Flesh on the bones of life

THE BEGGAR AND THE PROFESSOR: A Sixteenth-Century Family Saga by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie Chicago pounds 23.95
This translation of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's latest book, published in France two years ago, brings another of his extraordinary historical works to an English audience. The reconstructive technique of which Ladurie's Montaillou and Carnival were famous examples is applied in this case to the memoirs and autobiographies of three generations of the Platter family who originated in the Valais region of Switzerland and settled in Basel during the early years of the 16th century. Between them, Thomas Platter and his sons wrote thousands of pages of journals, letters, travelogues and treatises, yet came from completely illiterate peasant stock. By piecing together the sources and filling out the context as fully as possible, Ladurie presents an extremely detailed portrait of a tough and ambitious Swiss family emerging into prosperity and renown, and of a whole Iayer of European society stepping forward from the Renaissance into a recognisably modern world.

Thomas Platter was born in the last year of the 15th century and lived until 1582, begetting six children by his second wife in his last decade. Many of his children died, as had his father, from plague, and it seems little short of a miracle that Thomas avoided it himself, living as he did a life of extreme hardship, deprivation and filth for his first 25 years (as an apprentice, he picked crumbs out of the floorboards to eat and underwent his first, and possibly only, bath in 1526). As a fatherless pauper child whose only skill was herding goats, Thomas appeared to have little scope for self-improvement, but a local Bishop encouraged him to think of the priesthood - an ironic suggestion, since Thomas was to become a first-wave "heretic" of the Reformation. After a decade of memorising texts while wandering the Swiss highlands with a begging gang, he managed to struggle into basic literacy at the age of 21. After that there was no holding back, and Thomas began to teach at schools, then at the University of Basel, mastering three ancient languages and acquiring the title of Professor.

Thomas's conversion to the Reformation happened in concert with his dawning literacy, and he followed many of the most able heretic intellectuals into the lucrative printing trade, meeting Erasmus and Zwingli and publishing Calvin's Christianae religionis institutio in 1536. Ladurie charts the fervid intellectual life of Basel at the period in fascinating detail. Whether they were publishing, teaching, writing or conducting miniature religious wars between cantons, everything was infected with a sense of urgency, perhaps another effect of living under the constant threat of the plague. Certainly, by the time Thomas's son Felix was growing up, the family's Protestantism was so firmly established that on his extensive travels as a student in France, Felix was able to visit churches and cathedrals for purely aesthetic purposes, whereas a generation before, his father had been busy burning effigies.

Felix was a true man of the Renaissance, a music-loving, clothes-conscious, social-climbing young doctor, addicted to sweetmeats and investigating dead animals. For lovers of period grotesque there is plenty to go on here, from the weekend jaunts round graveyards in search of cadavers to play with, to the meals of cat pate washed down with a pint of milk and pepper. Dissection was the leisure activity of the moment; Thomas Platter and his friends had almost been arrested for murder after one incident when they tried to frighten off beggars by waving bits of dead criminal in their faces (it worked). As a child, Felix was fond of killing small birds - "with tears in his eyes" - so that he could investigate the veins in their thighs. None of the Platter family however could quite match the fervour of their friend Rondelet in this field, who dissected his own sister-in-law, first wife and stillborn child, a pretty extreme example of taking educational opportunities as you find them.

Ladurie's book is packed with matter - with notable sections on the grape harvest in Languedoc, the growth of Paris, the print trade - and he allows very little room for speculation, jibing at "psychoanalysts who pose as historians" in a pre-emptive strike against readers who might think his approach rather literal-minded at times, even naive. Sex, for example, seems almost entirely absent from the Platters' lives and motivations because it is not something they wrote about; this makes them appear chilly and unsympathetic husbands in Ladurie's chronicle, and surely this could be as much a disservice to the truth as the methods he is trying to avoid. In his keenness not to deviate from the records, much goes unremarked, especially in relation to the Platter women, stranded in their own dark age of illiteracy. Take for instance this interestingly detailed description of Felix Platter's wedding clothes: "red silk doublet, flesh-coloured breeches, a wedding shirt with short ruff, gold pins, and gilt collar, and a velvet doctoral cap with a braid of pearls and flowers encircling the base where it rested on the groom's head. The bride wore a flesh-coloured blouse that matched the groom's breeches." The source is Felix's memoirs. All he can remember about the bride's outfit is where it matched his own.

The couple's failure to have children was blamed on Madlen, who was deemed frigid as well as barren, but something of this shadowy figure's character manages to seep through. She could not leave a set of memoirs to corroborate or contradict her husband's, but spent at least three years making the nearest thing to a public statement available to women, a pair of tapestries depicting the story of Abraham's barren wife Sarah and his mistress Hagar. Ladurie notes the persistence - almost to obsession in her later years - of Madlen's interest in this theme, but refuses, as it were, to be "drawn" over it. To do so, in his terms, would be impertinent.

This may be frustrating to the reader who wants the historian to reinterpret as well as reassemble the past, but where the method pays off, in matters of telling detail, it does so triumphantly. Take the little girl who fell into the Rhine when a bridge collapsed and was fished out unconscious, but still clutching the mustard pot she had been sent to buy, and four sous in change. Or the woman who visited Felix's house occasionally to look at her son's skeleton, one of his dissection exhibits, or the sigh that escaped from Felix's host in Montpellier when he thought of his own student sons, lodged far away in Switzerland. Only history can be quite so present.