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"The Poor Man of Tockenburg" is the pen-name of Ulrich Bräker, a writer very little known in English-speaking countries, who lived in the Toggenburg region of northeast Switzerland. He was born on 22nd December 1735, the eldest of eleven children of a poor family, and despite his best efforts remained a poor man all his life. Much of his childhood was spent herding goats on remote pastures in the forests, and during his adolescence he worked as a hired labourer. At the age of nineteen he fell ardently in love, and hoping to earn enough money to marry, left home for the town of Schaffhausen, where he found work as manservant to a Prussian recruiting officer. At first this work was very enjoyable, but it led eventually to his being tricked into enrolling as a soldier in the Prussian army. After some months of training in Berlin he fought in the first battle of the Seven Years' War, at Lobositz, near Dresden, on 1st October 1756.
During the battle he succeeded in deserting, and several weeks later reached his homeland again, but found that homecoming brought little but disillusionment. Not long after this he married, but his marriage was marred by a perpetual power-struggle between himself and his wife. In an effort to earn money he became a middleman in the cotton industry, transporting raw cotton from the factory to the spinners and weavers, and collecting the finished goods. He was not very successful in this enterprise and for much of his life was heavily encumbered by debts. He had seven children, but two died in childhood and another in his teenage years.
Bräker had only a rudimentary education, but all his life was an inveterate reader and writer. In 1776 a friend prompted him to enter for an essay competition set by the Moral Society of Lichtensteig, a society of middle-class men dedicated to the improvement of their homeland. Bräker won the competition and was admitted to the Society. He immediately set himself to read his way through the Society's library and to associate with educated men, though in their company he always felt like "the crow who wanted to fly with the ducks". He also wrote his autobiography, which was eventually published, as were extracts from his diary. The latter includes lively accounts of journeys which he made in northern Switzerland, partly in the course of his business, but also to visit the friends whose acquaintance he had made through his writing, who included several of the most distinguished men of German-speaking Switzerland. His writings show how the philosophical, moral and scientific ideas of the Enlightenment filtered down to meet the eager curiosity and thirst for learning of a self-taught scholar.
Bräker lived long enough to see and report on the onset of the Swiss Revolution, by which a completely new system of government was enforced on the Swiss Confederation by the revolutionary army of France. By the time it reached his remote homeland, however, he was seriously ill and in a desperate financial situation. He died in 1798, a few days after the last resistance to the new constitution collapsed.
Bräker's life-story is unusual in that not many such documents remain from members of the lower classes of his time. For instance, the 18 th century has left plenty of poetic accounts of herding goats in the forest, but Bräker's is valuable because he had actually done it, and can show the tedious, sordid and dangerous side of the goatherd's life as well as its delights. There are more complete accounts of life in the Prussian army and the battle of Lobositz, but Bräker shows us what they were like from the point of view of a homesick and often terrified private soldier. His account of the Revolution is very moving, not only because of the momentous events that took place, but because they were written by a spectator who was personally concerned. Eager for change, he was anxious that the change might be for the worse both for himself and for his homeland, and gradually became aware that his death was not far off and that whatever the outcome, he would not be there to see it.
I have to admit that putting together the somewhat scattered fragments of information about Bräker and his environment was partly an intellectual pleasure, not unlike a mental jigsaw