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Rodolphus Agricola (Latin: Rudolphus Agricola Phrisius; August 28, 1443 or February 17, 1444[1] – 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.


Agricola was born at Baflo in the Dutch province of Groningen as the illegitimate son of the cleric Hendrik Vries, who later became an abbot, and Zycka Huesman, a rich farmer's daughter.[2] He was originally named Roelof Huesman or Huisman by his mother's surname. The Latin adjective Phrisius identifies him as a Frisian.

Educated first by the celebrated school of St. Maarten in Groningen, thanks to his father's help he matriculated at the university of Erfurt (BA in 1458). He went on to Louvain University (MA in 1465), where he won renown for the purity of his Latin and for 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 would 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 (?) until 1475 he studied civil law at the university of Pavia, and later went to Ferrara (1475–1479), where he became the protégé of Prince d'Este of Ferrara, was a pupil of Theodor Gaza[3] and attended lectures by the famous Battista Guarino. 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 gained formal employment as the organist to the ducal chapel, at that time one of the most opulent musical establishments in Europe. He held that post until 1479, 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 up a lively exchange of letters. His correspondents included the musician and choirmaster of Antwerp, Jacobus Barbirianus (Barbireau), Alexander Hegius von Heek, 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. In Dillingen Agricola in 1479 completed his De inventione dialectica (On Dialectical Invention), which argued for the precise application of loci in scholarly argumentation.

From 1480 to 1484 he held the post of secretary of the city of Groningen.

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 feared that the archduke's influence would undermine his philosophical ideals. He also declined the offer to become head of a Latin school at Antwerp.

In 1484, Agricola moved to Heidelberg by invitation of Johann von Dalberg, the Bishop of Worms. 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 he is said to have published an original translation of the Psalms. In 1485, Dalberg 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. Ermolao Barbaro composed an epitaph for him.[4]

Legacy and influence

De inventione dialectica was influential in creating a place for logic in rhetorical studies, and was of significance in the education of early humanists.

It also affected the deaf community. He held that a person who is born deaf can express himself by putting down his thoughts in writing. The book was not published until 1515. His statement that deaf people can be taught a language is one of the earliest positive statements about deafness on record (Gannon, 1981).

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.

Agricola's real legacy was his personal influence over others. Erasmus admired Agricola, eulogizing him in "Adagia" and calling him "the first to bring a breath of better literature from Italy." Erasmus claimed him as a father/teacher figure and may have met him through his own schoolmaster Alexander Hegius (most probably one of Agricola's students) at Hegius's school in Deventer. In addition to Hegius, Agricola's students include Conrad Celtis (in Heidelberg).

Erasmus made it his personal mission to ensure that several of Agricola's major works were printed posthumously. Agricola's literary executor was Adolphus Occo, a physician of Augsburg. By about 1530 disciples and followers had gathered in the manuscripts left by Agricola, and these were edited by Alardus of Amsterdam.[5]


  • De Inventione Dialectica libri tres (1479): This is the work for which Agricola is particularly known. There is a modern edition (and translation into German) by Lothar Mundt, Rudolf Agricola. De inventione dialectica libri tres (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1992). Parts are translated into English in McNally, J. R. (1967). "Rudolph Agricola's De inventione dialectica libri tres: A Translation of Selected Chapters". Speech Monographs. 34 (4): 393–422. doi:10.1080/03637756709375551 [16] ..
  • Letters: The letters of Agricola, of which fifty-one survive, offer an interesting insight in the humanist circle to which he belonged. They have been published and translated with extensive notes in: Agricola, Letters; edited by Adrie van der Laan and Fokke Akkerman (2002).
  • A Life of Petrarch (Vita Petrarcae / De vita Petrarchae, 1477)
  • 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 dialectique 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)
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