Magdalena and Balthasar

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Traditionally, history has been the study of past politics, of wars and treaties, of the lives and times of philosophers and kings. That continues to be true, but only partly. Historians and their readers are becoming increasingly interested in social history, particularly the lives of the “common people,” however that term might be defined. This “new history,” as it is sometimes called, is really not so new at all, as Steven Ozment shows in this well-crafted little volume devoted to a middle-class couple from sixteenth century Nuremberg, whose letters were uncovered in a local archive and published in 1895. Now these letters, translated, arranged, edited, and illuminated by a creative and well-informed scholar, provide the American reader with a window into everyday life four centuries ago.

Magdalena Behaim and Balthasar Paumgartner belonged to prominent merchant families in one of the most bustling European cities north of the Alps. In the twentieth century, the name Nuremberg calls to mind visions of endless columns of marching Nazis, of laws which institutionalized racist prejudices, and of post-World War II trials that sought justice. In the sixteenth century, however, Nuremberg meant guildsmen and merchants, the encompassing walls of an Imperial Free City, and the Renaissance culture of Hans Sachs and Albrecht Dürer. The city had some thirty-five thousand inhabitants at the time, and the rosters of its councils contained the family names Behaim and Paumgartner again and again. Yet when Magdalena and Balthasar were betrothed in 1582, neither was in a position of great wealth or power. Throughout their lives they remained solidly middle class, she a wife and mother, he a merchant traveling each year to market fairs in Italy and the German states, striking deal after deal to keep the family business going. Whenever he was away, the two corresponded regularly, leaving a fascinating though tantalizingly incomplete record of themselves and their world. The reader sees them first as a young couple in love, then as business partners, as parents of a child in declining health, and finally as aging adults seeking to avoid illness and to maintain a proper relationship with their God in the Lutheran faith.

Steven Ozment, a professor of history at Harvard University, and a gentle partisan of the “new history,” has organized the letters around these themes, ignoring strict chronology when it suits his purpose and occasionally repeating himself when it seems convenient to do so. He has numerous scholarly books and articles to his credit; this one seems to be intended more for leisure reading. (Indeed, it might make a very nice wedding gift.) Of the 169 letters in the German original, he publishes only fourteen in their entirety. From the others there are fragments where they are meaningful to the story he tells. There is no index. The scholarly apparatus is discretely understated in unnumbered back notes. Simon and Schuster has printed and bound the book in such a way as to give it a modest but special attractiveness. It is no glossy coffee-table book, but, with its occasional sixteenth century prints and manuscript facsimiles, it is a publication of genuine quality.

Ozment has written elsewhere that “new historians are particularly devoted to popular or vernacular culture—the study of the masses, the simple folk.” He realizes that Herr and Frau Paumgartner were not from the lower ranks of their society. Nuremberg struck a commemorative medallion for Balthasar upon his death. Magdalena had unusual ability. “I do not know,” Ozment writes, “of another example in the sixteenth century of a woman speaking her mind so...

(The entire section is 1498 words.)