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.

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Bruchsal–Part 1


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Christian Holy War?

Featuring the words of Erasmus with images of St. George (who was Turkish), dragon slayer and patron saint of soldiers. 

I cannot sleep tonight. Fabri and I met the young monk Michael for supper. I shared the letter I received from my cousin Diether, a knight on Rhodes, which is daily threatened by the Turks.  Diether believes he risks his life in the cause of Christ.

But Michael was of another opinion. He had a book by Erasmus which he pulled out and began to read. Now, Capito cannot sleep, for he knows not if he still agrees with Diether, whose heart is good, or with Erasmus, whose logic is inestimable. For who can argue with the most eloquent scholar of our age:

Murder a Stranger

See the slaughtered and the slaughtering. Heaps of dead bodies, fields flowing with blood, rivers reddened with human gore. A man, actuated by this fit of insanity, plunges the sword into the heart of one by whom he was never offended, even by a word!

Dragons live in Peace

A dog will not devour his own species; lions, with all their fierceness, are quiet among themselves; and dragons are said to live in peace with dragons.

But to man, no wild beast is more destructive than his fellow man.

A Holy War

Yet, war is so much sanctioned by authority and custom that it is considered impious—even heretical—to protest against it.

We are always at war, either in preparation, or in action. There are thousands and tens of thousands of Pseudo-Christians–Christians only in name–who are ready to applaud it all, to extol it to the skies, to call these truly hellish transactions a Holy War.

Encouraged by Sermons

There are men who spirit up princes to war, mad enough as they usually are of themselves. One man mounts the pulpit, perverting the words of the Psalm to the wicked purpose of war: “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.” Psalm xci. 5.

Send Christ to a Brothel?

Whereas a true Christian teacher or preacher never can give his approbation to war. For where is the kingdom of the devil, if not in a state of war? Why do we drag Christ thither, who might, much more consistently with his doctrine, be present in a brothel, than in the field of battle?

Just and Necessary (and Profitable)

I am well aware what a clamour those persons will raise against me who reap a harvest from public calamity. “We engage in war,” they always say, “with reluctance, provoked by the aggression of the enemy. We are only prosecuting our own rights. Whatever evil attends war, let those be responsible who furnished the occasion of it, a war to us just and necessary.”

A Just War

The definition of a just and necessary war is as follows: That which, whatsoever it be, howsoever it originates, on whomsoever it is waged, any prince whatever thinks proper to declare.

They would not, indeed, for the world, go to war from motives of revenge, but solely from a love of justice, and a desire to promote a righteous cause: but what man alive is there who does not think that his own cause is a righteous cause?

A Hook of Gold to catch a Fish

But if any one should exclaim: it would be unjust that he who has offended should not suffer condign punishment,

I answer that it is much more unjust that so many thousand innocent persons should be called to share the utmost extremity of misfortune, which they could not possibly have deserved.

Better to let the crime of a few go unpunished, than, while we endeavor to chastise one or two by war, (in which, perhaps, we may not succeed,) to involve our own people and the innocent part of the enemies, for so I may call the multitude, in certain calamity.

It is better to let a wound alone, which cannot be healed without injury to the whole body.

If the scales are held with an even hand, carefully weighing the advantages with the disadvantages, peace, even with some injustice, is better than a just war.

That which is risked is of far more value than what is gained. Who but a madman would angle for a fish with a hook of gold?

Let us Rob Thieves

Dragon in Leaves (Turkish, 16th century) attributed to Shah Quli

I, for one, do not approve the frequent holy wars which we make upon the Turks. Ill would it fare the Christian religion if its preservation in the world depended on such support.

If our religion was instituted by troops of soldiers, established by the sword, and disseminated by war, then indeed let us go on to defend it by the same mean.

The church did not rise, flourish, and became firmly established in the world by war and slaughter, but by the blood of the martyrs, by bearing and forbearing, and by submitting life to duty and conscience.

But the objector repeats, “Why may I not go and cut the throats of those who would cut our throats if they could?” Do you then consider it as a disgrace that any should be wickeder than you? Why do you not go and rob thieves? They would rob you if they could.

The Real Motive

If I long for some of the Turk’s riches, I cloak my real motive by calling it a zeal for the defense of religion. The wars of Christians appear to be merely systems of plunder. But if our real intention is only to extend dominion, if we are only opening our voracious jaws to swallow up their riches, why do we add the name of Christ to a purpose so vile?

It is a truth to be lamented rather than denied, that if any one examines the matter carefully and faithfully, he will find almost all the wars of Christians to have originated either in folly or in wickedness.

Our history of war, like Homer’s Iliad, contains, as Horace says, nothing but a history of the wrath of silly kings, and of people as silly as they.

And has often been the case, a war against an unbelieving nation can be a mere pretext for picking the pockets of Christian people, who are burdened to support such a war to the ruination of the nation.

But Christ said. . .

Those who revile us, we must not revile again. We must do good to them who use us ill. And we should pray for them who design to take away our lives.

One law Jesus Christ claimed as his own peculiar law, and it was the law of love or charity. Christ gives to his disciples nothing but peace; he leaves them no other legacy than peace.

Examine every part of Christ’s doctrine, you will find nothing that does not breathe peace. He ordered us to learn of him to be meek and lowly. He prohibited resistance to evil.

Such was his reign; thus did he wage war, thus he conquered, and thus he triumphed.

No Christian at All

We spit our spite against infidels, and think, by so doing, that we are perfectly good Christians. Yet perhaps, we are more abominable for the very act, in the sight of God, than the infidels themselves. For this conduct alone is sufficient to prove any man to be no Christian at all.

Do you consider it a noble exploit for a Christian, having killed in war those whom he thinks wicked, but who still are men for whom Christ died, to delight the devil in two instances: first, that a man is slain at all; and secondly, that the man who slew him is a Christian?

If the Christian religion be a fable, why do we not honestly and openly explode it? Why do we glory and take a pride in its name?

But if Christ is both the way, and the truth, and the life, why do all our schemes of life and plans of conduct deviate so from this great exemplar?

If we acknowledge Christ to be our Lord and Master, who is Love itself, and who taught nothing but love and peace, let us exhibit his model, not by assuming his name, or making an ostentatious display of the mere emblematic sign, his cross, but by our lives.

Turks, not Christians, in our Hearts

As we now go on, we engage in the field of battle on equal terms, the wicked with the wicked, and our religion is no better than their own.

I prefer an unbeliever in his native colours, to a false Christian painted and varnished over with hypocrisy. There is less harm in being openly and honestly a Turk or a Jew, than in being an hypocritical, a pretended, a nominal Christian.

For if we put aside the name of Christians and the banner of the cross, we are no better than Turks fighting against our brother Turks.

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A Witch and a Demon? Part 2

A Witch and a Demon?   Part 1

A Mother’s Sorrow  (featuring Pietàs for the day of Mothers)

While Michael attended to his mother, his father refilled our glasses.  “She wasn’t always like this,” he said.

Dr. Murer and the Black Rider nodded.

“Oh, she was always skittish,” the father continued.  “Always praying at the church.  Always blaming evil spirits if cream failed to come in her churn or worms took the cabbages.”

“But when I first visited here with Jakob,” the Black Rider said, “she was light and happy.  Almost like a girl.  Jakob brought her an Italian shawl, and she danced around in it.  She was beautiful.”

Michael returned and took his place silently at the table, pouring himself a glass of wine and drinking half quickly.

“Jakob’s death did it,” the father murmured.  “It broke her spirit.”

The silence lasted so long, I finally said, “Was he killed in battle?”

“He died here,” the father said.  But then stopped.

Michael told the tale.  “I remember I had ten years, for it was 1500, the year Pope Alexander declared a crusade against the Turk.  Mother was happy that Jakob was ‘taking the cross,’ though he told her that no one used those words any more.  He said that the crusade was only so that the Pope could reclaim seaports for the Venetians. 

“But she paid no attention, for the Pope had declared that any who died on this crusade would go straight to heaven.  So she was free of her normal anxiety over his dangerous career.”

The young monk’s eyes froze toward the center of the table.  “Jakob was to depart the next day and had taken the black horse to be shod.  I polished his sword all morning and was working on my Latin in the yard.  Caesar’s Wars.  It is again told Caesar that the Helvetii intended to march through the country of the Sequani and the Aedui into the territories of the Santones. . .   It was so tiresome.  

“Then, the black horse’s shadow came over the book.  As I looked up, Jakob fell to the ground.  His eyelids were balls of red flesh, his lips like black slugs.  His tongue was so swollen that it hung from the side of his mouth.  He was choking, but it sounded only like a little coo.  He opened his eyes to tiny slits, looked at me, and then the light just went out.  

“I screamed.  The neighbors arrived, but no one would come near.  I sat in the dirt by the body and heard their words.  A witch has done this surely.  A demon.  Sabnacke.  Yah, Sabnacke who preys on soldiers.  Look, he has beshit himself.  Yes.  A fine end for a fancy Black Rider.  So Sattler will not have so much to brag over.  A pox.  A pest.  A new plague.

“Then Mother came with a basket of eggs–she planned to make us nut pudding.  She fell down by Jakob, and the eggs rolled to the feet of the neighbors. . .”

Michael looked up, took a quick breath, and cleared his throat.  “She sent me for a priest, but I knew he was dead.  It was too late even for the last rites.  There would be no crusade for Jakob.”

After a moment’s silence, I said, “Was it plague, then?”

“No,” said the doctor.  “I had just moved to Freiburg, a young doctor fresh out of medical school at Montpelier.  We had a lecture on this, and I knew what to look for.  Sure enough, there was a stinger still embedded in Jakob’s neck.”

“A bee?” I said, incredulous.

“Yes.  But no one believed me.  Certainly not the mother.” 

“I believed you,” Michael said.  “But Mother could not understand it, because he had been stung many times as a child.” 

“Nevertheless, that was the cause of his death,” Dr. Murer said.  “I am convinced.”

“After that,” the father said, with great weariness, “she was in bed, staring at the wall without speaking, or at the church.  She was–is–much at the church, praying for Jakob’s soul, which she believes roasts in Purgatory.”  He gestured toward Michael.  “She pushed this one to become a monk.  To pray always for Jakob.”

“That’s not true, Father.”

“I lost two sons that day,” the father said.  “My only two.”

That night, I could not sleep.  I understand why this family is careful to keep the mother out of society, for her bizarre behavior following the mysterious death of her son would indeed raise the foreheads of the neighbors.

The obsession with witches waxes and wans, but there is a general fear among the people.  Pope Innocent specifically loosed the Inquisition on the German lands in 1484, through a Bull which gave unlimited powers to the witchhunters, Kramer and Sprenger.  They published the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, found on every magistrate’s desk.  This manual details the nature and behavior of witches and gives instructions for trials and tortures.  It declares as heretics any who do not believe in witches.

But we scholars discreetly express our doubts.  Without mentioning witchcraft, Erasmus, in Encomium Moriae or Praise of Folly, ridicules the Dominican inquisitors who sacrifice innocent people because of their own silly fears.  He says they are gullible, superstitious, and bloodthirsty.

And what of Michael’s mother?  What do you think, Gentle Reader?  For myself, I see no witch, but only a mother’s love.  No demon, but only dolor matris.  A mother’s sorrow.


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In the Land of the Blind

When I arrived home, Matthew Zell and the peasant named Fedor were standing in the door, chatting like boon companions. 

It seems Matthew’s satchel had been thieved, and this Fedor had shot down the alley, caught the rascal, cuffed his ears, and returned the bag to Matthew, who began rummaging in it for a coin to reward the peasant. 

Matthew, perpetually disorganized, gave the fellow a book to hold while he searched out the money.  The first surprise was when this Fedor opened the book and said, “Is this Latin?”

“Yes,” Matthew said.  “It’s Erasmus’ translation into Latin of the Greek Adagia.”

The peasant studied the page.  His hair stood up in tufts like miniature sheaves among scabby bald patches, and the scar on his face looked like a giant white leech.  “Why write Latin and Greek?  German says all that needs to be said.” 

I would have given the fellow his coin and moved on.  But Matthew loves all people.  He pushed up the sleeves of his scholar’s robe and looked as if he might give this Fedor a Latin lesson.  “It’s like this: the writings of the ancient civilizations were lost to us for centuries.  But the eastern scholars, fleeing the Turks, brought these old writings with them.  So now we have manuscripts from Greece and Rome.”

“Rome!”  The peasant appeared about to spit, then thought better.

“Not Rome now,” Matthew said.  “Ancient Rome.”

“Like Plato.”

Matthew’s eyes, the color of mink, shone.  “Yes!  You know Plato?”

“If one has made a mistake,” the peasant quoted, “and fails to correct it, one has made a greater mistake.”

“By the Muses!  That’s very good.”

But the peasant dropped his head.  “Just a man reading in an ale house.  It stuck in my mind.

“But you see,” Matthew said, excited by his passion for the subject, “the wisdom of the ancients.  From them, one can learn also grammar, rhetoric, moral philosophy, poetry, history.  It’s called ‘good letters.’  The studia humanitatis.”


Matthew leaned against the door frame.  “Humanists believe the greatest civilizations were the ancient ones and that, when the Germanic invaders conquered Rome in the fifth century, the world was plunged into intellectual darkness.  They say Europe continues to live in ruins.  Of course, many scholastics rail against valuing anything not strictly ‘Christian.'” 

Fedor scratched under his arm.  “Well, wouldn’t it threaten some to think that there is truth outside the Church?”

“But if man is in God’s image,” Matthew said, “shouldn’t he be able to reach some truth on his own?  Humanists believe man can improve himself by returning ad fontes–to the sources–to reclaim his ancient knowledge.  So they search everywhere for these old texts.  But few know Greek.  So scholars like Erasmus translate the Greek texts into Latin–that more people may read them.”

“If he wished more people to read them,” Fedor said, ‘he should translate them into German.”

“That’s true.  Another truth is that scholars often write in Latin when they want to have discussions among themselves without making their thoughts public to the populace.

“So they can keep us ignorant,” the peasant said.

Matthew looked startled.  Then he said, “Do you read, Friend?”

“No.  But I always listen in the ale houses or on the street.”  Fedor looked at the book in Matthew’s hand and said softly, “Tell me one thing in this book.”

Matthew opened it at random.  “In regione caecorum rex est luscus.  In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

And a smart peasant, I thought, is a dangerous thing.


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