VI. THE GERMAN HUMANISTS

It was a lusty Germany in letters as well as in life and art. Literacy was spreading. Books were pouring forth from sixteen publishers in Basel, twenty in Augsburg, twenty-one in Cologne, twenty-four in Nuremberg; there Anton Koberger alone employed twenty-four presses and a hundred men. The trade in books was a major line in the busy commerce of the fairs at Frankfurt, Salzburg, Nördlingen, and Ulm. “Everybody nowadays wants to read and write,” said a contemporary German; and another reported: “There is no end to the new books that are written.” 62 Schools multiplied in the towns; every city provided bursaries or scholarships for poor but able students; nine new universities were founded in this half-century; and those at Vienna, Heidelberg, and Erfurt opened their doors to the New Learning. Literary academies arose in Strasbourg, Augsburg, Basel, Vienna, Nuremberg, and Mainz. Rich burghers like Peutinger and Pirkheimer, and the Emperor Maximilian himself, opened their libraries, art collections, and purses to eager scholars; and great ecclesiastics like Johann von Dahlberg, Bishop of Worms, and Albrecht of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz, were enlightened patrons of scholarship, poetry, and art. The Church in Germany, following the lead of the popes, welcomed the Renaissance, but emphasized linguistic studies of Biblical and patristic texts. The Latin Vulgate Bible was printed in twenty-six editions in Germany between 1453 and 1500; there were twenty German translations of the Bible before Luther’s;63 the spread of the New Testament among the people prepared them for Luther’s challenging contrast between the Gospels and the Church; and the reading of the Old Testament shared in the Protestant re-Judaizing of Christianity.

The humanist movement in Germany was at first—and after its flirtation with Luther—more orthodox in theology than its Italian counterpart. Germany had no classical past like Italy’s; she had not had the privilege of being conquered and educated by Imperial Rome; she had no direct bond with non-Christian antiquity. Her memory hardly went beyond her Christian centuries; her scholarship, in this age, hardly ventured beyond the Christian fathers; her Renaissance was a revival of early Christianity rather than of classic letters and philosophy. In Germany the Renaissance was engulfed in the Reformation.

Nevertheless German humanism took its lead from Italy. Poggio Bracciolini, Aeneas Sylvius, and other humanists, visiting Germany, brought the seed; German students, pilgrims, ecclesiastics, merchants, and diplomats, visiting Italy, came back bearing on them, even unwittingly, the pollen of the Renaissance. Rodolphus Agricola, son of a Dutch parish priest, received plentiful schooling at Erfurt, Cologne, and Louvain; gave seven years to further studies of Latin and Greek in Italy; and returned to teach at Groningen, Heidelberg, and Worms. The age marveled at his unpopular virtues—modesty, simplicity, honesty, piety, chastity. He wrote in a Latin almost worthy of Cicero; he predicted that Germany would soon “appear no less Latin than Latium”;64 and indeed, in the next generation, Agricola’s Holland produced in Erasmus a Latinist who would have been quite at home in the Rome of Tacitus and Quintilian. It was on a trip to Rome that Agricola contracted the fever from which he died at Heidelberg at the age of fortytwo (1485).

He was rivaled in influence—hardly in amiability—by Jakob Wimpheling, whose temper was as harsh as his Latin was smooth. Resolved to lift Germany to Italy’s level in education and letters, this “Schoolmaster of Germany” drew up plans for a system of public schools, established learned societies, and yet foresaw how dangerous intellectual advance would be without moral development. “What profits all our learning,” he asked, “if our characters be not correspondingly noble, or all our industry without piety, or all our knowledge without love of our neighbor, or all our wisdom without humility?” 65

The last of these orthodox humanists was Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, who nevertheless wrote in 1496: “The days of building monasteries are past; the days of their destruction are coming.” 66 A less devout humanist, Celtes, described Trithemius as “abstemious in drink, disdaining animal food, living on vegetables, eggs, and milk, as did our ancestors when... no doctors had begun to brew their gout-and-fever-breeding concoctions.”*67 In his brief life he became a very summa of learning: skilled in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and their literatures, and carrying on a correspondence with Erasmus, Maximilian, Imperial electors, and other celebrities. The common people of the time could only explain his attainments on the theory that he possessed secret supernatural powers. However, he died at fifty-four (1516).

Conradus Celtes was the most zealous and effective of the German humanists. Passing like some hurried diplomat of letters from city to city, studying in Italy, Poland, and Hungary, teaching in Cologne, Heidelberg, Cracow, Prague, Mainz, Vienna, Ingolstadt, Padua, Nuremberg, he unearthed precious forgotten manuscripts like the plays of Hrotswitha, and ancient maps like that which he gave to Peutinger, whose name it came to bear. Wherever he went he gathered students about him, and inspired them with his passion for poetry, classical literature, and German antiquities. In 1447, at Nuremberg, the Emperor Frederick III crowned him poet laureate of Germany. At Mainz Celtes founded (1491) the influential Rhenish Literary Society, which included scientists, theologians, philosophers, physicians, historians, poets, such lawyers as the distinguished jurist Ulrich Zasius, and such scholars as Pirkheimer, Trithemius, Reuchlin, and Wimpheling. At Vienna, with funds provided by Maximilian, he organized (1501) an Academy of Poetry which became an honored part of the university, and in which teachers and pupils lived together in the same house and enterprise. In the course of his studies Celtes apparently lost his religious faith; he raised such questions as “Will the soul live after death?” and “Is there, really, a God?” In his travels he took many samples of femininity, but none to the altar; and he concluded lightheartedly that “there is nothing sweeter under the sun, to banish care, than a pretty maid in a man’s arms.” 68

This skeptical amoralism grew in fashion among the German humanists in the final decades before Luther. Eoban Hesse wrote in good Latin Heroides Christianae (1514), which imitated Ovid even more in scandal than in form; he included love letters from Magdalen to Jesus, and from the Virgin Mary to God the Father. To suit the deed to the word, he lived as loosely as Cellini, outdrank all rivals, and thought nothing of emptying a bucket of ale at one draught.

Conradus Mutianus Rufus, however, achieved an amiable reconciliation of skepticism with religion. After studying at Deventer, at Erfurt, and in Italy, he contented himself with a modest canonry at Gotha, put over his door the motto Beata tranquillitas, collected admiring students, and taught them to “esteem the decrees of philosophers above those of priests”; 69 but, he warned them, they must conceal their doubts of Christian dogma from the multitude by a gentlemanly adherence to ecclesiastical ceremonies and forms.70“By faith,” he said, “we mean not the conformity of what we say with fact, but an opinion about divine things founded upon credulity and profit-seeking persuasion.” 71 He objected to Masses for the dead as useless, to fasts as unpleasant, and to auricular confession as embarrassing.72 The Bible, he thought, contains many fables, like those of Jonah and Job; probably Christ had not really died on the cross; the Greeks and the Romans, so far as they lived honorably, were Christians without knowing it, and doubtless went to paradise.73 Creeds and ceremonies are to be judged not on their literal claims but by their moral effects; if they promote social order and private virtue they should be accepted without public questioning. Mutianus demanded a clean life from his disciples; and in his later years he vowed, “I will turn my studies to piety, and will learn nothing from poets, philosophers, or historians save what can promote a christian life. “74 Having lived with all the consolations of philosophy, he died with all the blessings of the Church (1526).

The natural resentment aroused among the orthodox by the skepticism of the later humanists fell in accumulation upon the mildest and kindliest scholar of the time. Johannes Reuchlin observed the medieval tradition of gathering education from a dozen centers, through the ubiquity of Latin as the language of instruction in Western Europe. In the grammar school of his native Pforzheim, in the universities of Freiburg, Paris, Basel, Orléans, and Poitiers, in Linz, Milan, Florence, and Rome, he pursued with almost fanatical ardor the study of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and law. Following the custom of the German humanists, he changed his name—which he derived from rauchen, to smoke—to Capnio—kapnos being Greek for smoke. At twenty he compiled a Latin dictionary, which went through several editions. At Rome Johannes Argyropoulos gave him a difficult passage in Thucydides to translate; Reuchlin responded so readily that the old Greek exclaimed: “Greece has now fled beyond the Alps.” 75 The avid student let no rabbi pass without learning some Hebrew from him; Mutianus claimed to have heard of Reuchlin giving a Jewish scholar ten gold pieces for explaining one Hebrew phrase 76—but this may have been a humanist’s dream. Pico della Mirandola persuaded Reuchlin to seek wisdom in the Cabala. Comparing Jerome’s translation of the Old Testament with the original Hebrew text, “Capnio” pointed out many errors in what theologians habitually quoted as an infallible document. At thirty-eight (1493) he was appointed professor of Hebrew in the University of Heidelberg. The Hebrew dictionary and grammar that he composed put the study of Hebrew and of the Old Testament on a scientific basis, and contributed to the powerful influence of the Hebrew Scriptures on Protestant thought. Gradually his admiration for Hebrew eclipsed his devotion to the classics. “The Hebrew language,” he wrote, “is unadulterated, concise, and brief. It is the language in which God spoke to man, and in which man conversed with the angels face to face.” 77Through all his studies he retained the orthodox faith. He muddied it a bit with mysticism, but he devoutly submitted all his writings and teachings to the authority of the Church.

A strange medley of circumstances made him the hero of the German Renaissance. In 1508 Johannes Pfefferkorn, a rabbi turned priest, issued a book, Judenspiegel (Mirror of the Jews), condemning persecution of the Jews, and clearing them from legendary crimes popularly laid to their charge, but urging them to give up moneylending and the Talmud, and accept Christianity. Supported by the Dominicans of Cologne, he submitted to the Emperor a recommendation that all Hebrew books except the Old Testament should be suppressed, Maximilian ordered that all Jewish literature critical of Christianity should be surrendered to Pfefferkorn, and that it should be examined by the universities of Cologne, Erfurt, Mainz, and Heidelberg, by Jakob van Hoogstraeten, head of the Inquisition at Cologne, and by Reuchlin because of his fame for Hebrew learning. All but Reuchlin advised that the books should be confiscated and burned. Reuchlin’s minority opinion proved a landmark in the history of religious toleration. He divided Jewish books into seven classes; one group, consisting of works expressly mocking Christianity, should be burned; all the rest, including the Talmud, should be preserved, if only because they contained much of value to Christian scholarship. Moreover, he argued, the Jews had a right to freedom of conscience, both as citizens of the Empire and as having undertaken no obligations to Christianity.78 In private correspondence Reuchlin spoke of Pfefferkorn as an “ass” who had no real understanding of the books he proposed to destroy.

Pfefferkorn responded to these courtesies in a Handspiegel (Hand Mirror) that attacked Reuchlin as a bribed tool of the Jews. Reuchlin retorted in the same vituperative vein in an Augenspiegel (Eyeglass) that aroused a storm among the orthodox. The theological faculty at Cologne complained to Reuchlin that his book was making the Jews too happy, and they urged him to withdraw it from circulation. Maximilian forbade its sale. Reuchlin appealed to Leo X; the Pope turned the matter over to various counselors, who reported that the book was harmless. Leo suspended action, but assured the humanists around him that no harm should come to Reuchlin. Meanwhile Pfefferkorn and his Dominican supporters accused Reuchlin, before the tribunal of the Inquisition at Cologne, as an unbeliever and a traitor to Christianity. The archbishop interposed, and remitted the case to Rome, which passed it on to the episcopal court of Speyer, which acquitted Reuchlin. The Dominicans in their turn appealed to Rome; and the university faculties of Cologne, Erfurt, Mainz, Louvain, and Paris ordered Reuchlin’s books to be burned.

It is remarkable—and eloquent of Germany’s cultural vitality in this agehow many notables now came to Reuchlin’s defense: Erasmus, Pirkheimer, Peutinger, Oecolampadius of Basel, Bishop Fisher of Rochester, Ulrich von Hutten, Mutianus, Eoban Hesse, Luther, Melanchthon, even some of the higher clergy, who, as in Italy, favored the humanists. Imperial electors, princes, and fifty-three cities proclaimed their support of Reuchlin. Letters from his defenders were collected and published (1514) as Clarorum virorum epistolae ad Johannem Reuchlin. In 1515 the humanists sent forth a more devastating book, Epistolae obscurorum virorum ad venerabilem virum magistrum Ortuinum Gratium (Letters of Obscure Men to the Venerable Master Ortuinus Gratius, professor of literature Cologne). This is one of the major satires in literary history. It succeeded so well that an enlarged edition was issued in 1516, and a continuation a year later. The authors pretended to be pious monks, admirers of Gratius and enemies of Reuchlin, and concealed themselves under grotesque pseudonyms—Nicolaus Caprimulgius (goat-milker), Johannes Pellifex (skin-maker), Simon Wurst (sausage), Conradus Unckebunck. In Latin made deliberately bad to imitate the monastic style, the writers complained of the ridicule heaped upon them by the “poets” (as the German humanists were called); they inquired eagerly about the prosecution of Reuchlin; meanwhile they exposed their absurd ignorance, the grossness of their morals and their minds; they argued ridiculous questions in solemn Scholastic form, quoted Scripture in extenuation of obscenities, and unwittingly made fun of auricular confession, the sale of indulgences, the worship of relics, the authority of the pope—the very themes of the Reformation. All literate Germany puzzled over the authorship of the volumes; only later was it admitted that Crotus Rubianus of Erfurt, a disciple of Mutianus, had written most of the first edition, and Hutten most of the continuation. Roused to anger, Leo X forbade the reading or possession of the book, condemned Reuchlin, but let him off with the costs of the Speyer trial (1520). Reuchlin, sixty-five and exhausted, retired into obscurity, peacefully lost in the glare of the Reform.

The German humanist movement too disappeared in that conflagration. On one side it was fought by most of the universities; on the other, the Reformers, engaged in a struggle for life, strengthened their cause with a religious faith that centered on personal salvation in the other world and left little time for studies of classical civilization, or of human amelioration here below. The German humanists themselves invited defeat by failing to advance from Greek literature to Greek philosophy, by wandering into coarse polemics or a mysticism far less mature than Eckhart’s. They left no major works; the grammars and dictionaries that Reuchlin hoped would be his “monument more lasting than brass” were soon superseded and forgotten. And yet who knows if Luther would have dared sling his David’s shots at Tetzel and the popes if the mind of Germany had not been in a measure freed from ultramontane terrors by the humanists? The followers of Reuchlin and Mutianus were a vigorous minority at Erfurt, where Luther studied for four years. And the greatest German poet of the age, nurtured in humanism, became the ardent herald of the Reformation.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!