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From A Literary Source-book of the German Renaissance, by Merrick Whitcomb, PH. D., University of Pennsylvania; 1900; pp. 67-80.



Johannes Pfefferkorn, a converted Jew of Cologne, desiring to give evidence of his zeal for the Christian faith, secured from the emperor Maximilian I. an order which called for the suppression and destruction of all rabbinical writings, as hostile to Christianity. It was the belief of German humanists that Pfefferkorn was nothing more than the instrument of the Dominicans of Cologne, who sought in this manner to counteract the growing 68 interest in the study of Hebrew. The archbishop of Mainz suspended the execution of the order until the matter could be more thoroughly investigated. Opinions regarding the value of the Hebrew writings were requested from several universities, from Jacob von Hochstraten, papal inquisitor at Cologne, and from Johann Reuchlin. Of these, Reuchlin alone went deeply into the subject. His report was favorable to the Hebrew writings as a whole, excepting certain ones which dealt in witchcraft or were abusive of Christian doctrine. These he considered worthy of extinction. In general, however, he was unfavorable to this method of combatting error, and suggested the foundation in each university of a chair of Hebrew, for the better understanding of these works. Other opinions were unfavorable, and thus Reuchlin stood alone as the champion of Hebrew lord and the defender, in this particular, of the claims of humanism.

Pfefferkorn continued to be the instrument of the Cologne party. His Handspiegel, which he sold, with his wife’s help, at the great Frankfort fair of 1511, was a violent attack upon Reuchlin, who replied in the Augenspiegel, which in turn elicited a Brandspiegel from his detractor. The controversy was seasoned on both sides with the violent abuse of the time. The faculty of Cologne condemned the Augenspiegel as heretical in 1513. The University of Paris followed in 1514. Reuchlin was cited before the tribunal of the inquisition, and although his case was transferred to the curia, his book was publicly burned. A commission appointed by Leo X. sat at Speier and declared Reuchlin free of heresy, adjudging the costs to Hochstraten, whereupon the inquisitor proceeded to Rome, well supplied with funds, and secured a reversal of the decision. A protest of Reuchlin suspended execution, and the matter drifted on in the curia without result.

But the case, if silenced in the ecclesiastical courts, was taken up before the bar of public opinion. Reuchlin, feeling the need of public rehabilitation, published in 1514 a book containing a selection of letters of sympathy addressed to him by men of note in the world of humanism. This was the Clarorum virorum epistolae etc. The title proved a source of inspiration for certain waggish scholars, humanists, and partisans of Reuchlin, whose identity even at this time is imperfectly known. in 1515 appeared at Hagenau the first series of letters, known as the Epistolae virorum obscurorum. The letters are addressed for the most part to Ortuin Gratius, a distinguished member of the faculty at Cologne, a man of high attainments and of ability as an author. The writers of the letters are supposed to be clergymen, at Rome and elsewhere, who seek or desire to impart information regarding the Reuchlin affair, or who appeal to Gratius to settle some point of dispute. The general effort of the letters is to expose the ignorance and baseness of the clergy and to throw ridicule upon the rank and file of the Cologne party. It is a part of the internal protest against the bigotry and shortcomings of the clergy, a protest that became schismatic only under the lead of Luther. The letters are supposed to be the work of half a dozen men; but among them the most prominent are Crotus Rubeanus (1480-1540) and Ulrich von Hutten.



Friendly greeting and endless service, most worthy Master! Since, as Aristotle says in the Categories, it is not wholly useless in certain cases to give way to doubt, I will confess that a certain thing is lying heavily on my conscience. Not long ago I was at the Frankfort fair, and, while walking along the street toward the market with a bachelor, we met two men who, to all appearances were quite respectable; they wore black cloaks and great hoods with tassels hanging down behind. God is my witness that I believed they were two masters, and I greeted them, therefore, with reverence. Then the bachelor slapped me on the back, and said: “For the love of God, what are you doing? They are Jews, and you have taken off your hat to them!” At this such a fright seized me as if I had seen the devil, and I answered: “Sir Baccalaureus, God have mercy upon me. I have done it in ignorance; so what do you think; is that a grievous sin?” Then at first he said: “According to my view it is a mortal sin, since it comes under the head of idolatry, and therefore violates the first of the ten commandments, which says, ‘I believe in one God;’ because, if any one honors a Jew or a heathen as if he were a Christian, he acts against Christendom, and puts himself in the position of a Jew or heathen, and then the Jews and heathen say: ‘See how we are progressing, since the Christians honor us; for if we were not progressing, surely they would not honor us;’ and in this way they are strengthened in their evil ways, despise the Christian faith and refuse baptism.” Upon this I answered: “That is very true, if the thing be done knowingly, but I have done it unknowingly, and ignorance excuses sin; for had I known that they were Jews, and then had shown them respect, then I should have deserved the gallows, because that would be heresy. But neither by word nor deed — God knows — had I any knowledge whatsoever, for I believed they were two masters.” Then he answered: “It is nevertheless a sin,” and related the following: “I too went once through a church, where a Jew, made of wood, with a hammer in his hand, stood before our Saviour. I believed, however, that it was St. Peter, and that he had the key in his hand; so I bent my knee and took off my cap. Then for the first time I saw it was a Jew, and this made me very sad and repentant. But at confession, which I made in the Dominican convent, 70 my father confessor told me that it was a mortal sin, since you must be on your guard. He would not have been able to give me absolution if he had not had episcopal powers, for it was a case reserved for the bishop; he also added that if I had done it intentionally, it would have been a case for the pope. So I was absolved because he had episcopal powers. And, really, I believe that if you would keep your conscience clear, you must confess to the officer of the consistory. Ignorance cannot excuse your sin, for you should have taken care. The Jews have always a yellow ring on the front of their cloaks, which you certainly ought to have seen, for I saw it; so it is gross ignorance on your part, and cannot effect forgiveness of sins.” Thus reasoned in my case this bachelor. But, since you are a deeply-read theologian, I want to ask you earnestly and humbly that you will solve the above question for me, and write me whether it is a question here of a mortal or venial sin; whether it is a simple case, or an episcopal, or a papal reserved case. Also write me whether, according to your view, the citizens of Frankfort do right that they permit, in this wise, Jews to go about in the garb of our masters. It seems to me that it is not right, and likely to arouse great bitterness, that there should be no distinction between the Jews and our masters; also, it is a mockery of the sacred theology, and the most excellent Emperor and lord ought not to permit that a Jew, who is at the best only a dog and an enemy of Christ, should go about like a doctor of the sacred theology. I also send you a composition of Master Bernhard Plumilegus (in common language, Federleser), which he has sent to me from Wittenberg. You know him, for he was your fellow scholar at Deventer. He told me that you had jolly times together; he is a good fellow and cannot praise you enough. Then farewell, in the Lord’s name. Given at Leipzig.


Many greetings, with deep respect to your excellence, as is my duty in writing to your Mastership. Most worthy Master, you must know that there is a most important question, in regard to which I desire and beseech a decision from your Mastership. There is here a certain Greek who, when he writes Greek, always puts accents over the words. Recently I had occasion to say: “Master Ortuin, from Deventer, also dealt with Greek grammar, 71 and understood it quite as well as this man, and he never wrote the accents, and I know that he understood what he was doing quite as well as this man, and could have excelled the Greek if he had desired.” But the others would not believe me, and my comrades and colleagues besought me to write your lordship that you might instruct me as to how it ought to be, whether you ought to put the accents there or not. If not, then we will make it so hot for the Greek that he will feel it, and we will bring it about that he shall have few listeners. I remember to have seen, when I was with you in Cologne at the house of Heinrich Quentel, where you were proof-reader and had to correct Greek, that you drew your pen through all the accents that stood above the letters, with these words: “What is this foolishness?” And so it occurred to me that you had some reason for this, otherwise you would not have done it. You are a marvellous man, and God has imparted to you the great grace to know something of everything knowable. Therefore, you must give thanks to God the Lord, to the blessed Virgin and to all God’s saints in your poetry. Take it not evil of me that I trouble your excellence with questions of this nature, since I do it for my instruction. Farewell. Leipzig.



“Rejoice in the Lord, O ye just: praise becometh the upright” (Psalms xxxii. 11). In order that you may not say in anger, “What does he want with his quotation?” you must hasten to read a piece of joyful news, which will wonderfully rejoice your excellence and which I will briefly relate. There was here a poet, by name Johannes Sommerfeld; he was very arrogant, looked down upon the masters of arts and made of them in his lectures, saying that they were ignorant, that one poet was worth ten masters, and that in processions it was proper that poets should have precedence over masters and licentiates. He lectured on Pliny and other authors, and expressed himself to the effect that the masters of arts were not masters of the seven liberal arts, but rather of the seven deadly sins; that they stood upon no good foundation, since they were not learned in poetics, but knew only Petrus Hispanus and the Parva logicalia. He had many listeners, and among them noble bursars, and he said there was nothing in the Scotists and the Thomists, and made sport of 72 the holy teachers. The masters waited for convenient opportunity to avenge themselves, with the help of God, and it was the divine will that he held a discourse wherein he scored masters, doctors, licentiates and bachelors, praised his own branch and spoke slightingly of the holy theology. In this manner he aroused great anger on the part of the gentlemen of the faculty. The masters and doctors took counsel and said: “What shall we do? this man is behaving in a shocking manner; if we let him go on in this way the world will believe he is more learned than we. Let not these upstarts come and say they are of more importance than their elders, and in this way bring shame and ridicule upon our university.” Then said Master Andreas Delitzsch who, moreover, is a good poet, that it seemed to him that Sommerfeld was, in respect to the university, somewhat like the fifth wheel to a wagon, because he stood in the way of the other faculties, by whose aid the academic youth might be suitably prepared for graduation. The other masters swore that this was so, and the result was that they came to the conclusion that this poet should be expelled, or, at least, shut out, even if thereby they should draw upon themselves his enmity. They summoned him before the rector, and posted the summons on the church doors; he appeared with counsel, demanded the privilege of defending himself, and was accompanied with other friends, who stood by him. The masters demanded that these should retire, otherwise they would be forsworn if they appeared against the university. Indeed, the masters showed themselves full of courage in this struggle; they remained firm, and vowed that in the interests of justice they would spare no one. Certain jurists and courtiers plead for him. To these the masters replied that it was not possible; they had their statutes, and according to these statutes he must be dismissed. What was remarkable is, that the prince himself (Duke George) interceded for him. It did no good, however, for they said to the Duke that it was his duty to uphold the statutes of the university, for the statutes are to the university what the binding is to a book; were there no binding, then the leaves would fall apart, and were there no statutes there would be no order in the university; dissension would reign amongst its members and result in complete chaos. Therefore, the prince must look out for the best interests of the university, as his father had done before him. In this wise the price allowed himself to 73 be persuaded, and declared he could not stand out against the university, and that it was better for one to be dismissed than that the whole university should suffer. The masters were much pleased with this, and said; “My lord Duke, God be thanked for your wise decision.” Then the rector caused an order to be posted upon the church doors, to the effect that Sommerfeld was retired for ten years. His auditors, however, expressed themselves variously in the matter, and said that the members of the council had done wrong toward Sommerfeld; but these gentlemen replied in turn that they did not care a penny’s worth. Certain bursars expressed themselves to the effect that Sommerfeld would revenge himself for the insult and would summon the university before the Roman curia. Then the masters laughed and said: “Nonsense, what would the fellow accomplish?” And know that great harmony now reigns in the university, and Master Delitzsch lectures on the humanities, and also the master from Rothenburg, who has written a book quite three times as large as Virgil’s complete works. He has gotten together much of value in this book in defence of our holy mother church and in praise of the saints; he has recommended especially our university, both the sacred theology and the humanistic faculty, and he blames those worldly and heathen poets. The masters also say that his poems are as good as the poems of Virgil, and are without errors; for he perfectly understands the art of writing verse and has been a good versifier for the past twenty years. Wherefore, the gentlemen of the council gave him permission to lecture on this book instead of on Terence, for it is more valuable than Terence, and inculcates good Christian doctrine, and does not deal with harlots and scalawags, like Terence. You must spread this news in your university, and perhaps it will happen to Busch as it has happened to Sommerfeld. When are you going to send me your book against Reuchlin? You often mention it, but nothing has come to me yet. You have written me you would be sure to send it, but you have not done so. May God forgive you, since you do not love me as I love you, for you are to me as my own heart. But send it to me, for “I have greatly desired to eat this Paschal lamb with you” — that is to say, to read this book. Also write me the news, and compose an essay or a few verses to my honor, if I be worth the trouble. Fare you well in Christ the Lord our God, from everlasting unto everlasting! Amen.



Since the defence of Johannes Pfefferkorn “against the calumnies, etc.,” which he composed in Latin has been received here, we have had something new every day. One says this, another that; one is for him, another for Reuchlin; one defends, another condemns him; it is a desperate struggle, and they are angry enough to come to blows. If I should relate to you all the feuds that have arisen out of this book, the period of an Olympiad would not suffice, so I will merely make a few remarks by the way. The majority, and for the most part the worldly masters, the presbyters and brethren of the Minorites assert that Pfefferkorn could not possibly be the author of the book, for he has never learned a word of Latin. I replied that this objection had no force, although it has been urged against many prominent men to this very day, but unjustly; for Johannes Pfefferkorn, who always carries pen and ink with him, could write down what he hears, whether it be in public lectures, or in private assemblies, or when students or brethren from the Dominican order come to his house, or when he goes to the bath. Holy Lord, how many sermons must he have heard during twelve years! How many admonitions! How many quotations from the holy fathers! These he might retain in his memory, or he might communicate them to his wife, or write them on the wall, or enter them in his diary. In the same way I called attention briefly to the fact that Johannes Pfefferkorn says of himself — not with boasting — that he can apply to any theme, be it good or evil, everything that is contained in the Bible, or in the Holy Scriptures, either in Hebrew or in German; and he knows by heart all the evangels that are expounded the whole year through, and can say them off to a letter, a thing which those jurists and poets cannot do. Moreover, he has a son, Lorenz by name, a really talented young man, who is pale as a ghost from nothing but study; and, indeed, I wonder that his father allows him to pursue his studies with those devilish poets. This son collects for his father sentences from the orators and poets upon every possible subject, as well those which he himself uses as those used by his teachers, and he also knows how to cite his Hugh. And thus Johannes Pfefferkorn has come to know much by means of this talented youth; and what he, as an unlearned man, is not able to accomplish himself, his son does 75 for him. Therefore, woe to all those who have spread abroad the false report that he did not himself write his books, but that the doctors and masters in Cologne are the true authors! Johannes Reuchlin has reason to blush and to sigh to eternity for having said that Johannes Pfefferkorn did not himself compose his “Handspiegel,” whereby it has been contended amongst learned men that three men furnished him with the authorities which he cited. Whereupon a certain one said: “Who are those men?” I answered: “I do not know. I believe, however, that they are the same three men who appeared to Abraham, as we read in the first book of Moses.” And when I had spoken they laughed at me and treated me as if I were a simpleton. I wish the devil would strike them with a plague, as is written in the book of Job, which we are now reading at table in our monastery. Say, then, to Johannes Pfefferkorn, he must have patience, for I hope that God will work a miracle; and greet him in my name. Also greet for me his wife, since you know her well, but secretly. Farewell. Written in haste and without much reflection, at Antwerp.


Brotherly love in the place of greeting, honored sir! When I left you I promised that I would keep you informed of all news, and let you know how I am getting along. Know, then, that I have been two months in the city of Rome and have as yet secured no patron. An assessor of the Roman curia was disposed to take me. I was quite delighted, and said: “It is well, sir, but will your magnificence kindly tell me what I shall have to do.” He answered that I would be an hostler, and my duty would be to take care of a mule, to feed and water it, curry and rub it down, and have it in readiness when he wished to ride forth, with bridle, saddle and everything. Then I must run beside the mule to the court-room and back home again. I told him that such work was not for me; that I was a master of the liberal arts in Cologne, and could do nothing of the sort. He answered: “Well, if you don’t want to do it, it’s your own loss.” And so I believe I will go back home. I certainly will not curry a mule or clean out stables. I had rather the devil would fly away with his mule, stable and all! And I believe, too, that it would be against the statutes of our university; for a master must conduct himself like a master. And it would be a great disgrace to the university if a Cologne 76 master should do such a thing. For the honor of the university I shall return home. And, anyway, I do not like Rome; the people in the chancellery and in the curia are so haughty; you would not believe it. One of them said to me yesterday, he would spit upon Cologne masters. I told him I hoped he might have a chance to spit on the gallows. Then he said he too was a master, that is to say a master of the curia, and that a master of the curia stood high above a master of the liberal arts from Germany. I answered: “Impossible;” and said, moreover, “You mean to say you are as good as I, when you have passed no examination, as I have, in which five masters have tested me thoroughly? You are a master made with a seal.” Upon this he began to dispute with me, and said: “What is a master?” I answered: “A person of proved ability, regularly promoted and graduated in the seven liberal arts, after he has passed the master’s examination: who has the right to wear a gold ring, and a silken band on his gown, and who bears himself toward his pupils as a king toward his subjects. And magister is used in four senses: In one sense it is derived from magis and ter, because a master knows three times as much as an ordinary person. In the second sense from magis and terreo, because a master excites terror when his pupils look upon him. In the third sense from magis and theron (that is, status), because the master in his position must be higher than his pupils. In the fourth sense from magis and sedere, because the master must sit far higher than any of his pupils.” Then he asked me: “Who is your authority?” I answered that I read it in the Vade mecum. At once he was disposed to blame the book, and said that it was no reliable source. I answered: “You discredit those ancients, and yet you do not know any better. I have never heard any one in Cologne discredit this book. Are you not ashamed of yourself?” And in great anger I left him. And once more I tell you that I am disposed to return to Germany, for there the masters are gentlemen, and rightly so. This I can show from the gospels, for Christ called Himself “Master” and not “Doctor” when He said, “Ye call me Lord and Master, and ye do well, for such am I.” But I cannot write further, for I have no more paper, and it is far to the Campo Fiore. Farewell! Written at the Roman curia.



“A mouth have they and speak not; eyes have they and see not; ears have they and hear not,” says the Psalmist. These words may serve as introduction and as text for what I am about to say. Master Ortuin has a mouth and speaks not; not even so much as to say to a servant of the curia on his way to Rome: “Give my regards to Conrad Unckebunck.” Eyes has he also and sees not: for I have written him many letters and he has not answered me, as if he read them not, or merely glanced at them. In the third place he has ears and hears not: for I have asked several friends to greet him when they came where he was; but he has heard none of my greetings, for he has not answered them. In this you clearly do wrong, for I am fond of you and you ought to be fond of me in return; but you are not, for you do not write me. I should be so glad if you would write me, for when I read your letters my inmost heart rejoices. I have heard, however, that you have few hearers, and that your complaint is that Busch and Cæsarius have drawn the scholars away from you; and yet they do not understand how to expound the poets allegorically, as you do, nor how to quote the holy writ. I believe the devil is in those poets, They are the ruin of all universities. I heard a Leipzig master, who has been a master for thirty-six years, says that in his younger days that university was in a flourishing condition, because there was no poet for twenty miles round about. And he also said that the students diligently prepared their lessons, as well the general as the professional, and it was reckoned a great disgrace if a student went through the streets without his Petrus Hispanus or the Parva logicalia under his arm; and if they were students of grammar they carried the Partes of Alexander, or the Vade mecum, or the Exercitium puerorum, or the Opus minus, or the Dicta of Johannes Sinthen. Moreover, in the schools they gave attention and held the masters of arts in honor, and when they saw a master they were as frightened as if they had seen the devil. And he said that the bachelor’s degree was conferred four times a year, and that on each occasion sixty, or at least fifty, degrees were given. At that time the university was flourishing; if any one passed in half the subjects of a year’s course he received the bachelor’s degree, and if he passed in half the subjects for three years, a master’s degree; the result was 78 that their parents were satisfied and willing to spend their money, for they saw that their sons were attaining to honors. But now students wished to hear Virgil and Pliny and other new-fangled authors, and when they have listened for five years, even then they are not graduated; and when they go back home their parents ask: “What are you?” and they reply that they are nothing, but that they have studied poetry. But their parents do not know what that is; and when they see that they are not grammarians, they are dissatisfied with the university and regret having spent their money. And they say to others later on: “Do not send your boys to the university, because they study nothing, but hang about the streets by night, and the money is wasted which is given for study.” And this master told me further, that in his time there were quite two thousand students in Leipzig and as man at Erfurt, and at Vienna four thousand and as many at Cologne, and so on at the other universities. But now at all the universities together there are not as many students as formerly at one or two. The Leipzig masters bewail the lack of students, for the poets have done them this injury. When parents send their sons to the bursaries and colleges they are unwilling to remain there, but go to the poets and study worthless stuff. He told me also that he himself formerly had forty pupils at Leipzig, and when he went to church, or to market, or to stroll in the Rosengarten, they marched along behind him. It was then a serious offense to study poetry; and when any one acknowledged in the confessional that he had secretly heard a bachelor expound Virgil, the priest imposed a severe penalty upon him, causing him to fast every Friday or to repeat each day seven penitential psalms. And he swore to me upon his conscience that a candidate for the master’s degree had been turned down because one of the examiners had once seen him, on a holiday, reading Terence. If such conditions obtained nowadays in the universities, I should not be slaving here in the curia. But what can we do at the universities? There is nothing to be made. The bursars are no longer willing to stay in the bursaries or under the masters, and among twenty students scarcely one has any intention of studying for a degree; but all wish to study the humanities. And when a master lectures, he has no hearers; but the poets have at their lectures an incredible number of hearers. Tthus, all the universities of Germany are losing; and we must pray to God 79 that the poets may die, for “it is better that one should die,” etc.; that is to say, that the poets, of whom there are only a few in each university, should die, rather than that so many universities should perish. Write me now, or I will complain loudly of your negligence. Farewell. Written at Rome.


A friendly greeting, honorable sir and venerable master. It surprises me greatly that you are always pestering me with your everlasting demand: “Write me some news.” You are always eager to learn the news, but I have other things to do. I cannot bother about novelties; as it is, I am obliged to run hither and thither and solicit in order to get a favorable decision and acquire that benefice. But if you will be content, I will write you once, so that in the future you may let me rest with your news. You have no doubt heard that the pope has a great animal, called Elephant, and that he holds it in great honor and loves it much. Now you must know that this animal is dead. When it was taken sick the pope was in great distress, and summoned several physicians and said to them: “If it is possible, cure Elephant for me.” Then they did their best; made a careful diagnosis and administered a purge that cost five hundred golden florins, but it was in vain, for the animal died. The pope grieved much for Elephant. They say he gave a thousand ducats for Elephant; for it was a wonderful animal, and had a long snout of prodigious size. When it beheld the pope, it knelt before him and cried with a terrible voice, “Bar! bar! bar! I believe there was no other animal of the kind in the world. They say, also, that the king of France and King Charles have concluded a peace for many years with mutual pledges. Many, however, are of the opinion that the peace was made with reservations and will not last long. I do not know what the facts really are, and do not care much; for when I come back to Germany I shall go to my pastorate and enjoy life. I have there many geese, chickens and ducks, and I can keep five or six cows, which will give me milk, so that I can make cheese and butter. I want to have a cook who understands such work. She must be an elderly woman; for if she were young, she would be a temptation to the flesh, and I might sin. She must also know how to spin, for I will buy her flax. And I will also keep two or three pigs and fatten them, so that I shall have plenty of pork; for 80 above all things I will supply my house with an abundance of material for the kitchen. Once in a while I will butcher an ox, sell half to the peasants and smoke the rest. Back of the house I have a garden, where I shall plant garlic, onions and parsley, and I shall also have cabbage, turnips and other things. In the winter I shall sit in my room and study, so that I may preach to the peasants out of the Sermones parati or the Discipuli, and also out of the Bible, and in this wise I shall be well fixed for preaching. And in summer I shall go fishing, or work in the garden, and take no heed of wars; for I shall live for myself, read my prayers and say mass, and have no care for those worldly affairs which bring destruction to the soul. Farewell. Written at the Roman curia.


*  Epistolae obscurrum virorum. Ed. Bücking, Leipzig, 1864, passim.

[There is a subtle allusion to the non-Roman countries here. “Bar! bar! bar!” is referred to in ancient Greek writers as the sound of those peoples, whose language they did not understand, it sounded like nonsense to them. That is how foreigners received the name of barbari, now barbarians. The Romans, at first, were also considered barbarians by the Greeks, later they adopted the term as well to apply to other nations. — Elf.Ed.]

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