Discreet rise of a bourgeois clan

The Beggar and the Professor
September 19, 1997

Conventional rags-to-riches stories are both suspect and compelling. Their formal message that virtue is more than its own reward is dubious, so we search between the lines for strategies on how to get ahead. In The Beggar and the Professor, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie adopts some conventions, adapts others, and revises his view of history in the process. His wry assessments make his subjects more human than virtuous. His analysis of how they got ahead is clear and remarkably current. What is more compelling about this story is the fact that the author chose to tell it at all. Le Roy Ladurie is a social historian best known for works like Montaillou (1975), which emphasise the fixed social and natural structures that determined life in late medieval France. He here describes some able and opportunistic individuals manipulating structures for advancement in a remarkably open society.

The beggar in our tale is Thomas Platter (1499-1582), rural orphan, rope-maker, self-taught classical scholar, teacher, and the first publisher of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. The professor is his son Felix (1536-1614), who fulfilled his father's ambitions by becoming a medical doctor, a professor, and an eminently respectable burgher in Basel. The supporting cast includes an "autumn" child, Thomas Jr (b.1574); a somewhat shrewish wife Anna, and enough walk-on characters to people two Dickens novels. Le Roy Ladurie takes his raw material from the personal chronicles which the three Platter men wrote. These have been remarkably popular documents. Over 50 editions of some or all of the three chronicles have appeared since 1724, including some in Italian, French, Japanese, and English.

The Platter story is usually told in conventional rags-to-riches fashion with the focus on Thomas senior. His improbable but steady rise through a variety of occupations and business ventures demonstrates that early modern society was more open than most social histories suggest. Le Roy Ladurie focuses instead on the less-colourful Felix. His biography takes us beyond the ripping yarns of Thomas's life to the process by which a bourgeois professional elite takes shape. The process is at once deliberate and opportunistic. Careful educational preparation and the cultivation of patrons are invaluable, but as often as not his steady progress up the social ladder is made possible by plague knocking off those above him. How you rise counts less than how you consolidate each higher position. By focusing on this process Le Roy Ladurie turns a biography aimed at a general audience into a valuable microhistory which complements structure-oriented social histories.

That said, this is not a page-turner. Reading early modern chronicles can be like viewing the family photo album with a gossipy relative: great events and small are given equal space on the page, and every person encountered or place visited is described in detail. Le Roy Ladurie conveys that character more successfully than most readers would wish him to. He occasionally stumbles when stepping back to offer the big picture, drawing on some creaky characterisations to fill in explanatory gaps. The Renaissance and the Reformation make their frequent appearance as periods with a distinct character which somehow determine the actions of the various Platters. It has been years since any historian could ask with a straight face, "Did the Renaissance come to outweigh the Reformation in Felix's life?" Frequent nationalist characterisations - such as the claim that Germans were prone to drunkenness while the French were characteristically moderate - seem rooted more in old xenophobic stereotypes than in credible scholarship. Yet on the whole, Le Roy Ladurie is sure-footed with his main theme, and tells the story of the Platters' rise into the urban professional elite without abstraction or romanticism.

Nicholas Terpstra is associate professor of history, Luther College, University of Regina.

The Beggar and the Professor: A 16th-Century Family Saga

Author - Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
ISBN - 0 226 47323 6
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £23.95
Pages - 407

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