Kaspar Von Greyerz
Research on first-person
writing in Switzerland
1. Research and
editions before the 1990’s
2. New editions
3. Data bank
4. French speaking Switzerland
5. New analyses
6. Problems and tasks
of future Swiss research
7. What does the Swiss experience suggest for a European project?
In what follows, I will concentrate on first-person writing from the pre-modern
world. In other words, I will consciously avoid saying much about nineteenth and
twentieth century egodocuments, largely because the writing conventions, or even
the literary genre, which they adhere to, clearly differ from those of the late
medieval and early modern periods.
Research and editions of texts before the 1990’s:
Nineteenth-century central Europe is marked by a long-lasting wave of the
creation of all sorts of associations and societies. These covered an extensive
spectrum of interests and ranged from the new workers’ Bildungsvereine (self-help
associations of industrial workers focussed on adult education, through
associations) of bee-keepers and confessionally commited societies engaging in
the cause, alternatively, of ultra-mondane Catholicism, or of ‚cultural’
Lutheranism, all the way to regional and local history societies. In these
history societies of Germany, Switzerland and Austria interest in
autobiographical texts written in the past (in the broadest sense of the term)
arose at a very early date. This is how a first set of such texts was published
in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Bibliothek des
literarischen Vereins of Stuttgart, which grew at an astonishing rate, is a
good case in point. Further editions of texts, albeit at a less hectic rate,
followed during the first half of the twentieth century.
If one looks back
at this production in Switzerland, it is interesting to note chiefly four
First, the texts
edited originated above all in the sixteenth century and the second half of the
eighteenth, chiefly in the time of humanism and the Reformation, on the one
hand, and in that of the Enlightenment, on the other.
majority of these texts are by Protestant writers, which raises the question as
to whether first-person writing in early modern Switzerland was mainly a
preoccupation of the Reformed part of the population, or whether this imbalance
was simply created by the editors in question.
Thirdly, the great
majority of the authors of these texts, are male, of an urban background and of
a bourgeois (i.e. ‚burgher’) or aristocratic origin. There are hardly any texts
by farmers and peasants, only relatively few by craftsmen and just as few by
women. The latter only become more promemnt from the late seventeenth century
quality of these editions was by and large relatively poor. Many nineteenth and
even twentieth century editors did not hesitate to interfere with the original
text, to leave out passages they considered uninteresting or indecent, or to
modernize spelling and punctuation.
present-day vantage point there is a twofold conclusion to be drawn from these
observations: We need new editions adhering to the standards of modern literary
and historical scholarship and we also need, at the same time, an evaluation of
the over-all situation, a census of the available unpublished material: Was the
part played by Catholic authors of the early modern period as modest as extant
editions suggest? Was female participation before the last decades of the
eighteenth century as low as the autobiographical texts available in print
suggest? These are some of the questions we would like to be able to address.
Before I return to
these two points, I must add a few words about the role of literary and
historical scholarship in all this.
mid-twentieth century down the 1980’s probably the majority of the editions of
the texts in question were the work of philologists and historians of literature.
A good case in point is the edition of the works of Ulrich Bräker (1735-1798), a
prolific late eighteenth century author from the Toggenburg, a mountainous
region of Eastern Switzerland marked by small farming and protoindustrial
textile-production. Even during his lifetime, Bräker became well known in
educated circles of his own time as a countryman of very modest means who became
an adherent of the Enlightenment and, as a writer, knew how to arouse interest
in his world. His autobiography was published when he was still alive. Bräker is
as fascinating a figure as he is atypical for the interests and values commonly
shared by the social group he belonged to. Literary scholarship has long
developped an abiding interest in him. This eventually resulted in an exemplary
edition of his works.
One of the editors of Bräkers works, Alfred Messerli, a specialist in popular
literature, also published an anthology of Swiss nineteenth and twentieth
century first-person writing.
He is also co-editor of a series, which we jointly edit with the Schwabe Verlag,
publishers in Basel.
2. New editions
historians of the last decades who in their work concentrate on the pre-modern
world, I was the first to encourage new editions both of previously unpublished,
as well as of badly edited published texts. Younger historians, who were part of
my team at the time, then launched themselves in this direction.
Heiligensetzer made the exemplary debut in re-publishing the family chronicle of
Alexander Bösch (1618-1693), a seventeenth-century Reformed minister from the
This was followed by an edition of the lengthy autobiography of the Alsatian
pewterer Augustin Güntzer (1596-?1657), who spent the last years of his life in
Basel. To my mind this is one of the most interesting seventeenth-century
autobiographies from the Germanic world. Güntzer was a staunch Calvinist. This
painstaking edition was the work of Fabian Brändle and Dominik Sieber.
Güntzers Text had previously been published in a high German, baudlerized
version in Barmen in the late nineteenth century. (It is impossible to know how
a copy of the Basel-based manuscript ever got to Barmen in Germany’s Ruhr area).
text, much shorter than Güntzer’s, but very representative of the many family
chronicles that have survived from the period in question, is the family
chronicle of father and son Mathias Lauberer, shoemakers in Colmar. The main
focus of this text is on the takeover of Colmar and the other Alsatian towns by
the Louis XIV and his troups during the 1670’s and 80’s. This was edited by
Fabian Brändle and Sebastian Leutert in 2005.
The edition of an
additional document, this time a lengthy woman’s text from the first decades of
the ninetenth century, the diary of Ursula Bruckner-Eglinger (1797-1876), which
is edited by Bernadette Hagenbuch, is in the final stages of preparation and
will appear in 2009 in the series „Selbst-Konstruktion“ (Schwabe Verlag, Basel).
This illustrates the everyday life of a country minister’s household, the
involvement of the author and her family with the transnational pious movement
of Herrnhut, as well as the severe political upheaval of the early 1830’s in and
Among the other
editions which have been prepared or appeared during the last ten years, I want
to mention the French translation of the Swiss seventeenth-century peasant
family chronicle of Jost von Brechershäusern (1589?-1657) by Danièle Tosato-Rigo
as an annexe to her habilitation thesis.
Because these kind of documents written by contemporary peasants are very rare,
it is unfortunate this has not yet been published.
Another two texts I
must mention here both present some drawbacks. Daniel Schmid’s re-edition of the
autobiography of Heinrich Bosshard (1749-1815), a late eighteenth century writer
from a very lowly background, unfortunately is only a re-edition of the original
printing with some additional footnotes.
This document is of great interest, because here too we find documented a life
of somebody from the very low rungs of rural society. It would actually merit a
new, critical edition.
The drawbacks of the other volume to be mentioned here result from the liberties
the editor has taken with the rendition of the original in the edition of the
voluminous diary of Regula von Orelli-Escher (1757-1829), which is otherwise of
considerable interest for the study of the middle and, especially, upper class
culture of Zürich at the end of the eighteenth century.
3. Data bank
The edition of
previously edited or unpublished texts according to the standards of modern
scholarship is only one of the steps, which had to be taken to remedy the
situation prevailing down to the 1980’s. Scrupulous editing is a painstaking and
labor-intensive operation. Hence we are talking about a longer term process,
which will go on for years to come.
A more short term
remedy is the establishment of a data bank. Its advantages do not need to be
spelled out in detail here. A data bank offers an overview of the
autobiographical heritage, so to say, in a specific geographical area. It first
of all sheds light on the accidents of collecting autobiographical texts (i.e.
autobiographies, diaries, family chronicles and, in some cases, also
household-books, provided they are not restricted to bookkeeping). In
Switzerland these seem to have differed quite substantially from one place to
the next. Nonetheless, a data bank covering all these different texts, allows
some broader, carefully stated conclusions regarding the general composition of
the material in question, for example regarding the social origin or gender of
the authors, or their confessional, i.e. religious, orientation. On a more
practical level, a data bank is a great help in offering orientation for future
research. I have, for example, two doctoral students, Kirstin Bentley and Sundar
Henny, who are working on projects dealing with the seventeenth-century
perception of confessional identity, in the one case in Zürich and Lucerne, in
the other, in Bern and Solothurn. They are able to base their search for source
material largely on the information provided by our data bank.
This data bank was
established by a team of doctoral students (notably Lorenz Heiligensetzer,
Sebastian Leutert and Gudrun Piller and, more recently, with the help of Tilmann
Robbe) during the years 1996 to 2003 with the financial support of the Swiss
National Science Foundation.
It is accessible as a regular web site:
It comprises all
family chronicles, autobiographies and diaries which could be found in
German-speaking Switzerland on the level of cantonal archives, cantonal
libraries, as well as in the archives and libraries of the major cities. To
date, it covers approximately 870 texts from the early modern period. To this
body of data has very recently been added information regarding more than 400
German late medieval and sixteenth-century texts. This information has been
offered by Prof. Klaus Arnold and his team (notably Dr. Sünje Prühlen) at the
University of the German Bundeswehr in Hamburg. This notable addition has turned
our data bank into an important general instrument de travail for
research on first-person writing in the Germanic world. And it is hoped that the
data bank, which now covers well beyond 1200 texts, will continue to grow during
the years to come.
4. French speaking Switzerland
The reasons for
limiting the original search for material to German-speaking Switzerland had to
do with questions of linguistic proficiency, as well as with the impression that
the texts in question from French-speaking Switzerland might be very different
kinds of texts due to genristic influences coming from France.
An added difficulty
was that modern research on first-person writing in the French speaking part of
Switzerland to date has been very limited. In 1994 Jean-Pierre Jelmini published
a programmatic small volume advocationg the scholarly advantages of working with
However, as far as I am able to tell, this did not result in Western,
French-speaking Switzerland in any major new interest in the field of study we
are concerned with. Danièle Tosato-Rigo, now a professor of early modern history
at the University of Lausanne, became the second torch bearer of this kind of
research in French-speaking Switzerland in that she offered in her thèse de
doctorat an in-depth analysis of the family chronicle of Jost von
Brechershäusern (1589? -1657), a well-to-do peasant from the Emmental.
In the meantime,
Danièle Tosato-Rigo and Philippe Rieder of the University of Geneva, are set to
launch a project which would result in a similar inventary fort the major
archives and libraries in French-speaking Switzerland, so there is hope that,
short of the Italian speaking parts of Switzerland, there will eventually be an
inventory covering approximately three quarters of the country.
5. New analyses
carried out by a group of doctoral students mentioned above not only fed into
the data bank just described. It also resulted in new monographical studies. The
last of them to be published, Sebastian Leutert’s doctoral dissertation, is he
most classical in terms of its theme. It concentrates on sixteenth and
seventeenth century attitudes towards death as they are mirrored by contemporary
autobiographical writing in Switzerland and Southern Germany.
Gudrun Piller’s work, by comparison, is more oriented toward the analysis of
It is based on 50 unpublished texts from eighteenth century German speaking
Switzerland and concentrates on the experience of the body.
Lorenz Heiligensetzer’s doctoral dissertation builds on the observation, made
possible only by the data bank, that in German speaking Switzerland a
considerable number of authors of the texts in question were Reformed ministers.
His study offers a detailed analysis of these texts composed by men of the
church and of the new insights they offer us on their life and social role.
project of the years 1996-2003, which resulted in these studies, as well as in
the establishment of the data bank, also made possible a number of conferences.
The collective volumes which grew out of some of these occasions all contain
various contributions by members of the Basel team previously mentioned. A major
international conference, probably the first in this particular field, on the
Monte Verità near Ascona led to the publication of a relatively voluminous
volume, which was meant to illustrate the state of the art prevailing in the
The second of these conference volumes resulted from a small conference held in
Basel to commemorate the autobiographer Thomas Platter (1499? -1582).
The third, published last year, documents a workshop held in Munich in 2004,
while I was a fellow at the Historisches Kolleg.
Individual articles I have written within the last five years have dealt with
questions of method and with the general advantages offered by the research in
question to the history of early modern Europe.
6. Problems and tasks
of future Swiss research
At this point I
would like to limit myself to the following three observations, even though a
lot more might be said about the need for more micro-studies, etc.:
First, the choice
of what kind of first-person writing was considered worthy of publication has
often, in the past, been determined by literary and esthetic concerns. Today,
more diversified interests, also of a historical, linguistic and ethnological
nature, should likewise inform this choice. This is why it is mandatory that the
process of editing previously unpublished material, as slow as ist may be, must
Secondly, in the
Swiss context the confessional origins of the texts in question remain
intriguing. Switzerland is a confessionally divided country. The data bank in
its current state conveys the impression that in more rural areas much less
first-person writing was produced during the late medieval and early modern
period than in towns. Many rural areas were Catholic. Is it possible that
Catholic villages witnessed much less first-person writing than Protestant ones?
Such questions could only be answered if some inventary projects were carried
out on the local level, preferrably in confessionally mixed areas. Of course,
the geographical scope of such studies would have to be defined very precisely.
The results of such case studies might help to solve some of the questions we
have in an area where research on egodocuments and religious history overlap.
Thirdly, on a more
practical level, we must find institutional solutions permitting the upkeep and
preservation of substantial data banks, such as ours in Basel, over a
longer-term period. This is a practical problem we are currently working on.
What does the Swiss experience suggest for a European project?
To begin with, I
want to discount the question of the relationship between autobiographical
writing and religious orientation because this really only makes sense in the
historical studies of bi-confessional societies, such as those of Switzerland or
I do not discount,
on the other hand, the creation of an international data bank on first-person
writing. However, I would see this more as a side-product, as a kind of
fringe-benefit of a European cooperation in the field concerned rather than as a
central concern for transnational research. As the Swiss experience has shown,
it is perfectly possible to establish a data bank while, at the same time,
encouraging much more specific research on the level of doctoral dissertations.
What is more, I do not underestimate the difficulties involved in covering a
country much bigger than Switzerland in terms of establishing a data bank. And
most European countries are bigger than the one I represent here.
I see the
possibilities of international cooperation more in terms of a combination of
themes, to whose study the kind of texts we are concerned with lend themselves
particularly well. By way of conclusion, I would like to mention some of these
writing lends itself particularly well to the study of social relations. In
terms of methodology this can start from a study of the concept of person or
from other ways of juxtaposing the individual person and the society surrounding
it, as long as the latter do not propose a purely evolutionary approach.
writing provides plenty of insights into eating and nutrition. The material has
not to date been looked at systematically from this vantage point.
writing offers a unique perspective on the perception and performance of rituals
of the life-cycle all the way from birth to death within the family and the
writing frequently reflects the experience of crises, be they caused by the
plague, by war, or by religious and social upheaval.
I am convinced that
a combination of two, or perhaps even three, of these (or other) thematic
approaches could form the basis for a very fruitful Europe-wide cooperation
involving historians, European ethnologists, literary scholars and linguists.
(Basel and Bern,
May 21 and August 17, 2008)
also the monographical treatment of this document by Daniel Schmid,
Heinrich Bosshard – ein Leben zwischen zwei Welten (=Travaux sur la
Suisse des Lumières, 4), Geneva 2002.
Sebastian Leutert: Geschichten vom Tod. Tod und Sterben in
Deutschschweizer und oberdeutschen Selbstzeugnissen des 16. und 17.
Jahrhunderts (=Basler Beiträge zur Geschichtswissenschaft, 178), Basel
dargestellten Person zum erinnerten Ich. Europäische Selbstzeugnisse als
historische Quellen (1500-1850), ed. by Kaspar von Greyerz, Hans Medick
and Patrice Veit (=Selbstzeugnisse der Neuzeit, 9), Cologne, Weimar and
Kaspar von Greyerz, Erfahrung und Konstruktion: Selbstrepräsentation in
autobiographischen Texten des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts, in: Susanna
Burghartz, Maike Christadler and Dorothea Nolde (eds.). Berichten,
Erzählen, Beherrschen. Wahrnehmung und Repräsentation in der frühen
Kolonialgeschichte Europas. (=Zeitsprünge 7, Heft 2/3), Frankfurt am
Main 2003, 220–239; Kaspar von Greyerz, Vom Nutzen und Vorteil der
Selbstzeugnisforschung für die Frühneuzeithistorie, in: Jahrbuch des
Historischen Kollegs 2004, 27–47.