Johann Reuchlin  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Johann Reuchlin (January 29, 1455 - June 30 1522), was a German humanist and a scholar of Greek and Hebrew. For much of his life, he was the real centre of all Greek and Hebrew teaching in Germany.

Hebrew studies and advocacy

For many years Reuchlin had been increasingly absorbed in Hebrew studies, which had for him more than a mere philological interest. He 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 rabbis, 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 defence of Christianity and the reconciliation of science with the mysteries of faith, a common notion in that strange time of ferment, whatever may have developed in fact. Reuchlin's mystico-cabbalistic ideas and objects were expounded in the De Verbo Mirifico, and finally in the De Arte Cabbalistica (1517).

Many of his contemporaries thought that the first step to the conversion of the Jews was to take away their books. This view was advocated by Johannes Pfefferkorn. Pfefferkorn's plans were backed by the Dominicans of Cologne; and in 1509 he obtained the emperor's 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 appointed by Emperor Maximilian to a commission which was convened to review the matter. 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.

Maximilian's other experts proposed that all books should be taken from the Jews; and, as the emperor still hesitated, his opponents threw on Reuchlin the whole blame of their ill success. Pfefferkorn circulated at the Frankfurt Fair of 1511 a gross libel (Handspiegel wider und gegen die Juden) declaring that Reuchlin had been bribed. Reuchlin defended himself in a pamphlet titled Augenspiegel (1511), which the theologians at the University of Cologne attempted to suppress. On the 7 October 1512 they, along with the inquisitor Jacob van Hoogstraaten, obtained an imperial order confiscating the Augenspiegel.

In 1513 Reuchlin was summoned before a court of the inquisition. 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 managed to have the jurisdiction changed to the episcopal court of Speyer. The Reuchlin affair caused a wide rift in the church and eventually the case came before the papal court in Rome. 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.

And if the obscurantists escaped easily at Rome, with only a half condemnation, they received a crushing blow in Germany. In Reuchlin's defense, Virorum Epistolæ Clarorum ad Reuchlinum Phorcensem (Letters of famous men to Reuchlin of Pforzheim), had been published. It was closely followed by Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum (Letters of obscure men), a satirical collection purporting to defend his accusers, but actually directed against them. No party could survive the ridicule that was poured on Reuchlin's opponents by this document.

Ulrich von 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 Hoogstraaten. But the final decision of Rome did not indemnify Reuchlin. The contest ended, however; public interest had grown cold, absorbed entirely by the Lutheran question, and Reuchlin had no reason to fear new attacks. When, in 1517, he received the theses propounded by Luther, he exclaimed, “Thanks be to God, at last they have found a man who will give them so much to do that they will be compelled to let my old age end in peace.”

It has been contended by Heinrich Graetz, and also by Francis Yates that this affair helped spark the Protestant Reformation. Although suspected of a leaning toward Protestantism, Reuchlin never left the Roman Catholic Church. In 1518 he was appointed professor of Hebrew and Greek at Wittenberg, but instead sent his nephew Melanchthon.

Reuchlin did not long enjoy his victory over his accusers 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 the University of Ingolstadt where he received an appointment as professor from William of Bavaria. He taught Greek and Hebrew there for a year. It was 41 years since at Poitiers he had last spoken from a public chair; but at 65 he retained 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 there contracted jaundice, of which he died, leaving in the history of the new learning a name only second to that of his younger contemporary Erasmus.


  • De Verbo Mirifico (1494)
  • De Arte Cabbalistica (1517)

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