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The Letter in the Writing Cabinet: The Emotional Life of an 18th-Century Journeyman

Katrin Seyler
Independent scholar (formerly Andrew W. Mellon Research Fellow, The Courtauld Institute, London)


This article examines a note written by the journeyman cabinet-maker Jacob Arend (1688-1744) in 1716. Arend concealed this note in a writing cabinet, now in the collection of the V&A, which he produced in the workshop of his brother Servatius Arend at Würzburg. The article reveals the note's emotional subtext by considering the social and cognitive worlds of early modern artisans.


Among the many treasures in the V&A, there is a rather unassuming piece of paper (figs 1 and 2). It was found in an 18th-century writing cabinet owned by the Museum (fig. 3), the subject of Sophie Cope’s companion piece in this issue. There are a few hurried lines on it, which speak of deprivation, an imminent departure on a dangerous journey and the making of a baroque writing cabinet. These lines were written by the journeyman cabinet-maker Jacob Arend (1688-1744) on 22 October 1716.(1) According to his own account, Jacob and his fellow journeyman, Johannes Wittalm, were about to leave the workshop of Servatius Arend (1673-1729), Jacob's older brother, cabinet-maker to the court at Würzburg. He wrote in his note that 'both of us will not be found here [at Servatius' workshop on Korngasse] for much longer', as they set forth to travel from workshop to workshop, a journey that took some of their fellow journeymen as far as Bohemia, Scandinavia or England.(2) These particulars make Jacob's note a rare document composed by an early modern journeyman and, as the following discussion makes evident, it provides unique insights into the emotional and intellectual experiences of an artisan about to set off into a potentially perilous world.

Manuscript written by Jacob Arend, as found inside the writing cabinet (verso)

Figure 2. Manuscript written by Jacob Arend, as found inside the writing cabinet (verso), 1716. Museum no. W.23:41-1975 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Manuscript written by Jacob Arend, as found inside the writing cabinet (recto)

Figure 1. Manuscript written by Jacob Arend, as found inside the writing cabinet (recto), 1716. Museum no. W.23:41-1975 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Writing cabinet

Figure 3. Writing cabinet, Jacob Arend and Johannes Wittalm, 1716. Museum no. W.23:1 to 41-1975 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The circumstances surrounding the composition and concealment of Jacob's note are a mystery. Since its discovery on 26 December 1967 by the writing cabinet’s previous owners the note has baffled the few who have set eyes on it with its peculiar references to cabbage and peas. To date, scholars have failed to acknowledge the note’s multiple meanings and wider significance. The following discussion is an attempt to redefine the status of Jacob's note by engaging with the place of writing in early modern artisanal culture, as well as the nature of the journeys young craftsmen like Jacob were required to undertake to reach social, professional and cognitive maturity. By examining the recollections of other early modern craftsmen regarding their journeyman travels, it is possible to appreciate just how dangerous, gruelling and potentially fatal these experiences could be. This approach also produces the wider contexts that will reveal the emotional charge embedded in Jacob Arend’s brief note.

Reading What Artisans Wrote

At first glance, the note’s narrative seems straightforward: Servatius’s workshop was hungry, with Jacob remarking that, 'it was rarely warm in our kitchen with bread'. The wording is ambiguous here, as the word 'broden [bread]' could also be read as 'braden [roast]', which would fit better with the reference to a lack of meat. Both readings are feasible, although a lack of bread would have made the hunger and malnutrition suffered by Jacob and the rest of the workshop more severe. According to Jacob, the workshop's inhabitants were forced to subsist on 'cabbage and peas [erwes is a term still existing in dialects of south-western Germany and refers to peas or puréed peas]', which made them 'so fat […] that one could hardly climb the stairs'. This bloating was either intended as an ironical observation, or, more seriously, may have been a symptom of prolonged starvation. Shortages of grain were caused by a particularly harsh winter in 1714/15, which had disastrous implications for the following year's harvests.(3) Wine production was also affected by these adverse weather conditions, and the resulting increase in price meant that the two cabinet-makers could no longer afford to find solace at the bottom of a bottle.(4)  Unable to bear the shortage of meat, alongside too 'much cabbage and turnips', Jacob and Johannes made the decision to seek their fortunes elsewhere and ventured out into the world as journeymen. At this point, other stories become enfolded in this narrative of deprivation, as Jacob moves to the creation of the writing cabinet, laying claim to its authorship, and onto the wider world and the 'big war in Hungary against the Turks'.

So far, the note appears a rather matter-of-fact, in parts even humorous, account of the economic and professional concerns of a young cabinet-maker at the beginning of the 18th century. But if we adjust our reading techniques according to the specificities of artisanal writing, the note reveals a much greater emotional and narrative depth. Before tackling the broader issues suggested by Jacob’s note – famine, war and authorship – we must first reflect on the most appropriate ways to read this type of document. How might we classify the text? How might we make sense of it alongside other pieces of writing by early modern craftsmen? James Amelang has dealt with first-person artisan authorship in his survey of early modern artisanal autobiographies, which provides some valuable insights into the ways in which early modern artisans wrote about their life experiences and how they expressed themselves textually.(5) Comparison of Arend’s note with other texts written by craftsmen poses challenges, as the latter differ greatly in length and compositional modes from the note found in the writing cabinet. Noticeably, Arend’s note does not fit Amelang’s porous categories for artisan autobiography. We are not dealing with a full-length, planned autobiographical text, such as a memoir, an autobiography or travel journal; neither was the note conceived as a letter in the strictest sense. And yet, Jacob clearly wrote about what was happening in his life and about his immediate plans for the future. It becomes useful, therefore, to approach the note as an autobiographical ‘snapshot’.

Although understanding craftsmen's self-referential writing in terms of specific categories has its merits, it is also crucial to avoid letting such classifications become the driving force in an analysis of artisans' thoughts and motivations. Rather than suggesting that Jacob’s note should be treated as the exact counterpart of longer autobiographies, careful, selective comparison can result in valuable insights. In seeking out passages in journals and autobiographies that deal with the topics found in Jacob's note, we can establish how his contemporaries felt about certain issues, such as shortages of food. So far, this is conventional contextualisation, but it is also possible to use these contexts as an interpretative platform to unearth covert, emotional meanings and push our interpretation further.

This discussion takes seriously Amelang’s observation that 'most early modern texts write less about the self than around it'.(6) Omissions, repetitions and patterns within a text need to be assessed for what they can tell us about authorial intentions.(7) Such an analysis enables informed conjecture on authors' motivations, which provides a crucial interpretative 'key' for understanding artisanal autobiography, when combined with relevant contextualisation.(8) Departing from Amelang's discussion of authorial motivation and its significance for understanding these texts further, we need to extend his approach beyond explicitly documented motivations to encompass unuttered ideas and mindsets.(9) Specifically, this means going beyond a rather narrow focus on social and literary practices to explore the cognitive dimension of the early modern artisanal experience as well. The following will show which material we can use to access this dimension and how other artisanal texts can enable us to decode the silences, repetitions and idiosyncrasies of Jacob's note.

First and foremost, however, we need to properly engage with the circumstances in which the note was written. Envisioning this encourages re-evaluation of the significance of writing in early modern artisanal culture. One can almost imagine Jacob writing at a workbench in Servatius's workshop, in close proximity to the cabinet on which he and Johannes Wittalm had just finished working. If he had felt particularly audacious, he might even have written it at the writing cabinet itself, taking momentarily the place of its intended courtly owner. Workshop days were long, even in winter, when work was carried out by candlelight, and one can almost glimpse Jacob writing his few lines late at night, once the rest of the workshop were in bed, sneaking it into a place where it would remain unseen for over two centuries. Even when framed imaginatively, it is crucial to acknowledge the specific moment of writing. What was written at a workshop bench cannot be read in the same way as texts composed at a desk in a study or library.

While those who work with and appreciate historical objects and documents are aware of the specific and different ways in which things of the past were used and understood, we still fail too often to take into account alternative ways of knowing that are embodied in these texts. The ways in which we read are specific to our time and are often at odds with how people in the past wrote. In the case of artisanal writing, texts can defy the linear and expository format to which we are accustomed, while scholarly writing of the past adheres more closely to literary qualities we recognise and appreciate. For these reasons, perhaps, we are more inclined to accept the latter as the documents that best reflect contemporary modes of thought.

By contrast, writing seems to have been a less familiar cultural practice for most early modern craftsmen.(10) This certainly seems to have been the case for Arend as his manuscript shows some signs of struggle. The repetition of ‘great’ in the sentence, 'Es ist auch im selben grosen ein grosen griech [There was also in the same great a great war]', presumably should have read 'in the same year'. Irregularities in spelling do not necessarily indicate a weakness at writing, since early modern German manuscripts evidence a range of orthographic conventions. It would also be wrong to equate Jacob's limited writing skills with limited knowledge and cognitive abilities. Writing was not so much an unfamiliar cultural practice, as one less compatible with other modes of learning and understanding that were prevalent among craftsmen.

Like most early modern artisans, Jacob's mind operated primarily through modes of learning and understanding that were visual and oral. Storytelling and observation were vital to make sense of the many diverse groups of people and objects encountered during a journeymen's travels and throughout an artisan's working life.(11) Considering that Jacob was already 28 years old in 1716, it is likely that he had already been on his journeyman travels, which were, on average, undertaken not long after completion of a young artisan's apprenticeship, when they were approximately 19 to 21 years of age.(12) Unless Jacob was a late bloomer, which would have caused him considerable embarrassment, probably even some abuse by his peers in the form of mocking songs that compared untraveled artisans to old maids, he would have already acquired considerable knowledge on previous journeys.(13) This knowledge did not come from books, but from seeing new places and from conversations with other artisans about the history of a place, its objects and people. Once we realise this, it becomes easier to see that this knowledge could not be adequately expressed in writing, partially accounting for the formal peculiarities found in artisans' texts.

When an artisan made the decision to write, therefore, he had to compress knowledge comprised of oral and visual impressions into a textual format. The mindscape of early modern artisans contained elements for which they had no words, only images, rendering their textual production incomplete by nature. For example, descriptions of artworks by the journeyman sculptor Franz Ferdinand Ertinger (1669-1747) in his travel diary are rather plain and formulaic (he describes sculptures and altarpieces consistently as either ‘beautiful’ or ‘artful’), but this did not mean that his responses to these art works automatically lacked depth or sophistication.(14) To distil ‘word-less’ impressions into a linear, textual narrative must have posed great difficulty to an artisan.

The unfamiliar stylistic characteristics of texts like Jacob’s note, with their abrupt changes in subject matter and stream-of-consciousness quality, must, instead, be understood as indicators of an alternative culture of communication and learning, rather than a cognitive or literary short-coming. While Amelang does not explicitly address these epistemological specificities of craftsmen's learning, he does account writing an 'intense and ambiguous experience for those for whom writing was not a “normal” cultural practice or expectation'.(15) Writing in artisanal culture, framed, thus, as a marginal practice, makes it all the more important for scholars to develop sensitivity to the complex subtexts and background stories that underpin these pieces of writing.

Elsewhere, scholars, such as Sigrid Wadauer, have challenged the relationship between artisanal writing and authenticity. Wadauer’s survey of artisanal autobiographies argues that such texts are practically devoid of authenticity, serving instead as textual constructions that were closely tied to an authorial agenda, usually of self-presentation.(16) While the motivations of authorship certainly need to be explored, self-referential writing by artisans is one of the few ways into a visual and oral culture that is now largely concealed from us. More compellingly, the circumstances of Jacob’s note, written in great distress on the eve of his departure, frustrate any attempt to read it as a calculated, literary construction.

The issue of to whom Jacob wrote further complicates the matter of how we read his text. Although the note masquerades as a letter with its salutation, asking 'him who finds this note to drink to our health', proper consideration of where it was found in the writing cabinet, alongside the text’s formal qualities, derails this attempt at classification. In his 1971 article, Max von Freeden identified the note’s hiding place as underneath a secret drawer. (17) More recently, in the process of cataloguing the cabinet for the V&A’s new Europe 1600-1800 Galleries, Sarah Medlam established more precisely the location of the manuscript, which was originally concealed in a recess underneath the base of the lower right-hand drawer within the piece’s main flap-fronted compartment (figs 4 and 5).

Writing cabinet: detail showing base of lower right-hand drawer

Figure 5. Writing cabinet: detail showing base of lower right-hand drawer. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Writing cabinet: detail of main flap-fronted compartment

Figure 4. Writing cabinet: detail of main flap-fronted compartment, Jacob Arend and Johannes Wittalm, 1716. Museum no. W.23:1-1975 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Writing cabinet: detail showing recess where Arend’s letter was hidden.

Figure 6. Writing cabinet: detail showing recess where Arend’s letter was hidden. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In her study of French 18th-century furniture, Carolyn Sargentson shows how cabinet-makers had become 'proficient in designing secret compartments and internal mechanisms undetectable to the uninitiated' in France, England and Germany. (18) Although the V&A owns examples of pieces of furniture employing sophisticated ‘hiding’ mechanisms, the recess in Arend’s writing cabinet did not fulfil this function. (19) Instead, access to the recess that contained the note required the forceful removal of one of two wooden panels that made up the base of the drawer; the piece of wood removed even showed traces of glue on its underside (fig. 6). The violence implicit in this act of exposure suggests that the secret space was not intended for its 'owner's security and delight', but for Jacob's genuine (and, as he probably expected, permanent) act of concealment. (20)

Similarly, the form and content of the text further undermines the notion that Jacob’s note was intended as a letter. After all, Arend was fully aware that the writing cabinet had been commissioned by Johannes Gallus Jacob (1670-1736 or 1737), finance minister in the service of the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg, Johann Philipp von Greiffenclau (1652-1719), as either he or Johannes had set in engraved pewter their patron’s name as a series of ciphers on the writing cabinet's flap and base panel (fig.7). (21) Yet, the note made no attempt to reflect Gallus Jacob’s elevated position, an essential feature of official correspondence between an early modern artisan and his patron, which proposes that Jacob had not expected the piece’s future owner to discover his note. (22)

Writing cabinet: detail showing ‘JEALUS / JACOB’ (for ‘Gallus Jacob’) represented as a series of ciphers.

Figure 7. Writing cabinet: detail showing ‘JEALUS / JACOB’ (for ‘Gallus Jacob’) represented as a series of ciphers. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Why, then, did the note most closely resemble a letter? Most likely, this was the form of writing Jacob was most familiar with, especially if he had travelled away from home before. Letters between journeymen and their families are not widely preserved, but autobiographical texts by other craftsmen attest to the use of correspondence by artisans. For example, the sculptor George Paul Eckstein (1739-c.1828), during his time as journeyman, requested financial support from a relative who had become a successful cabinet-maker in Sweden, as noted in an autobiographical fragment.(23) The choice of the familiar, epistolary format enabled Jacob to articulate personal concerns textually. Curiously, the front and reverse of the sheet resemble each other through a repetition of themes. It is possible that these two sides represent two versions of what Jacob tried to put in writing; when he deliberately concealed this sheet in the cabinet both ‘stories’ were conserved. In view of Amelang's observation about the significance of repetition in artisans' autobiographies, the two sides might not be distinct drafts.(24) Instead, the revisiting of subjects can be read as a reinforcement of what was important to Jacob. We cannot say whether this was conscious or not, but it certainly highlights his dual preoccupation with starvation and his legacy.

The circumstances of the note’s composition, written clandestinely and for no obvious reader, prompt further questions about its function and artisanal writing practices at large. If it was not destined for a reader, at least a contemporary reader, why did Jacob write this note? Did he wish to assert his legacy for a distant posterity? Can the note be understood as a ‘space’ for private reflection similar to a private diary? Or was it supposed to function as a secret signature for the writing cabinet itself?

Fried Pinecones and a Staff Steeped in Blood: The Realities of Journeyman Travel

Having considered Jacob’s note in terms of its content, form and literary genre, we now need to turn to the social and cultural world of early modern artisans for further contextualisation. Artisanal writing is best understood in relation to the peripatetic, sometimes uncertain, lives of journeymen, calling to mind Amelang’s description of artisanal autobiographies as a ‘literature of displacement’. (25) After all, Jacob’s note’s most unique quality for a historian is the moment of its composition: on or near the eve of his departure. Arguably, these circumstances invest it with immediacy and spontaneity unlike any other piece of text written by an early modern craftsman. The emotion of its moment of composition and clandestine nature provide us with an unparalleled insight into the psychological implications of journeyman travel and its hardships. When Jacob composed his note, he did not look forward to adventures and the opportunity to gain wisdom, as promised by the songs and speeches shared at gatherings of journeymen brotherhoods, which Jacob undoubtedly would have heard when he became a journeyman. (26) Instead, his note tells us that, nearing his journey, Jacob was scared to death.

Evidence of the experiences of other artisans on the road suggests that Jacob’s fears were well founded. Life outside his brother's workshop was daunting even during economically stable times. Comparison with longer texts shows that the preoccupation with food that characterises Jacob's note was not unusual. Food and its quality was a recurrent motif since good quality food was often in short supply in workshops across Europe. It was generally the weakest members of the workshop, such as young apprentices and journeymen, who suffered malnourishment the most. While with Servatius, Jacob and Johannes at least had some cheap vegetables to fill their bellies, others fared much worse. Writing several years after Jacob and Johannes's departure from Würzburg, the French printer Nicolas Contat (active 1730s-60s) described his apprenticeship as a feat of endurance, with the food that he and resident journeymen received of such poor quality that even cats refused it. This was a defining factor in the 'massacre' of the workshop's cats, an act of defiance by the journeymen and apprentices against their mistreatment. (27)

Other responses to the disgusting food served up by stingy masters were less dramatic than those of Contat and his fellows. The 17th-century Alsatian tin-engraver Augustin Güntzer (1596-c.1657) ironically remarked in his travel journal that a maggot-infested ham he was given was 'quite tasty' because his 'stomach was used to digesting rock-hard bread and fried pine cones'. (28) This remark may not have been entirely humorous, since Augustin certainly suffered his share of hunger on his travels, and it is not implausible that he and his companions actually resorted to consuming fried pinecones. An early 19th-century craftsman’s account shows that hunger remained a common condition of workshop life. In his autobiography, Eberhard Dewald (active 1830s) recalled a conversation between journeymen in a tavern, loudly complaining about the sparseness of food served up by a previous master who was a 'cheapskate, who would count every spoonful that went into a journeyman's mouth, and who could not complain enough about how dear the food was'. Sickened by the master's complaints, the journeymen were ready to throw up their dinner, had they not been worried that 'the mistress would make another meal out of it'. (29) By contrast, hunger in Servatius’s workshop seems to have been the result of genuine shortages. There, not being able to eat did not reflect workshop hierarchy or its corruption, but attested, instead, to the intense anxieties that were linked to the availability of provisions in the workshop. 

While meat must have seemed like a luxury to Jacob and Johannes in 1716, it was more readily available to journeymen during better times. Before Güntzer dined on hard bread and rotten meat, he had enjoyed the fruits of Bohemia abundantly in 1616, listing the treats he had purchased for mere pennies, which included roast pigeons, a roast duck, a piece of white bread 'as wide as an acre', as well as dark and light beer. (30) When Güntzer arrived in Venice in 1618, having suffered a period of privation, he even had the opportunity to feast on fresh fish and exotic delicacies he termed 'sea spiders'. (31)

Lack of food was not the only challenge Jacob and Johannes faced. Robberies and even murders were regular occurrences on the road and frequently featured in artisans' journals, showing why travelling in pairs or groups – as Jacob and Johannes did – really mattered. The sculptor Ertinger recalled how he and his companions were shown a grisly relic on their travels, 'The coachman showed us a stick on which could be seen human blood about a foot high, and he said when he drove through these parts [Bohemia] 14 days ago he had come across a murdered journeyman lying in fresh blood and [with] his head squashed in’. (32) Others, like the glazier Jacques-Louis Ménétra (1738-c.1803), were actually robbed on the road. After his shoes were stolen, Ménétra walked barefoot to the nearest town, where his fellow journeymen in a display of solidarity replaced the belongings that had been taken from him. (33) This example suggests the ambivalent relationship journeymen had with their peers, who could provide a vital support system, but at other times might mug, beat and even rape a lone colleague. (The unfortunate Güntzer reported an assault in an inn where he spent the night, 'When he saw that I was fast asleep, he wanted to inflict his foolery and wantonness upon me, relating to my anus.') (34)

Additional risks on the road were evoked by Jacob’s reference to war ‘in Hungary with the Turks’. At first reading, this statement seems isolated and detached from the note’s wider narrative. However, if we start from the notion that Jacob was unaccustomed to translating the complexity of his thinking adequately into text, the statement regarding the 'great war' between Turkey and Hungary could be interpreted as part of a bundle of mental images and corresponding emotions that encompassed hunger, his uncertain future and Ottoman invasion. In 1716, the threat was, in fact, very real, with war breaking out between Austria and the Ottoman Empire, a conflict that lasted until 1718. (35) As young, physically capable young men travelling on foot, journeymen were vulnerable to conscription. Ertinger described an episode where he joined a group of other travellers on route to Wrocław, then the capital of Silesia, as 'it was very unsafe to travel on one's own because of the harassment to enlist'. (36) In this case, the strategy of travelling in a group worked in the travellers’ favour: Ertinger and his companions were assaulted by a group of soldiers, who 'did not take away even one of our travel companions because we were stronger than them'. (37)

In combination, these accounts show that life beyond the workshop was more than just uncomfortable or inconvenient. The world Jacob and Johannes were about to enter was full of potential dangers, promising deprivation and, in some cases, death. For Jacob and Johannes their lives were at stake, with Jacob’s note showing how young journeymen in his position might hope for the best while preparing for the worst. In this context, the note takes on an intensely emotional quality – its invocation to an anonymous reader becoming especially haunting: 'so we ask the one who finds this note/ that he shall drink to our health, but if we/ are no longer alive, so may god grant us eternal/ rest and salvation'. Mortality can, perhaps, be seen as the note’s implicit, overarching theme – something that only really becomes apparent when Jacob’s fragmentary narrative is read with a fuller understanding of the realities faced by early modern journeymen and the sense that, as the day of his departure drew ever nearer, Jacob’s emotional state became increasingly unsettled.

Leaving a Legacy

The uncertainty of Jacob’s future must be contrasted with the certainty of his authorship of the writing cabinet. In fact, his direct assertion – that he was responsible for its design and execution – was an exceptionally unusual act for a journeyman. Although journeymen in many trades often had considerable professional agency in workshops, it was not customary for them to take credit for their contributions. (38) It is tempting to read this act of self-determined authorship as underpinned by Jacob’s genuine belief in the likelihood of his death. If convinced that his prospects were less bleak, would he have felt the same need to assert his authorship of the Würzburg writing cabinet? With a more positive outlook, he might have envisaged it being followed by many more exquisite pieces of furniture, possibly even the masterpiece that would officially elevate him from the status of journeyman to that of master. By including the note in the writing cabinet, Jacob affirmed his legacy, even if only to himself.

The hiding place of the note, concealed where it could not be easily found, raises the question of to whom Jacob wished to proclaim his artisanal accomplishments. Could Jacob, fully aware of the durability of the writing cabinet he had created, have written with a distant posterity in mind? Framed thus, the note resonates with the idea that discussions of work were employed by artisan authors as a means to elevate themselves socially and artistically. (39) Given the note's particularities, it is plausible, too, that this piece of writing had an additional introspective function. The note can, perhaps, best be understood as a hidden signature: one aimed at easing Jacob's emotional turmoil, rather than earning him fame after his death. By including this signature, which to Jacob's knowledge might never have surfaced again, he made sure to himself that his existence would leave behind a meaningful material trace.

This notion – that the note’s disparate subjects were combined to create a kind of momento mori – conflicts with the ways in which journeyman travels were promoted elsewhere in early modern artisanal culture. Songs and rituals, which mostly consisted of drinking and spending time together in taverns, portray journeyman travel as an adventure that turned boys into men. (40) In the lewd and loud environment of the journeyman brotherhood, where introverted behaviour was frowned upon, anxieties of the kind betrayed by Jacob Arend's note were most likely unacceptable. Güntzer, the tin-engraver, was mocked for his melancholic and solitary nature, which led him to avoid the raucous pastimes relished by his fellow journeymen. (41) In this environment, Jacob's fears about the future would most likely have met with derision and contempt. In the absence of a confidant, the note might be read as his attempt to work through intense emotional experiences on the cusp of a perilous and unpredictable journey – providing valuable insights into a less readily accessible part of the world of the early modern artisan.


Fortunately, Jacob's worst fears remained unrealised, at least for himself. (Johannes Wittalm's fate remains obscure, like the lives of many other early modern craftsmen.) Although we do not know the precise details of Jacob's travels, exactly ten years later his fortune changed for the better. In 1726, Arend was appointed cabinet-maker at the court of Fulda.(42) Several more of his works are preserved at Fulda, including a Regency-style bureau.(43) To date, other known pieces by Arend have not been examined to establish whether they contain clandestine writing, leaving open a potentially fascinating line of enquiry. Jacob's son, Carl Philipp Arend, followed in his father's footsteps and became court cabinet-maker at Fulda in 1746, two years after his father’s death in 1744. According to Wolfgang Eller, members of Jacob's family were to remain in the service of the court until 1892.(44)

Jacob Arend's ‘letter’ is an extraordinary document providing unique insights into a journeyman's emotional state at the beginning of the 18th century. Most exceptional is its status as an extremely rare piece of writing by a journeyman, and not a retrospective account by a mature craftsman like most autobiographical writings attributed to early modern artisans. Few, if any, of the preserved documents written by craftsmen convey the same kind of emotional immediacy. This discussion has shown how, in spite of its brevity, the note demonstrated how individuals were thrown into emotional turmoil by the pressures of life in and outside of the workshop, and revealed how writing could serve as a coping strategy. Arend's note should, therefore, encourage historians of early modern artisanal writing to re-evaluate autobiographical writings for their potentially hidden emotional content. Moreover, Jacob's note has shown, possibly for the first time, how artisans wrote for purposes other than correspondence or autobiography. Read in the context of other writing by early modern artisans, this rare piece of text highlights, too, that some aspects of journeyman culture discouraged more emotionally introspective modes of expression, and that sometimes the only way for young artisans to resolve an emotional crisis was through writing a clandestine, despairing note.


Special thanks to Liz Miller, Senior Curator of Prints at the V&A, for drawing my attention to Jacob Arend's note and for her much appreciated support when preparing this article. Additional thanks are owed to Sarah Medlam, who catalogued the cabinet for the V&A’s Europe 1600–1800 Galleries, and to Elizabeth Bisley, Assistant Curator in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department at the V&A, for providing access to Museum files.


1. Note written by Jacob Arend, as hidden in the writing cabinet he made with Johannes Wittalm, 1716. Museum no. W.23:40-1975.

2. The tinsmith Augustin Güntzer (1596-1657) documented his journeys to England and the Baltic countries; he eventually got as far as Latvia but abandoned his plan to travel to Scandinavia due to the bitter cold that claimed the lives of some of his fellow travellers. See: Augustin Güntzer, Kleines Biechlin von meinem gantzen Leben – die Autobiographie eines Elsässer Kannengiessers aus dem 17. Jahrhundert, ed. by Fabian Brändle (Köln: Böhlau, 2002), 184–92. Franz Ertinger (1669-1747), journeyman sculptor and author of a travel diary, travelled as far as Prague from his birthplace near Lake Constance. See: Franz Ferdinand Ertinger, Franz Ferdinand Ertinger's Reisebeschreibung durch Österreich und Deutschland ed. by Erika Tietze-Conrad (Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1907), 81. Members of the Eckstein family, who were mostly sculptors and cabinetmakers, can be traced in Sweden, England and America (c.1760s-1800). See: Katrin Seyler, Opening the Cognitive Tool-box of Migrating Sculptors (1680 – 1794): An Analysis of the Epistemic and Semiotic Structures of the Republic of Tools (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, 2011), http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/3275/. For a broader discussion of artisan travel in the early modern period, see: Geoffrey Crossick, ed., The Artisan and the European Town 1500-1900 (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1997).

3. Michael Stürmer, Herbst des Alten Handwerks – Zur Sozialgeschichte des 18. Jahrhunderts (Munich: DTV, 1979), 111.

4. Ibid., 111.

5. James Amelang, The Flight of Icarus – Artisan Autobiography in Early Modern Europe (Standford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

6. Ibid., 123.

7. Ibid., 181.

8. Ibid., 7.

9. Ibid., 48.

10. Ibid., 48.

11. Seyler, Opening the Cognitive Tool-box of Migrating Sculptors (1680 – 1794), http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/3275/

12. Wolfgang Eller, Schreibmöbel 1700-1850: in Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz (Petersberg: Michael Imhof, 2006), 160.

13. Sigrid Wadauer, Die Tour der Gesellen – Mobilität und Biographie im Handwerk vom 18. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt: Campus, 2005), 43.

14. Seyler, Opening the Cognitive Tool-box of Migrating Sculptors (1680 – 1794), 173–7.

15. Amelang, The Flight of Icarus, 48.

16. Sigrid Wadauer, ‘Fremd in der Fremde Gehn: die Erzeugnung von Fremdheit im Unterwegssein von Handwerksgesellen’, in Walz – Migration – Besatzung: Historische Szenarien des Eigenen und Fremden, ed. by Ingrid Bauer et al. (Klagenfurt:Drava Verlag/Bundesministerium für Bildung, Wissenschaft und Kultur, 2002), 52.

17. Furniture and Textiles Department, V&A, London, museum object file: W.23:1 to 41-1975, Max von Freeden, ‘Ein fränkischer Prunkschrank in England’.

18. Carolyn Sargentson, ‘Looking at Furniture Inside Out: Strategies of Secrecy and Security in Eighteenth-century French Furniture’, in Furnishing the Eighteenth Century: what furniture can tell us about the European and American Past, ed. by Dena Goodman and Kathryn Norberg (New York and London: Routledge, 2011), 222.

19. Ibid., 205–33.

20. Ibid., 206.

21. For more information on Johannes Gallus Jacob, see: Peter Thornton, ‘A Cabinet for a Würzburg Patron’, Apollo LXXXIX, No. 88 (1969): 448.

22. See, for example: Landeshauptarchiv Schwerin, 2.26-1 Großherzogliches Kabinett I, 10162, letters by court sculptor Johann Eckstein to the Duke Friedrich of Mecklenburg-Schwerin between 1769 and 1786.

23. Georgiana Eckstein, A Few Particulars Respecting the Eckstein Family (London: Strangeway, 1908), 21.

24. Amelang, The Flight of Icarus, 181.

25. Ibid., 124.

26. Rudolf Wissell, Des Alten Handwerk Recht und Gewohnheit (Berlin: Colloquium, 1971), vol.6, 11–12, 228.

27. Robert Darnton, ‘Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin’, in The Great Cat Massacre – And Other Episodes in French Cultural History (London: Penguin, 2001), 76.

28. Güntzer, Kleines Biechlin von meinem gantzen Leben, 174.

29. Johann Eberhard Dewald, Aufzeichnungen und Briefe des Handwerksburschen Johann Eberhard Dewald, 1836-1838; cited in Wadauer, Die Tour der Gesellen, 245.

30. Güntzer, Kleines Biechlin von meinem gantzen Leben, 130.

31. Ibid., 138.

32. Ertinger, Franz Ferdinand Ertinger's Reisebeschreibung durch Österreich und Deutschland, 81.

33. Jacques-Louis Ménétra, Journal of My Life, ed. by Daniel Roche (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 64.

34. The original German reads: 'Da er sahe, daß ich hardt schlieff, wolte er seine Schelmenstuck und Unkischheidt an mihr volpringen, mitt Refferentz am After'. Güntzer, Kleines Biechlin von meinem gantzen Leben, 139.

35. Jeremy Black and Roy Porter, eds, A Dictionary of Eighteenth-century World History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 53.

36. Ertinger, Franz Ferdinand Ertinger's Reisebeschreibung, 65.

37. Ibid., 66.

38. For information on the work processes of journeymen, see: Emanuel Poche, Matthias Bernhard Braun – Der Meister des Böhmischen Barock und seine Werkstatt (Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2003), 41–5.

39. Amelang, The Flight of Icarus, 120–3.

40. Wissell, Des Alten Handwerk Recht und Gewohnheit, 228.

41. Güntzer, Kleines Biechlin von meinem gantzen Leben, 130,152.

42. Eller, Schreibmöbel 1700-1850, 160.

43. Gloria Ehret, Deutsche Möbel des 18. Jahrhundert: Barock, Rokoko, Klassizismus (Munich: Keyser, 1986), 126.

44. Eller, Schreibmöbel 1700-1850, 161.