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Johann Reuchlin

Johann Reuchlin (February 22, 1455 - 1522) was a German humanist and Hebrew scholar.

He was born at Pforzheim in the Black Forest, where his father was an official of the Dominican monastery. According to the fashion of the time, his name was graecicized by his Italian friends into Capnion, a form which Reuchlin used as a sort of transparent mask when he introduced himself as an interlocutor in the De Verbo Mirifico. He remained fond of his home town; he constantly calls himself Phorcensis, and in the De Verbo he ascribes to Pforzheim his inclination towards literature.

Here he began his Latin studies in the monastery school, and, though in 1470 he was a short time in Freiburg, that university seems to have taught him little. Reuchlin's career as a scholar appears to have turned almost on an accident; his fine voice gained him a place in the household of Charles I, Margrave of Baden, and soon, having some reputation as a Latinist, he was chosen to acccmpany Frederick, the third son of the prince, to the University of Paris. Frederick was some years his junior, and was destined for an ecclesiastical career. This new connexion did not last long, but it determined the course of Reuchlin's life. He now began to learn Greek, which had been taught in the French capital since 1470, and he also attached himself to the leader of the Paris realists, Jean Heynlin, or a Lapide Cd. 1496), a worthy and learned man, whom he followed to the vigorous young university of Basel in 1474.

At Basel Reuchlin took his master's degree (1477), and began to lecture with success, teaching a more classical Latin than was then common in German schools, and explaining Aristotle in Greek. His studies in this language had been continued at Basel under Andronicus Contoblacas, and here he formed the acquaintance of the bookseller, Johann Amorbach, for whom he prepared a Latin lexicon (Vocabularius Breviloquus, 1st ed, 1475-76), which ran through many editions. This first publication, and Reuchlin's account of his teaching at Basel in a letter to Cardinal Adrian (Adriano Castellesi) in February 1518, show that he had already found his life's work. He was a born teacher, and this work was not to be done mainly from the professor's chair.

Reuchlin soon left Basel to seek further Greek training with George Hieronymus at Paris, and to learn to write a fair Greek hand that he might support himself by copying manuscripts. And now he felt that he must choose a profession. His choice fell on law, and he was thus led to the great school of Orléans (1478), and finally to Poitiers, where he became licentiate in July 1481. From Poitiers Reuchlin went in December 1481 to Tübingen with the intention of becoming a teacher in the university, but his friends recommended him to Count Eberhard of Württemberg, who was about to journey to Italy and required an interpreter. Reuchlin was selected for this post, and in February 1482 left Stuttgart for Florence and Rome. The journey lasted but a few months, but it brought the German scholar into contact with several learned Italians, especially at the Medicean Academy in Florence; his connexion with the count became permanent, and after his return to Stuttgart he received important posts at Eberhard's court.

About this time he appears to have married, but little is known of his married life. He left no children; but in later years his sister's grandson Philipp Melanchthon was like a son to him till the Reformation estranged them. In 1490 he was again in Italy. Here he saw Pico della Mirandola, to whose Cabbalistic doctrines he afterwards became heir, and made a friend of the pope's secretary, Jakob Questenberg, which was of service to him in his later troubles. Again in 1492 he was employed on an embassy to the emperor Frederick at Linz, and here he began to read Hebrew with the emperor's Jewish physician Jakob ben Jehiel Loans. Loans's instruction laid the basis of that thorough knowledge which Reuchlin afterwards improved on his third visit to Rome in 1498 by the instruction of Obadja Sforno of Cesena. In. 1494 his rising reputation had been greatly enhanced by the publication of De Verbo Mirifico.

In 1496 Eberhard of Württemberg died, and enemies of Reuchlin had the ear of his successor, Duke Eberhard. He was glad, therefore, hastily to follow the invitation of Johann von Dalberg (1445-1503), the scholarly bishop of Worms, and flee to Heidelberg, which was then the seat of the "Rhenish Society." In this court of letters Reuchlin's appointed function was to make translations from the Greek authors, in which his reading was already extremely wide. Though Reuchlin had no public office as teacher, he was for much of his life the real centre of all Greek and Hebrew teaching in Germany. To carry out this work he providef a series of aids for beginners and others. He never published a Greek grammar, but he had one in manuscript for use with his pupils, and also published several little elementary Greek books. Reuchlin, it may be noted, pronounced Greek as his native teachers had taught him to do, i.e. in the modern Greek fashion. This pronunciation, which he defends in Dialogus de Recta Lat. Graecique Serm. Pron. (1519), came to be known, in contrast to that used by Erasmus, as the Reuchlinian.

At Heidelberg Reuchlin had many private pupils, among whom Franz von Sickingen is the best known name. With the monks he had never been liked; at Stuttgart also his great enemy was the Augustinian Conrad Holzinger. On this man he took a scholar's revenge in his first Latin comedy Sergius, a satire on worthless monks and false relics. Through Dalberg, Reuchlin came into contact with Philip, elector palatine of the Rhine, who employed him to direct the studies of his sons, and in 1498 gave him the mission to Rome which has been already noticed as fruitful for Reuchlin's progress in Hebrew. He came back laden with Hebrew books, and found when he reached Heidelberg that a change of government had opened the way for his return to Stuttgart, where his wife had remained all along. His friends had now again the upper hand, and knew Reuchlin's value. In 1500, or perhaps in 1502, he was given a very high judicial office in the Swabian League, which he held till 1512, when he retired to a small estate near Stuttgart.

For many years Reuchlin had been increasingly absorbed in Hebrew studies, which had for him more than a mere philological interest. Though he was always a good Catholic, and even took the habit of an Augustinian monk when he felt that death was near, he was too thorough a humanist to be a blind follower of the church. He knew the abuses of the monastic system, and was interested in the reform of preaching as shown in his De Arte Predicandi (1503)--a book which became a sort of preacher's manual; but above all as a scholar he was eager that the Bible should be better known, and could not tie himself to the authority of the Vulgate.

The key to the Hebraea veritas was the grammatical and exegetical tradition of the medieval rabbins, especially of David Kimhi, and when he had mastered this himself he was resolved to open it to others. In 1506 appeared his epoch-making De Rudimentis Hebraicis--grammar and lexicon--mainly after Kimhi, yet not a mere copy of one man's teaching. The edition. was costly and sold slowly. One great difficulty was that the wars of Maximilian I in Italy prevented Hebrew Bibles coming into Germany. But for this also Reuchlin found help by printing the Penitential Psalms with grammatical explanations (1512), and other helps followed from time to time. But his Greek studies had interested him in those fantastical and mystical systems of later times with which the Cabbala has no small affinity. Following Pico, he seemed to find in the Cabbala a profound theosophy which might be of the greatest service for the defence of Christianity and the reconciliation of science with the mysteries of faith--an unhappy delusion indeed, but one not surprising in that strange time of ferment. Reuchlin's mystico-cabbalistic ideas and objects were expounded in the De Verbo Mirifico, and finally in the De Arte Cabbalistica (1517).

Many of his contemporaries thought that the first step to the conversion of the Jews was to take away their books. This view was advocated by the bigoted Johann Pfefferkorn (1469-1521), himself a baptized Hebrew. Pfefferkorn's plans were backed by the Dominicans of Cologne; and in 1509 he obtained the emperor's authority to confiscate all Jewish books directed against the Christian faith. Armed with this mandate, he visited Stuttgart and asked Reuchlin's help as a jurist and expert in putting it into execution. Reuchlin evaded the demand, mainly because the mandate lacked certain formalities, but he could not long remain neutral. The execution of Pfefferkorn's schemes led to difficulties and to a new appeal to Maximilian.

In 1510 Reuchlin was summoned in the name of the emperor to give his opinion on the suppression of the Jewish books. His answer is dated from Stuttgart, October 6, 1510; in it he divides the books into six classes-apart from the Bible which no one proposed to destroy--and, going through each class, he shows that the books openly insulting to Christianity are very few and viewed as worthless by most Jews themselves, while the others are either works necessary to the Jewish worship, which was licensed by papal as well as imperial law, or contain matter of value and scholarly interest which ought not to be sacrificed because they are connected with another faith than that of the Christians. He proposed that the emperor should decree that for ten years there be two Hebrew chairs at every German university for which the Jews should furnish books.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.