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.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Daily life in colonial New England

Do you ever discover by chance a book so good that you’re actually miffed that no one had ever brought it to your attention? Do you find yourself checking the publication date and exclaiming to an empty room (or a stranger sitting next to you on the subway), “This came out several years ago, for pete’s sake—how come I haven’t heard about it??” That was my reaction a few months ago after stumbling across Jerald E. Brown’s The Years of the Life of Samuel Lane, 1718-1806: A New Hampshire Man and His World1 in a local indie book store.

Samuel Lane—tanner, shoemaker, family man, property owner, surveyor, trader, community and congregation leader—liked to read and write, kept detailed business records and daybooks, and enjoyed making lists as a way of reviewing his life. Brown uses the collection of Lane family documents to exemplify life in a particular time and place, and in turn uses historical sources to expand upon the details in Lane’s writings. The book is not a biography moving chronologically through Lane’s life, introducing us to the personalities of his neighbors or describing family events as they occur. Rather, we get a sense of the man and his interactions with his community, the needs of a family and how those needs were met, and the daily activities entailed in various occupations. On every page author Brown defines, explains, and illuminates.

The book is divided into five main parts: an introduction titled “A New Hampshire Man and His Place in the World,” and four chapters, “Mastering a Trade,” “Shaping Community,” “Exchanging Commodities,” and “Building Continuity.” Nearly every two-page spread includes at least one illustration, e.g., maps, contemporary illustrations or newspaper articles, documents, photos of extant items contemporary to Lane (or belonging to the family), pages from Lane’s own papers, and tables of land measure and currency conversion.

I thoroughly enjoyed every page of this book. I learned more about colonial New England agriculture and animal husbandry; about bartering and keeping track of who owed whom what when money didn’t exchange hands; about surveying tricky bits of land, the opening of new townships, and deeds and their dower thirds and the fraction of a house that a widow could end up with—and much much more. I had some knowledge of many of the topics in the book, but Brown invariably taught me more.

The book itself is beautifully designed and laid out. Honestly, I don’t usually notice these things—I’m all about the words and the pictures, and the heck with aesthetics. The type here is clean and sharp and clear; a scholar’s margin is sometimes used for small illustrations and captions, but otherwise available to cretins like me who insist on creating a penciled dialogue with a book. Citations and comments are in endnotes at the back of the book; ordinarily I prefer footnotes, but in this case I think that they would detract from the beauty of the page and so endnotes were in fact the better way to go. The work is very well sourced, and I marked a good number of citations with “read!”— to learn more about colonial New England history. The index seems well done, although I penciled in a few additional entries of my own. I was happy to find that a few blank pages follow the index— I always appreciate these for writing additional notes!

Anyone interested in eighteenth-century America will appreciate and enjoy this book—it’s a must-read. Thank you to Jerald E. Brown and Donna-Bell Garvin, for both illustrating daily life of two hundred years ago and providing a wonderful example of a scholarly yet accessible work.

1 Jerald E. Brown and Donna-Belle Garvin, The Years of the Life of Samuel Lane, 1718-1806: A New Hampshire Man and His World (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000). The book is a condensed version of Brown's dissertation; it is edited and introduced by Garvin.