Intellectual Networks of Humanists at the Councils of Constance and Basel in the 15th Century

 Takashi Jinno


The vivid interests in the classical works of Greek and Latin authorities were revived

in the 15th century. In this period many intellectuals who were called humanists could be seen in Italy. Such persons were mostly clergies who had a lot of opportunities for learning classical languages and reading the classics. Consequently they were impressed by elegant styles and secular world views which the classics involved. So, they began to write their works imitating styles of the classics and they discussed humanism of  the classical authorities with those who had the same interests in the classics. As a result they could acquire new and unprejudiced perspectives to men and nature.

But, we don't know precisely how the intellectuals in this period obtained the manuscripts of the classics. It has not been answered by modern scholars accurately how they acquired them. Of course, many famous works of the Greek classics were already translated from Arabic language or Greek language to Latin language from the 12th century onward in Spain and Sicily. Furthermore, at the time of the collapse of Byzantine Empire, numerous manuscripts of the Greek classics were brought from

there to western Europe.

However, it is not well known for us how the humanists in this period discovered Latin manuscripts of the classics in Europe. It might be thought that almost all Latin manuscripts of the classics had been discovered in libraries of Italian churches and monasteries. But, in fact, only few manuscripts had been discovered in Italy. Rather, the greater part of important manuscripts were discovered in libraries of churches and monasteries in the north regions of the Alps.

  Especially, at the time of two councils which were held in the territory of Germany,

namely, the council of Constance(1414-1418) and the council of Basel(1431-1449),

Italian humanists who accompanied their ecclesiastical patrons to take part in the councils gathered many manuscripts of the classics in libraries of churches and monasteries in the north regions of the Alps. Further, many humanists who came from Italy found not only manuscripts of the classics written by church fathers dealing with dogmas and teachings of church, but also a lot of manuscripts of the pagan classics treating with secular problems in the libraries of the monasteries of St.Gall, Reichenau, and Cluny, etc. during these two councils. Normally they copied them, but sometimes they took away them from churches and monasteries. What is more, the manuscripts of the classics were sold at markets in both cities during the openings of the councils. So, ecclesiastics and masters of universities who came from various regions of Europe to participate in the councils competed with others in buying manuscripts of the classics.

In this paper, we want to consider the discoveries of manuscripts of the classics and the diffusion of the ideas of humanism in the15th century especially in Germany.


1.                The Council of Constance and Humanists

The council of Constance, which was held in one of the most flourished cities of south Germany in the Middle Ages for four years from 1414 to 1418, aimed at finding solutions to serious contemporary problems of catholic church such as great schism, church reform, and heresy. After the German king, Sigismund, had decided to call  an ecumenical council in order to solve these problems, he negotiated the opening of council with pope Johannes XXIII.  who belonged to the obedience of Pisa.

The council began December 1414 in the cathedral of Constance. And in the sessions of the council the representatives of secular and ecclesiastical authorities  discussed  the important problems relating to the present state of catholic church. Among those problems, the most pressing one was the overcome of great schism. Ultimately, it came to a settlement by the deposition of three popes and the election of a new pope called Martinus V.  Moreover, the important problem which was discussed in the council was the treatment of heresy of Hussites. As measures to meet the problem, the dogmas and the teachings of Jan Hus were condemned in the sessions and Hus was burned as a heretic in the suburb of Constance July 1415.

But ,another serious problem was church reform. The participants in the council tried to place restrictions on the strong authority of papacy, at the same time to support the independencies of regional churches. Among the problems relating to church reforms, the rights of papal reservations to offices of prelates and other ecclesiastics were most criticized .In consequence the rights of papal reservations were substantially reduced.

The numbers of participants and attendants in the council of Constance totally amounted to about fifty thousand people for four years. Several hundreds of prelates such as pope Johannes XXIII, cardinals, patriarches, archbishops, bishops, abbots were assembled in the council from various regions of Europe. Besides, not only  ecclesiastics but also  lay persons of high rank such as German king Sigismund, Bohemian king Wenzel, other princes and nobles came to join in the council. Moreover, about two hundreds of representatives of cities and about thirty representatives of universities also participated in the council. At the same time, a great number of secretaries and servants who accompanied their patrons participating in the council came to Constance. For example, pope Johannes XXIII was followed by about 300 attendants of the papal Curia. Besides, a lot of applicants who wanted  to obtain ecclesiastical benefices gathered in the council. Also in order to support daily life of gathered people, many bankers and  merchants came to Constance to work. Consequently the city of Constance was full of large number of visitors suddenly.

 And we can find many humanists among the people who gathered in Constance, especially among the prelates and the attendants of  pope and other prelates.  First, some prominent  humanists were found among the cardinals. Namely, those were Pierre D'Ailly who debated in the sessions of the council from the standpoint of conciliarism, Francesco Zabarella who was a famous canon lawyer, Guillaume Fillastre who wrote a chronicle of the council. Also many humanists were found among the persons who came to the council as attendants of pope and other prelates,such as Leonardo Bruni, Poggio Bracciolini, Agapito Cenci, Bartolomeo da Montepulciano, Antonio Loschi, Pietoro Paolo Vergerio, Bendetto da Pirio, Zenbino de Pistoia, Manuel Crysoloras, who came from Italy, Jean de Montreuil and  Nicolas de Clamanges who came from France.

 In this period, Latin classics were willingly read by ecclesiastics and intellectuals especially in Italy. While they wrote their works imitating the styles and thought of the Latin classics, they exchanged letters in Latin with each other to cultivate their art of writing in excellent Latin. They also learned totally new perspectives of the nature and men from the classics. Therefore they wanted to read the classics as many as possible. But the number of the classics which they could read then were very limited. In Italy, from the 14th century to the beginning of the council of Constance(1414), the number of newly discovered manuscripts of Latin classics were less than twenty. Though the gathering of manuscripts of the Latin classics were promoted by initiatives of a famous Italian  humanist Niccolo Niccoli in this time, the activities of the gathering in Italy did not work out successfully. But in this time, Italian humanists had known that undiscovered manuscripts of Latin classics were preserved in  libraries of churches and monasteries in the north regions of the Alps and that such kind of manuscripts were amply remained owing to the activities of copying by scribes of churches and monasteries.

Therefore, the council of Constance was a favorable opportunity for humanists to search for undiscovered manuscripts of  Latin classics. On this account, some humanists who participated in the council traveled often to churches and monasteries around Constance during the break of sessions in order to find  famous undiscovered manuscripts.


2. Poggio Bracciolini and his Travel to search for Manuscripts  

Among a lot of  humanists who participated in the council of Constance, the persons who searched eagerly for manuscripts were Poggio Bracciolini, Bartolomeo da Montepulciano, Agapito Cenci, Zenovino de Pistoia, Benedetto da Pilio, Antonio Roschi

,etc.. But among these manuscript hunters, the person who played a leading part was Poggio Bracciolini. He learned Latin literatures in Florence under the tuition of Sallutati, and Niccolo Niccoli. Then, he worked as a secretary of pope Johannes XXIII and came to Constance with other members of the papal Curia.

  Poggio traveled to Germany and France four times to seek Latin manuscripts during the stay in Constance. First, he went to the monastery of Cluny in the Summer of 1415. In this time,he joined in the delegation of the council for the duke of Burgogne. Poggio could find five manuscripts of Cicero's Orations , namely, "Pro murena," "Pro cruentio", "Pro sexton loscio", "Pro miro", "Pro caelio", in the library of Cluny. He knowed already the existence of these manuscripts of Cicero's works in Cluny by the suggestion of two French humanists, Jean Montrueil, Nicolas de Clamanges. Among these manuscripts of Cicero's Orations, "Pro murena" and " Pro sexto loscio" were not known in Italy in those days. After Poggio found these manuscripts, he sent the copies of them to his master Niccolo Niccoli who stayed in Florence.Then, these manuscripts were copied immediately in large quantities in Italy.

We don't know well Poggio's activity after his first travel from 1415 to 1416. But, he decided to travel again to seek manuscripts for the second time with Agapito Cenci, Bartolomeo da Montpulciano  June or July 1416. The place where they visited was the monastery of St.Gallen near to Constance. They found an excellent library in a tower of the monastery. The abbot Henry of Gunderfingen and the monks were not educated well and they could not understand sufficiently the values of manuscripts which the library had. So, it was very easy for them to take out  as many manuscripts as possible to Constance.

 The most important manuscript which they found in this time was "Institutiones" of Quintilianus. The work of Quintilianus was a broadly circulated manual book for  learning of Latin language in the ancient Rome. This work had been known only fragmentally in the Middle Ages. Before the discovery of the complete manuscript by Poggio, some parts of "Institutiones" were cited for teaching of liberal arts in a few medieval works such as " Metalogicon"of John of Salisbury and "Speculum Maius"of Vincentius of Beauvais.

Humanists in the 15th century searched for the manuscript of Quintilianus in earnest. Therefore the discovery of it by Poggio was regarded an epochmaking event in the history of the revival of humanism. It was said that it took fifty-three days for Poggio to finish to copy the complete manuscript of "Institutiones" of Quintilianus.  He sent the copy to Leonard Bruni and Niccolo Niccoli in Florence. This discovery of the manuscripts of Quintilianus was received in Italy with great surprise and joy. At this second travel, Poggio also discovered another important manuscripts such as "Argonautica" of Valerius Flaccus,  "De architectura" of Vitruvius,etc..

 Poggio made his third trip to seek manuscripts in the beginning of 1417. At this time, he was accompanied by Bartolmeo da Montepulciano. They went to the monastery of St,Gallen at first. There they found two important manuscripts,namely, "De re militia" of Vegetius and a summary of "De significatione verbi" of Velius Flaccus by Pompeius Festus. After they visited several monasteries besides St.Gallen, they returned to Constance.

 Then, Poggio made his fourth travel for searching manuscripts in the summer of 1417. At this time, Poggio traveled to France and Germany and two scribes were accompanied by him for the copying of manuscripts on the spot. First, he visited Basel and then he went from Basel to Langres in France. In a library of church in Langres, he discovered a manuscript of one of Cicero's Oratons,namely, "Pro caecilina,"  which was not known until then in Europe. And he went to Cologne where he discovered

seven manuscripts of Cicero's Orations,namely, "Pro commodio Loscio,""Pro Rabilio","Pro Rabilio Posthumo," "Contra pisonem,"and three orations titled "De lege agri". Because the orations of Cicero had been highly estimated as models of refined Latin styles, humanists in those days eagerly wanted to find them. Therefore these discoveries became the most splendid honor for Poggio.


3. The council of Basel and the Gathering of Manuscripts

 In the council of Constance, it was determined to hold ecumenical councils regularly by the decree "Frequens" and according to the decree, a new council was held again in Basel. But, just after the decision of opening of a council in Basel, pope Martinus V had died. So,the following pope  Eugenius IV held the council of Basel in the year of 1431,

though the pope himself did not attend the council but gave the authority for acting in behalf of the pope to the papal deputies.

Many privileges which the papacy accumulated until then were substantially limited by the decrees of the council according to opinions of the leading faction.In the council  the independency of the regional churches from the papacy was advocated   more intensely than in the council of Constance. But pope Eugenius IV could not accept the decisions of church reforms, especially the decisions of reductions of papal privileges.So, he proclaimed the move of the council to Ferrara on his own judgement. The leading faction following the idea of conciliarism remained in Basel to continue the sessions for church reforms and chose Amadeus VIII of Savoia as new pope Felix V. Both sides opposed each other until 1449.But at last, anti-pope Felix V abdicated the papacy voluntarily recognizing the legitimacy of pope Eugenius IV.  and the council of Basel was dissolved 1449.

By the way, the council of Basel was the council whose location became again an imperial city in Germany. As the council of Constance, the Italian humanists who came to the council searched for manuscripts of Latin classics in churches and   monasteries in the north regions of the Alps. Because the council continued for long years, it was said that several hundreds of humanists gathered in Basel. They not only collected manuscripts of Latin classics, but also transmitted the ideas of  humanism  to German intellectuals.

 As the most eminent person who gathered many manuscripts during the stay in the council of Basel, we can cite Anbrogio Traversari, the leader of the order of Kamaldoli

in that time. He learned Greek and Latin in Florence under the guidance of Manuel Crysorolas who came from Byzantine Empire to Italy.  Ambrogio went to Basel in

order to participate in the council of Basel. Then, he was sent as a mission of the council to the court of German king. During the trip to Germany, he gathered many manuscripts of Latin classics in the church of Regensburg. Besides him, as another famous person who gathered manuscripts during the council of Basel, we can cite

Giovanni Aurispa. He was born in Sicily and he traveled to the Asia in his youth. Then, he studied law in the  university of Bologna and he joined in the papal Curia of Martinus V. From 1421, he again traveled to Constantinople. During his stay he worked as a secretary under the Byzantine Emperor. Then, he returned to Italy. He became a teacher of Greek in Florence in 1425. And then he participated in the council of Basel in 1433. During his stay in Basel he traveled various regions of Germany to seek manuscripts. He found the manuscripts of "commentary on Terentius" of Donatus, "Panegyricus" of Plinius the younger in a church of Mainz. He was also famous as a collector of manuscripts of the classics. During his stay in Constantinople,he gathered many Greek manuscripts such as the works of Sophocules, Euripides,Tyucidides, Aristoteles, Theofrastos,etc. And they brought them to Italy.

 Moreover, another important person as a collector of manuscripts in this period was Tommaso Parentucelli who became later pope Nicolaus V. He worked under cardinal Niccolo Arbergati and joined in the council of Basel 1433. During his stay in Basel, he found two manuscripts of Tertullianus somewhere around Basel. After he was enrhroned as pope, he tried to revive the authority of papacy which suffered bitterly in the time of Eugenius IV. While he acted as a important patron of arts and sciences, he invited many humanists such as Poggio Bracciolini, Lorenzo Valla, Vespasiano da Bisticci etc.. to the papal Curia. He also planned the foundation of the Vatican library.

 Besides Italian humanists, we can cite other humanists who joined in the council of Basel and at the same time gathered manuscripts of the classics. The most famous humanist was Nicolaus Cusanus. He joined in the council as a legate of archbishop of Trier and he supported movements of church reforms in the council as an advocate of conciliarism. At the time of the council, he gathered manuscripts in some churches and monasteries around Basel. Later, he was converted from the faction of conciliarism to the side of pope Eugenius IV. He went to Constantinople as a legate of Eugenius IV 1437.There he worked as diplomat of the pope, and on the same time he gathered a lot of manuscripts of Greek classics.

Thus the humanists who participated in the council of Basel eagerly gathered many manuscripts. And sometimes the humanists were too enthusiastically engaged in  gathering of manuscripts to plunder manuscripts from libraries of churches and monasteries near Basel. Especially, the monastery of St.Gallen was tremendously damaged by the robbery of manuscripts. So, the abbot Caspar von Breitenberg closed the doors of library with three keys. He hold one of three keys. Other two keys were held by monks. Consequently,it became necessary to obtain approvals of three persons in order to enter in the library.

 Moreover, in the time of the council of Basel,markets for selling manuscripts were held in the city. Manuscripts of the classics were sold there. Mainly the persons who came from universities in Germany and East Europe bought them. Thus,  the  manuscripts of the classics and the ideas of humanism were diffused in the north regions of the Alps.


4. Enea Silvio Piccolomini and the Transmission of Humanism to Germany

 The council of Basel contributed to the discovery of unknown manuscripts of the classics greatly. At the same time, it helped to implant the ideas of humanism in the north of the Alps. Now we want to consider the activity of Enea Silvio Piccolomini(later,Pope Pius II), who worked for the transmission of the ideas of humanism in Germany as a humanist in the time of the council of Basel.

 Enea was born in the family of nobility called "Piccolomini" near Siena. After he studied liberal arts and law in Siena, Pavia, and Florence, he worked under various prelates, and he gradually made his career. Then, he participated in the council of Basel as a secretary of cardinal Domenico Capuranica.During the council, he traveled to Scotland and Germany as a member of legates of the council. 1436 he was appointed chancellor of the council and he played important role in the sessions. He visited the Diet in Frankfurt 1442 as a deputy of the council of Basel. There he met the German king Frederick III. The king was impressed by Enea's learning of humanism.The king

invited Enea to the court of Wien to make Enea a member of the king's court. While he

stayed more than 10 years in the court, he played an important role in the politics of Frederick III. For the German side, Enea was a very important person who could not only negociate with the papacy but also transmit the ideas of humanism in Germany.  

While Enea had acquaintance with many German intellectuals in Wien, he  transmitted the educational methods of  humanism to masters and students in the university of Wien. Also at the same time, clerks in the chancellery of the  king, began to imitate the Latin style which Enea instruct them for writing Latin documents.  In the circle of the court, he educated humanism to  nobles and prelates who gathered in the court. They made a circle of exchanging Latin letters with each other around Enea and they discussed refined Latin styles and humanism of the classics.

While Enea educated the personel of the royal court to write official documents in excellent Latin during his stay, he diffused the ideas of humanism also by his own writings. For example, he wrote "De meseris curialis" which treated the misery of courtiers and described the necessities of education of humanism for the soundness of the court. He also wrote "Pentalogus" in which he expressed his ideas of political organizations taking the form of the discussions by five politically important persons,namely,  emperor,chancellor, bishop of Freising, bishop of Chiemsee. In this

work, he especially described the ideal state of the Christendom.It was said in the work that the catholic church should be firmly united and the power of emperor should be strenghthed much more in order to realize the ideal political state. And also he said there that the emperor must preside over the council of magnates as the supreme govornor of the world because the papacy did not function as universal authority well. And more in this writing, he said that the education of humanism was needed urgently in Germany. Moreover, Enea described the history of Germany in his another work titled "Germania". This work treated the history of Germany as a coherent history of one nation. As this work was the excellent description in Latin, many contemporary German writers imitated this as a model for describing the historiography of Germany. Anyway, Enea's activities as a humanist in Germany contributed to the implantation of humanisim and the education of the classics. After Enea left the court of the German king, he was elected pope Pius II 1458 and he spread the ideas of humanism now in the papal Curia.



The reassessment of the classics and the revival of humanism had begun first in Italy

and then in the regions of the north Alps in the 15th century. In this process, the most important events for humanists were discoveries of many lost classics. As we said here, the councils of Constance and Basel were the best opportunities to find manuscripts of the classics in libraries of church and monasteries which were located in the regions of the north of the Alps.

 While humanists searched for manuscripts during these two councils, many manuscripts were brought out to sell in markets in both cities. Therefore manuscripts of the classics were spread rapidly in this time to various parts of Europe. Consequently the ideas and the education of humanism were penetrated into almost every corner of Europe in the 15th century.

Also, as an important background of discoveries of manuscripts in libraries of churches and monasteries, we must value the medieval tradition of copying manuscrits of the classics. In the Middle Ages scribes copied a lot of  classical manuscripts in  scriptoriums of churches and monasteries, because they thought that copying manuscripts was an important sacred work to praise God. The bloom of humanism in the Renaissance would not come about without the work of copying manuscripts by medieval scribes.

 Anyway, the councils of Constance and Basel were not only political assemblies to solve pressing problems relating to the papacy  and the Western Church, but also favorable opportunities to spread the ideas and education of humanism into various parts of Europe.