Letters of Obscure Men


Letters of Obscure Men
   Satirical collection of imaginary letters supposedly addressed by several scholastic theologians and monks to Ortwin Gratius, a Cologne humanist who had supported the theologians and Dominican friars of Cologne in their efforts to prosecute the humanist and Hebrew scholar Johann Reuchlin on charges of impiety. The Latin title is Epistolae obscurorum virorum. The first part was published anonymously in 1515. The imaginary letter writers, some of whom bore the names of real persons associated with the attack on Reuchlin while others had ridiculous names that suggest lower-class ancestry and depraved morals ("Piggy," "Honeylicker," "Bottleclinker"), comment on the Reuchlin case and in doing so display themselves and those who agree with them as ignorant, hypocritical, and morally base. The Latin of the letters is a parody of the everyday Latin of the medieval university. The intention is to make the targets of the satire appear ignorant and ridiculous. The letters also pretend to reveal the existence of a vast conspiracy among monks and theologians to destroy classical learning and persecute all humanists.
   Although the work was published anonymously, virtually everyone knew that some humanists sympathetic to Reuchlin must have produced it. Modern studies have established that the satire was the work of a group of young humanists, all of them having some association with the University of Erfurt and also with the older humanist Mutianus Rufus, a canon of Gotha who exerted a radicalizing influence on his young disciples. The poet Crotus Rubianus is thought to have originated the form of the attack and to have written most or all of the letters printed in 1515, which are light and humorous in tone and refrain from direct attacks on real individuals. The humanistic knight Ulrich von Hutten probably was the author of seven new letters added to a reprint of 1516 and of all of the second part of the work, published in 1517. These added letters are more blunt, naming real individuals both as depraved and ignorant foes of Reuchlin and as good humanists who support Reuchlin. The intention of the second part was to interpret the conflict as a life-and-death struggle between humanism and scholasticism. Another young humanist, Hermann von dem Busche, may have written some of the letters and probably arranged for the book's clandestine publication. In their choice of Ortwin Gratius as the butt of the satire, the authors were also settling personal scores. The book was an overnight sensation among German intellectuals and by presenting the Cologne theologians as contemptible, base, and ignorant, probably weakened the prestige of scholastic theologians on the eve of their confrontation with Martin Luther.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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