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Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum


Humanistic anticlerical satire, the principal literary product of the controversy between Johann reuchlin and Johannes pfefferkorn and the Cologne theologians, over Pfefferkorn's proposal to destroy all Hebrew books. A bitter pamphlet war followed Pfefferkorn's proposal, and Reuchlin's objections received the support of nearly all humanists (see humanism). In 1514 Reuchlin published a collection of commendatory letters, the Clarorum virorum epistolae, or Letters of Famous Men. The next year there appeared what purported to be a contrary collection of 41 letters written supposedly by Reuchlin's antagonists and addressed to Ortwin gratius, leader of the Cologne theologians. This work, the Epistolae obscurorum virorum, or Letters of Obscure Men, was really a witty but scurrilous satire, presenting Reuchlin's foes as a self-confessed pack of ignorant obscurantists and unchaste priests. Its deliberately barbarous Latin underlined the charges of ignorance, and the supposed correspondents alternated between complacent descriptions of their own immorality and fatuous discussions of ridiculous "theological" questions. Beyond their indirect pleading of Reuchlin's cause, the letters expressed a mood of dangerous anticlericalism and tended to bring the whole clergy into disrepute. Alongside Gratius and Pfefferkorn, those chiefly attacked were Jacob van Hoogstraten, OP, the inquisitor of Cologne, and Arnold von Tungern, dean of the theological faculty. The Epistolae were an immense success among the educated, who did worse than oppose Reuchlin's enemies: they laughed at them. A second edition (1516) had seven additional letters, and in 1517 another 62 were added, and later that year, eight more. The authors remained anonymous. Many suspected erasmus, but the Epistolae originated in talks between the humanists crotus rubianus and Ulrich von hutten, though a number of other persons, including Hermann von dem Bussche and Nikolaus Gerbel, contributed. Crotus wrote most of the first collection; Hutten, most of those added in 1517.

Bibliography: Epistolae obscurorum virorum, ed. and tr. f. g. stokes (London 1909), repr. of English text (New York 1964). h. holborn, Ulrich von Hutten and the German Reformation, tr. r. h. bainton (New Haven 1937). w. brecht, Die Verfasser der Epistolae obscurorum virorum (Strasbourg 1904).

[c. g. nauert, jr.]

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