Early Modern Period: Autobiography, Glückel of Hameln
The following passages offer us a glimpse into the margins of early modern European society. Glückel of Hameln (1645-1724) was born into the Jewish community of Hamburg, a thriving German commercial center. When Glückel was four, the city expulsed its Jewish residents, forcing her family’s exile. Ten years later, Glückel married Hayim of Hameln, with whom she had twelve children. During her marriage, and continuing after Hayim’s death in 1689, Glückel played an important role in managing her husband’s commercial and financial affairs. Despite her managerial abilities, she felt it necessary to remarry, which she did in 1700. Glückel’s second husband, banker Cerf Lévy, proved incompetent at financial matters, squandering the family’s hard-earned wealth by the time of his death in 1712.
Beginning in the 1690s, Glückel wrote her memoirs, intending them as a private family history for her children. Her writings reveal the difficulty of being doubly marginalized: by the majority Christian community because of her religion, and by her patriarchal Jewish community—which identified her primarily as a wife—because of her gender. However, Glückel’s involvement in commerce illustrates the opportunities available, even if mostly through unofficial channels, to early modern European women.
This source is a part of the Women in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800 teaching module.
A merchant wife
Some time later, while my husband was attending the Leipzig Fair he fell grievously ill. . . . Judah Berlin, who was likewise at the fair, tended my husband and nursed him with great care. . . . [Berlin] proposed they should enter into partnership. . . . My husband said to him, “I can’t decide in Leipzig. I’m not yet myself, and I fear to remain longer lest, God forbid! I grow worse. Since this is settlement week at the fair and at best little business can be done, I will hire coach and return home. . . . Once home, God willing, we can talk further, and my Glücklechen will be there to give us her sound advice.” For my husband did nothing without my knowledge . . .
Since worry and fright always came with my husband’s journeys, I was ready to welcome a scheme whereby he could remain at home. So I did not look unfavourably on the partnership with Judah. And he kept at his proposals and offered the most tempting conditions. . . . I spoke now with my husband and told him of our talk, and what great business Judah boasted he would do. Whereupon my blessed husband said to me, “Words, my dear child, are all very well, but I have big expenses and I don’t see how they will be met by a partnership with Judah.” At last I said top my husband, “We can try it for a year. I will draw up a little agreement and show it you, and then you tell me what you think of it.” So, at night, I set to work by myself and drafted a compact . . .
A disastrous second marriage
The betrothals were concluded in the deepest secrecy. I did not wish them known because of the high tax due to the Town Council on departing for good from the city. It would have cost me several hundred thalers, for I was well known in Hamburg, and every merchant who dealt with me thought I was worth many thousands. . . . My children, my brother and sisters, and all my close friends knew of the marriage. Yet even though I had taken counsel with them and they had all approved of it, still it went awry. . . . When I consented to the match I feared that were I to remain struggling as I was, I should lose all I had and God forbid, suffer the shame of harming others, both Jews and Gentiles, and finally fall to the care of my children. But, alas, I was to fall into the care of a husband, and suffer the very shame I feared. Helpless though I be, he is still my husband, whom I though to live in ease and plenty. And now I find myself in such a state, I wonder whether I should have a roof above my hoary head or a crumb of bread to eat. And my children whom I thought to spare the burden may yet be at pains to take me in. I believed I was marrying a man who with his means and distinguished station could have aided my children and put them in the way of great wealth. But the very contrary happened.
Glückel of Hameln. The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln. Translated by Marvin Lowenthal. New York: Shocken Books, 1977.