“The named book, “Augenspiegel” [Eye Glasses], was and is scandalous and offensive to the pious ears of Christians and is excessively favorable to the impious Jews and moreover it must be removed from circulation and from the hands of Christians and its use must be inhibited.” (Pope Leo X)
Johann Reuchlin (sometimes Johannes) (22 February 1455 – 30 June 1522) was a German-born humanist and a scholar of Greek and Hebrew, whose work also took him to modern-day France, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. Most of Reuchlin’s career centered around advancing German knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.
A little over five hundred years ago, in September 1511, a compact book entitled Eye Glasses appeared at the international Frankfurt Book Fair and immediately polarized Europe. The author was the universally respected scholar and jurist Johannes Reuchlin, but the subject of Eye Glasses was not destined to find universal acclaim: it was a comprehensive legal and theological defense of Jewish writings. The context of the publication heightened the controversy, for Reuchlin wrote the defense in order to thwart a dangerous persecution that was aiming to destroy every Jewish book in the Holy Roman Empire. After the ensuing intellectual and political storms had passed, Josel of Rosheim, the most influential Jewish leader of Renaissance Germany, described the historic intervention as a “miracle within a miracle,”¹remembering with unabated amazement that a Christian scholar had defended the Jews and, more astonishing, that he had prevailed.The unprecedented defense of Judaism was a response to an unprecedented attack that began in earnest in 1509. Until then, campaigns against German Jews, though numerous and often effective, had been limited to individual territories within the empire. The goal of the 1509 persecution was to weaken and break the surviving Jewish communities in one comprehensive effort by confiscating and destroying every Jewish book except the Hebrew Bible, thereby making it impossible to practice the religion properly. This aggressive strategy, carefully formulated to be compatible with imperial law, was initially spearheaded by Johannes Pfefferkorn, a recent convert to Christianity who had been agitating against Jewish communities in Germany since 1505. By the end of 1509, the confiscation campaign was being supported by the emperor, the archbishop of Mainz, the University of Mainz, the University of Cologne, the powerful Dominican convent in Cologne, the Observant Franciscan Order, and the papal Inquisitor Jacob Hoogstraeten.
Johann Reuchlin was born at Pforzheim in the Black Forest in 1455, where his father was an official of the Dominican monastery. According to the fashion of the time, his name was graecized by his Italian friends into Capnion (Καπνίων), a nickname 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 accompany 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 connection 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 à Lapide (d. 1496), a worthy and learned man, whom he followed to the vigorous young university of Basel in 1474.
Initially, the most potent weapon against the Jews was the printing press. Before Emperor Maximilian authorized destruction of Jewish books, Pfefferkorn and the faculty of theology at Cologne published a series of stridently anti-Jewish tracts: Mirror of the Jews (1507), Confession of the Jews (1508), How the Blind Jews Observe Their Easter (1509), and The Enemy of the Jews (1509), all of which appeared simultaneously in both German and Latin editions. Counting the German originals and the Latin translations, these books went through an astounding twenty-one editions within three years. Although ostensibly published as missionary tracts, the inflammatory pamphlets were designed to stoke the fires of Christian anti-Semitism. They assailed contemporary Judaism as a heresy (i.e., as being a perversion of biblical Judaism) that must be rooted out, and they depicted Jewish customs and prayers as intolerable blasphemies against God. Moreover, the pamphlets insisted that Jewish moneylenders were engaged in a pervasive effort to destroy Christian society. These pamphlets rapidly built the political momentum that, in August 1509, secured the decisive step from Maximilian: a mandate to confiscate and destroy the offending Jewish books.
Implementation of the new policy began in September 1509 in Frankfurt am Main, home to one of the three most prominent Jewish communities in Germany (the other two being Worms and Regensburg). Despite strong resistance from Jewish leaders, a complete confiscation in Frankfurt was carried out by April 1510, and other Rhineland communities, including Worms, also suffered confiscations in 1509 and 1510.
This action occurred at a time when all of Europe was contemplating the end of Judaism. After the expulsion of the world’s largest Jewish community from Spain in 1492 and the forced Portuguese conversion of 1497, European Judaism was tottering at the edge of the abyss. Jews had long since disappeared from England (expulsion 1290) and France (expulsion from crown territories, 1394). Expulsions had also been mandated in many individual territories across the Holy Roman Empire—Vienna (1420/21), Cologne (1424), Bavaria (1442/50), Würzburg (1453), Passau (1478), Mecklenburg (1492), Magdeburg (1493), Württemberg (1498), Nuremberg (1498–99), Ulm (1499), and Brandenburg (1510), to name but a few. During the second half of the fifteenth century, the area open to Jewish residency contracted with every passing year. Various jurisdictions in Italy, the only major homeland to western European Jewry outside of the empire in 1509, were following suit. As a result of the spread of Spanish rule, Jews were banished from Sicily in 1492 and from the Kingdom of Naples through a series of expulsions, with the strongest intensity during 1511–14, that concluded in 1541. This moment in history, which instigated the early modern exodus to Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, marks the nadir of Jewish life in western and central Europe prior to the Holocaust.
The trials of Reuchlin elicited many defenses and attacks and also resulted in two preliminary verdicts. A 1514 episcopal court in Speyer pronounced Reuchlin innocent of all charges of having “favored” Jews and, in an unprecedented ruling, assessed the papal inquisition (in the person of Jacob Hoogstraeten) for the defendant’s court costs. An appeals court at the Roman Curia reached a similar verdict in 1516. Nonetheless, on 23 June 1520, just eight days after signing the first thundering condemnation of Martin Luther, Leo X issued a verdict against Reuchlin. In the aftermath of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses (1517), the Vatican was simply no longer in a position to allow challenges against inquisitional forces in Germany to go forward. Indeed, in April 1521, at the beginning of the Diet of Worms (where Luther would be condemned by the estates of the empire), Pfefferkorn wrote: “Yes, Reuchlin, if the Pope had done this to you eight years ago, Martin Luther and your disciples … would not have dared to wish or contemplate what they are now publicly pursuing to the detriment of the Christian faith. Of all this, you alone are the spark and the enabler, to drive the holy church into error and superstition.”15 Reuchlin, however, ultimately repudiated Luther’s movement and remained a Catholic until his death on 30 June 1522.
Despite the papal condemnation, a permanent foundation had been laid for Christian Hebrew studies. We can assume that Reuchlin was not the only Christian of his generation who admired his Jewish books and acquaintances, but he was the first to represent Jewish theology and Jews themselves with a measure of benevolence, sometimes even unqualified admiration, in public discourse. When it came to a few Jewish thinkers, his opponents’ accusations, though bitterly formulated, that he valued Jewish authorities more than the doctors of the church were not entirely specious. Major Jewish scholars such as David Kimhi, Rashi, Joseph Gikatilla, and, above all, Moses Maimonides impressed him at a very deep level. It is not astonishing that he acknowledged the importance of Talmudic and medieval Jewish scholarship—even Luther consulted Jewish scholarship for his Old Testament exegesis—but it is striking that he so openly registered agreement with the wisdom and piety of the Jewish authors he studied. Yet, once again, Reuchlin would have considered his attitude nothing more (and nothing less) than a reasonable and just academic judgment of the works themselves.
Despite Reuchlin’s many victories, Eye Glasses was finally condemned by Leo X on 23 June 1520: “The named book, Eye Glasses, was and is scandalous and offensive to the pious ears of Christians and is excessively favorable to the impious Jews and moreover it must be removed from circulation and from the hands of Christians and its use must be inhibited, etc.” The pope almost certainly made this decision in order to bolster the authority of the church in Germany as it faced the major threat of Luther’s movement.
In this book, the last publication in the Reuchlin Affair, Pfefferkorn calls for a civil trial of Reuchlin at the Diet of Worms and for the public execution of Reuchlin as a heretic. Although Reuchlin, too, had called for a civil trial, it did not take place and he was not condemned and executed. He died in Stuttgart on 30 June 1522.
Prayer: Lord, forgive our intolerance of the other, our obscurantism and our intellectual idleness. Help us to worship you with all our minds, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.
Click to view a digitized version from the Munich Digitization Center
Item VI.4, title page. The Letters of Obscure Men
(1517), the first edition of part two.
From the Klau Library, HUC-JIR (Cincinnati).
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