13 May A Mighty Flame From Sparks Oft Came
Ulrich von Hutten, Gesprächsbüchlein (Conversation Book)
Published 1521 in Strasbourg by Johann Schott
Oh century! Oh knowledge! It’s a joy to live! This exclamation is attributed to Ulrich von Hutten. But what appears to be a hymn to the new age he actually said to scourge the past. For Hutten continues: “It is a joy to live, if not yet, to rest.”
Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) was intended to pursue an ecclesiastical career. He studied Theology at the University of Erfurt, but, like many others, was appalled by the Christian message and ecclesial practice being two very different things. Above all, it was the papal financial conduct that came increasingly under fire by the intellectuals. It was not for nothing that in 1517 a monk named Martin Luther was so infuriated by the indulgences in his neighboring diocese that he had his thesis delivered to the responsible archbishop.
Ulrich von Hutten, too, voiced his criticism, but not through a scientific treatise. He rather wrote with a pointed pen, in an elegant Latin he mastered like no one else. He was an ingenious satirist who combined a trenchant analysis with an ingenious wit. In 1517 Emperor Maximilian even crowned him “poetus laureata”, the best poet of his time. Huttens’ books were being read! He had an enormous influence on the well-educated. And his books were so popular that they were even translated into German.
That enabled all the knights and the wealthy citizens who had not learned Latin to take pleasure in Hutten’s jokes, too. And, of course, they adopted his critical attitude towards the church. The German version of the conversation book currently on display in the MoneyMuseum was dedicated to Franz von Sickingen, who was to fight (and die) in the war of the priests against the Bishop of Trier. Ulrich von Hutten and his vicious, uncompromisingly denouncing texts served as a means of identification for those who wanted to fight the church. With his actions the author, therefore, lost the affection of all those who were hoping for a compromise, for a church reform. Among them: his former teacher Erasmus of Rotterdam.
His books were considered incendiary and brought Ulrich von Hutten the imperial ban. This meant that any authority in the German Empire was obliged to execute him when he was caught in the relevant territory. So Hutten fled to Switzerland. Although not yet being separated from the Empire officially, Switzerland did not recognize each and every imperial law anymore. The Zurich reformer Zwingli offered the refugee asylum. For this reason, the island of Ufenau on Lake Zurich became the place for the great humanist to die. After decades of suffering, Ulrich von Hutten finally succumbed to the syphilis.