UC Berkeley News


Taking pride in their language, finding uses for everything

11 February 2004

Fruitbearing Society portrait
The “pleasure garden” in the center of this group portrait speaks vividly to the organizing principle of the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (“Fruitbearing Society”), the 17th-century literary society founded by German scholars and nobility to emulate the success of similar groups already thriving in Italy, France, and Britain. The portrait — of Wilhelm V, Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel, with his six sons, six daughters, and wife Amalie Elisabeth — was created in 1640 for a funeral sermon in honor of Landgrave Moritz of Hessen. This and other Society artifacts are currently on display at Doe Library. (Noah Berger photo)

The Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (“Fruitbearing Society”) was founded nearly 400 years ago by a small group of Saxon nobles who sought to create something then unknown on German soil: a literary society not unlike those that already flourished in Italy, France, and England — and one that, in this instance, would both standardize German as a vernacular language and advance its status as a literary and scholarly medium.

Why “fruitbearing”? James H. Spohrer, head of the Library’s Germanic collections, notes that the term is “purely allegorical,” meant to connote the advantages that Saxon society would realize once its literature and language were made to flower. (The Germans of that era, Spohrer says, were “almost schizophrenic” about their native tongue, in which they took an “inherent pride” while ruefully acknowledging its lack of sophistication in comparison with French, Italian, and English.) The notion of growth was implicit in the “fruitbearing” rubric as well — that of the life of the mind that the society intended to induce.

“Just as we believe today that education is the key to an enlightened society,” says Spohrer, “the founders of the Fruitbearing Society believed that the promotion of a high literary and scholarly culture in Saxony would raise the population from its heretofore primitive level to one of greater sophistication and prosperity” in its broadest possible sense.

Among the members of the Fruitbearing Society during its relatively brief but enormously productive history were virtually all of the great poets of the German Baroque, as well as other learned men who wrote on subjects ranging from literature and music to history, philosophy, and the law. In contrast to the members of the Italian learned societies that were its closest model, these very public personages — many of them of noble rank — were, as Spohrer points out, “inextricably linked to almost every aspect of politics and government in 17th-century Europe.”

From its founding and over the ensuing six decades, the society took an active role in publishing important new works of German scholarship and literature. Specimens of a great many of these reside in the Bancroft Library, which acquired them in 1998. The Bancroft’s current holdings — it continues to add to the collection, developed over the course of three decades by the Swiss literary historian Martin Bircher — include some 1,300 early printed books, manuscripts, and pictorial works, which in the main focus on the members and activities of the society. An exhibition of items from the collection is currently on display in the Doe Library’s Bernice Layne Brown Gallery.