Sunday, September 4, 2016

Epistolae obscurorum virorum / Letters of Obscure Men

Francis Griffin Stokes (ed) - Epistolae obscurorum virorum (1519, edition of 1909) direct link
Open Library main page

"A text that contains intentional blunders, and in which grammar is a law unto itself, seems to call for exceptional treatment."  That's the conclusion of editor and translator Stokes when introducing this now-little-known curiosity.  Epistolae obscurorum virorum is a series of satirical letters that appeared in Germany from 1515-1519.  The letters were a humanist attack on scholasticism and employed overstatement, clumsily pretentious writing, illogical leaps, wayward references - basically the same things that would be used to parody academic writing today.  (I will now start my emails with "Cordial greeting and homage beyond belief".)

This satire, though, is credited with helping push the Reformation, particularly in its support of Johannes Reuchlin who was fending off charges of heresy as he attempted to prevent destruction of Hebrew religious materials (which were considered anti-Christian).  (See David H. Price's 2011 Johannes Reuchlin and the Campaign to Destroy Jewish Books.)  One recent reprint of Epistolae obscurorum virorum was done under the title On the Eve of the Reformation.

Let's just go with one sample (that's actually one of the more simple): "As I have ofttimes told you, I chafe bitterly because that vile raff, to wit the Faculty of Poets, groweth and extendeth throughout every province and region. In my time there was only one poet--and his name was Samuel--but now in a single burg a good score may be found, to harass us who cling to the ancients. Just now I sharply snibbed one who said that 'scholaris' did not mean a person who went to school to learn, for, quote I, 'Thou ass! Wouldst though correct the Holy Doctor who useth that word?'  But forthwith he wrote a lampoon against me, with many scurrilities therein, and vowed that I was no sound grammarian, in that I had not rightly expounded certain words when I treated of Alexander, his First Part, and of the book De modis significandi."

This appears to have been the first English translation.