Christian Conceptions of Jewish Books: The Pfefferkorn Affair by Avner Shamir (Museum Tusculanum Press) explores the conflicting perceptions that Christians held of the meaning and significance of Jewish books at the beginning of the 16th century - a time when, following their general expulsion from many countries and territories, there were fewer Jews in western and central Europe than in the previous thousand years. The book tells the story of the so-called "Pfefferkorn affair": a tenacious campaign led by the German Johann Pfefferkorn - previously a Jew and converted to Christianity - to confiscate and burn all Jewish post-biblical literature in the Holy Roman Empire in the years 1509-1510. The author follows the fate of the confiscated books and their examination by a commission of experts, exploring how Christians perceived Jewish scholarship and knowledge and the consequences of those perceptions.
Excerpt: In the autumn of 1509 a Christian visionary named Johann Pfefferkorn (1469-1522/3) approached Emperor Maximilian I (1493-1519) in Padua and obtained a mandate that authorized the confiscation, examination and if Ammo needed, burning of all books in the possession of the Jews in the Holy Roman Empire, with the exception of the Hebrew Bible. The books were to be examined in order to determine if they contained blasphemous and heretical material.
For years Pfefferkorn — previously a Jew and now a convert to Christianity — had been advocating the confiscation of Jewish books. He believed that this would bring about the conversion of the Jews and thereby also the End of Days. He now had the chance to realize his vision. In late 1509 he arrived in Frankfurt am Main and confiscated 168 volumes of Jewish literature from the synagogue. Before he could proceed to confiscate privately owned books, Uriel of Memmingen, the archbishop of Mainz (1508-1514), intervened and stopped the operation. But Pfefferkorn, however, had no intention of giving up. He approached the Emperor and obtained a new mandate that ordered Uriel to organize an expert commission that would investigate the books while Pfefferkorn continued the campaign. Indeed, Pfefferkorn went on confiscating hundreds of books in Frankfurt, Worms and a few small towns along the Rhine.
In May 151o, following a financial "understanding" between the Jews and Maximilian, the latter ordered the return of the confiscated books to their owners. Soon after, however, the Emperor issued a new mandate in which the investigation of the books, though not the confiscation campaign, was renewed. A commission of experts was ordered to give their advisory opinion — Gutachten — regarding Jewish literature. They were to assess whether it was advisable to confiscate and burn Jewish books. The commissioners were representatives of the universities of Cologne, Mainz, Erfurt and Heidelberg, and three individuals, namely the theologian and inquisitor Jacob Hoogstraten (1465-1527), the Jewish convert and priest Victor von Carben (1442-1515), and the Hebraist and legal expert Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522).
By the end of 1510 the commissioners sent their Gutachten to Uriel, the head of the commission. The University of Cologne and Hoogstraten found that Jewish literature contained blasphemous and heretical material. They advised the Emperor to continue the confiscation and examination of Jewish books. Mainz concurred and moreover recommended censoring the Hebrew Bible according to the Latin Vulgate. The University of Heidelberg recommended yet another commission. The recommendation of the University of Erfurt was mild: it only supported the confiscation of those books which expressly blasphemed Christianity. Johann Reuchlin alone recommended that the books should not be confiscated. Uriel urged Maximilian to accept the Gutachten of Cologne, Mainz and Hoogstraten, but the Emperor hesitated and handed the matter over to a three-man committee. The committee recommended more or less the same measures as Uriel had done, but Maximilian still hesitated and decided to refer the case to the Reichstag. Nothing, however, came out of this decision.
This could have been the end of the story if not for Pfefferkorn, who soon after, in 1511, published his Handspiegel in which he attacked Reuchlin for his recommendations in favour of Jewish literature. Reuchlin answered with a book of his own, Augenspiegel, in which he defended himself and attacked Pfefferkorn. The following years saw a concerted attempt by the faculty of theology at Cologne, which now "sponsored" Pfefferkorn, to suppress Reuchlin's books, and at the same time a furious debate among churchmen, scholars and humanists about Reuchlin, his books and, to a much lesser extent, Jewish literature.'
By the time of the Pfefferkorn affair, the Jews of western and central Europe lived a life of marginalized existence. The year 1500 saw fewer Jews in western and central Europe than at any other time in the previous 1000 years. By the beginning of the sixteenth century the greater part of Europe was Jew-free — the Jews having been pushed out or expelled from England, France, Spain, Portugal and many other places; between 1420 and 1520 they were expelled from almost all the major cities and territories of the Holy Roman Empire. If, as Heiko Oberman claimed, Europe in the sixteenth century made "a significant step into the modern age," then nobody bothered to inform the Jews. In a paraphrase on the imperial knight and humanist Ulrich von Hutten's (14881523) joyful celebration of the end of the Middle Ages, "it is delightful to live" ("Es ist eine Lust zu leben"), the German Jewish historian Isidor Kracauer ironically remarked that "only for the Jews was it not delightful to live." The few remaining Jewish communities in German towns lived in secluded enclaves, having seemingly very little to do with their environment. As Oberman observed, they seemed to live their own history, trapped between forced mass conversion and mass expulsion.'
Although the actual Jew was becoming a rare phenomenon, the imagined Jew, the figure of the perfidious Jew, the vicious money-lender, the murderer of Christ, the blasphemous Jew, in short, the ultimate Other, was still as vital and perhaps even more so as in previous ages. Though Jews were disappearing, the Jewish question was as relevant, as challenging, as before?
One aspect of the persisting image of the Jews was that of the Talmud-Jew, the Jew who read, studied and lived by the post-biblical Jewish literature, of which the Talmud occupied the greater part and practically the only one remotely known to Christians. The post-biblical literature, which unlike the Hebrew Old Testament could not be reconciled with Christian interpretation, was seen by many of the clergy as the main cause for the Jews' unwillingness to accept the Christian religion. As a consequence, the critique of and occasional attacks on the Jewish Talmud were quite frequent in medieval and early modern Europe. The mass burning of Talmud books in Paris in 1242 and in Rome in 1553 are perhaps the most famous of such attacks.
The Pfefferkorn affair resembles those and other attempts to suppress the Jewish post-biblical literature. Yet the story of Pfefferkorn's confiscations of Jewish books in a few towns in the Holy Roman Empire is quite unique. It was initiated by the secular authorities — not the church; it was directed towards the entire body of Jewish literature, and was not only and not necessarily levelled mainly against the Talmud; the confiscated books were not burned but rather returned to their owners; and finally the affair occasioned the publication of an outstanding defence of the Jewish literature written by a Christian, namely the legal expert and renowned Hebraist Johann Reuchlin.
The present book is an attempt to explore some of the unique (and uniquely well-documented) aspects of the confiscation and examination of Jewish literature in the Holy Roman Empire in the period 1509 — 10 (hereafter "the Pfefferkorn affair"). The confiscation campaign and the following debate on Reuchlin (hereafter "the Reuchlin affair") have been vastly documented, analyzed and debated among historians. The whole episode — the confiscation affair and the following debate — has attracted a great deal of attention, partly because it has been regarded as the main pre-reformation conflict between orthodoxy and reform within the Church, and partly because it has been regarded as a unique event in the history of the oppression of the Jews in which one Christian voiced pro-Jewish views. The Pfefferkorn affair and the debate about Reuchlin do indeed offer a privileged view on both early modern Jewish history and the history of humanism, the pre-Reformation church and the relation between the two. The whole episode (though mainly the Pfefferkorn affair) is, however, also a fascinating chapter in the history of knowledge. The term "history of knowledge" denotes here the ways in which individuals and institutions conceptualized, understood, related to and evaluated forms of knowledge and aspects of knowledge (truth, revelation and authority). More precisely, the Pfefferkorn affair is a chapter in the history of Christian conceptualization and evaluation of Jewish knowledge, that is, Jewish books and scholarship, Hebrew, Jewish prayers and other representational practices employed by the Jews in the early sixteenth century. In this respect, the Pfefferkorn affair suggests a rare opportunity for the modern reader to perceive how early modern Christians — theologians and laymen, educated and unlearned, orthodox and less orthodox — "read" Jewish books.
The present inquiry will concentrate on the many and
often contrasting modes in which Christians conceptualized
Jewish literature and the challenges and threats it posed to
Christianity. Contemporary positions towards the
confiscation campaign were informed by conceptions of Jewish
literature rather than solely by attitudes towards Jews.
Conceptions of Jewish books and the way they were shaped
through the interplay between ideology and practice must
therefore be brought to the foreground. This will allow an
understanding of the role conceptions of Jewish books played when Christians set out to deal
with actual Jews.
In this respect, it is particularly challenging to look at the less-articulated views on Jewish books. Exposing the views and conceptions employed by the imperial bureaucracy, town magistrates and, indeed, those of the universities might throw light on which books were targeted in the campaign. Identifying which books were targeted will enable a better understanding of how Christians approached Jewish books in practice.
Finally, conceptions of Jewish literature were connected to broader developments that influenced conceptions of knowledge in early modern Europe. Placing the affair in the broader context of Christian Hebraica, scholarly renewal and censorship will suggest that the way Christians dealt with Jewish books was related to the way they dealt with "their
own" Christian knowledge, their scholarship and dogma.
In this respect, the timing of the affair is important. In the beginning of the sixteenth century the print industry had reached a certain maturity. Well before Luther and his followers utilized print to advance the Reformation, Pfefferkorn and Reuchlin had efficiently exploited print technology in order to disseminate their ideas and to influence "public opinion". The emergence of a vigorous and visible book culture was coupled with growing religious and secular concerns with the potential dangers of an unrestrained print industry. Thus, the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries saw a diversity of efforts to control the dissemination of books. Although systematic censorship was only developed in the wake of the Reformation, Pfefferkorn's confiscations and the attack on Reuchlin demonstrate that large-scale control and suppression of dangerous literature was a plausible option already before the anti-Reformation legislation in the Empire (1520s) and the publication of indices of prohibited books, the most important of which, the Roman Index ofProhibited Books, first appeared in 1559. Thus, it seems relevant to relate the history of the attack on Jewish books to the general history of books and knowledge in early modern Europe.
In short, the book will address the following question: how did Christians conceptualize Jewish literature, and how did their conceptions relate to the position they took on the confiscation campaign?
More concretely, in the following chapters three separate themes will be discussed in order to bring to the foreground Christian conceptions of Jewish literature: the imperial mandates, the actual confiscations and the Gutachten. Each discussion will centre on a specific type of text: the normative-administrative (ordering), the narrative (reporting), and the normative-academic (recommending). In the first chapter, the imperial mandates will be analyzed. The focus on administrative decrees will be coupled with an inquiry into the ideological origins of the campaign, mainly as they appear in Pfefferkorn's writings. In the second chapter, the confiscations in Frankfurt and Worms will be analyzed. Special attention will be given to lists of confiscated books and other material from the archives in Frankfurt and Worms. In chapter three, the Gutachten on Jewish literature will be analyzed and different academic approaches to Jewish books will be examined.
A fourth chapter will place the affair within a broader context in order to link contemporary conceptions of Jewish literature to the advancement of Christian Hebraica, the challenges of unorthodox scholarship and the development of censorship. In placing the affair in this context it will be shown how in attacking and defending Jewish books Christians were ultimately addressing issues that touched on weak key points within traditional Christian dogma. Not only the marginal issue (for Christians) of what Jews read was at stake here, but also the central issue of what and how Christians read.
Finally, five ways of reading Jewish books will be introduced. Here it will be suggested that the imperial administration, town councils, the theologians at the universities, the convert and the Hebraist employed different ways of reading Jewish literature, and that their way of understanding the books was conducive to their actual position on the question of the confiscation of the Jews' books.
Since the book concentrates on conceptual and intellectual aspects of the Pfefferkorn affair, other aspects, not less important, will be somewhat neglected. No attempt will be made to relate the attack on Jewish literature to other forms of persecution of the Jews. Though the attack on the books was clearly a form of persecution, adopting such a perspective would burden the book's intent to see the Pfefferkorn affair as a conflict about books, knowledge, truth and authority. In addition, relatively little attention will be paid to aspects of politics, interests and power. This is not because power relations and the political and economic interests of the actors are not significant to our comprehension of the affair. On the contrary, power and interests were central to the very possibility of such an incident taking place and to the dynamics it showed. However, in such a complex case as the Pfefferkorn affair, coupling the conceptual and intellectual aspects with aspects of power and interests might distract us from the main goal of the inquiry.
In historical research, the Pfefferkorn affair has routinely been mixed with the Reuchlin affair. The confiscation of the books has often been treated by historians, but only seldom has the confiscations been analyzed as more than a background for the high-profile scholarly debate that followed. Heinrich Graetz (1866), who was probably the first to write a detailed and documented history of the whole incident, called the entire controversy about the Talmud "a shibboleth between the humanists and the obscurantists."8 Graetz described the confiscation affair as an attack on the Jews, but saw it ultimately as a battleground between scholastics and humanists, the beginning of the Reformation, and the watershed between the Middle Ages and the modern era. A few years later, in Ludwig Geiger's biography of Reuchlin (i871), in which the most authoritative account of the Reuchlin affair appeared, the tendency to view the confiscation campaign as little more than a prelude to the conflict between humanism and scholasticism was even more marked. Yet, the confiscation campaign has never been completely overlooked. Based on material in town archives (abundant in Frankfurt and only limited in Worms), Isidor Kracauer (1887) and Moris Stern (1888) reconstructed the actual confiscations of the books.
Around the time of the publications of Graetz's and Geiger's books, Edward Backing published bibliographical information — and also reprinted some of the most important documents — about the affair.9 The work on publishing documents relevant to the affair was also pursued by a group of German-Jewish historians, whose interest in the affair showed itself in a stream of articles in German-Jewish journals. Max Freudenthal, A. Kober, Moritz Stern, Meier Spanier and Isidor Kracauer (apart from Graetz and Geiger) published important documents, among them lists of the confiscated books and letters written by representatives of the Jewish community describing their efforts to divert the calamity. This enterprise came to an end during the 1930s for apparent reasons.
A tentative picture of the Pfefferkorn affair now became available. It depicted a ferocious attack on the Talmud, in which anti- and pro- Jewish attitudes clashed and anti- and pro-humanist forces competed. In this picture Pfefferkorn and his supporters and Reuchlin and his supporters and their opposing attitudes to Jews and humanism were given a privileged position — it was by investigating their attitudes that a proper understanding of the affair could be obtained.
The humanist-scholastic framework as the matrix for the whole incident was almost uncontested until 1971, when James Overfield called for a reassessment of the case. Overfield claimed convincingly (in an elaborate version in 1984) that "the status of the Jews and their books was a more important issue than the status of humanism or scholasticism," and that "opposition to humanism was not a prime motive for Reuchlin's detractors."'" Overfield, however, replaced one binary opposition with another; instead of the humanist-scholastic division he introduced the anti-Semitic and philo-Semitic division, a weakness that Heiko Oberman was soon to point out. He followed up on Overfield's premises, yet he corrected the new paradigm. He argued that the differences between Pfefferkorn and Reuchlin were not as significant as usually assumed. "Reuchlin's campaign was not pro-Jewish, let alone pro-Semite," he argued." Oberman saw degrees of anti-Judaism. He also stressed the scholarly dimension of the affair, though not as a battle between the humanists and the scholastics, but as a more limited conflict about the value of the Hebrew Bible and Hebrew exegesis.
Apart from the debate on Reuchlin and his motives, the role of the other main actors in the affair has also received a much needed reassessment. In 1987, in an often overlooked article, Winfried Trusen has broken with the tradition of presenting the universities as one homogeneous group. In one of the most balanced presentations of the affair, Trusen showed variety and differences present in the Gutachten of the universities. Moreover, three important monographs have provided systematic analyses of Reuchlin's, Pfefferkorn's and Hoogstraten's views on Jews, Jewish books and Christian orthodoxy. Hans-Martin Kim (1989) and Ellen Martin (1994) have provided much needed monographs on Pfefferkorn. Kirn's book put Pfefferkorn back on stage as a main actor in a story where most historians saw him as no more than an instrument of the Cologne theologians. Ellen Martin's study has provided the most detailed analysis of Pfefferkorn's twenty-something books and pamphlets.
In 1995 Hans Peterse followed suit with a monograph on the conflict between Jacob Hoogstraten and Reuchlin.
Altogether the picture that emerged was that of a much more complex set of views of and attitudes towards the Jews generally and Jewish literature particularly. Pfefferkorn emerged as a "proto-reformer" and visionary, rather than "a fanatic in the worst sense of the word." His adversary, Reuchlin, emerged as an ambivalent figure, whose sincere concern for scholarship, his legalism and his benign attitude towards the Jews were mixed with personal ambitions and interests; the great defender of Jewish literature, it turned out, was not always straightforward when writing about the Jews. The works of Kirn and Peterse on Pfefferkorn and Hoogstraten and their clash with Reuchlin exposed all the minutiae of the theological and legal arguments of the lay agitator, the inquisitor and the legal expert's
And yet, something is missing in the histories of the Pfefferkorn affair: the Jews' books. The books that were in the core of the confiscation campaign have received little attention. The issue of the identity of the books — those targeted by the mandates, those Pfefferkorn confiscated and those examined in the Gutachten — had rarely been treated. The lists of confiscated books have not been analyzed. Moreover, scholars have shown very little interest in the dynamics of the actual confiscation campaign — the ever changing imperial instructions, the confrontations between Pfefferkorn and the Frankfurt Jews, the attempts to get the books released, and altogether the diversity of intellectual, religious and lay conceptions of Jewish books that played a part in the affair. Focusing on those aspects, the story of the confiscation of Jewish books in 1509-10 would hopefully emerge as not only a story of early modern anti-Judaism but also as a unique chapter in the history of early modern European knowledge, a history in which Jewish books played an important part. The story of the Pfefferkorn affair can and should be retold.
insert content here