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

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

"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.

But in their daily choice of what to do and how to do it, they were very aware of what was going on. Thomas Platter knew that in these new days of expansion and the revival of learning, it was economically advantageous to know how to read books, and that the recent invention of Mr. Gutenberg's in Germany had made books for the first time in human history available to all kinds of people, not just the thin upper crust. He may not have known that this invention lay at the cutting edge of technology (long before jet aircraft, Gutenberg had used titanium in his ink) and was going to change the world, as drastically as the steam engine would change it two centuries later and electronics in our own time.

A self-taught scholar but he knew that he had to learn how to read and to write--Latin of course, it was the only respectable language--and he learned when he was 19 or 20. He learned it while he was rope-making, hiding his copy of Plautus in the heaps of hemp he was braiding into rope. He learned Hebrew and Greek, which were being rediscovered after centuries of loss, and he earned his living for a while by teaching Basel's top intellectual brass the Hebrew lessons that he had learned by himself in books the night before.

What kept him going (and his sons, too), obstinately and single-mindedly and with remarkable success, was the desire to work up, one step at a time, the social and economic ladder. He was intent upon using his brains, his skills and his boundless ambitions to keep acquiring not only more money, but also more ease and comfort and respect and recognition. There have always been people trying to be upwardly mobile, but before the advent of the 16th century, few cared to talk about them and they rarely wrote down their own stories because poor children never learned how to read and write.

Pursuing prosperity Thomas Platter remembered too well the bottomless sea of poverty and filth and ignorance out of which he had come, the sea in which his ancestors and almost everyone else had lived for thousands of years. He did whatever he could to survive. He made soap, he made ropes; eventually he had the foresight to take up printing. He was self-taught, but he learned enough to print one of the key works of the Protestant Reformation, the Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, a copy of which can be found in the Biblioth`eque Nationale in Paris, without a single page turned yellow after 450 years. He speculated in real estate; he planted vineyards where there had been only barren land; he gave lessons and took in boarders to pay off his debts; he became headmaster of a school; he became (in Basel, at least) a leading citizen, a celebrity. His little son Felix worked for him when he started his printing business, folding paper till his fingers bled. But compared with his father, he was born in luxury. He rode horseback while his father walked (his father, a tough old bird, could cover more miles in a day on foot over the primitive Swiss roads than Herr Doktor Professor Felix could in the saddle). Felix identified in advance, says Le Roy Ladurie, "with the professors of medicine, the deans and rectors who treated dukes and princes, the important academics whom he saw strutting down the streets of Basel in their velvet costumes, followed by servants on horseback." Before he was 35 he was one of them, rector of the medical school at Basel University, famous throughout the medical world for his pioneer studies of the retina of the human eye, and for having created one of the first museums of natural history. That early collection of unusual objects contained everything from rare stones to Native American moccasins, stuffed crocodiles to a live elk.

For another century or more the Platters would count among the quality, the top people of Basel. They were, of course, selfish and ambitious, but they were not bad people; they lived the life of their times. Thomas might be merciless in his money dealings, but when a pair of destitute refugees arrived in Basel from Munich, thrown out of their home because they were Protestants, and came to his door, he recognized the soap-maker and his wife who had given him a roof to sleep under 35 years before. Thomas had been a shoeless, homeless beggar, fighting dogs for food and scratching between floorboards for crumbs of bread; he took the couple in and sheltered them to the end of their lives. The Platters, as they come across in this book, had plenty to put up with in their lives. There were famines and the heartless cruelties of ideological wars, and above all the repeated visits of the plague, which took the lives of seven of Thomas Platter's ten children.

Still, they had achieved their main goal, which was to be better off in their old age than in their youth. And as they moved into a new century, they left a richer, more dynamic, more enlightened world behind them than the one they were born into.

Reviewer Robert Wernick, a frequent contributor to Smithsonian, is based in Paris.

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