Flesh and Spirit: Private Life in Early Modern Germany. Steven Ozment. (NY: Viking, 1999)

History of the family, which ought to be a lively and interesting study, has all-too-often been turned dry-as-dust or worse, misrepresented, by medievalists. For instance, not long ago we were being told that pre-modern parents didn't care about their children because of the high rate of child mortality. Schools and popular depictions of history suggests that medieval and Renaissance families were exclusively and rigidly strict, patriarchal, and religious, and that the church and perhaps the state had a strong role in the behavior of young people and families. The role and power of women is a bone of contention, too. Those problems make this readable anecdotal study of family issues in 16th century Germany all the more welcome. Flesh and Spirit presents a very vivid picture of what life was like in 16th century Nurenberg.

Ozment portrarys the progression of  "Courtship, Marriage and Early Parenthood" along with "Teenagers into Adults" through a series of five case studies. The lively account of the courtship and engagment of Lucas Behaim and Anna Maria Pfinzing, derived from his letters, shows modern concerns in a 16th century setting. Lucas worries when his fiancee doesn't write, struggles with recalcitrant parents and reluctant inlaws about wedding arrangements, and fusses about their relationship. The descriptions of the childhoods of Christoph Schuerl's surviving sons, referenced from his accounts and diary, include endearing touches, such as when he says his oldest son "goes about in leaps. He now holds Father dearer than Mother and brother Christoph." But it also includes useful sidenotes on godparentship, religion, and fertility and infertility in period. The turbulent relations of Magdalena Behaim and her son Paul while he was away in Italy acquiring education and polish are similar to modern teenagers', and pointed up by Ozment's commentary. While 20-year-old Sebald Welser's trip to Louvain was much more sedate and less spend-thrift, Ozment concentrates on his interior conflicts of religion and morals. The struggles of Lorenz Durenhofer with his children, specifically his rebellious older son, are vivid and evocative of the modern problems of blended families; but we also hear about the professional career of a pastor.

Despite heavy documentation, the books is an engaging read. The case studies show family relationships through letters, diaries, and records. Literary comments, woodcuts excerpts from letters, political and social side notes, and vivid descriptions leaven the text. Details about family life and relationships, not only at the upper-middle-class level of the subjects but both lower and higher up the social scale, as well as snippets of everyday life, appear on nearly every page, such as a three year old boy whose favorite pastimes included horseback riding and bathing, and a young man's problems with gossipy sisters and cousins.

In the end, Ozment suggests that the strongest influence on young people in the 16th and 17th centuries was the family, and that while high standards of morals and behavior were held up to children, the true standards parents taught their children were more modest than modern parents', but that the basic family concerns are eternal.

Flesh and Spirt definitely is a meaty decription of life in the 16th century, religion, German, and family life in general. Anyone who picks it up will acquire a stronger grasp of Renaissance life as they speed through these stories.

-- Jennifer Heise, 2004