The Beggar and the Professor: A Sixteenth-Century Family Saga


"A plunge into the complex realities of a watershed period in European history, in the company of the remarkable Platter family.…Ladurie unearths a remarkable 16th-century life, deftly using personal narratives, memoirs, diaries, and the like to recreate a dense sensation of actual life."—Kirkus Reviews

"Le Roy Ladurie paints a remarkably contemporary picture of life in the sixteenth century.…It's a good story, told with a deft narrative touch."—Michael S. Kimmel, The Nation

"Le Roy Ladurie is a master of the representative detail and uses the Platters' lives as a means to see a whole century 'through a glass, darkly'."—The Independent

An excerpt from
The Beggar and the Professor
A Sixteenth-Century Family Saga
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
Translated by Arthur Goldhammer

[The book begins with an episode from late in the life of Thomas Platter: his journey at the age of sixty-four from Basel to the village of his birth, Grächen, in the Swiss Alps. References in parentheses refer to the diaries, journals, and letters of the Platters. The only dialogue that Ladurie incorporated into the book was taken verbatim from these sources; he invented no dialogue.]

Pilgrimage to the Valais

In 1563, in the final weeks of spring (F 401), Thomas Platter, an erstwhile highland shepherd and vagabond who had gone on to become first a printer and later a boarding-school teacher and headmaster in Basel, decided, at the age of sixty-four, to leave Basel on a pilgrimage of reminiscence to the land of his birth: the German-speaking Upper Valais, situated downstream from the Rhone glacier and upstream from Lausanne and Geneva, the heartland of francophone Switzerland. Linked to the Helvetic Confederation since the fifteenth century, the Valais region had long been divided between the Francophile party of Georg Supersaxo and the "minions" of the Milanese state, to which a powerful personage, Cardinal Matthaëus Schiner (1465-1522) had thrown his support, only to end up as one of the biggest losers at Marignano in 1515. 1 Since the 1550s, the Valais, whose bishopric and central town had long been Sion (or Sitten), had been (relatively) hospitable to "heresy." The silent majority remained Catholic, but the nobles, including several of Thomas Platter's former boarders, inclined toward Protestantism. The area remained basically rural and pastoral, if only because of its mountainous terrain.

On June 1, 1563, in Basel, Thomas sat down to a meal, probably the evening repast. To this feast he had issued a neighborly invitation to his son Felix Platter, a fashionable young doctor and graduate of the University of Montpellier, who had already begun to attract a considerable clientele among the aristocracy or at the very least the bourgeoisie of Basel and its environs, drawing patients from even as far away as southern Alsace, Wurtemberg, and the Black Forest. Felix lived a short distance from Thomas in a house on Freie Strasse, or "free street," near the city walls and the so-called Gate of Ashes (Innere Aeschentor). He came to dinner with his shy, pretty young wife, Madlen. Although married for more than five years, the couple still had no children. They were joined by Madlen's father, Franz Jeckelmann, a surgeon. Anna Dietschi, the elder Platter's wife, probably served the diners, but her presence (on this occasion at least) is not mentioned in our sources. No surprise about that.

"Make the journey with me and take the baths in the Valais. You have no child, and as you know, the Valaisian waters are effective against sterility."


During dinner Thomas brought up an idea he had been mulling over for some time: "Madlen," he told his daughter-in-law, "you should make the journey with me and take the baths in the Valais. You have no child, and as you know, the Valaisian waters are effective against sterility." 2 Madlen had only to nod her assent. In this house the old man's words were generally taken as orders, and in any case the young woman was not averse to the journey he proposed. Surgeon Jeckelmann, who on this occasion was in uncharacteristically good spirits (lustig), immediately chimed in: "I'm coming too." He owned his own horse, which solved one transportation problem. Felix, who also owned a horse, quickly made up his mind to join the group as well. Thomas, who was fond of asinine creatures, had brought back a mule from a previous trip to the Valais: just the animal for Madlen to ride. The headmaster himself was an indefatigable walker: he had not forgotten his youth as a mountain climber and hiker. Hence he would travel on foot. Anna, his wife, would stay home and keep an eye on the house on Freie Strasse. Preparations for the trip were quickly completed.

In fact, the group set out the very next day, on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 2, 1563. The four travelers were joined by Pierre Bonet of Porrentruy, Felix's French-speaking servant. From his long sojourns among the "Welches," 3 the young doctor had retained a fondness for the French language, even if he used it only in conversation with his servants. A pharmacist from Sion, the principal town of the Valais, accompanied the spa-bound tourists; his first name was Hans (we cannot be sure of his last name). Hans and Thomas, the two Valaisians, both traveled on foot yet always reached the inn ahead of their companions on horseback. Because Madlen was a delicate, nervous city girl, whenever the group came to a difficult ford, one of the men took hold of her mule's bridle to make sure that nothing would go awry.

On June 3, in an arduous stretch of the Jura not far from the craggy rim of the "Wasserfall," Pierre Bonet stepped on a nail. His foot became so infected that he could not go on. Felix, a surgeon as well as a physician, took charge of the case. Knife in hand, he dug out the wound and cleaned away the mud and pus. In pain and frightened, the injured man fainted and then, overwhelmed by his ordeal, defecated on Madlen's apron as she tried to nurse him. By the time the others had finished their picnic dinner, however, Pierre had regained consciousness and seemed to have recovered his strength. The caravan was able to proceed.

From June 4 to June 6, the travelers worked their way southward, staying with friends or friends of friends from Basel, people with connections to various city officials and Protestant clergymen. In Erlenbach (F 404), they ate for the first time a sort of cracker made from dried bread and stacked up by the dozen on long needles.

On June 8, near Saanen, Jeckelmann, accompanied by a pastor who was the son of a monk, drank his first Valais wine and gave signs of being quite pleased with it, indeed slightly inebriated. His joy was not to last: after losing one of his gloves, he vented his wrath on the rocky trail and declared the Valais a place fit for devils. This was the first of what would prove to be a series of angry outbursts. The day's journey ended in Gsteig (altitude 1,200 meters), at an inn where there was no one to greet the travelers but the wife of the innkeeper, who was away. The woman had just given birth. She had, she said, neither money nor food. Madlen was obliged to improvise a meal from eggs and milk. Apparently there was no shortage of protein.

On June 9, Thomas and his family (F 404) climbed to the peak of Sanetsch (2,243 meters). The peasants were cutting hay. It was hot and dry. Pink willow-herb flowered amid the grass and boulders. The horses stumbled. The travelers passed wine merchants headed north, their packhorses laden with tall kegs of wine for the people of the highlands. Jeckelmann shamelessly quaffed several glassfuls straight from the keg and ate cheese provided by Hans, the apothecary. As if by miracle, the surgeon's foul mood vanished: he even forgot about the glove he had lost. Meanwhile, the travelers admired an astonishing irrigation system built by the local peasants, not unlike the irrigation systems that exist today on the lower slopes of the Himalayas. The water came from a glacier and flowed directly by gravity into a series of larchwood conduits, which directed the irrigating flow into gardens and pastures. As they drew near a bridge, Felix was astonished to see a woman astride a packhorse. She carried a keg of wine on her back while spinning yarn with a distaff under her arm as easily as another woman might knit. Meanwhile, the horse, with scarcely any prodding from its rider, fearlessly crossed a bridge so narrow and dangerous that Felix himself scarcely dared set foot on it. The plainsman was terrified to go where the mountain woman moved easily. (This equestrian spinner calls to mind the Giantesses of Provence, mythical creatures about whom Thomas Platter Jr. would learn, much later, while traveling in the south of France. These Giantesses could supposedly spin or weave while at the same time carrying heavy stones on their heads—stones to be used for the construction of a great Roman monument.)

Felix tossed a stone over the side of the bridge, counting to eighteen before observing its splash in the rapids below. Characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet also counted to measure time; in Catholic countries, people used to use the time it took to say an Ave Maria or a Pater Noster for the same purpose. Given the height of the bridge that we can deduce from this scientific observation, it is easy to understand why the young doctor from Basel was so impressed by the courage of the woman on the horse.

A short while later, Felix, overcome by dizziness and heat, fainted. His wife thought he was dead. She shouted at her father and father-in-law to turn back. But the young doctor came to and—always the professional—asked for a blanket or cloak. This was to make him sweat, which would then lower his body temperature. He was soon back on his feet. At four in the afternoon, the group reached Savièse (F 405), in a region of irrigated fields and isolated farms with fine views of the Alps. The recovered patient drank a healthy draft, a trunck, which fully restored his strength. After climbing a steep, arduous path strewn with loose pebbles, the three urban riders (Felix, Jeckelmann, and Madlen) and the two highland hikers (Thomas and Hans) at last arrived at Sitten, alias Sion, toward the end of the afternoon.

Sion was different. Relaxed men in shirtsleeves strode about with bare swords at their sides; scabbards were not used. Such liberties were permissible in the highlands. Captain Marc Wolff, formerly one of Thomas's boarders and a local "castellan," 4 was the secret (?) lover of the wife of a local scholar, a pharmacist by trade. He proposed to put the travelers up. Thomas, always somewhat puritanical, refused. The group stayed instead at the inn of Franz Gröli, another graduate of the Platter boarding school. Thomas had former students everywhere. Gröli was the castellan's son and married to a noblewoman; he was the father of a medical student soon to become a doctor. In other words, this was the high society of Sion. On their very first night in town, the visitors from Basel drank canteens of wine by the dozen. They were in high spirits. Felix and his wife slept on the first floor, near the "noble room," which could be heated in winter. The stove, unlike stoves in Basel, was covered with stone rather than ceramic tile. The two fathers, Jeckelmann and Thomas, shared a room on the second floor.

The whole week was amusing and pleasant. The saffron and pomegranate were in bloom in the countryside. The four visitors from Basel received countless invitations, especially from Captain Wolff, who harbored no ill will toward Thomas for his haughty attitude. Always the lady's man, the captain offered Madlen some lovely items of clothing as a gift. Captain Heinrich in Albon, who belonged to a family, soon to become Protestant, that had distinguished itself in war, notarial practice, and humanism, also spared no effort. His wife, a woman with a yen for wine and men, did everything she could to get Felix into bed, but the great physician politely declined (she would repeat the offense a few weeks later at the baths in Leuk, where the promiscuity of bathing gave her new opportunities but with no greater success than before). All this reveling was highly ecumenical: religious differences were forgotten around the massive silver mugs made by the great silversmith Exuperantius. The Catholic bishop invited the visitors to dine with him and offered to stable their horses. What sweet revenge for Thomas, the former shepherd of the Valais, who had been so poor in his childhood! The canons invited the surgeon Jeckelmann to dinner. Of course one of them, a future bishop, had also been a boarder at Thomas's school. An easygoing Catholicism, a papistry of good cheer, reigned in this small highland town, which in this respect differed from the surrounding flatland, from the rather stiff climate of Basel and Zurich.

Old Thomas planned to visit the house in which he had been born, or at any rate the old family homestead.


Eventually, however, the visitors had to move on. From Sion they headed northeast along the Rhone. An escort accompanied them, as was customary for travelers of some importance. They stopped in Saint-Leonhard at the home of Alexander Jossen, an episcopal treasurer and an old friend of the Platters, as well as the bishop's grandson by the left hand: they were delighted by the gorgeous woodwork in his home, paid for perhaps by the money of the faithful. Across slopes and vineyards they made their way toward the baths at Leuk. They stopped at the home of a veteran of the battle of Marignano, a man wounded in the thigh in 1515 and still paralyzed. This gentleman, Petermann Hengart of Platea (F 410), had accumulated any number of blessings, civil as well as military. He was both sheriff and ensign as well as the bishop's nephew and the son-in-law of the great Supersaxo. The visitors were received sumptuously. After another, similar stop at the home of yet another gentleman, Peter Allet, the Platter-Jeckelmann quartet, father, son, daughter-in-law, and father-in-law, finally reached Leuk (known as Loèche in Romansch). At the inn the four travelers shared a room with three beds. It would be pretentious to call Leuk a "spa," but there were numerous hotels in the town. The baths at Leuk had regained some of their importance as a tourist spot and a locale for real-estate investment as the Renaissance economy flourished in the second half of the fifteenth century. Said to be good for gout and skin diseases, Leuk's waters also attracted infertile women, as was mentioned earlier. An unpleasant joke had it that the promiscuity of the bathers at Leuk had something to do with the observed increase in post festum natality. In any case, Jeckelmann and his daughter arranged to stay at the Hotel Ours for three crowns each for four weeks, including room and baths. Felix and Thomas continued on to the highlands of Upper Valais. Old Thomas planned to visit the house in which he had been born, or at any rate the old family homestead. The two men proceeded on foot; Pierre Bonet, Felix's servant, having recovered from his foot infection, took his master's horse from Leuk back to Sion, to the providential stables of the bishop, where the animal would be kept until its owner returned. For this pilgrimage to his mountain roots, Felix had literally disguised himself: he wore a red silk doublet, red pantaloons, and a fuzzy velvet hat. One can only assume that he wished to dazzle his highland kinsmen with the sumptuousness of his attire (this was not the most attractive side of his personality). Thomas, who knew and liked the highland natives from childhood and experience, dressed more soberly.

On the first stretch of this final stage of their journey, Felix and Thomas planned to stop at Visp (also known as Viège), on a tributary south of the upper Rhone. Felix wrote that Viège was "a pretty place," but in saying this his intention was primarily to disparage what came afterward. A first delegation of the Platter family, or that portion of the family that had not emigrated from its native region, came to greet the two visitors at the inn. One imagines the country folk doffing their hats before these "successful" cousins from another world. Early in the morning of June 19, the two visitors proceeded upstream along the Visp river valley. They crossed bridges of wood and stone, some of them quite recent and high enough so that Felix had to count to sixty before the stone splashed in the water below. The most noteworthy of these was the stone bridge of the Matter Visp, built in 1544 by the architect Ulrich Ruffiner, whose upper arch stood 65 meters above the rapids (F 416). Here is evidence of the architectural vitality of the sixteenth century, a time when even the remotest of valleys showed signs of the increased pace of commerce and trade. Although the trail narrowed as it climbed, it was still wide enough for caravans of pack animals to pass. To Felix, who lacked experience, it seemed at times little more than a footpath cut into the rock. His right hand hugged the cliff, his left hand hovered over the abyss. At times his courage amazed him. Meanwhile, riding a horse down this same narrow path, a cousin came down from Grächen to meet the two visitors. His name was Hans in der Bünde, and he belonged to one of the better-off peasant families of Grächen, the birthplace of the original Platters. 5 To be sure, at this altitude (Grächen stood at 1,610 meters), the wealthier families were hardly any better off than other people. Cousin Hans was dressed in the old style. He wore trousers and a jacket and seemed disconcerted by Felix's provocative scarlet outfit. He greeted the elder Platter (F 411), whom he knew by hearsay, with a question: "Welcome by God, Cousin Thomas. Is that your son?"

Hans used the familiar form of the second-person pronoun as a matter of course. He then jumped off his horse, which he rode practically bareback and guided with just a plain rope, eschewing bit and reins. Always helpful, the skilled horseman offered to ride double with Felix, who strenuously declined for fear that he might fall off and plummet to his death. The two Platters proceeded on foot to Grächen, accompanied by Hans, who continued to ride. Along the way, Thomas showed Felix the spot where his grandfather Summermatter, also named Hans (and, if we are to believe him, 126 years old at the time), had answered little Thomas's question in 1504 or 1505: "Grandfather, do you want to die?" "Yes, little one, if only I knew what kind of food they would cook for me up there" (F 412).

As they drew near their destination, the route, wending its way among the larches, grew arduous. Felix had to agree to mount his cousin's horse. To have maintained his refusal would have seemed impolite. Once the doctor was in place, Hans jumped on behind him, holding him by the waist while Felix, frozen with terror, shut his eyes. His cousin, riding behind, guided the horse with his strange rig. The travelers next crossed a relatively flat field and a dark pine forest that served as a lair for the bears still numerous in the region. Snowy peaks loomed in the distance. And then came the first human contact with Grächen: a blind centenarian (?) and his grown, white-haired children, all living in the same house as an extended family, watched as the three men passed. The elderly man served up the old story of the Platters' ancestor, Thomas's grandfather, more than a hundred years old, who was supposed to have lived this way in Grächen with ten other old men in 1505. Thomas had known this story by heart since childhood and even believed it. Then a female cousin of the Platters, a "Platterin," wearing a gray skirt and with her hair down, served a milk soup in a house occupied by very elderly peasants, a hut with larch beams. Milk and cheese dishes were the staple of the highlands. Tired, Felix collapsed in this old-forks' hut and briefly lay down on a straw mattress. Hans in der Bünde's house was located a short distance away from the home of the woman in the gray skirt. He invited his cousins over for another meal. Thomas Platter asked after a beautiful girl who had tended geese and with whom he had spent part of his childhood, and someone showed him the way to her house. Now very ugly, she was busy smashing pine cones. The reunion, after more than fifty years of separation, came as something of a disappointment. Nevertheless, the former goose-tender was a good-hearted woman: she clasped Felix to her bosom and called him "dear cousin" (laube vetter rather than liebe vetter). This dialectal dissonance caused the not very charitable physician to burst out laughing. After this sentimental interlude, Thomas and Felix returned to the home of Hans in der Bünde, the fearless horseman. Was Hans's wife perhaps put out that Felix had fallen asleep in the midst of the earlier family reunion? In any case she was unfriendly to the two men from the city and even to her own husband: "You've brought me guests, eh? Well, then, you take care of them, in the devil's name!"

Once again she served them milk, but this time generously sprinkled with pepper. Felix's throat burned. He cooled it down with excellent Val d'Aosta wines, which Hans had in his cellar. So the village was not as autarchic as it might have seemed, nor was Hans's house as wretched as it appeared. Pepper and wine were semiluxury or luxury items imported from Liguria and the Piedmont, carried up from Aosta and Genoa on the backs of pack animals in direct or indirect exchange for local products such as wood, livestock, and cheese. The bedding was rustic, however. After the evening meal, straw was spread on the floor close to the fire (nights were cool at this altitude), and the guests were invited to lie down.

Although old Thomas's highland simplicity had survived four decades of urban life, he could not stop himself from discreetly letting his son know how disappointed he felt at this treatment: "As you see, Felix, they make quite a fuss over me."

A further surprise awaited Felix the following morning. A crowd of little girls from the various hamlets of Grächen milled about the house where the two men from Basel had spent the night. Each of the girls was carrying a chamber pot full of urine. They wanted the great doctor from Basel to inspect the liquid—in other words, to provide them with a free consultation. Felix, who ordinarily preferred to treat nobles or wealthy clients, obligingly complied. More moving was the visit to the home of the brother of the late Simon Steiner, an old friend and probably a cousin of Thomas's. When Felix looked back on the occasion in his memoirs, however, he mainly recalled the wretchedness of the surroundings: the tourist clad in red silk liked to see himself as a civilized emissary among the barbarians of the forests and mountains. With antiquarian pedantry he referred, for instance, to Simon Steiner as Lithonius. 6 Steiner had been born in Grächen into a poor peasant family. Like Thomas, he had scored a "success" in town: in Strasbourg he had been the famulus (assistant) of the great local reformer Martin Bucer and later a teacher in Johannes Sturm's Latin school. To honor his memory, Thomas and Felix called on his brother, who had remained in the country on a plot of land that belonged to the family. Unlike Simon, the brother had never known success in the city. Thomas offered him his affection. Felix offered him alms of ten shillings.

This brief excursion home had given him a new lease on life; it was his last contact, for he was now an old man, with a childhood for which he remained nostalgic despite its frequent misery.


The high point of this "homecoming" was the pilgrimage to the Platter family home, which Thomas had left in the first decade of the sixteenth century. Like many other dwellings in the area, it was a stout, simple cabin of larch logs, comfortable enough in its distinctive style. Wood was plentiful in these high Alpine valleys. The construction was old, probably dating back to the thirteenth century. The cabin stood close to a high crag or plateau (platte), a circumstance that may have been the origin of the name Platter: in these parts, the family was named after the house rather than the house after the family (F 415). In his memoirs Felix described this august dwelling as the birthplace of his father Thomas—but he was mistaken: Antony Platter, Thomas's father, mired in debt, was forced to flee his creditors shortly before 1499. He moved into a house some distance away but still within the limits of Grächen, a witch's house known as Auf den Gräben (By the Grave). It was there that Thomas Platter was born. But Thomas and Felix ignored this episode, important as it was, and focused their attention exclusively on the fifteenth-century family homestead at the place known as An der Platte. The visit took place on the beautiful day of June 18, 1563. Taking advantage of the sun, the two men, accompanied by acquintances and kin from the village, cousin Hans among them, took the noon meal at the house and washed down their food with a good deal of drink. Then they moved on from the cabin to the nearby Platte, whose dominating view made Felix dizzy. There they drank some more: afternoon and evening flagons, trunck and abendtrunck. Felix dug into his purse for another crown, this one for a local artisan whose name was not recorded, to carve his (newly acquired) coat of arms into the rock. Felix's blazon consisted of a white rock in relief with a white dove taking off from the rock against a background of blue sky. Rock on rock: of course there was no thought of coloring the bas-relief carved on stone in the open air. But the symbols spoke for themselves: the flat rock was Thomas, faithful to his roots; the dove was Felix, who, being fond of doves anyway, used one to symbolize how high he had already climbed in the world and how much higher he still dreamed of going. The physician never knew for sure whether the work of art he had commissioned was completed. To tell the truth, the ground he walked on scorched his feet. He was eager to leave this mountain eyrie, to which he never returned. Once the last goblet of wine was downed, the young doctor hastened that very evening down the mountain to Saint-Niclaus below. From there he returned as quickly as possible to the company of his wife, who was waiting at Leuk with her father. Thomas, who accompanied his son on this return journey, was preoccupied with very different thoughts. This brief excursion home had given him a new lease on life; it was his last contact, for he was now an old man, with a childhood for which he remained nostalgic despite its frequent misery, a childhood that had begun some sixty years before in this remote, not to say God-forsaken, parish of Grächen, where "little Thomas" had indeed been born into extreme poverty in 1499.


  1. The battle in which King Francis I of France defeated the Swiss allied with the Duke of Milan. (Translator's note)
  2. Cf. the claim that mineral waters can make women "fertile": Janine Garrison, Marguerite de Valois (Paris: Fayard, 1994), p. 228.
  3. The Platters used the term "Welches" to refer to Latins generally, whether Venetians or French, north or south European.
  4. In the Valais and in French Switzerland as in east-central and southern France on the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, a "castellan" was often only an officer of low to high rank charged by the local authorities with keeping watch, in a military or nonmilitary sense, on a castle, for the purpose of ensuring the security of the surrounding countryside. Hence the word "castellan" should not necessarily be taken to imply any sense of aristocratic grandeur.
  5. Grächen was a highland hamlet of a few dozen houses on the north slope of the southern chain of Upper Valaisian Alps, more than an hour's walk from the Saint-Niclaus, a village also situated above the valley of the Mattervisp (1,121 meters altitude).
  6. The German Stein (stone) is lithos in Greek.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 3-12 of The Beggar and the Professor: A Sixteenth-Century Family Saga by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1997 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
The Beggar and the Professor: A Sixteenth-Century Family Saga
Translated by Arthur Goldhammer
©1997, 420 pages, 26 halftones, 5 maps, 1 table
Cloth $30.00 ISBN: 0-226-47323-6
Paper $15.00 ISBN: 0-226-47324-4

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