1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hontheim, Johann Nikolaus von
HONTHEIM, JOHANN NIKOLAUS VON (1701–1790), German historian and theologian, was born on the 27th of January 1701 at Trier. He belonged to a noble family which had been for many generations connected with the court and diocese of the archbishop-electors, his father, Kaspar von Hontheim, being receiver-general of the archdiocese. At the age of twelve young Hontheim was given by his maternal uncle, Hugo Friedrich von Anethan, canon of the collegiate church of St Simeon (which at that time still occupied the Roman Porta Nigra at Trier), a prebend in his church, and on the 13th of May 1713 he received the tonsure. He was educated by the Jesuits at Trier and at the universities of Trier, Louvain and Leiden, taking his degree of doctor of laws at Trier in 1724. During the following years he travelled in various European countries, spending some time at the German College in Rome; in 1728 he was ordained priest and, formally admitted to the chapter of St Simeon in 1732, he became a professor at the university of Trier. In 1738 he went to Coblenz as official to the archbishop-elector. In this capacity he had plentiful opportunity of studying the effect of the interference of the Roman Curia in the internal affairs of the Empire, notably in the negotiations that preceded the elections of the emperors Charles VII. and Francis I. in which Hontheim took part as assistant to the electoral ambassador. It appears that it was the extreme claims of the papal nuncio on these occasions and his interference in the affairs of the electoral college that first suggested to Hontheim that critical examination of the basis of the papal pretensions, the results of which he afterwards published to the world under the pseudonym of “Febronius.” In 1747, broken down by overwork, he resigned his position as official and retired to St Simeon’s, of which he was elected dean in the following year. In May 1748 he was appointed by the archbishop-elector Francis George (von Schönborn) as his suffragan, being consecrated at Mainz, in February 1749, under the title of bishop of Myriophiri in partibus. The archbishop of Trier was practically a great secular prince, and upon Hontheim as suffragan and vicar-general fell the whole spiritual administration of the diocese; this work, in addition to that of pro-chancellor of the university, he carried on single-handed until 1778, when Jean Marie Cuohot d’Herbain was appointed his coadjutor. On the 21st of April 1779 he resigned the deanery of St Simeon’s on the ground of old age. He died on the 2nd of September 1790 at his chateau at Montquentin near Orval, an estate which he had purchased. He was buried at first in St Simeon’s; but the church was ruined by the French during the revolutionary wars and never restored, and in 1803 the body of Hontheim was transferred to that of St Gervasius.
As a historian Hontheim’s reputation rests on his contributions to the history of Trier. He had, during the period of his activity as official at Coblenz, found time to collect a vast mass of printed and MS. material which he afterwards embodied in three works on the history of Trier. Of these the Historia Trevirensis diplomatica et pragmatica was published in 3 vols. folio in 1750, the Prodromus historiae Trevirensis in 2 vols. in 1757. They give, besides a history of Trier and its constitution, a large number of documents and references to published authorities. A third work, the Historiae scriptorum et monumentarum Trevirensis amplissima collectio, remains in MS. at the city library of Trier. These books, the result of an enormous labour in collation and selection in very unfavourable circumstances, entitle Hontheim to the fame of a pioneer in modern historical methods. It is, however, as “Febronius” that Hontheim is best remembered. The character and effect of his book on “the state of the Church and the lawful power of the Roman pontiff” is described elsewhere (see Febronianism). The author of the book was known at Rome almost as soon as it was published; but it was not till some years afterwards (1778) that he was called on to retract. The terrors of the spiritual power were reinforced by a threat of the archbishop-elector to deprive not only him but all his relations of their offices, and Hontheim, after much wavering and correspondence, signed a submission which was accepted at Rome as satisfactory, though he still refused to admit, as demanded, ut proinde merito monarchicum ecclesiae regimen a catholicis doctoribus appelletur. The removal of the censure followed (1781) when Hontheim published at Frankfort what purported to be a proof that his submission had been made of his own free will (Justini Febronii acti commentarius in suam retractationem, &c.). This book, however, which carefully avoided all the most burning questions, rather tended to show—as indeed his correspondence proves—that Hontheim had not essentially shifted his standpoint. But Rome left him thenceforth in peace.
See Otto Mejer, Febronius, Weihbischof Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim und sein Widerruf (Tübingen, 1880), with many original letters. Of later date is the biography by F. X. Kraus in the Allgemeine deutsche Biographie (1881), which gives numerous references.