There were no giants in the German literature of this age before Luther; there was only an amazing effervescence and fertility. Poetry was written to be read aloud, and was therefore welcomed in cottage and palace. Mystery and Passion plays continued to be acted, overlaying a rough piety with a strong interest in dramatic art. By 1450 the German popular drama was largely secularized. It included, even in the course of religious plays, crude and sometimes scandalous farces. 79 Humor frolicked in the literature; now the vicissitudes and drolleries of Till Eulenspiegel, that wandering trickster (literally, owlglass), romped through Germany, his merry pranks sparing neither layman nor priest; and in 1515 his adventures took printed form. Time and again the literature, as well as the art, showed monks and priests being dragged down to hell.80 Satire flourished in every literary form.
The most effective satire of the time was the Narrenschiff (1494), or Ship of Fools, of Sebastian Brant; no one could have expected so lively a performance from a professor of law and classical literature at Basel. Brant imagined a fleet (he forgot it en voyage and later called it a ship) manned by fools and trying to navigate the sea of life. One fool after another struts the scene; one class after another bears the whip of the jurist’s angry doggerel—peasant, mechanic, beggar, gambler, miser, usurer, astrologer, lawyer, pedant, fop, philosopher, priest; the vanity of ambitious men, the idleness of students, the venality of tradesmen, the dishonesty of journeymenall get their share of the blows, and Brant reserves his respect only for the pious and orthodox Catholic who ordains his life so as to gain paradise. Beautifully printed, and adorned with woodcuts that pointed each barb of the tale, the book sailed to triumph everywhere in Western Europe, through a dozen translations; next to the Bible it was the most widely read book of the time.
Brant laid his lash tenderly upon the clergy, but Thomas Murner, a Franciscan friar, attacked monks and priests, bishops and nuns with satires at once sharper, coarser, and wittier than Brant’s. The priest, said Murner, is interested in money more than in religion; he coaxes every possible penny from his parishioners, then pays part of his gleanings to his bishop for permission to keep a concubine. Nuns make love clandestinely, and the one who has the most children is chosen abbess.81 Murner, however, agreed with Brant in fidelity to the Church; he denounced Luther as one more fool; and in a touching poem Von dem Untergang des christlichen Glaubens he mourned the decline of Christian belief and the deepening chaos of the religious world.
If the immense popularity of these satires revealed the scorn in which even loyal Catholics held their clergy, the still more passionate satires of Ulrich von Hutten abandoned all hope for the self-reform of the Church, and called for open revolt. Born of a knightly family in Franconia, Ulrich was sent at eleven to the monastery of Fulda with the expectation that he would become a monk. After six years of probation he fled (1505), and led the life of a wandering student, composing and reciting poetry, begging his way and often shelterless, but finding means to make love to a lass who left her signature in his blood.82 His small body was almost consumed with fever; his left leg was often made useless by ulcers and swellings; his temper took on the irritability of an invalid, but Eoban Hesse found him “altogether lovable.” 83 A kindly bishop took him to Vienna, where the humanists welcomed him, but he quarreled with them and moved on to Italy. He studied at Pavia and Bologna, shot poisoned epigrams at Pope Julius II, joined an invading German army in order to eat, and then, always in pain, made his way back to Germany.
At Mainz fortune gave him a passing smile: he wrote a panegyric on young Archbishop Albrecht, and received 200 guilders ($5,000?) in acknowledgment. Albrecht’s court was now a very hive of humanists, many of them irreverent freethinkers.84 There Hutten began his contribution to the Epistolae obscurorum virorum; there he met Erasmus, and was captivated by the great scholar’s learning, wit, and charm. With Albrecht’s guilders and aid from his relenting father, he again sought the sun of Italy, blasting at every stop the “hypocritical, corrupt race of theologians and monks.” 85 From the papal capital he sent a warning to Crotus Rubianus:
Renounce your desire to see Rome, my friend; what you seek there is not to be found there any longer.... You may live from plunder, commit murder and sacrilege... you may revel in lust and deny God in heaven; but if you do but bring money to Rome you are a most respectable person. Virtue and heavenly blessings are sold here; you may even buy the privilege of sinning in future. You would then be crazy to be good; sensible folk will be wicked.86
With gay irony he dedicated to Leo X (1517) a new edition of Valla’s devastating treatise on the fictitious “Donation of Constantine,” and assured the Pope that most of his papal predecessors had been tyrants, robbers, and extortioners, who had turned the punishments of the next world into revenue for themselves.87 This work came into Luther’s hands, and warmed his ire against the papacy.
Despite the vituperative violence in many of Hutten’s poems, they won him a scattered fame in Germany. Repatriating himself in 1517, he was entertained at Nuremberg by Konrad Peutinger; and at this rich scholar’s suggestion Maximilian crowned Hutten poet laureate. Albrecht now took him into his diplomatic service, and sent him on important missions as far afield as Paris. When Hutten returned to Mainz (1518) he found Germany agitated by Luther’s theses on indulgences; and he must have smiled to see his own easygoing Archbishop uncomfortably involved. Luther was being summoned to Augsburg to face Cardinal Cajetan and a charge of heresy. Hutten hesitated; he was attached to the Archbishop emotionally and financially, but he felt in his blood the call to war. He mounted his horse and rode off to Augsburg.