I have been re-reading George T. Matthews’ selection of archives of the Fugger Newsletters and wondering why they seem to have been so thoroughly overlooked. They are, in style and content, the forerunners of what we find on the Web today: An idiosyncratic description of events around the world that are frequently illuminating whether or not they are factual.
The Fuggers were the bankers to many of the Catholic monarchies – especially the Hapsburgs — in the 15th & 16th centuries. The Newsletters were started by Count Philip Eduard Fugger for an audience of one – himself. Matthews explains it best:
Even in the 2nd part of the 16th century, the Fugger interests were world-wide in scope. Partners, factors, clients and servants of the firm were located in nearly all the commercial and political capitals of Europe, Spanish America, Mediterranean Africa and the Orient. … It would seem when the Fugger representatives abroad learned of the Count’s extraordinary interest in the news, quite routine dispatches were fleshed out with whatever information on whatever subject the agents could obtain.
The Count saved these and augmented them with information both from the rumor sheets of the day, called Neue-Zeitungen, and professionally compiled news reports known as Nouvellanten. As a result the newsletters are filled with descriptions of events great and trivial – from coronations to street crimes. One of my favorites concerns an attempt by creditors to seize someone who was playing Jesus in a church festival by using someone else who was dressed up as – wait for it – Judas.
Much of what is written about concerns issues today known to few people who don’t specialize in the history of this period, but that is no matter. I read them for the stories and the glimpse into worlds easily as strange as anything our science fiction and fantasy writers have created. I have never read of anything as lavish or opulent as the 51 day festival in Constantinople by the Sultan Morad in honor of the circumcision of his 16-year-old son Mehemed in 1582.
On the third day various artificially created objects were exhibited, among them about three hundred large figures of animals, made of sugar. This lasted until midday, thereafter gifts were presented to all the Ambassadors who had been invited by His Majesty. The Hippodrome was sprinkled by twenty water wagons. A juggler performed there, he hit himself in the face with a stone with all his strength without any harm resulting therefrom. Another executed bold somersaults and was masked. Both were presented with gifts from His Majesty. The Sultan ordered seven thousand flat cakes made out of cooked rice to be brought, also six thousand large loaves of bread and great quantities of mutton. When all this was spread upon the ground, all the poor came rushing in the greatest haste to get hold of the food, and this proved a very entertaining sight. Thereafter was held a hunt of Hungarian boars. In the evening there were once more illuminations and fireworks.
And there are forty-eight more days to go each, as they say, better than the one before it. It is hard for me to imagine a better source material for any writer interested in creating worlds far different from his or her own.
Some of the letters are nearly complete novels in themselves. This one paragraph describing Lisbon following the death of the Portuguese king in battle in 1578 tells an entire epic just from the aftermath of the event.
Otherwise business here continues as though nothing untoward has taken place. The ships that arrived from India are being unloaded, the merchants ply their trade and go to sea; it is the nobility and soldiers alone who have perished. No merchant has suffered thereby since they all stayed behind. The four regents whom the king appointed to rule the kingdom in his absence were ratified in their office by the Cardinal. The Government and Officials deal with the people in so friendly a manner that everyone is astounded thereat. In spite of these terrible tidings no riots have occurred and if a stranger, who had never been here before came to the city, he would swear by all that is holy that no ill-fortune has befallen this kingdom for a hundred years.
There are many references to the Newsletters online – but the texts themselves aren’t available. None of the descriptions on the web give a feel for the vast richness of the archive. The Wikipedia entry on the Fuggers doesn’t even mention the newsletters and they are by far the family’s most significant legacy (note to self – update Wikipedia).
One thing that has really captured my imagination reading them this time is that although the dispatches are presented in chronological order it is highly unlikely that they were received that way. Because of the difficulty of sending these letters (or anything else) The Count and his successors received different parts of stories at different times. So he might hear of a king’s decision to go to war, then of his coronation, then of his successor’s defeat and then of the original king’s death. I think this would be a wonderful way to tell a story.