Critical Book Review: The Burgermeister’s Daughter
Steven Ozment. The Burgermeister’s Daughter. New York: Harper Collins, 1996. 227.
The Burgermeister’s Daughter by Steven Ozment delivers a captivating and thorough discussion of one woman’s struggle in contradiction of the social prejudices and justice system of her hometown in sixteenth-century Germany. While the life and times of Anna Buschler, (the Burgermeister’s daughter) is a central theme in the work, Ozment discusses many other contextual elements of German society which provide the framework through which Anna’s struggles are to be perceived. Ozment’s intent in writing such a narrative was most accurately discerned in the final chapter of the book entitled “The Moral” in which the author homed in on a few elements which contributed to the greater picture he endeavored to present.
The book was written for the modern intellectual to consider when drawing conclusions about attitudes during the sixteenth century; most specifically attitudes of and towards women including their role in society, and the reality they faced in legal matters. Ozment presented the morals he touched on as factors which are not normally perceived when considering the historical record; such as the extent to which women’s rights were not as suppressed as some may have understood. In this sense Ozment’s work is successful as the unsuspecting reader will stumble upon a variety of new perspectives from which to perceive the events of the book and the character of sixteenth-century Germany in general. Written in a refreshing style, Ozment’s biography of one colourful young woman delivers enough content for the work to be considered an effectively narrated non-fiction work.
The book was set in the South-German town of Schwabisch Hall; where Anna Buschler was depicted as having spent half her lifetime “battling her father, siblings and city hall (2)” over her inheritance. Ozment explained that the German town was politically organized with a city council of twenty-four co-opted, rather than elected, councilmen and an appointed Burgermeister (Anna’s father) at its head acting as a sort of mayor (8-9). It was this party of power-conscious men who worked to silence Anna’s suits and consequently dragged out her case to the extent that death preceded her ability to attain justice. As for Anna’s crimes, on a social and familial level Anna, having not been married off at an appropriate age, pursued sexual relationships with not one but two men out-of-wedlock and without her father’s knowing. Furthermore, Anna was accused of stealing from her father relentlessly and of leading a “scandalous, undisciplined, and reprehensible life” (3). These crimes, in addition to the consequent reactions of her family and city would provide the foundation out of which the feud would fester.
As a means of assessing the extent to which the work was successful, I evaluated the books ability to answer the questions the author himself posed to the audience. These questions were discussed in the introduction where Ozment presented two questions before he launched into the narrative in search of their answers. Ozment asked: “What exactly had [Anna] done to cause her father, the Burgermeister, to denounce her as an “evil serpent” and the government of Hall to declare her a renegade?” and “Why did the behaviour of one woman rivet the attention and disrupt the lives of so many important people for so long a time?”. According to Ozment, answers to these questions can be found “in the internal workings of a distant society and in the inner lives of people who were both like and unlike ourselves” (3). Therefore, in considering whether or not this book was successful I looked for a clear description of the people and the workings of this bygone society so as to be able to discern the answers the author presents to the aforementioned questions as the reader, using only the arguments presented in the book. After reading the book entirely it became obvious that in fact the answers to these questions compliment the themes the author most wishes to focus on: that is, why Anna’s story is significant to the historical period, and what characteristics of the people and the time period contrast or compliment the modern reader’s perspective. Furthermore, Ozment’s themes are validated through his inclusion of primary sourced letters between Anna and her lovers which make it easier for the reader to relate to what Anna experienced. Therefore, on this aspect of the criteria, the book was triumphant as I, as a reader, feel confident to discuss either of these initially posed questions; the answers to which I believe are the points the author most hopes to get across to the reader.
Through his intense focus on Anna’s movements outside the framework of social confines Ozment’s narrative serves as a greater commentary for women’s roles in society. Ozment describes the period in which Anna’s story occurred as having been “a low point in the history of women” especially in comparison to “the golden age” of the 1300-1500’s which had just preceded his era (5). With this in mind, the author launches into the chronological discussion of Anna’s life. While Ozment depicted Anna’s childhood and adolescence as having been customary, in that she was sent to Limpurg Schenks, a larger household outside her city, to learn the art of homemaking, her adulthood was depicted in a very different light.
The first oddity emerged when at the age of twenty-five Anna remained unmarried and instead of making it a priority to ramify this situation, Anna’s father had her work in his home as a housekeeper. In subsequent trials which tried to ascertain Anna’s character, it emerged that Anna and her father each blamed the other’s stubbornness for her continued unmarried state. Whatever the cause, this fact was one of many which would be deemed socially unacceptable and questionable behavior by the observers in the town of Hall. Anna’s out-of-wedlock relations with Erasmus of Limpurg and Daniel Treutwein were additionally considered inappropriate behaviors for an unmarried woman to partake in and definitively limited her appeal as a marriage partner to future suitors.
As Ozment summarized the magnitude of Anna’s offenses he proclaimed “it was not immodest dress, thievery, or poor housekeeping that made Herman Buschler send his daughter packing” but rather, it was her later relations with multiple men outside of wedlock that pushed him to disgrace and caused him to disinherit her (18). What followed Anna’s disinheritance was her battle with her father, her brother and sister (Philip and Agatha Buschler), and her local government for financial compensation for the damage she incurred on the part of her father when she was cast out unmarried, and with a ruined reputation.
The subsequent trials portray Anna as a strong-willed creature who despite not being able to clinch her own case was able to demonstrate that “women at this time were not powerless victims of male rule” and had every capacity to provide justice to them made available (187). Such was the argument Ozment used to demonstrate the political atmosphere of the time. The author made no small mention of the spirit of the times, in his consideration of how events unfolded as they did. His discussion of the heated atmosphere in Hall and Europe as a result of the controversial Protestant Reformation and the failed Peasants War gave political authority to “the ruling elites while the Peasants War gave these same rulers a pretext for crushing the common man as well” (5). In this sense, Ozment seemed to suggest that the politically intolerant attitudes which resulted because of these unruly social movements were significant contributing factors to the elites desire to limit the voice of the common man even in the local setting.
Ozment worked to present that it was not her gender which arrested Anna’s ability to see her trial through but it was rather the reality that “only wealth, property and social standing gained such rights [the right to hold public office], protections, and privileges for both males and females (188). Consequently, Ozment argued that the men Anna happened to be up against were wealthy, power-hungry individuals who saw no benefit to themselves in arguing against their Burgermeister (Anna’s father) in favor of his promiscuous daughter. Accordingly, Ozment argued that sexism which is perceived as having been a more prominent factor in episodes like Anna’s, was in reality, “not as prominent or severe in actual family life and social practice” (188). In fact, if views on women had been properly applied in Anna’s case, it would likely have helped her circumstances more than hindered them as “women at this time were believed to be physically, intellectually, and morally weaker than men, and hence more vulnerable to harm, deceit and temptation” and justifiably this reality would have made it easier to forgive a woman’s faults than a man’s.
The Burgermeister’s Daughter by Steven Ozment was a successful political and social commentary as its scope far exceeded the individualistic focus which the title of the work suggested. The work was rich in its somewhat unconventional perspectives on the ‘zeitgeist’ which significantly impacted the workings of society and the people who functioned within it. Despite the severity with which Anna is dealt with, the book suggested a far less hostile reality for women even in this period of time which was not the most advantageous to the female gender. Instead, the work prescribed the failings of the period and Anna’s struggles, to the corruptions within the political network which resulted because of the spiritual and societal questions the continent was beginning to ask of higher institutions. The book did well in its presentation of historical evidence including the primary sources and the photographs of the town of Hall and various features of the story which really help to transport the reader. Additionally, the organization of the first six chapters of the work really put across the story, the characters and the evidence in a clear and logical way rendering the work easily accessibly even to those with little background knowledge on the subject matter.
The book however was not without its inconsistencies as the author wrote from a considerably opinionated view-point. Throughout the work one can discern Ozment’s partiality towards the oppressed, the underdog, and the ‘woman’ and nowhere does this become clearer than in the seventh and concluding chapter. In so many words, Ozment depicted Anna as an ‘astonishing survivor’ having faced extreme tribulation on account of a malicious, “prominent father” and “opportunistic” siblings, while an obtuse city council stood by and allowed her to be “forcibly transported…[and] chained like a dog to a table in his [her father’s] house” (192-193). What was arguably a frivolous use of adjectives initially became more evidence that the author was more resolutely predisposed in his outlook. Ozment argued that Anna’s story demonstrated “the tragedy that awaits those who defy the expectations of their age and culture” but this statement was presented in a tone which ascertains that the author felt these ‘expectations’ were fluid depending on the spirit of the times, which in the case of sixteenth century Germany was particularly extreme and condemning (192). That this was indeed the author’s attitude became apparent when he later confirmed that Anna “might reasonably have expected some forgiveness for her youthful failings” (193). The weakness in this argument however, lies in the reality that even in a modern society continuous thievery and blatant promiscuity are frowned upon offenses by church and state, which if taken too far can result in similarly brutal consequences for which there is little to no justice. Therefore, not only is Ozment’s presentation of Anna’s offenses as girlish frivolities inconsistent with the extremity with which they were viewed in his account of historical proceedings, but is unconvincing as a commentary on appropriate social expectations of any age and any culture.
The book succeeded as a social and legal commentary of the sixteenth century and was written in a clear and organized style which rendered the experience of taking in the work very enjoyable. The work was also successful in presenting themes which were inherently valid to the book and hold true when applied to other areas of history as well such as the significant influence elements apart from gender, including the people and time period have on historical events. Inconsistencies however presented themselves in the logical progression of the work in the final chapter which was obviously sympathetic to Anna’s story and presented her as the protagonist, when some readers may have considered her actions more in-line with those of an antagonist. Nevertheless, the work presented a wealth of remarkably preserved evidential papers which spoke of the time period in a way which would have been impossible had these letters and legal proceedings not been salvaged.