Review of ‘The Beggar and the Professor: A Sixteenth-Century Family Saga’

Review of ‘The Beggar and the Professor: A Sixteenth-Century Family Saga’

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The Beggar and the Professor: A Sixteenth- Century Family Saga
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie,
translated by Arthur Goldhammer
University of Chicago Press, $29.95

"Papa," said felix platter, the most eminent physician of Basel, Switzerland, one day, "why don't you write down the story of your life?"

Old Thomas Platter, still vigorous in his 70s (he was about to embark on a second marriage that would produce six children), was happy enough to sit down and write out in his rough, racy Swiss-German dialect stories he had been repeating for years to anyone who would listen. He had indeed worked his way up from nothing, from herding goats and starving, from begging his way across Germany, from stealing an occasional goose.

Along the way, he had learned a trade, started a business and bought a house in the most fashionable part of town. And he had saved enough money to put his son through medical school, buy land and build a secondary residence in the suburbs, and become one of the leading citizens of Basel--a rags-to-riches story of which the world has seen so many in the past couple of centuries. What is unique about this one is that it was written in 1570, and precious little remotely like it had ever been written before.

His two sons (born 35 years apart), Felix and Thomas, Jr., who also became a doctor, wrote books about their experiences, too, and together the Platters' writings form a treasure house of information about life as it was lived down on the ground at what scholars correctly perceive as one of the turning points of world history.

A New World Order

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the distinguished French historian, has, in his book Montaillou, demonstrated his ability to ferret out of ancient documents lively and realistic pictures of daily life in a far-off medieval past (Smithsonian, March 1978).

Now he has used the reminiscences of the three Platters to do the same for the 16th century. At that moment, the changeless patterns of medieval life (in the case of villages like Montaillou, patterns that went back thousands of years) began breaking up, and the modern Western world, the world almost everyone lives in today, began to emerge.

The 16th century in western Europe was in so many ways a prefiguration of the 20th: rising prosperity, rising population, rising prices, an immense expansion of physical and intellectual horizons, a globalization of the economy, revolutions in religion and the arts and technology and social structures and ways of looking at the world. The dark specter of increasing poverty, crime, new and horrifying diseases, ferocious ideological wars and persecutions also loomed.

The Platters were only marginally aware of these vast changes going on around them, but they knew how to take advantage of them. Like most people of all times and places, they were chiefly concerned with their local and immediate needs and desires. They were aware of the discovery of America, but the only way they perceived it was through the presence of new phenomena in their daily lives, such as Brazil nuts or turkeys. When Felix Platter once was shown a statue of Joan of Arc, who had been burned barely a century before, he had no idea who she was.


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