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Johann Reuchlin

Johann ReuchlinBorn: 22-Feb-1455
Birthplace: Pforzheim, Württemberg, Germany
Died: 6-Jun-1522
Location of death: Bad Liebenzell, Germany
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Scholar

Nationality: Germany
Executive summary: German humanist and Hebraist

German humanist and Hebraist, born on the 22nd of February 1455 at Pforzheim in the Black Forest, where his father was an official of the Dominican monastery. In the pedantic taste of his time the name was graecicized by his Italian friends into Capnion, a form which Reuchlin himself uses as a sort of transparent mask when he introduces himself as an interlocutor in the De Verbo Mirifico. For his native place Reuchlin always retained an affection; he constantly writes himself Phorcensis, and in the De Verbo he does not forget to ascribe to Pforzheim his first disposition to letters. Here he began his Latin studies in the monastery school, and, though in 1470 he was a short time in Freiburg, that university seems to have taught him little.

Reuchlin's career as a scholar appears to have turned almost on an accident; his fine voice gained him a place in the household of Charles I, Margrave of Baden, and by-and-by, having already some reputation as a Latinist, he was chosen to accompany to the University of Paris Frederick, the third son of the prince, a lad some years his junior, who was destined for an ecclesiastical career. This new connection lasted but a year or so, but it determined the course of Reuchlin's life. He now began to learn Greek, which had been taught in the French capital since 1470, and he also attached himself to the leader of the Paris realists, Jean Heynlin, or à Lapide (d. 1496), a worthy and learned man, whom he followed to the vigorous young University of Basel in 1474. At Basel Reuchlin took his masters degree (1477), and began to lecture with success, teaching a more classical Latin than was then common in German schools, and also explaining Aristotle in Greek. His studies in this language had been continued at Basel under Andronicus Contoblacas, and here too he formed the acquaintance of the bookseller, Johann Amorbach, for whom he prepared a Latin lexicon (Vocabularius Breviloquus, 1475-76), which did good service in its time and ran through many editions.

This first publication, and Reuchlin's account of his teaching at Basel in a letter to Cardinal Adrian (Adriano Castellesi) in February 1518 show that he had already found the work which in a larger sphere occupied his whole life. He was no original genius, but a born teacher. But this work of teaching was not to be done mainly from the professor's chair. Reuchlin soon left Basel to seek further Greek training with George Hieronymus at Paris, and to learn to write a fair Greek hand that he might support himself by copying manuscripts. And now he felt that he must choose a profession. His choice fell on law, and he was thus led to the great school of Orleans (1478), and finally to Poitiers, where he became licentiate in July 1481.

From Poitiers Reuchlin went in December 1481 to Tübingen with the intention of becoming a teacher in the university, but his friends recommended him to Count Eberhard of Württemberg, who was about to journey to Italy and required an interpreter. Reuchlin was selected for this post, and in February 1482 left Stuttgart for Florence and Rome. The journey lasted but a few months, but it brought the German scholar into contact with several learned Italians, especially at the Medicean Academy in Florence; his connection with the count became permanent, and after his return to Stuttgart he received important posts at Eberhard's court. About this time he appears to have married, but little is known of his married life. He left no children; but in later years his sister's grandson Philipp Melanchthon was almost as a son to him until the Reformation estranged them. In 1490 he was again in Italy. Here he saw Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, to whose Cabbalistic doctrines he afterwards became heir, and also made the friendship of the pope's secretary, Jakob Questenberg, which was of service to him in his later troubles. Again in 1492 he was employed on an embassy to the emperor Frederick at Linz, and here he began to read Hebrew with the emperor's Jewish physician Jakob ben Jehiel Loans. He knew something of this language before, but Loans's instruction laid the basis of that thorough knowledge which he afterwards improved on his third visit to Rome in 1498 by the instruction of Obadja Sforno of Cesena. In 1494 his rising reputation had been greatly enhanced by the publication of De Verbo Mirifico.

In 1496 Eberhard of Württemberg died, and enemies of Reuchlin had the ear of his successor, Duke Eberhard. He was glad, therefore, hastily to follow the invitation of Johann von Dalberg (1445-1503), the scholarly bishop of Worms, and flee to Heidelberg, which was then the seat of the "Rhenish Society." In this court of letters Reuchlin's appointed function was to make translations from the Greek authors, in which his reading was already extremely wide. Though Reuchlin had no public office as teacher, and even at Heidelberg was prevented from lecturing, he was during a great part of his life the real center of all Greek teaching as well as of all Hebrew teaching in Germany. To carry out this work he found it necessary to provide a series of helps for beginners and others. He never published a Greek grammar, though he had one in manuscript for use with his pupils, but he put out several little elementary Greek books. Reuchlin, it may be noted, pronounced Greek as his native teachers had taught him to do, i.e. in the modern Greek fashion. This pronunciation, which he defends in Dialogus de Recta Lat. Graecique Serm. Pron. (1519), came to be known, in contrast to that used by Erasmus, as the Reuchlinian.

At Heidelberg Reuchlin had many private pupils, among whom Franz von Sickingen is the best known name. With the monks he had never been liked; at Stuttgart also his great enemy was the Augustinian Conrad Holzinger. On this man he took a scholar's revenge in his first Latin comedy Sergius, a satire on worthless monks and false relics.

Through Dalberg, Reuchlin came into contact with Philip, elector palatine of the Rhine, who employed him to direct the studies of his sons, and in 1498 gave him the mission to Rome which has been already noticed as fruitful for Reuchlin's progress in Hebrew. He came back laden with Hebrew books, and found when he reached Heidelberg that a change of government had opened the way for his return to Stuttgart, where his wife had remained all along. His friends had now again the upper hand, and knew Reuchlin's value. In 1500, or perhaps in 1502, he was given a very high judicial office in the Swabian League, which he held until 1512, when he retired to a small estate near Stuttgart.

For many years Reuchlin had been increasingly absorbed in Hebrew studies, which had for him more than a mere philological interest. Though he was always a good Catholic, and even took the habit of an Augustinian monk when he felt that his death was near, he was too thorough a humanist to be a blind follower of the church. He knew the abuses of monkish religion, and was interested in the reform of preaching as shown in his De Arte Predicandi (1503) -- a book which became a sort of preacher's manual; but above all as a scholar he was eager that the Bible should be better known, and could not tie himself to the authority of the Vulgate. The key to the Hebraea veritas was the grammatical and exegetical tradition of the medieval rabbins, especially of David Kimhi, and when he had mastered this himself he was resolved to open it to others. In 1506 appeared his epoch-making De Rudimentis Hebraicis -- grammar and lexicon -- mainly after Kimhi, yet not a mere copy of one man's teaching. The edition was costly and sold slowly. One great difficulty was that the wars of Maximilian I in Italy prevented Hebrew Bibles coming into Germany. But for this also Reuchlin found help by printing the Penitential Psalms with grammatical explanations (1512), and other helps followed from time to time. But his Greek studies had interested him in those fantastical and mystical systems of later times with which the Cabbala has no small affinity. Following Pico, he seemed to find in the Cabbala a profound theosophy which might be of the greatest service for the defense of Christianity and the reconciliation of science with the mysteries of faith -- an unhappy delusion indeed, but one not surprising in that strange time of ferment. Reuchlin's mystico-cabbalistic ideas and objects were expounded in the De Verbo Mirifico, and finally in the De Arte Cabbalistica (1517). Unhappily many of his contemporaries thought that the first step to the conversion of the Jews was to take from them their books. This view had for its chief advocate the bigoted Johann Pfefferkorn (1469-1521), himself a baptized Hebrew. Pfefferkorn's plans were backed by the Dominicans of Cologne; and in 1509 he received from the emperor authority to confiscate all Jewish books directed against the Christian faith. Armed with this mandate, he visited Stuttgart and asked Reuchlin's help as a jurist and expert in putting it into execution. Reuchlin evaded the demand, mainly because the mandate lacked certain formalities, but he could not long remain neutral. The execution of Pfefferkorn's schemes led to difficulties and to a new appeal to Maximilian. In 1510 Reuchlin was summoned in the name of the emperor to give his opinion on the suppression of the Jewish books. His answer is dated from Stuttgart, October 6, 1510; in it he divides the books into six classes -- apart from the Bible which no one proposed to destroy -- and, going through each class, he shows that the books openly insulting to Christianity are very few and viewed as worthless by most Jews themselves, while the others are either works necessary to the Jewish worship, which was licensed by papal as well as imperial law, or contain matter of value and scholarly interest which ought not to be sacrificed because they are connected with another faith than that of the Christians. He proposed that the emperor should decree that for ten years there be two Hebrew chairs at every German university for which the Jews should furnish books. The other experts proposed that all books should be taken from the Jews; and, as the emperor still hesitated, the bigots threw on Reuchlin the whole blame of their ill success.

Pfefferkorn circulated at the Frankfurt fair of 1511 a gross libel (Handspiegel wider and gegen die Juden) declaring that Reuchlin had been bribed; and Reuchlin retorted as warmly in the Augenspiegel (1511). His adversary's next move was to declare the Augenspiegel a dangerous book; the Cologne theological faculty, with the inquisitor Jakob von Hochstraten (d. 1527) took up this cry, and on the 7th of October 1512 they obtained an imperial order confiscating the Augenspiegel. Reuchlin was timid, but he was honesty itself. He was willing to receive corrections in theology, which was not his subject, but he could not unsay what he had said; and as his enemies tried to press him into a corner he met them with open defiance in a Defensio contra Calumniatores (1513). The universities were now appealed to for opinions, and were all against Reuchlin. Even Paris (August 1514) condemned the Augenspiegel, and called on Reuchlin to recant. Meantime a formal process had begun at Mainz before the grand inquisitor, but Reuchlin by an appeal succeeded in transferring the question to Rome. Judgment was not finally given until July 1516; and then, though the decision was really for Reuchlin, the trial was simply quashed. The result had cost Reuchlin years of trouble and no small part of his modest fortune, but it was worth the sacrifice. For far above the direct importance of the issue was the great stirring of public opinion which had gone forward. And if the obscurantists escaped easily at Rome, with only a half condemnation, they received a crushing blow in Germany. No party could survive the ridicule that was poured on them in the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum, the first volume of which written chiefly by Crotus Rubeanus appeared in 1514, and the second by Ulrich von Hutten in 1517. Hutten and Franz von Sickingen did all they could to force Reuchlin's enemies to a restitution of his material damages; they even threatened a feud against the Dominicans of Cologne and Spires.

In 1520 a commission met in Frankfurt to investigate the case. It condemned Hochstraten. But the final decision of Rome did not indemnify him. The contest ended, however; public interest had grown cold, absorbed entirely by the Lutheran question, and Reuchlin had no reason to fear new attacks. Reuchlin did not long enjoy his victory in peace. In 1519 Stuttgart was visited by famine, civil war and pestilence. From November of this year to the spring of 1521 the veteran statesman sought refuge in Ingolstadt and taught there for a year as professor of Greek and Hebrew. It was forty-one years since at Poitiers he had last spoken from a public chair; but the old man of sixty-five had not lost his gift of teaching, and hundreds of scholars crowded round him. This gleam of autumn sunshine was again broken by the plague; but now he was called to Tübingen and again spent the winter of 1521-22 teaching in his own systematic way. But in the spring he found it necessary to visit the baths of Liebenzell, and here he was seized with jaundice, of which he died on the 30th of June 1522, leaving in the history of the new learning a name only second to that of his younger contemporary Erasmus.

    University: University of Freiburg
    University: MA, University of Basel (1477)



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