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Family values in days of yore

In a castle high on a mountain, a noble lady is imprisoned by her brothers. In the old romances she languishes in durance vile until a hero—a prince, a frog, a magician—rescues her. In real life, though, she petitions, argues, and sues until the men in power accede to her demands. Given the status of women in the era of castles and princes, such success sounds unlikely, but it happened—and Skidmore historian Erica Bastress-Dukehart found a paper trail to prove it.

In the early 1500s Sabine of Bavaria—a niece to the Habsburg emperor Maximilian—was betrothed as a child to the nobleman Ulrich of Württemberg. When they came of age and married, Ulrich beat her, so she fled back to Bavaria and “embarked on a letter-writing campaign,” recounts Bastress-Dukehart. Sabine argued that leaving her dignity wounded would disgrace the entire family name. Pressing her case with political and family leaders, she sought to restore her reputation, ensure her children’s safety, and expel Ulrich from his titled post. Bastress-Dukehart says, “Her mother, Maximilian’s sister, appealed to him in front of his imperial assembly to clean up this mess for the good of the Habsburg dynasty.” Sabine’s brothers tried to stifle their trouble-making sibling, even locking her up for a time. “But it didn’t work!” revels Bastress-Dukehart. Maximilian did oust Ulrich, and Sabine won her restitution.

Bastress-Dukehart has found half a dozen similar stories. “I’m fascinated by the power relationships within and between noble families in this era,” she says. Later, as empire and nation grew more centralized, Germany’s counts and princes and barons lost their autonomy. But in the sixteenth century, families had real political potency. “Noblewomen knew they carried their family’s honor, and they knew how to negotiate that knowledge to gain power.”

Bastress-Dukehart came to Skidmore from the University of Oregon in 2002. That same year she published a book analyzing the Zimmern Chronicle, a family history written by members of a German noble dynasty during its decline in the 1500s. A specialist in intellectual history, Bastress used the chronicle to explore early-modern ideas of status, memory, and heritage. At Skidmore her teaching ranges into medieval and early-modern philosophy, crime and punishment, and technology. “I love how ideas move history, and history reshapes ideas,” she says.

The ideas she encountered growing up were often scientific: her grandmother was the first woman naturalist at Yellowstone National Park, and her father wrote a dissertation on rocket fuels. But in college she found that “history best answered the questions I had: not what or where or when, but why.”

Bastress-Dukehart spent this past summer delving into why, and how, noblewomen like Sabine just wouldn’t take no for an answer. When a daughter married, she typically renounced all claim to her family estate and threw in her lot with her husband and his clan; but Bastress-Dukehart “found some fascinating letters in which the daughters refused to renounce their inheritance. Some kept asking their fathers for pin money, clothing, and other needs. The fathers resisted but finally gave in.” These debates highlight “the family honor and obligation that were at the core of inheritance,” she observes.

Her summer’s confinement to her writing desk may have given her a feeling for Sabine’s incarceration. But ensconced in an old farmhouse that her husband is restoring, surrounded by flower gardens and with two devoted German shepherds, Bastress-Dukehart wasn’t chafing; she was eating it up: “I love having a project to work on.” —SR

Matter of fact

Much of Germany in the 1500s was controlled by just 1.5% of the population—counts, dukes, and other nobles.