Caritas Pirckheimer and Willibald Pirckheimer

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Caritas Pirckheimer and Willibald Pirckheimer

Abbess and humanist


Lawyer and humanist


Elite Roots. Caritas and Willibald Pirckheimer were a sister and brother, members of a prominent family from Nuremberg in southern Germany, renowned for their education and concern for religion. Their lives point out the ways in which gender shaped the opportunities for learning open to men and women, but also demonstrate the ways in which family background and personal characteristics could work to lessen gender differences. Caritas and Willibald were born into a family that prized education and cultural achievements. Their great-grandfather and grandfather both studied law in Italy, where they became acquainted with the new style of learning, termed humanism, that prized reading and study of texts in their original languages rather than depending on the opinions of more recent commentators. Their grandfather was a member of the city council of Nuremberg, and also wrote philosophical treatises and studied the works of Italian humanists. He encouraged his son Johannes (circa 1440-1501), the father of Caritas and Willibald, to study further and to buy books; eventually Johannes came to own one of the largest private libraries in all of Germany, which he passed on to his son, and that has survived largely intact until today, now part of a public library in Germany.

Opportunities for Learning. Caritas and Willibald thus grew up in a household centered on education and literary pursuits. Their father was employed as a lawyer for the bishop of a city near Nuremberg and made a good income; he gathered other people who were interested in learning into an informal discussion group that met in his own house—termed a sodality—and the children were often welcome at these meetings. Along with Caritas and Willibald, seven of Johannes’s other daughters survived infancy.

Divergent Paths. During adolescence the paths of Caritas and Willibald diverged in terms of their living situations, though not in terms of their values and ideas. Like his ancestors, Willibald studied law and Greek philosophy in Italy and returned to Nuremberg to become a member of the city council, a position he held for more than twenty-five years. He married in 1495, and his wife quickly had several children; she died in childbirth in 1504, leaving him a widower with five small daughters. In contrast to the usual pattern for widowers, Willibald did not remarry but found another solution to the problem of raising his daughters: he placed three of them when they were quite young in one of the local convents, already the home of several of his sisters.

Studies Pursued. Willibald continued his humanistic studies throughout his life, teaching himself Greek to a level at which he could skillfully translate it into Latin. He also became friends with many cultural and intellectual leaders of Germany, including the painter Albrecht Diirer (who was also from Nuremberg), and the Dutch humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus; they corresponded with him and joined the Pirckheimer sodality when they were in Nuremberg. Willibald’s letters to them survive and provide much information about the personal and intellectual connections among Germany’s leading thinkers.

Chosen Path. In the late 1510s, discussion among educated people in Nuremberg as elsewhere in Germany began to revolve around the ideas of Martin Luther and other reformers. Willibald acquired many of Luther’s writings for his library, and he became personally acquainted with Luther in 1518 when the reformer stopped in Nuremberg. When in 1525 the city of Nuremberg decided to break with the Catholic church and become Protestant, however, Willibald was not convinced that this path was the correct one; he hoped to reform the Catholic Church from within rather than split it apart. His desires for reconciliation and peace among different religious factions made him seem old-fashioned, and at the end of his life he resigned from the city council and sought comfort in his classical studies.

Convent Studies. Caritas was also caught in the middle of the Reformation, and this movement has made her better known than her brother. Along with six of her seven sisters, she entered a convent in Nuremberg when she was still a girl; four of the Pirckheimer sisters later became abbesses, as did two of their nieces (Willibald’s daughters). For many decades Caritas’s life in the convent was much like that in her father’s house, filled with study, writing, translations of classical works, and correspondence with other learned people throughout Europe. Though the convent cut her off from the world to some extent, it also gave her the opportunity and time to continue her studies, and she gained a reputation as one of the most-learned women in Europe.

Disrupted Life. Convent walls could not protect her and the other nuns from the disruptions of the Reformation, however. In 1524, as various families in Nuremberg were rejecting Catholicism and becoming Protestant, they also rejected Catholic teaching about the value of convent life and decided to remove their daughters from the Saint Klara convent where Caritas was abbess. These girls had been in the convent since they were young and did not wish to leave. Caritas attempted to prevent their removal, but the families had the backing of the city council. The girls were dragged out forcibly, with Protestant residents of the city looking on and shouting their encouragement. Caritas describes the scene in her memoirs—titled the Denkwurdigkeiten:

All three children fell around me howling and screaming and begging me not to abandon them, but unfortunately I could not help them . . . The mothers told the children that it was their duty according to God’s commandment to obey them, that they wanted them to come out to save their souls from hell . . . The children cried that they did not want to leave the pious, holy convent, that they were absolutely not in hell, [and that] although they were their mothers, they certainly were not obliged to obey them in matters that went against their souls.... Each of them was pulled by four people—two in front pulling, two behind pushing . . . the wretched children called out in loud voices to the people and complained to them that they had suffered violence and injustice, that they had been pulled out of the cloister forcibly.

Though these girls were not allowed to return to the convent, the violence of these events disturbed many people; Caritas’s learned friends supported her desire to let convent residents decide for themselves, and this stance, combined with Caritas’s bravery, convinced the city council not to allow any more forcible removals or to shut down the entire convent. Convent residents were not allowed to hear Catholic services, however, and the convent was not permitted to take in new novices. Caritas’s memoirs became a testimony to freedom of religious choice, and have now been translated into several languages, while her humanist works and those of her brother are of interest only to scholars.


Paula S. Datsko Barker, “Caritas Pirckheimer: A Female Humanist Confronts the Reformation,” Sixteenth Century Journal of Early Modern Studies, 26 (Summer 1995): 259-272.

James H. Overfield, Humanism and Scholasticism in Late Medieval Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Lewis William Spitz, The Religious Renaissance of the German Humanists (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963).