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  • Philipp Jaffé and His Stepmother, 1855:Three Letters
  • Daniel R. Schwartz

Philipp JaffÉ (1819-1870), one of Germany's foremost medievalists, lived most of his life in Berlin. He produced an immense scholarly oeuvre and eventually rose to an adjunct professorship at the University of Berlin, as well as to an appointment—dashed by his death—to a full professorship at the University of Bonn. But he was also a Polish Jew, born in Schwersenz, a mostly Jewish town near Posen (now Poznanń). Jaffé's recently published letters, roughly half to his colleagues and half to his family in Posen, show very clearly the chasm between his heartfelt attachment to family, on the one hand, and his devotion to history—to what he described, in letters to his parents, as the "muse which I serve" and "the objects of my study, which make my life worth living" (PJL 58, 109)—on the other.1

Jaffé, a highly successful and prolific scholar, whose Berlin professorship was in "auxiliary historical sciences," specialized in historical philology: the discovery, editing, and elucidation of the Latin texts used in the study of medieval German history. After growing up in Schwersenz and Posen, which were undergoing Prussification, he moved to Berlin in 1838 for an apprenticeship in business and stayed on as a historian. His life divides roughly into a few critical periods: the 1840s, when he was first a student and then an independent scholar in Berlin; the 1851 publication of his magnum opus, Regesta pontificum romanorum (which summarizes more than 11,000 papal documents down to 1198); a four-year detour [End Page 87] into medical school and a failed medical practice;2 the decade 1854–63, perhaps the happiest of his life, during which he edited medieval Latin texts for the Monumenta Germaniae historica (MGH), a Berlin research project directed by Georg Heinrich Pertz; and the last seven years of his life, during which he did the same largely as an independent scholar, competing with the MGH and feuding with Pertz. Those final years culminated in the publication of six massive volumes of his Bibliotheca rerum Germanicarum (1864–73).

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Figure 1.

Hand-illustrated letter from Philipp Jaffé to his stepmother Pauline Jaffé née Berlak, December 10, 1855 (PJL 69; see below for translation). Original in the possession of Moshe Kruskal, Jerusalem.

But only five of those volumes appeared in his lifetime. That was because Jaffé committed suicide in April 1870, shooting himself early one Sunday morning in a Wittenberge guesthouse. The precise catalyst for that decision is not clear,3 but generally it may be said that although working as an independent scholar allowed him full freedom, it also [End Page 88] entailed considerable isolation. Jaffé was something of a workaholic, working—virtually always alone—day and night. Already in 1864 he seems to have suffered something of a burnout, which led him to take a long Swiss vacation and to beg his mother to find him a wife (PJL 160: "the sooner, the better"). But after that vacation he reverted to his old work habits, whose isolation appears to have been debilitating. When one adds to that a good bit of acerbic feuding with scholarly competitors, it is not difficult to believe his friend, the great historian Theodor Mommsen (Nobel Prize laureate for literature in 1902), who, a few days after the suicide, explained that Jaffé had simply become "tired of life."

A major element in Jaffé's sequestration was his virtual lack of family. But here the picture is complicated. Note, first of all, that his mother died when he was two (at the birth of his oldest sister); the "theuerste Mutter" who figures prominently in his surviving letters was in fact his stepmother—his father's second wife, Pauline née Berlak (1809–1900), who entered Jaffé's life when he was around ten years old. Accordingly, three of the four "geliebte Schwestern" mentioned so often in his letters were half-sisters, and more than a decade younger to boot. One might therefore think it not surprising that, after moving to Berlin, he had very little real contact with his...


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