Charles Beard.

Martin Luther and the reformation in Germany until the close of the Diet of Worms online

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He died at Gotha in 1526.i

This enumeration of a few comparatively celebrated names
will, however, give a very inadequate idea of the literary
activity of Germany at the end of the fifteenth and the begin-
ning of the sixteenth century. The list might be almost
indefinitely extended to show that every considerable city had
one or more resident scholars, eager in the cultivation and
diffusion of the new learning. These men collected the books
which the Italian and German press plentifully poured forth,
and made them the subjects of comment in a lively literary
correspondence, which filled the same place in the life of
scholars as reviews and magazines do now. In many districts
men of letters were united in social bonds more or less close.
Conrad Celtes formed a Ehenish and subsequently a Danubian
society, each of which had for its object the cultivation of
literature and art. This association quickened individual
energy ; men who exchanged the results of their studies felt
that they were not alone, but working in the line of a great
movement, while, if controversy arose, and sometimes deepened
into quarrel, the resulting clash of words was at least better
than stagnation. At the same time, this, like the correspond-
ing period in Italy, was not fertile in works of literary
excellence. With few exceptions, the productions of the

^ For Mutian and Hess, vide Kamp- Vlrich von Hutten (2(1 ed.), pp. 30-37,

schulte, Universitdt Erfurt, bk. i. chaps. 546-549 ; Hagen, vol. i. p. 323 d seq.

ii. iii. pp. 49-119. Conf. for Mutian, For Hess, Dr. Carl Krause's excellent

Tentzel, Supplementuvi Historiae Goth- biography has been consulted, Jfelius

anae primuyn 0. Mutiani Rufi Episto- Eubanus Eessus, sein Lcbcn uvd seine

las comjdcctens (Jenae, 1701); Strauss, Wcrke.


humanists in prose and verse have the air of school exercises,
more or less perfectly performed, of which the manner is more
important than the matter. This is especially the case with
the poetry : even if modern Latin verse had otherwise any
chance of remembrance, none that was written in Germany at
this time, except perhaps that of Eoban Hess, could by possi-
bility claim it. Among the elder scholars there was very little
knowledge of Greek : it is often enumerated among the ac-
quirements of men whose acquaintance with it did not extend
much beyond the alphabet. Even the Latin classics were
read in a quite uncritical way, with little discrimination of
varying age and worth, while the imitation of them, which
was often the scholar's highest aim, was only superficial. In
what claimed to be original compositions, nothing can be more
wearisome than the perpetual repetition of the tritest mytho-
logical allusions, almost always inapposite, and often intro-
duced in connections where they are at once irreverent and
ludicrous. In fact, Germany was only just beginning to spell
out the first words of its classical lesson, and that without an
idea of the magnitude and complexity of the task that lay
before it. But the great thing was, that everywhere in the
intellectual world there were light, air, movement ; and that
the stagnation into which mediajval science had settled was
effectually disturbed.

At this point something may be said of a kind of literature
which formed a transition between the humanists and the com-
mon people. For a time the classical revival in Germany was
unfavourable to the continuous development of a vernacular
literature, which had already shown considerable promise ; to
write in the people's language was for the most part left to
such as had not appropriated the treasures, or did not feel
the responsibilities of scholarship. But there was a popular
satirical literature which formed part of the assault upon
medisevalism, and in its way was sufficiently effective, making
the clergy, from the Pope downwards, the object of special
attack, and remorselessly holding up their moral weaknesses to
ridicule and contempt. And akin to this was the literary
movement which I am about to mention. Its earliest mani-
festation was in Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff, or Ship of Fools,


a poetic satire, written in the dialect of Strassburg, which, first
published in 1494, went through many editions, and has been
translated into the chief languages of Europe. Brant (1457-
1521) was a grave and religious humanist, the friend of Wim-
pheling and Geiler, who, at first a professor of law at Basel,
came to Strassburg in 1500, and there spent the remaining
years of his life as city secretary. He was a sound Catholic,
if not a very good poet; while he deplores the abuses of the
Church, he has not an idea of reforming them, except in an
orthodox way. The Shii^ of Fools is perhaps more strictly
allegorical than satirical : Brant's leading idea is that the
sinner is always a fool ; he lashes with steady invective the
innumerable ways in which his contemporaries despise the
divine law ; but there is no lightness in his satiric touch, and
his object is much more to instruct and reform than to amuse.
The book, nevertheless, was immensely popular, and in 1497
was translated into Latin by a Swabian scholar, Jacob Locher,
whose literary name was Philomusus. More deeply imbued
with the spirit of popular satire were the Facetiae and the
Triumphus Veneris of Heinrich Bebel (1470-1518?), one of
the earliest teachers at the University of Tubingen : the first,
a collection of anecdotes, of which it is difEicult to say whether
the obscenity or the irreverence is more remarkable ; the
second a poem, in six books, in which the whole world, clerical
as well as lay, is represented as prostrate at the feet of the
Cyprian goddess. Brant's poem may possibly have given a
hint for Erasmus's Encomiitm Moriae, the first dated edition of
which appeared at Strassburg in 1511, but which may have
been written a year or two earlier. But his more legitimate
successor was Thomas Murner (1475-1537), also an Alsatian,
a Franciscan monk, who afterwards took up the cudgels with
great goodwill against Luther. His Narrenheschiuorung, or
Conspiracy of Fools, and his Schelmenzunft, or Guild of Rascals,
which appeared at Frankfurt about 1512, are written in the
same metre and dialect as the Ship of Fools, and, with much
more satiric power than Brant possessed, give a sunilar picture
of society and reprove the same vices.^

^ For Brant vide Schmidt, vol. i. 1839. For Mnrner, Schmidt, vul. ii.
pp. 189-333 ; also Das Narrensehiff von pp. 209-315 ; 15ebel, Hagen, vol. 1. p.
Dr. Sebastian Brant, ed. A. W. Strobel, 381 c« seq.


Upon the background, then, afforded by these facts, I have
now to try to delineate the figures of three great men : John
Eeuchlin (1455-1522), Desiderius Erasmus (1467?-1536),
and UMch von Hutten (1488-1523). It is in them and
in their fate that the characteristics of German intellectual and
religious life, in the period immediately before the Eeformation,
are most clearly seen.

John Eeuchlin, the greatest of the elder generation of
German humanists, whose name, by a curious perversity of fate,
became the watchword of a party with whose aims he only
half sympathised, was born at Pforzheim, in Baden, in 1455.
Of his parents little is known ; but from the fact that he was
sent to the Latin school of his native place, and thence, when
only fifteen years old, to the University of Freiburg, it may be
concluded that they occupied a more honourable station than his
enemies were afterwards anxious to make out. At Freiburg
he did not remain long. Eeturning home, his pleasant voice
attracted the attention of the Margrave of Baden, who chose
him to go to Paris as the companion of his son, who was
destined to the service of the Church. Here, in what had once
been the chosen home of scholastic philosophy, he plunged into
the studies of the time, making the acquaintance of two cele-
brated men of whom I have already spoken — Heynlin von
Stein, who, though a German by birth, had been in 1469
rector of the university ; and Eudolf Agricola, the typical
northern scholar of his day. But soon, for some unknown
reason, Eeuchlin removed to Basel, where he in due course took
the degrees of Bachelor and Master of Arts; Already, however,
the eager thirst for knowledge w-hich was his distinguishing
characteristic throughout life had manifested itself. In Basel
was a Greek, Andronicus Contoblacas, who, though he gave no
public lectures, was willing to teach his native language to any
who wished to learn it. Eeuchlin was his pupil — the first
German who learned Greek from a Greek on German soil.
Soon we find him at Paris again, continuing his Greek studies,
under George HermonjTiius, a native of Sparta. But he had
chosen the law as his profession ; and in order to prepare him-
self thoroughly for it, betook himself first to the University of
Orleans, and next to that of Poitiers. Here, in 1481, he


received his doctor's diploma, which was the witness that his
education was complete, and returned to Germany, hoping to
find work in the new University of Tubingen. The result was
other, perhaps better, than he expected ; he was taken into the
service of Eberhard with the Beard, the Count of Wurtember^T,
who was also its first Duke, a wise and resolute prince, who, if
not himself learned, loved and cherished learning. Before long
Eeuchlin found himself on the way to Italy, in the suite of his
patron. Florence was visited, where the young scholar
enjoyed the conversation of the men of letters whom the
Medici had attracted to their court ; then Eome, where Sixtus
IV was Pope. Here it was that he was brought into contact
with John Argyropulos, a boastful and ill-tempered Greek, who
had already taught his native language in Italy for half a
century. The story goes that Argyropulos somewhat contemp-
tuously gave Eeuchlin, on his first introduction to him, a
passage of Thucydides to read and translate, and was so struck
by his success in performing the task as to exclaim, half in
admiration, half in sorrow, that in his person Greece had now fled
beyond the Alps. This was, however, only one of three journeys
which Eeuchlin made to Eome. But whatever the business
that took him there, his eagerness for learning was the same.
He was ready to sit at the feet of any who could unfold the
secrets of classical or Hebrew antiquity. Of Hermolaus
Barbaras, who grrecised his name into Capnio, he learned
something of textual criticism ; Pico della Mirandola initiated
him into the mysteries of the Cabbala ; Mutian had heard a
story in Bologna that he had given a Jew ten gold pieces for
the explanation of a single Hebrew phrase. His was the pure
love of learning for its own sake.

With all this, he was not a professional scholar, but a
lawyer and a statesman. He passed the best years of his
life in the service of the Dukes of Wiirtemberg. He became
one of the judges who arbitrated in the quarrels of the Swa-
bian League. Once, indeed, when political troubles, to which
no more minute allusion need here be made, distracted liis
adopted country, he spent a year or two at Heidelberg, in the
fellowship of that Ehenish literary society which Conrad
Celtes had founded, and over wliich liishop John von Dal-


berg then presided. But he did not teach in the university,
and when the occasion offered returned to his practical work.
Still, if no priest, there was about him all the gravity of
the German as distinguished from the Italian humanist. He
threw the whole energy of his mind, especially in later life,
into a certain kind of theology. His only heresy was that
of the scholar, who is suspected of wandering in forbidden
paths as soon as he passes out of sight of the vulgar. He
did not scruple, for instance, to point out errors in the Vul-
gate, appealing from it to the Hebrew original, and, when
reproved, nobly replying, " I revere St. Jerome as an angel ;
I respect De Lyra as a master, but I adore truth as a God."
So, too, his Cabbalistic studies brought him into a certain
kind of disrepute. Greek, as the language of schismatics, was
abhorred of monkish theologians, how much more Hebrew, the
tongue of an accursed race ? Otherwise he stood high in
general esteem. The Emperor ennobled him, giving him a
grant of arms. Men spoke well of him as a lawyer and a
diplomatist. All scholars, both in Italy and in Germany, were
his friends, looking upon him as a light of modern erudition.
A little later Ulrich von Hutten coupled him with Erasmus
as " the two eyes of Germany," " to whom we owe it that this
nation has ceased to be barbarous."

Eeuchlin's contributions to the humanist literature of the
time were neither large nor particularly valuable. At the
very beginning of his career he had been the author of a
Latin dictionary, afterwards he wrote two comedies in Latin, on
one of which, Sergius, Hieronymus Emser lectured at Erfurt
in 1504^; nor was he, in truth, an elegant Latinist. The
more graceful qualities of scholarship he did not possess.
His knowledge of Greek was certainly superior to that of any
of his coevals, but he put it to little use. This was partly
due to his diplomatic and judicial avocations, but partly also
to that devotion to the Hebrew language and literature which
was his distinguishing characteristic. There is a tradition
that his thoughts were turned in this direction at an early
period of his life ; but his serious study of Hebrew began with
an acquaintance which he formed in 1492 with Jehiel Loans,

^ Kampschulte, vol. i. p. 66.


the Jewish physician of the Emperor Frederic III. From that

time Hebrew was his favourite occupation. Not satisfied with
its grammatical study and its application to the interpretation
of the Old- Testament, he plunged into that strange weltering
sea of Cabbalistic speculation, from which, in common with
some of his contemporaries, he believed that the purest
pearls of truth were to be drawn. His first book of this kind,
De Verbo Mirijico, dates from 1494, and is dedicated to John
von Dalberg. Then in 1506 he published a Hebrew grammar,
which, if not absolutely the earliest of its kind, is the first that
deserves the name. Nor were his troubles with the theolo-
gians of Koln able to wean him from these cherished studies ;
in 1517 he dedicated to Leo X a work in three books, De
arte Cabbalisticd. Perhaps his truest title to fame is that he
was the restorer of Oriental learning in Northern Europe. He
performed, though in a less perfect way, for the Old Testament,
the task which Erasmus executed for the New ; he took men's
minds back from the Vulgate to the original text. So far as
the Jews themselves were concerned, he was not altogether
exempt from the prejudices of his age ; but in nothing did he
more decisively show himself the true scholar than in not
permitting those prejudices to shut him out from the purest
sources of Hebrew learning. Nor would it be right to allow
Eeuchlin's Cabbalistic fancies to weigh against the general
sobriety of his scholarship ; his was an age which had not yet
formulated canons of criticism, and he could plead worthy
companionship in his learned delusions. Wieland has well
said of him, that " to Oriental literature he uttered the word
of power. Come forth ! And the dead came forth wound
round with Eabbinical grave-clothes, and with the napkin of
the Cabbala about his head. The second word, the word
reserved for the successors of Eeuchlin to speak, was far easier,
Loose him, and let him go." ^

Erasmus was only twelve years younger than Eeuchlin.
But owing in part to the rapid movement of the times, in

^ Geiger, p. 195. All earlier lives added Joh. Reuchliii's Briefwechscl,

of Reuchlin, that of Mai (1687), and edited by Geiger, for the Literarischer

that of Meyerhoff (1830), have been Vercin of Stuttgart in 1875. Conf.

superseded by L. Geiger's excellent Erhard, vol. ii. i>p. 147-460 ; Strauss,

work, Johann ReucJilin, sein Leben unci U. v. UiMcn, p. \i\ et scq.
seine Werke, 1871. To this may be


part to the genius of the man, we seem, in speaking of him,
to enter upon a new epoch of literary development. The
German humanist, painfully appropriating the classical in-
heritance, and learning with difficulty to think new thoughts
and write a new language, is transformed into the accomplished
man of letters who uses Latin with the easy force of a ver-
nacular tongue, and wields an European influence.

Erasmus was born at Eotterdam in or about the year 1467.
His real name was Gerhard, which, under the belief that it
meant " beloved," he latinised into Desiderius and then incor-
rectly grsecised into Erasmus. The illegitimate son of one who,
resisting the desire of his parents that he should enter the
monastic life, was afterwards forced by a shameful trick into the
cloister, Erasmus began life with a grievance against mon-
asticism which he never forgot. It was made more bitter by
his own history. He was half-cajoled, half-forced into the
Augustinian house of Steyn, a step which was no sooner taken
than repented of. Already, however, his destiny was fixed.
He had been a pupil of Alexander Hegius in his well-known
school at Deventer, where his proficiency had excited the
admiration of the patriarch of German humanism, Eudolf
Agricola. From that time forth nothing could quench his
inborn thirst for learning. The six years which he passed at
Steyn were spent in the study of the classics, though probably
the Latin poets and orators only. But in 1491 an unexpected
deliverance came. The Bishop of Cambrai, intending to go to
Eome, wanted some young scholar as secretary and companion,
and for that purpose, with due permission of superiors, took
Erasmus out of his convent. The Italian journey, for some
reason or other, was never made, but Erasmus was ffee.
Monk and priest as he was, he never returned to the monastic
life, which as long as he lived continued to be the object of his
deepest dislike, and the mark for his sharpest shafts of satire.

From Cambrai Erasmus made his way to the University of
Paris : thence, again, after certain episodes, which it is not
necessary to recount, in 1497, to England. He had formed the
acquaintance of William, Lord Mountjoy, who assured him of a
welcome across the Channel, and told him of men who at Oxford
were engaged in the study of Greek. It was the dream of


Erasmus's life to learn Greek in Italy : but how was a poor
scholar, dependent upon private teaching and an ill -paid
pension, to make the expensive journey across the Alps ?
Oxford was the next best resource, and to Oxford he went.
The journey was full of consequences both to Erasmus himself
and through him to European religion. For the next eighteen
or nineteen years of his life he constantly revisits England.
The Greek that he learns at Oxford he teaches at Cambridge.
He studies with Grocyn and Linacre : he knits the closest
friendship with Colet and More. One of his chief patrons is
William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, who presents him
with the Kentish living of Aldington, and to whom in return
he dedicates in 1516 his magnificent edition of St. Jerome.
He is presented to Henry VIII — then a boy of nine years old,
who asks for a tribute of verses, afterwards duly paid. He
makes a vivid contribution to English history, in accounts
written long afterwards of pilgrimages paid to two of our great
national shrines, that of Our Lady of Walsingham, and the still
more famous one of St. Thomas of Canterbury, at the very time
when faith began to wane, and the axe of reform was hanging
over them, ready to fall. In the midst of his English activity
he found time and means for the visit to Italy, so necessary to
the reputation as well as to the erudition of a scholar,
making the acquaintance of learned men, and superintending
at Venice the production of a new edition of his Adages, by
the famous press of Aldus. But he came back to England
again, in the hope, which proved delusive, of patronage and
employment from the young Henry VIII, in whose love of
learning all humanists put their trust.

A scholar who was born in Holland, who had studied at Paris,
who had paid repeated visits to England, and who had made the
indispensable journey to Italy, had already laid the foundation of
an international reputation. But while Erasmus was one of the
students who were constantly increasing their store of scholar-
ship, and to whom everything seemed to ofi'er additional materials
of erudition, he was also a man of letters, and to some extent a
man of the world. Educated Europe had, at that time, but one
language, and it was possible, as at no period before or since,
for a great writer to make his appeal to readers of every nation.


And Latin, which he wrote with unexampled force and ease, was
ahnost Erasmus's native tongue. His voluminous works contain
no word of any other. How far he spoke English with More, or
German with Hutten, or Italian with Aldus, we have no means
of knowing ; probably Latin was almost as much the medium of
daily intercourse as it undoubtedly was of familiar correspondence.
His Latin was not Ciceronian: indeed his openly-expressed
contempt for the pedantic imitation of Cicero brought him in
later life into literary trouble; but it was something much
better, a language recalled from the lethargy of learning into
which it was rapidly falling, to be once more the living vehicle
of thought. His Colloquies, originally written to teach the use
of Latin as a spoken language to the son of his Basel printer,
Eroben, but in which he embodied many of his most character-
istic opinions on men and things, are an admirable example of
the way in which a classical language may, in the hands of a
master, become plastic to new methods and applications.
And his voluminous correspondence, which of itself might almost
have been the outcome of a busy lifetime, and gives, to those
who have patience to master its contents, a vivid and various
picture of the literary life of contemporary Europe, has little of
the ceremonial cumbrousness which usually deforms Latin letters,
and is almost as modern in form as it is in spirit.

The weapon of style, thus edged and polished, Erasmus used
with the skill of an accomplished man of letters. He was not
deficient, as we shall presently see, in the graver labours of
scholarship ; but he also took the public into his confidence.
His writings were popular, to an extent which an age in
which literature is not necessarily learned finds it difficult
to understand. His Adages, a collection of Greek and Latin
proverbs, with explanations and discursive commentary, were
reprinted again and again, always growing in bulk, until they
finally occupy the whole of a folio volume in the last edition
of his works. They are good reading for scholars still, but
only scholars read them. In the early years of the sixteenth
century they were read by every one who could read at all.
The Encomium Moriae, which he wrote at More's house on his
return from Italy in 1510, and dedicated to his host, was
more popular still. /Editions of it appeared in rapid succession:



Holbein illustrated it with his pencil : a French version
was published in 1517. Tried by modern standards, its wit
seems laboured, and its leading idea too long drawn out, but
contemporary readers did not think so ; and, in conjunction
with the Adages, it told a curious world what the first scholar
of his day thought of kings and nobles, monks and nuns, and
the social system of which these were the pillars. What is now
strangest is, perhaps, not that almost every one who could read
laughed with Erasmus at established institutions (and the
Colloquies only deepened the impression which the Adages and
the Praise of Folly had made), but that he kept on friendly and
familiar terms with cardinals, princes, and statesmen. The
greatest names in the Church (Leo X and Cardinal Wolsey, the
Archbishop of Mainz and the Archbishop of Canterbury) are
found in the list of his correspondents. In 1514 he was
made a member of the council formed for the young prince
who, in a few years more, was to be Charles V. It seemed as
if the universal admiration for his learning and literary power
gave him a place among the potentates of the world, and with
it absolute liberty to say what he would. Such a monarchy

Online LibraryCharles BeardMartin Luther and the reformation in Germany until the close of the Diet of Worms → online text (page 9 of 48)