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Paper Memory: A Sixteenth-Century Townsman Writes His World
by Matthew Lundin
Harvard, 352 pages, $49.95

Hermann Weinsberg was something of a failure in life, and a total failure in death. This citizen of sixteenth-century Cologne lives on today as a historical figure precisely because of his failure to effect his post-mortem project. At his death, he left over seven thousand pages of writings he had set down in secret over nearly fifty years.

Weinsberg was the eldest son of an upwardly mobile burgher or bourgeois family, and social status was a matter of both pride and concern to him. His grandfather had risen from obscure rural origins through domestic service and a fortunate marriage to become a respectable brewer and grain merchant of Cologne, and had bought a tavern and dwelling house called Weinsberg, which was to give future generations of his family its name.

Diffident in character, not particularly studious, and seemingly without any great career ambitions, Hermann eventually took a licentiate in law but refused to proceed in the usual way to the doctorate, and at thirty made the first of his two successive, and childless, marriages to older, and prosperous, widows. He dabbled in law, sold wine, kept the books for his first wife’s thriving textile business, served in minor civic offices, and after his second wife’s death in 1573 lived off the rental income of his properties. He played no significant role in Cologne’s civic life.

He was, however, an ambitious man. He wished to turn the Haus Weinsberg into something like a cross between a modern family foundation and the entailed landed estates of pre-modern European noble families, which would perpetuate the “house” indefinitely—if not, as he desired, forever.

To that end, he wrote in complete secrecy a voluminous group of manuscripts consisting of the “Weinsberg Book,” in which he fabricated (and all but admitted to doing so) a family history going back eight centuries to the time of Charlemagne; the Gedenkbuch, or “Memory Book,” a three-volume chronicle of his life and times; and the “Memorial Book,” about his parish church.

In the first, he laid down directions for the selection of successive “Housefathers” to preside over the Weinsberg House in perpetuity, and seems to have envisaged his extensive writings to serve as a charter for his “foundation” for later generations. Into the second, he poured his observations and an immense mass of “trivial” details about his meals, dreams, recreations, religious views and perplexities, quarrels and neighborhood gossip that brings his Cologne to life.

As Lundin sees it, Weinsberg intended nothing less than to embody, and thus preserve, not just his memory, but his whole world and experience in his writings, and to leave them as a living legacy to his progeny. At the time he wrote, historians would have considered these details of quotidian life uninteresting, and even contemptible to bother to record; now, of course, they recognize them as an extraordinary window into another time.

Weinsberg recorded, if not everything, then anything. He wrote about his house and how it had changed over the decades; about the wide street in front of his house, and how the paving over of the brook that ran down its middle had changed its character; about how the Cologne dialect of German had changed in his lifetime; about his hernia; about his youthful sexual escapades (rather few and half-hearted, it appears) and often “tense” marriages; and about his dissatisfaction with his kinsmen and stepchildren.

He wrote about religion: His Catholicism was of a definite but tepid sort, which he adhered to out of family tradition and an aversion to the “novelty” of Protestantism. He disliked Calvinist iconoclasm and feared that Cologne might “turn Protestant,” yet thought that Protestant reformers had contributed to obtaining a better understanding of the meaning of the Bible. And despite the tepidity of his devotional and ascetic life, he raised and pondered “theological” questions, such as whether some Catholic saints might have been in purgatory (rather than heaven) before being canonized.

Especially, he collected news. He wanted to discover, as he put it, what he could “most truly find out.” He collected different accounts, compared them, assessed the relative likelihood and unlikelihood of the accounts and the details they contained, and drew his own conclusions.

Yet Weinsberg’s precociously modern method clashed with his social pretensions and sense of being torn between two worlds, one of them the humdrum and insignificant life he lived among his fellow citizens of Cologne, not to mention in the larger world, and the other as the recorder and perpetuator of his “house.” His writings display an assertive pride in his burgher status and are marked by a recurring resentment that those of his status were not esteemed as highly as they deserved.

The bourgeoisie, he argued, were the mainstay and support of society and commerce everywhere. Yet he also felt it necessary to concoct a noble ancestry for his family, founded, so he would have the reader believe, by a liaison between a Roman nobleman and a daughter of a German nobleman eight centuries previously.

Weinsberg’s resentment, particularly at the contrast between the manner in which noble families were able to record and preserve the memory of their ancestors while burgher families generally knew little or nothing about theirs further back than four generations, seems to have acted as a spur to his project.

The result of his schemes was, as one might expect, disaster. When he died in 1597, his brother Gottschalk was so overwhelmed by the family strife and general consternation that resulted from the disclosure of Hermann’s intentions that he stabbed himself and later died of his wounds. This left Weinsberg’s sullen and disturbed nephew, Hermann the Younger, as the putative “housefather,” but he soon murdered one of his aunts to defraud her of her portion of the inheritance. Eventually, in 1608, city authorities confiscated the physical Haus Weinsberg and sold it off, in the process confiscating Weinsberg’s manuscripts (thus, ironically, ensuring their survival in the Cologne civic archives, and forestalling their likely neglect and destruction had they become the sort of family heirloom that their author intended).

Lundin, a graduate of Wheaton College who returned to teach at his alma mater in 2011 after obtaining advanced degrees from Harvard, has written a fine book. It is neither purely a biography of Weinsberg nor a portrait of sixteenth-century Cologne, although it contains elements of both. It is above all a study of how Weinsberg sought to embody his life, experiences, and very world in the “paper memory” of a book, and thereby to preserve them in the face of death and worldly oblivion, and with the evanescence of what is termed today “oral history.”

At the same time, Paper Memory deals with the development of a kind of historical consciousness, and of Weinsberg’s concern for scrupulous accuracy in recording his own life while at the same time fabricating a past family lineage and projecting its perpetuation far into the future. Lundin argues that his “historical method” is important for both its unusual theoretical sophistication and its frequent fallings short of his own standard.

Thick in analysis and detail, Lundin’s study is not an easy read, but it deals with a subject both fascinating and bizarre. Perhaps in the future he might feel moved to use the Weinsberg papers to do for sixteenth-century Cologne what Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie did in his book Montaillou for the fourteenth-century French village of that name, based on detailed inquisitorial accounts of the actions and beliefs of the inhabitants of that last stronghold of Albigensianism. Like Montaillou, it would have every chance of being a bestseller.

William Tighe is associate professor of history at Muhlenberg College.