Book Reviews

Ancestors: the Loving Family in Old Europe by Steven Ozment


Ancestors: the Loving Family in Old Europe by Steven Ozment is a study of private life in Early Modern Europe. I know, yawn, right? 

Wrong.

Ozment, a professor of ancient and modern history at Harvard University, has researched diaries, letters, fiction, and even woodcuts to present a picture of pre-industrial family life in Europe in the Middle Ages. He discusses such themes as working women (in late medieval Cologne, women’s guilds of yarn makers, gold and silk embroiders, and silk makers were among the city’s most labor-intensive and highly paid) and women’s place in religion and society.

 He examines the practice of contraception (condemned by the church and justified by the laity), parent-child relations, infanticide, wet-nursing, and parental advice to children. In a Hamburg poet’s letter to one of his 10 children, he tells him to “be happy to learn from others, and where there is talk of wisdom, human happiness, light, freedom, and virtue, listen intently.” 

Ozment’s absorbing look at some of our ancestors living in a wholly different society shows us how little things have changed.

Get past the historiography and methodology at the beginning and you have a fantastic brief study of family life during that time. You realize that there really is nothing new under the sun, that families were close and not so close, loving and dysfunctional, just like today. They weren’t all cold and callous. Families haven’t changed that much.

If you want, you can skip the first chapter. You won’t have problems keeping up. If you’ve never dealt with a more scholarly work, you definitely want to do so. My graduate degree helped me deal with it.

One name you will run into is Philippe Aries, who wrote the definitive A Century of Childhood. I say definitive because everyone in the field reads him, not because he’s always right. In fact, Ozment spends a lot of time tearing the guy down. But that’s history for you, always changing with new facts.

 

Co. Aytch by Sam Watkins

 I first encountered Co. Aytch and Sam Watkins in my second undergraduate class on the Civil War. I’ve read it twice more in the ten years since. That’s how much I like it. 

Samuel Rush Watkins served in the 1st Tennessee Regiment under such commanders as Joseph Johnston and John Bell Hood. He fought in the western theater of the Civil War and was in nearly every battle in the area. He wrote Co. Aytch in the 1880s because there were no really good memoirs from ordinary privates at the front. They were all from the big guys: Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, etc. it is amazing that his memory served him well that many years later. But I suppose you don’t forget the memories of war. 

As Sam says: “It is the blackest page in the history of the war of the Lost Cause. It was the bloodiest battle of modern times in any war. It was the finishing stroke to the independence of the Southern Confederacy. I was there. I saw it. My flesh trembles, and creeps, and crawls when I think of it to-day. My heart almost ceases to beat at the horrid recollection. Would to God that I had never witnessed such a scene!…I cannot describe it. It beggars description. I will not attempt to describe it. The death angel was there to gather its last harvest. It was the grand coronation of death . . . . Forward, men’ is repeated all along the line. A sheet of fire was poured into our very faces, and for a moment we halted as if in despair, as the terrible avalanche of shot and shell laid low those brave and gallant heroes . . . . And the blood spurts in a perfect jet from the dead and wounded. The earth is red with blood. It runs in streams, making little rivulets as it flows . . . . The death-angel shrieks and laughs and old Father Time is busy with his sickle, as he gathers in the last harvest of death, crying, More, more, more! while his rapacious maw is glutted with the slain” (260-62). 

The biggest thing about Co. Aytch is the realism and the fact that Sam has no decisions to justify to the reader. This is why it stands the test of time. It remains the best Civil War memoir out there.  

At the same time our class read Co. Aytch, we read Hard Marching Every Day by Vermont’s Wilbur Fisk. Hands down, we preferred Sam to poor Wilbur. Hard Marching is a collection of his letters home. If anything, the memories should have been better since they were told in real time.  

It simply comes down to who told a better story and the boy from Tennessee wins every single time. 

Go out and read it and let me know what you think.   

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