Too few know enough about this towering academic. So, here’s just a fragment to introduce him to you. For more, get, and read, this volume.
John Reuchlin, 1455–1522, known also by the Latin name Capnion, was born in Pforzheim and studied at Schlettstadt, Freiburg, Paris, Basel, Orleans, Poictiers, Florence and Rome. He learned Greek from native Greeks, Hebrew from John Wessel and from Jewish rabbis in Germany and Italy. He bought many Hebrew and rabbinical books, and marked down the time and place of purchase to remind him of the happiness their first acquaintance gave him. A lawyer by profession, he practised law in Stuttgart and always called himself legum doctor. He was first in the service of Eberhard, count of Wuertemberg, whom he accompanied to Italy in 1482 as he later accompanied his son, 1490. He served on diplomatic missions and received from the Emperor Maximilian the rank of a count of the Palatinate. At Eberhard’s death he removed to Heidelberg, 1496, where he was appointed by the elector Philip chief tutor in his family. His third visit to Rome, 1498, was made in the elector’s interest. Again he returned to Stuttgart, from which he was called in 1520 to Ingolstadt as professor of Greek and Hebrew at a salary of 200 gulden. In 1521, he was driven from the city by the plague and was appointed lecturer in Tuebingen. His death occurred the following spring at Liebenzell in the Black Forest.
Reuchlin recommended Melanchthon as professor of Greek in the University of Wittenberg, and thus unconsciously secured him for the Reformation. He was at home in almost all the branches of the learning of his age, but especially in Greek and Hebrew. He translated from Greek writings into Latin, and a part of the Iliad and two orations of Demosthenes into German. His first important work appeared at Basel when he was 20, the Vocabularius breviloquus, a Latin lexicon which went through 25 editions, 1475–1504. He also prepared a Greek Grammar. His chief distinction, however, is as the pioneer of Hebrew learning among Christians in Northern Europe. He gave a scientific basis for the study of this language in his Hebrew Grammar and Dictionary, the De rudimentis hebraicis, which he published in 1506 at his own cost at Pforzheim. Its circulation was slow and, in 1510, 750 copies of the edition of 1,000 still remained unsold. The second edition appeared in 1537. The author proudly concluded this work with the words of Horace, that he had reared a monument more enduring than brass.1 In 1512, he issued the Penitential Psalms with a close Latin translation and grammatical notes, a work used by Luther. The printing of Hebrew books had begun in Italy in 1475.
Reuchlin pronounced Hebrew the oldest of the tongues—the one in which God and angels communicated with man. In spite of its antiquity it is the richest of the languages and from it other languages drew, as from a primal fountain. He complained of the neglect of the study of the Scriptures for the polite study of eloquence and poetry. Reuchlin studied also the philosophy of the Greeks and the Neo-Platonic and Pythagorean mysticisms. He was profoundly convinced of the value of the Jewish Cabbala, which he found to be a well of hidden wisdom. In this rare branch of learning he acknowledged his debt to Pico della Mirandola, whom he called “the greatest scholar of the age.” He published the results of his studies in two works—one, De verbo mirifico, which appeared at Basel in 1494, and passed through eight editions; and one, De arte cabbalistica, 1517. “The wonder-working word” is the Hebrew tetragrammaton IHVH, the unpronounceable name of God, which is worshipped by the celestials, feared by the infernals and kissed by the soul of the universe. The word Jesu, Ihsvh, is only an enlargement of Ihvh by the letter s. The Jehovah- and Jesus-name is the connecting link between God and man, the infinite and the finite. Thus the mystic tradition of the Jews is a confirmation of the Christian doctrine of the trinity and the divinity of Christ. Reuchlin saw in every name, in every letter, in every number of the old Testament, a profound meaning. In the three letters of the word for create, bara, Gen. 1:1, he discerned the mystery of the Trinity; in one verse of Exodus, 72 inexpressible names of God; in Prov. 30:31, a prophecy that Frederick the Wise, of Saxony, would follow Maximilian as emperor of Germany, a prophecy which was not fulfilled. We may smile at these fantastic vagaries; but they stimulated and deepened the zeal for the hidden wisdom of the Orient, which Reuchlin called forth from the grave.
Through his interest in the Jews and in rabbinical literature, Reuchlin became involved in a controversy which spread over all Europe and called forth decrees from Cologne and other universities, the archbishop of Mainz, the inquisitor-general of Germany, Hoogstraten, the emperor, Maximilian, and Pope Leo X. The monks were his chief opponents, led by John Pfefferkorn, a baptized Jew of Cologne. The controversy was provoked by a tract on the misery of the Jews, written by Reuchlin, 1505—Missive warumb die Juden so lang im Elend sind. Here the author made the obstinacy of the Jews in crucifying Christ and their persistence in daily blaspheming him the just cause of their sorrows, but, instead of calling for their persecution, he urged a serious effort for their conversion. In a series of tracts, Pfefferkorn assaulted this position and demanded that his former coreligionists, as the sworn enemies of Christ, should be compelled to listen to Christian preaching, be forbidden to practise usury and that their false Jewish books should be destroyed. The flaming anti-Semite prosecuted his case with the vigor with which a few years later Eck prosecuted the papal case against Luther. Maximilian, whose court he visited three times to present the matter, Hoogstraten and the University of Cologne took Pfefferkorn’s side, and the emperor gave him permission to burn all Jewish books except, of course, the Old Testament. Called upon to explain his position by the archbishop of Mainz, with whom Maximilian left the case, Reuchlin exempted from destruction the Talmud, the Cabbala and all other writings of the Jews except the Nizahon and the Toledoth Jeshu, which, after due examination and legal decision, might be destroyed, as they contained blasphemies against Christ, his mother and the Apostles. He advised the emperor to order every university in Germany to establish chairs of Hebrew for ten years.
Pfefferkorn, whom Reuchlin had called a “buffalo or an ass,” replied in a violent attack, the Handmirror—Handspiegel wider und gegen die Juden—1511. Both parties appeared before the emperor, and Reuchlin replied in the Spectacles—Augenspiegel,—which in its turn was answered by his antagonist in the Burning Glass—Brandspiegel. The sale of the Spectacles was forbidden in Frankfurt. Reuchlin followed in a Defense against all Calumniators, 1513, and after the manner of the age cudgelled them with such epithets as goats, biting dogs, raving wolves, foxes, hogs, sows, horses, asses and children of the devil. An appeal he made to Frederick the Wise called forth words of support from Carlstadt and Luther. The future Reformer spoke of Reuchlin as a most innocent and learned man, and condemned the inquisitorial zeal of the Cologne theologians who “might have found worse occasions of offence on all the streets of Jerusalem than in the extraneous Jewish question.” The theological faculty of Cologne, which consisted mostly of Dominicans, denounced 43 sentences taken from Reuchlin as heretical, 1514.
The Paris university followed suit. Cited before the tribunal of the Inquisition by Hoogstraten, Reuchlin appealed to the pope. Hoogstraten had the satisfaction of seeing the Augenspiegel publicly burnt at Cologne, Feb. 10, 1514. The young bishop of Spires, whom Leo X. appointed to adjudicate the case, cleared Reuchlin and condemned Hoogstraten to silence and the payment of the costs, amounting to 111 gulden, April 24, 1514.2 But the indomitable inquisitor took another appeal, and Leo appointed Cardinal Grimani and then a commission of 24 to settle the dispute. All the members of the commission but Sylvester Prierias favored Reuchlin, who was now supported by the court of Maximilian, by the German “poets” as a body and by Ulrich von Hutten, but opposed by the Dominican order. When a favorable decision was about to be rendered, Leo interposed, June 23, 1520, and condemned Reuchlin’s book, the Spectacles, as a work friendly to the Jews, and obligated the author to pay the costs of trial and thereafter to keep silence. The monks had won and Pfefferkorn, with papal authority on his side, could celebrate his triumph over scholarship and toleration in a special tract, 1521.
With the Reformation, which in the meantime had broken out at Wittenberg, the great Hebrew scholar showed no sympathy. He even turned away from Melanchthon and cancelled the bequest of his library, which he had made in his favor, and gave it to his native town, Pforzheim. He prevented, however, Dr. Eck, during his brief sojourn at Ingolstadt, from burning Luther’s writings. His controversy with Pfefferkorn had shown how strong in Germany the spirit of obscurantism was, but it had also called forth a large number of pamphlets and letters in favor of Reuchlin. The Hebrew pathfinder prepared a collection of such testimonies from Erasmus, Mutianus, Peutinger, Pirkheimer, Busch, Vadianus, Glareanus, Melanchthon, Oecolampadius, Hedio and others,—in all, 43 eminent scholars who were classed as Reuchlinists.*
*Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church (vol. 6; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 625–630.