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Ronald K. Rittgers

Escape from Oblivion

A 16th-century life.

In the mid-16th century, the Cologne rentier, Licentiate of Law, and parish church warden Hermann Weinsberg (1518-1597) embarked upon what would become one of the early modern period's most astonishing and intriguing efforts to deal with the anxieties of that turbulent time. Fearful of fading into oblivion, Weinsberg developed a secret and extraordinarily ambitious plan to provide for himself and his family a refuge from the forces that threatened to wipe them from the face of history: he would entail the Weinsberg estate within the male line in perpetuity. This plan was in direct contravention of the traditional German practice of partible inheritance and violated a Cologne law that limited entails to three generations. Weinsberg thus sought to claim for his middling family the kind of status and enduring corporate identity that could only be found among aristocratic and religious houses. He drew up an elaborate will that laid out his plan (which denied his sisters their rightful inheritance); created a fanciful family history—Das Boich Weinsberg—that included an impressive and largely fictitious genealogy; and authored a Declarationsboich that contained, among other things, a detailed manual for how subsequent Weinsberg house fathers should manage the estate so that it would endure forever. To these writings Weinsberg contributed a three-volume Gedenkbuch (Memory Book) in which he recorded with rare candor and specificity the quotidian details of his life and age, believing that God himself had called him to do so for the good of the Weinsberg posterity. Altogether Weinsberg's vernacular writings fill some 70,000 manuscript pages (!), an extraordinary effort to "write a middling burgher family into history."

In Paper Memory, Matthew Lundin's first book, the Wheaton College assistant professor of history has provided an elegant, insightful, rigorous, and extremely sensitive treatment of Weinsberg and his project. Other scholars have dealt with portions of ...

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