Sons of smiths, tutors to kings

In this Century, many are asking, “What’s in a Name?”  Why do these scholars of the studia humanitatis change their names to Latin–or even Greek?  I can answer only for Capito, who began life as Köpfel, but I think my friends would agree.

The Nobility of the Calling

I estimate that there are no more than 250 to 300 scholars in all of Europe engaged in the study of the humanities.  We are far flung across England and the Continent, divided by native languages and customs, separated often by the wars of our Princes.

And yet, we are all engaged in the same noble pursuit: to find and study the manuscripts of the ancient civilizations of Rome and Greece.  We believe that if we can disseminate this knowledge, man can return to his former glory of thought and we can enjoy a citizenry which recognizes virtue and prudence and speaks and writes with eloquence. 

Ad fontes! we cry.  To the sources!  We reject a thousand years of commentary and discussion, which has muddied the meaning of the original documents.  We want to see for ourselves what Aristotle and Plato, Lucretius and Cicero said.  We reject medieval Latin, mutilated for centuries by untrained clerics, to study and revive classical Latin.  Likewise, the study of Hebrew is revealing the original truths of the Old Testament scriptures and the Kabbalah and allowing us to better understand our own religion. 

How important is the study of manuscripts to ferret out the truth!  Consider the Donation of Constantine.  Allegedly issued by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 324 AD, this document granted Pope Sylvester I, and his successors, sovereignty over the entire Western  empire.  For a thousand years, the Popes used the Donation to defend their rights to rule as secular powers. 

But in 1440, the Italian scholar of humanities, Lorenzo Valla, published evidence that the Donation could not be genuine, one proof being that the Latin in the document could not have been written in the 4th century.  More likely, it was written shortly before it was “discovered” in the 8th century, when Pope Stephen II needed to augment his secular authority.  This is a shining example of how the study of ancient languages exhumes long-buried truth.

Of course, those who take such bold stands are often attacked by those whose life’s work and reputation are built on the old conclusions.  We who embrace this learning are a beleaguered minority, struggling to find ways to strengthen our brotherhood or sodalitas and to readily identify ourselves to one another.  And so, we correspond, we travel when we can, and we assume Latin names.  Because when we take a Latin or a Greek name, we become, in that tiny aspect, a member of the great civilizations and societies which we admire.

The Humility of the Called

We also step away from our own humble roots.  For oddly, few scholars of the humanities originate in nobility, Ulrich von Hutten being one of the rare exceptions.  Rather, many are of the merchant class and some come from peasant stock.  But those who have the ability and the determination to master the difficult ancient languages–and the corresponding grammar, rhetoric, poetics, history and moral philosophy–are members of an intellectual nobility. 

The sons of blacksmiths, we are tutors to kings.  We are sought after by universities, the Church, the Courts, the government–until recently the sole ambit of the aristocracy.  Our classical names identify us as a literary nobility, the nobilitas literaria, as surely as a coat of arms identifies the gentry of blood.

  • Some of us take the name of our place of origin, like Eobanus Hessus, after Hesse, the region of his birth. 
  • Others translate their names into Latin or Greek, as did Philipp Melanchthon (Philipp Schwartzerd, whose German name means “black earth”). 
  • And others, feeling a desire to acknowledge the sacrifices of their ancestors, derive their name from the occupation of their father.  George Bauer (farmer) becomes Georgius Agricola, which is Latin for plowman. 

If, like Capito, Best Reader, your father is a smith, you can Latinize your name and become Fabricus, which is Latin for one who fabricates.  My friend, Johann Fabri, and I, Wolfgang Fabricus Capito, share this appellative.

Men often take new names to express their desire to become new men.  This is a common practice in religious houses, where the novice will choose the name of a favorite saint to be his own.  Likewise, we who seek truth in ancient sources wish to be new men in a new age.

Galen's 2nd-century treatise on the pulse, De Pulsibus. Greek with Latin notes--16th century.


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