Possible Enemies

M.A. Screech

‘Treat a friend as a possible enemy’ – that Classical saw must have been on many sadder and wiser lips as Renaissance friends broke up into rival groups. Lefèvre d’Etaples’s Biblical studies won him the support of the French King’s sister, Margaret, and ought to have made him a natural ally of Erasmus. He was soon at Erasmus’s throat. I ‘treat Christ with contumely’, Erasmus exploded. He picked over Lefèvre’s worst insults in a letter addressed to Guillaume Budé (who had the ear of the French King): I ‘side with the Jews’! I am ‘opposed to the spirit’ and, worst of all, ‘I cling to the flesh and the literal meaning!’ Lefèvre was making Erasmus into the enemy of the Gospel, an ‘adversary’ – like the Devil. The bone of contention was Hebrews 2, 7. Does the Greek and its Hebrew source mean that Christ was made ‘a little lower than the angels’, or was he made ‘for a while, lower than God’? We have learned to live with such uncertainties. Lefèvre had not. He did, however, have the art of slinging at Erasmus precisely the insults which hurt the most, insults which, from Erasmus’s own point of view, were hopelessly wrong-headed. Erasmus’s whole ‘philosophy of Christ’ was platonically opposed to ‘Jewish’ literalness: he saw Jewish scholarship largely through the eyes of a distorted St Paul – and sought out the ‘spirit’, not the ‘letter’. His dislike of Jews at this stage in his career is an embarrassment to modern admirers, though Heiko Oberman has shown it was pretty typical of the time. His version of Gospel truth owes much to Plato and the early Fathers, seeing reality in the spirit and playing down the flesh as passing shadows.

Hardly was Budé told of Erasmus’s sense of outrage before he, too, took offence. Erasmus’s heart must have given a lurch when he saw the address on the letter: ‘From Guillaume Budé, his erstwhile friend, to Erasmus, with best wishes – and never again’. And it goes on in the same tone: ‘your ill-tempered letter’, your ‘barbed jests, double-edged and full of menace’. Budé dated it from ‘Paris, 31 October, having received your letter yesterday; bad luck to it!’ Part of the trouble was Erasmus’s failure to appreciate overtures from Francis I promising a lucrative professorship. But Erasmus and Budé made it up, more or less.

Why were Renaissance letter-writers so indiscreet? Their letters show that their message-bearers and servants were feckless, inclined to tipple or get into wrong company. When scholars were on friendly terms, it was courteous not to publish their letters to you – or yours to them – without permission, and without giving everyone a chance to correct a gaffe or tone down a remark. Budé, even when quarrelling melodramatically with Erasmus, asks him to correct an awkward bit of Latin in an earlier letter. But it was something to receive a letter from Erasmus. The temptation to print it and bask in reflected glory was real and at times irresistible. So, too, was the temptation to claim Erasmus’s support. As a student of Hebrew, Reuchlin was embroiled with the Dominicans over Pfefferkorn (a Jewish convert to Christianity who wanted to burn virtually all Jewish writings), and naturally welcomed an outspoken letter from Erasmus. He had it published. Erasmus was bitter when it appeared in print: Yet what did he expect! Reuchlin was fighting for his life, even though the humanists and the jesters were all on his side. Once a letter was penned, caution proved useless. Like letters in a detective story, those marked ‘Please Burn’ escape the flames: ‘Destroy this letter. If you want a copy, write it out yourself, but destroy my handwriting’ (No 899). And Martin Lipsius is told to seal up his letters ‘because of the servant’. One of the results of the Renaissance habit of self-conscious re-editing of letters is that the printed correspondence of friends often seems less spontaneous than the snipings of enemies: friends had time to tidy things up. But these letters are full of delightful details, not least about the messengers, their foibles and their needs. They contain real surprises too. Who would have guessed that one of the great humanist printers had shaky Latin? Erasmus’s letter of 21 October 1518, sent to ‘Master Johann Froben, the celebrated printer’ in Basle, bears the warning: ‘Get Beatus Rhenanus to read this with you, or someone else who understands Latin.’ In daily dealings with Froben, Erasmus doubtless used Schwit-zerdutsch.

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