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

Thomas Platter’s (1499-1582) account of his life is one of the most famous autobiographical documents composed in German during the sixteenth century. Drafted late in Platter’s life at the request of his son Felix, it chronicles Platter’s boyhood as a goatherd in the Valais (today southwest Switzerland) and his incredible wanderings as an itinerant scholar. The section reproduced here charts his life up to the beginning of his proper schooling in Sélestat (German: Schlettstadt) in Alsace. He then went to Basel and Zurich, where he lived through and participated in the Protestant Reformation, learned the rope-maker’s trade, and studied Greek and Hebrew with the clergyman Oswald Myconius. Platter eventually became a schoolmaster and teacher of those subjects at the secondary school in Basel.

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Since you, dear son Felix, as well as many famous and learned men, who for many years in their youth have been my pupils, have frequently asked me to describe my life from my youth onward; for you, as well as they, have often heard from me, in what great poverty I have been from my birth, afterward in what great peril of life and limb I have lived, first when I served in the terrible mountains, and then when in my youth I followed after the wandering students; also later how I, with my wife, have supported my family with great care, trouble, and labour – since, then, this story may be of value especially to you, in order that you may consider how God has many times so wonderfully preserved me, and that you mayest thank the Lord in heaven therefore, that he so well endowed and guarded you, descended from me, that you have not had to bear such poverty; therefore I cannot deny you, but will, as far as I remember, make known all concerning my birth and education.

And first, I know least the time when things have occurred. When I thought and asked about the time of my birth, people always said I came into the world on Shrove Tuesday [of the year 1499], just as the bells were ringing for mass. That I know, because my friends have always hoped from this that I would become a priest. I had a sister, who was alone with my mother when I was born; she has also told me this. My father was called Antony Platter, of the old family of those who were called Platter; they got their name from a house that stands on a wide plat [Platte]. This plat is a rock on a very high mountain near a village called Grenchen, in the district and the parish of Visp, which is a considerable village district in Valais. My mother, however, was called Anna Maria Summermatter, of a very large family, which was called the Summermatters. The father of this family attained the age of one hundred and twenty-six years. For six years before his death, I myself have spoken with him, and he said that he knew ten other men in the parish of Visp who were all older than he was then. When he was a hundred years old, he married a woman who was thirty years old, and they had one son. [By his first wife] he left sons and daughters, some of whom were white-haired, some gray-haired, before he died. He was called old Hans Summermatter. The house where I was born is near Grenchen, and is called “Am Graben”; therein you, Felix, yourself, have been.

When my mother had recovered [from childbirth], she had sore breasts, so that she could not nurse me, and I never once had any mother’s milk, as my dear mother herself told me. That was the beginning of my misery. I was therefore obliged to drink cow’s milk through a little horn, as is the custom in that land. For, when they wean children, they give them nothing to eat, but only cow’s milk to drink, until they are four or five years old. My father died so soon that I cannot remember ever to have seen him. For, as it is the custom in the land that almost all women weave and sew, the men leave that district before the winter, going mostly into the region of Berne, to buy wool. Then the women spin this and make peasant-cloth of it for coats and trousers for the peasants. My father also had gone into the district of Berne, at Thun, to buy wool. There he was stricken with the plague and died; he was buried in Stiffsburg, a village near Thun. Soon thereafter my mother married again, a man called Heintzman, who lived in a house between Visp and Stalden that was called “am Grunde.” So the children were all separated from her. I do not know how many of them there were. Of my brothers and sisters, I knew only two sisters. One, called Elizabeth, died in Entlebuch, where she had married. The other, called Christina, died, along with eight others, of a pestilence near Burgess, above Stalden. Of my brothers, I have known Simon, Hans, and Yoder. Simon and Hans fell in battle. Yoder died at Oberhofen, on the lake of Thun. For the usurers had ruined my father, so that my brothers and sisters were obliged to go to work as soon as they were able. And since I was the youngest, my aunts, my father’s sisters, each kept me a little while.

I can still well remember that I was with one, called Margaret. She carried me to a house, called “In der Wilde” near Grenchen; one of my other aunts was also there; I know not what she was making with the other women. Then the one who carried me took a bundle of straw that accidentally lay in the room, laid me on the table, and went to the other women. My aunts, after they had laid me down, had gone to the mass at candle-mass time. Then I got up and ran through the snow to a house near a fish pond. When the women came back and did not find me, they were in distress, but they found me at last in the house, lying between two men who warmed me, for I was frozen in the snow. Afterwards, a while later, when I was with this aunt “In der Wilde,” my brother came home from the Savoy war and brought me a little wooden horse, which I drew by a thread before the door, until I finally thought that the horse could really walk; therefore I can well understand how children often think that their dolls and other playthings are living. My brother also strode over me with one leg and said: “O ho, Tommy, now you will never grow anymore.” This worried me.

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