- Paper Memory: A Sixteenth-Century Townsman Writes His World by Matthew Lundin
Over the past twenty years, the exploration of early modern German “ego-documents”—a term now with us for over half a century—has reached unprecedented proportions. Obviously the overall social historical shift toward subjective and micro perspectives accounts for much of this interest, as does the exponential growth of various digital databases of primary sources. Early modern Germanists, however, must give near equal weight to the crucial decoupling of Selbstzeugnisse (a term many prefer to “ego-documents”) from the increasingly sterile debate about the rise of autobiography and the European “discovery of the individual.” Freed from the burden of detecting the birth of “modernity,” scholars have eagerly embraced a variety of sources found in the more inclusive categorization of “self-testimonies” and produced some remarkable results.
Matthew Lundin’s probing study of the famed Memory Book of Hermann Weinsberg (1518–1597) deserves a prominent place on that list of scholarly successes. His close reading of perhaps the best known personal account produced in sixteenth-century Germany testifies to the genre’s untapped potential as well as the author’s own considerable skill. The archival work and translations are impeccable and the prose consistently fluid and melodious. Minor qualms aside, Lundin’s book provides a model for nuanced, insightful, and fair interpretation in the exploration of such murky new sources of self-revelation.
Two interwoven themes provide the book’s narrative thrust: Weinsberg’s deep personal and social anxiety, and his attempt to assuage that pain by constructing a “paper memory” of himself and his family. His “secret project” of more than fifty years has long been utilized by modern historians for glimpses into the quotidian life of sixteenth-century Cologne’s bourgeoisie. Lundin’s own scholarly project is much more ambitious however: it seeks to make Weinsberg’s lifelong fears a synecdoche for urban German society as a whole during the same period. This aspect of the argument seems overstretched at points. Virtually all societies experience some sort of transition and subsequent anxieties, and finding a fully “typical” individual to serve as a microcosm is both impossible and unnecessary. Fortunately Lundin resists making too many generalizations from Weinsberg’s own experiences and instead focuses on the real stuff of Selbstzeugnisse: the elements of social identity with which the chronicler worked, and the ways they interacted in both his experiences and his later formulation of those experiences. [End Page 161]
Hermann Weinsberg had good reason to feel insecure. His gregarious, overbearing father was a well-known public figure, intent on his eldest son pursuing an illustrious career in medicine or the university (and even crouching outside the window of his oral exams room to judge his performance). Here as elsewhere Lundin brilliantly describes how the Memory Book reveals and at times attempts to resolve Weinsberg’s internal conflict between social ideal and reality. The “House of Weinsberg” was nowhere near as distinguished as father or son would have liked, so the son covertly constructed a fictional noble lineage for them and thought of his own memory book as an offering to both his father and their ancestors. Hermann admits that he was a bashful homebody, but strove to live up to the extroverted Hausvater’s expectations, dutifully partaking in boisterous drinking bouts with male friends—who also arranged for his sexual initiation with a prostitute.
Despite his family’s modest wealth and connections, Hermann failed as a clerical rector (he was unable to control his students), had an undistinguished undergraduate experience, was a “mediocre lawyer,” and, at age twenty-six, moved back into his parents’ house, where he sired an illegitimate daughter (his only child) with the family maid. Eventually he established a reputation as a reliable scrivener, married twice, and enjoyed a long, comfortable, middle-class life in a house just around the corner from his family home. “Middle is best,” Weinsberg writes in his chronicle, not least because that is where he both started and...