- Noble Strategies: Marriage and Sexuality in the Zimmern Chronicle
The Zimmern Chronicle, written about a noble family during the 1560s, is one of the richest and most colorful sources for elite early modern German culture. It is also one of the most challenging. The Chronicle is at once a political treatise, a [End Page 602] valorization of the Zimmern ancestry, a lesson in history, and a grand literary deception. While it is replete with accounts of the births, marriages, and deaths of Zimmern family members and their aristocratic milieu, the Chronicle is probably most famous for its imaginative descriptions of historical events and its Schwänke: amusing, didactic, and often invented stories, recounting the moral and sexual misconduct of the princely and non-princely Swabian nobility.
These tales and their uncertain provenance make the Chronicle a difficult source for social historians to use, and no one knows this better than Judith Hurwich. Long a student of the Chronicle, her previous works have depended on it to provide evidence for comparative studies of inheritance among English and German aristocracies, as well as for studies of the marriage strategies of the southwest German nobility. These earlier articles are very much in evidence in her first book, Noble Strategies: Marriage and Sexuality in the Zimmern Chronicle. In this new work, Hurwich acknowledges the complexity of this particular source: "Even though the chronicle is a mixture of fact and fiction," she writes, "it provides a unique insight into the values of Swabian nobles of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and indicates the assumptions the chronicler expected his audience to share" (14). Using both the "mentalités approach and the historical demographic approach," Hurwich introduces the Zimmern family and its chronicle in chapter 1, and then divides the book into three parts: family strategy, marriage, and sexuality. Of each topic she asks whether German nobles "actually differ in their attitudes and behavior" from their aristocratic counterparts in other European countries (5).
Hurwich focuses, in the first two sections, on patterns of inheritance and marriage between 1400 and 1700. She compares family and marriage strategies of Swabian nobles to other German nobility and then to broader European traditions of property devolution and spousal selection. Unlike other European elites, who depended on primogeniture to insure the continuity of family lineages, Hurwich has found that before 1650 German nobles preferred to divide their properties among their offspring — a group she calls "a community of heirs" — through various methods of partible inheritance (31). As aristocracies in England and France struggled to meet the economic demands of escalating dowries and the restrictions primogeniture imposed on them, partible inheritance assured German noble families of a certain equality among inheriting male siblings and helped to fix dowries for their daughters. Hurwich's analysis of these patterns is important and well-argued. She has examined and consolidated comparative studies from the last several decades, in particular, those of Karl-Heinz Spiess and Lawrence Stone. Her tables help to clarify difficult and often complicated subjects: divisions of estates, ages at marriage, and percentages of sons and daughters who married. Less convincing are the anecdotal accounts from the Chronicle meant to exemplify these practices. Since the nineteenth century, historians have been stymied by the problem of how to discern the real events in the Chronicle from the imaginary. Because the chronicler himself acknowledged that he often deliberately blurred the line [End Page 603] between fact and fiction, one must question whether this is the best source for a statistical analysis of marriage and inheritance patterns.
Nonetheless, the Zimmern Chronicle is exactly the right source for the final section of this book, where Hurwich has drawn on the chronicler's own views of sexuality, concubines, and his "hostility to bastards" to discuss the mentalités of Germany's noble families (251). In these chapters, the pathos — some might argue the bathos — of the Swabian nobility emerges. Count Froben Christoph von Zimmern was...