July 01, 2009

Thomas and Felix Platter

Thomas Platter was a Swiss peasant boy who learnt how to read and write, became wealthy comparatively, a printer and a teacher in later life. Felix was his son, a doctor in Switzerland as well. What is interesting about both of them is that they left memoirs of their lives- memoirs that have become as vital for the history of early modern Switzerland as the Paston letters are for medieval England. They give a vital and important portrait of the way that the Swiss lived from the early 16th to early 17th Century. But for one moment I think we should halt. Here we have the lives of a son and a father- the latter self made, the former taught and brought up by tutors, a citizen of one of the great cities of Reformation Europe. Amongst the vivid impressions that you can garner from Emannuel Le Roy Ladourie's encounter with the two memoirs is the two different personalities- the encounter is an interesting one and demonstrates the change between generations that a change in fortunes can evoke. To some extent the father's success is demonstrated by the fact that the son cannot understand his legacy.

The first difference between them is in the nature of their memoirs. Thomas's memoir is matter of fact- a catalogue of facts. Felix's more ornate with classical tags and quotations. Thomas was a more religious man flirting with the radical protestantism of the 1520s, Felix was conventionally religious. For Thomas the ladder to success was represented by writing and reading- for Felix writing and reading were things that he learnt quickly, music was where his true love lay and that love was shaped not as Thomas's by need but by a love of the texture of story and song itself. Not all of this is explained by the differences in background- it might well be differences in character as well- differences in the complex ways that humans orientate their lives. Others though are differences created by the different generations. Thomas was a teacher and had sought to be a doctor: his son was able to exercise that option and become a medic. Thomas was comfortable returning to and living in the mountains that he had come from, Felix hated them and was addicted to smooth fashions and a smoother lifestyle.

There may not be anything in these contrasts- but I think they are important and potentially interesting. We remember that these gulfs exist in the modern era- between parents and children who have lived in different worlds as social mobility propells people upwards and downwards- but the truth is that they existed in the medieval world too. One of the segmentations that is easy to forget is the segmentation between the generations in interest and condition of life- it is something that you can see in the distinction between Felix and Thomas. Ultimately Felix's context was completely different from his father's, his outlook was too- the enduring effect of social mobility or even the narrowing or widening of social divisions is the way that people understand and look to their lives, what they like and what they believe is possible to do.


James Higham said...

Yes, so there are intergenerational differences in approach. Yes.

Karen said...

Thomas was the Country Mouse and Felix was the City Mouse. You're right about their differences. Felix's account of visiting the mountains with his father is very funny indeed. Having just had a visit from my parents after a few years I'm hyper-aware of these sort differences just now. Felix was a fascinating study when I was working on my MA on medical students and travel for educational purposes.

Gracchi said...

James I agree. Karen indeed it is a fascinating account- the visit to the mountains is hilarious!