The German humanist and jurist Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522) was one of the greatest Hebraists of early modern Europe. He was involved in a great controversy concerning Hebrew literature that culminated in the famous "Letters of Obscure Men."
Johann Reuchlin was born at Pforzheim. He studied at Freiburg, Paris, Basel, and Rome; became a doctor of law; and began an impressive career as a public official and jurist. Reuchlin's studies in Italy had acquainted him with humanism, and his command of Greek and Latin was as accomplished as that of any scholar north of the Alps. A second journey to Italy, in 1492, caused Reuchlin to become interested in Hebrew, which he then studied intensely and described in a short book in 1494. Reuchlin soon became the most accomplished Gentile Hebraist of the Renaissance, and in 1506 he produced a grammar of Hebrew entitled Rudimenta Hebraica. His linguistic studies led Reuchlin to a genuine interest in Judaism and also into one of the most famous controversies in the history of anti-Semitism.
In 1506 a converted Jew named Johann Pfefferkorn began to produce a series of pamphlets in which he condemned Jewish "errors," ritual, and learning. He urged the forcible conversion of all Jews and obtained imperial permission to confiscate Jewish books. In 1509-1510 Pfefferkorn became more powerful, and Reuchlin's remarks in 1510 that Jewish books should not be burned but, indeed, chairs of Hebrew should be established in German universities made him a target not only of Pfefferkorn but also of the Dominican order at Cologne. In 1511, 1512, and 1513 Reuchlin issued pamphlets defending his own position and the value to Christian scholars of Hebrew literature. Although Reuchlin by no means believed that Jewish literature did not contain errors dangerous to Christians, his spirited defense of Hebrew and of the Jews remains one of the earliest modern Christian attacks on anti-Semitism. In 1514 Reuchlin was acquitted of charges of heresy by the bishop of Speyer, but his enemies then managed to transfer the case to Rome.
In 1514 Reuchlin issued a collection of letters in his defense written by the greatest humanistic scholars in Europe, the Letters of Eminent Men. In 1515 another collection of letters, the Epistolae obscurorum virorum (Letters of Obscure Men), appeared. Ostensibly serious letters from monks supporting the persecution of Reuchlin, the collection was in fact a withering satire on Reuchlin's opponents. The Letters of Obscure Men caused a furor: it was a superb example of humanist scorn not only of bigotry and stupidity but also of the ecclesiastical circles in which these traits dominated. Both Sir Thomas More and Erasmus applauded this work, written by Crotus Rubianus and Ulrich von Hutten.
Reuchlin's enemies, however, attacked him with even greater savagery, finally securing a papal condemnation of his position in 1520. Reuchlin was severely hurt by the final condemnation. He spent the last few years of his life teaching and lecturing, honored by some of his contemporaries for his courage and learning and viciously condemned by others for his persistent defense of Hebrew literature and the Jews.
Further Reading on Johann Reuchlin
Reuchlin's life and work are discussed in the historical introduction to Francis G. Stokes, trans. and ed., Epistolae obscurorum virorum (1909), and in Lewis W. Spitz, The Religious Renaissance of the German Humanists (1963). Particular aspects of Reuchlin's work are discussed in S. A. Hirsch, A Book of Essays (1905), and Joseph Leon Blau, The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance (1944).