Ulrich von Hutten, Imperial Poet and Orator (by Archibald Young, 1863)
It is but seldom that a translation is readable, but Mr. Young's translation of M. Chauffour-Kestner's Life of Ulrich Von Hutten forms an exception to the rule. It is well and vigorously written, and the fact that it is a translation does not, as is generally the case, make itself felt at every sentence, and might perhaps escape notice altogether if it were not recorded in the title-page. The book itself is one of a class which is by no means so well filled as it ought to be. It is the life of a very remarkable man, telling all that any one really cares to know about him, and compressed into a very moderate compass. In the translation, it fills something less than one hundred and fifty small pages. The contrast between this and the many-volume biographies which, in these days, are so frequently dedicated to the memory of some leader of a religious party or tenth-rate literary man, excites in the reader a sensible amount of gratitude towards the parties concerned.
Ulrich von Hutten was perhaps the best representative of what may be called the lay side of the Reformation—the aspect of it which addressed itself to politicians and men of the world. He was born on the 21st of April, 1488, at the Castle of Stecelberg, near Fulda, in Franconia. The castle belonged to his father, one of the highest in rank of the Franconian aristocracy. In these travelling days, most of us have seen the ruins of feudal castles scattered about as thickly as suburban villas over parts of Germany and Switzerland—the Grisons, for instance—and it has no doubt occurred to many of us to wonder how people ever managed to live in such inconvenient places, and what their life there was like. Hutten gives a wonderfully lifelike description of their every-day appearance, such as it was, before time had made it romantic:—
'Our castles are constructed, not for pleasure, but for security. All is sacrificed to the necessity of defence. They are contracted between ramparts and ditches; armouries and stables usurp the place of apartments. Everywhere the smell of powder, horses, cattle, the noise of dogs and oxen, and, upon the margin of the mighty forests which surround us, the cries of wolves. Always agitation; perpetual coming and going; our gates, open to all, often permit assassins and thieves to enter. Each day there is a new care. If we maintain our independence we risk being crushed between two powerful enemies; if we put ourselves under the protection of some prince we are forced to espouse his quarrels. We cannot sally forth without an escort. In order to hunt or to visit a neighbour we must don casque and cuirass. Always everywhere war.’Hutten, a born reformer, was given to see the dark side of things, and from his infancy appears to have hated the kind of life to which he was born. He, however, fully imbibed its spirit. Though somewhat delicate in body, and keenly alive to the miseries which he could describe so graphically, he was as fierce and pugnacious a Franconian noble as any one of his neighbours. His whole life was spent in carrying on war against some one or other, either by the sword or the pen, and in those days the boundary line between the two weapons was by no means so plainly marked as it is at present. Hutten's family wished to make a monk of him, and on his refusal to enter that profession he appears to have been thrown upon his own resources; and from his eighteenth to his twenty-sixth year he wandered over a great part of Europe—half scholar, half soldier, and altogether a vagabond— though from time to time his talents and learning brought him into the society of rich or great people who treated him with distinction. During part of the time, he served as a common, soldier in Italy. His wanderings appear to have ended by a deadly feud in which his resentment brought a Duke of Wurtemberg to well-deserved punishment. The Duke seduced the wife of Hans von Hutten, a cousin of Ulrich's, and treacherously murdered the husband with his own hand Ulrich von Hutten reconciled himself with his family, and published five orations against the Duke, who was at last expelled from his dominions by a rising of the people, assisted by an armed force commanded by Franz von Sickingen—a man whose career as a soldier much resembled the career of Hutten as a writer, and who on this occasion formed an intimate alliance with. him. The result was due principally to Hutten's fierce denunciations. This was the first event which brought him into public notice.
He next distinguished himself by the part he took in a controversy excited by John Reuchlin, known, according to the fashion of that day, by the then classical name of Capnio. Reuchlin was the first reviver of the study of Hebrew; and he was accused by the Dominicans, who at that time managed the Inquisition in the ecclesiastical Electorates, with designs against Christianity. A furious controversy ensued, in which Hutten distinguished himself by denouncing the inquisitors in the most vehement language. For instance, he thus describes Hochstraten, the head of their party:—
‘Are God or religion spoken of? On a sudden he cries out, To the fire! to the fire I Does one write some book? To the fire with the book and the author. Do you speak truth? To the fire! Do you utter falsehood? To the fire! Do you act justly? To the fire! Do you commit imposture? To the fire! He is all over fire, he breathes fire, he lives on fire. To the fire! to the fire! Such is his first and last word.’The “triumph of Capnio,” as this performance was called, was soon followed by Hutten's great work, the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum of which, if not the sole, Hutten was the chief author. It produced an immense effect, though the irony was so good, and the persons at whom it was levelled so stupid, that several of them took it for a serious book written in praise of the monks. In the beginning of the eighteenth century an edition of the letters was published by Mattaire, under the impression that the letters were genuine. It was dedicated to Steele, and Steele, under the same impression, reviewed the book in the Tatler without ever suspecting its true character. Both Swift and Defoe were misunderstood in the same way. After the publication of the letters of obscure men, Hutten went to Italy, with the intention of becoming a doctor of law. His studies for that purpose had no other effect than that of extending his discontent to a new class of subjects. He was disgusted with the pedantic and tyrannical views of law then taught in the Italian universities, and he returned without the degree which he had gone to seek. He was, however, as a sort of compensation knighted, and decorated with the title of Imperial Orator by the Emperor Maximilian. This was in 1517, when Hutten was twenty-nine years of age. The remaining seven years of his life were spent in producing a succession of pamphlets in which he attacked the Roman power and the clerical opponents of learning on the different points which arose from time to time in the great controversy of the century. His writings brought him into relations with Luther, and in the latter part of his career he appears to have been more especially and intimately connected with his old friend Sickingen. Two dialogues which he published, called The Monitor and The Brigands, from which M. Chauffour-Kestner gives long extracts, throw great light on his general views at this time. The leading notion of them is, that the merchants ought to carry on the commerce of the country, and that the private nobility—men like Hutten and Sickingen themselves, who, though not princes, possessed a strange wild sort of independence—ought to keep the peace, and protect the public against the tyranny of the priests and the princes, their allies. Sickingen carried out his theory in practice. He made war on the Archbishop of Trèves, against whom he had various causes of complaint, public and was defeated with all his adherents, and at last lost his life. Hutten betook himself to Switzerland, where, after a time, he died at the age of thirty-six.
Such is a short outline of the life of one of the most remarkable of the reformers. He was, above everything, a soldier and a politician, though his wars were for the most part waged with the pen instead of the sword. He would seem to have been much the sort of man who in all ages is marked out by nature as a malcontent and reformer. He would never have been satisfied, in any age, with any actually existing state of things. He had obviously one of those nervous, sensitive, combative dispositions which, being in themselves restless and uneasy, are the natural enemies of the age in which they live, though they might probably be altogether unfit for any other. It is not unlikely that indignation would have vexed him nearly as much if he had lived in our own times, though in a different direction. Like all good biographies, his life gives an interesting glimpse into the passions and questions of the age to which he belonged. It has been so overlaid with common-places that it is by no means easy to get clear notions about it, but it must have been a marvellous period. It united the most unbridled political liberty with unsparing intellectual despotism. A Franconian noble, like the nobility of many other parts of the world, seems to have done pretty much as he pleased, fearing no one unless his resentment was powerful enough to bring down the castle walls. Nothing is more singular in the history of every part of Europe than the complete absence of that steady equable pressure of authority which in modern times affects us all alike. Power acted by fits and starts. When it did act it was unrestrained, and might inflict any amount of hardship and cruel suffering; but in the interval it would seem as if there must have been a marvellous quantity of unbridled licence, which must have been very pleasant to men of small knowledge and great energy. On the other hand, the deadness and narrowness of the intellectual world must have been enough to goad almost to madness any one whose tastes lay in that direction. Unless a man were prepared to be a monk, and to submit himself to the fetters which that way of life involved, he had not only no opportunity of using his mind, but he was positively despised if he did so. Hutten himself was for a length of time the object of the contempt of his relations on account of his literary eminence. The furious contests which resulted from the struggles of men like Hutten and Luther to change this state of things, are the great landmarks of modern history. The French Revolution, with all its dramatic episodes, did not produce so great a change in the face of the world as the Reformation; and when we remember that, after it had produced its effects, the world, though circumstantially different from what it had been before, remained substantially the same, neither much happier nor much less happy—in some ways, neither much wiser nor much more foolish,—we may form a rational estimate of the degree in which it is likely to be permanently altered by some of the reforms which attract so much attention in our own days. Society at large is like a man who, by taking thought, can add, not a cubit, but (say) an inch and a half to his stature.
Saturday Review, May 2, 1863.