Südwestdeutscher Arbeitskreis für Stadtgeschichtsforschung
Ego documents of women in early modern German cities'
(‚Selbstzeugnisse frühneuzeitlicher Städterinnen')
Heidelberg, 17th - 19th November 2000
From the 17th until the 19th of November the interdisciplinary conference entitled "Selbstzeugnisse frühneuzeitlicher Städterinnen ("Ego-documents of women in early modern German cities") was held in Heidelberg. It was conceived by Daniela Hacke (Zurich) and Bernd Roeck (Zurich) and organised in co-operation with the city archive Heidelberg (Peter Blum) and the vice-chairman of the Südwestdeutscher Arbeitskreis für Stadtgeschichtsforschung (Hans Peter Becht).
In the opening Bernd Roeck outlined the research field and made some basic comments on the genesis of the individual. In this respect, portraits which first came up in Italy and in the Netherlands were intepreted not to be the birth of the individual, but as the indication for an increase of self-reflection. From the late Middle Ages onwards, one can detect a new conception of the individual as well as of the world in general, which - as Bernd Roeck argued -, was linked to the process of secularisation. These developments first arose in towns and courts, since these urban places provided better structures of communication and better infrastructures for education and religion in comparision with the rural world.
The historian Benigna von Krusenstjern (Göttingen) emphasised in her paper "Schreibende Frauen in der Stadt der Frühen Neuzeit" ("Writings by women in the early modern city") that we know little about the writings of women in early modern cities. This lack was in part explained by pointing to the unfortunate situation of ego-documents in general, sources which have long been regarded as ‚worthless records' and did thus not easily come down to us; and even more so, if they were written by women. The equation of female writers with female poets and authors furthermore narrowed researchers' approaches; in consequence non literary texts written by women were not taken into account. These forms of simple writings by women were the issue of von Krusenstjern's paper. By pointing to many examples, the speaker did convincingly argue that women in early modern cities during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - despite their educational disadvantages - regarded their writing skills as a matter of course and expressed this, as men did, in different generes such as family-books (‚Familienbücher'), chronicles, biographies and letters.
The morning section on the 18th of November started with the paper by the historian Ulrike Gleixner (Berlin) who talked about "Frauen in pietistischen Selbstzeugnissen" ("Female ego-documents in Pietism"). She pointed to the fact that in pietism all sorts of(auto-)biographical writings such as diaries, letters. autobiographies or funeral semons are texts of confession. The speaker developed a notion of the text in which a separation between the writing subject and the written text was abolished. Only through the process of writing and expressing one's self, the subject begins to experience and to discern itself and finally to constitute an own identity. At the same time writing forms new structures of identification within the pious tradition of genalogy and memory. Pietistic writing was furthermore shaped by the category ‚gender'. Even though pietism offered women the possibility to write, their participation in what might be called the ‚culture of writing' was nevertheless limited to specific genres. They could not, for example, write autobiographies or descriptions of people's lives, since these always included descriptions of academic or occupational careers.
The second paper of the morning section by Brigitte Schnegg (Bern) on "Tagebuchschreiben als Selbstprüfung. Das Beispiel der Bernerin Henriette Stettler- Herport" ("Diaries as an act of self-examination. The example of Henriette Stettler-Herport") was cancelled because of illness. Instead, Olaf Schulze (Pforzheim) stood in with a paper on "Leben und Werk der Willhelmine Müller, geborene Maisch (28.8.1767-12.12.1807)" ("Life and opus of Willhelmine Müller, Maisch by birth"). She was the first wife of the bookseller and publisher Christian Friedrich Müller from Karlsruhe. In his paper Schulze analysed the notion of ‚woman' in Willhelmine Müller's writings. By taking autobiographical notes and letters, but also poems of the female author into account (which the speaker regarded as ego-documents), Schulze reconstructed Wilhelmine Müller's self-reflections regarding her roles as mother, wife and author.
The afternoon section was opened with an paper by the art historian Annegret Friedrich (Trier) on "Selbstzuegnisse weiblicher Intellektualität in der Maleri des 18. Jahrhunderts" ("The fabrication of female intellectuallity in eighteenth century paintings"). In the centre of attention stood the group portrait of nine English women (Bluestockings) by Richard Samuel entitled ‚The nine living muses of Great Britain' (1779). On the basis of this painting the speaker discussed the self-conception of intellectual women in that period, their reflection of their position outside scientific institutions dominated by men and the function of classical antiquity in role plays and masquerades.
The afternoon section ended with the literature historian Eva Kormann (Karlsruhe). Her paper was entitled "Selbsvergewisserungen in einer verkehrten Welt. Zur Heterologie frühneuzeitlicher Subjektivität in autoiographischen Schriften" ("On the heterology of early modern subjectivity as revealed in autobiographical writings"). Issue of her paper were seventeenth century convent chronicles written by Maria Anna Junius, Clara Staiger and Sebastian Bürster. The analysis of these texts was based on a heuristic definition of autobiographies which can be used as a notion for self-descritions in the sense of Leujeune's ‚autobiographical pact'. They always refer to life and thus make a referential pact (or agreement); they are written, and thus constructed. These autobiographical texts express subjectivity in different ways. By analysing the chronicles from the Thirty Years' War, the speaker argued, can we detect heterologic self-images - the female and male authors are describing themselves by describing the 'other' and by refering to it. The most clearly defined examples for this kind of heterology are according to Kormann the authors' self-indications in the titles of the chronicles as nuns with personal names: "ich schwester Maria Anna Junius" and "ich Clara Staigerin". Kormann therefore argued that chronicles in times of war and crises had the function of self-reassurance in a world of destruction.
The conference ended with a paper by Gesa Ingendhal (Tübingen) who talked about the "Selbstverständnis der ‚armen Witwe' in der Frühen Neuzeit. Eigen-Sinn und Fremd-Sinn" ("The self-notion of the ‚poor widow' in the early modern period. The stubbornness of widows and the intentions of others"). Ingendhal's paper was based on Winfried Schulze's wider definition of ‚ego-documents' as introduced into the accademic discussion in the 1996s, in order to include also illiterate women into the analysis of the process of individualisation. Thus, on the basis of marriage contracts, letters of request and petitions Ingendhal reconstructed facets of the ‚self'. The speaker depicted an image of the ‚poor widow' in an early modern municipal town as an extremely ‚litigious' person - in the positive sense of the word. Women, such as Katharina Schmiedin, widow of a butcher or the widow Elisabeth Jordanin, tackled successfully with the problem of the limits - and freedoms - of their cultural status; they knew very well how to strategically and tactically use the topos of neediness.
In the final discussion of the conference, Bernd Roeck's opening remarks about the connection between the process of individualisation and that of secularisation - resulting in an incresease of self-reflection - were subject of a controversial discussion. All above critised was his approach in terms of a progressing modell of development. The statment that secularisation could be equated (or resulted in) an increase of self-reflection was held to be problematic, since infringements or the ‚decrease' of self-reflection could hardly be addressed in an perspective like this.
Finally, the conference was judged positively. It was emphasied that we need further research on female ego-documents in the early modern period. The conference was only a first step and the various papers revealed fascinating insights into different forms of ‚self-reflection', ‚self-construction' and female identity. As a first result we may conclude that women successfully applied various generes, but almost never did they elaborate own forms of writing.
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