1902 Encyclopedia > John Reuchlin (Johann Reuchlin)

Johann Reuchlin
(John Reuchlin)
German humanist
(1455-1522)




JOHN REUCHLIN (1455-1522), the first great German humanist and the restorer of Hebrew and in large measure also of Greek letters among his countrymen, was born February 22, 1455, at Pforzheim in the Black Forest, where his father was intendant of the Dominican monastery. In the pedantic taste of his time the name was Grfficized 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, when he tells how he had sojourned at Paris and almost all the great schools of France and Germany, as well as at several Italian seats of learning and finally at Eome, the "caput studiorum," 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 the margrave of Baden, and by and by, having already some reputation as a Latinist, he was chosen to accompany to the university Of Paris the third son of the prince, a lad some years his junior, who was destined for an ecclesiastical career. This new connexion 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, John a Lapide, a really worthy and learned man, whom he presently followed to the vigorous young university of Basel (1474). At Basel Reuchlin took his master's 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 Amorbach, for whom he prepared a Latin lexicon (Vocabularius Breviloquus, 1st. ed. 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 Hadrian, 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. He had neither brilliant literary power like Erasmus nor epoch-making ideas like Luther, but he was the great master of all Germany, guiding his countrymen to sound learning, first in Latin and then in Greek and in Hebrew. 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 learn to write a fair Greek hand that he might support himself by copying MSS. 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, and so could look forward to honourable office in his native country, where he could pursue his scholarly tastes in an independent position. From Poitiers Reuchlin came in December 1481 to Tubingen. There he found friends to recommend him to Count Eberhard of Würtemberg, who was about to journey to Italy and required an interpreter. Reuchlin was selected, 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, and his connexion with the count became permanent. On his return to Stuttgart he was named Geheimrath, and soon after he became doctor of laws and assessor in the high 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 Melanchthon was almost as a son to him till the Reformation estranged them. Reuchlin's life at Stuttgart was often broken by important missions, and in 1490 he was again in Italy. Here he saw Pico, to whose Cabbalistic doctrines he afterwards became heir, and also - made the friendship of the pope's privy secretary, Questemberg, which was of service to him in his later troubles. Again in 1492 he was employed on an embassy to the emperor at Linz, and here he began to read Hebrew with the kaiser's Jewish physician 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 Obadiah Sforno of Cesena.

In 1496 Count Eberhard died, and enemies of Reuchlin had the ear of the new prince. He was glad therefore hastily to follow the invitation of John of Dalburg the scholarly bishop of Worms, and flee to Heidelberg, which was then the seat of the " Rhenish Society," a lively and active circle of humanists under Dalburg's presidency, equally zealous in the service of Apollo and Bacchus. 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. Many of these versions were never printed, but a considerable number of pieces were given to the press at intervals down to the year 1519, and formed an important element in his efforts to spread a knowledge of Greek. For, though Reuchlin had no public office as teacher, and even at Heidelberg was prevented from lecturing openly, he was during a great part of his life the real centre of all Greek teach-ing as well as of all Hebrew teaching in Germany. No young man of promise who came to him for help was rejected; he taught many and found teachers for others, or gave direction and solution of difficulties to more advanced scholars. Thus he was a sort of unofficial general director of the studies of Germany, and 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 MS. for use with his pupils, but he put out several little elementary Greek books; and these with the series of translations were in fact the text books of the German youth. 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 Lot. Graxique 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; and all his relations, except with the monks who stopped his attempt to lecture on Hebrew, were very pleasant. With the monks he had never been well; at Stuttgart also his great enemy was the Augustinian Holzinger. On this man he took a scholar's revenge in his first Latin comedy Sergius, a satire on worthless monks and false relics which his young Heidelberg friends were eager to act. But, Dalburg thinking this unsafe, he wrote for them a new piece, Seenica Progymnasmata or Henno, based on the old French play of Maitre Pathelin, which is not without humour and sparkle of language, and much better constructed than the French piece.





Through Dalburg, Reuchlin came into contact with Bhilip of the Pfalz, who employed him to direct his son's studies, 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. His wife had remained there all along; so that we may assume that he never looked on his exile as more than temporary. His friends were the party of order and good government, who could not long remain powerless. They had now again the upper hand, and knew Reuchlin's value. In 1500, or perhaps in 1502, he was named "triumvir of Swabia," a very high judicial office in the Swabian League, which he held till 1512, when he retired to a small estate near Stuttgart. By this time the long conflict which gives Reuchlin's life its chief interest had already begun.

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 Catholic. He knew the abuses of monkish religion, and was interested in the reform of preaching (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. To him the Old Testament Scriptures meant the Hebrew text, and this he was determined to study with an independent love for truth : " I honour St Jerome as an angel; I value Lira as a master; but I worship truth as my God." The key to the Hebraea Veritas was the grammatical and exegetical tradition of the mediaeval rabbins, especially of Kimhi, and when he had mastered this himself he was resolved to open it to others. In 1506 appeared his Rudimenta Hebraica—grammar and lexicon—mainly after Kimhi, yet not a mere copy of one man's teaching. The edition was costly and sold slowly. In 1510 he was glad to offer Amorbach seven hundred and fifty copies at the reduced price of a florin for three copies. Even then Amorbach could hardly find purchasers, but Reuchlin bade him be patient, " for if I live Hebrew must with God's help come to the front." One great difficulty was that the wars of Maximilian 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 Reuchlin had yet another interest in Hebrew letters. His Greek studies had interested him in philosophy, and not least 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 defence 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, when the old and the new intellectual life had not yet clearly discriminated themselves, and when men of progress sought less to free themselves from mere tradition than to find an ancient tradition of truth which had been lost in the darkness of mediaeval ignorance. Reuchlin's mystico-cabbalistic ideas and objects were expounded in the De Verbo Mirifico, 1494, and finally in the De Arte Cabtalistica, 1517. We see therefore that not only the philological tradition but the most esoteric wisdom of the rabbins was in his eyes of the greatest value.

Unhappily many of his contemporaries held other views, and thought that the first step to the conversion of the Jews was to conquer their obstinacy by taking from them their books. This view had for its chief advocate the bigoted John Pfefferkorn, himself a baptized Hebrew. Pfefferkorn's plans were backed by the Dominicans of Cologne; and in 1509 he got 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 this 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. It was resolved to call in the opinion of experts, and in 1510 Reuchlin was summoned in the name of the emperor to give his formal opinion on the suppression of the Jewish books. His answer is dated from Stuttgart, November 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 iaw, 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. Instead of destroying a whole literature, which was what Pfefferkorn proposed, 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 and all the universities consulted, except Heidelberg, proposed that all books except Bibles should be taken from the Jews to be investigated by a commission ; and, as the emperor still hesitated, the bigots threw on Reuchlin the whole blame of their ill success. Pfefferkorn circulated at the Frankfort fair of 1511 a gross libel (the Handspiegel) declaring that Reuchlin had been bribed; and Reuchlin, burning with the indigation of a man of unsullied integrity, retorted as warmly in the Augenspiegel (1511). His adversary's next move was to declare the Augenspiegel a dangerous book; the Cologne faculty, with their dean the grand inquisitor Hochstraten, took up this cry, and, encouraged perhaps by some signs of timidity in letters from Reuchlin to two of the Cologne theologians, they called on him to recant not a few dangerous utterances and misapplications of Scripture. 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 at length turned and met them with open defiance in a Defensio contra Calumniator es, 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. It is needless to follow the long windings of ecclesiastical process; judgment was not finally given till 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. All who loved learning and progress were banded together as they had never been before against the bigots and the stupid universities; and all humanists felt that the victory was theirs. 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. 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, whom the universal respect felt for his scholarship could not secure against the dangers involved in his political relations, 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 Tubingen and again spent the winter of 1521-22 teaching in his own systematic solid way. But he was now in shaken health; in the spring he found it necessary to visit the baths of Liebenzell, and here he was seized with jaundice, of which he died 30th June 1522, leaving in the history of the new learning a name only second to that of his younger contemporary Erasmus.

The authorities for Reuchlin's life are enumerated in L. Geiger, Johann Reuchlin, 1871, which is the standard biography. The controversy about the books of the Jews is well sketched by Strauss, Vlrich von Hutten. Some interesting details about Reuchlin are given in the autobiography of PELLICANUS (q.v.), which was not published when Geiger's book appeared. (W. R. S.)






The above article was written by: Prof. William Robertson Smith, LL.D.



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