by Steven Ozment
Anna Büschler is the daughter of the mayor of Schwäbisch Hall, but she was far from the typical 16th century German woman. Unmarried and nearing thirty, Anna’s known to be flirtatious, flashy, and immodest in dress. When her father discovered that she is having secret affairs with both a local nobleman and a soldier – risking both her own reputation and that of her entire family – he throws out of the house. Rather than begging to return to his hearth or taking to the streets, Anna sues her father for abandonment, humiliating him further by bringing the suit before the council that he works with. Enraged, Hermann Büschler has his daughter kidnapped and imprisoned in his home, chaining her leg to a table. When Anna escapes, her renewed bitterness ignites a legal struggle that rages for the next thirty years, ending only with Anna’s death.
This biography of a middle-class woman in Imperial Germany is a fascinating study of a woman’s place in Renaissance society. I had always heard that women of this time enjoyed few rights, but the law (at least in this part of Germany) was structured to protect them more than I expected. The fact that Anna was able to pursue her family for decades in the court system – albeit always with a man at her side – was really surprising to me, especially since she seemed to reach financial settlements multiple times but was later able to reopen the case.
Although Anna’s initial determination to right the wrongs she felt her father had committed against her was admirable, she became less sympathetic as the years went on. By her middle years, it seemed that suing her family had simply become a way for Anna to get out of debt rather than a true act of justice. She’s hardly a heroic figure. By the end of the book, she seemed largely motivated by greed and spite – I can’t say that I liked her all that much, even though in the beginning I’d been rooting for her.
Steven Ozment includes several primary source documents in his account of Anna’s life, including a series of letters sent between the young woman and her noble lover, Erasmus. But the way that he structured the book makes for very dry, sometimes tedious reading. The first chapter lays out the entire course of Anna’s life and legal woes, and subsequent chapters go into greater detail about the legalese, contemporary events happening around the Empire, and so on. Since the reader already knows the outcome, all the minutiae bogs the narrative down, and Ozment’s frequent skipping around in time and location further muddies it up.
If you’re looking for a biography of a historical woman that zooms in on 16th century Germany like a microscope, this might be a great book for you. If you’re looking to be entertained in the process…well, good luck with that. I would call this interesting and in-depth, but not fun.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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