THREE BEHAIM BOYS

Growing Up in Early Modern Germany

A Chronicle of Their Lives

Edited & Narrated by Steven Ozment

Yale University Press. 294 pp.$25

THE BEHAIM family coat of arms was surmounted by a phoenix. According to St. Clement of Rome, who knew more than most people about its natural history, the phoenix is a type of the resurrection. For Michael Behaim, writing to a younger cousin in 1529, it is enough to explain that "such a bird no longer exists." Of course, the same might now be said of Michael himself, and of Friedrich and Stephan Carl, who together make up the youthful trio of the title. Yet in this collection of family letters they reappear, in a life cycle that approximates the 500 years of the phoenix, to "speak" for their age and, in the opinion of Jerome Kagan, "to dissolve the four intervening centuries, permitting us to recognize at once the humanity we all share."

We know the Behaims from Steven Ozment's previous book, Magdalena and Balthasar. On the basis of that account of a 16th-century marriage, Ozment suggested that the quality of early modern family life did not greatly differ from what we consider modern. Patriarchal rhetoric sounds tough, but it can conceal a more companionate and tender reality than historians are inclined to acknowledge. "There may be worlds of difference between yesterday and today, but the past is not a different world."

Three Behaim Boys conveys a similar message. As they move through the teenage years to adulthood, from the life of students and apprentices to independence, the boys leave us in no doubt about the strangeness of their world. They see and report signs and portents. In 1529, according to Michael, an enormous star appeared in the sky. Beside it sat an old woman who was brutally struck down by a man with a bloody sword. "This really happened," Michael insists, "otherwise I would not write about it." And then, very sensibly, he adds, "What this portends one must leave to God." In 1580 Friedrich is less circumspect: The terrifying appearance of three suns and four rainbows in the afternoon sky over Nuremberg portends "violent storms and riotings among the princes" -- a fairly safe prediction in 16th-century Germany.

But these are extraordinary events, and they are recognized as such. For the most part the boys' concerns are more mundane, more familiar. Writing to their parents and guardians within elaborate conventions of deference and dependence, they agonize, boast, beg, confide and cheat their way through the uncertainties of adolescence. Pushy, ambitious Michael, dispatched at the age of 14 to a merchant apprenticeship, has little sense of a youth culture to be enjoyed. Impatient to grow up, he is quick to assert his rights and willing enough to contest them in legal conflict with his mother and in a stubbornly protracted wrangle with his master. "I will be both a man and my own man," he announces, and he means what he says, even to choosing a wife without his family's consent. "She caught my eye and I caught hers, and we were joined together by God, because He had ordained that it happen this way by his divine will." One could hardly argue with that, and especially not when the divine will included such a generous dowry.

In the quiet confines of the Altdorf Academy, Friedrich leads a more modest and contented existence. He frets at being away from home "in the manner of any modern freshman," and his mother frets in turn at the cost, which Ozment calculated was fully equal to that of a modern college education. It is the unanticipated extras that drive Frau Behaim to distraction -- money for books, for bindings, for a coat of arms to be emblazoned in a friend's heraldry book. "The more I try to find ways to save, the more you look for something useless to spend money on." In general he respects the limits of her means, and she is solicitous for his welfare. It is not only quills and quires of paper and cleaning flakes for his leather pants that she sends him, but Easter cakes and roses and cherries from the garden. And, above all, advice -- about college friends, maids, stokers, physicians and even prostitutes -- which mostly he finds helpful. OF THE THREE boys Stephan Carl is the least scrupulous and the most demanding. Determined to cut a figure among his peers, he has an eye for fashion, a thirst for beer and a supply of wild oats that is only exhausted when he meets an early death with a Dutch expeditionary force in Brazil. He also has a neat turn of phrase. "A student without money," he informs his brother guardian, "is a student without arms." He has no intention of doing without either, but for all the wilful extravagance of their prodigal, his guardians continue to support him in his ill-fated attempt to find a place in the adult world.

In a translation that is a feat of unobtrusive scholarship, these letters suggest that the experience of early modern youth -- at least for these three privileged boys -- was more self-conscious and less abandoned than we might have expected. Whether they will support the theoretical weight that Ozment wants them to bear is another matter. "Deep sources" they may be, but they do not speak for themselves, nor are they enhanced by Eltonian broadsides against "deep speculation" or against historians who subjectively remake the past in their own image. It may indeed be true that good historians "know how to vanish before their subjects," but it is, ironically, the presence of the author in this book that gives it its special poignancy. For it is about, not three boys but four, and the fourth is the subject of the dedication:

"To the memory of my dear son

MATTHEW

19 October 1960 -- 12 July 1987."

John Foster teaches German history at the University of Melbourne.