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I don’t know by what dream he is moved

I don’t know by what dream he is moved

By Cis van Heertum 

‘I don’t know by what dream he is moved’: an early reader’s response to Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar De rudimentis hebraicis

On 7 November 2005 the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam opened a commemorative exhibition in honour of the great German humanist, jurist and Christian Kabbalist Johann Reuchlin, who was born on 29 January 1455. Early in 2006, when Philosophia symbolica: Johann Reuchlin and the Kabbalah was still showing, the library acquired a copy of Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar De rudimentis hebraicis, printed by Thomas Anshelm in 1506. It was a timely purchase, as one of the loans in the exhibition, a copy of the Rudimenta owned by the University of Amsterdam, had to be returned. The new acquisition which replaced the loan could only be collated and examined after the exhibition had closed, which was tantalising enough, as the antiquarian bookseller who sold the copy to the library had already remarked that there were contemporary ownership notes on the front and back flyleaves.[1] When I was able to examine the copy, I found that ‘Wolfgangus Praepositus Ror’ had donated the copy already in the year of publication to a recipient who otherwise remained anonymous.

Matthias Dall’Asta of the now dissolved Reuchlinforschungsstelle in Pforzheim, the birthplace of the incomparable Reuchlin (dixit Goethe),[2] informed me that the copy had once belonged to Wolfgang Haimstöckl († 1509), Dean of the Augustinian monastery of Rohr (south of Regensburg) since 1493. Haimstöckl had earlier already acquired a copy of Reuchlin’s De verbo mirifico, printed by Johann Amerbach in 1494. In a letter dated 15 June 1501 the Dean had queried Reuchlin about the pronunciation of the tetragrammaton. This letter was printed along with much information in the first volume of Johannes Reuchlin Briefwechsel.[3]

Matthias Dall’Asta also knew to whom Haimstöckl had donated the book. The Dean had presented his copy of De rudimentis hebraicis to his friend Kilian Leib, a fellow Augustinian and a fellow Hebraist, in the summer of 1506. Haimstöckl had sent Leib a letter to accompany his present on 23 June 1506,[4] also enclosing an autograph letter by Reuchlin.

In his letter to Leib, Haimstöckl expressed his regret that the Augustinian order neglected the study of Hebrew. Reuchlin would certainly have agreed with Haimstöckl, being himself a strong advocate of Hebrew studies. His Rudimenta was meant to help foster the study of the holy language among Christians.

In spite of his high hopes, Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar and lexicon did not sell well. In 1510 a considerable part still remained of De rudimentis hebraicis out of the edition of 1,500 copies which had been printed for Reuchlin, largely at his own expense, by his friend Thomas Anshelm.[5] On 31 August 1512 Reuchlin wrote to another one of his printer friends, Johann Amerbach, asking him to buy up his share of the edition at cost price. Even in the face of commercial failure, he was conscious of the importance of his undertaking: ‘If I am to live, the Hebrew language will be advanced with God’s help; when I die, I have yet made a beginning which will not easily perish.’[6]

The year before Haimstöckl had presented him with De rudimentis hebraicis, Kilian Leib (1471-1553) had been elected prior of the Augustinian monastery of Rebdorf near Eichstätt. He had entered the monastic community at the age of fifteen, and, like Reuchlin, was determined to read the biblical texts in the original versions. As a Hebraist, he would probably have appreciated Reuchlin’s assertion in his letter to Amerbach. Oddly enough, he never appears to have entered into correspondence with Reuchlin. He met Reuchlin for the first time in Ingolstadt in January 1520. Leib professed himself fortunate to have met Reuchlin; a few more visits would follow.[7]

Haimstöckl’s gift of De rudimentis hebraicis was avidly studied by Leib, as is attested by many marginal notes. One of the rare non-grammatical entries Leib made was to observe that Reuchlin had received letters in Hebrew from rabbi Jacob Margolioth of Regensburg. [8] Another note must have been prompted by his loyalty to Saint Augustine, whose rule he followed as an Augustinian monk. In discussing Reuchlin’s adhesion to the ‘hebraica veritas’ rather than the Latin Vulgate, Reuchlin’s biographer Ludwig Geiger noted that De rudimentis hebraicis was, as may be expected, full of references to Jerome, whose biblical translation Reuchlin generally praised, but would also criticise without restraint and with great gusto if necessary.[9] And on one occasion, Geiger furthermore wrote, the great Bishop of Hippo, too, received a blow. Writing about Augustine’s interpretation of psalm 141: 6 (‘ When their judges are overthrown in stony places, they shall hear my words; for they are sweet’), Reuchlin had scoffed:

beatus vero Augustinus hunc versum de Aristotele intelligens, nescio quo somnio motus, scribit eum tremere apud inferos.[10]

The Augustinian Leib had read enough. He entered underneath the inscription acknowledging Haimstöckl’s gift that Capnion had censured Augustine. By contrast, the treatment of ‘vir trilinguis’ Jerome, who according to Geiger had received far more flak in De rudimentis hebraicis, drew only a single, curt marginal comment in the book: ‘Hieronymus has erred’, on p. 548. But then Reuchlin had dared write about the great Church Father Augustine: ‘I don’t know by what dream he is moved’ – something his disciple Leib obviously found hard to stomach.


[1] There is also a library stamp of the Reichsbibliothek Augsburg, which parted with this copy of De rudimentis hebraicis because it was a duplicate.

[2] ‘Reuchlin! Wer will sich ihm vergleichen, Zu seiner Zeit ein Wunderzeichen!’, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Zahme Xenien, 241, in Werke, vol. 3, Leipzig 1890.

[3]  Johannes Reuchlin Briefwechsel, eds. Matthias Dall’Asta, Gerald Dörner, Stefan Rhein, vol. I (1477-1505), Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1999, letter 111, pp. 353-355. The Briefwechsel comprises four volumes.

[4] Johannes Reuchlin Briefwechsel, I, letter 111, p. 355, n. 1. Kilian Leib’s correspondence was edited by Joseph Schlecht:  Kilian Leibs Briefwechsel und Diarien, Münster i.W. 1909. Haimstöckl to Leib, letter 1, 1-2. The date in the colophon of De rudimentis hebraicis is ‘Sexto. Kal. Aprilis Anno. MD.VI’, i.e.27 March 1506.

[5] To compare, more than twenty editions of Reuchlin’s Latin Vocabularius breviloquus, first printed by Johann Amerbach in 1478, had appeared before 1505.

[6] Johannes Reuchlin Briefwechsel, II, letter 207, pp. 332-42.

[7] Ludwig Geiger, Johann Reuchlin. Sein Leben und seine Werke, Nieuwkoop 1964 (1871), p. 467, p. 469.

[8] Marginal note, p. 484.  Johann Reuchlin Briefwechsel includes only one letter, to Margolioth, I, letter 62, pp. 192-195. For Leib as a Hebraist see Michael Langfeld, ‘Kilian Leib und seine Hebraica. Beobachtungen, Fragen und Vergleiche nach 500 Jahren’, in Ausstellungen in der Universitätsbibliothek Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz Verlag 2003, pp. 27-35.

[9] Geiger, Johann Reuchlin, p. 121.

[10] De rudimentis hebraicis, p. 523. Geiger, Johann Reuchlin, p. 121, n. 3: ‘Ps. 141: 6 beziehe man auf Moses und Aaron; beatus vero Augustinus hunc versum de Aristotele intelligens, nescio quo somnio motus, scribit eum tremere apud inferos.’ Cf. Augustine, Enarrationes in psalmos (PL 36), 140 [141]: 6: ‘Absorpti sunt iuxta petram. Iuxta, id est, comparati iudices, magni, potentes, docti: ipsi dicuntur iudices eorum, tamquam iudicantes de moribus, et sententiam proferentes. Dixit hoc Aristoteles. Adiunge illum petrae, et absorptus est. Quis est Aristoteles? Audiat: dixit Christus; et apud inferos contremiscit. Dixit hoc Pythagoras, dixit hoc Plato.’