This Day in Jewish History Holy Roman Emperor Orders All Jewish Books - Except the Bible - Be Destroyed

A Jewish apostate named Johannes Pfefferkorn persuaded Maximilian I that all Jewish books, except the Bible, must be destroyed.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On August 19, 1509, Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, issued his “Imperial Confiscation Mandate,” or “Padua Mandate,” which ordered the rounding up and destruction of all Jewish books in circulation other than the Hebrew Bible. The following year, the emperor was pressured to put a stay on his order, but not before the collection effort had begun. Although the practical effects of the boycott were limited, the political and theological drama that surrounded the ban had profound implications for both Jews and Christians.

A Jewish apostate named Johannes Pfefferkorn was the one who lobbied Maximilian, whose realm as emperor comprised most of Central and parts of Western Europe, to act against the Jews. In a succession of texts with names like “Confession of the Jews” and “How the Blind Jews Observe Their Easter,” Pfefferkorn (1469-1523) had argued that contemporary Judaism was a perversion of the original faith established in the Bible, and that Jewish moneylenders were intent on undermining Christian society.

The overall message of Pfefferkorn’s pamphlets was that Judaism needed to be destroyed. This mission was to begin with the Talmud. Encouraged by his sister, Kunigunde, who had been lobbied by Pfefferkorn, the emperor instructed the Jews of his dominion to deliver any books opposing Christianity – that is, all Hebrew books but the Bible – to Pfefferkorn, for burning.

The project of confiscation began in Frankfurt and in several other German towns, including Mainz and Worms, in the fall of 1509. By the following spring, it is known, for example, that 1,000 Hebrew books had been turned in by Jews in the Judengasse, the local ghetto, in Frankfurt. It was only the intervention of Duke Erich of Braunschweig that persuaded the emperor to suspend the roundup: The duke had borrowed money from Jews in Frankfurt to repay a debt to Maximilian, and had pledged his jewels as collateral. Afraid that he would lose his property, the duke asked the emperor to prevail upon the Jews to give him more time to pay off his debt, in return for which they would get their sacred books back.

The books were indeed returned to the Jews, in June 1510, but the emperor ordered that the volumes not be removed from Frankfurt until he had formulated a conclusive opinion on the question. To that end, Maximilian asked four universities and three individual scholars to weigh in with legal and theological opinions of the Jews’ holy texts.

One of the four scholars was Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522), a remarkable student of Greek and Hebrew, whose intellectual efforts gave a major impetus to the Reformation. Reuchlin was the lone respondent to defend the Jews and their teachings. Ironically, although Reuchlin wrote in confidence to the emperor, with distribution of his report limited to a small group, one member of that group was Johannes Pfefferkorn, who felt compelled to respond, publicly. Pfefferkorn attacked not only Reuchlin, but also upped the incitement against the Jews, by endorsing the charges of blood libel and host desecration. These charges included his “revelation” of a new host desecration case in Berlin, one that resulted in the execution of 38 Jews, and the banishment of all Jews from Brandenburg.

The irony is that Pfefferkorn’s attack, and the subsequent polemic that surrounded it, much of it focusing on Reuchlin, led to a spirited public debate over many of the issues that divided the Catholic Church and the emerging humanist movement in Europe at the time. Allies of Pfefferkorn in the Dominican order caused charges of heresy to be brought against Reuchlin. As the online catalog of an exhibition on Johannes Reuchlin presented last year at the University of Illinois (Curated by Professors Valerie Hotchkiss and David H. Price) , explained, the legal proceedings that ensued “reveal some of the most unstable fault lines in European intellectual culture, some of which would shift violently as the century progressed. Reuchlin’s writings and the chain reaction they touched off mark the first time in European history that some Christians undertook an academic study of Judaism and its history.”

Reuchlin divided Jewish writings into seven categories, and argued that only books that specifically libeled Jesus should be considered heretical. This meant that not only the Hebrew Bible, but also the Talmud, the Kabbalistic work the Zohar, and the medieval commentators should be permitted. He and Pfefferkorn waged an ongoing war of “dueling pamphlets,” going back and forth with their public argument.

Reuchlin was acquitted of the heresy charges several times, but each acquittal led his Dominican enemies to appeal to a higher authority. Finally, in 1520, Pope Leo X ruled against him, and Reuchlin was ordered to be silent. In the meantime, however, Reuchlin had introduced the study of Hebrew into European universities, and he himself translated the Psalms into Latin.

In 1521, Pfefferkorn wrote to Reuchlin, condemning him for the major challenge to the Church that the Reformation constituted (Martin Luther published his 95 Theses in 1517), and lamenting that the pope had not silenced Reuchlin earlier: “Yes, Reuchlin, if the Pope had done this to you eight years ago, Martin Luther and your disciples … would not have dared to wish or contemplate what they are now publicly pursuing to the detriment of the Christian faith. Of all this, you alone are the spark and the enabler, to drive the holy Church into error and superstition.”

Reuchlin died the following year, having repudiated Martin Luther and his movement. But his legal defense of Judaism and, more significantly, his academic study of its essential texts helped to give Christian Europe, which was increasingly hostile to the Jews, direct access to their teachings and a better understanding of their culture.

A woodcut showing Johann Reuchlin (kneeling) and wringing his hands while Johannes Pfefferkorn stands by him in a master's robes. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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