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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? 


Preliminary remarks: 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. 

1. 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 predominant aspects: 

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. 

Secondly, the 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.[1] 

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 onwards. 

Fourthly, the 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. 

From the 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. 

From the 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.[2] 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.[3] He is also co-editor of a series, which we jointly edit with the Schwabe Verlag, publishers in Basel.[4] 

2. New editions 

Among Swiss 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. 

Lorenz Heiligensetzer made the exemplary debut in re-publishing the family chronicle of Alexander Bösch (1618-1693), a seventeenth-century Reformed minister from the Toggenburg.[5] 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.[6] 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).  

Another Alsatian 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.[7] 

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 around Basel. 

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 

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.[12] 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 first-person writing.[13] 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.[14] 

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 

The research 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.[15] Gudrun Piller’s work, by comparison, is more oriented toward the analysis of discourse.[16] It is based on 50 unpublished texts from eighteenth century German speaking Switzerland and concentrates on the experience of the body.[17] 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.[18] 

The research 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 late 1990’s.[19] The second of these conference volumes resulted from a small conference held in Basel to commemorate the autobiographer Thomas Platter (1499? -1582).[20] The third, published last year, documents a workshop held in Munich in 2004, while I was a fellow at the Historisches Kolleg.[21] 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.[22] 

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 go on. 

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. 

7. 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 Germany. 

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 possible themes: 

a) First-person 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. 

b) First-person writing provides plenty of insights into eating and nutrition. The material has not to date been looked at systematically from this vantage point. 

c) First-person 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 larger society. 

d) First-person 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)

[1] Early modern Swiss Protestantism is of a Reformed rather than Lutheran persuasion.

[2] Ulrich Bräker, Sämtliche Schriften, ed. by Andreas Bürgi et al., Munich and Bern 1998 ff. Four of a total of five volumes have appeared to date. Volume 5 will contain the index and editorial comments. Volumes 1-3 contain Bräkers diaries, volume 4 his autobiography and other writings.

[3] Alfred Messerli (ed.), Flausen im Kopf. Schweizer Autobiografien aus drei Jahrhunderten, Zürich 1984.

[4] Reihe Selbst-Konstruktion, Basel 2001ff. Two vols. to date: Alexander Bösch, Liber familiarium personalium...,ed. Lorenz Heiligensetzer, and Mathias Lauberer (Vater & Sohn), Familienchronik...., ed. Fabian Brändle and Sebastian Leutert. See notes 5 and 7 below. A third volume in the series, the lengthy diary of Ursula Bruckner-Eglinger (1797-1876), ed. Bernadette Hagenbuch, will appear in 2009.

[5] Alexander Bösch. Liber familiarium personalium, das ist, Verzeichnus waß sich mit mir, und der meinigen in meiner haußhaltung, sonderliches begeben und zugetragen hatt. Lebensbericht und Familiengeschichte des Toggenburger Pfarrers Alexander Bösch  (1618–1693), ed. by Lorenz Heiligensetzer (=Selbst-Konstruktion, 1), Basel 2001.

[6] Augustin Güntzer. Kleines Biechlin von meinem gantzen Leben. Die Autobiographie eines Elsässer Kannengiessers aus dem 17. Jahrhundert. Ed. by Fabian Brändle und Dominik Sieber (=Selbstzeugnisse der Neuzeit, 8). Cologne, Weimar and Vienna 2002. A French translation is currently being prepared by Monique Debus-Kehr (Colmar).

[8] Cf. note 13 below.

[9] Bosshard, Heinrich (von Rümikon), Eines schweizerischen Landmannes Lebensgeschichte, ed. by Daniel Schmid, Elsau 2005. This book is not available through the book trade. It can be ordered from the commune of Elsau (near Wintherthur). Such re-editions are „safe“ only in cases where the previous edition cannot be faulted. This can be said of the re-edition of the well-known sixteenth-century autobiography of Thomas Platter, Lebensbeschreibung, ed. by Walter Muschg, Neuausgabe mit einem Nachwort von H. Jacob-Friesen, Basel 1999. See also Meyer, Werner and Kaspar von Greyerz (Hg.), Platteriana. Beiträge zum 500. Geburtstag des Thomas Platter (1499?-1582), (=Basler Beiträge zur Geschichtswissenschaft, 175), Basel 2002.

[10] See 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.

[11] Regula von Orelli-Escher: Selbstzeugnisse aus dem Umfeld von J.C. Lavater, ed. by Gustav W. von Schulthess, Stäfa 2001.

[12] For detailed descriptions of the entire project see Sebatian Leutert and Gudrun Piller, Deutschschweizerische Selbstzeugnisse (1500-1800) als Quellen der Mentalitätsgeschichte. Ein Forschungsbericht. In: Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte 49 (1999), 197-221; Kaspar von Greyerz, Deutschschweizerische Selbstzeugnisse (1500-1800) als Quellen der Mentalitätsgeschichte. Bericht über ein Forschungsprojekt, in: Klaus Arnold, Sabine Schmolinsky and Urs Martin Zahnd (eds.), Das dargestellte Ich. Studien zu Selbstzeugnissen des späteren Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit (=Selbstzeugnisse des Mittelalters und der beginnenden Neuzeit, 1). Bochum 1999, 147-163; Kaspar von Greyerz, Deutschschweizerische Selbstzeugnisse (1500–1800) als Quellen der Mentalitätsgeschichte, in: Stefan Elit, Stephan Kraft und Andreas Rutz (eds.). Das ‚Ich‘ in der Frühen Neuzeit. Autobiographien – Selbstzeugnisse – Ego-Dokumente in geschichts- und literaturwissenschaftlicher Perspektive, in: Zeitenblicke, Online-Journal für die Geschichtswissenschaften 1 (2002), Nr. 2.

[13] Jelmini, Jean-Pierre, Pour une histoire de la vie ordinaire dans le Pays de Neuchâtel sous l’Ancien Régime. Plaidoyer pour une étude des mentalités à partir des écrits personnels (=Cahiers de l’Institut neuchâtelois), Hauterive 1994.

[14] Tosato-Rigo, Danièle, La chronique de Jodocus Jost, miroir mental d’un paysan bernois au XVIIe siècle, unveröffentl. Thèse, Université de Lausanne, manuscript, October 2000. See also Dubois, Alain and Tosato-Rigo, Danièle, Jost von Brechershäusern. Un paysan bernois du XVIIe siècle entre solidarité de classe et soldarité confessionelle, in: Albert Tanner und Anne-Lise Head (ed.): Les paysans dans l’histoire de la Suisse (=Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte, 10), Zürich 1992, 105-128.

[15] Sebastian Leutert: Geschichten vom Tod. Tod und Sterben in Deutschschweizer und oberdeutschen Selbstzeugnissen des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts (=Basler Beiträge zur Geschichtswissenschaft, 178), Basel 2007.

[16] An approach tested in a preliminary study: Piller, Gudrun, Krankheit schreiben. Krankheit und Sprache im Selbstzeugnis von Margarethe E. Milow-Hudtwalcker (1748-1794), in: Historische Anthropologie  7 (1999), 212-235.

[17] Gudrun Piller, Private Körper. Spuren des Leibes in Selbstzeugnissen des 18. Jahrhunderts (=Selbstzeugnisse der Neuzeit, 17), Cologne, Weimar and Vienna 2007. One of the themes of this study is also treated separately in Gudrun Piller, Trauriger Ehestand – gescheiterte Ehen in Selbstzeugnissen des späten 18. Jahrhunderts. In: Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte 52 (2002), 448–462.

[18] Lorenz Heiligensetzer, Getreue Kirchendiener – gefährdete Pfarrherren. Deutschschweizer Prädikanten des 17. Jahrhunderts in ihren Lebensbeschreibungen (=Selbstzeugnisse der Neuzeit, 15), Cologne, Weimar and Vienna 2006.

[19] Von der 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 Vienna 2001.

[20] Werner Meyer and Kaspar von Greyerz (Hg.), Platteriana. Beiträge zum 500. Geburtstag des Thomas Platter (1499?-1582), (=Basler Beiträge zur Geschichtswissenschaft, 175), Basel 2002.

[21] Kaspar von Greyerz (ed.), Selbstzeugnisse der Frühen Neuzeit. Individualisierungsweisen in interdisziplinärer Perspektive (=Schriften des Historischen Kollegs, Kolloquien, 68), Munich 2007.

[22] 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.