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Johannes Pfefferkorn

(1469 – after 1521)

Johannes Pfefferkorn was an apostate and anti-Jewish agitator. Originally from Moravia, Pfefferkorn claimed to have been educated by a relative, Meir Pfefferkorn, a dayyan in Prague. A butcher by profession, he was convicted of burglary and theft, but released on payment of a fine. After his release, at the age of 36, he and his wife and children were converted to Christianity in Cologne (c. 1504), where he found employment. He put himself under the protection of the *Dominicans, who were quick to make use of him in their campaign against the Jews and their literature. Between 1507 and 1509 Pfefferkorn wrote a number of anti-Jewish tracts: Judenspiegel ("Jews' Mirror"), in which, incidentally, he spoke out against the *blood libel; Judenbeichte ("Jewish Confession"); Osterbuch ("Passover Book"); and Judenfeind ("Enemy of the Jews"). All were also published almost simultaneously in Latin translation. The treatises certainly betrayed a thoroughgoing ignorance of rabbinic literature. Pfefferkorn demanded the suppression of the Talmud; prohibition of usury; forced attendance at *Sermons to Jews (longstanding Dominican objectives); expulsion of the Jews from the last German cities which had sizable Jewish communities – *Frankfurt, *Worms, and *Regensburg – unless such attendance took place (they were in fact expelled from Regensburg in 1519); and their employment in the most menial tasks only.

Through the influence of Emperor Maximilian's pious sister Kunigunde, and the support of the Cologne Dominicans, Pfefferkorn gained access to the emperor and in 1509 was empowered by him to confiscate any offending Jewish books, including prayer books, with the exception of the Bible. The confiscations took place on Friday, Sept. 8, 1509, in Frankfurt and subsequently in Mainz, Bingen, and other German cities. When the archbishop of Mainz, the Frankfurt city council, and various German princes intervened on behalf of the Jews, Pfefferkorn addressed a petition to the emperor (Zu Lob und Ere – "In Praise and Honor," 1510, also in Latin) in defense of his cause. Though the vacillating emperor ordered the return of the confiscated books, six weeks later, on May 23, 1510, he was apparently influenced by an alleged *Host desecration and blood libel at *Brandenburg, and under pressure from his sister, he ordered the appointment of an investigating commission.

The Pfefferkorn-Reuchlin Controversy

The commission was headed by the archbishop of Mainz, who appealed to theological faculties of Cologne, Erfurt, Heidelberg, and the famous scholar and humanist Johannes *Reuchlin, whose aid Pfefferkorn had tried in vain to enlist earlier. Pfefferkorn was to communicate the results to the emperor. When Pfefferkorn learned that Reuchlin's opinion would be favorable to the Talmud he assailed him in his Handspiegel wider und gegen die Juden ("Hand Mirror," 1511). Reuchlin replied in his Augenspiegel ("Eye-glass," 1511), strongly attacking Pfefferkorn and his backers, and thereby starting one of the great literary controversies of history, in reality a battle between the reactionary and the liberal parties within the Church. It occurred at a time when the tide of humanism was rising, and most German humanists rallied to Reuchlin's side. Erasmus, the Rotterdam humanist, though not exerting himself on Reuchlin's behalf, termed Pfefferkorn "a criminal Jew who had become a most criminal Christian." In September 1511 Pfefferkorn preached against the Augenspiegel outside a Frankfurt church, but the main battle was now fought between Reuchlin and the Cologne theologians. When the emperor visited Cologne in 1512, Reuchlin's enemies obtained from him an interdiction against the Augenspiegel, and in the same year Pfefferkorn issued his Brandspiegel ("Burning Glass"), an even more vituperative attack on Reuchlin and the Jews. Reuchlin submitted a further defense; the emperor imposed silence on both sides in June 1513.

The conflict echoed in the papal court and Pope Leo X set up a special ecclesiastical tribunal at Speyer to deal with the matter (November 1513). The judgment of March 1514, favorable to Reuchlin, was torn down by Pfefferkorn in Cologne, and in the same year he published a further tract, Die Sturmglocke ("Alarm Bell"); however, he was taken to task for breaking the silence imposed by the emperor. A scandal connected with another apostate named Rapp was used by Ulrich van Hutten, Crotus Rubianus, and other supporters of Reuchlin to discredit Pfefferkorn and in 1516 they issued the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum ("Letters of Obscure Men"), a virulent but effective satire on Pfefferkorn, the Dominicans, and all they stood for. In retaliation Pfefferkorn published his defense (Beschirmung…, 1516, also in Latin) and a further attack on Reuchlin (Streibuechlein – "Polemic") in the same year. In 1520 the pope finally decided against Reuchlin, though by this time the proceedings were so far removed from the original controversy against Jewish literature that the decision did not interfere with David *Bomberg's first printing of the Talmud, then in process in Venice. Pfefferkorn fired his last triumphant shot in 1521 with Eine Mitleidige Clag ("A Pitiful Complaint"), which Graetz describes as the most impudent and obscene of all his lampoons, and for which the printer, but not the author, was imprisoned. The outpourings from the other side were equally intemperate. Though his opponents were exaggerating somewhat when they described Pfefferkorn as a complete ignoramus, his knowledge of Jewish sources was minimal and his acquaintance with Latin nonexistent. Leading historians have come to the conclusion that Pfefferkorn received substantial help in the preparation of his treatises from his Dominican mentors. The effect of the episode was to bring about a considerable decline in the prestige of the Church. As S. Baron has pointed out, it was not merely by coincidence that Martin *Luther promulgated his thesis in 1517, at the height of the Pfefferkorn-Reuchlin controversy. The name Pfefferkorn became proverbial for unprincipled denigrators of their own origin and faith.


Baron, Social2, 13 (1969), 184ff., Graetz, Gesch, 9 (18914), index; Graetz, Hist, 4 (1894), 422ff,; K.H. Gerschmann, in: Zeitschrift fuer Religions- und Geistesgeschichte, 21 (1969), 166–71; S.A. Hirsch, Book of Essays (1905), 73–115; idem, Cabbalists and Other Essays (1922), 197–215; I. Kracauer, Geschichte der Juden in Frankfurt, 1 (1925), 247ff.; A. Freimann and F. Kracauer, Frankfort (1929), 48–59; H.L. Strack, Das Blut (19118), 171–2; M. Spanier, in: ZGDJ, 6 (1936), 209–29; A. Kober, Cologne (1940), 168ff.; M. Brod, Johannes Reuchlin und sein Kampf (1965), index.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.