More respect for linen weavers

10. septembris, 2008

Some weeks ago, strolling without a clear purpose through the not-so-crowded rooms of the local history museum in Braunschweig, Germany, I happened across an extraordinary document. I do not know how I brought myself to start reading it. It was printed around 1730 in that peculiar Gothic type which seems to have been designed specially to scare away lazy 21st-century readers. All I can say, the more I understood of it the more I congratulated myself on having had the courage to start.

The quaint text in old bureaucratic German turned out to be something quite exciting: a piece of anti-discrimination legislation. A decree issued by the then duke of Brunschweig-Luneburg, it dealt specifically with the problematic social situation of one group – those employed in the linen-making industry. The linen-weavers, it claimed, had long been subjected to unjust and humiliating treatment by the rest of the population. Because of the obscure and doubtful information that they had, in times long past, been involved in dishonourable practices (in this case, helping to carry the ladder at public executions), they became the untouchables of the local community. Their children were not accepted into training and employment by other professions. They were mocked in the streets, and people threw things at them. In other words, it was no fun to be a linen weaver in Braunschweig around 1730.

All of this, the document claimed, had to stop. In civilised countries next door, linen weavers are long regarded as normal people. The decree then attached a substantial fine to every case of professional or social discrimination against the linen weavers or their children. If no money to pay the fine was available, a person discriminating the linen weavers could face a spell in prison.

Actually, I thought, the text was remarkably like… a modern anti-discrimination policy document. It only occured to me much later that in fact, the text I have seen was better than most anti-discrimination policy documents I know. It bothered to explain the cultural reasons behind existing prejudices and their absurdity. It attached real penalties to proven cases of discrimination, while so many modern pieces of anti-discrimination legislation are quite toothless. It seemed to refer to existing practicing in neighbouring countries not because it had to, as a consequence of some international treaty, but because more advanced practices elsewhere were genuinely seen as a good example.

Of course, I have no idea whether any of this was consistently implemented, and whether, as a consequence, the life of linen weavers in Braunschweig improved. Early modern states limited their interference in society to legislation, law enforcement and taxation, and did not usually bother about the rest. Implementation was not their strong side.

Still, I caught myself wishing for some more of that old-fashioned Enlightenment thinking… today.

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