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  • Schreiben für Status und Herrschaft: Deutsche Autobiographik in Spätmittelalter und früher Neuzeit
  • James A. Parente Jr.
Barbara Schmid . Schreiben für Status und Herrschaft: Deutsche Autobiographik in Spätmittelalter und früher Neuzeit. Zurich: Chronos Verlag, 2006. 255 pp. index. append. bibl. €32. ISBN: 978-3-0340-0765-5.

Late medieval and early modern autobiography in the Holy Roman Empire has attracted much scholarly attention since the 1980s. Literary scholars such as Horst Wenzel, Gabriele Kees, and Hans Rudolf Velten have written extensively on texts from 1300-1600, one of the least-studied periods in the German canon, and their works have significantly broadened our understanding of the wide range of documents that fall under the autobiographical rubric. Barbara Schmid carefully positions her own contribution within this rich literary-historical context, demarcating her theoretical approach from previous work and underscoring her new empirical additions to the known corpus of texts. Building on the scholarship produced since 1980s, Schmid aims to combine its social-historical approach with literary-historical observations while illuminating many new examples of secular autobiographical writing that she has diligently retrieved from the archives. Although her methodology yields few new insights, her work contains a valuable account of a wide range of autobiographical writing from the South German urban [End Page 1319] bourgeoisie, patricians, and landed aristocracy, and useful observations about the writings produced by a network of writers at South German, chiefly Hapsburg, courts. Many of these texts, especially those of the urban writers, remain in manuscript, and Schmid reproduces a few of them in the appendices. Her original investigation of the family archive of the Behaim merchant family serves as an elaborate illustration of the complex social network in which generations of a single leading family operated and managed their affairs.

German approaches to the study of autobiography have been overshadowed by two towering figures, Jacob Burkhardt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Burkhardt's notion of the rise of individuality and modern subjectivity during the Renaissance misled earlier critics into regarding autobiography as the locus for the emerging concept of the self. Goethe's autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit, the quintessential exemplar of the attainment of social identity through Bildung, also misdirected scholars to concentrate solely on autobiographical works with similar teleological ambitions. But late medieval and early modern autobiographies are rarely as tidy and elegant as literary scholars would like, and Schmid does an admirable job of eschewing anachronistic readings and uncovering the stylistic complexity of these frequently disjointed writings.

Regardless of their point of origin, be it at court or in the city, early modern autobiographies in the German Empire were written to render a historical account of the past, memorialize a particular family's achievements, legitimize the social status of its members, catalog their wealth and successes, and provide moral instruction and practical advice for their heirs. Some family accounts were directed to a small circle of readers, many of whom were related to an extended network of close relations and intimate friends, but many patricians and the nobility preferred to create works that were intended through their opulent appearance and historical record of enviable achievements to impress their contemporaries. Schmid carefully teases out the differences between the urban bourgeoisie's "Geschlechterbücher," works aiming to overwhelm others through the power of a family's genealogy; the more intimate "Hausbü cher " designed almost exclusively for family readers; and memoirs preserved in family archives that glorify a family's accomplishments and simultaneously underscore the magnificence of the physical site in which their histories are stored. She provides several examples of bourgeois autobiographical writers whose works provide a remarkable insight into the daily lives and landmark events of an individual family, an account of the acquisition and loss of wealth and property, milestones in the personal life of the autobiographer (chiefly travel abroad), and lessons for posterity.

In the second section, Schmid turns to autobiographical writing among the nobility, especially among kings and emperors. She presents Emperor Charles IV's use of the personal memoir to legitimize his claim to the empire over Ludwig of Bavaria; Friedrich III's account of the political upheavals in the early years of his reign...


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pp. 1319-1321
Launched on MUSE
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Archive Status
Archived 2009
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