EPISTOLÆ OBSCURORUM VIRORUM: A series of satirical epistles occasioned by the conflict between Johann Reuchlin (q.v.) and the Dominicans of Cologne in the early years of the sixteenth century. They may be regarded as companion pieces to the Clarorum virorum epistolæ . . . ad Johannem Reuchlin, a collection of missives intended to illustrate the support which that great scholar enjoyed among the illustrious men of the time, and to the poem Triumphus Doctoris Reuchlini, the authorship of which has been attributed in part to Ulrich von Hutten. The first part of the Epistolæ appeared in 1514 under the title Epistolæ obscurorum virorum ad venerabilem virum Magistrum Ortuinum Gratium, and comprised forty-one letters which were increased by seven in the third edition, published in 1516. The second part appeared in 1517 under a slightly altered title and contained sixty-two letters, to which eight supplementary letters were added in a second edition. In 1689 both parts were published in an amplified form but the added material possesses no inner connection with the original work. Ortuinus Gratius, to whom the greater number of the letters are addressed, was professor of belles-lettres and philosophy in Cologne after 1506. Devoting his considerable humanistic learning to the service of scholasticism, he drew upon himself the hatred and contempt of the advocates of the new learning, and was characterized by Luther as a "wretched poetaster and a ravening wolf, if not indeed a crocodile." Among the alleged writers of the letters occur a few names of actual personalities, such as Jakob Hochstraten and Arnold von Tongern, but the great majority like Schaffsmulius, Mistladerius, etc., are obviously comic fictions. In form no less than in contents, the Epistolæ are a burlesque of the scholastic literature. The debased Latinity of the theologians is cleverly imitated and their ignorance of and contempt for the ancient learning are contrasted with their firm conviction of their own erudition and mental acuteness. Assuming to be puzzled by the most absurd problems of scholarship and theology, the writers address themselves to Ortuinus for a resolution of their doubts. The moral degradation of the clergy is painted at the same time with a broadness of humor that is undeniably contrary to the taste of a more advanced age. References to the dispute between Reuchlin and the Dominicans are to be found in all the letters, and in the second part the first rumblings of the approaching storm of the Reformation may be heard.
In spite of the similarity between the two parts of the Epistolæ, the first may be characterized as showing a more restrained fancy and mode of expression and a less evident desire to indulge in satire for the mere joy of destruction. The letters have been assigned, therefore, a double, and, possibly, a triple authorship. The author of the greater number of letters in the first part and the one who conceived the idea of the work was Johann Jäger (called Crotus Rubeanus), who, born at Dornheim in 1480, was educated by the Dominicans, became professor of theology at Cologne in 1506, and rector of the university of Erfurt in 1520. The chief writer of the second part was probably Ulrich von Hutten. To Hutten the work had been attributed from the beginning, but, whereas he indirectly confessed to the authorship of the Carmen rythmicale in the second part, he expressly denied all responsibility for the first. The persons attacked in the Epistolæ obtained a papal brief against the authors, publishers, and possessors of the book, and carried on a vigorous polemic against the work. It was a Defensio by Pfefferkorn that gave occasion to the writing of the second part.
Bibliography: The edition which displaces all others is by E. Böcking, 2 vols., Leipsic, 1864-70, containing text, indexes and commentary; German transl. by M. Binder, Stuttgart, 1876, Eng. transl., London, 1909. Consult D. F. Strauss, Ulrich von Hutten, pp. 176-211, ib. 1871, Eng transl., London, 1874.