#onthisday, August 29th, 1523, Ulrich von Hutten, poet, humanist, reformer and rebellious knight died on Ufenau island in lake Zurich. His grave is the subject of the famous picture by Caspar David Friedrich above. Ulrich came from a knightly family in Franconia but instead of learning the art of war he went to university in Leipzig, Greifswald and elsewhere after an initial plan to become a monk. He travelled extensively in Italy where he studied law in Bologna as well as being a mercenary in the imperial armies.
He became famous for his Latin poetry and was made poet laureate by emperor Maximilian but soon moved on from poetry to politics. He issued broad criticism of the state of affairs in the Holy Roman Empire. He mocked Jakob Fugger, the banker to the Habsburg emperor and probably richest man who ever lived. He called duke Ulrich of Wuerttemberg a tyrant and wrote his Dunkelmaennerbriefe (Letters of the Obscure men) as a satirical defence of Johannes Reuchlin, a fellow humanist.
After a trip to Rome where he saw the decadence of the church first-hand, Hutten turned from church critic to all out agitator against the Roman Curia. He wrote pamphlets calling for the German people to stand up against the worldly power of the prince bishops and the minor princes. He dreamt of a return of the mighty Ottonian and Salian emperors who would unite the realm and return the imperial knights to their previous position of power. At this time, the early 16th century the Imperial Knights were being squeezed out by the territorial powers, both bishops and secular princes, and the urban elites. Having lost their military role thanks to the growing use of guns and mercenaries and their income due to a ban on feuding, kidnapping and ransoming, these knights were sinking into obscurity and poverty. What irritated them even more was their insignificant representation in the recently established Reichstag.
In 1522 Hutten joined his friend Franz von Sickingen in what became known as the Knights’ Revolt. Sickingen who was a knight and war entrepreneur went after the archbishop of Trier to “take back what was theirs”. His probably mostly monetary intentions were presented as a fight for the Reformation which had just begun. The rebellion quickly faltered, Sickingen was besieged in one of his castles. That castle fell within just a week under an artillery assault. Nothing made clearer that the old world of knights and maidens had ended for good. Sickingen died of his wounds and Hutten fled to Switzerland where he also died shortly afterwards.
The Knights’ revolt inspired the much larger Peasant’s Revolt of 1524 where many knights including the famous Götz von Berlichingen took lead roles.
The 19th century adopted Hutten as an early nationalist who stood up against the petty princely rulers. Hutten had written a pamphlet where he interpreted the battle in the Teutoburger Forest as a patriotic uprising throwing of the tyranny of Rome, which became compulsory reading. Later Hutton, like so many figures of Germany’s past became a Nazi symbol and at least one neo-Nazi organisation (mis)uses his name to this day.
Others identified with his fight against tyranny and corruption, his humanist thinking and support for intellectual freedom. Caspar David Friedrich painted “Hutten’s Grave” in 1823 as a protest against censorship and repression (see picture). The motto of Stanford university “Die Luft der Freiheit weht” comes from Ulrich von Hutten’s writings.
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