Beatus Rhenanus Today
Beatus Rhenanus' life and works
offer manifold interests.
First of all, there is pedagogy.
The pupil of Sélestat's
Latin School has left to us notebooks which reflect a studious
young man who earnestly noted down the classes he had the good
fortune to attend in his home town. His passion to understand
the great Latin authors of classical antiquity may be perceived
in the care he took to transcribe his masters' remarks. One sees
a handsome bookhand, already regular and orderly, with which he
highlighted the margins and pages of his books, transcribing in
German, or even in the Alsatian dialect, the technical terms designating
aspects of everyday life familiar to him in Sélestat, but
present in the Latin poets as exotic vocabulary, even for an enthusiastic
pupil of Latin. The teaching of the period circa 1500, known to
the general public thanks to Rabelais's fictitious description
of the "abbaye de Thélème" or to Montaigne's
reflexions in his essay Sur l'institution des enfants, may be
apprehended in situ at the Humanist Library of Sélestat
through these precious notebooks and manuals bearing Rhenanus'
handwriting. At a time when young people advocate convulsive revolution
and schools have been shaken to their very foundations, one may
indeed ask what the secret of Sélestat's Latin School was.
In the space of several decades, it produced a harvest of scholars
who won the admiration of Erasmus of Rotterdam : "While other
cities give birth only to men, you however produce geniuses. Your
fecundity enriches the universe" (Praise of Sélestat).
The pupils' notebooks that the Library preserves, Wilhelm Gisenheim's
as well as Beatus Rhenanus', provide perhaps an explanation to
the phenomenon in a more direct and concrete way than the mythical
depiction of the "abbaye de Thélème".
Then, there is philology.
Having become "learned in
each of the two (ancient) languages" (lingua doctus utraque),
according to the fine praise of Erasmus, thanks to the Greek classes
he took in Paris and in Basel, Beatus Rhenanus exhibited an intense
activity as editor of ancient texts, moving from Church Fathers
to classical authors, from Homer to Prudence, from Tertullian
to Eusebius of Caesarea, Seneca, Tacitus and Livius, to mention
only the most important. At the same time, he introduced, for
Johann Froben, the works of Erasmus, Thomas More and other humanists
by means of "Prefaces" which show the way to a reliable
philological method, how to choose the "good readings",
in spite of the deteriorated texts transmitted by manuscripts.
Finally, there is quite simply
the human aspect.
Indeed, philological erudition
did not draw Rhenanus away from the problems which troubled his
times; they were numerous and great. The Christian religion, the
cement of society and the foundation of morality, was unsettled
by the Reformation. Tempers flared, ideas clashed, law and order
were threatened. Beatus Rhenanus attempted to save public tranquillity
and to reform religion without harm. Inspired by the thought of
Martin Luther, friend of Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer and Johann
Sturm, who will write his biography, he had an abhorrence for
all extremes and opted for a religious reform precluding a break
with his catholic past. Did he owe his sense of moderation, his
loathing of tumult, only to his good star, only to a firm will
mastering mood changes and destructive passion, or did he forge
his character, through the union of ancient wisdom with the Christian
revelation, from the authors he edited and those more numerous
which he had read, for they will constitute his library, astonishing
in its richness and variety? Here indeed are the two sources of
Western Civilization united as never before in the person of Beatus
Rhenanus: ancient humanism and mystical Christian meditation both
have a place in his library and meet in the personality of Beatus,
to whom they bring that acuity of thought, remarked upon by his
contemporaries, that interior equilibrium and that serenity in
the heat of discussion, which allowed him to remain a link between
the two camps, without compromise or betrayal.
Is this not an invitation for a
modern world in disarray, which is seeking a sense to life and
a panacea for its anxieties, to return to the same sources? Beatus
Rhenanus' mission and books, piously preserved for centuries by
the city of Sélestat, displayed and studied to their advantage
by the admirable work of devoted and competent librarians such
as Abbot Gény, Abott Clauss, Canon Walter, Abbot Adam,
investigated by scholars from all of Europe, protected with loving
care by the "Society of the Friends of the Humanist Library",
are waiting for us to give them the place they deserve in the
cultural life of France and beyond, in that of Europe.
The University of Strasbourg will
give to its Latin Department the name of Beatus Rhenanus in order
to pay homage to his philological work and his contribution to
the assembling of ideas and peoples in Europe. From the 12th to
the 15th of November 1998, a conference will unite scholars who
have studied, sometimes reedited the texts of which Beatus Rhenanus
gave us an edition in his time, in some cases, the edition "princeps",
and a second conference, interdisciplinary, is planned for the
year 2000 in order to bring to light the contributions of the
humanist to the great political and religious debates of his century.
The present exhibition is the first step in the rehabilitation
of a great Alsatian, European and humanist