Ulrich von Hutten : biography
Ulrich von Hutten (21 April 1488 – 29 August 1523) was a German scholar, poet and reformer. He was an outspoken critic of the Roman Catholic Church and a bridge between the humanists and the Lutheran Reformation. He was a leader of the Imperial Knights of the Holy Roman Empire.
For the final 15 years of his life, Hutten suffered from the ‘French disease’ (or syphilis), of which he died. He wrote a text in 1519, De morbo gallico (On the French disease) about the symptoms of what is thought to be syphilis and its treatment with Guaiacum. His text is regarded as one of the first patient narratives in the history of medicine.
His life may be divided into four parts: his youth and cloister life (1488–1504); his wanderings in pursuit of knowledge (1504–1515); his strife with Ulrich of Württemberg (1515–1519); and his connection with the Reformation (1510–1523).
Youth and cloister life
Hutten was born in Burg Steckelberg, now in Schlüchtern, Hessen. He was the eldest son of a poor and not undistinguished knightly family. As he was small of stature and sickly his father destined him for the cloister, and, when he was ten years old, his father placed him at the nearby Benedictine monastery in Fulda to be educated as a monk. The monastic school there was highly regarded in Germany, and he received an excellent education. However, he disliked the mode of life, and in 1505 fled to Cologne. He thus obtained his freedom, but incurred the undying anger of his father.
Pursuit of knowledge
In Cologne, Hutten met Hoogstraten, Johannes Rhagius (also known as Johannes Aesticampianus), and other scholars and poets. In 1506, he went to Erfurt, but soon after rejoined Rhagius at Frankfurt an der Oder where a new university was opening. There he took his master’s degree and published his first poem. In 1507, he followed Rhagius to Leipzig. In 1508, 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica reports him a shipwrecked beggar on the Pomeranian coast, while the New International Encyclopedia describes him as stricken down with the pestilence and recovering.
In 1509, he was studying theology at the University of Greifswald, where he was at first received kindly. However his burgher patrons could not tolerate the poet’s airs and vanity and ill-timed assertions of his higher rank. Wherefore Hutten left Greifswald, and as he went was robbed of clothes and books, his only baggage, by the servants of his late friends. In the dead of winter, half starved, frozen, penniless, he reached Rostock.
In Rostock, again the humanists received him gladly, and under their protection he wrote against his Greifswald patrons, thus beginning the long list of his satires and fierce attacks on personal or public foes. Rostock could not hold him long, and he wandered on to Wittenberg, where in 1511 he published his Ars Versificatoria, a work on versification. His next stop was Leipzig, and thence to Vienna, where he hoped to win the emperor Maximilian’s favour by an elaborate national poem on the war with Venice. But neither Maximilian nor the University of Vienna would lift a hand for him.
So he went on to Italy, and settled at Pavia to study law. In 1512, his studies were interrupted by war: in the siege of Pavia by papal troops and Swiss, he was plundered by both sides, and escaped, sick and penniless, to Bologna. On his recovery, he served for a short time as a private soldier in the emperor’s army, but by 1514 was back in Germany. Thanks to his poetic gifts and the friendship of Eitelwolf von Stein (d. 1515), he won the favour of the elector of Mainz, Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg. Here high dreams of a learned career rose on him: Mainz should be made the metropolis of a grand humanist movement, the centre of good style and literary form.
Strife with Ulrich of Württemberg
But the murder in 1515 of his relative Hans von Hutten by Ulrich, duke of Württemberg, changed the whole course of his life; satire, chief refuge of the weak, became Hutten’s weapon; with one hand he took his part in the famous Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum (The Letters of Obscure Men), and with the other launched scathing letters, eloquent Ciceronian orations, or biting satires against the duke. These works made him known throughout Germany.