Prisca Roth’s illuminating study of the late medieval Val Bregaglia, a Swiss Alpine valley reaching south towards Italy, and its communities rests on exhaustive analysis of the substantial body of charters and, especially, notarial protocols that survive from the valley during this period. Because of their concision and limited range of topics, notarial protocols are a notoriously refractory source, and they require painstaking analysis of the actors, objects, and processes involved, as well as extensive contextualization, if they are to be understood correctly. Roth succeeds splendidly in making the most of this material, bringing a sharp critical eye and a comprehensive knowledge of the valley’s communities, terrain, and economy to the sources, allowing her to render the way the population of the Bregaglia lived together in rich and persuasive detail. The book also has a second aspect, more ambitious if not quite as successful: Roth seeks to place her detailed picture of collective life in the valley into diverse larger perspectives, including the history of communalism and governance in the late Middle Ages. The book includes ambitious theoretical framings as well as creative efforts to create immediacy through concrete descriptions of events, documented or imagined, that embody her empirical findings. These efforts help make Korporativ Denken, Genossenschaftlich Organisieren, Feudal Handeln a stimulating and often surprising pleasure to read.
The book opens with a scintillating discussion of Roth’s sources – which she characterizes as “simultaneously a paradise and a nightmare” (p. 17) – and her approach to them, which she describes as an apertura, in which she will “investigate and illuminate the many facets that constituted a community (Gemeinde)” (p. 15). That is, rather than a focused research objective defined in advance, exploration of life in the late medieval Val Bregaglia through multiple pathways, though always focusing on collectives – the communities and corporations that made up the institutional fabric of the valley –, which as a whole constituted a Talgemeinde (or, traditionally, Gerichtsgemeinde) within the Three Leagues of Graubünden during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. After an astute commentary on previous transcriptions and editions, the second chapter addresses the earlier history of the Val Bregaglia before the fifteenth century, tracing the interplay of imperial, episcopal, and local interests in a region that was always strategically important because of the Julier and Maloja passes connecting Milan and Como to the south through the valley to the north.
Parts 2, 3, 4, and 5 present Roth’s exploration of communal and corporate life in the valley from different perspectives. Part 2 probes the valley’s economic spaces (Nutzungsräume), in particular the high-altitude meadows, the alps, that represented the key agrarian resource in a region too high and steep for significant grain cultivation. The analysis is a tour-de-force, using the complex record of disputes over access, boundaries, and personnel on the alps over two centuries to depict finely tuned strategies that balanced individual and group interests, dominated by a few key families but supporting poorer families with only a few cows, all while ensuring that herds were small enough to survive the harsh winters. The analysis moves to other aspects of economic life in Part 3, bringing in forests, paths, and stalls as well as the vital chestnut forests around the valley’s lower villages. The pass trade, water lines, village fountains, and all sorts of economic activity from sawmills to bakers receive detailed and often illuminating discussion. At each step, Roth focuses on how the various corporate/communal bodies with claims on resources sought to regulate internal disputes while asserting their access or control against other, similar bodies in the valley.
This detailed analysis of how the economic life of the Val Bregaglia was structured by the various levels of community organization primes Roth to move forcefully into Parts 4 and 5, which examine political and ecclesiastical structures. In addition to the valley as a whole, under the lordship of the bishop of Chur and his podestà (the latter being elected by the sub-communes through a complex, multi-step process), the valley contained two Grossgemeinden, Sopraporta and Sottoporta (divided by a narrow spot in the lower valley), and a number of villages whose relationship to one another and the larger communal structures was complex and often contentious. Soglio and Bondo struggled over their respective roles in Sottoporta, while Vicosoprano maintained clearer primacy in Sopraporta, although the villages such as Casaccia developed significant local practices as well. Although criminal and civil jurisdiction dominate in the sources, Roth rightly emphasizes that broader issues of authority and governance were also usually at stake – a conclusion easy to accept because of her analysis of collective economic activity in the previous sections.
Roth argues that we should not look at the growth of communal institutions, which were normally under the primary control of a few powerful families, as part of an anti-feudal strategy to exclude the bishop and his rights. The latter model, often used to explain the emergence of the Republic of the Three Leagues (Graubünden) to which the Val Bregaglia belonged, is not supported in the material she examines, among which charters and statutes predominate. This is an important claim, echoed in the title she chose for her book with its reference to feudal handeln, though Roth’s hyper-local focus leaves some possible objections open. The first is that charters issued under the bishop’s authority might make the bishop seem more present than he might appear in other (unavailable) sources such as letters and chronicles. In addition, conflict between the bishops of Chur and their ministerials and local nobles does characterize the larger history of the Gotteshausbund, the regional communal alliance to which the Val Bregaglia belonged, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Such struggles, in which new regional elites hollowed out the authority of previously active lords, were not simply anti-feudal (and much less proto-democratic). Still, the bishops of Chur lost political power in the late fifteenth century and were formally removed from political authority in the Three Leagues’ First Ilanz Articles of 1524 (at which time the current bishop, Paul Ziegler, permanently left Chur), ceding power to the corporative/communal authority constituted by the Gotteshausbund and its two sister leagues. However, Roth (in keeping with most of the recent research) juxtaposes feudal, corporate, and communal organization in her analysis, rather than posing them as incompatible, and can thus accommodate this evidence. The bishops could remain important for the Bregaglia even if their role as lords across the Gotteshausbund was indeed changing.
In addition to its meticulous analysis of collective institutions of property, economics, politics, and the church in the Bregaglia, a second, unusual aspect of Roth’s study lies in its diverse approaches to bringing life to the issues she probes so deeply through dusty protocols and charters. Part 6 consists of a scholarly but unconventional analysis of “social belonging and exclusion” in the Bregaglia. The section begins with a long exposition of Niklas Luhmann’s typology of social cohesion, which distinguishes functionally differentiated from stratified and segmental social systems. Roth then seeks to apply Luhmann’s approach via an analysis of Bürgerrechte und Bürgerpflichten, although only eleven cases of formally granting membership in the valley’s political community occur in her records before 1600. Her analysis of these cases is insightful, but the scarcity of local evidence prompts her to look first to studies of other regions, such as the Inner Swiss cantons and Italian cities, and then to a long historiographical excursus about much later debates over citizenship in Graubünden. Roth’s train of argument carries interesting insights, but seems to meander rather far from the Val Bregaglia itself, perhaps because of its reliance on Luhmann’s rather rigid and anachronistic typology of systems.
A quite different contribution appears when Roth turns to the creative imagination to give her relatively dry approach more life. The most striking example is a short graphic novel by Jon Bischoff contained in the book, entitled Soglio, one day in November of 1572 (between p. 176 and p. 177). This narrative traces a fictional member of a leading family as he encounters a variety of irritations around Soglio. This narrative is recapitulated in Roth’s conclusion, which provides a running commentary and detailed archival references that explain the story told first in pictures. As she observes, “(d)ie Arbeit zu den Bergeller Gemeinden im ausgehenden Mittelalter ist, fast unmerklich, zu einer Mikrogeschichte geworden” (p. 367). Her conclusion also develops the theme introduced by the book’s title by arguing that we should understand “die Gemeinde nicht bloß als politische Einheit,… sondern als ein dichtes Netz von unterschiedlichsten Organisationen und Genossenschaften” (p. 370). Rather than representing an alternative to feudal and to corporate organization, the late medieval rural commune, in at least this case, existed alongside both feudal modes of action and corporate modes of thinking. This valuable conclusion agrees with recent historiography on community in later medieval German lands (and their Italian neighbors). In elucidating this tangled reality and its complexities in remarkable detail on a very local scale over two centuries, Prisca Roth has valuably reinforced current research trends in a stimulating and refreshingly unconventional package.