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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Battle of the Pamphlets: Printing as a Weapon

Twenty-volume folios will never make a revolution.
It's the little pocket pamphlets that are to be feared.

The advent of printing brought forth many changes in the world.  One was providing a way for people who could afford it to advertise their thoughts and opinions.  An interesting piece of the history of early printing is the so-called "battle of the pamphlets", which is often given as one of the impetuses of the Protestant Reformation.  It is also a prime example of how a medium can be used to foster hate and insanity - clearly something that is rampant today.
Speculum adhortationis iudaice ad Christum, by
Pfefferkorn in 1507.  This was his first pamphlet,
and was intended to convey the message that Jewish
books contain hideous lies about Jesus and Mary.
Image courtesy of the Illinois library

In the early 1500s, some Christian scholars hotly debated whether Jewish texts, with the exception of the Old Testament, should be burned.  The primary character on the pro-burning side was a rascal named Johannes Pfefferkorn.  He was born a Jew, but converted to Catholicism a year after being released from prison for committing a burglary.  He became an assistant to the prior of the Dominican order in Cologne, Germany, and embarked on the career of theologian.

Johannes Pfefferkorn, left, in his master's robes facing a kneeling
Johann Reuchlin, right.  From a 1521 woodcut from Cologne, Germany.

Although he had limited knowledge of Hebrew writings, he condemned them anyway.  In a pamphlet he published, Warnungsspiegel, he professed that he was a friend of Jews, and his intent was to convert them to Christianity for their own good.  He condemned their persecution as it would deter their conversion, and denied that they murdered Christian children for blood for their rituals.  In another pamphlet, Der Jugenspiegel, published in 1507, he urged them to give up usury, attend Christian sermons (which he felt would compel them to convert by their own merit), and to get rid of the Talmud.

A page of the Talmud from Johann Reuchlin's library.

No surprise that he was bitterly denounced by Jews.  In retaliation, apparently upset that they did not appreciate his concerns and desires for them, he published three more pamphlets:  Wie die blinden Jüden ihr Ostern halten (1508); Judenbeicht (1508); and Judenfeind (1509).  His third tract was a contradiction of every good thing he had written about Jews earlier, and instead claimed that every Jew thought it was good to kill, or at least mock, a Christian. He called for Jews to be expelled from "Christian" lands, and that Jewish children should be removed from their homes and raised as Christians.

Pfefferkorn's Büchlein der Jude Peicht, 1508, was
written to encourage other Jews to convert and share
the "secrets" of Judaism with the Christian world.
Image courtesy of the University of Chicago Library.

In his fourth pamphlet, he argued that Jews should be expelled or enslaved, and the first thing was to collect and burn all copies of the Talmud.  He tried to have them seized and destroyed.  In his efforts to do this, he was able to connect with Emperor Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor.  On August 19, 1509, Maximilian ordered the Jews must relinquish all books opposing Christianity to Pfefferkorn, or destroy them.  Pfefferkorn traveled to several German towns and began confiscating them.

The Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I by Albrecht Dürer, 1519.

The Jews, with the help of the Archbishop of Mainz, asked Maximilian to appoint a commission to address and examine Pfefferkorn's charges.  On November 10, 1509, an imperial mandate ordered that the Archbishop of Mainz was to get opinions from several universities and scholars, including Johann Reuchlin, a scholar versed in Hebrew who was considered the hub of Greek and Hebrew learning in Germany.  Although several of the parties chosen were against the Jewish books, Maximilian suspended his edict on May 23, 1510, and the books were returned.

Johann Reuchlin's The Rudiments of Hebrew.  This was
the first Hebrew lexicon and grammar published for Christians.
Image courtesy of the Illinois Library.

Thus began the battle of the pamphlets.  Enraged by Reuchlin's vote against his confiscation or conflagration campaign, Pfefferkorn published Handspiegel wider und gegen die Juden in 1511, attacking Reuchlin and saying that he had been bribed.  In retaliation, Reuchlin published Augenspiegel, which theologians at the University of Cologne tried to censor, and did, in fact, get an imperial order the following year to confiscate.  This caused a furor, as the universities sided against Reuchlin and tried to make him recant.  The "Reuchlin Affair" caused a rift in the church.  Eventually the case against him was tried in the papal court in Rome, and although the judgment of July 1516 was for Reuchlin, news of the trial was suppressed.  Supporters of Reuchlin published more treatises, but the once enthusiastic public interest had waned, and besides, there was a new target afoot - Martin Luther.

This 1521 engraving shows Reuchlin and Luther (1st and 3rd from left)
as the patrons of liberty facing their various enemies.

In the meantime, Pfefferkorn had answered Augenspiegel with Brandspiegel.  In 1513, Maximilian silenced them both.  But Pfefferkorn published another pamphlet, Sturmglock, in 1514, which spoke out against Reuchlin and the Jews. Soon other Humanists joined in, to which Pfefferkorn wrote more tracts.  Finally, in 1520, Pope Leo X condemned Reuchlin's Augenspiegel, and Pfefferkorn celebrated with Ein mitleidliche Klag Gegen den Ungläugbigen Reuchlin in 1521. The situation was intense, with scholars and theologians from both sides lobbing their print bombs.

The cover of Reuchlin's Augenspiegel.  Reuchlin used
spectacles as a symbol of scholarship.  Image courtesy
flickr/Center for Jewish History, NYC.

It didn't take long for printing to be used as a weapon.  Not only were these pamphlets printed and circulated to influence the public, but they were distributed at the new venue of book fairs.  The idea of using printing presses to mold public opinion was a new one, and one that caught on pretty quickly.  Just as quickly in modern times other forms of communication media were also appropriated for the use of propaganda - newspapers, radio, television and films, and now the internet. Proof, again, as if we needed more, that there is nothing new under the sun.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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