Monday, February 5, 2018

"Monsieur Göthé," continued

A Tailor's Workshop (detail)
As mentioned in the previous post, I have been reading a book with the above title in order to review it. Monsieur Göthé: Goethes unbekannter Großvater concerns the paternal grandfather of Germany's most famous writer. Biographical scholarship on Goethe's ancestors began already in the late 19th century, but there was little to dig up in the case of Friedrich Georg Göthé. He was born in the town of Artern in Thuringia in 1657, but, as is the case with many historical documents, a fire ravaged the town in 1683, destroying church and other records. And even though Friedrich Georg served a tailor apprenticeship of eight years in Germany, there is likewise no record of that period of his life. Then, he went to France and continued his apprentice training in the "silk city" of Lyon. We can assume he worked in an establishment resembling the one in the above engraving (which appeared in Diderot's Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry). Presumably because he was a Protestant, he kept a low profile. As the authors write: “Er blieb unsichtbar, hinterliess keine Spuren.” It was only when he reached Frankfurt in 1686, after having left France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, that there is an historical record, the first being his application for citizenship in that city.

The only place in the book where the grandfather comes alive occurs when the authors discuss a lawsuit in which he was a party. This lawsuit, which began in 1695 and continued until at least 1702, was the first time that the Goethes and the Textors came together; later, in 1770, the two families would be united in the marriage of Goethe's father and mother. By the time of the lawsuit, Friedrich Georg was a very successful dressmaker. The authors call him the "Karl Lagerfeld of his time."

Bone corset, ca. 1880
Johann Wolfgang Textor the Elder was a 55-year-old widow who married the 18-year-old Maria Sibylla Fleischbein in 1693 Maria Sibyl departed the marriage in 1694, leaving the abandoned husband with considerable debts, which he declined to pay. Fifteen debtors joined the action, among them Friedrich Georg, whose bill was the fourth highest sum owed, and which also included outstanding debts for clothes made for Textor’s adult children from the first marriage. Among the items Friedrich Georg made for Mara Sibyl was a fully boned laced bodice of "fein hollländischen Canvas mit incarnat Seiden gestept" requiring a pound of fish bones.

Because of the prominence of the Textor and Fleischbein families, the debtors were unsuccessful, which appeared to wound Friedrich Georg's honor. He persisted long with legal initiatives, which bore no fruit for him. As the authors point out, as a self-made, successful man, he felt the injustice greatly.

The authors criticize Johann Wolfgang for writing the paternal grandfather out of the family history, and instead, as mentioned in the previous post, for inventing a more illustrious lineage. But just as his grandfather was a self-made man, Goethe, too, invented himself anew. I would also add that, aside from the nobility, most people in the 18th century were probably not concerned about tracing their ancestry. Our contemporary interest in genealogy seems to reflect a modern nostalgia for all that has been lost in our pursuit of progress. Goethe, like his grandfather, didn't look back.

Picture credit:; Metropolitan Museum of Art

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