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Writing Peasants: Studies on Peasant Literacy in Early Modern Northern Europe.

Writing Peasants: Studies on Peasant Literacy in Early Modern Northern Europe. Edited by Klaus-Joachim Lorenzen-Schmidt and Bjorn Poulsen (Kerteminde: Landbohistorisk Selskab, 2002. 284 pp.).

The two editors of this wide-ranging collection of articles express their hope that it "will stimulate further research into sources written by the peasant himself and into the function of the written word in peasant societies in general" (8). To some extent the book succeeds in doing that, but not entirely. This book is the fourth in a series based on proceedings of conferences on peasant writing. The first conference was held in Cloppenburg, Germany, in 1983, the second one in Kiel, Germany, in 1989 and the third at the manor of Julita, Sweden, in 1992. The conference that Writing Peasants is based on was held in Copenhagen in 1998. Thus, for more than twenty years a group of highly productive scholars has pursued the theme of peasant writing and peasant literacy in Northern Europe. At first peasant diaries as interesting historical sources had all the attention, as can be seen in the title chosen in 1989 for the annual news-letter: Research on Peasant Diaries or Forschungen zur Bauerlichen Schreibebuchern, since then published by the International Association for the Research on Peasant Diaries or Internationale Assoziation fur die Erforschung bauerlicher Schreibebucher. This is therefore a thriving field of study, and a fairly detailed bibliography compiled by Klaus-Joachim Lorenzen-Schmidt can be consulted at It needs, however, to be brought up to date.

Gradually, a more ample perspective has taken over within the group and even the concept of "peasant diaries" turned out to be more than just plain and simple diaries, but rather "a large and diversified group of writings belonging to peasant society" (11), as the editors explain. Consequently, at the meeting in Copenhagen the more general concept of peasant literacy in rural areas in the pre-industrial and early-industrial period was treated, with special emphasis on literary models that influenced peasant writing. Participants also debated "whether the study of 'peasant diaries' was going through a crisis." In one sense the answer was affirmative, according to the editors, "since some of the most ambitious collection campaigns have now been completed and since the study of the 'diaries' in some respects seems to have run out of steam." In another sense, however, it seemed not to be the case: "It now seems that the study of the whole mass of writing material, diaries as well as other sorts of material, will give us an understanding of rural man that can be gained in no other way ... This fact should, and we believe it will, guarantee a broader field of studies on writing peasants" (16).

So, my question is, does this renewal show in the book? As so often, the answer is both yes and no. Most of the 14 articles are written within the approach already familiar from earlier conferences, which mainly consists in presenting a specific source and discussing it from one or more angles. In many of the articles, however, there is an original perspective with new areas of study being defined, original questions being put and illuminating findings being presented, although not often with the stimulating arguments that the editors dream of in their introduction.

The first four articles renovate the field of peasant writing by concentrating on an earlier period than has been habitual, that is before 1700. Kerstin Sundberg writes somewhat vaguely on peasant writing in a specific Swedish region in the seventeenth century, stating that it is not possible to "draw conclusions from a few examples of a general point of view" (23), but doing it all the same and concluding somewhat insipidly that "the written word seems to have been important" (29). Lorenzen-Schmidt provides us with an overview on early peasant literacy in Schleswig-Holstein, which means the period between 1450 and 1600, trying to pinpoint when and why peasants started to write, connecting that kind of activity with issues such as landowning patterns (33-49). Detlev Kraack presents a detailed and engaging report on a journal written by a man born in a small village in 1624, who spent ten years in South America and later became a teacher in Flensburg (50-76). Margit Mogensen assesses a diary written by a Danish priest in the late seventeenth century, the only one of its kind from that period (77-86).

Most of the remaining articles treat more familiar sources, that is from the late eighteenth and the entire nineteenth century, the heyday of peasant writing. Three articles give a Danish point of view. Bjarne Stoklund tries to define the process of modernization as it shows in Danish peasant diaries by concentrating on the concept of time as it appears in these sources. The results are interesting, although his conclusions are not very clear when he says that "the older peasant diaries are not only encounters with a new type of farmer but also with a type of peasant who is to a considerable degree still acting and thinking in accordance with a disappearing world" (96). Tine Damsholt discusses patriotic discourse in Danish peasant writings, criticizing the notion that nineteenth century peasantry was "totally unfamiliar with the word 'Denmark', with patriotic notions of the fatherland and the patriotic ideal of a good citizen" (98). Bjorn Poulsen presents a teacher's diary from the end of the eighteenth century recently rescued from a rubber bin on the island of Als in South Jutland (116-29).

The German contributions are quite different, in particular the article by Michael Kopsidis on peasant accounting books preserved in Westphalia from the period 1750-1880 with a profusion of sophisticated statistics on crops (130-50). Karl-Heins Ziessow writes on an exchange of letters between a peasant and a learned relative in the early nineteenth century (151-174). An Icelandic contribution, written by Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson and David Olafsson, shows yet another take on peasant writing, as the authors focus on education and its role in peasant society, claiming that it provided Icelandic children with "an opportunity to distance themselves from the everyday drudgery of their working lives" (181). They also demonstrate the vitality of a writing tradition amongst peasants in nineteenth century Iceland (175-209).

The two Swedish contributions are Britt Liljewall's article on Swedish peasants in the nineteenth century who wrote autobiographies (210-38), and Janken Myrdal's article on a diary kept by a Swedish farmer's son who went to university, became a poet and received the Nobel Prize of literature in 1931 (239-51). The last empirical study is a presentation by Peter Meurkens of a Dutch schoolteacher's diary kept during the years 1844-1904, that he has already published in six volumes (252-70). The last article in the book, by Liv Egholm, echoes the theoretical considerations presented in the introduction by connecting peasant diaries in a promising way with microhistorical investigations by proposing questions such as why peasants "write some items of information down and not others?" (276). Egholm also addresses pertinent issues such as the representativeness of writing peasants, who tended to be rather exceptional persons: "By writing, they represented a group outside the norm" (282). That tricky issue is also mentioned by other authors (see pp. 92, 113 and 268).

Each of these articles adds one or more elements to a (scholarly) reader's understanding of peasant writing in diverse periods and places. It would have been interesting to see some studies on England or Poland, just to take examples, but one cannot ask for everything. Some of the articles certainly give a refreshing contribution to the field, for instance Lorenzen-Schmidt on the one hand and Magnusson and Olafsson on the other by weaving together general trends and specific examples. Most authors, however, reaffirm the fragmented vision of the field that the editors complain about in their introduction. Thus, the book as a whole does not provide us with a significantly new interpretation of peasant writing as such. The conceptual issues presented in the introduction are only rarely addressed in the articles and one does not get the feeling of an imminent extension or a genuine rethinking of the subject. One way out of this might be the introduction of a gender perspective. The only women mentioned as writers in the whole book are two Swedish women who wrote autobiographies (222, 227). Why did peasant women not write? Or did they? Other exits are most certainly possible, but it has to be said that some hard thinking needs to be done if the study of peasant writing is to avoid running out of steam. The material is extremely interesting and the editors are clearly on the right track in the introduction, by discussing issues that concern the peasants themselves rather than the sources as such. Hopefully, that line of work will be pursued in future conferences and books.

Mar Jonsson

University of Iceland, Reykjavik
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Jonsson, Mar
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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