Virginia Barton

Growing up in difficult times

Catholic Herald, 13 July 1990                   


Review: Three Behaim Boys by Steven Ozment (Yale University Press, £16.95)


61Gd2Dya1CL__SY300_The agonies and ecstasies of growing-up in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe can be shared by the modern reader in this absorbing book of letters. Professor Ozment has mined a rich source of original material; all but three of this large collection have been translated from manuscript and are published here for the first time.

His obvious warmth for his subject, and his detailed knowledge, mean that the layman easily slips into the ambiance of distant times and places.

The three boys of the title are members of the same powerful Nuremberg family, but from different generations. Each boy became fatherless at a young age, and, as was the custom in those days, left home early to pursue vocational training. The letters are an exchange, over several years, between them and their families or guardians.

Michael, aged 12, takes up a merchant apprenticeship in Milan and Breslau; mercenary and calculating, his story is a monologue since none of the letters written to him have survived.

The affectionate and insouciant Frederich writes to his mother from schools in Altdorf and Padua. His mother’s replies might have been written today to a son at boarding school. She enquires as to his health, his laundry, his diet, his friends. She sends him slippers – and asks him to return a coop in which she sent chickens. He asks for more money, books, a satchel.

Stephan Carl is the problem boy. Only nine when sent to school, his dishonest habits make an early appearance. This spendthrift braggart comes to a sorry end in far-away Brazil.

The excellent introduction and many coherent linking passages remove the stilted disjointedness one so often finds in collections of letters. The stories flow smoothly, and anybody interested in history, sociology or psychology will find much to enjoy in these lively pages.

One has to hand it to the Americans, they produce a dandy book. Lovely paper, lovely print, discreet dust-jacket, generous endpapers and first-class reproductions. Maps, appendices and genealogical tables –  but no index alas.

Only the title grated – it reminded me of a pop group.




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