Book review / Whoppers from the burgher king

The Beggar and the Professor by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Chicago University Press, pounds 29.95

Soap-opera fans would love the European 16th century. Routine family squabbles were heightened by convulsive social change, religious conflict, rampant inflation, intrusive rulers and the sudden disasters inflicted by sickness and childbirth. Meanwhile, in a favourite image of the time, the wheel of fortune churned those who clung to it between rags and riches.

The Platter family of Basle wrote their own saga: three generations left colourful memoirs or journals, backed up by letters. Their involvement in the business of medicine brought them close to life-and-death stories. Their student days, vividly described, provide comic relief. Their scientific interests gave them a privileged window onto exciting novelties. Their Protestantism made them part of a radical vanguard, Their deals, dalliances and devotions involved them in loves and hatreds.

Instead of adapting it for the screen, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has turned their story into a history book. The author of Montaillou has a great gift for winkling the human interest out of old documents, but the Platters defy attempts to re-write their own works. They did the job too well themselves in the first place. Le Roy Ladurie makes a tactical mistake in foreclosing on the youngest generation. His story of one father and one son is unsatisfyingly limited. He crowds the pages with minor characters, of whom too little is known to make them interesting. Although he does an excellent job of fixing the chronology and using unpublished material from letters, he takes an uncritical view of the strange feats of memory which produced parts of the memoirs - especially those of the dynasty's founder, who surely recalled his early life with the exaggerations that come easily in old age.

Time is wasted on an irrelevant and inaccurate round-up of news from all over the world at a representative moment of the story. Some episodes are discarded with bewildering rapidity; descriptions of some journeys are long and colourless. Le Roy Ladurie is a master of the representative detail and uses the Platters' lives as a means to see a whole century "through a glass, darkly"; but some of his attempts to draw wider significance from small events are cute or embarrassing. With typical infelicity, when one of his characters, who is Swiss, prefers "to be a butcher than a priestling", the author adds, "The anticlericalism that would become such a prominent feature of French politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries clearly had deep roots."

Despite these defects, the Platter story is good enough to grip. Le Roy Ladurie represents it as "a saga of social ascent in the story of a transmission of learning", which turns an ex-goatherd into an ornament of Basle society. Education ennobled in the 16th century, and Thomas Platter the elder was a worker of demonic energy, mastering the classics in the rare intervals of leisure which poverty allowed. Honour and prosperity were his reward - though not quite enough of either for his son to escape opprobrium for his affectation of aristocratic dress.

His life as a schoolmaster brought its own forms of frustration. Thomas's daughter-in-law, who came from a richer home, could not stand having noisy pupils on the premises. The "career plan" Ladurie identifies - to become a rural landowner - was abandoned by the next generation, which had solidly bourgeois tastes.

Yet the Platters' lives do not seem quite to have happened in the world Le Roy Ladurie depicts, riven between emulous classes. Thomas rose not from class to class but from estate to estate in a society based on family structures and vertically arrayed communities. It is true that he kept goats in childhood, followed a mendicant's vocation while wandering in search of learning, and supported himself as a ropemaker for a while. But he always had prospects from the benevolence of his copious kin. Destined for the priesthood - as many promising boys were for the dignity of their impoverished families - he got more help in his quest for education than he later cared to admit. A legacy came from his mother, a loan from his uncle and gifts of butter, cheese and eggs from 72 female cousins at a critical stage.

What really drove the Platters in their relentless efforts to acquire qualifications and clients? Was it the love of learning which Thomas Platter genuinely evinced or, as Le Roy Ladurie, believes, social ambition? For Thomas's eldest surviving son, we are told, "social success was not far from happiness". But he was a conscientious physician, willing to treat the poor and needy as well as the reputable and rich.

His father took pride in his place in the acceptance world of Basle burghers, but never forgot bis own early hardships and showed compassion, for instance, on the pauper orphan the Platters adopted. It was a Platter family characteristic to be ruled by conscience and whim as much as by calculation of advantage.

As Le Roy Ladurie sees it, the world through which the Platters moved was divided not only by differences of class but also of religion and ethnicity. Early conversion to Protestantism diverted Thomas from his intended career in the Church; but the violence we often associate with the Reformation hardly touched his family's life. Le Roy Ladurie has found - somewhat to his own surprise - that Thomas and his son matured into broad-mindedness as "ultradogmatic orthodoxy was gradually supplanted by tolerance and a kind of eclectic devotion". Thomas's heir even contemplated making the Santiago pilgrimage, without forsaking any of his evangelical self-consciousness. He was influenced - as the author shows - by the religion of friends of Jewish ancestry.

He was more impressed by differences between Germanic and Romance language- zones than between the rival confessions among which he lived. The German- speakers had their own culture, symbolised in the frequent drunkenness with which Platter and his boon-companions offended the respectable during their student-days in Montpellier.

The Platters' main works about themselves are all available in good English translations and their extraordinary lives and complex characters can be enjoyed in their own words. Le Roy Ladurie's book is helpful in sorting out chronological problems and gathering a selection of thrilling anecdotes within a single pair of covers. Readers can smile at the antics of child beggars, marvel at the comradely violence with which friends maltreated each other, chuckle at the perils of courtship and raise eyebrows at the cosy corruption with which examinations for a doctorate were conducted in the Platters' Basle. The 16th century is displayed not so much through a glass darkly as in isolated little pools of vivid light.

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