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

The Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum


Reuchlin's

opinion stood alone: all the other authorities suggested the burning of Jewish books, and the University of Mainz would not exempt the Old Testament until it had been shown that it had not been tampered with by Jewish zealots.

The temperate and scholarly answer of Reuchlin was made a charge against him. The controversy which followed, and which lasted for six weary years, was so managed by the Dominicans, that Reuchlin, a Humanist and a layman, was made to appear as defying the theologians of the Church on a point of theology. Like all mediaeval controversies, it was conducted with great bitterness and no lack of invective, frequently coarse enough. The Humanists saw, however, that it was the case of a scholar defending genuine scholarship against obscurantists, and, after a fruitless endeavour to get Erasmus to lead them, they joined in a common attack. Artists also lent their aid. In one contemporary engraving, Reuchlin is seated in a car decked with laurels, and is in the act of entering his native town of Pforzheim. The Koeln theologians march in chains before the car; Pfefferkorn lies on the ground with an executioner ready to decapitate him; citizens and their wives in gala costume await the hero, and the town's musicians salute him with triumphant melody; while one worthy burgher manifests his sympathy by throwing a monk out of a window. The other side of the controversy is represented by a rough woodcut, in which Pfefferkorn is seen breaking

the chair of scholarship in which a double-tongued Reuchlin is sitting.(43) The most notable contribution to the dispute, however, was the publication of the famous _Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum_, inseparably connected with the name of Ulrich von Hutten.

? 10. The "Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum."

While the controversy was raging (1514), Reuchlin had collected a series of testimonies to his scholarship, and had published them under the title of _Letters from Eminent Men_.(44) This suggested to some young Humanist the idea of a collection of letters in which the obscurantists could be seen exposing themselves and their unutterable folly under the parodied title of _Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum_. The book bears the same relation to the scholastic disputations of the later fifteenth century that _Don Quixote_ does to the romances of mediaeval chivalry. It is a farrago of questions on grammar, etymology, graduation precedence, life in a country parsonage, and scholastic casuistry. Magister Henricus Schaffsmulius writes from Rome that he went one Friday morning to breakfast in the Campo dei Fiori, ordered an egg, which on being opened contained a chicken. "Quick," said his companion, "swallow it, or the landlord will charge the chicken in the bill." He obeyed, forgetting that the day was Friday, on which no flesh could be eaten lawfully. In his perplexity he consulted one theologian, who told him to keep his mind at rest, for an embryo chicken within an egg was like the worms or maggots in fruit and cheese, which men can swallow without harm to their souls even in Lent. But another, equally learned, had informed him that maggots in cheese and worms in fruit were to be classed as fish, which everyone could eat lawfully on fast days, but that an embryo chicken was quite another thing--it was flesh. Would the learned Magister Ortuin, who knew everything, decide for him and relieve his burdened conscience? The writers send to their dear


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