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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

The classes taught by Italian Humanists


style="text-align: justify;">? 6. The earlier German Humanists.

When the beginnings of the New Learning made their appearance in Germany, they did not bring with them any widespread revival of culture. There was no outburst, as in Italy, of the artistic spirit, stamping itself upon such arts as painting, sculpture, and architecture, which could appeal to the whole public intelligence. The men who first felt the stirrings of the new intellectual life were, for the most part, students who had been trained in the more famous schools of the _Brethren of the Common Life_, all of whom had a serious aim in life. The New Learning appealed to them not so much a means of self-culture as an instrument to reform education, to criticise antiquated methods of instruction, and, above all, to effect reforms in the Church and to purify the social life. One of the most conspicuous of such scholars was Cardinal Nicolas Cusanus(27) (1401-1464). He was a man of singularly open mind, who, while he was saturated with the old learning, was able to appreciate the new. He had studied the classics in Italy. He was an expert mathematician and astronomer. Some have even asserted that he anticipated the discoveries of Galileo. The instruments with which he worked, roughly made by a village tinsmith, may still be seen preserved in the Brother-house which he founded at his birthplace, Cues, on the Mosel; and there, too, the sheets, covered with his long calculations for the

reform of the calendar, may still be studied.

Another scholar, sent out by the same schools, was John Wessel of Groeningen (1420-1489), who wandered in search of learning from Koeln to Paris and from Paris to Italy. He finally settled down as a canon in the Brotherhood of Mount St. Agnes. There he gathered round him a band of young students, whom he encouraged to study Greek and Hebrew. He was a theologian who delighted to criticise the current opinions on theological doctrines. He denied that the fire of Purgatory could be material fire, and he theorised about indulgences in such a way as to be a forerunner of Luther.(28) "If I had read his books before," said Luther, "my enemies might have thought that Luther had borrowed everything from Wessel, so great is the agreement between our spirits. I feel my joy and my strength increase, I have no doubt that I have taught aright, when I find that one who wrote at a different time, in another clime, and with a different intention, agrees so entirely in my view and expresses it in almost the same words."

Other like-minded scholars might be mentioned, Rudolph Agricola(29) (1442-1485), Jacob Wimpheling(30) (1450-1528), and Sebastian Brand (1457-1521), who was town-clerk of Strassburg from 1500, and the author of the celebrated _Ship of Fools_, which was translated into many languages, and was used by his friend Geiler of Keysersberg as the text for one of his courses of popular sermons.

All these men, and others like-minded and similarly gifted, are commonly regarded as the precursors of the German Renaissance, and are classed among the German Humanists. Yet it may be questioned whether they can be taken as the representatives of that kind of Humanism which gathered round Luther in his student days, and of which Ulrich von Hutten, the stormy petrel of the times of the Reformation, was a notable example. Its beginnings must be traced to other and less reputable pioneers. Numbers of young German students, with the talent for wandering and for supporting themselves by begging possessed by so many of them, had tramped down to Italy, where they contrived to exist precariously while they attended, with a genuine thirst for learning, the classes taught by Italian Humanists. There they became infected with the spirit of the Italian Renaissance, and learned also to despise the ordinary restraints of moral living. There they imbibed a contempt for the Church and for all kinds of theology, and acquired the genuine temperament of the later Italian Humanists, which could be irreligious without being anti-religious, simply because religion of any sort was something foreign to their nature.


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