: "'Missionaries in the Rowboat'? Ethnological Ways of Knowing as a Challenge to Social History," in Alf Ludtke (ed.), The History of Everyday Life: Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life (Princeton, 1995), pp. 41-71. Basic positions by advocates of "historical social science": Jurgen Kocka, Sozialgeschichte zwischen Struktur und Erfahrung. Die Herausforderung der Alltagsgeschichte," in idem., Geschichte und Aufklarung: Aufsatze (Gottingen, 1989), pp. 29-44; Hans-Ulrich Wehler, "Alltagsgeschichte: Konigsweg zu neuen Ufern oder Irrgarten der Illusionen?" in idem., Aus der Geschichte Lernen? Essays (Munich, 1988), pp. 130-51.

4. Sheilagh Ogilvie, "Coming of Age in a Corporate Society: Capitalism, Pietism and Family Authority in Rural Wurttemberg, 1590-1740," Continuity and Change 1, #3 (1986): 279-331; idem., "Institutions and Economic Development in Early Modern Central Europe," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series, 5 (1995): 221-50; and idem, State Corporation and Proto-Industry: The Wurttemberg Black Forest, 1580-1797 (Cambridge, UK, 1997).

5. See David Warren Sabean, Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, UK, 1984), esp. chap. 5.
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Author:Marquardt, Frederick
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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