The Beggar amd the Professor: A Sixteenth-Century Family Saga

By Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
Chicago : University of Chicago (1997). 407 Pages.

Reviewed by
10.2 (Fall 1999) : 309-310

Ladurie’s brilliant microhistory of Thomas and Felix Platter, two generations of the Platter family in the religious, social, and political ferment of sixteenth-century Europe epitomizes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “. . . [T]here is properly no history, only biography.” The Beggar and the Professor is not a mere biographical sketch, nor is it inventive history. It is a tapestry of political, social, and religious history woven around the lives of two unique individuals in Reformation Europe.

The rich archival and autobiographical materials on the lives of Thomas, Sr., Felix, and Thomas Platter, Jr., have precipitated numerous explorations by historians and scholars over the last several centuries. The story of Thomas and Felix Platter is one of social and religious mobility in sixteenth-century Europe. Readers interested in church history in general, and the Reformation particularly, will find The Beggar and the Professor fascinating for its historical detail. Ladurie offers the reader more than biographical documentation or family history. He contextualizes the Platters into the political, theological, cultural, geographical, and social milieu that defines sixteenth-century Europe.

Beginning with Thomas Platter, Sr., Ladurie traces the chronologic transformation of the elder Platter from a peasant beggar wandering Europe, to that of a respectable professor and leading citizen of Basel, Switzerland. Following the discussion of Thomas, Sr., Ladurie chronicles the life, and particularly the education, of Thomas’ son Felix as a young medical doctor. Anecdotal illustrations provide color to the rich history that surrounds the narrative of both men. The reading is both informative and entertaining.

Though historical contextualization and evidence of scholarship are superb, several points of concern arise. Readers interested in Reformation history will enjoy the accounts of the elder Platter serving as a messenger for Zwingli (32), the Platters’ various meetings with John Calvin (68-69, 160), and the publishing of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion by the family printing business. However, readers will notice that the author is less than tolerant of the “intolerant” Reformers and resorts to his own form of literary iconoclasm in the book. Ladurie refers to Calvin as the “. . . future dictator of Geneva” (68) and comments that Thomas, Sr.’s faith “. . . had come a long way from the fanatical iconoclasm of his youth, a period in which he had suffered from the infantile disorder of hysterical ultradogmatic orthodoxy. By now his religious convictions no longer blinded him or confined him to an ideological dungeon” (149). References to Thomas, Sr., being seeped in “. . . Joshua-styled iconoclasm and fanaticism” (374 n. 3) and other similar statements abound throughout the narrative. Such pejorative apothegms may be amusing to certain historians less sympathetic to the Reformation, but the language diminishes the objective credibility of Ladurie’s history and cheapens the quality of this otherwise excellent work. Many readers who appreciate the contributions of the Protestant Reformation will find such comments intellectually irritating and personally distasteful.

The Beggar and the Professor lacks a preface by the translator which might assist the reader in understanding translational decision-making. The author’s preface provided is rather brief for a work of this magnitude. A fuller preparatory treatment would add significantly to setting expectations and informing readers of the historical methodology employed by the author.

Ladurie concludes the text with a reference bibliography that highlights the rich sources utilized in this text. Following other historians, a fuller “bibliographic essay” which discusses the existing literature and reviews source materials in a narrative format would be a welcome addition. Also, a more detailed elaboration on the use of previous translations and historical works would assist the English reader in discerning whether the author is relying on primary archival sources or previous historical treatments. The Beggar and the Professor is well-notated and supplemented with photos, maps, and sketches. The book includes an index for locating areas of interest.

Finally, Ladurie challenges contemporary notations of social stratification (325-326). However he fails to elaborate in his discussion. This reviewer would tend to agree with the author’s observations, but the subject is worthy of a fuller treatment, especially given the ramifications of social mobility exhibited by the Platter family. Researchers grounded in qualitative research techniques would quickly raise questions concerning the ability to generalize the Platter’s experience and regard it as normative.

Aside from certain authorial swipes at Protestantism, this work is a fascinating narrative providing the reader with color and perspective lacking in many modern histories. Readers interested in the social and cultural context of sixteenth-century Europe will find the book delightful reading and illustrative of the potential of good historical narrative.