Hunnicutt on Farr and Ruggiero, 'Historicizing Life-Writing and Egodocuments in Early Modern Europe'

James R. Farr, Guido Ruggiero, eds.
Alex Hunnicutt

James R. Farr, Guido Ruggiero, eds. Historicizing Life-Writing and Egodocuments in Early Modern Europe. Cham: Springer Nature, 2021. 334 pp. $129.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-3-030-82483-9; $149.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-030-82482-2.

Reviewed by Alex Hunnicutt (University of Texas, Arlington) Published on H-Biography (March, 2023) Commissioned by Daniel R. Meister (University of New Brunswick)

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This edited collection centers on themes of creation and shaping identity through a wide range of documents and other media. As is suggested by the words in the book’s title, the editors make clear in the introduction that these documents are not limited to the more widely known forms of self-expression of identity such as autobiography or diaries; rather, these essays explore self-revelation and development of self through more oblique sources such as notary forms, business records, and documents of state. Through varied approaches and methodologies, the volume as a whole demonstrates that almost all writing (and other forms of expression) can be useful as a window into the life of the person who produced it. Besides each contributing one of the book’s chapter, editors Farr and Ruggierio provide a thorough overview of the book in the introductory section. This introduction establishes the book’s overarching theme and purpose and effectively places these works within a logical framework. They discuss psychological and epistemological methodologies that shaped authors’ approaches to life-writing and provide context and foundation for the works included in this collection. I confess that I found this introduction highly useful but also dry. Both Farr’s and Ruggierio’s individual contributions to the collection display none of this dryness; indeed, Ruggierio’s article, “Benvenuto Cellini Magnanimously Corrects the Irritating Ignorance of Life Writers in General and in Regard to My Vita in This Letter from Hell,” is a tour de force of academic playfulness.

The primary sources these various authors bring to bear constitute a course in historical methodology. The sources include Montaigne’s Essays, Vasari’s Lives, Cellini’s Vita, records of Spanish church officials, diaries, memoirs, letters, notarial archives, portraits, architecture, marginalia, wills, and funeral sermons. While diaries, memoirs, and letters may seem obvious sources for life-writing or as egodocuments, the contributors show ingenuity in their ability to tease out the personal identity through these more oblique avenues. Throughout the book—and this probably says more about the editors than the individual authors—the endnotes of each article provide not only bibliographic citation but also a wealth of explanatory text to guide the uninformed.

After the editors’ introductory chapter, the rest of the book is arranged thematically in three parts. Part I, “The Self Theorized from a Historical Perspective,” includes three chapters that explore the creation or development of the public self during the early modern period and the role writing played in revealing identity. John Jeffries Martin’s “Montaigne’s Elusive Self: An Essay” explores the concept of the “self” or “persona” as expressed through Montaigne’s writings. Specifically, he considers whether these concepts are synonymous (they are not). The self as the truer reflection of the individual and the more obviously constructed persona are both elusive and defy efforts to contain and define them. This exploration operates in the context of Martin’s rejection of Stephen Greenblatt’s pronouncements on the Renaissance development of the concept of the self.[1] Martin concludes that Montaigne’s self is a “complex entity that resists various scholarly approaches to the history of the self, whether the focus is on individualism, self-fashioning, or the relational” (p. 35).

In the next essay, Douglas Biow further inspects the theme of the constructed self with his analysis of the biographical emergence of Giorgio Vasari in his famous Lives by close comparisons of the first and second editions of the work. Biow contends that as Vasari became more comfortable with his role as an historian and writer of the lives of artists, Vasari’s own sense of self became more evident to the reader. Biow analyzes the intricate connections between history and biography, exploring their almost symbiotic relationship. Biow uses Friedrich Nietzsche’s reflections on history as a point of reference as he unpacks how Vasari’s Lives stands up to Nietzsche’s more positive vision of history as a critical tool for the development of modern übermenschen, much influenced in this by nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt’s vision of the Renaissance individual. So, using Nietzsche’s critical analysis of history as the frame for examination of Vasari’s Lives, both as history and as biography, the reader sees the ongoing emergence of the author, Vasari himself, as a biographical subject between the first and second editions of the work. Similar to Martin’s observations in the first essay on Montaigne, an evolving sense of self appears in Vasari’s dealings with his world, his writing, and his reflections on himself.

The third essay, “Benvenuto Cellini Magnanimously Correct the Irritating Ignorance of Life Writers in General” by Guido Ruggiero, struck a different chord in its tone. I can only hope it was as much fun to write as it was to read. Ruggiero assumes the grandiose persona of Cellini to remind us that not only is the self something that changes over time, but it is also at any given time a polyvalent entity that varies depending on the person’s immediate needs and circumstances. Ruggiero uses the term “consensus realities” to explore this concept. According to Cellini (via Ruggerio), the self is an unending performance that is constantly negotiated among all other individuals engaged in their own performances. The self at any given time is a negotiation with others into a consensus reality that suits that moment. It should not be taken to be the permanent or complete reality of the individual. In other words, everyone experiences multiple consensus realities, according to Ruggerio. This approach allows for a more fluid and inclusive approach to biography, an improvement on the monolithic approach biographers often employ.

Part 2—“Historical Approaches to Egodocuments: Strengths and Doubts”—continues the exploration of the historical meanings of the self through analysis of biographical and autobiographical texts with studies by James S. Amelang, Silvia Mitchell, Rudolf Dekker, Benjamin Marschke, and James Farr. Amelang’s essay, “Conversion and Crossing Frontiers: The Lives of the Spanish Monks,” looks at two autobiographical texts, both from Spanish monks who abandoned both Spain and Catholicism. Both texts were printed in England in the 1620s and both purport to show the “improvement” in the author’s life as he renounced popery and embraced some form of Protestantism. Not only does Amalang use these texts to illustrate the revelation of the self through autobiographical writing, but he also reminds us that the Catholic/Protestant dichotomy, so easily reduced to an unbridgeable gap without the possibility of interaction, was actually fairly negotiable at the time. Amalang clearly illustrates that autobiography can be used, whether consciously or not, to represent a counterfactual reality.

In chapter 6, Silvia Z. Mitchell uses the more than eight thousand pages of text by Cardinal Everard Nithard (1607-80) to show that the self can be created and represented without explicit self-reflection or baring of one’s soul. Through editing, inclusion, exclusion, and arrangement of materials, a form of self-revelation occurs. Mitchell contends that Nithard consciously and intentionally selected and arranged his materials to shape the historical narrative to serve his ends, primarily of self-justification. But she reminds us that with judicious attention to detail and the use of additional, contemporaneous sources, flawed and manipulated sources like Nithard’s can still be a wealth of information.

Dutch historian Rudolf Dekker provides observations on the historical use of egodocuments in his essay, “Egodocuments and the Diary of Constantijn Huygens.” Dekker reflects on the importance of such autobiographical classics such as Samuel Pepys’s Diaries (w. 1660-69)and the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Rousseau, and Cellini. Perhaps most importantly, he drives home his point reflecting on the relatively more recent work, The Diary of Anne Frank (1947), which continues to have a significant impact on views of the twentieth century. Dekker is particularly interested in egodocuments like diaries that were written without obvious expectation of being published, Pepys’s diary being a prime example. Huygens was secretary to William, Prince of Orange, later King William III of England; he was a contemporary of Pepys. Dekker uses the diaries of both Pepys and Huygens to illustrate how such works can provide ample information about common life of the time. Of course, both Pepys and Huygens happened to be well connected to the royal court, so additional insights into economic, commercial, and military matters can also be gleaned, to say nothing of juicy gossip about highly placed individuals.

Benjamin Marschke explores the writing of history by individuals who were centrally involved in that history. When royals write history, particularly in a period of personal monarchy, the elements of biography and autobiography are unavoidable. Marschke focused on writings by Frederick William of Prussia, his son, Frederick II, and daughter, Wilhelmine. Unsurprisingly, the writings by the son and daughter revealed significant insight into their father, Frederick William.

In the last essay of part 2, James Farr explores constructs of the self as being conceived as inner reflection and consciousness in contrast to the external surroundings or as a highly externally dependent performance that necessitates adjustment to specific situational variation. In particular, Farr uses the writings of James Boswell and William Hickey to investigate these ideas. Farr observes that eighteenth-century autobiographical writings are concerned with the author’s position in relation to various external factors, such as reputation, and are not focused on a “coherent narrative of an unfolding interior identity” (p. 200).

The final section of this book, “Pushing the Limits of Life-Writing with a Wider Range of Historical Source,” follows through by moving to letters, notarial records, wills, funeral orations, and even paintings and architectural monuments as sources. In chapter 10, Deanna Shemek writes that letters from the Italian Renaissance, including both letter collections intended for wide circulation and more personal letters, significantly enlarge the number of egodocuments that we have from the period that might qualify as life-writing. Shemek explores how letters can be read as valuable historical sources like autobiographies or memoirs. Shemek examines printed letter collections and more private, even personal letters in terms of the way they were constructed to build differing consensus realities about the lives of their authors, especially in the context of their ability to function as “performances” of self for the groups around them in society. In Shemek’s essay we find echoes of Martin’s essay on Montaigne and Cellini’s essay from hell. Examples of Shemek’s sources include the important collection of letters of Niccolò Machiavelli, both public, in his capacity as an official of Florence, and private, letters exchanged with a small circle of friends and supporters after his fall from power. Similarly, she examines Isabella d’Este’s vast archive of letters both public and private. Shemek argues that both d’Este and Machiavelli forged consensus realities that were constructed through their literary self-representations. She avers such use of letters suggest how valuable these rich and complex egodocuments can be. Shemek insists letters contribute more than color or apparently innocent, unreflected moments of self-description, but in fact represent the artful and intentional motives of their author. She states that the created self is itself a Renaissance “work of art” (p. 229).

In “A Dutch Notary and His Clients,” Mary Lindemann treats Amsterdam’s rich notarial records of the early modern period as a different form of egodocument. Her investigation of these sources leads her to tease out multiple layers of meaning and value from what may superficially seem to be little more than a collection of dry business transactions. Lindmann finds the possibility to recreate a picture of the world in which the notaries and the clients lived and worked and in the process, to peer into their mental and imagined life. Unsurprisingly, notarial records, being oriented toward the practical matter of life in general and business in particular, afford a look into important material aspects of the lives of the clients and notaries. Lindmann also discusses the “scriptural interactions” between notaries and their clients (p. 244); she suggests that these documents indicate that the parties involved were “thinking with a story” that they constructed about their lives and selves (p. 245). If nothing else, Lindemann expands the range of possible documentation on the early modern sense of self and egodocuments.

The final essay, “Genres and Modes of Women’s Life-Writing: Anne Clifford and Anne Marie Louise d’Orleans,” explores important nonverbal sources such as painting and architecture as forms of self-fashioning and life-writing. Author Mihoko Suzuki investigated two well-known women of influence in the seventeenth century. Specifically, Suzuki explores how these women used various means to challenge or defy the patriarchal authority they experienced; and, more immediately, she shows how the self could be constructed using methods that were not limited to written means such as letters and autobiographies. Both of Suzuki’s subjects were women of financial means and both had claims to political power in a world dominated by men. Both found ways of creating and representing their selves through art and architecture in addition to the more obvious written methods.

Editors James R. Farr and Guido Ruggiero have fashioned a compelling collection of essays that explore and enlighten on a subject that may be a bit out of the mainstream of historical investigation. I found the variety of treatments of the general theme not only interesting but helpful and revealing. The distinct methods and points of view that each of these contributors brought to bear on their subjects has created a series of essays that, collectively, provide a greater depth of understanding of the general theme.


[1]. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Citation: Alex Hunnicutt. Review of Farr, James R.; Ruggiero, Guido, eds., Historicizing Life-Writing and Egodocuments in Early Modern Europe. H-Biography, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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