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Scenes of daily life:  What Day is It?   In the Land of the Blind

Reflections of 16th-century thought:  Earthquakes and Plagues; Ordination Angst

Modern Issues:  Blackwater;  When Banks Rule  

Interesting Adventures:  The Weird Woman;  The Frankfurt Fair

Times of Change:  City Air Makes Men Free;  Of Truth and Cards


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This week’s post appears directly below.

Published in: on August 28, 2011 at 7:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Of Gold and God, Part I


The Cathedral of Basel sits on a high bluff overlooking the Rhine where it bends and widens to begin its northward journey.

Wife of Árpád, who led the Hungarians.




The first church was built here in the early 800s but was destroyed by invading Hungarians in 917, during the time when they ravaged western Europe until their defeat in 955.  An inscription on the sarcophagus of the bishop records:  Bishop Rudolph, killed by the pagans on 20 July.

A new church was built in 1019, during theHand of Heinrich holding cathedral reign of Emperor Heinrich II, who recognized the strategic position of Basel, at the intersection of roads leading over the Jura Mountains to Burgundy and France and over the Alps to Italy.

The Emperor allowed the Bishop of Basel to mint his own currency and gave Basel several forests rich in game to provide meat for the episcopal household.

Heinrich also saw that the cathedral was quickly reconstructed after its destruction by the Hungarians, and it became a symbol of his relationship with Basel.  On October 11, 1019, he attended the consecration of the cathedral and honored it with important gifts.

foot reliquary

The Cathedral treasury had been thoroughly ransacked.  A single relic remained in the Treasury.  This was the foot of one of the Holy Innocents, those children slaughtered by Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Christ.  The relic was donated by a sixth-century Irish monk, and is now housed in a reliquary of much later date, though the sole is engraved:  the whole foot of the innocents St. Columban gave.  One can view the relic in the leather-lined compartment through the aperture in the top.

But Heinrich donated many important relics associated with Christ, the Virgin, John the Baptist, and many other saints.   The most important were a splinter of the True Cross and the blood of Christ, still the most valuable items in Basel.  (A previous Emperor once traded Basel and a large part of Swabia for the spear believed to have pierced Christ.)

Heinrich cross

The Splinter and Blood are housed in a splendid cross made of gold, silver, and gems, and known as the Heinrich Cross.  Several years ago, thieves stole the splinter, but left the cross behind.  The relic was later returned and can be clearly seen behind the rock crystal cabochons of the cross-shaped reliquary.

On Sundays, Mondays, Fridays, and feast days, a cleric stands in front of the choir screen calling, “Help maintain the cathedral, which is inhabited by God, Our Lady, the heavenly emperor Saint Heinrich, and all the saints. . .Anyone in possession of money found, acquired through gambling, usury, or not legally inherited, should give it to the house of Our Lady and so be free of sin.”  As a reward for their donations, the devout are blessed with the Heinrich Cross or another reliquary.

HeinrichKunigunde2Heinrich himself was declared a saint in 1146.  He and his wife, Kunigunde, are commemorated by huge effigies which now stand on the west side of the Cathedral.

Kunigunde finalHeinrich finalBut they were buried in the cathedral in Bamberg.   In the 1300s, Basel petitioned Bamberg for relics and received fragments of the right arms of the emperor and the empress.  These arrived at the city gates on November 4, 1347, and the bishop in his finery, the clergy, and all the burghers, hastened to accompany the relics to the cathedral with a parade of crosses, treasures, and candles.  The remains are housed in tower-shaped reliquaries, composed of crystal cylinders with statues of Heinrich and Kunigunde and various saints.

earthquake from Cosmographia universalis 1554But though the important pieces of the Treasury survived, Heinrich’s cathedral was wrecked in the violent earthquake of October 18, 1356.  The quake destroyed the choir, the vault of the nave, and the great bell tower.  After the quake, a great fire broke out in the city and burned most of the houses.  And this calamity fell hard on the heels of the plague that killed a third of Basel’s populace in 1349.

It was to strengthen his dispirited and mourning city that Johann Senn von Münsingen, Bishop of Basel, traveled to Rome, acquiring for Basel relics of saints Paul, Cecilia, Pancras, Fabian, Sebastian, Agnes, Dorothy, Urban, Petronella, George, and Lucy, as well as of the Holy Innocents and the 10,000 Martyrs.

Johann Senn von Munsingen

The importance of this undertaking is portrayed in a document of 1360, which depicts Johann Senn von Münsingen receiving from Saint Paul a tooth, which he offers, displayed in a large monstrance, to The Virgin Mary and the Christ Child.  Sewn to this parchment document are two texts promising an indulgence (the remission of temporal punishment in purgatory) of forty days for the veneration of the relics.

Of course the Reader understands that a Cathedral treasury contains two types of precious objects.  Items used in the liturgy, such as vessels for the Eucharist, books, censers to burn incense, and the vestments of different colors worn for different days of the liturgical calendar.  And then, the relics, believed to be the bodily remains of Christ, Mary and the saints, or objects that had touched them.  The relics are housed in reliquaries of precious materials to reflect their value.

reliquary bust of St. PantalusThere are four types of reliquaries.  They may be shaped like the remains they contain, such as the one containing the foot of the Innocent.  They may display a relic  behind a crystal window, such as the Heinrich Cross.  They may be busts or full-length statuettes of the saint.  Or they may simply be a casket.

But the receptacles, however opulent, are not as valuable to the faithful as the relics within.  For the hope is that the saints offer favors and intercede with God.  The reconstruction of the cathedral after the earthquake was accomplished by donations from the veneration of the relics that Johann Senn von Münsingen collected on his journey to Rome.  On June 25, 1363, the new high altar was consecrated in the rebuilt choir.

In the 150 years since then, the Treasury of the Basel Cathedral has continued to grow through the donations of the devout.


Capito calls the reader’s attention to The Treasury of Basel Cathedral,  Timothy Husband, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from whence came many of these excellent images.


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The Flower Inn

copyright holder unknown2For men who work day and night, driven by the passion of their dreams, there is no time for the entertainments enjoyed by others.  For those employed in the behemoth projects underway at Froben’s presses, there are no pastimes such as the game of Loggats, in which a ball or some cheese-shaped object is thrown toward a group of quilles or skittles to knock them over.

figuresgamblingnatavern1670David Teniers

How ironic that the peasants, after their days of hard labor, have strength and time to play such games, but we men of supposed learning fall into the chairs before our suppers, almost too weary to eat.  And our minds, turned to stew by the exertions that have occupied them, have not capacity for chess or Karnöffel, such as the old men play in the corners of the inn.

16th century type--Moyen Canon RomainAlthough Froben’s hospitality knows no bounds, and he would feed us every meal, a few of us stroll each evening to the Flower Inn.  We seek to get away from the noise of the presses that, at any time, can be heard beyond and behind and beneath every wall, every thought.  We need to breathe something other than the scents of paper and ink and metal, though we bring those scents with us, seeped as they are into our clothes and hair.

We drop into our chairs, our eyes dry and weary, and I am so grateful to the stout alewife who sets the repast before us that I could kiss her workworn hand.

Pellicanus by Asper--Kunsthaus ZürichAn evening here reminds me of those pleasant evenings spent at the Hog’s Snout with Zell, Fabri, Hubmaier, and the young monk, Michael.  My friend, Conradus Pellicanus, reminds me of Michael, the coarse wool of his monk’s habit contrasting with our finer academic robes, just as Michael’s did. Conrad is a Franciscan, but not only does he labor beside us on the editing and annotating, but he frequently eats with us at the inn, saying that he has missed the evening meal at the monastery.  I think he is a monk in heart, more than in rules and rituals, and for that I respect him all the more.

Bruno Amerbach, the oldest brother, is always here, though retiring Basilius is content to return to zum Kaiserstuh and eat with the servants.  Bruno reminds me of Matthew Zell, ready always to laugh, to twinkle his eyes at the women, to talk to every man who passes the table, whether peasant or burgher.  And having grown up in Basel, the son of a prominent printer, Bruno knows everyone.

And so, as if to reflect those days at the Hog’s Snout, I am joined by a quiet studious monk and a gregarious fellow.  And then, just as he was wont to do at the Hog’s Snout, Fabri arrives, always late, in a swirl of robes.

tongue2But there, the similarity ends.  For at the Hog’s Snout, we poor scholars dined on tripe or tongue, if we were lucky.  And there, to stretch her poor rations out to feed more starving students, the cook adulterated her flour with sawdust.

But here!  The Flower Inn offers accommodations for the traveler and even some local boarders. Bruno often says he may move here to get away from the presses at zum Kaiserstuh.  To this, Conrad raises his eyebrows, as if to say the innkeeper’s daughters should steer clear.  Bruno’s reputation from his Paris university days has followed him home.

Cheesemarket, BaselSo, since they serve travelers of note and local respectable citizens, the victuals at the Flower Inn are several grades higher than what held my body and soul together at the Hog’s Snout.  Tonight, we had a cheese tart filled with cheese that was not too rotten, eggs, and butter.  We had morels baked in wine and saffron.  And we had goose, stuffed with onions, quinces, pears and bacon, and roasted on a spit.  And wine!  A thing not even allowed to us as university students.

By the Muses!  And the best thing, Gentle Reader, is that we all had money to pay without having to pool our Pfennigs, or borrow, or fail to eat our fill because we had not been able to afford all the food we needed.  I thought of how Fabri had been so poor as a young urchin that he had swept the ale house just for the crumbs.  You should see him now.  Filling out around the middle just like a bishop!

Ah Basel.


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Published in: on October 7, 2012 at 6:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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Death & Industry: My first day in Basel

I spent the first night in my new city at the Stork Inn, because the permanent lodging provided by my position as Cathedral preacher was not prepared for me.  Early the next morning, I walked about, delighting myself in the simple fact that I was here.

I toured the Fish Market, a great busy square surrounded by inns, public houses, shops, booths, and dwellings.  Though it was early morning, commerce had begun.

Basle Rathaus--thewolfseye

Nearby was the Corn Market, the Marktplatz.  Here stands the brand new center of City Government, the Rathaus, with its three arches and its golden spire.  When trouble arises, the great bell, and the flag, will call every soldier, every guild member and every male above fourteen to his appointed place at the wall in defense of the City.

Location of Dance of DeathWalking eastward along the Rhine, the river meeting me on my left, I could see the University rising in front of me beyond the bridge, and beyond that, the delicate, red sandstone towers of the Cathedral.  Then I passed the wall of the Dominican Cemetery, on which is painted the Dance of Death. This great mural is almost 200 feet long, twice as long as the famous similar painting in Lübeck.  Basel’s Dance of Death was painted around 1440, and so is 20 or 25 years older than Lübeck’s.  It is truly magnificent, with 39 dancing couples of every age and rank, serving to remind all passersby of the inevitability of one’s end, so that wise choices may be made by all.

Basle-Dance of Death--Abbess - Version 2Basle-Dance of Death-Musician - Version 2

Hans Holbein the YoungerA young man of a studious countenance sat on the ground before the painting, with a stack of paper, on which he was sketching with the greatest concentration.

The Rhine divides greater Basel from little Basel (Kleinbasle).  And it was in Kleinbasle, near the river, that Gothic minusculemy friend, Johann Amerbach had settled both his home and his print shop in the house known as “the King’s Seat” or zum Kaiserstuh.  This was barely a decade after he arrived in Basel with only some punches to create a round gothic minuscule type.  But he was already rising in Basel society.  In those early years, he was known as “The Venetian,” because he had studied printing in Venice.

CarthusiansFor both religious and scholarly reasons, Amerbach chose zum Kaiserstuh to be close to the Carthusian monastery, where he could consult the wealth of manuscripts in its excellent library, returning the favor by giving the monastery a copy of every book he printed. On the birth or death of any of his children, and on feast days and other occasions, he made presents to the monastery of money, sugar, pepper, ginger, cloves, parchment, paper, and other such choice items.

Even though I knew that Johann Amerbach was dead, I had not been to Basel during the eighteen months since he died, which was on Christmas Day of 1513.  And even though I knew that I would not sit at the table with him or his genial wife, Barbara, who died the summer before he did, my grief reached new depths when I entered zum Kaiserstuh.  Here the sons,St. Jerome--1513-Bellini Bruno and Basilius live, as the younger, Bonifacius, comes and goes from his studies at Freiburg.  Or rather, here they work and sleep, devoting heart and soul, and, as Bruno sighed, “our youth,” to their father’s dream:  The Complete Works of Jerome from the Amerbach presses.

When I previously visited the Amerbach home to study Hebrew, the house teemed with resident scholars like the Greek expert, Johannes Cono, also recently dead, and the converted Jew, Matthaeus Adrianus, who is in zum sessel 4Heidelberg.  But now, though the presses here are never stilled, the real heart of the vast Jerome project lies across the river at the house known as zum Sessel, “the front seat”.

Amerbach expanded his operations and bought or leased zum Sessel, in greater Basel, to house additional presses.  His younger collaborator, Johann Froben, moved into zum Sessel, which consists of several houses and a yard, in 1507.  It was here Erasmus stayed on his first visit to Basel. But though zum Sessel houses a flurry of scholars, printers, correctors, typesetters and illustrators, I was struck today by just how many women there are about.

zum sessel 3For Froben married  Gertrud Lachner, daughter of a well-to-do book dealer. Gertrud is outspoken, and her mother and several unmarried sisters all live at zum Sessel.  And unlike Barbara Amerbach, whose concerns centered always on her children and her home, these women have opinions on almost every subject.  It was, as Erasmus told the Amerbach sons, a “petticoat government.”

“Poor Froben,” Bruno said to me, as we had our midday meal and tipped a glass at the Flower Inn (zur Blume), the oldest inn in Basel.  “His wife and her father have all the money, and Froben’s lack of education surely embarrasses him when he can’t enter into discussions about the text he is to print.”


But as I toured the stacks of folios at zum Sessel, I thought how beautiful they were, and how Froben went patiently ahead, despite criticism from every direction.  Froben insisted on beautiful paper from Lorraine, and he had creative and innovative ideas about fonts and illustrations.  It was said that Erasmus had moved his printing from Paris to Basel because Froben’s books were so beautiful.

After I had taken most of the day traversing my new city and visiting at both zum Kaiserstuh and zum Sessel, I retraced my steps back by the Dance of Death.  The young artist was still there.  He had been joined by one who was older by a few years, perhaps a brother, and they were earnestly discussing the boy’s many sketches.

Holbein brothers


The silverpoint of Ambrosius and Hans Holbein (the younger) by their father was done in 1511, four years before they moved to Basel in 1515, the same year that Capito arrived.  So Hans would have been seventeen rather than around thirteen, as he is in this sketch with Ambrosius.

The Basel Rathaus ©theWolfsEye

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Farewell, Bruchsal

Abject apologies, Gentle Reader, for my long silence.  I have been busy packing my books and belongings into barrels for their journey on the Rhine.  But let me continue my story from where I left it in my last post.

There was the sound of hooves on the cobblestones outside, and my name was shouted by a youthful voice.  Looking from my upper window, I observed three horsemen dismounting.  I recognized the two younger Amerbach sons.  But the third man I failed to recognize,  because I was not expecting an old friend with two new ones.  But by the Muses!  It was Fabri.

I hurried down, still without my robe and my blouse untied, though it was midmorning.  They were glad to see me.  Even Fabri’s reserved manner was lightened by a smile and some flickering amusement in his eyes.  Bonifacius was excitedly twisting his horse’s mane.  “We have great news!” he said.

But his older brother, Basilius, punched his arm, scowling.  “That’s Fabri’s business!  Do you work for the Bishop now?”

Though Bonifacius was sobered, he looked expectantly at Fabri, who said simply, “I’m parched.”

I showed them the hospitality of my late prince-bishop’s wine cellar, and they talked of the news from Basel.  Erasmus had been there a few months earlier, but now was gone.

“I wonder if I shall ever get to meet him,” I said.  “His writings are light in my darkness here.”

There was a pause, as if the very globe of the world held its breath.  Then Fabri slowly removed a document from his satchel and handed it to me.  The red seal bore the imprint of a bishop’s crook.  I carefully peeled it away rather than breaking it.

Bishop Christoph von Utenheim of Basel was offering me a position as cathedral preacher.  I would also be offered a position at the University of Basel as soon as I completed the requirements for my doctorate.  I read the letter three times.  I could scarce take it in.

“This Bishop von Utenheim is a great advocate for good letters,” Fabri said.  “He longs to bring scholars of the new learning to Basel, and I think his efforts of last winter to make Erasmus feel welcome and honoured are one reason Erasmus plans to return to Basel and have his next works printed there.  The Bishop is also a sincere advocate of ecclesiastical reform, having been asked by the abbot of Cluny to reform the monastery of St. Alban at Basel.”

“Not that the monks wish to be reformed,” Bonifacius laughed, and Basilius frowned at him.

I reread the letter.  It was difficult for me to swallow.  “This is your doing,” I said finally to Fabri.  “You are my savior.”

“No,” Fabri said.  “Your friend, Pellicanus, suggested you for the post.  I only stood as witness to your talents when the Bishop asked me.  And the Amerbachs have added their voices to the hue and cry for Capito.”

Now Basilius Amerbach spoke.  Unlike his brothers, he was so soft-spoken that I had to listen carefully.  “You know, Master Capito, that our father went to God with his most ambitious project still unfinished.”

The monumental Complete Works of Jerome, which the elder Amerbach had discussed with me when I first visited his home.  He had predicted then that it would run to ten volumes, and that he would not live to see it completed.

“Our grief is further deepened,” Basilius said, “by the death of Johannes Cono, my father’s trusted advisor in Greek.  The Jew, Adrianus, has left us as well.”

He sighed.  “Let us speak the honest, simple truth, as one German to another.  Of course, we are thrilled that Erasmus has decided to combine his efforts on Jerome with those of our own.  His name alone will help to make it a successful financial venture, and not just a labor of love, as were so many of my father’s projects, for you know, he always wanted to produce works of great beauty and spared no expense on types and illustrations.

“But Erasmus has huge plans for Jerome.  Plans that. . .” again Basilius hesitated, “plans that are beyond the abilities of one man even with the assistants that he often calls upon.  Erasmus, himself, declares he is woefully deficient in Hebrew studies.”

At last the younger Bonifacius could contain himself no longer.  “Erasmus wants the Jerome to have introductions, antidotes, commentaries, word studies.  He sees it as nine volumes with 4000 scholia.”

I nodded.  Scholia, marginal commentary on history or etymology, would be extensive in a work that dated to the fifth century, contained several languages, and was based on multiple manuscripts.

Again Basilius spoke, “Even more important, Erasmus will also be working on his New Testament, which Froben will print this winter.  You know, we have a great fondness for our father’s friend and assistant, Johann Froben.  He is an excellent printer, but he is not an educated man.”

“Erasmus calls him stupid,” Bonifacius said, for which he received yet another glare from his brother.

“That had more to do with the problems of his household and his trusting nature,” Basilius said.  “We need your help, Capito. Please accept the Bishop’s offer and move to Basel.  Put your shoulder to the wheel beside ours to assist Erasmus with his great projects, which will benefit all men who love piety and good letters.”

I sighed to release the pressure of my feelings.  “I get to preach Christ truly, help a reform-minded Bishop, teach at the University, and work at a printer’s with some of the greatest scholars in the German lands.”  Once again, I choked back tears of gratitude.  “You honor me far too much, my friends, who want to put a pack saddle on an ox.  But this ox promises to do his best.”


Rhine riverboat from German Waterways in 1632, Detlef Zander.  

Froben edition of Jerome located in the Gdansk Library of the Polish Academy of Science.

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Bruchsal–Part 2

Capito’s pensive mood illustrated by images of St. Jerome.

Today began like any other.  I awoke in bed, dreading to arise, meditating on the lack of progress I have made in my life of scholarship.

Yes, I have taken my Hebrew studies forward, even in the absence of a teacher, but I’ve still not finished the requirements for my doctorate, and I’m in my thirty-seventh year.

Will I live the rest of my life in this backwater of Bruchsal, preaching to these Benedictine canons, who display little interest in reforming their education, their morals, or the Church?  I have no bishop to direct me, for he who hired me has gone to the grave, and his position remains to be filled by a landed noble, who is still training for the priesthood.  Hardly one who can direct me spiritually or professionally.

I debate my options.  I could, perhaps, make a pilgrimage to Rome.  That has launched the church careers of some, but I have no contact to introduce me to anyone of influence.

I could return to the university, but I know all too well the life of a struggling scholar who, without a doctorate, barely makes enough by lecturing to buy food.

When I think of the University of Freiburg, I naturally remember the good friends there, and their pleasant company at the Hog’s Snout.  But, in truth, they are scattered.  Only Zell remains at Freiburg.  The young monk, Michael, has returned to his abbey of St. Peter’s, and Hubmaier, who did get his doctorate, teaches at the University of Ingolstadt.  Fabri, with his pair of doctorates in civil and canon law, has escaped an unhappy situation at Lindau and now serves in the cathedral at Basel.

I am left behind.  A failure.

I try to encourage myself by remembering St. Jerome.  That illustrious scholar lived a meager existence in the wilderness but produced a great output of important work. His correction of the Latin New Testament gave us the Vulgate, the Bible we have used for a thousand years.  His translation of the Hebrew gave us an Old Testament based on the original language rather than Greek.  He also wrote commentaries, theological treatises, and history.  His letters show us a man tortured by temptation and his own volatile temper.

I think of the many paintings and woodcuts of Jerome, often accompanied by his faithful lion, from whose paw, legend says, he removed a thorn.  But I have no loyal lion for company, and I am not producing any valuable work, so the parallel to St. Jerome ends rather quickly.  Nor am I given to extreme penances, and, God forgive me, I am much more troubled by my situation than my sins.

Thoughts of Jerome depress me further, for an important undertaking is now underway in Basel.

The great Erasmus has been working on a definitive edition of Jerome for years.  The Basil printer, Johannes Amerbach, dreamed of producing a beautiful edition of Jerome as the ultimate achievement of his printshop.

Sadly, Amerbach died, but his sons and his partner, Johann Froben, continue the work, and Erasmus has now joined his dream to theirs, so that there is much activity in Basel.  Erasmus visited Basel last summer and met Froben, and now the work proceeds apace, with various scholars assisting on the Hebrew and Greek.

What I would give to be there, too.  Even as a mouse hiding among the stacks of folios.

At last, I sigh, my daily round of discouraging thoughts completed, and drag myself upright to begin the tedious business of legal and administrative correspondence for this poor ungoverned bishopric.

But then, the sound of hoofbeats. . .


The marvelous painting of St. Jerome at Study is by Jason Sorley.  View his gallery here.

Last Week’s Post

Bruchsal–Part 1


Published in: on July 10, 2012 at 6:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Trouble in Persia~~The Battle is Joined

Personal letter to scholar Wolfgang Capito, from his cousin and friend, Diether von Michelstadt, Knight of the Holy Order of Saint John, from the garrison on Rhodes.

My dearest friend, you will certainly recall my previous comment on Sultan Selim of the Ottoman Turks, the most dangerous enemy to our fortified outpost.  The threatened clash between himself and Ismāil, Shāh of Persia, has now transpired.

Shah Ismail–Turkish miniature

Selim and Ismāil hate one another passionately, particularly because Selim is a devout Sunni, who sees the Persian Shi’ites as heretics and blasphemers.  To aggravate the situation further, Ismāil supported Selim’s brother Ahmed against him in their bloody struggle for power, and allowed Persian raids into Turkish lands.

Selim led a substantial army eastward to the upper reaches of the river Euphrates. Clouds of feudal cavalry were stiffened by the disciplined Janissaries and Selim’s impressive artillery.  Ismāil’s forces were not as large, and consisted mainly of lancers and bowmen on horseback.  It is said the Persians eschew firearms as unmanly and trust in divine providence rather than armor.

They do wear helmets, though the Shãh and his special qizilbash warriors wear distinctive red caps. Outnumbered three to one, Ismāil burned and devastated his own territories to slow the Turkish advance, but Selim’s careful planning for a good supply train kept the Turks fed and well armed.

The battle was joined at a place called Chaldiran, where Selim deployed his Janissaries behind a deep trench, with their flanks protected by carts and wagons chained together, and defended by artillery roped together wheel-to-wheel.  This is the same tactic used by the Hussite heretics against the emperor’s army decades ago.

Great Cannon (of Turks) Dürer–1518

Persian cavalry attacked the flanks, in an attempt to avoid the Janissary corps, but the Turkish guns blew them to pieces.  By my word, these Persians are the enemies of Christendom, but I cannot help but feel sorrow for such brave men smashed beyond recognition by the stone shot of those formidable guns.

Map of Tabriz–16th century

Ismāil himself was wounded in the battle and his troops routed.  Some reports state that he was drunk on wine during the battle, a thing strictly forbidden to good Muslims.  His capital city of Tabriz, famous for its rich carpets and bazaar, was captured by Selim’s forces, but held only briefly.  Selim’s troops refused to advance any further beyond what they considered safe limits, so the Turkish Sultan had to fall back on the freshly conquered lands west of Lake Van.  Leaders of the Kurdish Muslims and Armenian Christians abandoned their loyalty to the Persians, and switched their support to Selim after his victory.  This leaves the Turks in possession of much of ancient Mesopotamia.

16th century Greek Merchant

All of this news is reported to us by a good friend of our Order, the Greek merchant Apostolis.  This worthy trader specializes in Smyrna figs and other fruit commodities, and travels extensively in the lands loyal to Muhammad’s followers.  At the time of the recent conflict, he had arrived at Tabriz, and spoke to Turkish soldiers during their brief time in that city.  After their withdrawal, the Persians returned, lamenting what they predict will be many decades of warfare between these giant empires.

For the immediate future, my own prospects may involve travel back to Europe.  Our Grand Master sees a temporary period of respite in our watchfulness.  It has been many years since I have been to our homeland, so he might send me to visit Germany, Switzerland and the north to recruit more dedicated knights, collect contributions of money and supplies, and amass more and better weapons.  If I am sent on such a tour, it would give me great joy to see your face again after these many years.

I close with a prayer for your health and wellbeing.  May your studies keep you close to the grace of God, who sets all things right.  Please remember your faithful friend and cousin, who holds you in high esteem.


The Fortress of Rhodes, Feast of St. Matthew, 1514

Battle of Chaldiran–note Persian helmets

Diether von Michelstadt created by Leopold Glueckert, O.Carm.,Ph.D

Previous letters from Diether:  Letter from a Knight on RhodesFrom Christian child to Turkish JanissarySunnis and Shi’ites~~The Gathering Storm

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Amerbach Bible for Sale

Go here to see the most excellent work of my friends, the Amerbachs.  Be sure to scroll down the page to see the lovely images.

By the muses!  I might have used this Bible.

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Published in: on May 22, 2012 at 7:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Sunnis and Shi’ites~~The Gathering Storm

To Wolfgang Capito, currently in Bruchsal, from Diether von Michelstadt, Knight of Saint John of Jerusalem, who now serves the garrison on the blessed Isle of Rhodes.  My dearest cousin, greetings in the Lord and sincere prayers for your wellbeing, good health, and growth in virtue.

In my previous communications, I spoke of Selim the Grim, the new Sultan of the Ottoman Turks, and his threat to the security of our island fortress.  I related how Selim’s struggle with his brothers and cousins for the throne ended in his favor and their deaths.  Now he has entered into a dangerous game of chess with his arch-enemy Ismāil, Shāh of Persia.

This Shāh Ismāil is a force to be reckoned with.  After his father was killed in battle, Ismāil went into hiding for several years, then returned, vowing to make Shi’ite Islam the official religion of his empire.  His followers are slavishly loyal to him, many believing that he is a relative of Mohammed.

Shi’ite Muslims have serious quarrels with the majority branch, known as the Sunni.  Shia Muslims insist that only direct relatives of Muhammad should be in the most important positions of leadership.  They revere the twelve imams, ancient religious leaders, most of whom were poisoned, but one who they believe did not die but was hidden by God.  This last imam will return one day as the savior of mankind to bring peace and justice to the world.

Selim, of the Sunni sect, wishes not only to stop the spread of Shi’ism into his Ottoman domains but to conquer and rule them and unite Islam.  According to our Venetian contacts, he now exchanges belligerent letters with Shāh Ismāil.

Venetian galley

When he first came to power, Ismāil sent a secret Persian delegation to Venice, hoping to receive military and naval support from that Serene Republic against the Ottoman Turks.  Since Persia does not have a seacoast on the Mediterranean, the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt allowed Ismāil’s envoys to cross Syria.

So Selim has a quarrel with Shāh Ismāil’s foolish efforts to build an alliance with the Venetians and is equally incensed at the Egyptians’ aid to Ismāil.  It appears that a great battle is brewing.

Shi’ites place great value in personal martyrdom and heroic sacrifice for their religion.  For that reason, a Shi’ite warrior may be a fanatical foe on the battlefield, and hence very dangerous.  Sunni warriors are also brave, but more careful about selling their lives.  The Ottoman Janissaries, in particular, are brave, but very intelligent in calculating how to make best use of their weapons and skills in battle.  A collision of the three giant Islamic empires could bode evil days for one or two of them.

Discord within the ranks of the Muslim princes helps our prospects for survival here in the east of the Mediterranean, but if any one of the three gains a clear superiority over the others, it will not go well for us…a united Islamic military force could represent our worst nightmare.  The rise of one over the others could change the world.

Likewise, the need for a common cause among our Christian princes has never been more urgent.   It is my fervent hope that there be no strife among them, and, most especially, no quarrel over religious truths which could weaken our common efforts to defend Christendom against the infidel.

In closing, I pray for your continued success at your studies, and your happiness in your work.  Your devoted Diether continues to remember your kindness with much gratitude.

From your own Diether,

The Fortress of Rhodes, on the Ides of August, 1514


Diether von Michelstadt created by Leopold Glueckert, O.Carm.,Ph.D

Previous letters from Diether:  Letter from a Knight on Rhodes; From Christian child to Turkish Janissary

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The Inner Light of Oecolampadius

As the Reader may recall, I first began writing these posts upon returning to the University of Freiburg in 1509, after being forced by lack of money to pause my studies for a stint as a corrector at the printing press of Henricus Gran.  But Freiburg was not the first university at which I matriculated.  Up until my father’s death in 1500, I studied to please him, planning for a career in medicine.  Only when he died could I pursue my own path, and it was a journey undertaken in fits and starts due to my poverty and to the unsettled times.

In 1501 I enrolled in the Arts at the University of Ingolstadt (now famous for Johann Eck’s presence and where my friend Hubmaier teaches.)  But war interrupted my studies both there and also at Heidelberg, where I spent part of one year.  This war was occasioned by the death of  Duke George of Bavaria, whose marriage to the Polish princess Hedwig produced five children, but no surviving son.

Jadwiga (Hedwig)

An agreement existed between the two duchies of Bavaria that if the male line of one ended, the other would assume both.  But Duke George wished his daughter Elisabeth and her husband to be his heirs.  This led to a destructive two-year war in 1503, which reduced many villages to ashes and disrupted city life and university studies.  I left Heidelberg in 1504.  The next year, Elisabeth died, the war ended, and Emperor Maximilian partitioned Duke George’s lands, giving some to his grandsons and some to the other Bavarian Duke, with Maximilian keeping some for himself for his arbitration.  By then, I had already enrolled at Freiburg.

But I have fond memories of Heidelberg, where I made friends with a serious and passionate young student of  theology known then as Johannes Hauschein, whose name in our southern German dialect means “house light.”

This week, the duties of my office take me to Heidelberg, where I  was reunited with Hauschein, now a scholar of the humanities, who has taken, not a Latin name, but a Greek one.  Oecolampadius, which means a well-lit, shining house.  One thinks of two Bible passages.  That a Christian should not hide his light under a basket, and that a city set on a hill shall not be hid, but its beauty shall be seen by all.

My dear friend, Oecolampadius, lives up to both passages.  He is still serious about devotion and passionate about study.  Perhaps, a little too serious than is healthy, for he is of frail constitution, though he works ceaselessly, preaching at Weinberg and studying Hebrew under Reuchlin.

At every turn, I find myself encountering encouragement to continue my studies of Hebrew.  Is this the leading of God?  Or am I just overly tender today, having spent time with Oecolampadius?  For he leans to the mystical side of theology, believing that one can find God directly through personal devotion.  Oecolampadius is much attached to the writings of  the French mystic, Jean Gerson.

Gerson taught that “It is preferable to have filial love directed towards God, than to have a keen intellect, but cold and illuminated only by study”.  To know oneself, to love God, this is true wisdom.

Oecolampadius is what I wish to become: an authentic scholar and an authentic Christian, a seeker of true light for both the mind and the heart.  I fear I am far from either.


Delightful portrait of the young Oecolampadius from the collection of  Mrs. Carl J. Burckhardt-de Reynold.

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Capito’s Printer’s Mark on Library of Congress Ceiling

How I love research!  One never knows what one will find when looking for something else.

Capito’s Printer’s Mark on Library of Congress Ceiling

A Printer’s Mark was a design used on the title page of a book.  It was an emblem of either the individual or the printing house. The ceiling of the Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, is decorated with 56 of these devices, each about 1 1/2 feet high to be viewed from the floor. Capito (original Koepfel) is in the west corridor with other German printers.  (I did not have a well-known mark, and I used several different ones and several variations.)

Capito invites the Reader to read more about this in The Library of Congress: the art and architecture of the Thomas Jefferson Building by John Y. Cole and Henry Hope Reed (pages 138-141).

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Published in: on March 9, 2012 at 5:18 pm  Comments (1)  
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