historical wills • Et. Seq: The Harvard Law School Library Blog

New Title Spotlight: “Testamente und Erbstreitigkeiten” (“Wills and Inheritance Disputes”)

The law library recently added a very interesting book to the collection:

Testamente und Erbstreitigkeiten: von Kriemhild bis Cornelius Gurlitt
Walter Zimmermann
2018, C.H. Beck
ISBN: 9783406730238

This book provides a historical survey of wills and inheritance disputes and includes transcriptions (in normal, readable font) of actual language from testamentary instruments.  Researchers who are interested in historical wills will especially enjoy this book, although it requires an ability to read German.  However, due to the book’s highly narrative and accessible style, an in-depth knowledge of German legal language is, in my opinion, not necessary.

The following subjects and people are described:

  • Testamentary distribution in the Song of the Nibelungs
  • Offmei Wöllerin, 1321 (a well-to-do widow from the town of Regensburg)
  • Heinrich Tuschl von Söldenau, 1376 (Bavarian nobleman and landowner)
  • Erasmus von Rotterdam, 1536 (famous scholar and humanist)
  • Martin Luther, 1542 (leader of the Protestant Reformation)
  • Laurentius von Ramee, 1613 (military commander whose will included a requirement that his successor marry his — Ramee’s — sister)
  • Neidhard Pfreimbder, 1662 (whose will precisely listed his property but did not name an heir)
  • Immanuel Kant, 1798 (philosopher)
  • Last will of Beethoven (drafted as an outrage-filled letter by the composer to his brother and nephew in 1802)
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1830 (author whose will specifically provided for his daughter-in-law)
  • Constanze Mozart, 1841 (widow of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
  • Arthur Schopenhauer, 1852 (philosopher whose will included a provision to provide for his dog)
  • Fürstenhaus Leiningen, 1897 (in which the son in a royal family was disowned because the father did not approve of the son’s marriage)
  • Elisabeth, 1898 and Franz Joseph I., 1901 (Empress and Emperor of Austria and Queen and King of Hungary; she was known as “Sissi” and has been extensively portrayed in books and movies)
  • König Otto I von Bayern, 1916 (Bavarian king who suffered from severe mental illness)
  • Franz Kafka, 1922 (Polish author whose testamentary request that his works be destroyed was not followed)
  • Estate of the Wittelsbach Family, 1923 (describing an agreement under which property of displaced royalty was returned to state ownership)
  • Thurn and Taxis Library and Archive (protection of cultural assets of an entailed estate, or Fideikommiss)
  • Adolf Hitler, 1945, and Eva Braun, 1944 (leader of Germany’s National Socialist government, which carried out the murder of millions of people during World War II, and his companion)
  • Albert Einstein, 1950 (physicist; disputes surrounding his will led to the exposure of intimate details about his life)
  • Estate of the Krupp Family, 1966 (steel manufacturing family that used several testamentary devices to avoid paying inheritance taxes)
  • The Insect Collection of Georg Frey, 1976 (Frey’s widow ignored testamentary directives regarding who should have the first right to buy the collection and offered it for sale elsewhere)
  • The Estate of Axel Springer, 1984 (German publisher who had several marriages and children; the battle over his estate lasted 30 years)
  • The Willy-Brandt-Medal, 1992 (“Can a widow make money from her husband’s personality rights?”)
  • Donations for the Reconstruction of the Frauenkirche of Dresden, 1995 (If a donation unlawfully decreases someone’s compulsory right to inherit, must the donation be returned?)
  • A Sociologist’s Index Card Box, 1998 (the impact of “vagueness” in a will on the inheritance rights)
  • Cornelius Gurlitt’s Estate of Stolen Art, 2014 (Can a testamentary devise lawfully include ill-received property?)

Why Research Historical Wills and Probate Documents?

Old wills provide a fascinating window into how people in the past really lived. During the summer of 2005, as a research assistant to Pepperdine Law Professor Kris Knaplund, I spent many enjoyable hours in the Los Angeles County Probate Archives, reading and documenting wills and other probate records from 1893. 

Although the main objective of this research project was to better understand the effect of the 1861 California Married Women’s Property Act on women’s inheritance rights, the project provided an additional bonus.  We learned about people from all walks of life in late 1800s California, from successful landowners and wealthy widows, to lawyers, business owners, farmers, and (perhaps most surprisingly) shepherds who had immigrated from the Basque country to Los Angeles.  If you are interested in reading more about this project, check out Kris’s article, The Evolution of Women’s Rights in Inheritance, which was published in the Hastings Women’s Law Journal in 2008.

Are you curious about historical probate materials in the Harvard Library collections?  Here are a few HOLLIS library catalog searches that you can use to look for sources:

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