Rodolphus Agricola

Rodolphus Agricola ("Phrisius") (February 17, 1443 – October 27, 1485) was a pre-Erasmian humanist of the northern Low Countries, famous for his supple Latin and one of the first north of the Alps to know Greek well. Agricola was a Hebrew scholar towards the end of his life, an educator, musician and builder of a church organ, a poet in Latin as well as the vernacular, a diplomat and a sportsman of sorts (boxing). He is best known today as the author of "De inventione dialectica", as the father of northern European humanism and as a zealous anti-scholastic in the late fifteenth century.


Born at Baflo, near Groningen, Agricola was originally named Roelof Huesman.

Educated first by the celebrated school of St. Maarten in Groningen, he matriculated at the universities of Erfurt (BA in 1458) and Louvain (MA in 1465), where he won renown for the purity of his Latin and his skill in disputation. He concentrated his studies on Cicero and Quintilian, and during his university years added French and Greek to his ever-growing list of languages. At the end of his life, he was to learn Hebrew in order to be able to read the Old Testament and especially the Psalms unadulterated by translation.

In the 1460s, Agricola travelled to Italy, where he associated with humanist masters and statesmen. From 1468 (?)-1475, he studied civil law at the university of Pavia, and later went to Ferrara (1475-1479), where he became the protegè of Prince d'Este of Ferrara, was a pupil of Theodor Gaza and attended lectures by the famous Battista Guarini. He devoted himself wholly to the study of classical texts. He won renown for the elegance of his Latin style and his knowledge of philosophy. Also while in Ferrara he was formally employed as the organist to the ducal chapel, which was one of the most opulent musical establishments in Europe. He held that post until 1477, after which he returned to the North to become secretary to the city of Groningen. Here at the Cistercian Abbey of St Bernard at Aduard near Groningen and at 's-Heerenbergh near Emmerich in the south-east he was at the centre of a group of scholars and humanists with whom he kept a lively correspondence. Among his correspondents are the musician and choirmaster of Antwerp, Jacobus Barbirianus (Barbireau), Alexander Hegius, rector of the Latin school at Deventer (of Erasmian fame), and the humanist scholar and later famed student of Hebrew, Johannes Reuchlin.

In 1470, he taught a deaf child how to communicate orally and in writing. "De inventione dialectica" documents this pioneering educational effort.

Once in Germany again, he spent time in Dillingen, where he continued to correspond with humanist friends and colleagues throughout Europe, promoting interest in his project to promote the study of classical learning and the "studia humanitatis". He remained an independent scholar, unattached to a university or religious establishment - this independence became a hallmark of humanist scholars. It was in Dilligen in 1479 that Agricola completed his "De inventione dialectica" ("On Dialectical Invention"), which argued for the precise application of loci in scholarly argumentation.

In 1481, Agricola spent six months in Brussels at the court of archduke Maximilian (later Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor). Friends attempted to dissuade him from accepting the archduke's patronage; they were afraid the archduke's influence would undermine his philosophical ideals. He also declined the offer to become head of a Latin school at Antwerp.

In 1482, Agricola accepted the invitation of John of Dahlberg, the Bishop of Worms, to lecture at the University of Heidelberg. The two men had met in Pavia, and they became close friends in Heidelberg; the bishop was a generous benefactor of learning. At this time Agricola began studying Hebrew, and is said to have published an original translation of the Psalms. In 1485, Dahlberg was sent as an ambassador to Pope Innocent VIII in Rome. Agricola accompanied him and was struck gravely ill on their journey.

He died shortly after their return to Heidelberg.


"De inventione dialectica" was very influential in creating a proper place for logic in rhetorical studies, and was of great significance in the education of early humanists. It is a highly original, critical, and systematic treatment of all ideas and concepts related to dialectics. "The significance of "De inventione dialectica" for the history of argumentation is that it assimilated the art of dialectic to that of rhetoric. Argumentation focused not on truth but on what might be said with reason. Accordingly, Agricola focused on the "Topics" rather than the "Analytics" of Aristotle and Cicero but also the writings of historians, poets and orators. Thus, for Agricola, dialectic was an open field; the art of finding 'whatever can be said with any degree of probability on any subject.'"(Hamilton, David. "From Dialectic to Didactic.") Agricola's "De formando studio" - his long letter on a private educational programme - was printed as a small booklet and thus influenced pedagogical insights of the early sixteenth century.

Erasmus greatly admired Agricola, eulogizing him in "Adagia"; he called him "the first to bring a breath of better literature from Italy." Erasmus claimed him as a father/teacher figure and may have actually met him through his own schoolmaster Alexander Hegius (who was possibly also one of Agricola's students) at Hegius's school in Deventer. This is a demonstration of Agricola's real legacy: his importance should not be measured so much by what he wrote, but rather by his personal influence over others, and his power stimulus - he was truly a great teacher and model humanist. Nevertheless, Erasmus made it his personal mission to ensure that several of Agricola's major works were printed posthumously.


*"De inventione dialectica" (philosophy): This is the work for which Agricola is particularly known. There is a recent edition (and translation into German) by Lothar Mundt, "Rudolf Agricola. De inventione dialectica libri tres" (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1992).
*"Letters": The letters of Agricola, of which fifty-one survive, offer an interesting insight in the humanist circle to which he belonged. They have recently been published and translated in: "Agricola, Letters; edited by Adrie van der Laan and Fokke Akkerman" (2002).
*A "Life of Petrarch"
*"De nativitate Christi"
*"De formando studio" (= letter 38 [to Jacobus Barbireau of Antwerp on June 7, 1484, when Agricola was in Heidelberg] : see the edition of the letters by Van der Laan / Akkerman, pp. 200-219)
*His minor works include some speeches, poems, translations of Greek dialogues and commentaries on works by Seneca, Boethius and Cicero
*For a selection of his works with facing French translation: Rodolphe Agricola, "Écrits sur la dialecticque et l'humanisme", ed. Marc van der Poel (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1997)
*For a bibliography of Agricola's works: Gerda C. Huisman, "Rudolph Agricola. A Bibliography of Printed Works and Translations" (Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf, 1985)


*Agricola, R., from "Three Books Concerning Dialectical Invention." "Renaissance Debates on Rhetoric." ed. & trans. W.A. Rebhorn. pp. 42-56. Ithaca, NY: Cornell U P. 2000.
*Gallaudet University Library: - Earliest Known Deaf People:
*Hamilton, David. "From Dialectic to Didactic."
*The History Guide - Renaissance Humanism:
*New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia - Rudolph Agricola:
*"Rodolphus Agricola Phrisius (1444-1485). Proceedings of the International Conference at the University of Groningen 28-30 October 1985", eds. Fokke Akkerman and Arjo Vanderjagt (Leiden: Brill, 1988).
*"Wessel Gansfort (1419-1489) and Northern Humanism", eds. Fokke Akkerman, Gerda Huisman, and Arjo Vanderjagt (Leiden: Brill, 1993).
*"Rudolf Agricola 1444-1485. Protagonist des nordeuropäischen Humanismus zum 550. Geburtstag", ed. Wilhelm Kühlman (Bern: Peter Lang, 1994).
*"Northern Humanism in European Context. From the 'Adwert Academy' to Ubbo Emmius", ed. Fokke Akkerman, Arjo Vanderjagt, and Adrie van der Laan (Leiden: Brill, 1999).
*Agricola's logic and rhetoric are treated in Peter Mack, "Renaissance Argument. Valla and Agricola in the Traditions of Rhetoric and Dialectic", (Leiden: Brill, 1993); see also Ann Moss, "Renaissance Truth and the Latin Language Turn" (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
*For Agricola's knowledge of Hebrew: A.J. Vanderjagt, 'Wessel Gansfort (1419-1489) and Rudolph Agricola (1443?-1485): Piety and Hebrew', in "Frömmigkeit - Theologie - Frömmigkeitstheologie: Contributions to European Church History. Festschrift für Berndt Hamm zum 60. Geburtstag", ed. Gudrun Litz, Heidrun Munzert, and Roland Liebenberg (Leiden: Brill, 2005), pp. 159-172.

Further reading

*Gerda H. Huisman, "Rudolph Agricola: A Bibliography of Printed Works and Translations", Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1985.
*J.R. McNally, "Dux illa Directrixque artium": Rudolph Agricola's Dialectical System," "Quarterly Journal of Speech", 52.4 (1966): 337-47.
*J.R. McNally, "Prima pars dialecticae': The Influence of Agricolan Dialectic upon English Accounts of Invention," "Renaissance Quarterly" 21 (1968): 166-77.
*J.R. McNally, "Rector et dux populi": Italian Humanists and the Relationship between Rhetoric and Logic," "Modern Philology 67.2 (1969): 168-76.
*J.R. McNally, "Rudolph Agricola's "De inventione dialectica libri tres": A Translation of Selected Chapters," "Speech Monographs" 34.4 (1967): 393-422.
*Matthew DeCoursey, "Continental European Rhetoricians, 1400-1600, and Their Influence in Renaissance England," "British Rhetoricians and Logicians, 1500-1660, First Series", DLB 236, Detroit: Gale, 2001, pp. 309-343.

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