The Talk of the Town: Information and Community in 16th-Century Switzerland 
by Carla Roth.
Oxford, 164 pp., £75, February 2022, 978 0 19 284645 7
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Inside​ the manuscript that contains the 16th-century protocols of the council of St Gall, in Switzerland, is a poem that offers helpful advice. ‘Oh man, think long,’ the anonymous poet urges, ‘before talk escapes your mouth.’ If you want to be successful, you need to learn to ‘speak thoughtfully, without anger and hatred … Listening quickly and answering slowly.’ Know what to say and when to listen, or you risk ruin: ‘Through talk many have been overcome … There is no better protection from dishonour/than being the master of your tongue.’ In early modern Europe, talk mattered. Reputations were made and fortunes were destroyed by the spoken word; news and rumour could travel much faster between mouths and ears than via print, and be understood by far more than the minority who could read.

St Gall (or St Gallen) was a town that ran on talk. It had no printing press, was some distance from major communication routes and about fifty miles from Zurich, the heart of the Swiss Reformation. But this relative isolation didn’t limit St Gallers’ hunger for news and rumour. Stories of Italian wars and Ottoman intrigues were swapped in the street and in taverns and bathhouses, where the changing world was discussed alongside the arguments and foibles of the great religious reformers. A smutty joke was as good a talking point as the latest political controversy. The people of St Gall were no strangers to political and religious dispute. In 1491, the townspeople had revolted against their rulers – an attempted coup that saw protests in the streets and rebels on the gallows. An even more cataclysmic shift came with the Reformation: the new religion was welcomed by many in the town, and in 1529 the reformed believers stormed the abbey cathedral and assumed control, with the abbot forced to flee. His final words were often repeated by St Gallers who feared troubles yet to come: ‘Someday, I will finish you.’

In recent decades, historians have tried to listen in on the conversations that shaped early modern European culture. Reading printed books in silent modern libraries can make it difficult to imagine noise and sociability – even if many of the products of the printing press were designed to be read out loud or to reproduce the spoken word on the page. Printed sermons and proclamations, catechisms and ballads all hint at the buzz of communication. They’re texts that fed on, and into, ‘oral culture’ – the world of speech and song. Other sources offer snatches of early modern voices: town criers’ records tell us how the urban authorities spoke to the people; accounts of interrogations reproduce not just the words of the accused but their stammers or cries of pain; and travellers’ diaries bring to life the shouts of hawkers in the streets of European cities. Histories of oral culture enable us to listen in on the political debates carried on in Venetian barbers’ shops and pharmacies, to understand why blasphemy was so important in 17th-century Sweden and to trace how secret political information from the Ottoman court made its way to London. The records of legal cases related to slander are particularly rich: they not only allow us to eavesdrop on the arguments of ordinary women and men, but disclose why early modern people cared so much about talk.

Talk determined your position in the community. In a society obsessed by honour, the ability to maintain your standing was crucial. It wasn’t just a matter of esteem: calculations about reputation shaped everyday transactions and influenced such important life decisions as the choice of a spouse. Insults and rumours could have a material impact, and early modern people were no strangers to the use of physical force or the law in preserving their honour and reputation. As Laura Gowing has shown in the case of London, if your neighbour called you a whore it wasn’t just upsetting: in a cash-poor society, it could affect your ability to get credit. Without credit, and without cash, making your way in the world got harder fast. In every town and city in 16th-century Europe, words could hurt. What makes St Gall remarkable is that someone was taking notes.

Johannes Rütiner was nobody, really. Born in the town, he had studied at the University of Basel before returning to marry, start a family and build a career in the linen trade. He rose to modest heights in St Gall’s government, amassed a reasonable fortune and formed cordial if rarely intimate relationships with the town’s intellectual elite. Rütiner was a convinced Protestant and a keen (though not particularly scholarly) reader, but there is no reason he should stand out from the countless other mid-ranking patriarchs who populated the cities and towns of early modern Europe. Except that, starting at Christmas 1529, he spent a decade taking detailed notes on the conversations he had with his neighbours, family members, servants, travellers and traders, scribbling down in broken Latin what he heard and who from. He diligently, perhaps obsessively, recorded what Carla Roth calls ‘the debris of talk in a 16th-century town’. Rütiner’s manuscripts, known as the Commentationes – a term meaning ‘studies’ or ‘treatise’ – were long dismissed by historians as a gossipy record that had none of the gravitas of the more publicly oriented chronicles of urban life kept by his more scholarly and respected peers. The early 20th-century German historian Theodor von Liebenau described the Commentationes as containing just a few ‘golden nuggets’ of fact, buried beneath ‘an enormous amount of worthless slag’. But for Roth, Rütiner’s notebooks present a unique opportunity to reconstruct an oral world, and to improve our understanding of the way verbal communication and information worked in a century thought of as an age of print.

The other chroniclers at work in St Gall – for more high-minded purposes – included Johannes Kessler, who wrote the Sabbata, a chronicle of the Reformation in the town, partly inspired by conversations with his friend Rütiner. ‘In our wondrous time,’ Kessler wrote, ‘we have considered it to be a shameful negligence to let the Lord’s great miraculous deeds pass unnoticed and not to offer ourselves and our own a short memory of the same.’ This was a public account. Rütiner’s Commentationes, by contrast, were private. His notebooks show him and his friends gossiping about the great Swiss reformers Heinrich Bullinger and Huldrych Zwingli. None of their conclusions (Bullinger was rich, Zwingli was belligerent and aggressive towards St Gall) made it into the Sabbata, even though Kessler was part of these conversations. The number of records being kept and accounts written caused consternation among the town’s authorities, and in 1556, its Small Council began calling in local writers to answer questions. Rütiner’s name doesn’t appear in these investigations, though his notebook with its earthy interests and slanderous stories would have appalled the council. The only possible conclusion is that no one, not even the friends whose confidences he so carefully recorded, knew that Rütiner was writing it all up.

Roth sees Rütiner as a man in the middle, ‘halfway between the learned men and the weavers of St Gall, halfway between the wealthy linen traders in his guild and the craftsmen in his neighbourhood’. He was known – though not considered a great mind – among the town’s intellectual elite, the educated men with whom he dined and joked. Sometimes they got together to observe comets in the sky. ‘The greatest pleasure,’ Rütiner wrote, ‘is to associate and converse with learned men.’ His links to the linen trade plugged him into other networks, and exposed him to other ideas, though he complained that his education hadn’t helped him, writing: ‘All of us who were at [the university of] Basle have come to nothing.’ This may not have been baseless self-deprecation: an acquaintance warned him that ‘I have never seen students rise. They are always more remiss and prone to slacking.’ Rütiner noted ruefully how this had been said ‘in a harsh tone, as if they were reproaching me. From then on I was more diligent.’

But even if he failed to rise particularly high in either of his two social circles, Rütiner’s range of contacts was impressive. Roth counts 349 informants who are named in the Commentationes – 307 men and 42 women, including ‘weavers, bleachers, millers, barbers, ministers, printers, peasants, publicans, pedlars, wealthy merchants, a midwife, a washerwoman, and even the St Gall executioner’. Rütiner’s interlocutors came from all levels of society and provided access to news and information from spaces he was forbidden to enter (like the lying-in chamber in which women gave birth) and lands too far away for him to visit, from Italy to the Ottoman Empire and the Americas.

As the Commentationes grew in length, he began to include more information on his sources and their trustworthiness. One piece of information came from ‘Leonhard, otherwise a taciturn man’, who had related it to Rütiner and others over breakfast; another was reported by an acquaintance who ‘heard it from customers who speak truthfully’. For Rütiner, the truth was arrived at by carefully weighing the credibility of a speaker and their proximity to the events they were recounting, and the more perspectives he could gather, the better. When Jakob Spichermann considered joining the Anabaptists, his wife had asked him: ‘What do you know on your own? I would do as the others do.’ Knowledge was rarely something acquired and enjoyed alone – it was shaped in and by one’s community.

The Commentationes resist being classified as what historians sometimes call ‘ego-documents’ – diaries, commonplace books and letters. Rütiner barely reflects on what he’s collecting in these pages, and gives relatively little away about his inner life or his family – of his six children, only two get a mention. Roth argues that, rather than being part of a journal or chronicle, the Commentationes were designed to be a treasury of information, anecdote and humour, on which Rütiner could draw in his climb up St Gall’s greasy pole. Roth calls this ‘communicative capital’: a storehouse of material to be deployed in conversation to build status, reputation and wealth. A similar impetus was behind the practice of ‘commonplacing’: notable quotations would be collected by readers and copied into their notebooks under appropriate headings, producing a personalised repertoire of stories, examples and sayings. The doddery Polonius in Hamlet is an example of commonplacing taken to extremes – his rambling speeches offer a roll call of contemporary platitudes. Readers who didn’t have the time or inclination to go truffling for bons mots could buy printed commonplace books where the collecting and organising had already been done for them. With his carefully kept Commentationes, Rütiner was building a conversational arsenal – a treasury of stories, jokes and privileged information that would show him to be in the know.

While they can be read for their insights into the political and religious changes of a tumultuous time, the Commentationes are one of the best-preserved sources we have for the early modern joke. Rütiner’s note-taking extended to the intimate details of the gags shared between his friends and acquaintances, and his pages are rich in shagging priests, horny nuns and shit in places where shit should not be. Being a ‘homo ioci plenus’ – a man full of wit – meant something in Rütiner’s friendship group, and knowing how to bring the house down was one way to display one’s communicative capital. Early modern jokes can be bewildering. It’s been argued that finding a joke you don’t understand in the sources can be the first step to unlocking the ways in which a society is different to ours, though that’s also the kind of thing you might say after reading one too many jestbooks and wondering what the punchlines mean. Rütiner and his friends seem to have been setting the table on a roar with witticisms that were long, convoluted and largely impenetrable to the modern reader – my notes on one page of the book simply read ‘complicated joke involving nun, penis, sex, shitting, chickens’. The Commentationes get us closer to the act of joking in early modern Europe than the many printed jestbooks that circulated, because here we get the punchline alongside information about the teller, the company and even the response: Rütiner was fond of noting that the person who had been targeted by the joke ‘intellexit [et] risit’ – they got it, and they joined in the laughter too.

More surprising is that though the jokes were told mainly by men in a misogynistic age, women are rarely the butt of the humour. Theories about how early modern humour worked have usually built on Freud’s notion of the joke as a kind of sexual aggression, doing violence to the women it demeans. Roth argues persuasively that Rütiner’s jokes buck this supposed trend – the targets of his jokes are not the nuns and prostitutes who feature so prominently in them, but the men who find themselves embarrassed in their company. If we want to understand early modern humour on its own terms, Roth argues, we need to look at men laughing at men. In one joke, a prostitute comes to a priest to confess her sins. Disgusted, the priest cries out ‘Earth, open up and suffocate her’; the woman exposes her backside to him with the words ‘Arse, suffocate the priest.’ The jokes are frequently sexually explicit and scatological (often at the same time), with many references to bodily fluids, and tend to mock men who can’t live up to the masculine ideal of bodily control and sexual potency. These laughable men, impotent and incontinent, ensure women have the last laugh. ‘Rather than only reinforcing misogynist sexual stereotypes,’ Roth argues, ‘these jokes first and foremost paraded a whole army of inadequate men. Impotent grooms, incontinent old men, gullible fools, humiliated mercenaries and lecherous priests – these are the “heroes” of Rütiner’s jokes.’ The only common figure of early modern humour missing from Rütiner’s notes is the cuckold – apparently ‘Rütiner and his friends preferred to laugh at men who were betrayed by their own bodies, not their wives.’

Atown​ like St Gall ran on rumour and gossip. Rütiner’s friend Kessler talked about keeping an ear out for Gassenschrei, the talk of the streets, and in a partially literate society, this kind of listening was crucial in getting the most reliable news. It was taken for granted that everyone was talking about everyone else all the time. A central concept was the Latin term fama, which encompassed rumour, reputation, gossip and news: Fama herself was often imagined as a winged goddess, with ears and eyes covered and tongues extending from her palms. These images were a visual representation of what it was like to live under constant surveillance by one’s neighbours as well as the authorities. Rumours, meanwhile, were portrayed as ‘running’ around communities and ‘flying’ from mouths to ears. The reliability of a rumour was always in question, and stories were only as trustworthy as those who told them. This kind of savvy was the mark of oral culture: a scribe in one St Gall courtroom noted the provenance of information just as Rütiner did, writing that ‘Ulr[ich] Ransperg says Thias Schlegg told him the messenger of Zug told him a certain Mantzer said that God cannot be eaten or shat.’ We’re used to thinking of the printed word as particularly fixed or reliable (however naive that might be), but this sense of print’s trustworthiness was slow to emerge. For Rütiner and those around him, a story that could be traced back through a chain of identifiable and reliable people was much more believable, even if it recounted events happening far away, than a printed pamphlet or book that couldn’t be subjected to the same kind of ‘source criticism’.

Commentators insisted that gossip was the province of women. Originally meaning ‘godparent’, ‘gossip’ shifted its meaning across the early modern period. It became commonplace to accuse women of gossiping and of being gossips, and a set of meanings crystallised around the word that reflected men’s anxiety about what women were saying about them behind their backs. One of Rütiner’s best sources for gossip was the nurse and midwife Anna Bösch, who delivered his children. She told him all about the ‘tardy payers, oath-breakers, unreliable business partners and violent husbands’ in the community. Willing to spread scandal even though she had been sworn to secrecy, Bösch was able to pull back the curtain on the town’s most prominent families and offer a counterpoint to the narratives of honour and reputation that powerful men spun around themselves. Gossip was an important tool for regulating behaviour in the community, and in an age when it was increasingly (and inaccurately) being portrayed as the province of women it’s telling, Roth argues, ‘that the sceptical Rütiner, despiser of gossipers, never applied the stereotype of the unreliable, chatty old woman to the one informant in his network whom it would have fitted best.’

Gossip also enabled the people of St Gall to find out what happened in the town’s courtroom, and to share information that was missing from the official records of crime and punishment. The seamy details of cases of sexual misconduct, or the inner workings of the town’s government, may sometimes have been kept secret – Roth highlights the sensitivity of the council to criticism and its doomed attempts to keep its deliberations private. But in some cases crucial details never made it into the records simply because they were already so widely known as not to need recording. Rütiner’s informants told him that Bartolomaeus Strapler, who had been executed for attempted murder, had repeatedly told his fellow weavers that he was going to kill, but they’d taken it as a joke. In the case of Friedrich Schuhmacher, also known as Guggi, the informants argued that a trial seemingly about adultery and spousal abuse was part of a longer struggle between powerful families in the town. The discrepancies between the written record and spoken scuttlebutt are important, since the overwhelming majority of early modern sources reflect only the former. Roth asks ‘how might our own reading of early modern sources change if we had access to the oral spheres within which they were embedded and which framed their reception?’ Even in an age of print, most people still got their information in conversation. What do we do when all of that oral information is gone?

The Commentationes, which start with the words ‘At Christmas [15]29, I began,’ come to an end abruptly in 1539. Rütiner still had almost twenty years to live, but after a decade of listening in on the small talk of St Gall, he stopped taking his careful notes. Roth speculates that things might have been getting too hot – his eavesdropper’s archive could cause embarrassment, at the very least, if it were uncovered. At the same time, Rütiner might have felt that the ‘wondrous time’ was coming to an end. The excitement and upheaval of the Reformation’s first phase was petering out, and Rütiner and his associates were now the respectable burghers of a Protestant town. Zwingli had died in 1531, and the expulsion of the abbot had proved short-lived. The other chroniclers of St Gall seemed to lose the will to carry on about the same time. Rütiner’s life was changing again. He was a judge on the marriage court, and his new workload and status might have been weighing on him. One day in spring, he started writing a new entry – something he’d heard from the assembled guildsmen – but never finished the sentence.

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