In order to understand my own culture and the behaviors I witnessed within my family I wanted to find information on the life and culture of the Germanic areas prior to 1900. This led me to The Cambridge University Anthropological study by David Warren Sabean. He studied the village of Neckarhausen Germany from 1700 to 1870. He asked those very questions by studying one village history. The questions he had were many but some of the basics were: Land ownership, family interaction, division of labor, inheritance, taxes, crime, women’s roles in the family, social supports and systems.
Keep in mind that I am fully aware that this village is one of thousands and my knowledge of my families exact origin is very limited. I felt, however, that I would gain a good basic understanding of my culture by exploring the history of this village.
One of the bones I pick with the world in general is the American general categorization of Europeans as white when the number of countries and diversity in Europe is a varied as the rest of the worlds’ population. The number of wars between European territories through history has been so extensive and affected the Germanic areas greatly. The Romans controlled Germanic areas as well as the peoples. The Germanic groups fought Russian invasion. If that isn’t enough then throw in wars between Lutheran groups who split over Martin Luthers’ writings. When I think of Lutherans and war today it would seem an oxymoron. In history it caused such conflict that most of Europe became involved in the thirty years war over what became Roman Catholic and Lutheran splits. In Germany you can find Roman architecture still in existence amongst the reconstruction after world war two.
My people are descendants of peasants. Land was often owned in regions by Dukes and other leadership. Peasants therefore were beholden to those owners for taxes or crop shares to support those kingdom areas. Peasant life was at the mercy of war, leadership changes, the black death, Roman occupation and then Germanic occupation. Stability was uncommon. Peasant populations were subsistent peoples. They raised food to feed themselves, their cattle, sheep, and chickens. Each family would have their plot of land usually not more than several acres. Work was focused on those activities which I witnessed clearly in my family. We were farming families with extensive self sufficiency skills. My maternal grandfather built a house out of tamarack larch pine logs pulled from the Mississippi river. My father would create a plow shear with his welder and a maul. We rotated use of fields to keep the soil enriched. Family used horse teams for logging. My maternal grandfather would smoke fish and other meats for longer term storage. A look at the activities of my family clearly relate to the need for peasants to take care of themselves.
One of the cultural norms I found very interesting was a strong culture of the individual within the family. This is difficult to understand as the peasant family was so narrowly compressed on those few acres of land. As parents aged there was a division of land to children. It generationally reduced the individual land ownership as long as parents were productive and children were grown. A father could require rent from a son for the use of the only butter churn. If a family member broke the post hole digger for laying fence they would owe the family member who was the primary owner. Women avoided overlapping in the one household kitchen by splitting the use of the kitchen by time. An unmarried child would earn their keep in the fields, washing clothes, feeding animals and other daily chores.
The intense use of space was one of the cultural details that triggered thoughts about how my family communicated. My family is very project oriented. When family would visit our Minnesota farm of one hundred and sixty acres it was a ritual to walk outside and show the visitors the completion of building repairs, garden produce, flowers, the state of the apple crop for that year. The details of the farm and the labor were very much a focus in conversation. Conversation was extremely respectful. Swearing was low or rare. Critique of another persons work, personality, or abilities was never done except in the privacy of home when you returned to your own home and would discuss a concern about a family members condition. Offers of help would be made for larger projects unless family felt you and or your own family were capable of taking care of it. We were not like an Amish community that would gather for a barn raising. Our families were autonomous. I remember my maternal grandfather shaking the hand of my then boyfriend and smiling approval because he had the calloused hands of a hard worker. Our relaxation activities were related to our home lives. Men would go fishing. Women sewed for clothes or bedding and drapes. Being a good cook was admired. Offering the best meal you could offer to company was the most frequent gift. Nature was central to our daily life. It was enjoyed as part of the family and studied just as much through observation and reading. What you didn’t see was ski vacations, wasteful use of money, selfishness, or ostentatious behavior. Oh, and children were best seen and not heard during family gatherings out of respect for our elders. A bouquet of field flowers to grandma was very much loved.
Can you imagine an immigrant German who came to the United States and staked a claim for one hundred acres? It must have been humbling to the family to be able to obtain that amount of land. Family members were able to have their own farms instead of living on top of each other. Having that independence was new for them after generations of intertwined decision making.