1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Erasmus, Desiderius
ERASMUS, DESIDERIUS (1466–1536), Dutch scholar and theologian, was born on the night of the 27/28th of October, probably in 1466; but his statements about his age are conflicting, and in view of his own uncertainty (Ep. x. 29: 466) and the weakness of his memory for dates, the year of his birth cannot be definitely fixed. His father’s name seems to have been Rogerius Gerardus. He himself was christened Herasmus; but in 1503, when becoming familiar with Greek, he assimilated the name to a fancied Greek original, which he had a few years before Latinized into Desyderius. A contemporary authority states that he was born at Gouda, his father’s native town; but he adopted the style Rotterdammensis or Roterodamus, in accordance with a story to which he himself gave credence. His first schooling was at Gouda under Peter Winckel, who was afterwards vice-pastor of the church. In the dull round of instruction in “grammar” he did not distinguish himself, and was surpassed by his early friend and companion, William Herman, who was Winckel’s favourite pupil. From Gouda the two boys went to the school attached to St Lebuin’s church at Deventer, which was one of the first in northern Europe to feel the influence of the Renaissance. Erasmus was at Deventer from 1475 to 1484, and when he left, had learnt from Johannes Sinthius (Syntheim) and Alexander Hegius, who had come as headmaster in 1483, the love of letters which was the ruling passion of his life. At some period, perhaps in an interval of his time at Deventer, he was a chorister at Utrecht under the famous organist of the cathedral, Jacob Obrecht.
About 1484 Erasmus’ father died, leaving him and an elder brother Peter, both born out of wedlock, to the care of guardians, their mother having died shortly before. Erasmus was eager to go to a university, but the guardians, acting under a perhaps genuine enthusiasm for the religious life, sent the boys to another school at Hertogenbosch; and when they returned after two or three years, prevailed on them to enter monasteries. Peter went to Sion, near Delft; Erasmus after prolonged reluctance became an Augustinian canon in St Gregory’s at Steyn, a house of the same Chapter near Gouda. There he found little religion and less refinement; but no serious difficulty seems to have been made about his reading the classics and the Fathers with his friends to his heart’s content. The monastery once entered, there was no drawing back; and Erasmus passed through the various stages which culminated in his ordination as priest on the 25th of April 1492.
But his ardent spirit could not long be content with monastic life. He brought his attainments somehow to the notice of Henry of Bergen, bishop of Cambrai, the leading prelate at the court of Brussels; and about 1494 permission was obtained for him to leave Steyn and become Latin secretary to the bishop, who was then preparing for a visit to Rome. But the journey was abandoned, and after some months Erasmus found that even with occasional chances to read at Groenendael, the life of a court was hardly more favourable to study than that of Steyn. At the suggestion of a friend, James Batt, he applied to his patron for leave to go to Paris University. The bishop consented and promised a small pension; and in August 1495 Erasmus entered the “domus pauperum” of the college of Montaigu, which was then under the somewhat rigid rule of the reformer Jan Standonck. He at once introduced himself to the distinguished French historian and diplomatist Robert Gaguin (1425–1502) and published a small volume of poems; and he became intimate with Johann Mauburnus (Mombaer), the leader of a mission summoned from Windesheim in 1496 to reform the abbey of Château-Landon. But the life at Montaigu was too hard for him. Every Lent he fell ill and had to return to Holland to recover. He continued to read nevertheless for a degree in theology, and at some time completed the requirements for the B.D. After a year or two he left Montaigu and eked out his money from the bishop by taking pupils. One of these, a young Englishman, William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy (d. 1534), persuaded him to visit England in the spring of 1499.
Being without a benefice, he had no settled income to look to, and apart from the precarious profits of teaching and writing books, could only wait on the generosity of patrons to supply him with the leisure he craved. The faithful Batt had sought a pension for him from his own patroness, Anne of Borsselen, the Lady of Veere, who resided at the castle of Tournehem near Calais, and whose son Batt was now teaching. But as nothing promised at once, Erasmus accepted Mountjoy’s offer, and thus a tie was formed which led Mountjoy then or a few years later to grant him a pension of £20 for life. Otherwise the visit to England gave no hope of preferment; and in the summer Erasmus prepared to leave. He was delayed, and used the interval to spend two or three months at Oxford, where he found John Colet lecturing on the Epistle to the Romans. Discussions between them on theological questions soon convinced Colet of Erasmus’ worth, and he sought to persuade him to stay and teach at Oxford. But Erasmus could not be content with the Bible in Latin. Oxford could teach him no Greek, so away he must go.
In January 1500 he returned to Paris, which though it could offer no Greek teacher better than George Hermonymus, was at least a better centre for buying and for printing books. The next few years were spent still in preparation, supported by pupils’ fees and the dedications of books; the Collectanea adagiorum in June 1500 to Mountjoy, and some devotional and moral compositions to Batt’s patroness and her son. When the plague drove him from Paris, he went to Orleans or Tournehem or St Omer, as the way opened. From 1502 to 1504 he was at Louvain, still declining to teach publicly; among his friends being the future Pope Adrian VI. In January 1504 the archduke Philip gave him fifty livres for the Panegyric which “ung religieux de l’ordre de St Augustin” had composed on his Spanish journey; and in October, ten more, for the maintenance of his studies.
He had been working hard at Greek, of which he now felt himself master, at the Fathers (above all at Jerome), and at the Epistles of St Paul, fulfilling the promise made to Colet in Oxford, to give himself to sacred learning. But the bent of his reading is shown by the manuscript with which he returned to Paris at the close of 1504—Valla’s Annotations on the New Testament, which Badius printed for him in 1505.
Shortly afterwards Lord Mountjoy invited him again to England, and this visit was more successful. He found in London a circle of learned friends through whom he was introduced to William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Foxe, bishop of Winchester and other dignitaries. John Fisher (bishop of Rochester), who was then superintending the foundation of Christ’s College for the Lady Margaret, took him down to Cambridge for the king’s visit; and at length the opportunity came to fulfil his dream of seeing Italy. Baptista Boerio, the king’s physician, engaged him to accompany his two sons thither as supervisor of their studies. In September 1506 he set foot on that sacred soil, and took his D.D. at Turin. For a year he remained with his pupils at Bologna, and then, his engagement completed, negotiated with Aldus Manutius for a new edition of his Adagia upon a very different scale. The volume of 1500 had been jejune, written when he knew nothing of Greek; 800 adages put together with scanty elucidations. In 1508 he had conceived a work on lines more to the taste of the learned world, full of apt and recondite learning, and now and again relieved by telling comments or lively anecdotes. Three thousand and more collected justified a new title—Chiliades adagiorum; and the author’s reputation was now established. So secure in public favour did the book in time become, that the council of Trent, unable to suppress it and not daring to overlook it, ordered the preparation of a castrated edition.
To print the Adagia he had gone to Venice, where he lived with Andrea Torresano of Asola (Asulanus) and did the work of two men, writing and correcting proof at the same time. When it was finished, with an ample re-dedication to Mountjoy, a new pupil presented himself, Alexander Stewart, natural son of James IV. of Scotland—perhaps through a connexion formed in early days at Paris. They went together to Siena and Rome and then on to Campania, thirsty under the summer sun. When they returned to Rome, his pupil departed to Scotland, to fall a few years later by his father’s side at Flodden; Erasmus also found a summons to call him northwards.
On the death of Henry VII. Lord Mountjoy, who had been companion to Prince Henry in his studies, had become a person of influence. He wrote to Erasmus of a land flowing with milk and honey under the “divine” young king, and with Warham sent him £10 for journey money. At first Erasmus hesitated. He had been disappointed in Italy, to find that he had not much to learn from its famed scholarship; but he had made many friends in Aldus’s circle—Marcus Musurus, John Lascaris, Baptista Egnatius, Paul Bombasius, Scipio Carteromachus; and his reception had been flattering, especially in Rome, where cardinals had delighted to honour him. But to remain in Rome was to sell himself. He might have the leisure which was so indispensable, but at price of the freedom to read, think, write what he liked. He decided, therefore, to go, though with regrets; which returned upon him sometimes in after years, when the English hopes had not borne fruit.
In the autumn he reached London, and in Thomas More’s house in Bucklersbury wrote the witty satire which Milton found “in every one’s hands” at Cambridge in 1628, and which is read to this day. The Moriae encomium was a sign of his decision. In it kings and princes, bishops and popes alike are shown to be in bondage to Folly; and no class of men is spared. Its author was willing to be beholden to any one for leisure; but he would be no man’s slave. For the next eighteen months he is entirely lost to view; when he reappears in April 1511, he is leaving More’s house and taking the Moria to be printed privily in Paris. Wherever they were spent, these must have been months of hard work, as were the years that followed. His time was now come. The long preparation and training, bought by privation and uncongenial toil, was over, and he was ready to apply himself to the scientific study of sacred letters. His English patrons were liberal. Fisher sent him in August 1511 to teach in Cambridge; Warham gave him a benefice, Aldington in Kent, worth £33, 6s. 8d. a year, and in violation of his own rule commuted it for a pension of £20 charged on the living; and the dedications of his books were fruitful. In Cambridge he completed his work on the New Testament, the Letters of Jerome, and Seneca; and then in 1514, when there seemed no prospect of ampler preferment, he determined to transfer himself to Basel and give the results of his labours to the world.
The origin of Erasmus’s connexion with Johann Froben is not clear. In 1511 he was preparing to reprint his Adagia with Jodocus Badius, who in the following year was to have also Seneca and Jerome. But in 1513 Froben, who had just reprinted the Aldine Adagia, acquired through a bookseller-agent Erasmus’ amended copy which had been destined for Badius. That the agent was acting entirely on his own responsibility may be doubted; for within a few months Erasmus had decided to betake himself to Basel, bearing with him Seneca and Jerome, the latter to be incorporated in the great edition which Johannes Amerbach and Froben had had in hand since 1510. In Germany he was widely welcomed. The Strassburg Literary Society fêted him, and Johannes Sapidus, headmaster of the Latin school at Schlettstadt, rode with him into Basel. Froben received him with open arms, and the presses were soon busy with his books. Through the winter of 1514–1515 Erasmus worked with the strength of ten; and after a brief visit to England in the spring, the New Testament was set up. Around him was a circle of students, some young, some already distinguished—the three sons of Froben’s partner, Johannes Amerbach, who was now dead, Beatus Rhenanus, Wilhelm Nesen, Ludwig Ber, Heinrich Glareanus, Nikolaus Gerbell, Johannes Oecolampadius—who looked to him as their head and were proud to do him service.
Though from this time forward Basel became the centre of occupation and interest for Erasmus, yet for the next few years he was mainly in the Netherlands. On the completion of the New Testament in 1516 he returned to his friends in England; but his appointment, then recent, as councillor to the young king Charles, brought him back to Brussels in the autumn. In the spring of 1517 he went for the last time to England, about a dispensation from wearing his canonical dress, obtained originally from Julius II. and recently confirmed by Leo X., and in May 1518 he journeyed to Basel for three months to set the second edition of the New Testament in progress. But with these exceptions he remained in proximity to the court, living much at Louvain, where he took great interest in the foundation of Hieronymus Busleiden’s Collegium Trilingue. His circumstances had improved so much, by pensions, the presents which were showered upon him, and the sale of his books, that he was now in a position to refuse all proposals which would have interfered with his cherished independence. The general ardour for the restoration of the arts and of learning created an aristocratic public, of which Erasmus was supreme pontiff. Luther spoke to the people and the ignorant; Erasmus had the ear of the educated class. His friends and admirers were distributed over all the countries of Europe, and presents were continually arriving from small as well as great, from a donation of 200 florins, made by Pope Clement VII., down to sweetmeats and comfits contributed by the nuns of Cologne (Ep. 666). From England, in particular, he continued to receive supplies of money. In the last year of his life Thomas Cromwell sent him 20 angels, and Archbishop Cranmer 18. Though Erasmus led a very hard-working and far from luxurious life, and had no extravagant habits, yet he could not live upon little. The excessive delicacy of his constitution, not pampered appetite, exacted some unusual indulgences. He could not bear the stoves of Germany, and required an open fireplace in the room in which he worked. He was afflicted with the stone, and obliged to be particular as to what he drank. Beer he could not touch. The white wines of Baden or the Rhine did not suit him; he could only drink those of Burgundy or Franche-Comté. He could neither eat, nor bear the smell of, fish. “His heart,” he said, “was Catholic, but his stomach was Lutheran.” For his constant journeys he required two horses, one for himself and one for his attendant. And though he was almost always found in horse-flesh by his friends, the keep had to be paid for. For his literary labours and his extensive correspondence he required one or more amanuenses. He often had occasion, on his own business, or on that of Froben’s press, to send special couriers to a distance, employing them by the way in collecting the free gifts of his tributaries.
Precarious as these means of subsistence seem, he preferred the independence thus obtained to an assured position which would have involved obligations to a patron or professional duties which his weak health would have made onerous. The duke of Bavaria offered to dispense with teaching, if he would only reside, and would have named him on these terms to a chair in his new university of Ingolstadt, with a salary of 200 ducats, and the reversion of one or more prebendal stalls. The archduke Ferdinand offered a pension of 400 florins, if he would only come to reside at Vienna. Adrian VI. offered him a deanery, but the offer seems to have been of a possible and not an actual deanery. Offers, flattering but equally vague, were made from France, on the part of the bishop of Bayeux, and even of Francis I. “Invitor amplissimis conditionibus; offeruntur dignitates et episcopatus; plane rex essem, si juvenis essem” (Ep. xix. 106; 735). Erasmus declined all, and in November 1521 settled permanently at Basel, in the capacity of general editor and literary adviser of Froben’s press. As a subject of the emperor, and attached to his court by a pension, it would have been convenient to him to have fixed his residence in Louvain. But the bigotry of the Flemish clergy, and the monkish atmosphere of the university of Louvain, overrun with Dominicans and Franciscans, united for once in their enmity to the new classical learning, inclined Erasmus to seek a more congenial home in Basel. To Froben his arrival was the advent of the very man whom he had long wanted. Froben’s enterprise, united with Erasmus’s editorial skill, raised the press of Basel, for a time, to be the most important in Europe. The death of Froben in 1527, the final separation of Basel from the Empire, the wreck of learning in the religious disputes, and the cheap paper and scamped work of the Frankfort presses, gradually withdrew the trade from Basel. But during the years of Erasmus’s co-operation the Froben press took the lead of all the presses in Europe, both in the standard value of the works published and in style of typographical execution. Like some other publishers who preferred reputation to returns in money, Froben died poor, and his impressions never reached the splendour afterwards attained by those of the Estiennes, or of Plantin. The series of the Fathers alone contains Jerome (1516), Cyprian (1520), Pseudo-Arnobius (1522), Hilarius (1523), Irenaeus (Latin, 1526), Ambrose (1527), Augustine (1528), Chrysostom (Latin, 1530), Basil (Greek, 1532, the first Greek author printed in Germany), and Origen (Latin, 1536). In these editions, partly texts, partly translations, it is impossible to determine the respective shares of Erasmus and his many helpers. The prefaces and dedications are all written by him, and some of them, as that to the Hilarius, are of importance for the history as well of the times as of Erasmus himself. Of his most important edition, that of the Greek text of the New Testament, something will be said farther on.
In this “mill,” as he calls it, Erasmus continued to grind incessantly for eight years. Besides his work as editor, he was always writing himself some book or pamphlet called for by the event of the day, some general fray in which he was compelled to mingle, or some personal assault which it was necessary to repel. But though painfully conscious how much his reputation as a writer was damaged by this extempore production, he was unable to resist the fatal facility of print. He was the object of those solicitations which always beset the author whose name upon the title page assures the sale of a book. He was besieged for dedications, and as every dedication meant a present proportioned to the circumstances of the dedicatee, there was a natural temptation to be lavish of them. Add to this a correspondence so extensive as to require him at times to write forty letters in one day. “I receive daily,” he writes, “letters from remote parts, from kings, princes, prelates and men of learning, and even from persons of whose existence I was ignorant.” His day was thus one of incessant mental activity; but hard work was so far from breeding a distaste for his occupation, that reading and writing grew ever more delightful to him (literarum assiduitas non modo mihi fastidium non parit, sed voluptatem; crescit scribendo scribendi studium).
Shortly after Froben’s death the disturbances at Basel, occasioned by the zealots for the religious revolution which was in progress throughout Switzerland, began to make Erasmus desirous of changing his residence. He selected Freiburg in the Breisgau, as a city which was still in the dominion of the emperor, and was free from religious dissension. Thither he removed in April 1529. He was received with public marks of respect by the authorities, who granted him the use of an unfinished residence which had been begun to be built for the late emperor Maximilian. Erasmus proposed only to remain at Freiburg for a few months, but found the place so suited to his habits that he bought a house of his own, and remained there six years. A desire for change of air—he fancied Freiburg was damp—rumours of a new war with France, and the necessity of seeing his Ecclesiastes through the press, took him back to Basel in 1535. He lived now a very retired life, and saw only a small circle of intimate friends. A last attempt was made by the papal court to enlist him in some public way against the Reformation. On the election of Paul III. in 1534, he had, as usual, sent the new pope a congratulatory letter. After his arrival in Basel, he received a complimentary answer, together with the nomination to the deanery of Deventer, the income of which was reckoned at 600 ducats. This nomination was accompanied with an intimation that more was in store for him, and that steps would be taken to provide for him the income, viz., 3000 ducats, which was necessary to qualify for the cardinal’s hat. But Erasmus was even less disposed now than he had been before to barter his reputation for honours. His health had been for some years gradually declining, and disease in the shape of gout gaining upon him. In the winter of 1535–1536 he was confined entirely to his chamber, many days to his bed. Though thus afflicted he never ceased his literary activity, dictating his tract On the Purity of the Church, and revising the sheets of a translation of Origen which was passing through the Froben press. His last letter is dated the 28th of June 1536, and subscribed “Eras. Rot. aegra manu.” “I have never been so ill in my life before as I am now,—for many days unable even to read.” Dysentery setting in carried him off on the 12th of July 1536, in his 70th year.
By his will, made on the 12th of February 1536, he left what he had to leave, with the exception of some legacies, to Bonifazius Amerbach, partly for himself, partly in trust for the benefit of the aged and the infirm, or to be spent in portioning young girls, and in educating young men of promise. He left none of the usual legacies for masses or other clerical purposes, and was not attended by any priest or confessor in his last moments.
Erasmus’s features are familiar to all, from Holbein’s many portraits or their copies. Beatus Rhenanus, “summus Erasmi observator,” as he is called by de Thou, describes his person thus: “In stature not tall, but not noticeably short; in figure well built and graceful; of an extremely delicate constitution, sensitive to the slightest changes of climate, food or drink. After middle life he suffered from the stone, not to mention the common plague of studious men, an irritable mucous membrane. His complexion was fair; light blue eyes, and yellowish hair. Though his voice was weak, his enunciation was distinct; the expression of his face cheerful; his manner and conversation polished, affable, even charming.” His highly nervous organization made his feelings acute, and his brain incessantly active. Through his ready sympathy with all forms of life and character, his attention was always alive. The active movement of his spirit spent itself, not in following out its own trains of thought, but in outward observation. No man was ever less introspective, and though he talks much of himself, his egotism is the genial egotism which takes the world into its confidence, not the selfish egotism which feels no interest but in its own woes. He says of himself, and justly, “that he was incapable of dissimulation” (Ep. xxvi. 19; 1152). There is nothing behind, no pose, no scenic effect. It may be said of his letters that in them “tota patet vita senis.” His nature was flexible without being faultily weak. He has many moods and each mood imprints itself in turn on his words. Hence, on a superficial view, Erasmus is set down as the most inconsistent of men. Further acquaintance makes us feel a unity of character underlying this susceptibility to the impressions of the moment. His seeming inconsistencies are reconciled to apprehension, not by a formula of the intellect, but by the many-sidedness of a highly impressible nature. In the words of J. Nisard, Erasmus was one of those “dont la gloire a été de beaucoup comprendre et d’affirmer peu.”
This equal openness to every vibration of his environment is the key to all Erasmus’s acts and words, and among them to the middle attitude which he took up towards the great religious conflict of his time. The reproaches of party assailed him in his lifetime, and have continued to be heaped upon his memory. He was loudly accused by the Catholics of collusion with the enemies of the faith. His powerful friends, the pope, Wolsey, Henry VIII., the emperor, called upon him to declare against Luther. Theological historians from that time forward have perpetuated the indictment that Erasmus sided with neither party in the struggle for religious truth. The most moderate form of the censure presents him in the odious light of a trimmer; the vulgar and venomous assailant is sure that Erasmus was a Protestant at heart, but withheld the avowal that he might not forfeit the worldly advantages he enjoyed as a Catholic. When by study of his writings we come to know Erasmus intimately, there is revealed to us one of those natures to which partisanship is an impossibility. It was not timidity or weakness which kept Erasmus neutral, but the reasonableness of his nature. It was not only that his intellect revolted against the narrowness of party, his whole being repudiated its clamorous and vulgar excesses. As he loathed fish, so he loathed clerical fanaticism. Himself a Catholic priest—“the glory of the priesthood and the shame”—the tone of the orthodox clergy was distasteful to him; the ignorant hostility to classical learning which reigned in their colleges and convents disgusted him. In common with all the learned men of his age, he wished to see the power of the clergy broken, as that of an obscurantist army arrayed against light. He had employed all his resources of wit and satire against the priests and monks, and the superstitions in which they traded, long before Luther’s name was heard of. The motto which was already current in his lifetime, “that Erasmus laid the egg and Luther hatched it,” is so far true, and no more. Erasmus would have suppressed the monasteries, put an end to the domination of the clergy, and swept away scandalous and profitable abuses, but to attack the church or re-mould received theology was far from his thoughts. And when out of Luther’s revolt there arose a new fanaticism—that of evangelism, Erasmus recoiled from the violence of the new preachers. “Is it for this,” he writes to Melanchthon (Ep. xix. 113; 703), “that we have shaken off bishops and popes, that we may come under the yoke of such madmen as Otto and Farel?” Passages have been collected, and it is an easy task, from the writings of Erasmus to prove that he shared the doctrines of the Reformers. Passages equally strong might be culled to show that he repudiated them. The truth is that theological questions in themselves had no attraction for him. And when a theological position was emphasized by party passion it became odious to him. In the words of Drummond: “Erasmus was in his own age the apostle of common sense and of rational religion. He did not care for dogma, and accordingly the dogmas of Rome, which had the consent of the Christian world, were in his eyes preferable to the dogmas of Protestantism.... From the beginning to the end of his career he remained true to the purpose of his life, which was to fight the battle of sound learning and plain common sense against the powers of ignorance and superstition, and amid all the convulsions of that period he never once lost his mental balance.”
Erasmus is accused of indifference. But he was far from indifferent to the progress of the revolution. He was keenly alive to its pernicious influence on the cherished interest of his life, the cause of learning. “I abhor the evangelics, because it is through them that literature is everywhere declining, and upon the point of perishing.” He had been born with the hopes of the Renaissance, with its anticipation of a new Augustan age, and had seen this fair promise blighted by the irruption of a new horde of theological polemics, worse than the old scholastics, inasmuch as they were revolutionary instead of conservative. Erasmus never flouted at religion nor even at theology as such, but only at blind and intemperate theologians.
In the mind of Erasmus there was no metaphysical inclination; he was a man of letters, with a general tendency to rational views on every subject which came under his pen. His was not the mind to originate, like Calvin, a new scheme of Christian thought. He is at his weakest in defending free will against Luther, and indeed he can hardly be said to enter on the metaphysical question. He treats the dispute entirely from the outside. It is impossible in reading Erasmus not to be reminded of the rationalist of the 18th century. Erasmus has been called the “Voltaire of the Renaissance.” But there is a vast difference in the relations in which they respectively stood to the church and to Christianity. Voltaire, though he did not originate, yet adopted a moral and religious scheme which he sought to substitute for the church tradition. He waged war, not only against the clergy, but against the church and its sovereigns. Erasmus drew the line at the first of these. He was not an anticipation of the 18th century; he was the man of his age, as Voltaire of his; though Erasmus did not intend it, he undoubtedly shook the ecclesiastical edifice in all its parts; and, as Melchior Adam says of him, “pontifici Romano plus nocuit jocando quam Lutherus stomachando.”
But if Erasmus was unlike the 18th century rationalist in that he did not declare war against the church, but remained a Catholic and mourned the disruption, he was yet a true rationalist in principle. The principle that reason is the one only guide of life, the supreme arbiter of all questions, politics and religion included, has its earliest and most complete exemplar in Erasmus. He does not dogmatically denounce the rights of reason, but he practically exercises them. Along with the charm of style, the great attraction of the writings of Erasmus is this unconscious freedom by which they are pervaded.
It must excite our surprise that one who used his pen so freely should have escaped the pains and penalties which invariably overtook minor offenders in the same kind. For it was not only against the clergy and the monks that he kept up a ceaseless stream of satiric raillery; he treated nobles, princes and kings with equal freedom. No 18th century republican has used stronger language than has this pensioner of Charles V. “The people build cities, princes pull them down; the industry of the citizens creates wealth for rapacious lords to plunder; plebeian magistrates pass good laws for kings to violate; the people love peace, and their rulers stir up war.” Such outbursts are frequent in the Adagia. These freedoms are part cause of Erasmus’s popularity. He was here in sympathy with the secret sore of his age, and gave utterance to what all felt but none dared to whisper but he. It marks the difference between 1513 and 1669 that, in a reprint of the Julius Exclusus published in 1669 at Oxford, it was thought necessary to leave out a sentence in which the writer of that dialogue, supposed by the editor to be Erasmus, asserts the right of states to deprive and punish bad kings. It is difficult to say to what we are to ascribe his immunity from painful consequences. We have to remember that he was removed from the scene early in the reaction, before force was fully organized for the suppression of the revolution. And his popular works, the Adagia, and the Colloquia (1524), had established themselves as standard books in the more easy going age, when power, secure in its unchallenged strength, could afford to laugh with the laughers at itself. At the date of his death the Catholic revival, with its fell antipathy to art and letters, was only in its infancy; and when times became dangerous, Erasmus cautiously declined to venture out of the protection of the Empire, refusing repeated invitations to Italy and to France. “I had thought of going to Besançon,” he said, “ne non essem in ditione Caesaris” (Ep. xxx. 74; 1299). In Italy a Bembo and a Sadoleto wrote a purer Latin than Erasmus, but contented themselves with pretty phrases, and were careful to touch no living chord of feeling. In France it was necessary for a Rabelais to hide his free-thinking under a disguise of revolting and unintelligible jargon. It was only in the Empire that such liberty of speech as Erasmus used was practicable, and in the Empire Erasmus passed for a moderate man. Upon the strength of an established character for moderation he enjoyed an exceptional licence for the utterance of unwelcome truths; and in spite of his flings at the rich and powerful, he remained through life a privileged person with them.
But though the men of the keys and the sword let him go his way unmolested, it was otherwise with his brethren of the pen. A man who is always launching opinions must expect to be retorted on. And when these judgments were winged by epigram, and weighted by the name of Erasmus, who stood at the head of letters, a widespread exasperation was the consequence. Disraeli has not noticed Erasmus in his Quarrels of Authors, perhaps because Erasmus’s quarrels would require a volume to themselves. “So thin-skinned that a fly would draw blood,” as the prince of Carpi expressed it, he could not himself restrain his pen from sarcasm. He forgot that though it is safe to lash the dunces, he could not with equal impunity sneer at those who, though they might not have the ear of the public as he had, could yet contradict and call names. And when literary jealousy was complicated with theological differences, as in the case of the free-thinkers, or with French vanity, as in that of Budaeus, the cause of the enemy was espoused by a party and a nation. The quarrel with Budaeus was strictly a national one. Cosmopolitan as Erasmus was, to the French literati he was still the Teuton. Étienne Dolet calls him “enemy of Cicero, and jealous detractor of the French name.” The only contemporary name which could approach to a rivalry with his was that of Budaeus (Budé), who was exactly contemporary, having been born in the same year as Erasmus. Rivals in fame, they were unlike in accomplishment, each having the quality which the other wanted. Budaeus, though a Frenchman, knew Greek well; Erasmus, though a Dutchman, very imperfectly. But the Frenchman Budaeus wrote an execrable Latin style, unreadable then as now, while the Teuton Erasmus charmed the reading world with a style which, though far from good Latin, is the most delightful which the Renaissance has left us.
The style of Erasmus is, considered as Latin, incorrect, sometimes even barbarous, and far removed from any classical model. But it has qualities far above purity. The best Italian Latin is but an echo and an imitation; like the painted glass which we put in our churches, it is an anachronism. Bembo, Sadoleto and the rest write purely in a dead language. Erasmus’s Latin was a living and spoken tongue. Though Erasmus had passed nearly all his life in England, France and Germany, his conversation was Latin; and the language in which he talked about common things he wrote. Hence the spontaneity and naturalness of his page, its flavour of life and not of books. He writes from himself, and not out of Cicero. Hence, too, he spoiled nothing by anxious revision in terror lest some phrase not of the golden age should escape from his pen. He confesses apologetically to Christopher Longolius (Ep. iii. 63; 402) that it was his habit to extemporize all he wrote, and that this habit was incorrigible; “effundo verius quam scribo omnia.” He complains that much reading of the works of St Jerome had spoiled his Latin; but, as Scaliger says (Scaliga 2a), “Erasmus’s language is better than St Jerome’s.” The same critic, however, thought Erasmus would have done better “if he had kept more closely to the classical models.”
In the annals of classical learning Erasmus may be regarded as constituting an intermediate stage between the humanists of the Latin Renaissance and the learned men of the age of Greek scholarship, between Angelo Poliziano and Joseph Scaliger. Erasmus, though justly styled by Muretus (Varr. Lectt. 7, 15) “eruditus sane vir, ac multae lectionis,” was not a “learned” man in the special sense of the word—not an “érudit.” He was more than this; he was the “man of letters”—the first who had appeared in Europe since the fall of the Roman empire. His acquirements were vast, and they were all brought to bear upon the life of his day. He did not make a study apart of antiquity for its own sake, but used it as an instrument of culture. He did not worship, imitate and reproduce the classics, like the Latin humanists who preceded him; he did not master them and reduce them to a special science, as did the French Hellenists who succeeded him. He edited many authors, it is true, but he had neither the means of forming a text, nor did he attempt to do so. In editing a father, or a classic, he had in view the practical utility of the general reader, not the accuracy required by the gild of scholars. “His Jerome,” says J. Scaliger, “is full of sad blunders” (Scaliga 2a). Even Julien Garnier could discover that Erasmus “falls in his haste into grievous error in his Latin version of St Basil, though his Latinity is superior to that of the other translators” (Pref. in Opp. St. Bas., 1721). It must be remembered that the commercial interests of Froben’s press led to the introduction of Erasmus’s name on many a title page when he had little to do with the book, e.g. the Latin Josephus of 1524 to which Erasmus only contributed one translation of 14 pages; or the Aristotle of 1531, of which Simon Grynaeus was the real editor. Where Erasmus excelled was in prefaces—not philological introductions to each author, but spirited appeals to the interest of the general reader, showing how an ancient book might be made to minister to modern spiritual demands.
Of Erasmus’s works the Greek Testament is the most memorable. It has no title to be considered as a work of learning or scholarship, yet its influence upon opinion was profound and durable. It contributed more to the liberation of the human mind from the thraldom of the clergy than all the uproar and rage of Luther’s many pamphlets. As an edition of the Greek Testament it has no critical value. But it was the first, and it revealed the fact that the Vulgate, the Bible of the church, was not only a second-hand document, but in places an erroneous document. A shock was thus given to the credit of the clergy in the province of literature, equal to that which was given in the province of science by the astronomical discoveries of the 17th century. Even if Erasmus had had at his disposal the MSS. subsidia for forming a text, he had not the critical skill required to use them. He had at hand a few late Basel MSS., one of which he sent straight to press, correcting them in places by collations of others which had been sent to him by Colet in England. In four reprints, 1519, 1522, 1527, 1535, Erasmus gradually weeded out many of the typographical errors of his first edition, but the text remained essentially such as he had first printed it. The Greek text indeed was only a part of his scheme. An important feature of the volume was the new Latin version, the original being placed alongside as a guarantee of the translator’s good faith. This translation, with the justificatory notes which accompanied it, though not itself a work of critical scholarship, became the starting-point of modern exegetical science. Erasmus did nothing to solve the problem, but to him belongs the honour of having first propounded it.
Besides translating and editing the New Testament, Erasmus paraphrased the whole, except the Apocalypse, between 1517 and 1524. The paraphrases were received with great applause, even by those who had little appreciation for Erasmus. In England a translation of them made in 1548 was ordered to be placed in all parish churches beside the Bible. His correspondence is perhaps the part of his works which has the most permanent value; it comprises about 3000 letters, which form an important source for the history of that period. For the same purpose his Colloquia may be consulted. They are a series of dialogues, written first for pupils in the early Paris days as formulae of polite address, but afterwards expanded into lively conversations, in which many of the topics of the day are discussed. Later in the century they were read in schools, and some of Shakespeare’s lines are direct reminiscences of Erasmus.
His complete works have been printed twice; by the Froben firm under the direction of his literary executors (9 vols., Basel, 1540); and by Leclerc at Leiden (11 vols., 1703–1706). For his life the chief contemporary sources are a Compendium vitae written by himself in 1524, and a sketch prefixed by Beatus Rhenanus to the Basel edition of 1540. Of his writings he gives an account in his Catalogus lucubrationum, composed first in January 1523 and enlarged in September 1524; and also in a letter to Hector Boece of Aberdeen, written in 1530. An elaborate bibliography, entitled Bibliotheca Erasmiana, was undertaken by the officials of the Ghent University Library; it is divided into three sections, for Erasmus’s writings, the books he edited, and the literature about him. Listes sommaires were issued in 1893; and since 1897 the completed volumes have been appearing at intervals. There is an excellent sketch of Erasmus’s life down to 1519 in F. Seebohm’s Oxford Reformers (3rd ed., 1887); and of the many biographies those by S. Knight (1726), J. Jortin (2 vols., 1758–1760) and R. B. Drummond (2 vols., 1873) may be mentioned. There are also two volumes (1901–1904) of translations by F. M. Nichols from Erasmus’s letters down to 1517, with an ample commentary which amounts almost to a biography; and an edition of the letters, in Latin, was begun by the Oxford University Press in 1906 (vol. ii., 1910). (M. P.; P. S. A.)