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A long, hard road that led to learning;Another Voice;Opinion

I'VE REcently read a true, amazing and inspirational story about self-education.

Thomas Platter was born in the last year of the 15th century. His family were all-but-destitute mountain people living in German-speaking Switzerland.

Within a year of Thomas's birth his father had died of the plague; his sister and two half-sisters were also to die of the disease, and two of his brothers were to be killed fighting as Swiss mercenaries in the religious wars.

Forget the snowy and chalet-dotted high pastures of modern Switzerland, this was a hard world. The plague came year in, year out with the melting snows, while in human minds the powerful ideological bacillus of religious hatred was about to tear apart the German-speaking lands as well as parts of Southern France.

Our Protestant Reformation under Henry VIII was boringly genteel compared with the religious wars on the Continent, with their horrors and fanaticism, but also the hopes and visions which were to found our world. Thomas's story is about the birth of modern Europe.

After his father's death his mother remarried quickly and she took no more interest in the child. Essentially, she abandoned him -a common necessity in those times. Even with the yearly cull by the plague there were too many children born to poor families.

Thomas went to live with two aunts. He fell to the common fate of the pauper child in that region: he became a goat-herd.

Small, often barefoot, permanently hungry, Thomas was for years to have nightmares about the mountains. In search of greenery the goats climbed to dizzying heights, where vultures and crows scoured the slopes, to say nothing of bears. Close calls were commonplace. Once he nearly fell to his death in a ravine, clinging to a flat rock until a fellow goat-herd came to his aid. (In later life the rescuer came to claim a reward: but the adult Thomas insisted his survival was the work of the Almighty.) When he was nine one of his aunts realised this was a bright boy and took him to his elderly uncle, a priest. The idea was to school Thomas, but all he learned was to sing two lines of Salve Regina. The old man soon threw the boy out to fend for himself.

So Thomas's career as a beggar began. Setting out for Germany, he teamed up with a group of other child vagabonds. They stole their food, often stoning a goose to death, and intimidating any farmer who tried to stop them. He drifted through the countryside and the cities - Dresden, Munich, Ulm.

He learned beggar's tricks: he would display a piece of cloth to passers-by, offering to make it into a vest for payment, then make a run with the cash. When he was 16 and virtually grown he was totally illiterate.

But all the time that he was on the road and in the filthy back streets of the cities, perhaps since the day that his old uncle threw him out, Thomas dreamed of having an education.

At 16 he made up his mind to do something about it. After several more years of disappointment, in the year when Martin Luther launched the Reformation at the Diet of Worms, Thomas finally got into a school where he learned to read (in Latin).

And he did not look back. He worked as a rope-maker to pay for his lessons, reading classical texts secretly in the rope shop. Within three years he was teaching others Hebrew.

He became a printer and published Calvin's first book. He opened a school. He became a professor at the University of Basle. He travelled Europe to book fairs, on intimate terms with the scholars of the day.

When his son Felix was 16, Thomas sent him to Montpelier to study medicine. On the road Felix met the Dauphin's tutor; for two days eminent Frenchman and young German discoursed on philosophy and the world, in Latin -full circle in a generation.

We know all this because Thomas wrote an autobiography, Felix kept a copious diary and there are hundreds of letters between them that survive. The French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Laduire has written a wonderful account of the Platter family, based on this priceless archive.

Thomas Platter was endlessly resourceful, a fearless and, clearly, very decent man. What I find so inspiring about him is this: Thomas learned and taught Hebrew, along with Greek, so that he and others could read the Bible free of the intervention of priests.

In 16th-century Germany that was a political as well as a religious act of liberation. The beggar who became a professor had an unshakeable conviction that education goes hand in hand with making the world anew.

Do we believe that today?

Howard Brenton is a playwright.

'The Beggar and the Professor: A Sixteenth Century Family Saga' by Emmanuel Le Roy Laduire is published by The University of Chicago Press

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