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L’histoire de toute ma vie. Autobiographie d’un potier d’étain calviniste du XVIIe siècle. Traduction de l’édition allemande commentée de F. Brändle, D. Sieber, R. E. Hofer et M. Landert-Scheuber par M. Debus Kehr. Préface de J. Revel.
Paris: Honoré Champion 2010. 242 S. m. Abb. = Vie des Huguenots, 55. Geb. EUR 59,00. ISBN 978-2-7453-2029-2.
As the subtitle indicates this is a French translation of the critical edition of Ein kleines Biechlein von meinem gantzen Leben, by the Alsatian pewterer Augustin Güntzer (1596 – ca. 1660?). The critical edition based on the Basel manuscript (Basel UB: H V 165) appeared in 2002 from Böhlau Verlag in Cologne and was at the time ac-claimed by several reviewers, not just for its very accurate transcription of the text but also for the detail of its commentary and prefatory matter. As well as the description of the manuscript, the commentary contained comments on the text and on the contents, the biography and analysis of the author’s religious, historical and social context and a detailed index of persons and places. Two artic-les written by F. Brändle and D. Sieber, contained detailed information on G.’s background and the reasons why he wrote his autobiography and on the nature of his piety and spirituality. The 2002 edition is thus the most comprehensive and the most authorita-tive, a necessary point of departure for anyone wishing to study G. in particular or the early modern »genre« of Selbstzeugnisliteratur in general. However, already since the 1920s, the autobiography of G. was the object of many historical studies (cf. present work, 36–39, for the list of the most significant ones) based for the most part on the non-critical modernised German edition of an incomplete text, published in Barmen in 1896. These studies spanned fields as varied as cultural, economic, social, psychological and religious history, not forgetting genealogy.
G. whose autobiography is one of the best known to Reformation historians, was born in Oberehnheim and learnt pewtering from his father. As journeyman he traversed large parts of Europe between 1615 and 1621. Among other countries he visited Bohemia, Italy, England and France. One salient feature of his autobiography is the lifelike description of the material difficulties encountered by a journeyman who often had to rely on the good will of strangers for food or lodging. However, the work does not limit itself to very accurate descriptions of places visited and difficulties encountered. It also contains a detailed account of his childhood and youth of how he learnt his trade and his Calvinist religion. Returning home after his wanderings in 1621, he finds that the Thirty Years War had taken effect and that the civil authorities promulgated a law forbidding all non-Catholics to exercise their religion or risk losing their right of citizenship. Refusing to abjure, G. was one of those who lost that right, which meant he was effectively deprived of his trade and of his right to marry. He therefore left and settled in Colmar, initially as body guard to his cousin. Growing tired of the service after the first ten months, he hired his services to the city of Strasbourg where he learnt how to work in munitions. At the age of 27 he married Maria Göcklin daughter of a well-to-do Calvinist family in Colmar and a widow. His first child died soon after birth. Eventually, as Colmar was taken over by Catholic troops, he moved to Strasbourg with his family including his five children and step-children. His wife died in 1632. This meant that G. inherited the whole of his wife’s fortune having been just the usufructuary of it during her lifetime. As noted already by Brändle, this meant that he should have safeguarded at least a part of it as inheritance for his children. However, his frequent illnesses, as well as war and famine put an end to any hope of this and G. recounts in poignant detail how they suffered just to make ends meet and how he in particular was the object of scorn and mockery on the part of the Lutherans in Colmar where he returned shortly before his wife’s death. The autobiography ends abruptly in 1657 after a long prayer accompanied by a confession of faith and an account of his physical sufferings which seemed to grow more intense with time.
As well as being an account of an apparently sad life and an implicit apology to his descendants for leaving no inheritance, the work is also a rather moving first-hand account of G.’s Calvinist spirituality, his attachment to the Bible and his dislike of all confessions other than his own. It is punctuated by very frequent prayers (whose sources have been identified by D. Sieber) addressed to God and G.’s enduring conviction that he is a sinner and therefore deserves to be punished. It is only because of his infinite mercy that God allows him to overcome as many adversities as he does. The comparison with Job is never very far from his pen, especially as he is subject to recurrent ulcers and skin disorders throughout his life, starting with the scrotal hernia with which he was born. Was he also a victim of hereditary syphilis? He says nothing about it.
It is, however, a possibility to be borne in mind especially as the account, its dramatic qualities notwithstanding, has nothing spontaneous about it but constitutes a very stylised description of a life whose main object seems to be not only to apologise to his family for leaving nothing to inherit but also to pass on as part of the family tradition the values of Calvinist piety, godliness and patience in the face of adversity. Inevitably, G.’s work contains some features that make it his own but ever since the work of Rudolf Dekker, Kaspar von Greyerz and one or two others we know that early modern autobiographies are a complex genre combining fact and fiction in subtle and different ways. Does the present translation add anything, other than the (unwarranted) change of title and change of language to the original German edition?
This does not seem to be really the case. The translator or her publisher have changed the title not for the better, as the original shows us much more clearly that the author wanted to portray himself as an insignificant being, a sinner, whose entire sinful life could be encompassed in a »small book«. The translator has also added some footnotes to the ones already available in the German edition without telling the reader which footnotes she added or what criteria guided her choice of additions. Similarly, the introduction does not show which parts are due to the translator and which are carried over from the German edition of 2002. The pre-face by Jacques Revel is new but tells us nothing we do not know already. In fact, we could say that Revel insists rather too much on the individual element in the Biechlein in his portrayal of the protagonist as a melancholic, whereas, it is more likely that the gloomy tone of the work is dictated by the protagonist’s context on the one hand and the demands of his literary genre on the other. G.’s portrayal of his illnesses and his skin diseases in particular echoes for instance many a standard description of dermatological disorders in early modern autobiographies and biographies. The most obvious candidate for comparison here is Theodore Beza’s first Life of John Calvin of 1564. Hagiographical in tone, it aims to show that Calvin’s undoubtedly real and individual skin diseases marked him out as an insignificant mortal but also as a man apart, approaching sainthood in his struggles against the flesh. This of course is not to suggest that G. drew an implicit comparison between himself and Calvin or that he even knew Beza’s 1564 Life of the reformer. However, it does suggest a particular way of talking about skin diseases in biographical and autobiographical literature of the early modern era, as was already suggested by G. Piller for a somewhat later period (cf. »Krankheit schreiben: Körper und Sprache im Selbstzeugnis von Margarethe E. Milow-Hudtwalker (1748–1794)«, Historische Anthropologie, 7 (1999), 212–235). In conclusion, readers of the present translation will have to go back to the German edition if they want to study G.’s work in greater depth and situate it better in its context.
However, there is no doubt that the present translation renders a considerable service to those who would like to study the Selbstzeugnisliteratur in France in the same period, a field of study still largely unexplored, as the translator notes.