Renaissance and Reformation Johann Reuchlin
Mark Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0043


Johann Reuchlin (b. 1455–d. 1522) studied Roman law and Greek in Freiburg, Paris, Basel, Orleans, and Tübingen, where he became doctor of laws in 1485. But it was on diplomatic missions to Italy for Duke Eberhard of Württemberg that he first learned Hebrew and began collecting Hebrew manuscripts and books. After a rich legal career that included stints as chief justice in Speyer and, later, legal counsel to the Swabian League, he retired from politics in 1512 to devote himself to humanistic and Hebraic studies. Inspired by Pico della Mirandola, he studied the kabbalah and attempted to give it a Christian context. From 1511 on, his work and discourse in Hebrew texts embroiled him in controversy. Johann Pfefferkorn, a Jewish convert, had embarked on a campaign against Hebrew books. An imperial commission solidly endorsed Pfefferkorn’s initiative. Reuchlin rendered the only dissenting opinion, leading to a bitter polemic with his fellow commissioners, mostly theologians from the University of Cologne. They accused Reuchlin of Judaism, an indictable offense that brought him before the Inquisition. The German humanists initiated a publicity campaign on his behalf. Initially acquitted, Reuchlin was condemned and fined by the pope on appeal (1520). It is not clear whether the judgment had been enforced by the time of Reuchlin’s death in 1522. Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had discreetly supported Reuchlin, lionized him on his death. In historiography, Reuchlin’s image has undergone significant change. 19th-century historians depicted him as a white knight succouring oppressed Jews. More recently praise for his equity and moral courage has been tempered by recognition of Reichlin’s own misgivings about the Jews. Reuchlin’s prosecution (the “Reuchlin Affair”) has also undergone shifts in interpretation. In his own time, Luther and his followers saw Reuchlin’s persecution by conservative theologians as foreshadowing the Reformation. Modern scholars have debated whether the Affair emerges more from the ongoing humanist-scholastic debate, peaking in Germany at the time (as depicted in the classic biography Johann Reuchlin: Sein Leben und seine Werke (Geiger 1964, cited under Biographies), or from the anti-Semitism of the age (see Reuchlin’s Trial). Most scholars today agree that both aspects had a bearing on the case (see Attitude toward Jews and Jewish Writingsand Reuchlin’s Trial).

Reference Works

The recent debate over Reuchlin’s motivations and impact has guided even tertiary-level reference articles on Reuchlin. Canada 2001 emphasizes Reuchlin’s role as a pioneer in northern humanism. The discussion of Reuchlin’s motivations for his Hebraic scholarship includes Jones 1994, which sees Reuchlin as hoping to benefit Christians; Keen 2005, which adds to that a goal of improving relations with the Jews; and Rhein 1993, which surveys other possible reasons. Silverman 2007 usefully separates his Jewish scholarship from his views on Jews themselves.

  • Canada, Gregory E. “Reuchlin, Johann (1455–1522).” In The Late Medieval Age of Crisis and Renewal, 1300–1500: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Clayton J. Drees, 416–419. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.

    Depicts Reuchlin as a pioneer of German humanism and forerunner of northern Renaissance thought.

  • Jones, G. Lloyd. “Reuchlin, Johann (1455–1522).” In The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Vol. 7. Edited by R. E. Asher, 3566–3567. Oxford: Pergamon, 1994.

    Jones discusses Reuchlin’s efforts to derive practical benefit for Christians from kabbalistic writings.

  • Keen, Ralph. “Reuchlin, Johann (1455–1522).” In Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution. Vol. 2. Edited by Richard S. Levy, 599–600. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

    Notes that Reuchlin’s motivations may have been both to develop Jewish goodwill (to facilitate conversion) and to utilize Jewish learning to better understand scripture.

  • Rhein, Stefan. “Johannes Reuchlin.” In Humanismus im deutschen Südwesten: Biographische Profile. Edited by Paul Gerhard Schmidt, 59–75. Sigmaringen, Germany: J. Thorbecke, 1993.

    In profiling Reuchlin, surveys the diverse motivations and effects of his work, particularly his impact in the emergence of German humanism.

  • Silverman, Godfrey E. “Reuchlin, Johannes.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica. 2d ed. Vol. 17. Edited by Fred Skolnik, 247–249. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.

    Describes Reuchlin’s attitude toward the Jews as more ambiguous than his views on Jewish scholarship.

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