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Response to Review no. 351

In light of the generous character of Karin Friedrich’s review, I am inclined to grant the justice of such reservations as she expresses and thank her for her labours, the more so as I am now busy archiving in Poland. But let me make a few points that aim to amplify her review.

First, while it is true that I found stimulating company in the ‘Potsdam school’ of east Elbian studies, as directed by Jan Peters through most of the 1990s, I had been developing the interpretive strategy and line of argument that issued eventually in the book during my earliest archival work in West Berlin the 1980s. Also, engaged as I was in the 1990s as director at the University of California, Davis, of an interdisciplinary graduate program in the historical social sciences, I spent much time thinking about methodological and epistemological issues, which I spell out and deal with as succinctly as possible in the book. I would say then, that the book stands in the line of development in the Anglo-American world both of social history in the Thompsonian vein, microhistory, and post-‘linguistic turn’ cultural history. I would like, then, to encourage interested readers to ponder the book’s efforts to resolve the methodological-epistemological issues it raises.

Secondly, I worked hard to interpret the very extensive documentation I had the good fortune to discover on women, family life, sexual relations, and kinship. I had to become something of an expert on women’s clothing, since this entry in household inventories proved to be extraordinarily informative about lifestyles and material wellbeing among ordinary people. As for family and kinship: among other things, I found that, among village farmers (the majority in that agrarian society), there was no tangible concept of ‘the family’, although household relations and kinship ties were of crucial importance.

Thirdly, there is a lot in the book about material well-being: incomes in both cash and other forms, class-specific mortality and longevity, diet, housing, clothing and other possessions, and especially arrangements for the material support of retired elders, which were extremely important as a kind of social security system. I am persuaded that the picture of common people’s living standards projected by standard economic history is extremely one-sided in its stress on cash incomes and conjunctural movements of real wages as measured by them.

Finally, while I grant that it is a long book, I do not think there is any repetition in it of the myriad stories on which its analysis and argument are based (though I do look at some of these stories from different interpretive angles). The author and certain others know how much I excised of the original typescript. But interpretive strategy, and the richness of the documentary base, led me to write a many-dimensioned book of ten chapters, plus introduction and conclusion. It could not fail to be a long book, but I believe the reader will find that the individual chapters are taut and succinct. As for assigning it to students, there are diachronic and synchronic chapters, as well as chapters on various social levels. Depending on what an instructor wants to emphasize, chapter assignments are possible.

Let me close by saying again that I am grateful for Karin Friedrich’s friendly and insightful comprehension of this book.