The Pirckheimers, a leading family in the German city of Nürnberg, played an important role in promoting the ideas of humanism* and in making Nürnberg a center of Renaissance culture. The best-known members of the family, Willibald and his sister Caritas, were the last to bear the Pirckheimer name.
Franz Pirckheimer (1388–1449) received a humanist education and ensured that his children did also. His daughter Katharina was notable for her time. Neither married nor a nun, she ran her own household and was admired because of her education. Her brother Hans studied law, served on the Nürnberg Council, and wrote a work on moral philosophy based on ancient Roman texts. Hans's son Johannes (ca. 1440–1501) served the bishop of Eichstätt and was a founder of the School of Poets in Nürnberg in 1496. He also possessed one of the most important private libraries in Germany.
Johannes's eldest daughter Barbara (1467–1532) entered Nürnberg's convent of Santa Klara in 1479 and changed her name to Caritas. Endowed with an amazing talent for Latin, she helped write the Latin version of the convent's history and its German translation. In 1503 Caritas was elected abbess* of the convent. Humanists cited her as the ideal of a learned woman. When the Nürnberg Council adopted Protestantism as the official religion, she came out in opposition. She kept the convent open with the aid of her brother Willibald (1470–1530) and the scholar Philipp Melanchthon. However, city authorities would not allow the nuns to receive any sacraments* of the Roman Catholic Church.
Willibald, the most important member of the family, was trained at the court of the bishop of Eichstätt and studied law in Italy. From 1496 to 1523 he served on the Nürnberg Council, made several diplomatic journeys, and served as a captain in a war with Switzerland. Willibald had five daughters, whom he raised on his own after the death of his wife in 1504. Only the eldest daughter married and had children. The others entered convents when they were young.
Willibald is best known for his humanist studies and writings. He taught himself Greek and published his first translation from Greek to Latin in 1513. He translated 16 other Greek works including material by the historian Plutarch and the ancient Egyptian scientist Ptolemy. Of greater interest are his personal letters, which give a lively portrait of the humanist circle in which he lived. Among his friends were the German artist Albrecht DÜrer and the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus. But the Protestant Reformation* caused this humanist group to break apart. Although Willibald supported the Reformation at first, he remained faithful to his Catholic beliefs.
- * humanism
Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living
- * abbess
female head of an abbey or convent
- * sacrament
religious ritual thought to have been established by Jesus as an aid to salvation
- * Protestant Reformation
religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches