The Case Against Johann Reuchlin: Religious and Social Controversy in Sixteenth-Century Germany


174 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-3651-1
DDC 261.2'6'092




Reviewed by Leonard Adams

Leonard Adams is a professor of French Studies at the University of


In 1509, Johannes Pfefferkorn’s anti-Semitic campaign reached a
culmination point when he received approval from Emperor Maximilian for
his proposal to impose a ban on Jewish books. Assent to such action ran
into trouble when Johann Reuchlin, a jurist, cast doubt on
Pfeffer-korn’s competence to condemn the Jews when he had but little
acquaintance with Jewish literature and completely lacked a knowledge of
Hebrew. The initial confrontation between the two scholars degenerated
into a bitter controversy that broadened into polemical exchanges among
a number of humanists, theologians, and scholastics, including Jacob
Hoogstraten, Ulrich von Hutten, Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, and
Willibald Pirckheimer.

Erika Rummel, unsatisfied with the synoptic approach used since the
16th century in reporting on the Reuchlin affair, attempts to clarify
the nature of the debate and the real motivation behind the virulent
attacks of the principal participants, and to underline the thoughts and
actions of the protagonists, not to mention the tensions that were at
work. Briefly stated, she focuses on setting the record straight. In
order to do so, she gives, in a succinct but enlightening manner, a
running commentary on the affair and concludes the discussion with 13
essential documents that present crucial evidence on the question. And
further, she offers the first published English translation of those

Rummel’s balanced assessment of the various forces at work is
tactfully set against the background of the 16th-century Reformation. As
the pivotal figure in this book, Reuchlin emerges as one of the most
ardent humanists of his age, particularly in his determination to
promote tolerance and the study of ancient documents. Erasmus and Luther
also receive appropriate treatment. Rummel’s clearly reasoned and
highly readable argument is engagingly and carefully presented,
incorporating illustrations where deemed necessary. Her work is a
valuable contribution to 16th-century historiography. Students
specializing in the history of the Reformation will probably gain much
from an examination of Rummel’s translations.


Rummel, Erika., “The Case Against Johann Reuchlin: Religious and Social Controversy in Sixteenth-Century Germany,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 24, 2024,