Basel and the Amerbachs

April, 1513

By the Muses!  What an exciting time I had in Basel.  I am drunk on the new wine of the city’s energy and the passion of its lettered citizens.

As the Reader recalls, a few weeks ago, I journeyed to Basel to study Hebrew with a converted Jew named Matthew Adrian.  Of the Jew, I have something to say, but much to say of the brilliant family, the Amerbachs, with whom he lives and the exciting atmosphere of the city of Basel.

1492 Edict of Expulsion of Spanish Jews

This Matthaeus Adrianus is a Spanish converso, a medical doctor.  Though Reuchlin and Pellicanus speak highly of him, no one speaks as highly of him as he does, for he calls himself the best Hebrew scholar in Germany, expert in the cabalistic arts.  Considering the state of Hebrew scholarship in Germany, I’d say that’s little praise.  I would wager that, had we not run them to ground, we have better Hebraists right here in Germany among our own Rabbis, and at least we could understand them.  For this Adrianus speaks the crude Latin in use in Spain, without grammatical agreement, and with a Spanish accent.  It is difficult to understand what he is saying in the tongue I know, much less the one I don’t.  He’s arrogant and teaches us with a grudging manner, all the while reminding us what a good Christian he is.

“The Marranos” by Moshe Maimon showing a Spanish family’s secret Seder

Nevertheless, he is what we have, and a hungry dog can not disdain any bone.  I have, in fact, furthered my studies of the language under his frowning eye, and, perhaps even more importantly, been introduced to the fascinating Jewish way of life, for he tells of marriages, funerals, and feasts.  Sadly, with the likes of that ass, Pfefferkorn lurking about, one must be circumspect about one’s interests.

But I must tell you now of the Amerbach family with whom I stayed, where also the Jew is staying.  It was as if I were suddenly plopped down in the midst of a house where the very air were permeated with scholarship, with languages, with talk of types and exemplars and bookseller intrigues.

The father, Johann Amerbach, studied in Rome and worked in the printing arts in Venice.  He settled in Basel and, discovering that the Carthusian monastery there had an excellent collection of manuscripts, he resolved to publish the collected works of the four doctors of the church: Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory, and Augustine.  Amerbach wishes his books to be beautiful and gave me a lesson at the dinner table of  the advantages of Latin type over Gothic or Italian.

The work of Jerome, which Amerbach expects to run to ten volumes, is now his passion, though he says that he fears he will not live long enough to finish it.  It is this endeavor that has drawn the Jew to him.  That, and the further education Amerbach wishes his sons to receive in Hebrew.  These sons are a most remarkable trio, scholars all, though their progress has not always lived up to the standards of their serious father.


The eldest, Bruno, has around thirty years.  He returned from Paris without his degree, but with a solid knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  His father murmured that his oldest son’s studies were hampered by adventurous and amorous distractions.  Indeed, he is a fun-loving fellow.  Then there is Basilius, whom I knew at Freiburg, though not well.  He studied law and lived with Zasius, but he is very quiet and reserved.  Indeed, Bruno teases him that women terrify him.  Youngest is Bonifacius, who recently received his MA from the University here in Basel.  Perhaps the father felt that after Bruno’s unremarkable progress at Paris, he would keep his son and his money at home.

I also met the daughter, Margarete, whom the brothers whispered had once been disowned by her father.  She wanted to marry a young spice merchant, who was from a good family, but was rumored to be engaged to another.  Her father forbade the marriage, threatened to send Margarete to a convent, and so she eloped with the man.  Through the efforts of Bruno and family friends, she was reconciled.  She came to visit  with her young son, though I never met her husband.

Johann Froben

Another man, who is present so much at the Amerbach home that he seems part of the family, is another printer, Johann Froben.  Froben once worked in Nuremberg for the printer and publisher, Anton Koberger, whom I met at the Frankfurt Bookfair, (along with his famous Godson, Albrecht Durer.)  Koberger is good friends with the elder Amerbach, and Froben came to Basel as an assistant to Amerbach, before starting his own press, though the men remain friends and collaborators.

Froben’s Printer’s Device: As Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents, gentle as doves”

The commercial side of Froben’s press is managed by his father-in-law, who has close ties with an international bookseller named Birckmann.  This Birckmann does business in England, where Erasmus now resides, and it is rumored that Birckmann might bring the latest edition of Erasmus’ Adages to Froben’s press, rather than taking it to Paris, as was planned.  If this happens, it will highly elevate Froben and all of Basel, especially if it brings Erasmus to the city.

What grand days I had in Basel, studying Hebrew, watching the Amerbach and Froben presses at work, playing cards and drinking a little with the Amerbach sons.

But now, I am back at Bruchsal—I cannot bear to call it home.  What a desert it is.  I have no real friends, no meaningful work, and even no Bishop, for he who summoned me here has died.  It is said that his position will go to one who is not even a priest, and so must be trained and ordained before he may become Bishop. That could take two years.  In the meantime, though I value the benefice that keeps the wolf from the latchstring, I long–oh how I long–for Basel.


Capito directs the Reader to:  

The correspondence of Johann Amerbach : early printing in its social context / selected, translated, edited, with commentary by Barbara C. Halporn and digitized by the University of Michigan Press.

The Printers of Basle in the XV & XVI Centuries: Their Biographies, Printed Books, and Devices by Charles William Heckethorn

Contemporaries of Erasmus : a biographical register of the Renaissance and Reformation by Peter G Bietenholz
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