Private Life in Early Modern Germany

By Steven Ozment

Viking. 345 pp. $27.95

Reviewed by Laurent Cartayrade

Harvard historian Steven Ozment's latest book is a collection of five stories about growing up, getting married, and raising children among the social elite of the merchant city of Nuremberg in Germany at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Based on private letters and diaries, its unfolds for us "the ordinary life of extraordinary people."

It is not, however, the book of an antiquarian. Beyond the particular families whose history he chronicles, Ozment's true subject is the nuclear family, an institution, he says, "at the core of the discipline that holds society together." Back in the good old days, it instilled solid values in its members: "knowing one's place, not rocking the boat, playing the cards life has dealt one, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile." Such advice, Ozment concedes, may now sound unappealing, smacking as it does of "docility and subservience rather than heroic self-affirmation and the righting of social ills and injustice." Obviously, it does not sit well with the "high ideals of individualism and egalitarianism that grip much of the modern world today." But make no mistake: "Upon closer examination" it will reveal itself "wise beyond its modesty."

The book is, however, more than a mere conservative paean to the family as the best bulwark of established hierarchies. The family, Ozment assures us, "has saved civilization in the past and may be counted on to do so again in the future." To put it in less dramatic terms, Ozment believes that the family secretes its own civilized values, essential to the success and survival of human societies, values that it alone can successfully and durably nurture. It does so against the often contrary pressures of "state, church, and society-at-large," entities it has historically resisted as often as it has served them.

To Ozment, the nuclear family and the private space it defines are the natural and necessary locus of the highest and most universal forms of personal fulfillment and happiness, the primary source and ultimate refuge of everything that's truly human and humane. It is to convince us of this that he has drawn this group portrait of the nuclear family in its pristine state, before the nefarious rise of "individualism and egalitarianism."

But even the most sympathetic reader will notice that Ozment's material often fails to support his conclusions, and sometimes flatly contradicts them. Past generations knew, he claims, that it takes a family, not a village, to raise a child. This sounds strange at the end of a book that precisely shows, if nothing else, that raising a child was a much more collective undertaking in the 16th century than nowadays. How to take seriously his assertion that "for all its hierarchy and patriarchy, that same family has been the nonconformist's best friend and protector," in the light of what he tells us of the attempt by a few nuns' newly Protestant parents to force their unwilling daughters to return to secular life? A particularly stubborn one was dragged home bleeding from a blow her mother dealt her.

The reluctance of these women to re-enter the marriage market might have given Ozment pause in his relentless cheerleading for family life, its pleasures, joys and delights. Actually, paying any attention to women at all would have given him pause. But Ozment's family is a mostly male affair. We are told in excruciating details of the actions, thoughts and feelings of fathers, husbands and sons. Meanwhile, mothers, wives and daughters are little more than vague silhouettes in the background. Bias of the sources? No doubt, but it is the duty of the historian to correct such a bias rather than to reinforce it. Could it be that 10 failed pregnancies gave Katherina Scheurl an outlook on family life slightly different from her husband's? What about the wife of Lorenz Duernhofer, whose husband continued to impregnate her even after illness made her pregnancies a pointless torture? Ozment never even considers the possibility of a particularly female (and maybe less enthusiastic) experience of the family.

Working women into the family picture might have made it less sunny but also, I suspect, less dull. Bent on showcasing the deep humanity and universal appeal of traditional family life, Ozment ends up offering us a kind of 16th-century "Family Circus," a parade of eager but respectful suitors, wise fathers doting on mischievous toddlers, mildly rebellious teenagers who soon turn out to be chips off the old blocks, all engaged in the minutiae of everyday life. We're supposed to be delighted. We're mostly bored. In the end, all that's left of the book in the reader's memory is the tired and tiresome family-values screed on which it concludes. As if we needed one more.

Laurent Cartayrade is a historian living in Washington.