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Humanist Scholarship and the Study of Yiddish

  • Jerold C. Frakes

Abstract

Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1533) was—with the help of Jewish tutors in both Vienna and Rome—one of the first modern scholars to learn Hebrew well enough to be known as a ‘master of the three languages’.7 In the course of his career he wrote or edited fourteen titles in the field of Hebraica. His De rudimentis hebraicis libri III (‘The Rudiments of Hebrew,’ Pforzheim 1506), organized on the model of Priscian’s Latin grammar, was not the earliest Hebrew grammar published by Christian scholarship, but it included both a grammar and a dictionary (based on David Kimhi’s Mikhlol ‘Pefection/Sp;endour’).8 Before it was replaced by better works (such as Pagninus’ translation of Kimhi, Lyons 1526), its use was widespread: it was, for instance, owned and used by Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, and Martin Bucer. Reuchlin also published an early example of a kind of text that was to become an essential aid to fledgling Christian Hebraists: a text selection from the Hebrew Bible accompanied by commentary: In septem psalmos poenitentiales interpretatio (‘Commentary on Seven Penetential Psalms,’ Tübingen 1512). His knowledge otherwise sustained his reputation, as did the principled stand that he took against the Cologne Dominicans who, in support of Johann Joseph Pfefferkorn, a Jewish convert who polemicized in favor of the confiscation and destruction of all Hebrew texts.9 Reuchlin spoke in a hearing before Emperor Maximilian and inadvertently proved clearly the social limitations of Humanist ideology: he argued that Hebrew texts should not be banned since they were useful for Christian theology and general education.

Keywords

Jewish Community Hebrew Word Latin Translation German Dialect Roman Alphabet 
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Notes

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    On Reuchlin, see Thomas Willi, “Christliche Hebraisten der Renaissance und Reformation,” Judaica 30 (1974), 78–85Google Scholar
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    On Reuchlin’s grammar, see Hermann Greive, “Die hebräische Grammatik Johannes Reuchlins, De rudimentis hebraicis,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 90 (1978), 395–409CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 9.
    The affair became an international cause célèbre that, according to the astute analysis by Erika Rummel, was formulated by participants in three successive polemical constructs over the course of time; Erika Rummel, The Case against Johannes Reuchlin: Social and Religious Controversy in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002). In the earlier stages of the controversy, many humanists wrote to Reuchlin, expressing their support. He published a selection of those letters in 1514 as Clarorum virorum epistolae (‘Letters of Eminent Men’). The following year that collection’s counterpart, as it were, the Epistolae obscurorum virorum (‘Letters of Obscure Men’), appeared, purportedly a collection of letters addressed to and in support of Ortwin Gratius, one of the Cologne theologians who opposed Reuchlin. The letters and their outlandishly named authors were, however, the fictional inventions of two humanist supporters of Reuchlin’s, Crotus Rubeanus and Ulrich von Hutten. The letters are constructed—or better, concocted—as fawning fan mail, written in appallingly bad Latin by uneducated, immoral, willfully stupid boors whose conception of intellectual life consists at best in quibbling. Cf. the edition by Francis Griffin Stokes, Epistolae obscurorum virorum (London: Chatto & Windus, 1925).Google Scholar
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    The work focuses on Yiddish on pp. 81-334. Cf. J. Weissberg, “Johann Christof Wagenseils Bericht ‘Wie das jüdisch-Teutsche zu lesen?’” Zeitschrifi für deutsche Sprache 25 (1969), 154–68.Google Scholar
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  38. 123.
    On the development of this movement, see Weinreich, Geschichte, pp. 135-44; Katz, “On Yiddish,” p. 26; the relevant texts by Callenberg and Chrysander are reprinted in Hans Peter Althaus, ed. Johann Heinrich Callenberg und Wilhelm Christian Just Chrysander, Schriften zur jiddischen Sprache (Marburg: Elwert, 1966).Google Scholar
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    On the term Rotwelsch, see Baumgarten, Introduction, p. 19n59: it is “derived from roth (‘beggar’) and welsch (‘incomprehensible language’) and designates the language of thieves. The word Kauderwelsch (‘jargon/lingo/gobbledygook’) also exists in German. This expression was sometimes used in the nineteenth century to designate Yiddish”. Cf. Joseph Maria Wagner, “Rotwelsche Studien,” Archiv für die Studien der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 18 (1863), 197–246.Google Scholar
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    The book was most likely copied, organized and edited by Matthias Hütlin (d. c. 1524); Martin Luther was the editor of the 1528 edition. See Moshe N. Rosenfeld, “Early Yiddish in Non-Jewish Books,” in Dialects of the Yiddish Language: Papers from the Second Annual Oxford Winter Symposium in Yiddish Language and Literature, 14–16 Dec. 1986; Winter Studies in Yiddish, 2 (Oxford: Pergamon, 1988), 99–103CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Jerold C. Frakes 2007

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