Strolling Through History: Urban Topographies of Feather-workers

Studying early modern artisans, who specialised in the trade, usage and processing of feathers, I dedicated my last summer to search for the traces that these craftsmen left in the archives. Travelling from archive to archive and museum to museum throughout Central Europe for months, I studied sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts, images and artefacts. All of them document the impressive variety of activities, which such artisans conducted. Archival research is a very specific experience that affect historians’ imagination, and I wish to write a – very – brief blog entry on how such an experience may look like and what it may result in.

Since studies like Fiction in the Archives (N. Z. Davis) and Le goût de l’archive (A. Farge), the obstacles and pleasures that historians encounter during archival research are an almost proverbial part of their job specification. The fascination, excitement and surprising fruits, which the search for archival “threads and traces” (C. Ginzburg) may cause, is so as well. I became well aware of this experience when accessing plenty of archives throughout my PhD research – and many stories could be told about that. The universe, which artefacts from the past may unfold in a researcher’s mindset, sometimes is strangely close to La biblioteca de Babel (J. L. Borges): The past and present are merging and the epistemological position of the historian—as the seeker, pathfinder, and narrator and as somebody who sees, searches, finds, handles and narrates—always has to be scrutinised. This engagement with the past, of course, carves into everyday-life activities and the chance is quite high that such things happen when a person had spent hours in archives reading stories from the past.

Fig. 1: Halbwachsengäßchen 2/ Untere Krämergasse 3. © Stefan Hanß.

Fig. 2: Halbwachsengäßchen 1. © Stefan Hanß.

After several weeks in the archives of Nuremberg, I had detected the names and biographical itineraries of many feather-workers. I came across the names of their wives and children, examined the professional relationships, which they cultivated with artisans of different crafts and of other cities, and I also studied the lawsuits that they were involved in. Slowly but constantly, the social world unfolded which these people inhabited. I became aware of these men’s friends and rivals, yet when leaving the archive after its closure I was increasingly curious about the degree to which feather-workers’ workshops were visible in early modern Nuremberg.

Which place had feather-workers in the topography of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Nuremberg? Within the next days, I studied the legal documentation again and made notes of places that feather-workers inhabited. Two were living am Plattenmarkt, another one gegenüber dem Bitterholt and yet another one, to mention just a few examples, bei der Derrersbrücke (Seubrücke). Thanks to the encouraging support of the archivists and the archive’s resources, the names of such places became identifiable. When the archives closed, I spent the summer evenings with strolling through the streets of Nuremberg searching for the places, where the city’s early modern feather-workers lived and worked. Of course, the original houses were destroyed long ago. However, walking the streets and tracing the workshops created a sense of the spatial closeness and distances that characterised the urban topography of feather-workers in early modern Nuremberg. The workshop complex am Plattenmarkt, for instance, was situated at Halbwachsengäßchen 2 and Untere Krämergasse 3 (fig. 1). The house that I found was built in 1961/62 and hosts a nutrition advice office, a debtors’ advisory centre and the Deutscher Hausfrauen-Bund. I thus can only imagine how much confusion my excitement caused... The excitement, however, even increased when I became aware that his son, another feather-worker, lived just a few streets away and close to the house where De revolutionibus orbium coelestium of Nikolaus Kopernikus was printed. Another evening, I was strolling again through the very same street where his father had run a famous workshop for feather items. I then realised that another feather-worker, who was convinced that his products rated among the best in the entire city, was working vis-à-vis in the Halbwachsengäßchen 1 (fig. 2). Many further addresses, which I uncovered in the archival documentation, led me to various workshops and held similar surprising insights that will be outlined in a publication. Here, however, it is worth to note that strolling through the streets gave me a sense of the urban topography of feather-workers in early modern Nuremberg. I became aware of the workshop’s neighbours and its closeness and distances to marketplaces, churches and the city hall. The results of such walks, which were inspired through and driven by the fascination and questions that archival research is capable to arise in a historian’s mind, tell a complex story about the cooperation and competition as well as the personal relationships and enmities, which shaped the social world of this branch of craftsmanship.

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