The Frankfurt Book Fair Part 1

Vergil printed by Aldus in 1501 (Rylands copy)

The Fates smile on Capito Zasius is sending Fabri to the Frankfurt Fair to make acquisitions for his library.  And Capito accompanies him!  How I have longed to see this most wondrous event, held each year from Assumption (August 15) to the Nativity of the Virgin (September 8). 

Here writers and scholars from many lands gather to meet one another and to arrange deals with printers and publishers.  The printer, Aldus Manutius from Venice, will present his wares.  That alone is worth the journey.

But in addition to books, there will be goods from every point of the compass.  Cloth from England and the Low Countries, spices from the East, wine from the South.  There will be fish, horses, hops, and glass.  Iron, silver, tin, and copper.  There will be linen, fine cloths, veilings, tapestry.  There will be gold and silver wares, oils and sausages.  Dentists, medicine purveyors, and a seller of spectacles. 

There will be Meistersingers and musicians, beggars, pickpockets, prostitutes, mountebanks, conjurers, and fortune tellers.  Once there was an ostrich on display and once, the animal known as an elephant.  To commemorate that event, a life-sized painting of the elephant remains on a house in the garden where it was displayed, and the house is known as Zum Elefanten.  Oh the glorious chaos!

But first, we must get there.  Tonight, we arrive at an inn.  It is no worse than most inns in a German land.  In fact, those that are better would be the exception.

Upon arrival, we initiate the ritual necessary to secure a bed.  We stand out in the yard for an interminable time and yell.  God forbid that the innkeeper should greet us, for we Germans consider it demeaning to trawl for paying guests.  After you announce yourself until your throat is cramping, some head thrusts forward from a tiny window and you inquire about lodging.  If they have none, they say so.  But if they do, they don’t answer your question, but simply withdraw, to meander out a little later, feigning indifference.

Fabri asks about a stable for the horses and is answered with a vague wave.  We attend to the animals ourselves, and with extra care, for they belong to Zasius.  There are no servants for this, as travelers report that there are in other lands.

We then enter the common room, which is indeed common, as all guests are here, in their boots, with their baggage and road dust.  There must be eighty or ninety people, for many are traveling to Frankfurt.  There are some who clearly can afford nicer accommodations, but on the road, one takes what is available. Several are decidedly ill, but these are housed with the rest of us.  Men, women, children, rich and poor, sick or well, all share the same fetid air, for Germans consider it the height of hospitality to warm their guests to a lather.  There is not a man present whose clothes are not dark with sweat, but when Fabri dares open the window a little, a terrible clamor of indignation is heard.

The wine is of the most inferior sort, and I ask if there is any better.  I am ignored.  Then Fabri asks and is given a murderous look and informed that “many nobles and lords stay in this inn and none complain about the wine.  If you don’t like it, seek another.”  Indeed, we Germans are rude and consider only our own nobility to require courtesy.

At last, the food.  A meat broth with bread, followed by a piece of meat so frequently warmed over that it is dried to leather.  There is also some salted fish, but I don’t get any. 

The inferior wine flows, and soon the overcrowded, exhausted travelers are arguing, yelling, pushing, scuffling.  Fabri and I stay close to the wall as it trembles from the brouhaha.  Sleeping is impossible, and all guests in a German inn are expected to retire at the same time, so we wait, miserable, until the others drink enough to fall onto the hard beds which are our accommodations.  

Bed bugs & head lice

“How often do you think they wash these linens?” I ask Fabri.

“Oh,” he says, “at least twice a year.”

Nevertheless, I close my eyes, content.  Tomorrow, the Fair! 

The dolphin & anchor mark of the Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius

Details of a stay at a German inn as reported by Erasmus.

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