[Note: the date for Carnivalesque, the Early Modern Carnival, has been changed so that it will not conflict with the History Carnival. The new date is Friday, May 6. Perhaps this post will inspire you.]

Heinrich Heine’s Deutschland (of which I have written at length here and here) references Jakob Hoogstraten, a Belgian theologian who taught at the Cologne University. In the 1500 and 1510s he stepped into a controversy over the contents of Jewish books. A converted Jew, Johannes Pfefferkorn, called for the burning of Jewish books because they contained anti-Christian content.

The emperor asked humanist Johann Reuchlin to evaluate the claim. He wrote a defense of Jewish books, claiming that they were not dangerous and, furthermore, authorities to should copy and translate these books for themselves. Hoogstraten, acting on the unpopularity of Reuchlin’s opinion, had copies of Reuchlin’s work burned in 1513. Heine brings up the affair to discuss the problems of tolerance at the heart of German nationalism.

I believed the affair to be too obscure to read about in English, so I forgot about it until I found Erika Rummel’s The Case against Johann Reuchlin: Religious and Social Controversy in Sixteenth-Century Germany. The book collects and translates the documents surrounding the controversy.

Pfefferkorn was a Moravian Jew who converted; soon after he settled in Cologne and used his status as a former Jew/new Christian to gain the ear of the Dominicans in the university’s faculty. He insisted that the Talmud and Kabbalah slandered the Holy Family and some prayers cursed of Christians and converts. As such, the books should be burned and confiscated.

Reuchlin had studied some of the texts. He was asked to look into the charge of anti-Christian content and to determine whether the books could be destroyed according to law. To the latter, Reuchlin’s answer was unambiguous:

If it is found that a Jew knowingly keeps such a book which has been expressly and clearly printed to insult and shame and dishonor our Lord Jesus Christ, his mother, the saints, or the Christian law, the book should be taken away and burned, and the Jew punished because he himself has not torn it apart, burned or suppressed it.

However, Reuchlin saw no evidence of such content: there were no slanders, and the prayers that were criticized neither cursed converts or were specifically anti-Christian. He claims that Pfefferkorn was a poor authority in these matters: as a Jew, he was poorly educated.

When the report was published, it was immediately attacked by the Dominicans. Pfefferkorn was himself at the head of the offensive against Reuchlin. Reuchlin responded by publishing his own attack on Pfefferkorn’s character.

These documents, especially those written by Reuchlin, describe the attitude of the Holy Roman Empire towards its minorities (the Jews in particular) and the ability to get a fair hearing in the imperial courts. Steven Ozment’s The Burgermeister’s Daughter suggests that individuals, especially women, could always find another forum in which to express their grievances. The decentralized nature of the empire meant that law and justice were more rigidly applied than at the imperial level. In judicial terms, federalism opened up an avenue to appeal the particularism of principalities, duchies and cities.

Some of the same “tolerance” applies here. Reuchlin insists that, before the emperor, all subjects are equal:

In this matter the action taken against a Jew should be no different from one taken against a Christian, for both are immediate subjects of the Holy Empire and under imperial authority: we Christians through our elector, who elects the emperor, and the Jews through their open admission, when they say: “We have no king but the emperor.”

Reuchlin argues, furthermore, that because of the differences of religion, the only forum for theological grievances is the emperor. The laws the Church passes to protects itself from heresy are not applicable because, well, heresy can only be understood within Christianity and not without. The real theological problem is that Christian lack knowledge of Jewish texts.

I don’t want to make Reuchlin look too cool. He opened the dictionary of antisemitic stereotypes to defend against his opponent, Pfefferkorn, the convert.

Disdaining the law, cheating on social customs, turning away from Christian charity, instructed by men who boast of being doctors, and supplied by them with many and various useless quotes, this man who is ignorant of theology and law, inexperienced in literature, and knowing no book written in the Latin language, equipped only with some childish, trite Jewish stuff, undertook to write against me and published a slanderous book in German, full of invented charges …

And behold, at the appointed time, the notorious Pfefferkorn came, with great sanctity (O G-d and saints above!) or rather full of evil hypocrisy; “with bent head and lowered eyes, mumbling (but keeping in his heart a wrathful silence) he opened his lips and weighed his words,” looking like one praying and making vows.

Then that Jew, baptised with water, rose up in the Church, a married layman, before the congregation of the faithful, that is, before the congregation of the faithful … and preached about the word of G-d in an authoritative manner, he — a butcher and ignoramus … .

Because of Pfefferkorn’s conversion, Reuchlin is willing to subject him to his full wrath, turning him into the character of the Jew. Mainstreaming into Christianity opens Pfefferkorn up to full scrutiny. The protections that he deserves as a Jew — that he is subject to the law of the empire and not the Church — no longer apply.

What does this say about the empire? The unity of the Reich around the person of the emperor is not dissimilar to the nature of the French king: they unite otherwise divergent social groups. However, the emperor is not the sole representative of the nation as the Bourbon king. Instead his authority is based on his intimacy with these groups, separately composed.

Reuchlin’s position with respect to the Jews is comparable to Bucer’s. Strasbourg was the first German city to expel its Jews. Bucer recommended that they be included in the community, but subjected to harsh measures (to encourage their conversion). Reuchlin’s position was the opposite: that they can contain their separateness until they convert, whenat the law will apply to them fully. The two humanists allowed a modicum of tolerance. They grasped for some area of freedom, but were unwilling to give it in all circumstances.

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