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§ 74. Wilibald Pirkheimer.


Bilibaldi Pirkheimeri Opera politica, historica, philologica, et epistolica, ed. by M. Goldast, Francf., 1610, fol. With a portrait by A. Dürer. His Encomium Podagrae was translated into English by W. Est, The Praise of the Gout, or the Gout’s Apology, a paradox both pleasant and profitable. Lond., 1617.

Lampe: Zum Andenken W. P.’s. Nürnberg, 1828. Karl Hagen: Deutschlands literarische und relig. Verhältnisse im Ref. Zeitalter. Mit besonderer Rücksicht auf Wilibald Pirkheimer. Erlangen, vol. I., 1841, pp. 188 sqq., 261 sqq., 2d ed. 1868. Döllinger: Reformation, vol. I., 161–174. D. F. Strauss: Ulrich von Hutten, 4th ed., Bonn, 1878, pp. 118 sq.; 227–235; 514–518. Lochner: Lebensläufe berühmter und verdienter Nürnberger, Nürnb., 1861. Rud. Hagen: W. P. in seinem Verhältniss zum Humanismus und zur Reformation, Nürnberg, 1882. Lic. P. Drews: Wilibald Pirkheimer’s Stellung zur Reformation, Leipz., 1887 (138 pp.).


About this time, and after the Peasants’ War, the most eminent humanists withdrew from the Reformation, and followed Erasmus into the sheepfold of the mother church, disgusted with the new religion, but without being fully reconciled to the old, and dying at last of a broken heart. In this respect, the apprehension of Erasmus was well founded; the progress of the Reformation arrested and injured the progress of liberal learning, although not permanently. Theology triumphed over classical culture, and fierce dogmatic feuds took the place of satirical exposures of ignorant monks. But the literary loss was compensated by a religious gain. In the judgment of Luther, truth proved mightier than eloquence, faith stronger than learning, and the foolishness of God wiser than the wisdom of men.546546    See his letter to Caspar Börner, professor of literature in Leipzig, May 28, 1522, in De Wette, II. 199-201. The letter was intended also for Erasmus, and printed under the title, "Judicium D. M. Lutheri de Erasmo Roterodamo. Epistola ad amicum 1522." He says that he would not provoke Erasmus, but was not afraid of his attack.

Among the pupils, friends and admirers of Erasmus, who were first attracted and then repelled by the Reformation, are Wilibald Pirkheimer, Crotus Rubeanus, Mutianus Rufus, Ulrich Zasius, Vitus Amerpach, Georg Wizel, Jacob Strauss, Johann Wildenauer (Egranus), Johann Haner, Heinrich Loriti Glareanus, and Theobald Billicanus.547547    Döllinger gives, from the R. Catholic standpoint, a full account of these scholars in the first volume of his work on the Reformation (Regensburg, 1846). On Wizel we have an interesting university program of Neander: Commentatio de Georgio Vicelio. Berlin, 1840. Strauss notices several of them from the rationalistic standpoint, in his Ulrich von Hutten.

Wilibald Pirkheimer (1470–1530), the most distinguished and influential of them, was descended from an ancient, rich, and noble family of Nürnberg, and received a liberal military and diplomatic education. He spent seven years in Italy (1490–1497), and became a leader in the Renaissance. He occupied also a high social position as senator of Nürnberg and imperial counsellor. He was honored by important diplomatic missions, and fulfilled them with great ability. He was not an original genius, but the most learned and most eloquent layman in Germany. He mastered philology, jurisprudence, geography, astronomy, music, painting, botany, and all the discoveries and sciences of the time. He collected a rare library of books and manuscripts and a cabinet of coins, and gave free access to visitors. He translated writings of Xenophon, Plato, Plutarch, Euclid, Ptolemy, Lucian, Gregory Nazianzen, and Nilus, into Latin.548548    On his literary labors, see Karl Hagen, l.c., I. 280 sqq. He was called "the Nürnberg Xenophon," for his account of the rather inglorious Swiss campaign (1499) in which he took part as an officer.549549    He tells in his narrative the following anecdote of a brave and quick-witted Swiss maiden. When asked by the imperial soldiers, "What are the Swiss guards doing on their post?" she replied, "Waiting for you to attack them." — "How strong is their number?" — "Strong enough to throw you all back." — " But how strong?" — "You might have counted them in the recent fight, but fright and flight made you blind." —" What do they live of?" — "Of eating and drinking." The soldiers laughed, but one drew his sword to kill her. "Verily," she said, "you are a brave man to threaten an unarmed girl. Go and attack yonder guard, who can answer you with deeds instead of words." Comp. Münch, W. P.’s Schweizerkrieg und Ehrenhandel. Basel, 1826. Drews, l.c., p. 10. He carried on an extensive correspondence with the leading humanists, especially Reuchlin, Ulrich von Hutten, and Erasmus, and also with the Reformers, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, and Luther. He was the Maecenas of Germany, and a gentleman of striking and commanding presence, social culture, charming manners, and princely liberality.550550    Unfortunately his moral character was not free from blemish. He became a widower in 1504, and lived in illicit intercourse with his servant, who bore him a son when he was already past fifty. Christoph Scheurl wrote: "I wish Melanchthon knew Pirkheimer better: he would then be more sparing in his praise. With the most he is in bad repute." See K. Hagen, l.c., I. 347, and Drews, l.c., 14 sq. He constantly entertained distinguished strangers at his hospitable board. Nürnberg was then the first German city in politics, industry, and commerce. He made it also a centre of literature and illumination. At Venice there was a proverb:, All German cities are blind, except Nürnberg, which has one eye."

Pirkheimer hailed the beginnings of the Reformation with patriotic and literary enthusiasm, invited Luther to his house when he returned utterly exhausted from Augsburg in 1518, distributed his books, and, with his friends Albrecht Dürer and Lazarus Spengler, prepared the way for the victory of the new ideas in his native city. He wrote an apology of Reuchlin in his controversy with the Dominicans, contributed probably to the "Letters of Obscure Men," and ridiculed Dr. Eck in a satirical, pseudonymous dialogue, after the Leipzig disputation.551551    Eccius dedolatus (Der abgehobelte Eck). Auctore Ioanne Francisco Cottalambergio, Poëta Laureato. 1520. See p. 182. Eck took cruel revenge when he published the Pope’s bull of excommunication, by naming Pirkheimer among the followers of Luther, and warning him through the magistrate of Nürnberg. Luther burnt the Pope’s bull; but Pirkheimer helped himself out of the difficulty by an evasive diplomatic disclaimer, and at last begged absolution.

This conduct is characteristic of the humanists. They would not break with the authorities of the church, and had not the courage of martyrs. They employed against existing abuses the light weapons of ridicule and satire rather than serious argument and moral indignation. They had little sympathy with the theology and piety of the Reformers, and therefore drew back when the Reformers, for conscience’ sake, broke with the old church, and were cast out of her bosom as the Apostles were cast out of the synagogue.

In a letter to Erasmus, dated Sept. 1, 1524, Pirkheimer speaks still favorably of Luther, though regretting his excesses, and deprecates a breach between the two as the greatest calamity that could befall the cause of sound learning. But soon after the free-will controversy, and under the influence of Erasmus, he wrote a very violent book against his former friend Oecolampadius, in defence of consubstantiation (he did not go as far as transubstantiation).552552    Bilibaldi Birckheimheri de vera Christi carne et vero ejus sanguine, ad Ioan. Oecolampadium responsio. Norembergae, 1526. Bilibaldi Pirckheymeri de vera Christi carne, etc., reponsio secunda. 1527. I give the titles, with the inconsistencies of spelling from original copies in the Union Theol. Seminary. Pirkheimer calls Oecolampadius (his Greek name for Hausschein, House-lamp) "Coecolampadius" (Blindschein, Blind-lamp), and deals with him very roughly. Drews (pp. 89-110) gives a full account of this unprofitable controversy.

The distractions among Protestants, the Anabaptist disturbances, the Peasants’ War, the conduct of the contentious Osiander, sickness, and family afflictions increased his alienation from the Reformation, and clouded his last years. The stone and the gout, of which he suffered much, confined him at home. Dürer, his daily companion (who, however, differed from him on the eucharistic question, and strongly leaned to the Swiss view), died in 1528. Two of his sisters, and two of his daughters, took the veil in the nunnery of St. Clara at Nürnberg. His sister Charitas, who is famous for her Greek and Latin correspondence with Erasmus and other luminaries, was abbess. The nunnery suffered much from the disturbances of the Reformation and the Peasants’ War. When it was to be secularized and abolished, he addressed to the Protestant magistrate an eloquent and touching plea in behalf of the nuns, and conclusively refuted the charges made against them. The convent was treated with some toleration, and survived till 1590.

His last letters, like those of Erasmus, breathe discontent with the times, lament over the decline of letters and good morals, and make the evangelical clergy responsible for the same evils which he formerly charged upon the Roman clergy and monks. "I hoped," he wrote to Zasius (1527), a distinguished professor of jurisprudence at Freiburg, who likewise stood halting between Rome and Wittenberg,—"I hoped for spiritual liberty; but, instead of it, we have carnal license, and things have gotten much worse than before." Zasius was of the same opinion,553553    Comp. Döllinger, Die Reform. i. 174-182. and Protestants of Nürnberg admitted the fact of the extensive abuse of the gospel liberty.554554    Hans Sachs (in his Gespräch eines evang. Christen mit einem katholischen, Nürnberg, 1524) warns the Nürnbergers against their excesses of intemperance, unchastity, uncharitableness, by which they brought the Lutheran doctrine into contempt. Döllinger, l.c., I. 174 sqq., quotes testimonies to the same effect from Konrad Wickner and Lazarus Spengler, both prominent Protestants in Nürnberg, and from contemporaries in other parts of Germany. In a letter to his friend Leib, prior of Rebdorf, written a year before his death, Pirkheimer disclaims all fellowship with Luther, and expresses the opinion that the Reformer had become either insane, or possessed by an evil spirit.555555    Döllinger, I. p. 533 sq., gives this letter in Latin and German, and infers from it that Pirkheimer died a member of the Catholic Church. But, on the other hand, he remained on good terms with Melanchthon, and entertained him on his way to the Diet of Augsburg in 1530.

His apparent inconsistency is due to a change of the times rather than to a change of his conviction. Like Erasmus, he remained a humanist, who hoped for a reformation from a revival of letters rather than theology and religion, and therefore hailed the beginning, but lamented the progress, of the Lutheran movement.556556    This is substantially also the judgment of Drews, his most recent biographer, who says (l.c., p. 123): "Pirkheimer ist jeder Zeit Humanist geblieben ... In der Theorie war er ein Anhänger der neuen, gewaltigen Bewegung; aber als dieselbe anfing praktisch zu werden, erschrak er vor den Gährungen, die unvermeidlich waren. Der Humanist sah die schönen Wissenschaften bedroht; der Patrizier erschrak vor der Übermacht des Volkes; der Staatsmann erzitterte, als er den Bruch mit den alten Verhältnissen als eine Notwendigkeit fühlte. Nur ein religiös fest gegründeter Glaube war im Stande, über diesen Kämpfen den Sieg und den Frieden zu sehen. Daran aber fehlte es gerade Pirkheimer; alles theologische Interesse vermag dieses persönliche religiöse Leben nicht zu ersetzen. Wohl besass er ein lebendiges Rechtsgefühl, einen ethischen Idealismus, aber es fehlte ihm die Kraft, im eignen Leben denselben zu verwirk-lichen. Ihm war das Leben ein heiteres Spiel, solange die Tage sonnenhell waren; als sie sich umdüsterten, wollten sich die Wolken weder hinwegscherzen, noch hinwegschmähen lassen. Ein religiös, sittlicher Charakter war Pirkheimer nicht, ’Vivitur ingenio, caetera mortis erunt,’ diese Worte hat er unter sein von Dürer gezeichnetes Bild (1524) gesetzt. Sie enthalten das Glaubensbekenntnis Pirkheimers, das Geheimnis seines Lebens."

Broken by disease, affliction, and disappointment, he died in the year of the Augsburg Confession, Dec. 22, 1530, praying for the prosperity of the fatherland and the peace of the church. He left unfinished an edition of Ptolemy’s Geography, which Erasmus published with a preface. Shortly before his death, Erasmus had given him an unfavorable account of the introduction of the Reformation in Basel and of his intention to leave the city.

Pirkheimer made no permanent impression, and his writings are antiquated; but, as one of the most prominent humanists and connecting links between the mediaeval and the modern ages, he deserves a place in the history of the Reformation.



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