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From A Literary Source-book of the German Renaissance, by Merrick Whitcomb, PH. D., University of Pennsylvania; 1900; pp. 1-11.



The humanistic movement in Germany repeats, in many particulars of its development, the features of the earlier and greater Renaissance in Italy. It differs, however, from its Italian prototype in this important particular at least, that the various phases of its progress are compressed into a period of little more than half a century, whereas the Italian movement covers two centuries from its rise to its decline. Just before the middle of the fifteenth century Aeneas Sylvius, himself an accomplished man of letters, who had, moreover, as secretary at the imperial court of Frederick III., abundant opportunity of observing the intellectual development and tendencies of the Germans, as the result of his experience declares that the Germans were still in their mediæval period; that such intellectual activity as they possessed was of a character exclusively theological; that they still moved within the narrow circle of scholasticism. “They are good people,” he said, “but they are not interested in the things that interest me.” Of the nobles, the future patrons of humanism, he remarked further: “They prefer horses and dogs to poets, and like horses and dogs, they shall go down fameless into death.” Yet such a Renaissance as Germany possesses lies between these experiences of Aeneas Sylvius and the end of the first quarter of the following century, when Luther’s bold and cumulative attack upon the church of Rome turned the interests of young Germany from the sunny fields of humanism into a new arena of theological struggle.

Certain conditions existed, however, favorable for a rapid development of humanistic ideas in Germany. When that country had arrived at a point where the more material needs were satisfied, 2 and a wider intellectual field was necessary for continued expansion, the materials for the new learning were found, already elaborated, beyond the Alps. The early steps had been taken there: the slow and tedious preliminary work had been accomplished, the enormous task of bringing to light the remains of classical culture; even the preparation of elementary treatises, whose object it was to prepare the mind for the utilization of the recovered treasures; all this had been done before the middle of the fifteenth century, and it only remained for the enterprising German pioneer to cross the Alps, bring home the results of this tremendous labor, and give it a form adapted for the German mind and inclination.

Moreover, when Germany entered upon her humanistic career, a potent instrument had been prepared for the dissemination of the new ideas. In superseding the slow process of manual reproduction, which consumed so much of the time and strength of the Italian humanists from Petrarch on, the printing-press gave a mighty impetus to the diffusion of the new learning. It permitted the more advanced ideas, in so far as they were consonant with the prevailing trend of thought, to gain a rapid victory, accomplished thereby in a brief period was in a time of less perfect communication had required generations. It is on this account, perhaps, more than on any other, that we find Germany, within the space of half a century, passing rapidly through the various phases of humanistic development, which in Italy required two centuries.

These phases are a series of stages in the emancipation of thought, and its subsequent progress from a condition of limited theological interest, characteristic of the Middle Ages, to that condition which comprehends the wide range of human interests which we call modern. Along this track of progress are to be found a sequence of individuals, whom for purposes of illustration and study it is convenient to arrange in groups, and to characterize according to the degree of their advancement.

We have at first, as in Italy, a group of early humanists, who may be called the theological humanists, by way of indicating that they are still largely under the influence of mediæval culture. Although working earnestly for the introduction of humanistic studies into Germany, these men are not given over unreservedly to classical ideas; they are disposed to eliminate from the list of 3 Greek and Latin authors those whose works are in any respect imbued with an anti-Christian spirit; their interest is not primarily in the works themselves, but in their adaptation for Christian purposes. Humanists of this description were conscious of a divided allegiance, and it is impossible to resist the conviction that their arguments in favor of the new learning are intended to serve quite as much for self-justification as for the persuasion of their readers. It is quite in the nature of things that with these men youth is the period of rationalism, and that as they advance toward the inevitable solution, in their individual cases, of the great problem of the future, their conservatism asserts itself and they recoil from the enterprises of their earlier days. Many of them, in fact, revert to a condition of total obscurantism, and pass the evening of life in retirement and religious meditation, doing penance for the literary aberrations of their youth.

In Germany the theological group seems to include a great part of the well-known men of letters. There are several reasons for this. It is not strange that in a country where learning had been almost exclusively the affair of the clergy, the first recruits for humanism should be drawn from a class whose earlier impressions rendered a separation from conventional theological ideas a matter of great difficulty. Then, too, the German mind, perhaps less composite in origin, and less subject to extraneous influences in its national development, seems to have shown a relatively great tenacity in respect to a small number of ideas, of which the religious idea had been for generations one of the most prominent. Such men were not likely to carry the new learning beyond the pale of Christianity, and their predominant number and influence gave to the German Renaissance a more truly religious character and a deeper sincerity of purpose than resulted from similar intellectual impulses in Italy. It also happened that the leaders of this group, men like Rudolf Agricola and Jakob Wimpheling, turned their attention to educational matters and embodied their principles in the organization of the German school system. In the same manner the principals of the more important secondary schools, as for example, Alexander Hegius, of Deventer, were representatives of the same deeply religious spirit, which was not without determining influence in their contact with the rising generation of literary workers.

Another and later group of humanists may be called, for want 4 of a better term, the scientific group. The chief characteristic of its members is that their interest in the new learning is for the thing itself, and not for the use to which it may be put in advancing the interests of religion. They are not necessarily irreligious; in fact such an element has almost no representation in German humanism; they have simply advanced to a point, where, without denying that religion is one of the most important, if not he most important department of thought, they recognize that the circle of human interests has grown to embrace other considerations which, if not antagonistic, have yet no necessary connection with religion. Another characteristic of these humanists is that they are not necessarily clergymen. The humanities have come by this time to attract men from all departments of life. At the high tide of the German Renaissance, at the close of the fifteenth century, lecturers upon theology, medicine and law were speaking to empty benches; the interests of the student body had turned toward the new learning. The dethronement of theology from its supreme position at the head of the university curriculum made place for the introduction of other studies. Greek came more and more to be the mark of a liberal education, and the knowledge of a third tongue, Hebrew, was an indication of still greater attainment. The field of speculation, loosed from its mediæval entanglement, drifted away from the sole contemplation of the spiritual results of life, and came to include the facts of material existence. History came to be regarded as something other than the melancholy confirmation of the results of Adam’s fall; the world and its contents came to demand attention, a tendency stimulated by the recent extension of the earth’s known area.

This second group embraces a wide range of intellectual effort. To it belongs Erasmus, who although conventionally and properly religious in his observances, nevertheless affords at every turn unquestionable evidence that the great interests of his life are literary and not theological. To it belongs as well von Hutten, in whom modernism has taken the form of a patriotic desire to throw aside the yoke and influence of Rome, which has prevented the formation in Germany of a centralized and homogeneous nation, capable of approaching successfully the solution of modern problems. This aspiration is in itself a recognition of the importance of human association for material purposes, and a denial of the exclusive importance of such association for the purposes 5 of spiritual preparation and advancement. In this group also we find the mathematicians, the geographers and other men of science, whose industry responds to the expanding needs of human effort.

Moreover, in the same association we find the purely literary workers, the “poets,” as all men were called at the time who were capable of original literary production. These are the men who seem least German, and most cosmopolitan; they more nearly reflect the contemporaneous idea of humanism in Italy, the striving for a pure and graceful Latin diction. The conditions of this form of literary work imply a contempt for the vernacular and an emphasis upon the necessity for style, even at the expense of content. Such skill, although highly prized and greatly striven for by men everywhere in the Renaissance, has but the faintest meaning for posterity, whose interest is in the spirit of the Renaissance rather than in its copy-book.

With this preliminary classification of German humanists, it will be found profitable to approach the subject from another standpoint, and to note the various centres of German life in which humanistic effort finds its origin and support. In Italy the universities were not centres of the new learning. Its leaders were rather to be found in the courts of princes or in the administrative bureaux of republics. This is largely due to the fact that the universities of Italy had been for long the great professional schools of Europe. The “bread-studies” were too firmly entrenched there to be driven into a subordinate position by mere cultural studies. In Germany, on the other hand, the universities were relatively more numerous, of later growth, and their interests less definitely determined. Lecturers upon poetry and classical authors found little difficulty in filling their benches at the expense of the more respectable departments. Progress in this direction, however, varied according to the influence that presided over the direction of each separate seat of learning. At Cologne, for example, where Dominican influences were paramount, the new learning was looked upon as questionable; 6 Erfurt, on the other hand, owing to the mild spirit there prevailing, became the true centre of advance. Between these intellectual poles lay the other universities, inclining to this side or to the other, according as the nature and traditional bias of the dominant territorial sovereign determined. The fact that the study of the humanities afforded preparation for no definite career, led to a vast increase in the number of students, whose residence at the university was fixed by no particular curriculum, and in this manner to a feeling of contempt for those degrees and titles which, in the case of older studies, had been the necessary qualifications for professional life. Again, by increasing the content of the university curriculum. Again, by increasing the content of the university curriculum, humanism discouraged the empty routine of disputation upon points of infinitesimal importance, which in mediæval times made up so considerable a part of university work.

It was not in the universities alone that the new learning made its influence felt. Its progress was marked in the great secondary schools, such as Deventer, Münster and Schlettstadt, where thousands of young men secured such preparation as was necessary to fit them for teaching and other intellectual employments, as well as for the advanced work of the universities. The fact that it was the chief object of these schools to afford a working knowledge of the Latin language made them especially susceptible to changes which had for their object a substitution of classical models for the monkish Latin so generally in use. This change made itself manifest in the employment of new text-books in the place of the clumsy and inadequate grammars and lexicons of the Middle Ages, and furthermore, in the rejection of Latin writers of the declining Roman Empire and of the schools, in favor of the more elegant authors of classical antiquity. There also took place, in the more enterprising of the schools, an extension of the course of study, to include at least the elements of Greek and Hebrew.

There is every reason to believe that an intense interest in education reigned throughout Germany at the close of the fifteenth century, and that many of the prizes in official and public life were to be won through the instrumentality of the new learning. The introduction of the Roman law into Germany, the increase of international communication, both diplomatic and commercial, called for men of training and culture. The crowds of scholars that thronged the highways leading to the great towns, the large 7 attendance at the universities and the crowded condition of the lower schools give evidence of a desire for intellectual advancement which, when the obstacles in the path of the ambitious student are taken into the account, has never been surpassed in subsequent times.

Other centres of humanism were the courts of princes. Not only were skilled Latinists and students of the laws a necessary adjunct to the establishments of rulers; their ornamental qualities were equally in demand. After the middle of the fifteenth century the greater German princes were sufficiently instructed in the essentials of the new learning to recognize its importance in measuring a ruler’s appreciation of the modern spirit.

Two emperors are associated with the Renaissance in Germany. Frederick III., who reigned from 1440 until 1492, was himself no humanist, either by education or by inclination, and the constantly depleted condition of his treasury prevented any considerable patronage of learning. It was only in the reign of his son and successor Maximilian I., who by his marriage with Mary of Burgundy added the rich provinces of the Netherlands to the Hapsburg possessions, that the imperial court became a potent factor in the Renaissance. Maximilian was himself a humanist of no small pretensions. His political duties, which were of the most complex and exacting nature, gave him, it is true, little opportunity for actual composition; but in addition to the fact that he made his court the centre of intellectual activity, he even found time to evolve the material for two narratives, the “Teuerdank” and the “Weisskunig,” which his secretaries, under his direction, cast into literary form. A more important contribution, however, to the advancement of learning, was the stimulus he afforded to the study of German history. His project for a great collection of German monumenta remained for later and wealthier generations to carry out.

Maximilian’s interest in the new learning was shown also in his affection for the University of Vienna, and his personal attention to its welfare. The proximity of Vienna to the Italian lands was perhaps a reason why the intellectual development at the imperial university was more of a piece with Italian humanism than with the culture that prevailed at the northern seats of learning. At Vienna the art of Latin poetry received especial attention, and the greatest of the German stylists, Conrad Celtes, 8 who produced many volumes of verse in the manner of Ovid and other classical poets, found the atmosphere of Vienna most conducive to this phase of humanism. Here, under the auspices of Maximilian, a special faculty of poetry was organized, and the laurel crown and other insignia were conferred upon each applicant who gave satisfactory evidence of possessing the qualifications of a professional verse-maker.

Of another character was the court of the Elector of Saxony at Wittenberg. The Elector, Frederick the Wise, is an enigmatical character, whose characteristic silence passes, as is so often the case, for evidence of latent strength. That strength, however, was wanting at a critical moment in his career, when, during Luther’s absence at the Wartburg, the whole ecclesiastical and social edifice seemed likely to fall about his ears. The Elector was much less a modern man than Maximilian, both in training and in inclination. He knew little Latin, and his newly founded university at Wittenberg, bade fair to be little more than a feeble reflection of the great humanistic centre at Erfurt, until the stirring events of 1517, so fatal to the purposes of the humanists, drew the attention of the world upon the little Saxon town and supplied the Elector with one of the great rôles of modern history.

A more truly humanistic centre was the archiepiscopal seat of Mainz, where the young and energetic sovereign, Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop, cardinal and elector, gathered about him a coterie of scholars for the glory of his reign and the embellishment of his court. So long as rivers constituted the main avenues of intercourse in Europe, the Rhine valley ever exhibited a state of material and intellectual progress in advance of the less accessible portions of Germany. Mainz itself, the seat of the new art of printing, the last station on the way to the great fair at Frankfort, was a point of first importance on this route of travel and exchange. Its university was in touch with Cologne on the north and Heidelberg on the south, and as temporal ruler of a wealthy and populous district the Elector was one of the most powerful princes of Germany.

Next to the imperial and princely courts the cities were the most important centres of the new learning. Particularly in South Germany the fifteenth century witnesses a remarkable urban development. Augsburg, Nuremberg, Ratisbon and Ulm, 9 distributing points for the swelling stream of Eastern wares that poured into Central Europe by way of Venice and the Alpine passes, became great centres of wealth, and brought forward a new and powerful social element, the burgher class, men of the new time, keenly alive to the spirit of progress, unhampered with precedent and eager to take advantage of the new opportunities of pressing forward to importance and distinction. The sons of these shrewd tradesmen, reared in an environment of industry and thrift, were much more likely to qualify themselves for positions in private and in official life requiring intellectual skill and technical knowledge, than the sons of a rash and undisciplined nobility, accustomed only to the pursuit of inclination and pleasure.

These men of the upper middle class aided the progress of humanism in various ways — by their patronage of artists and literary men, for example. This was of especial value to literature at a time when the profits of publication could hardly be expected to afford a livelihood. All over Europe we find writers dedicating their works and fugitive pieces to men of wealth and distinction, from whom an honorarium might be expected in token of appreciation. To stand in epistolary relations with so great a humanist as Erasmus was an honor which many a wealthy burgher felt well worth a generous purse. Even if he did not recognize that such intercourse would snatch him from eventual oblivion, yet the fact that Erasmus’ letters became at once the property of the literary world was sufficient to secure an honorable notice before his contemporaries. Again, these humanistic proclivities, particularly in the time of Maximilian, were often sufficient to secure intimate relations with the imperial crown. Conrad Peutinger and Willibald Pirckheimer, distinguished representatives of the burgher class in Augsburg and Nuremberg, not only materially increased their local importance, but reflected lustre upon their native cities by means of their intimate relations with the Emperor Maximilian and the assistance rendered him in his effort to collect the monuments of German antiquity. Peutinger and Pirckheimer were products of the best Italian and German culture, and were themselves productive humanists. Their wealth enabled them not only to entertain and aid their companions in letters, but also, by their patronage of artists and antiquaries, to accumulate large private collections, in which prerogative 10 of wealth they were pioneers in Germany. Their affluence is in direct contrast with the Grub-street conditions which prevailed generally in literary circles at the time; but the contrast is softened and humanized by the fact that their wealth was so freely employed, both in relieving the material needs of their literary contemporaries, and in making possible the publication of their works.

In another manner, however, the cities contributed even more largely to the advancement of learning. Their liberality in the foundation of bursaries made it possible for a multitude of students from rural parts to obtain such education as only towns afforded. In the eyes of the fifteenth century citizen it was one of the essential attributes of a large and prosperous town that it should be the educational centre of its commercial territory; and not only did the bursaries furnish lodging and warmth during the winter season, but the citizens themselves supported with alms a great body of poor students who spent their afternoons in singing for bread through the streets. The student and the street musician were one at the beginning of modern times.

Another institution that contributed to the advancement and direction of literary effort was the society of literati (sodalitas literaria). There were two of these in Germany, the Danubian and the Rhenish (sodalitates Danubiana et Rhenana). The former had its permanent home at Vienna, where it enjoyed the patronage of the Emperor, and the personal interests of its most important member, Conrad Celtes, threw its activity almost exclusively into the direction of verse production. The Rhenish society had no such distinctive seat, but included in its membership the patrician humanists of Augsberg and Nuremberg, the learned bishop of Worms, Johann von Dalberg (1445-1503), the Heidelberg literary group, and Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516), abbot of Sponheim, famous not only for his general literary activity, but also on account of his supposed magical powers, to which a still credulous age attributed much importance.

It is by comparing these German societies with the academies of Italy that we are able to arrive at the general relation of the German to the Italian Renaissance. The German movement is of a homelier and less aspiring character. While the Florentine academy sought nothing less than a restoration of Greek philosophy, the Danubian society was content with paraphrasing Ovid 11 and Virgil. The Roman academy undertook to discern and interpret the antiquities of that centre of the classical world, while the Rhenish society attempted nothing more ambitious than the publication of the works of the nun Hrotsvitha.

But if German humanists failed to inoculate their fellow citizens with the philosophic spirit of Greece and Rome, they at least discovered many practical applications of their learning, and opened the way toward a larger view of human life. That the spirit of theological strife descended and closed this way, and filled the arena with internecine struggle, so that for two centuries Germany was shut out from the van of European progress, was a result which the ablest of German humanists predicted at the opening of the Lutheran controversy. It was not the way Erasmus would have chosen. Whether it led, after a lapse of centuries, to as good or to better results, is one of the problems of history for whose solution the material will ever be wanting.


*  So far as I am aware, there has been no special treatment in English of the German humanistic movement, which for the sake of brevity has been termed — I hope without too much violence — the “German Renaissance.” It seemed not inappropriate, therefore, to preface the selections offered here with a few remarks upon the significance and character of that general intellectual quickening in German lands, whose genial activity was merged in the struggles of the Reformation. The following account will seem less meager if taken in connection with the introductory notices placed at the head of the various selections. Upon this subject compare Van Dyke: “The Age of the Renaissance,” Scribners, 1897, an excellent account in so far as the limits of the work permit; also “The Renaissance,” by Philip Schaff, Putnams, 1891.

  The universities of Germany at this period were: Prague (1348), Vienna (1365), Heidelberg (1385), Cologne (1388), Erfurt (1392), Leipzig (1409), Rostock (1409), Greifswald (1456), Freiburg (1460), Basel (1460), Ingolstadt (1472), Mainz (1476), Tübingen (1476), Wittenberg (1502) and Frankfort-on-the-Oder (1506).

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