Reuchlin, Johann
(1455-1512)
   German lawyer and humanist, famous because of his pioneering role in promoting the study of He-brew in northern Europe, and also because of his controversy with the Dominican theologians of the University of Cologne which gave rise to a savage anticlerical satire, Letters of Obscure Men, written in defense of Reuchlin by a group of young humanists.
   Reuchlin was born at Pforzheim in Baden and educated in liberal arts at Freiburg, Paris, and Basel. He then studied law at Orléans and Poitiers. He spent most of his career in the law, first as a legal adviser to German princes and then as a judge. His work took him to Italy on several occasions, and he was favorably impressed by the Italian scholars whom he met, including the Neoplatonic philosophers Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirándola and the Venet-ian humanist Ermolao Barbaro. Reuchlin was one of the first Ger-man humanists to become truly competent in Greek, and by the 1490s he also had begun to study Hebrew. The Florentine Neopla-tonists influenced him strongly, and like Pico he extended this inter-est in Platonic philosophy to include Jewish Cabala. He published a Hebrew grammar (1506), a book on Hebrew accents and orthogra-phy, and two books on Cabala, De verbo mirifico / On the Miracu-lous Word (1494) and the more knowledgeable De arte cabalistica / On the Cabalistic Art (1517). In these books, Reuchlin tried to dis-cover ancient religious truths concealed behind the Hebrew words of Scripture and Cabala. He interpreted Cabala, Neoplatonist philoso-phy, the works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and other ancient esoteric writings in a Christian sense, regarding them as providen-tially designed to prepare the world for conversion to Christianity. Despite these unconventional interests, Reuchlin in most respects was a conservative Catholic and during the early Reformation op-posed Luther. He disinherited his own great-nephew and protégé Philipp Melanchthon because of the latter's support of Luther.
   Nevertheless, Reuchlin became embroiled in 1511 in a controversy with the Dominican order and the theological faculty at Cologne which created a famous scandal. This controversy began when Reuchlin replied to a request from the Emperor Maximilian I by ad-vising rejection of a proposal by a converted Jew, Johann Pfeffer-korn, that all Hebrew religious books except the Bible should be de-stroyed. His opposition to this proposal was based mainly on humanist considerations: the loss of Hebrew learning would be a ter-rible blow to Christian scholarship. In reply, Pfefferkorn published a slanderous attack, claiming that Reuchlin had taken bribes from rich Jews. Reuchlin's sharp counterattack, Augenspiegel (1511), caused the Dominican inquisitor to lodge formal charges that Reuchlin had harmed Christian religion and aided the resistance of Jews to con-version. Litigation over these charges dragged through the ecclesias-tical courts for several years. Although temporarily successful in the ecclesiastical courts, Reuchlin finally lost his case when his Cologne opponents appealed the verdict to Rome. As an obedient Catholic, he retracted his condemned books and paid the heavy court costs arising from the litigation. But the principal effect of the controversy was the scandalous and anonymous satire Letters of Obscure Men, which pre-sented the Cologne theologians as objects of ridicule.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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