Les Eigenleute de Franconie aux XIIIe-XVe siècles : Essai d'appréhension spatiale et sémantique d'une catégorie sociale malmenée

Abstract : The historiography of late medieval Franconian serfdom is characterized by flagrant contradictions among historians (Is serfdom general or residual? Is it reinforced or rather waning during the late Middle Ages?). There is also a great imprecision of the terminology employed, as historians have the custom of assimilating the ensemble of medieval terms, both Latin and German (servi, servitus, homines proprii, eigene Leute, Leibeigene, Leib und Gut, etc.), into a single phenomenon, designated as Leibeigenschaft and characterized by the absence of freedom of movement and a strict control over marriage and the transfer of goods. Therefore it is necessary to re-evaluate the question at its most basic levels, that is, both the terminology used in the sources and the corresponding social relations.

This contribution intends to demonstrate that the abandonment of a substantialist perspective on serfdom and the adoption of a precise, lexicometric, and cartographic examination of the terminology and its uses in space and time are likely to lead to a radical change in the explicative paradigm. The study begins with the examination of the key word from the documents: eigenleute (in Latin homines proprii), which is used far more frequently than any other designation (although historians systematically tend to transform it into Leibeigene — homines de corpore). The examination of its uses brings to light two phenomena. First, the term has a very unequal spatial distribution: it is unknown in eastern Franconia, although there is no reason to believe that the situation of dependents was any better there. Second, the term is very frequently used in combination with eigengüter (allod), as opposed to lehen (fief or tenure). The way these two terms are employed together forces us to consider that the prefix eigen- has the same meaning in the two. But research into an eventual signification of eigenleute leaning on the allodial character of eigengüter only leads to incoherence, which demonstrates the limitations to legalistic readings of these categories.

This conjoined use makes more sense once it is correlated with the unequal spatial distribution of the term eigenleute, which itself corresponds very neatly to the distribution of Weistümer (customary law, i.e. acknowledgments of lordly rights in a precise locality, taken by the dependent inhabitants of the locality), which are practically absent in eastern Franconia. For the social sense of these acknowledgments has been recently re-evaluated: far from primarily regulating relations between lords and their dependents, they served to organize, on the local level, relations among lords (remembering that villages always included several lords), and thus to reproduce interlordly cohesion through the organization of their relations with dependents. By examining the category of eigenleute from this angle, it becomes apparent that its use is essentially linked to situations of articulation and hierarchisation of the diverse powers of lords on the same dependent. The category of eigenleute appears thus not as a reference to a substantially servile status but as the expression of the pre-eminence of a particular lord, in contrast to others, over people (and their goods) — without any indication of the contents, which were variable, of the powers founding this pre-eminence.

This examination thus makes the variations of the use of the word eigenleute comprehensible both in space (the interlord structure in Franconia differed sharply between its western and eastern parts, because in the east a dependent never had more than one lord — and there was thus no need to create a hierarchy among concurrent powers through the category of eigenleute) and in time (the disappearance of the use of the word signalled not the liberation of the population, but rather the emergence of local lordly monopolies). Thus, serfdom should probably be studied less in terms of the relation between lord and dependent, and more in terms of the relations among lords concerning their dependents. In the most general way, the case of eigenleute demonstrates that a legal and substantialist reading of medieval social categories (here, those that supposedly designate ‘serfs') can only result in misinterpretations and/or contradictions.
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Submitted on : Saturday, February 4, 2006 - 5:14:03 PM
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Julien Demade, Joseph Morsel. Les Eigenleute de Franconie aux XIIIe-XVe siècles : Essai d'appréhension spatiale et sémantique d'une catégorie sociale malmenée. Paul Freedman, Monique Bourin (eds.), Forms of Servitude in Northern and Central Europe: Decline, Resistance, and Expansion, 2005, Turnhout, Belgique. pp.75-113. ⟨halshs-00005156⟩

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