Ulrich von Hutten  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Ulrich von Hutten (21 April 1488 - 29 August 1523), was an outspoken German critic of the Roman Catholic Church and adherent of the Lutheran Reformation, well known as one of the contributors to The Letters of Obscure Men.



Hutten was born in Burg Steckelberg, now in Schlüchtern, Hesse. He studied theology at the University of Greifswald. He was a leader of the Imperial Knights of the Holy Roman Empire and a great Humanist thinker.

Hutten is well known as one of the contributors to The Letters of Obscure Men. This book was written in support of Hutten's mentor, the prominent humanist Johannes Reuchlin, who was engaged in a struggle to prevent the confiscation of Hebrew texts. The Letters contained a series of fictitious letters addressed to Hardwin von Grätz, which sarcastically attacked the scholastic theologians who were acting against Reuchlin.

In 1519, Hutten became a supporter of Martin Luther and his calls for religious reform. Unlike Luther, Hutten tried to enforce reformation by military means when he, along with Franz von Sickingen attempted to begin popular crusade within the Holy Roman Empire against the power of the Roman Catholic Church in favour of Luther's reformed religion. In what is known as the Knights' Revolt, they attacked the lands of the Archbishop of Trier in 1522. However the archbishop held out and the knights were eventually defeated in 1523, destroying them as a significant political force within the empire.

Following his defeat, Hutten tried to convince Erasmus of Rotterdam to side with the Reformation. Erasmus refused to take sides, and he also refused to see Hutten when the latter came to Basel in 1523, ill and impoverished, to see him.

Seclusion and Death

For the final 15 years of his life, Hutten suffered from syphilis, of which he died in seclusion on the isle Ufenau on Lake Zurich. He wrote a text in 1519, De morbo gallico [On the French disease] about the treatment of syphilis, which is now regarded as one of the first patient narratives in the history of medicine.

Hutten's refuge in Ufenau and his death are the subject of a poem by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Huttens letzte Tage.


His chief works were his Ars versificandi (1511); the Nemo (1518); a work on the Morbus Gallicus (1519); the volume of Steckelberg complaints against Duke Ulrich (including his four Ciceronian Orations, his Letters and the Phalarismus) also in 1519; the Vadismus (1520); and the controversy with Erasmus at the end of his life. Besides these were many admirable poems in Latin and German. It is not known with certainty how far Hutten was the parent of the celebrated Epistolae obscurorum virorum, that famous satire on monastic ignorance as represented by the theologians of Cologne with which the friends of Reuchlin defended him. At first the cloister-world, not discerning its irony, welcomed the work as a defence of their position; though their eyes were soon opened by the favour with which the learned world received it. The Epistolae were eagerly bought up; the first part (41 letters) appeared at the end of 1515; early in 1516 there was a second edition; later in 1516 a third, with an appendix of seven letters; in 1517 appeared the second part (62 letters), to which a fresh appendix of eight letters was subjoined soon after. In 1909 the Latin text of the Epistolae with an English translation was published by F. G. Stokes. Hutten, in a letter addressed to Robert Crocus, denied that he was the author of the book, but there is no doubt as to his connexion with it. Erasmus was of opinion that there were three authors, of whom Crotus Rubianus was the originator of the idea, and Hutten a chief contributor. D. F. Strauss, who dedicates to the subject a chapter of his admirable work on Hutten, concludes that he had no share in the first part, but that his hand is clearly visible in the second part, which he attributes in the main to him. To him is due the more serious and severe tone of that bitter portion of the satire. See W. Brecht, Die Verfasser der Epistolae obscurorum virorum (1904). --(EB, 1911)

For a complete catalogue of the writings of Hutten, see E. Böcking's Index Bibliographicus Huttenianus (1858). Böcking is also the editor of the complete edition of Hutten's works (7 vols., 1859-1862). A selection of Hutten's German writings, edited by G. Balke, appeared in 1891. Cp. S. Szamatolski, Huttens deutsche Schriften (1891). The best biography (though it is also somewhat of a political pamphlet) is that of D. F. Strauss (Ulrich von Hutten, 1857; 4th ed., 1878; English translation by G. Sturge, 1874), with which may be compared the older monographs by A. Wagenseil (1823), A. Bürck (1846) and J. Zeller (Paris, 1849). See also J. Deckert, Ulrich von Huttens Leben und Wirken. Eine historische Skizze (1901).--(EB, 1911)


A line from the third of Hutten's three essays collectively entitled 'Invectives', videtis illam spirare libertatis auram, was the inspiration for the motto of Stanford University, Die Luft der Freiheit weht.

As a student at the University of Bonn, Carl Schurz began work on a tragedy based on Hutten's life. He abandoned it, never to return to finish the work, when the 1848 revolution broke out in Germany.--(EB, 1911)

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