Friday, January 11, 2013

Thank you, F. Warren Bittner

  As a genealogist, it’s frustrating to me that apparently all my ancestral lines lead back to European peasants—records are scarce and entries in history books, even local history, uncommon. Acknowledgement and documentation of an ordinary life of hardship doesn’t often make it into print for descendants to discover and exclaim, “here’s my ancestor, and what he did and how he lived.”

For this reason, I was thrilled to read F. Warren Bittner’s recent article, a winner of the 2011 Family History Writing Contest, “Without Land, Occupation, Rights, or Marriage Privilege: The Büttner Family from Bavaria to New York.”1 Bittner does an outstanding job of mining records and applying a knowledge of local social history and laws to those records, resulting in an enhanced and documented picture of one Bavarian family’s life in poverty.

Bittner chooses the Büttner men’s efforts to marry as his springboard for examining property, occupations, and rights of village residency. Despite couples’ attempts to legally wed, restrictions put in place by village, guild, and district authorities resulted in illegitimate children; towns disputed each other over which must take responsibility and allow the family group to settle within the community. Repeatedly members of the Büttner family attempted to break down barriers to a marginally better life.

In the course of the article Bittner discusses sexual mores, the amount of land needed to support a family, the social status of weavers, a change in laws and courts in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, the disadvantage of being bound to the land and the far greater disadvantage of being landless. He draws on tenancy records, maps, land files, marriage hearings, military papers, and the usual church registers in the course of his research. Footnotes refer to what appears to be a definitive library of eighteenth and nineteenth century Bavarian social history, including titles such as Property, Production, and Family in Neckarhausen: 1780-1870; and German Home Towns: Community, State, and General Estate, 1648-1871; and The Village in Court: Arson, Infanticide, and Poaching in the Court Records of Upper Bavaria, 1848-1910; and “Village Spinning Bees: Sexual Culture and Free Time among Rural Youth in Early Modern Germany.”2 The result is a broad picture of the miserable social and legal conditions in which the Büttners struggled to exist. Bittner sums up their situation well when he writes, “Leonhard and Margaretha lived in a different world in the same villages as their neighbors with higher status.”3 Bittner shows us that world.

There are two take-aways from this article: one, it is possible to learn—and say—much more about those who lived “at the bottom of the village hierarchy”;4 and two, it takes a good deal of work. The pay-off however is huge, for both the subjects’ descendants and others researching the geographical area. This article is a model, an inspiration, and a bench-mark. Thank you, F. Warren Bittner, for showing us so thoroughly and so elegantly that it is indeed possible to document, describe, and honor the lives of our peasant ancestors.

1 F. Warren Bittner, “Without Land, Occupation, Rights, or Marriage Privilege: The Bütnner Family from Bavaria to New York,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 100 (September 2012): 165-187.
2 I marked twenty-eight of the titles he refers to with the notations “read” or “look up”; I have Bavarian lines of my own to research!
3 Bittner, “The Büttner Family from Bavaria to New York,” 187.
4 Bittner, “The Büttner Family from Bavaria to New York,” 169.

1 comment:

  1. Julie,
    Ditto! You captured my thoughts about this article perfectly. No wonder they left Bavaria when they had the chance. I was just blown away when I read it and have reread a few times since it came out. I had the good fortune to attend two of Warren's presentations at NERGC, one of which was about this article.