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Johannes Reuchlin

1455-1522. German humanist. Born in Pforzheim, he studied under the Brethren of the Common Life* in Schlettstadt; he attended the University of Paris and studied law at Paris, Freiburg, Basle, and Orléans. He served as legal adviser to the duke of Württemberg. Erasmus hailed him as “the triple-tongued” Reuchlin for his expert knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He was the outstanding Hebraist among the humanists of the early sixteenth century. His Rudimenta Hebraica was the authoritative Hebrew grammar of the period. Reuchlin steeped himself in Greek philosophy and became a proponent of Pythagorean philosophy. His study of Hebrew writings involved him deeply in cabalistic speculations. He wrote On the Wonder-Working Word and On the Cabalistic Art.

Reuchlin became involved in a controversy with the theologians of Cologne, especially Johannes Pfefferkorn and Jakob Hoogstraten. In A Mirror for the Jews (1506) Pfefferkorn argued that all Hebrew books should be confiscated. In 1509 Maximillian I issued a decree ordering the Jews to turn in their books. Reuchlin, when consulted, replied that the books should not be destroyed, saying that only those which were openly blasphemous might be burned after they had been condemned according to proper legal procedure. He defended the use of Jewish works on philosophy and science, the Talmud, the Kabbalah, biblical manuscripts, prayer books, and hymns in Hebrew. Hoogstraten cited Reuchlin to appear before his Court of Inquisition on the charge of heresy. Through John von der Wyck, Reuchlin won an appeal to Rome. The controversy evoked not only A Mirror for the Jews by Pfefferkorn, but also Reuchlin's famous reply Augenspiegel (A Mirror for the Eyes). The humanist world rallied to the side of Reuchlin; Letters of Famous Men (1515) contained their testimonies. Cortus Rubeanus (the first edition) and Ulrich von Hutten (the second edition) produced the scathing satires, Letters of Obscure Men.

Although he recommended Philip Melanchthon,* his grandnephew, to Frederick the Wise as instructor at Wittenberg, Reuchlin did not join the Lutheran cause. However, he hindered the burning of Luther's books in Ingolstadt. Leo X finally condemned Reuchlin's writings (1520). Nevertheless, he ranks as the outstanding German humanist of the first years of the sixteenth century, a promoter of Greek and Hebrew scholarship.

See L. Geiger, Johann Reuchlin: Sein Leben und Seine Werke (1871), and L.W. Spitz, The Religious Renaissance of the German Humanists (1963).