Censorship and Dissent in Early Modern Christendom: Johannes Reuchlin's defense of Jewish scholarship and the rise of humanism

Monday, September 27, 2021

In 1509, a campaign to destroy Jewish literature was launched in Germany, then part of the Roman Empire. The campaign was led by a Jewish convert to Christianity named Johannes Pfefferkorn (1469-1522/3) with support from various parties including the Dominican Order and the University of Cologne. Authorized by an Imperial Mandate signed by Emperor Maximilian I, Pfefferkorn began confiscating books (excluding the Hebrew Bible) in September 1509 from Jewish communities in Frankfurt, and then later in Worms and Cologne. After protest from Jewish communities, the emperor reversed his previous mandate, and the confiscated books were returned to their owners in May 1510.

In the following months the emperor formed a commission seeking expert counsel on the question of what to do with Jewish books. Appointed to this committee included German Hebraist Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522). Reuchlin’s position was singular; he was the only Christian scholar with the requisite Hebrew language skills to assess properly Jewish writings, and he was a reputable lawyer and imperial court judge. In his answer to the emperor, titled A Recommendation whether to confiscate, destroy and burn all Jewish books, Reuchlin argued Jews had a legal and theological right to own and use their books. Reuchlin published his Recommendation in a book titled Augenspiegel (Eye-glass) in 1511 (Images 1-3).

Reuchlin’s Recommendation is notable in several ways. He defended Jews as a minority population of the Roman Empire with protected legal rights, a stance that outraged his co-religionists. He argued that while Jews were outside the Christian faith, they were legally not defined as ‘heretics,’ and thus had property rights to their own literature as long as those works were not blasphemous to Christianity. Here he utilized his Hebrew language skills to classify Jewish knowledge into seven categories (see Image 3), and to repudiate popular allegations that Jewish prayers slandered Jesus and Mary.

In Recommendation, Reuchlin explicitly reprimanded his co-religionists for their inability to read Hebrew, and cited St. Augustine from On the True Religion, stating, “The precise meaning of the Holy Scripture can only be understood according to the unique qualities of each language in which it is written” (Recommendation whether to confiscate, destroy and burn all Jewish books: a classic treatise against anti-semitism 42). Reuchlin’s interest in Jewish texts as the historical source of Christianity and his commitment to Hebrew as the source language were pivotal to the development of the Christian pursuit of Jewish knowledge and influenced a new chapter in Christian-Jewish relations shaped by the Renaissance and growth of Humanism.

The debate between Pfefferkorn and Reuchlin played out publicly in print. Both parties and their respective supporters employed the newly invented printing press to their advantage; each published in Latin and German to reach all of their audience, including academics, clergy and the public. The ensuing decade long publishing battle is often referred to as “the Battle of the Books.” Imagery played a reoccurring role throughout the works. Pfefferkorn first referenced mirror and glass in his titles in 1507 with Der Judenspiegel (The Jew’s Mirror) and then again with Warnungsspiegel (The Mirror of Warning). When Pfefferkorn heard that Reuchlin would be favoring the Talmud as a valuable literary source in his reply to the emperor’s commission, he attacked Reuchlin in a pamphlet titled Handspiegel (Magnifying Glass, 1511). Reuchlin responded by publishing Recommendation as the centerpiece of Augenspiegel (Eye-glass, 1511), bringing the Jewish book debate into the public sphere, and thus starting the two’s ubiquitous pamphlet war.

Reuchlin’s Recommendation had powerful theological reverberations. Many historians have characterized his challenge to the Catholic Church’s all-consuming authority in 1510 as a precursor, or rather a primer, to the Protestant Reformation, which began only seven years later with Martin Luther’s publication of Ninety-five Theses (1517). Ironically, Reuchlin himself remained a Catholic throughout his entire life.

Additionally, Reuchlin’s defense of Jewish literature had serious legal consequences. In 1512 the University of Cologne and Inquisitor General Jacob Hoogstraeten filed heresy charges against him for “impermissibly favoring the Jews” (Price, Johannes Reuchlin and the campaign to destroy Jewish books 5). He was acquitted in 1514 by the bishop of Speyer, but then his case was pursued by officials in Rome. Reuchlin defended himself in a collection of letters written by academic supporters (The Letters of Eminent Men, 1514). Another famous collection was organized by supporters of his. The Letters of Obscure Men (1515, 1517) utilized satire to mock the ‘obscurists’ who were calling for Reuchlin’s persecution (see Image 5). In 1520 Pope Leo X condemned Reuchlin and admonished Augenspiegel by name as “scandalous and offensive.”

Banned Books Week is an annual event founded in 1982 that brings together those in the book world— authors, librarians, journalists, educators and readers— to support the free exchange of ideas. The 2021 theme is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” Long before academic freedom was protected by tenure, Johannes Reuchlin jeopardized his position and status by taking a controversial stance–that Jewish books, rather than be destroyed as heretical, should be protected and studied for their role in formative Christianity. Reuchlin’s Recommendation represents an elegant legal and ecclesiastical argument for the protection of “the Other” in a time when the Catholic Church had pervasive authority over religious and civil European life. In honor of Banned Books Week 2021, HUC-JIR Libraries celebrates Johannes Reuchlin’s defense of Jewish post-Biblical literature and his developmental contribution to Humanism.

Contributed by Taylor Dwyer, Assistant Librarian, Los Angeles

Title page of Augenspiegel (“Eye-glass”). Tübingen, 1511. Printed by Thomas Anshelm, who regularly printed for Reuchlin using Greek and Hebrew typesets.

Detail of Augenspiegel with Ex libris and motto in manuscript filling the image of the eyeglasses on the title page, indicating the former owner as Johannes Rosa, a Lutheran theologian who lived 1615-1670.

Detail of Reuchlin’s text Recommendation in which he places Jewish literary works into seven categories. First are the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, second the Talmud, third the works of Kabbalah, and fourth Biblical commentaries. Annotations by Johannes Rosa.

Reuchlin’s 1514 publication titled “Defensio Ioannis Reuchlin Phorcensis LL. Doctoris contra calumniatores suos Colonienses” was addressed to the emperor and the faculty of Cologne and responded to Pfefferkorn’s latest accusations.

The title page of a book printed in 1730 including the work, Epistolae obscurorum virorum (Letters of the Obscure Men 1515, 1517), a satirical pamphlet written by Reuchlin supporters that mocked late scholasticism and the lifestyle of monks. Printed here is the 1517 installment, edited by Ulrich von Hutten

Works Cited

Hotchkiss, Valerie R, et al. Miracle Within a Miracle: Johannes Reuchlin and the Jewish Book Controversy: An Exhibition Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of Reuchlin’s Defense of Jewish Writings. Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2011.

“Pfefferkorn, Johannes.” Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 16, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, pp. 25-26. Gale eBooks, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2587515682/GVRL?u=hebrewuc11&sid=bookmark-GVRL&xid=c50e9e43. Accessed 13 Sept. 2021.

Price, David H. Johannes Reuchlin and the Campaign to Destroy Jewish Books. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Price, David H. “‘Whether to Confiscate, Burn and Destroy All Jewish Books’: Johannes Reuchlin and the Jewish Book Controversy.” Censorship Moments: Reading Texts in the History of Censorship and Freedom of Expression. Ed. Geoff Kemp. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. 47–54. Textual Moments in the History of Political Thought. Bloomsbury Collections. Web. 13 Sep. 2021. <http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781472593078.ch-007>.

Reuchlin, Johann. Recommendation Whether to Confiscate, Destroy, and Burn All Jewish Books: A Classic Treatise against Anti-Semitism. Paulist Press, 2000.

Shamir, Avner. Christian Conceptions of Jewish Books: the Pfefferkorn Affair. Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2011.

Silverman, Godfrey Edmond, and Gershom Scholem. “Reuchlin, Johannes°.” Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 17, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, pp. 247-249. Gale eBooks, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2587516672/GVRL?u=hebrewuc11&sid=bookmark-GVRL&xid=8a6998ef. Accessed 13 Sept. 2021.

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