Bavaria's Last Form of Self-Governing

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Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it. ~ Deuteronomy 19:14 KJV

Herman, my youngest brother’s father-in-law, lives in a small village in Lower Franconia (Northern Bavaria). He is a retired farmer and, in many ways, reminds me of my maternal grandfather. There is something in his demeanor that speaks of integrity. This virtue may be the reason that he holds the honorary position of Obsmann of the Feldgeschworenen (Field Jury), which is also known in local dialect as Die Siebener. Die Siebener translates into English as "The Seven" or "Council of Seven," signifying the number of men sworn in to serve this office.

One of the last remaining agencies of self-governing in all small communities of Bavaria (and most of Western Germany) is the Field Jury who serve as a mediator between the administration and the people. Jurors’ duties consist of ensuring that the boundary markers (Grenzsteine) of individual properties are in good condition, or that they are reset, if needed, into their proper place. Members of the Field Jury, which in our time can consist of anywhere between four to nine men, are elected to this life-long, voluntary post and must carry the secret of the sign that is laid under every Grenzstein to their death bed.

That secret can only be revealed to a newly elected member of the Field Jury and is known to all Feldgeschworenen of the entire country. The symbols used underneath the stone can be made out of glass or metal and differ from region, but the secret on how they place and mark the code is known to the Siebener. Its secret sign is passed on only orally from one member to another.

The office dates as far back as the 13th Century in Franconia. In the days when maps and accurate measurements were not yet available, people used natural boundaries to mark the territory of different landowners. They used ravines, creeks, trees and other natural markings to flag their properties. The land received terrain names in order to recognize their locations, which are still in use today. The names are so old that I cannot even translate them properly, and some sound really peculiar. Boundary markers were often placed between the borders of different landowners that date back for several centuries.

When farmers gained private ownership of the land, new boundaries were drawn for every field that a farmer owned and markers, or boundary stones (Grenzsteine) made out of granite, set the new boundaries. Each field of terrain in every community across the land has these boundaries which were measured and surveyed by officials. Once that was done, Die Siebener (at least two) had to set the boundary stones with the secret marking underneath the rock.

It may happen that a farmer moves the stone accidentally when plowing his field. Most likely, if he notices it he will summon the Field Jury. They will make a trip to his property to inspect the situation. If the stone only needs re-adjusting, it is their duty to do so. As long as the marking of their secret code is under the boundary stone, it will validate its authenticity and they can set the stone back in its place.

Sometimes the markers get overgrown with plants or top soil may cover them up. It may even happen that a farmer started working the field one or two meters into his neighbor’s field. This is when the Field Jury comes out to locate the stones again and to dig them out. Herman told me that once they found a boundary marker pretty deep under the soil. It was probably over one hundred years old. They checked the marking under the rock and, sure enough, the same secret code was used then as they are using now.

If a farmer wants to sell his land, and all the markers are still in place, the surveyor’s office does not have to come out to re-measure the property. These markers carry so much integrity, it is really remarkable. Only if the boundary markers are missing will the surveyor’s office have to come out and measure the property. The Grenzsteine have to be laid by the Siebener again placing their secret code under the rock. If the property in question borders on a neighboring town, then at least two of the Siebener of this town have to be present for the laying of the stone to validate the position by checking the code.

Each community has their fields numbered in every terrain. They are logged in a large book called Grundbuch (property book) stored at the district office of a county city and is accessible to the public. The book shows each owner over the century. All entries are handwritten and can date as far back as the last century.

I remember having to dig through these books when I worked in Germany for a construction company. My job was to compile all the data of the property owners when our office was hired to draw up the plans for water and gas pipelines that were being laid through Franconian lands during the late 1970’s. I traveled to many county cities and spent hours digging through these large books. I was fascinated by how accurately the data was kept. We never ran into a problem of incorrect information during all the projects that we completed.

Herman told me that there are sometimes squabbles between farmers, especially if a neighboring farmer exceeds his boundary line. These can quickly be corrected using the Field Jury. Crossing over into someone else’s property was, and still is today, a serious offense in Bavaria. People have tried the steal property by moving a Grenzstein. The law book of the Bavarian Kingdom shows in 1861 at Paragraph 345:

"Whoever…crosses over to a foreign property due to plowing, mowing or harvesting…must reimburse in money of 25 Gulden."

In another book called "Sachsenspiegel (1200 AD) it is written:

"…who digs out the markers, whereas boundary stones are set, must pay a punishment of 30 Schillings."

Indeed, it is considered theft and the rightful owner has to be recompensed. Herman also told me that every three years all seven members of the Field Jury walk the borders of their community with the neighboring community’s Field Jury. They take the walk on a Sunday and check the boundary stones between their borders. They remove any debris, clean them or set them back in place if they are loose. There may be as many as three bordering towns in every community. Each of them will take this walk together to ensure that the markers are in their proper places. The timing may vary according to each county’s traditions, but the borders will be walked by these men to keep the boundary markers intact.

At the turn of the century these men would wear a black frock and black cylinder hat and walk the borders carrying long wooden sticks. This is still done in a festive spirit in most communities. Each community has a different custom. Some may include waiting and sitting on a Grenzstein during the walk. One tradition is for community members, usually children, to be lifted three times then led around the rock by their ear. The custom is so people remember the markers and do not forget their homeland

Herman’s work is voluntary. He and his colleagues do not get paid for the service they provide. When part of the land in their village was developed with new houses and roads, the men of the Siebener went out to each newly developed property and laid the boundary stones according to their tradition in cooperation with the surveyor’s office. Herman also started placing magnets under the stones so he can easily detect them if they get buried.

The selection of a new member after someone dies, or is incapacitated due to ill health, is done by the Council of Seven and greatly depends on the potential member’s character. It is preferred that he was born in the town, or has been a townsman for at least ten years, so his character can be observed. His conduct should prove that he is not vengeful and does not seek to behave aggressively. He should live in moderation, which means that he does not drink or gamble excessively, and is not a fanatic. He must also show that he is good in economics by seeking to increase his income through righteous means. Being educated in math and writing is also required.

New members must be sworn in during Mass at church at their annual meeting, where they swear an oath to keep their secret. Some counties celebrate this at the annual festivals that are sponsored each year by a different town. Each gathering of all Siebener starts with a church service. They first serve their Maker before anything or anyone else.

In the early 1970’s the state wanted to make this honorary office obsolete. It received stern opposition by folks across the state. Franconian representatives fought to keep this office in place, and it is the last post still in use in every town of Bavaria and other German states. Its success shows how a community can maintain order and the integrity of property ownership through the continuation of this very old honorary office.

I think back to the times when I bought houses here in Texas. The amount of paperwork to search for a title of previous ownership, and documents that I had to sign, left me with a four inch stack of paperwork to take home and a zillion signatures to go through. The fees were also very hefty. A friend of mine bought a ranch out in the country a few years ago that bordered another county. Her house title had so many discrepancies; it caused her all sorts of tax problems in paperwork research. Neither of the counties involved knew what the other was doing. The next year when she filed her taxes, it was still not straightened out.

Then I think of Herman, a simple man, who worked all his life on a farm in a small village near the Main River. All it takes for property in his village and surrounding terrain to remain within the right ownership is the integrity of his character, an honest heart. Rather than an official document with huge fees attached, it takes also a human being, like Herman, who adheres to a code of morals and values to keep the property and landmarks in good standing. Only people can carry out the legitimate and upright execution of an oath or law. Those who can follow it will bring order to the land.

Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.

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