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From A Literary Source-book of the Italian Renaissance, by Merrick Whitcomb, PH. D., University of Pennsylvania; 1900; pp. 33, 40-47.



Born at Terranova, in the territory of Florence, 1380. Studied Latin under John of Ravenna, and Greek under Manuel Chrysoloras. An able copyist, he was received into the service of the Roman curia about 1402. Here he served as secretary for a period of fifty years. Poggio acquired fame as a discoverer of classical manuscripts. In 1452, returned to Florence, and the following year was made chancellor and historiographer to the republic. Died here in 1459. Chief works are a History of Florence, the Facetiae and various moral essays.

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Poggio to Leonardo Aretino, S. P. D.

When for several days I was staying at the baths I wrote thence a letter to our Nicholas which I suppose you will read. When I returned to Constance, or a few days later, the case of Jerome was taken up, whom they call heretic, and indeed publicly. I have determined to review this case for you, both because of its importance, and more particularly on account of the eloquence and learning of the man. I confess that I have never seen any one, who in a matter of pleading, involving life or death, came so near the eloquence of the ancients. whom we so greatly admire. It was wonderful to see with what words, with what eloquence, with what arguments, with what countenance, with what language and with what confidence he replied to his adversaries, and how justly he put his case: so that it is impossible not to regret that so noble and prominent a genius should be diverted to the interests of heresy, if indeed those things are true, which are charged against him. For I have no disposition to pass judgment upon such a case: I leave that to be determined by those who are held to be more expert. Nor do I intend to give a detailed report of the case, after the manner of court reporters; it would be too long, and the work of many days. I shall touch upon certain of the more important points, in which you may observe the learning of the man. Although many things had been brought against this Jerome, which seemed to indicate the existence of 41 heresy, and these were confirmed by the testimony of witnesses; yet it pleased the assembly that he should reply publicly to those charges one by one which had been brought against him. So he was led into the assembly, and when he was ordered to reply to these things he still refused, saying that he ought to be allowed to state his own case, rather than to reply to the slanders of his adversaries. In the same way he asserted that he ought first to be heard upon his own behalf, and later he might take up the calumnies which his adversaries had directed against himself. But when this concession was denied him, still standing in the midst of the assembly, he said: “how great a wrong is this, that while for three hundred and forty days I have languished in strictest confinement, in squalor and filth, shackled and deprived of everything, you have constantly given audience to my opponents and detractors, and yet refuse to hear me one single hour. Hence It follows, that while the ears of each of you have been open told these things, and after so long a time, they have persuaded you that I am a heretic, an enemy of the faith, a persecutor of the clergy, yet to me no opportunity is given for defending myself. If you have prejudged me in your minds an evil and, how will you be able to determine what I really am? And (he said) you are men, not gods; not immortal, but mortal, liable to fall into error, to mistake, to be deceived, duped and led astray. In this gathering are said to be the lights of the world, the wiser ones of earth. Most of all it becomes you then to take great pains, lest anything be done inconsiderately or unadvisedly against justice. For my part I am a human being, whose life is in the balance; but I say these things not for my own sake, who am but mortal. It seems to me unworthy of your wisdom to set against me so many men in violation of all justice, and a think likely to be harmful not so much in this instance as by example. these and many things beside he said most elegantly, interrupted in his speech with the noise and murmurings of many present. Then it was decreed that he should reply first to the errors which were urged against him; and that afterwards 42 an opportunity be given him to speak as he chose. Thereupon the heads of the accusation were read one by one from the pulpit and afterwards substantiated with testimony. Then he was asked if he desired to make objection. It is incredible how adroitly he replied, and with what arguments he defended himself. He advanced nothing unworthy of a good man; as though he felt confident, as he publicly asserted, that no just reason could be found for his death nor even for his conviction of the least offence. He declared all the charges to be false, invented by his rivals. Among other things, when in the reading he was branded as a slanderer of the apostolic see, an opponent of the Roman pontiff, an enemy to the cardinals, a persecutor of prelates, and hostile to the Christian clergy, then rising with a voice of complaint and hands outstretched;: “Whiter shall I turn now, O conscript fathers? Of whom shall I seek aid? Whose intercession shall I seed? whom call in my behalf? Not you! For these my persecutors have turned your minds from my welfare; branding me as the general enemy of those who are to sit in judgment upon me. They have indeed trusted that even if those things which they have invented against me should seem trivial, you would nevertheless crush with your verdict the common enemy and opponent of all, which they have most falsely made me out to be; therefore if you trust their words, there is no longer any hope for my safety.” Many he touched with humor, many with satire, many he often caused to laugh in spite of the sad affair, jesting at their reproaches. When he was asked what he believed concerning the sacrament, he said, “First it is bread and afterwards the true body of Christ, and the rest according to the faith.” Then a certain one remarked: “They say you have declared that it remains bread after consecration.” He replied, “At the baker’s it remains bread.” To a certain other one, of the order of Dominicans, who inveighed bitterly against him, he said, “Peace, hypocrite!” To another who swore against him on his conscience, he said: “This is the surest way of deceiving.” A certain distinguished opponent he never 43 spoke of except as a dog or an ass. When on account of the number and weight of the charges, it was impossible to complete the matter on this day, it was continued to a third day; when the heads of the various accusations were repeated and afterwards confirmed by many witnesses. Thereupon the accused, rising, said: “Since you have listened so attentively to my adversaries; it is right and proper that you should hear me with unbiased minds.” Then notwithstanding much confusion, permission was granted him to speak. He, in the beginning, prayed that God should grant him such understanding and such power of speaking as might be turned to the profit and safety of his soul. Then: “I know most reverend doctors,” he said, “that many very excellent men, bearing up bravely against indignities, overwhelmed with false witnesses, have been condemned with iniquitous judgments.” At first he took them back to Socrates, unjustly condemned by his fellow-citizens, he who, when occasion offered, was yet unwilling to escape, lest he should thereby yield to the fear of those two things which seem most bitter to men, imprisonment and death. Then he mentioned the captivity of Plato, the flight of Anaxagoras, and the torture of Zeno, and the unjust condemnation of many other pagans; the exile of Rupilius, the unworthy death of Boetius and others whom Boetius himself mentions. Thence he passed to Hebrew examples; and first instanced Moses, the liberator of his people and their legislator, how he had often been calumniated by his people, called the betrayer and the despiser of his race. Joseph, first of all sold by his brethren through envy, then thrown into chains upon suspicion of adultery. Along with these Isaiah, Daniel and almost all the prophets assailed with unjust judgments as despisers of God or seditious. Then he brought forward the judgment of Susanna; and of many others of the greatest sanctity, who nevertheless perished by false judgments. Afterward coming down to John the Baptist, and then to our Saviour, he proceeded to show how in each case they were condemned by false witnesses and false judges. Then Stephen, put to death by the priesthood, and the 44 Apostles, all of them, condemned to death, not as good men, but as inciting the people to sedition, as despisers of the Gods and doers of evil deeds. It was a crime that a priest should be unjustly condemned by a priest, and he showed that it was the greatest crime that this should be done by a company or priests, and proved it by example, but most iniquitous of all, by a council of priests; and he showed that this had happened. These things he clearly set forth, much to the interest of all, and since the whole weight of the case depended upon the witnesses, he showed with much reason that no confidence was to be placed in them, particularly when they spoke, not out of conviction, but from hatred, illwill and envy. Then he laid bare the causes of their hatred in such a way that he lacked little of bringing conviction. They were of such a character that (except in the matter of faith) little credence would have been given to their evidence. The minds of all were moved and turned toward mercy; for he added that he had come to Constance of his own free will, to clear himself. He described, his life and studies, full of services and virtues. Such he said was the custom of the most learned and holiest men of old, that they held diverse opinions in matters of faith, not to the injury of the faith, but to the discovery of the truth. In this way Augustine and Jerome differed, not alone that they held diverse opinions, but also contrary ones; and this with no suspicion of heresy. But all expected that either he should purge himself of heresy, by retracting the things charged against him, or should ask pardon for his errors. But he asserted that he had not erred, and pointing out the falsity of the charges made by others, was unwilling himself to retract. So coming down to praise John Huss, who had been condemned to be burnt, he called him a good man, just and holy, unworthy f such a death, saying that he himself was prepared to go to any punishment whatsoever, with brave and steadfast mind; even to deliver himself to his enemies and to those lying witnesses, who sometime, in the presence of God, whom they could not deceive, would be called to account for the things which they had said. Great was the 45 grief of those present; for they desired to see so worthy a man saved, if he had shown a reasonable disposition. But he persevered in his opinion, and seemed moreover to seek death. In his praise of John Huss he said that Huss had never held opinions hostile to the Church of God itself, but only against the abuses of the clergy, against the pride, the arrogance and the pomp of prelates. For since the patrimony of the churches was first intended for the poor, then for the hospitals, then for the building of churches, it seemed to this good man a shame that it should come to be wasted upon harlots, banquets, food for horses and dogs, elegant garments and other things unworthy of the religion of Christ. But here he displayed the greatest cleverness; for when his speech was often interrupted with various disturbances, and he was assailed by some who carped at his opinions, he left no one of them unscathed, but turned trenchantly upon them, forced them either to blush or to be still. When murmurs rose he was silent, occasionally rebuking the throng. a then he proceeded with his discourse, beseeching them and imploring that they should suffer him to speak (when they were no longer disposed to give him audience). He never showed fear of these outcries, but his mind remained firm and fearless. Indeed his argument is worthy of remembrance. For 340 days he lay in the bottom of a foul, dark tower. he himself complained of the harshness of this treatment, but asserted that he, as became a good and brave man, did not complain because he had to bear these indignities, but because he wondered at the inhumanity shown him. In the dungeon he had not only no facilities for reading, but not even for seeing. I leave out of consideration the mental anxiety which must have tortured him daily, all memory of which he sought to put aside. yet when he cited in testimony of his opinions so many of the most learned and wisest of men, and brought forward so many doctors of the church in proof of his contention, that it would have been sufficient and more than sufficient, if during all this time, with perfect comfort and quiet he could have devoted himself to the study of wisdom; 46 his voice was full, clear and soft; his posture oratorical with a certain dignity, expressing indignation and moving pity, which, however, he neither sought, nor desired to obtain. He stood there fearless and unterrified, not alone despising death, but seeking it; so that you would have said he was another Cato. O, man worthy of the everlasting memory of men! I praise not that which he advanced, if anything, against the institutions of the church; but I admire his learning, his comprehensive knowledge, his eloquence, his persuasiveness of speech, his cleverness in reply. But I fear that nature had given all these things to him for his destruction. A space of two days was given him for repentance. Many of the most learned men approached him, seeking to move him from his way of thinking. Among them the Cardinal of Florence went to him, in order to bring him into the right path. But when with even greater obstinacy he persevered in his errors, and was condemned by the council for heresy and burned with fire, he went to his fate with joyful and willing countenance; for he feared not the fire, nor any kind of torture or death. None of the Stoics ever suffered death with a mind so steadfast and brave, so that he seemed to have longed for it. When he came to the place of death, he laid aside his garments. Then kneeling down, on bended knee he saluted the stake, to which he had been bound. He was bound first with wet ropes, then with a chain, naked to the stake, and about him were placed great pieces of wood up to his breast, with stakes driven about. When the fire was brought he began to sing a hymn, which the smoke and fire scarcely interrupted. But what most showed his strength of courage was this: when the executioners wished to start the fire behind his back (that he might not see it), “Come here,”: he said, “and light the fire in front of me. If I had been afraid of it, I should never have come to this place (which it was possible to avoid.)” In this manner a man worthy (except in respect of faith), was burned. I saw this death, and watched its stages, one by one. Whether moved by perfidy or stubbornness, you would surely have said that this was the end 47 of a man schooled in philosophy. I have chatted to you so at length, because of idleness, for doing nothing, I wished something to do, and to tell you of these things, so like the histories of eh ancients. For not Mutius himself suffered his arm to burn with such high courage as did this man his whole body. Nor did Socrates drink the poison so willingly as he accepted fire. But enough of this. Be economical of my words, if I have been too long. The affair really demands a longer description; but I do not wish to be verbose. Farewell, my excellent Leonardo. Constance, the third day before the Calends of June, the same day on which this Jerome suffered the penalty of heresy. Farewell, and love me.


*  Ortvin Gratius: Fasciculus Rerum, etc.. Ed. Brown. London, 1690. Vol. I., pp. 170-174.

[For More Poggio, See his Biography, and some of his Facetiae here translated by William Storer and here by an anonymous translator. — Elf.Ed.]

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