Magdalena (1555–1642) and Balthasar (1551–1600) Paumgartner

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Magdalena (1555–1642) and Balthasar (1551–1600) Paumgartner

Nuremberg merchants


Family Business. One of the characteristic activities of the patriciate of Central European cities was as a general merchant of luxury goods. This type of business was carried out by Balthasar Paumgartner of Nuremberg, with the able assistance of his wife Magdalena. Scholars know about their lives from a series of letters they wrote between 1582 and 1598. Both were from established mer-chant families, and though their marriage was almost certainly arranged by their parents, they made an affectionate as well as profitable team.

Three Essential Skills. Since generations of men on both sides of his family had been merchants, Balthasar was educated for the same occupation as a matter of course. As a boy, he learned the three essential skills for a mercantile life—reading, writing, and arithmetic, probably including bookkeeping—and then spent six or seven years apprenticed to his uncle, an established merchant. He completed his apprenticeship about the age of twenty-one. The family enterprise was based in Nuremberg, but maintained a commercial presence in the Italian city of Lucca, where they purchased Italian products to ship to Nuremberg and to Frankfurt for the fall and spring fairs. Their standard products were consumer goods for well-to-do urban dwellers: expensive materials such as damask and velvet, Italian and Dutch cheeses, wine, and oil. Balthasar was obliged to spend much of the year away from Nuremberg, in the Lucca offices, in Frankfurt, or on the established merchant routes between cities, traveling in convoys as protection from attacks from highwaymen. Within ten years he was firmly established as an independent merchant and could marry and establish his own household in Nuremberg.

Wife and Partner. From the time of their betrothal in 1582, Magdalena became Balthasar’s confidante, book-keeper, and chief Nuremberg distributor. She was twenty-seven years old and had received a sound education, again in the merchant essentials of reading, writing, and accounting. Her job was to supervise the arrival of the packing crates, open them, inspect them for damage, and check for quality, including tasting the wine to make sure it had not gone sour. She then arranged for them to be delivered to their purchasers and collected payment. In addition to selling to their urban customers, the Paumgartners also sold cutlery and other cheap manufactured goods to the local peasants, and this distribution, too, was in Magdalena’s hands, though if she had difficulty collecting money, she sent for Balthasar’s brothers. She acted as a stand-in for her husband at important social functions, an activity she always enjoyed, and watched out for Balthasar’s interests in family disputes. It is clear from their letters that Balthasar regularly consulted with her on business matters and respected her judgment. However, it is also clear that Magdalena thought of her “business activity” as an extension of her role as good wife, mother, and household manager. In her letters, family and commercial news are mingled with endearments and complaints that Balthasar does not write often enough. She always signed her name “Magdalena Balthasar Paumgartner.” Also, though she often offered Balthasar her advice, it was always with deference due to the head of the house-hold.

Piety and Work Ethic. Magdalena and Balthasar were Lutheran, and their piety was infused into all of their activities. They thanked God for business success, and their letters were full of prayers for their own continued well-being and that of their friends and family. They believed that God would reward hard work, not high living, and though they dealt in consumer goods, they restrained themselves from what they considered undue luxury. When their only child, their son Balthasar, died at the age of ten, a heartbroken Magdalena turned to God as well as to her husband: “I must now accept these facts: that we had him for so short a time, that he has not really been ours but rather God’s....”

Sense of Accomplishment. The Paumgartners’ financial success, and that of their extended family, gave them an enviable standard of living. Yet, Balthasar never liked the mercantile life. Its one advantage, he believed, was that the hard work kept him from the temptation caused by his great love of drinking, and he felt that it was God’s great mercy that he had become a merchant instead of a drunkard. However, he hated being on the road all the time, he never had confidence in his ability to make difficult decisions, and he dreaded above all the constant haggling over goods, payment, and exchange rates that was an essential part of commercial life. The constant traveling took its toll on his health, too. By the age of forty-seven, he had finally acquired the financial resources to purchase a small estate and to retire from commerce to the more-settled life of a country gentleman collecting rents on his estate. He died three years later. Magdalena lived for another forty-two years. She never remarried, and little is known about her life as a widow, for any letters she may have written have not survived. Likely, though, she remained busy and actively involved in family affairs.


Magdalena Balthasar Paumgartner, Magdalenaand Balthasar: An Intimate Portrait of Life in 16th-Century Europe Revealed in the Letters of a Nuremberg Husband and Wife, compiled by Steven Ozment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

Jeffrey Chipps Smith, Nuremberg: A Renaissance City, 1500–1618 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983).

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