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Ulrich von Hutten

Ulrich von HuttenBorn: 21-Apr-1488
Birthplace: Fulda, Germany
Died: 29-Aug-1523
Location of death: Zürich, Switzerland
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Protestant
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Poet, Scholar

Nationality: Germany
Executive summary: Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum

Born on the 21st of April 1488, at the castle of Steckelberg, near Fulda, in Hesse. Like Erasmus or Pirckheimer, he was one of those men who form the bridge between Humanists and Reformers. He lived with both, sympathized with both, though he died before the Reformation had time fully to develop. His life may be divided into four parts: his youth and cloister-life (1488-1504); his wanderings in pursuit of knowledge (1504-15); his strife with Ulrich of Württemberg (1515-19); and his connection with the Reformation (1519-23). Each of these periods had its own special antagonism, which colored Hutten's career: in the first, his horror of dull monastic routine; in the second, the ill-treatment he met with at Greifswald; in the third, the crime of Duke Ulrich; in the fourth, his disgust with Rome and with Erasmus. He was the eldest son of a poor and not undistinguished knightly family. As he was mean of stature and sickly his father destined him for the cloister, and he was sent to the Benedictine house at Fulda; the thirst for learning there seized on him, and in 1505 he fled from the monastic life, and won his freedom with the sacrifice of his worldly prospects, and at the cost of incurring his father's undying anger. From the Fulda cloister he went first to Cologne, next to Erfurt, and then to Frankfurt-on-Oder on the opening in 1506 the new university of that town. For a time he was in Leipzig, and in 1508 we find him a shipwrecked beggar on the Pomeranian coast. In 1509 the university of Greifswald welcomed him, but here too those who at first received him kindly became his foes; the sensitive ill-regulated youth, who took the liberties of genius, wearied his burgher patrons; they could not brook the poet's airs and vanity, and ill-timed assertions of his higher rank. Wherefore he left Greifswald, and as he went was robbed of clothes and books, his only baggage, by the servants of his late friends; in the dead of winter, half starved, frozen, penniless, he reached Rostock. Here again the Humanists received him gladly, and under their protection he wrote against his Greifswald patrons, thus beginning the long list of his satires and fierce attacks on personal or public foes. Rostock could not hold him long; he wandered on to Wittenberg and Leipzig, and thence to Vienna, where he hoped to win the emperor Maximilian's favor by an elaborate national poem on the war with Venice. But neither Maximilian nor the University of Vienna would lift a hand for him, and he passed into Italy, where, at Pavia, he sojourned throughout 1511 and part of 1512. in the latter year his studies were interrupted by war; in the siege of Pavia by papal troops and Swiss, he was plundered by both sides, and escaped, sick and penniless, to Bologna; on his recovery he even took service as a private soldier in the emperor's army.

This dark period lasted no long time; in 1514 he was again in Germany, where, thanks to his poetic gifts and the friendship of Eitelwolf von Stein (d. 1515), he won the favor of the elector of Mainz, Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg. Here high dreams of a learned career rose on him; Mainz should be made the metropolis of a grand Humanist movement, the center of good style and literary form. But the murder in 1515 of his relative Hans von Hutten by Ulrich, Duke of Württemberg, changed the whole course of his life; satire, chief refuge of the weak, became Hutten's weapon; with one hand he took his part in the famous Epistolae obscurorum virorum, and with the other launched scathing letters, eloquent Ciceronian orations, or biting satires against the Duke. Though the emperor was too lazy and indifferent to smite a great prince, he took Hutten under his protection and bestowed on him the honor of a laureate crown in 1517. Hutten, who had meanwhile revisited Italy, again attached himself to the electoral court at Mainz; and he was there when in 1518 his friend Pirckheimer wrote, urging him to abandon the court and dedicate himself to letters. We have the poet's long reply, in an epistle on his way of life, an amusing mixture of earnestness and vanity, self-satisfaction and satire; he tells his friend that his career is just begun, that he has had twelve years of wandering, and will now enjoy himself a while in patriotic literary work; that he has by no means deserted the humaner studies, but carries with him a little library of standard books. Pirckheimer in his burgher life may have ease and even luxury; he, a knight of the empire, how can he condescend to obscurity? He must abide where he can shine.

In 1519 he issued in one volume his attacks on Duke Ulrich, and then, drawing sword, took part in the private war which overthrew that prince; in this affair he became intimate with Franz von Sickingen, the champion of the knightly order (Ritterstand). Hutten now warmly and openly espoused the Lutheran cause, but he was at the same time mixed up in the attempt of the "Ritterstand" to assert itself as the militia of the empire against the independence of the German princes. Soon after this time he discovered at Fulda a copy of the manifesto of the emperor Henry IV against Hildebrand, and published it with comments as an attack on the papal claims over Germany. He hoped thereby to interest the new emperor Charles V, and the higher orders in the empire, in behalf of German liberties; but the appeal failed. What Martin Luther had achieved by speaking to cities and common folk in homely phrase, because he touched heart and conscience, that the far finer weapons of Hutten failed to effect, because he tried to touch the more cultivated sympathies and dormant patriotism of princes and bishops, nobles and knights. And so he at once gained an undying name in the republic of letters and ruined his own career. He showed that the artificial verse-making of the Humanists could be connected with the new outburst of genuine German poetry. The Minnesinger was gone; the new national singer, a Luther or a Hans Sachs, was heralded by the stirring lines of Hutten's pen. These have in them a splendid natural swing and ring, strong and patriotic, though unfortunately addressed to knight and landsknecht rather than to the German people.

The poet's high dream of a knightly national regeneration had a rude awakening. The attack on the papacy, and Luther's vast and sudden popularity, frightened Elector Albert, who dismissed Hutten from his court. Hoping for imperial favor, he betook himself to Charles V; but that young prince would have none of him. So he returned to his friends, and they rejoiced greatly to see him still alive; for Pope Leo X had ordered him to be arrested and sent to Rome, and assassins dogged his steps. He now attached himself more closely to Franz von Sickingen and the knightly movement. This also came to a disastrous end in the capture of the Ebernberg, and Sickingen's death; the higher nobles had triumphed; the archbishops avenged themselves on Lutheranism as interpreted by the knightly order. With Sickingen Hutten also finally fell. He fled to Basel, where Erasmus refused to see him, both for fear of his loathsome diseases, and also because the beggared knight was sure to borrow money from him. A paper war consequently broke out between the two Humanists, which embittered Hutten's last days, and stained the memory of Erasmus. From Basel Ulrich dragged himself to Mülhausen; and when the vengeance of Erasmus drove him thence, he went to Zürich. There the large heart of Huldrych Zwingli welcomed him; he helped him with money, and found him a quiet refuge with the pastor of the little isle of Ufnau on the Zürich lake. There the frail and worn-out poet, writing swift satire to the end, died at the end of August or beginning of September 1523 at the age of thirty-five. He left behind him some debts due to compassionate friends; he did not even own a single book, and all his goods amounted to the clothes on his back, a bundle of letters, and that valiant pen which had fought so many a sharp battle, and had won for the poor knight-errant a sure place in the annals of literature.

Ulrich von Hutten is one of those men of genius at whom propriety is shocked, and whom the mean-spirited avoid. Yet through his short and buffeted life he was befriended, with wonderful charity and patience, by the chief leaders of the Humanist movement. For, in spite of his irritable vanity, his immoral life and habits, his odious diseases, his painful restlessness, Hutten had much in him that strong men could love. He passionately loved the truth, and was ever open to all good influences. He was a patriot, whose soul soared to ideal schemes and a grand utopian restoration of his country. In spite of all, his was a frank and noble nature; his faults chiefly the faults of genius ill-controlled, and of a life cast in the eventful changes of an age of novelty. A swarm of writings issued from his pen; at first the smooth elegance of his Latin prose and verse seemed strangely to miss his real character; he was the Cicero and Ovid of Germany before he became its Lucian.

His chief works were his Ars versificandi (1511); the Nemo (1518); a work on the Morbus Gallicus (1519); the volume of Steckelberg complaints against Duke Ulrich (including his four Ciceronian Orations, his Letters and the Phalarismus) also in 1519; the Vadismus (1520); and the controversy with Erasmus at the end of his life. Besides these were many admirable poems in Latin and German. It is not known with certainty how far Hutten was the parent of the celebrated Epistolae obscurorum virorum, that famous satire on monastic ignorance as represented by the theologians of Cologne with which the friends of Reuchlin defended him. At first the cloister-world, not discerning its irony, welcomed the work as a defense of their position; though their eyes were soon opened by the favor with which the learned world received it. The Epistolae were eagerly bought up; the first part (41 letters) appeared at the end of 1515; early in 1516 there was a second edition; later in 1516 a third, with an appendix of seven letters; in 1517 appeared the second part (62 letters), to which a fresh appendix of eight letters was subjoined soon after. In 1909 the Latin text of the Epistolae with an English translation was published by F. G. Stokes. Hutten, in a letter addressed to Robert Crocus, denied that he was the author of the book, but there is no doubt as to his connection with it. Erasmus was of opinion that there were three authors, of whom Crotus Rubianus was the originator of the idea, and Hutten a chief contributor. D. F. Strauss, who dedicates to the subject a chapter of his admirable work on Hutten, concludes that he had no share in the first part, but that his hand is clearly visible in the second part which he attributes in the main to him. To him is due the more serious and severe tone of that bitter portion of the satire. See W. Brecht, Die Verfasser der Epistolae obscurorum virorum (1904).

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