A Sixteenth-Century Townsman Writes His World
By Matthew Lundin
Harvard University Press – £36.95
If, like me, you’ve ever wondered what it must have been like to have lived in the past, then maybe Paper Memory – A Sixteenth-Century Townsman Writes His World is a book you should read. Written by Matthew Lundin, it tells the story of Hermann Weinsberg, an eccentric everyman of sorts, who took it upon himself to prepare a timeless, trajectorial dissertation of what it was like to have lived during said period in Germany.
Within the parameters of more than fifty years and a thousand pages, Weinsberg dedicated much of his time to writing his life’s work; the so-called Gedenkbuch or Memory Book; the execution of which ”had an almost magical quality to preserve life – to ”renew, restore, and resurrect that which is forgotten and dead.””
It might be said that for all intents and idiosyncratic purposes, his perusal ”to forge a writtten legacy” contained and traversed everything to do with everyday life. Hence my description of him as being an everyman of sorts – as he appears to have noted all things of a private nature, as well as that of all social sundry. The end result being that each chapter ”sheds light on a larger sixteenth-century phenomenon: lay literacy (Chapter 1), Renaissance family life (Chapter 2), patriarchal ideas (Chapter 3), bourgeois values (Chapter 4), anti-clericalism and religious uncertainty (Chapter 5), anxieties about oblivion and memory (Chapter 6), private writing and self-representation (Chpater7), and finally print and historical awareness (Chapter 8).
From descriptions of Weinsberg’s favourite meals through to quarreling neighbours; from confessions of his private hopes/fears through to the patriarch of principle; there is very little herein that both protagonist and author haven’t touched upon. In fact, Lundin partially touches on the patriarch of principle in the first chapter, ‘A Secret Legacy,’ wherein he writes: Though a respected city-councillor and lawyer in one of Germany’s largest and most Catholic cities, Hermann Weinsberg ranked well below Cologne’s most illustrious men. And while his diligent work as a parish churchwarden and civic officer had earned him the respect of his contemporaries, he was unlikely to be remembered for his public deeds. Two marriages to wealthy widows had brought him a decent income […]. A humanist trained lawyer, his favourite motto was ”blessed are those who hold to the mean.” At least outwardly, he had proved true to his word, living frugally as a middling burgher and praying for ”necessities in moderation, between riches and poverty.””
Moreover, it’s interesting to learn that Weinsberg was married twice to two ”wealthy widows.”
I’m sure things would have turned out mighty differently had he been married to two paupers of middling design, bordering on destitution. So much so, I very much doubt we’d have ever had the opprtunity to even know about his Gedenkbuch. Let alone read it.
That said, as Harvard University’s Ann Blair has written on the back cover: ”Lundin deftly analyzes Weinsberg’s unique writings in order to capture his personal response to the broad cultural developments of his time and place, from the rise of humanism to the religious violence that accompanied the splintering of Christianity.”