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From A Literary Source-book of the German Renaissance, by Merrick Whitcomb, PH. D., University of Pennsylvania; 1900; pp. 35-39.



Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522) is, next to Desiderius Erasmus, the most important character in the German Renaissance. A student at many universities in Germany, France and Italy, Reuchlin became licentiate in law at Poitiers (1481), and returning to Würtemberg, was appointed to a judicial position under the government of that state. His professional duties left much time for study, and he became so proficient in the languages of antiquity, that he was called the “three-tongued wonder of Germany.” The Hebrew text-books which he produced first gave an opportunity in Germany for the study of that language and literature.

Various diplomatic missions led Reuchlin again to Italy, where he came in contact with Pico della Mirandola, whose influence gave a mystical turn to Reuchlin’s philosophical writings, a tendency which had little effect upon his contemporaries or upon posterity. As a teacher, however, as a representative of the widest culture of his time, and as a source of inspiration toward intellectual effort, Reuchlin exercised great influence upon the scholars of his time. As a humanist, he felt little sympathy with Luther’s schismatic attitude, but unwittingly he furnished the Protestant movement with one of its ablest leaders, in the person of his nephew Melanchthon, for whom he secured the chair of Greek at the university of Wittenberg.

Reuchlin’s eventual fame is largely due to the fact that he became, much against his will, the central point about which raged a bitter literary controversy, which occupied the attention of the world of letters in the decade just preceding Luther’s appearance.*


To the prudent, honorable and wise gentleman, my dear sir and good friend, Master Johann Ammerbach, citizen and publisher at Basel.

My friendly and willing service is at all times at your disposal, dear master Hans, sir and friend. I have received your letter, dated Basel, August 2d, and have also learned of the complaints you have made concerning the Jerome and my books as well. I should be very glad if everything could happen in accordance with your wish and approbation, and where it does not so come to pass, I am truly sorry; but nevertheless the fault in both instances is not mine. I have done everything that my knowledge, ability and duty indicated. I send you the tertia pars epistolarum: I have attended to it carefully, so far as the Greek 36 and Hebrew are concerned. The Latin I have not disturbed, as indeed throughout the whole of Jerome. This you have not asked me to do, and you will find enough people who can do that. I send you likewise the commentaries on the Psalms.

So far, however, as the Jeremiah is concerned, I have informed you more than once that to the best of my knowledge and belief, I can find no old copy of Jeremiah in any cloister. I have done much riding here and there for this purpose, and I should not undertake to correct it for you without a text. There is, however, no real necessity for this, since master Bruno§ and yourself are able to supply the lack, so far as the Hebrew is concerned, and master Johann Cuno, the Dominican, can readily find a Greek text amongst the books of his cloister, wherefore there is no need of me. Likewise regarding the interpretationes hebraicorum nominum, no one would undertake this, because it is incorrect; in fact, it was not composed by St. Jerome, but the Greek church formerly possessed it, and so he translated it from the Greek; and it contains much that is erroneous, because in his exposition he has not followed his own judgment, but the common error, as he himself permits it to be seen in the Epistolæ ad Fabiolam de mansionibus, mansione nona. It would be possible to point out appropriately in an introduction that it is not his own.

In the same way, so far as the two introductions are concerned, the one in literas hebreas, the other in literas graecas, since you write that there will be need of them for those who wish to buy and read St. Jerome, I must inform you that I have not been negligent of your interests in the matter, but have had master Thomas print the introductorium of Aldus in Greek and Hebrew, and he has done it well. I have also incorporated with it the seven penitential psalms with my literal exposition and furthermore a synopsis of the Rudimenta, and had master Thomas print the same, in order that your Jerome and your Rudimenta which you purchased of me, should be of more value and succeed better; for of what use was it to make a vocabulary and grammar, when no one could obtain a Jewish book, whereby he might have use for a vocabulary.

Master Hans Fröben has already written me in your behalf, that you have complained loudly because many of the copies of the 37 Rudimenta were wanting or had been injured, and that on this account you have held back the money loaned by me; it was my intention to arrange the matter with him at the last fair, but at that time he did not come to Frankfort. However, my dear master Hans, dear sir and friend, if any shortage has occurred in the case of these books, it is not my fault. For when you made the bargain with me, according to the terms of our written contract, made at Basel and signed with your own hand, you directed me, after having divided with master Thomas, to place 600 copies in my sister’s house at Pforzheim, so that you might find them there. I did that, as certain reputable persons can testify who were there at the time, and I had a carpenter build some shelving out of timber and boards in one of my sister’s rooms, according to the advice of those who understood such things. Then master Thomas counted me out 600 books and placed them there at your disposition. He also (as his people say) sorted them out one by one, some weeks previously, in order to get the best copies. You ought at that time to have had them taken away by one of your own men, who would have understood better about arranging and handling them than my sister, who nevertheless out of friendly disposition and god will diligently supervised the task. They lay there, however, a long time periculo emptoris, until I received word from you through master Hans, that you desired I should have the goodness to arrange with master Thomas of Pfortzheim to pack the books lying in my sister’s house and send them to Strasburg as quickly as possible, to a publisher named Johannes Knobloch, and that I should advance the charges for carriage from Pfortzheim to Strasburg; that he would repay me, and would also make good whatever the casks and packing cost.

I gave evidence of my friendly disposition toward you, and wrote my sister, and also arranged with master Thomas, in accordance with the above request addressed to me, and I also paid what was to be paid, as I have already written you. But a few books, I do not know how many, which would not go into the casks, are still lying in my sister’s house. Wherefore I have now requested my sister by letter to have these books carried to Frankfort, where they may reach your people; and in this matter I have acted in every respect as if it had bee my own affair. I have also requested master Thomas to act in your interest, and he says that he will do with diligence what you desire, and will again 38 look through his books, and if he finds any superfluous leaves will send them to you; and this you are also to do for him. And this may be done easily, for each leaf has its number, and may be noted readily; and so I should very likely be informed by your people that there was no further shortage or defect, but for the fact that when they packed the books some iron nails were driven into the casks to hold the hoops fast, and these have gone through into the casks. The damage may have happened quite as well at Strasburg as at Pfortzheim, while they were taking the books out, when they may have caught the leaves on the nails and have torn them. It is not my fault, however; that must be evident to you. Therefore I maintain my point and will not recede from it, for there is noting that might be reckoned my fault; and even if you had discovered a shortage of eighteen books, and that thirty books were defective or damages, as master Hans writes, still it would not even then justify a deduction of eighteen florins.

You also promised me through Conrad Leontorius, whom you commissioned to bring your book to me, and who wrote me with his own had, that if I would correct the corresponding passages in the Greek and Latin texts of St. Jerome, you would give me twenty florins. I have corrected a third more than the agreement called for, and have also placed Jeremiah last, for in your book the New Testament stands after the epistles of Jerome.

Again, you instructed me to come to Basel, and the journey cost me for myself and my servant and horse more than ten florins in money. In addition to this I loaned you there five florins and some shillings; then you promised at Basel to give me a Spanish bed-cover and several books, such as the works of Augustine, Ambrose, etc. I make no mention of the carpenter’s food and drink, and the porters who helped to carry the books to and fro and pack them, and the additional sum which I have spent in riding to the cloisters, Bebenhausen, Mühlbronn, Hirshau, Denckendorff and Lorch, at your request. All that would have been sufficient security, without the loan of money. Indeed I would not take thirty florins and do for any one else the work I did for you during the fourteen days I was at your place, as a certain one who was at your house, master Adam by name, is said to have remarked jocosely at Frankfort, in speaking of the matter: “What I have done is nothing, but there is one with you now, the latchets of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.” But I am willing 39 to let that pass. I have done the best I could; let others do their part.

Although you write that you are willing to lose a third upon the books you have bought, there are many people who do not credit it. Master Thomas is dissatisfied to this day, because I gave you my books, when he had sold all of his; for I have suffered a considerable loss in the transaction and merely because I would not wait for him; therefore you must simply wait until the book makes money. And that this will come to pass I have no doubt; for if I live the Hebrew tongue must go ahead, with God’s help; and if I die, I have at least made a beginning that will not easily be set aside. I am indeed willing to suffer loss for the common good, dear master Hans, sir and good friend. I am not willing to forfeit your friendship for the sake of money. If I have deserved any thanks at your hands, let it go to my account; if I have deserved no thanks from you, then may God reward me, and may he ever protect you and your wife and our children from misfortune. Given the Tuesday after the festival of St. Augustine, in the year 1512.¥



*  See below, “Letters of Obscure Men.”

  Johann Reuchlin’s Briefwechsel, von L. Geiger. Litt. Verein, Stuttgart, 1875.

  The Rudimenta hebraica.

§  Son of Ammerbach.

  Introductorium perbreve ad gramm. hebr.

¥  Aug. 31, 1512, at Stuttgart.

[For the appreciation of Reuchlin by the next generation of humanists, see what Paolo Giovio has to say about him on this site, by clicking HERE. One of Reuchlin’s learned friends was Johannes Butzbach whose incredible autobiography is also on Elfinspell, translated by Seybolt and Monroe, click HERE to read his own account as a wandering scholar in the fifteenth century. — Elf.Ed.]

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