Ubbo Emmo or When Historiography Becomes Political

Ubbo Emmo, Graecorum Respublicae descriptae. Cum Privilegio.

Printed at Elsevier in Leiden, 1632.

Does a book on ancient Greece have an influence on Germany’s federal elections? Hardly. Historical analyses tell us how things used to be, not so much what we can learn from them. That was different in early modern times. Ubbo Emmo’s treatise on the political system in ancient Athens and Sparta was a spark, and his native East Frisia the dynamite. To understand this, we need to take a quick look at the special history of this region on the North Sea coast.

This is how Ubbo Emmo depicted East Frisia in a precise map in 1595. He had already left his homeland at that time and had settled in Groningen in the Netherlands. For a freedom-loving thinker like him, life was safer there.

East Frisia – A World of Its Own

The Holy Roman Empire had a feudal structure, fiefdoms were ruled by different feudal lords and only a few free imperial cities enjoyed privileges – forget all that when you think of East Frisia. The East Frisians did not care about the feudal system and invoked a promise made by Charlemagne that they were subject only to the Emperor himself. This arrangement was called the Frisian Freedom, and Frisians didn’t let anyone take it away from them. For centuries, they were ruled by “chieftains”, a system inspired by the old structures of the Germanic tribes. Until early modern times, all attempts to turn East Frisia into a feudal fief failed miserably. When Emperor Frederick III elevated the Cirksena dynasty to the rank of counts in 1464 and enfeoffed them with East Frisia, the noble family had quite a struggle with their self-confident subjects.

The highly decorated East Frisian humanist Ubbo Emmo (1547-1625) as first president of the newly founded imperial university of Groningen.

Ubbo Emmo: East Frisia’s Greatest Humanist

Ubbo Emmo was born into this complicated world in 1547 on the North Sea coast as the son of a Lutheran pastor. He enjoyed a good education, studied history and classical philology, and his studies took him to see the Reformed city of Basel. There he became an avid supporter of Calvinism, his big role model was Erasmus of Rotterdam. When he returned home, he had a well-defined worldview and became head teacher of the school he had once attended himself. However, being a Reformed man now, he fell out of favour with an influential Lutheran court preacher. Even the court of the Cirksena family was divided when it came to religious matters.

The dominion was shared by two brothers, one of them was Lutheran, the other Reformed. The Reformed Johan helped Emmo to get a new position in Leer, but he died shortly afterwards. Under the rule of the Lutheran Edzard II, theological and political tensions escalated. 1595 saw the so-called Emden Revolution, during which citizens of the rich city of Emden expelled Count Edzard forcibly from his residence and placed themselves under the protection of the Netherlands. Gnashing his teeth, Edzard had to accept their demands. Emmo himself was already in the Netherlands at that time, from where he applauded the people of Emden. Shortly before, he had accepted an invitation to Groningen and became head of a renowned Latin school there. At that time, Groningen was a flourishing experimental laboratory for intellectuals, particularly for Emmo, and in 1614 the new imperial university was founded there. Emmo became its first president.

The East Frisians and Greece

In Groningen, Emmo was safe from the hostility of the Lutheran Count and could write whatever he pleased – not only regarding theological but also political matters. Emmo was clearly on the side of the freedom-loving East Frisian estates. He sang the praises of their glorious history in a six-volume “History of the Frisians”, published between 1596 and 1616. In Latin, of course, so that the educated could understand him. But that was not enough. He published another work. His “Constitution of Greek Societies”.

In the eyes of any humanist, antiquity had not only been better than the present, it also was the mark one aimed to surpass. But how did antiquity become a beacon for modern thinkers? For Emmo, the answer is quite clear: the Greek idea of freedom had been the basis of their cultural achievements. Thus, he gathered all “modern” historical accounts he could find and diligently read original ancient sources. His book presents what he considered the most successful models: first Athens, then Sparta.

Athens, very well, it is still considered a prime example of democracy and freedom today. Even though today’s historians have a more differentiated view, in Emmo’s time this was common sense. But Sparta? There had been Spartan kings, but also an oligarchic rule of nobility. And if you really wanted to you could recognize vague similarities to the old power structures of East Frisia. That’s why Emmo starts part 3 of his work with an analysis of “Sparta’s degree of freedom”.

In general, “Libertas” (freedom) is a key term, even a battle cry of his work. In the end, all doubts are cleared: if East Frisia wants to be a prosperous and thriving region, it must not let itself be subjugated by counts but must remain true to its tradition of self-government and follow the example of Sparta, Athens and (one may read between the lines) the Netherlands.

The book was only printed in the Netherlands in 1632, i.e. after Emmo’s death in 1625. Perhaps that’s the reason why it was so important to the printer to proudly state “Cum Privilegio” below the title. This simply means that the printer was not distributing illegal pirated copies, at least that’s what he claimed. At that time, the rules were not so strict, the issue of licenses and copyright was handled rather “liberally”…

By the way, even though the East Frisians did not get rid of the Cirksena family, the Frisian estates still lived according to their anti-feudal sentiments until the Prussians took East Frisia in 1744.

Unlike Emmo’s work on Frisian history, this work is far less known. There is no digitized version of it online.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

If you think of Reformation in Switzerland, you cannot help but think of Zwingli, whose works were published in three volumes in 1581.

A little later, the pioneer of the French Revolution, Jean Jacques Rousseau, wanted to force people to be free with his social contract.

Text bewerten