If the decades before 1500 formed, in Johan Huizinga’s words, “the autumn of the Middle Ages,’’ then upon this autumn followed not winter but a new spring. The cities and their burghers flourished as never before, buoyed up by the spread of literacy and the recovery of trade. Petty burghers and even peasants became solid citizens. Nobles grew up in an age that demanded skills unknown to their ancestors (facility in written German and Latin, for example, and knowledge of the law), and they informed their lives with study and travel rather than relying on custom alone.
The fifteenth and subsequent centuries produced eyewitness accounts in unprecedented numbers and quality. Before 1500, it was rare for women to write such texts. The earliest known autobiographical text by a German-speaking woman was composed by Helene Kottannerin (c. 1400-after 1458), a Viennese noblewoman who was lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth (c. 1409-42), the wife of Albert II of the house of Habsburg, who was King of the Romans (and emperor-elect) (r. 1438-39) and King of Hungary (r. 1437-39). When Albert died on October 27, 1439, Elizabeth was five months pregnant with his heir, whom doctors predicted was a boy. To secure the legitimate rights of her son-to-be, the queen needed to have him crowned as soon as possible. Therefore, Elizabeth asked Helene Kottannerin to break into the royal stronghold of Plintenburg (Hungarian: Visegrád) and steal the heavily guarded royal Crown of Saint Stephen. In her memoirs, Kottannerin recounts how, on February 20, 1440, she and a Hungarian nobleman stole the crown and the royal regalia, replaced them with copies, and then fled up the Danube. She delivered the royal crown to Elizabeth, who gave birth to Ladislaus (Hungarian: László) just a few hours later. In May 1440, the two women arranged for three-month-old Ladislaus to be crowned King of Hungary. This episode is also recounted in Kottannerin’s memoirs. In the end, however, their daringness went for naught. Ladislaus died young at age seventeen, and the succession to Hungary and Bohemia passed to the King of Poland. But the tale is nonetheless astonishing, not only because it centers on two courageous women, but also because one of them left a written record of it.
The burghers, who had learned to write from the clergy, also began writing about their own lives. Augsburg resident Burkard Zink (1397-1474/75) penned an account of his times, into which he inserted the tale of his own life. Despite his modest circumstances, Zink got some education, traveled widely, and married a seamstress, with whom he founded a new household. His account describes the great events of south Germany in his time, such as the Cities’ War of the 1440s, but also very familiar things: youth, schooling, courtship, marriages, and the births, baptisms, and deaths of his children. Zink is a prime example of a man who began life humbly (in Memmingen), but who managed, through intelligence, hard work, and a good marriage, to become a respectable burgher in a large city.
In some ways, it was harder for the untitled (lesser) nobles to adapt to new ways. The stories of three different men from the same generation and land – Franconia – allow for interesting comparisons. Michel von Ehenheim (1462/63-1518) felt a need to record his deeds for the instruction and pleasure of his kin and descendants, but his account is spare and purely descriptive, mainly a family chronicle. His way of life, which involved military service to princes, also fit a traditional mold. The second man, the far more famous Götz von Berlichingen (c. 1480-1562), also had a traditional education and was committed to family and lineage but led a life of feuds for gain and pleasure. The third nobleman, Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523), shows us how life could be transformed by literacy and advanced education. He studied at seven German and Italian universities, consorted with learned men, published in both Latin and German, and raised a literary and political voice – unique among his class – for a stronger monarchy and a reformed Church. Country life, which so suited Berlichingen, bored Hutten and disgusted him with its stinks and squalor.
Although cities were known to shorten life expectancy, they drew migrants, especially from smaller towns and villages. Many of these transplants got on well in town, we know, but rarely do we see individual peasants who rose to become respectable burghers. The most dramatic case is that of Thomas Platter (1489-1552), an Alpine goatherd in the Valais (today southwest Switzerland), who wandered in search of learning until, in the age of the Protestant Reformation, he had gained enough to become a teacher of Greek at a secondary school in Basel. His narrative is remarkable but not unique. A century later we encounter another ordinary man, Hans Heberle (1597-1677), a Swabian cobbler-farmer. Living in the midst of the Thirty Years War, sometimes very near the front, he recorded the great events of the conflict as well as the fortunes of his little family – just as Burkard Zink had done nearly two centuries before. Heberle, Platter, and Zink illustrate how people were transformed by skills, literacy, and mobility, and how their lives were situated between public and personal affairs.