The Beggar and the Professor
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s The Beggar and the Professor is the story of the Platters, a Swiss-German family who rose from their rural peasant origins to middle-class status during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, an era which spanned the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the beginning of the Age of Absolutism. It joins a genre of historical works, largely originating in France’s “Annales” school and sometimes referred to as microhistory, which developed out of the interest in social history and as a reaction against historical studies that focused only at the top and at the center of society. Rather than relating the successes and failures of kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, or reciting the actions of diplomats and generals, an alternative vision of the past has emerged. Previously, historians had generally concentrated upon politics and war and upon those individuals and institutions that seemingly had the power to shape and reshape history. Meanwhile, they ignored those more ordinary men and women—the vast majority of humankind—who apparently were the subjects or victims of power and who had little to reveal to the present. Le Roy Ladurie’s earlier work, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error (1975), was a notable example of this newer current of historical writing. In his exploration of a single village in thirteenth century France, Le Roy Ladurie examined the lives of ordinary people and, in particular, their heterodox religious beliefs and practices. The Beggar and the Professor is another contribution to the same school.
The challenges in writing microhistory, or the history of the less powerful and prominent, frequently concerns the lack of evidence. The quantity of sources upon which historical creation must rest is invariably greater for kings, emperors, conquerors, high church officials, and the like, than for less extraordinary people. The vast majority of individuals have left few, if any, records of their own persons, at least until recent times, and are thus individually anonymous. The Platters are a notable exception. Thomas, Felix, and Thomas, Jr., wrote about events in their lives in memoirs. These writings have been known and used by historians since the eighteenth century, and because of the existence of these sources the Platters, onetime peasants, have escaped the anonymity of most of their peers. Le Roy Ladurie uses these long-known sources to fashion a suggestive saga of what may or may not have been a unique family.
The Platters’ story began with Thomas, born in 1499 into a peasant family. He was abandoned by his mother after his father’s plague-induced death and was raised by his paternal aunts. He tended goats and cattle as a young boy but then left his village and became a wanderer, a beggar, and a periodic student on the roads and in the cities of Germany and Switzerland. Le Roy Ladurie’s narrative suggests that Platter’s early life was fairly typical for the times. Abandonment by a mother upon her remarriage, death by plague, and a peripatetic pattern of existence, if not the norm, were not particularly unusual in a European society which had emerged from the Middle Ages into a world based more on trade, travel, and urban life, at least for some. Thomas Platter participated in this newly emerging modern world.
By the 1520’s, Platter had more or less settled in Basel, Switzerland, although the wanderlust never left him. Obviously ambitious—the increasingly mobile times allowed for ambition—he pursued several professions and careers simultaneously. The paradigm of the self-made man, he was a ropemaker, a student (while a ropemaker he diligently studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew), a printer, and a teacher. He was also exposed to the various religious developments which were particularly divisive in Switzerland. Originally a Catholic, he became loosely a Lutheran, met John Calvin, and printed the first edition of Calvin’s Christianae religionis Institutio (1536; Institutes of the Christian Religion). His marriage to Anna Dietschi, who came from a semi-bourgeois background but was herself a servant, led to a relationship which Le Roy Ladurie shows was deep and lasting but punctuated with arguments concerning money and debts, intimating that the Platters were something of a model for many modern marriages. They had four children—three daughters and one son. The bubonic and pneumonic plagues—the medieval Black Death—carried off the daughters. The son, Felix, born in 1536, survived. Anna died in 1572, and Thomas remarried within a few months to the twenty-five-year-old daughter of a Protestant pastor, fathering several more children before his own death ten years later at the age of eighty-two. During these decades, a period of...
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