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From Alpine Goatherd to Teacher of Greek – Thomas Platter (1499-1582)

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In the following spring I left with my two brothers for foreign lands. When we would take leave from our mother, she wept and said: “May God have mercy on me, that I must see three sons go to a foreign land.” Except then, I never saw my mother cry, for she was a brave, courageous woman, though somewhat rough. When her third husband also died, she remained a widow, and did all the work like a man in order that the youngest children could be the better brought up. She hewed wood, thrashed grain, and did other work that belongs more to men than to women. She also buried three of these children herself, when they died in the time of a very great pestilence. For in the time of the pestilence it cost a great deal to have one buried by the grave-diggers. Towards us, the first children, she was very rough, so that we seldom came into the house. At one time I had not been home, as I remember, for five years, and had travelled far in distant lands. But when I came to her, the first words that she said to me were: “Has the devil once more brought you here?” I answered: “Oh, no, mother, the devil has not brought me here, but my feet; but I will not long be troublesome to you.” She said: “You are not troublesome to me, but it grieves me much that you go wandering here and there, and without doubt learning nothing. Learn to work, as your father also did! You will become no priest. I am not so fortunate that I should bring up a priest.” So I remained two or three days with her. One morning a great frost had fallen on the grapes as one was picking them. Therefore, I picked and ate the frozen grapes, so that I had the gripes; so that I was stretched out on all fours, thinking that I must burst into pieces. Then she stood before me and said: “If you wish to, then burst: Why have you eaten so much?” I can recall many other examples of her coarseness. Otherwise she was a respectable, honest, and pious woman; that everyone had said of her and praised her.

When now I went away with my two brothers, and went over the Letschen Mountains towards Gastren, my two brothers sat down on the slope of the snow and slid down the mountain. I also wished to do this, and as I did not quickly put my feet apart, the snow threw me over, so that I fell down the mountain, head over heels. It would have been no wonder if I had slid to my death, by striking my head on a tree, for there were no rocks. This happened to me three times, so that I shot down the comb of the ridge head first and the snow fell in heaps on my face; for I always thought that I should be able to do it as well as my brothers, but they were more accustomed to the mountains than I.

So we travelled together from there on, and they remained in Entlebuch; but I went on to Zurich. There I was with the mother of the famous, pious, and learned man, Rudolph Gualther, who is now the pastor of St. Peter’s, in Zurich; at that time he lay in the cradle, so that I have often rocked him. And I attended the school in Our Lady’s Cathedral. There was a school-master there called Master Wolfgang Knöwell, from Barr, near Zug, a Master of Arts from Paris, who had been called at Paris Gran Diabel. He was a great, honest man, but did not take much care of the school; he looked more where the beautiful maidens were, from whom he could scarcely keep away. I should have liked to study, for I perceived that it was time.

At that time they said that there would come a school-master from Einsiedeln, who before this had been in Luzern, who was a learned man and a good school-master, but cruelly whimsical. So I made for myself a seat in a corner not far from the school-master’s chair, and thought: “In this corner you will study or die.” Now, when he came and entered upon his work (he went into the school of Our Lady’s Cathedral), he said: “This is a nice school” – for it was built only a short time before – “but methinks there are stupid boys, but we shall see; only apply yourself with industry.” This I know – that had my life depended upon it, I could not have declined a noun of the first declension. Yet I knew Donatus by heart to a dot. When I was in Schlettstadt, Sapidus had a bachelor, called Georgius “an Andlau,” unmarried, a very learned fellow, who worried the Bacchants so grievously with Donatus that I thought: “If this is such a good book, then I will learn it by heart.” And when I learned to read it, I also learned it by heart. This was fortunate for me with the good Father Myconius. For, when he began, he read Terence with us; then we were compelled to decline and conjugate all the words of the entire comedy. Then it was that he often laboured with me so that my clothing became wet with perspiration, yes, even my eyesight dim, and yet he gave me no beating, only once with the back of the hand on the cheek. He also lectured upon the Holy Scriptures; so that many of the laity attended these lectures. For it was just in the beginning of the time that the light of the Holy Scriptures was beginning to arise and yet there remained for a long time the mass and the images in the churches. When he was rough with me, then he took me to his home and gave me something to eat; for he liked to have me relate how I had travelled through all the countries of Germany, and how I had fared everywhere, for at that time I remembered it well. [ . . . ]

Source of original German text: Thomas Platter: Lebensbeschreibung, edited by Alfred Hartmann. 3rd edition, revised and supplemented by Ueli Dill, with an epilogue by Holger Jacob-Friesen. Basel: Schwabe Verlag, 2006, pp. 23-61.

Source of English translation: Thomas Platter and the Educational Renaissance of the Sixteenth Century, edited and translated by Paul Monroe. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1904, pp. 79-122.

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