Common and Not So Common Serendipities of Research
Read Verena Lehmbrock’s research article “Early Modern Echo Chambers. Material Improvement, Social Inequality, and the Restricted Circulation of Knowledge in Pre-Industrial Bavaria” here.
During my doctoral research, the accomplished literary scholar and expert on popular enlightenment (Volksaufklärung), Reinhart Siegert, was scheduled to give a lecture on literate peasants and craftsmen at the Weimar literary society (Literarische Gesellschaft Thüringen). At the dinner following the lecture, the director of the Weimar archives shoveled me into place during the seat selection rush. I came to sit next to Siegert and we got talking.
Siegert made me aware of Michael Irlbeck, one of the few peasant authors of the early 19th century writing about his own profession. Irlbeck from the small Bavarian town of Liebenstein not only wrote treatises on agriculture, he was also a fierce critic of the philanthropic endeavor of Volksaufklärung,the middle-class movement dedicated to ‘enlightening’ the rural population by literary means. The Bavarian peasant, speaking for himself, would eventually turn into an essential informant for my work on the Agricultural Enlightenment.
However, the authenticity of Irlbeck’s voice had not been fully verified. Irlbeck could still have been a literary figure, made up by some local official, or country priest, a Volksaufklärer. It was another serendipity, a few years later, that changed this situation and made me write on Irlbeck again, leading to my article in the JHoK.
In the spring of 2021, I was contacted by Clemens Pongratz, a local archivist from Liebenstein, who had become aware of my earlier work on Irlbeck through the platform Academia.edu. He explained that Irlbeck had been a “not inconsiderable part” of a talk he held in Liebenstein. The retired agricultural engineer not only kept a profile on Academia.edu but also ran a historical blog, from which I learned that he was a prolific local and family historian who occasionally gave lectures at local events and schools.
Pongratz’ ability to read German cursive script from the 18th century turned out to be brilliant. Having led a historical reading group for 30 years, he had already deciphered dozens of handwritten sources. Our ensuing conversation also involved another local researcher, Alfred Silberbauer, who kept the parish archives in Rimbach. The two researchers did not tire of offering me their treasures, evidence I could not have dreamed of: Irlbeck’s marriage certificate, tax documents, sales contracts, his capital endowments, and also some original letters from his pen. Digitized files kept accumulating in my email inbox. Rather incidentally, Pongratz even mentioned that Irlbeck’s house had been preserved in an open-air museum and could be visited. Riding on this wave of historical evidence, the literary figure Irlbeck turned into a real person.
I had questions; they had answers. Using the price of beer as a measure, the Liebenstein researchers had made estimates about the value of the guilder in Irbeck’s time. They had also gathered information from family memory and oral traditions, for instance, on religious customs and the fate of the landless poor in former times. This gave me an idea of the worlds of non-codified knowledge available in the villages, past and present, knowledge that is likely to escape historical scholarship. Meanwhile, the written sources raised new questions. For instance, a riddle surrounding Irlbeck’s low tax debt emerged, which my collaborators were hard-pressed to explain. Having a cognitive map of the archival landscape, however, this problem prompted Pongratz to further investigate, even in places not actually designated as archives, such as the local cadastral surveying office (Vermessungsamt). He found out that Irlbeck had bought himself out of all future duties by making a one-time payment to his impoverished superiors. The additional evidence thus collected finally added up and allowed me to understand – much better than before – both the conditions of Irlbeck’s authorship and why his case was to remain exceptional.
Concluding, this was a very productive cooperation. The beginnings as well as the end of my research on Irlbeck, spanning a period of more than 10 years, were propelled by serendipity and the help of engaged and curious people. Actively following their leads has been eminently worthwhile.