Aina and I and two of my friends went skiing today. As my friend Trish drove us up through Dufferin County towards Collingwood, we passed through Melanchthon Township, home of not very many people but a decent number of wind turbines. Trish wondered out loud where the name came from.
I knew off the top of my head that Philipp Melanchthon was one of the protestant reformers, working closely with Martin Luther in Germany in the 1500s. I said that the name looked Greek – it looked like it should be Greek for ‘black earth’, from the melan ‘black’ and chthon ‘earth’ roots – but Philipp Melanchthon was German, so it had to be a coincidence. But then I said, Why don’t I look it up on the web? I pulled out my iPhone and checked.
The first thing I found out was that he wasn’t born Melanchthon. He was Philipp Schwartzerdt. OK, so he changed his name… but why? And (clickbait here) what I read next made me say (rather loudly) “Of course!” and start laughing.
How’s your German?
Schwarz is standard High German for ‘black’. Erde is standard High German for ‘earth’. Melanchthon’s family name, Schwartzerdt, was (in another dialect) ‘black earth’. He just changed it to the Greek: Μελάγχθων.*
OK, but why? Well, at school he studied Latin and Greek. Renaissance humanism – and admiration of the classics – was ascendant at the time. And his great-uncle, an influential figure in the set, suggested he change his name to the classical Greek version, as was a common practice among humanists at the time. Philipp was an eager and impressionable boy barely over 10 years of age. The Greeks were such a model to be enthused about and followed. Another language, another time, another place, an enlightenment, a bright harbinger of reason!
This, mind you, was the same Philipp who grew up to fight against the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, its foreign language and borrowed ideas, its fanciful and expedient adoptions, its irrational digressions from the plain, clear, and simple. The same man who had discarded his plain and comprehensible German name for a borrowed Greek one, an idealization from another time and place, and informed his mind with their opinions too.
Inconsistent? Perhaps not. The Greek ideas planted their seeds in the fertile black earth of Melanchthon’s mind and the grain that grew forth was one advocating rationality and a rigorous logical inspection of premises and entailments. As well, in both cases, Melanchthon was dissatisfied with what he saw around him. The German name was as base and debased for him as the common ideas of indulgences and the cult of the saints and various other appurtenances of the Church. He fought this melancholy miasma and ran in the marathon of reformation. He wanted to undo the dammed-up theology and draw power from the wind of the Spirit.
In spite of all that, his name is seldom remembered, whereas Luther’s is all over the place.
Well. Luther is an easier name to remember. It does have an overtone of Lucifer, true, but then Melanchthon has an overtone of Moloch. And of course it is melancholy and chthonic, and has that nchth cluster that is sure to put off many a reader. Not that Schwartzerdt would have been a whole lot more appealing.
Meanwhile, in Melanchthon Township, the rich dark earth does not protest when it is ploughed and seeded. It knows neither Greek nor Latin nor German, nor English, but only the recurring phrases of the seasons. And we drive through without stopping, paying mere passing attention to the signs.
*The sharp-eyed among you will notice that where he has nch the Greek has γχ. This is because in Greek you represent the [ŋ] sound before velars with γ, which is normally transliterated as g – but not in this case. When the root is not before a velar the [n] is written with the usual Greek letter for n, ν.