Midwinter

J.B. Trapp

  • Thomas More: History and Providence by Alistair Fox
    Blackwell, 271 pp, £19.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 631 13094 2
  • The Statesman and the Fanatic: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More by Jasper Ridley
    Constable, 338 pp, £12.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 09 463470 X
  • English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition by John King
    Princeton, 539 pp, £30.70, December 1982, ISBN 0 691 06502 0
  • Seven-Headed Luther: Essays in Commemoration of a Quincentenary, 1483-1983 edited by Peter Newman Brooks
    Oxford, 325 pp, £22.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 19 826648 0
  • The Complete Works of St Thomas More. Vol. VI: A Dialogue concerning Heresies. Part 1: The Text, Part 2: Introduction, Commentary, Appendices, Glossary, Index edited by T.M.C. Lawler, Germain Marc’hadour and Richard Marius
    Yale, 435 pp, £76.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 300 02211 5

In July 1519 the rackety Franconian knight, poet laureate and satirist Ulrich von Hutten received a long letter from Erasmus of Rotterdam, still at that time his friend. What sort of man, he had asked Erasmus, was this kindred poetic spirit Thomas More, fellow-condemner of court life and author of the diverting Utopia, as well as admirably an admirer of Hutten’s own satire on monkish blankness and obscurantism, Letters from Nonentities (Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum)? Erasmus’s reply did for More what he had already done for some and was still to do for others of his English friends: it presented him to the learned Europe of his day. Erasmus’s share in the fashioning of his contemporaries’ – and of our – picture of the Henrician Renaissance is incalculably large. Mountjoy, his patron, might write to summon him to England, where the heavens were smiling and the earth jumping for joy, but it was Erasmus who made sure that Mountjoy’s letter was published, so that the world should know, not only that England was golden with the accession of Henry VIII, but also that Erasmus had been summoned. His lofty earlier debates on the Agony in the Garden and Cain and Abel with his friend John Colet would have remained unknown – Colet was not one to rush into print – if Erasmus had not written them up and got them into circulation. If Colet’s new St Paul’s School was known abroad, it was Erasmus’s doing. Even Jean Vitrier, coming to England specially to meet Colet because of his moral earnestness and piety, had been told about Colet by Erasmus. Without all this, and without the moving assessment of his benefactor that Erasmus wrote in 1521, Colet’s reputation would have been almost entirely local.

More’s situation was, and is, different, though he too owes much to Erasmus. For one thing, Colet had already been dead two years when Erasmus wrote about him, and only one of his works – his Latin ‘reform’ sermon to Convocation in 1512 – would have been accessible to European readers. Erasmus was erecting a memorial. More was already in mid-career, well-known in polite circles from his diplomatic missions, from his Latin epigrams, his Latin translations of Lucian of Samosata, and, in particular, from his Utopia. Even so, it had been Erasmus who had given him letters to friends such as Peter Giles, dedicatee of Utopia, in Antwerp and it was Erasmus who saw to the publication of Lucian, the epigrams and Utopia, bustling about to secure commendatory letters and so enhance them. Erasmus also coined and disseminated the description ‘a man for all seasons’ for More, in the prefatory letter to The Praise of Folly (1511), which is addressed to More. A good part of More’s fame, too, was the result of his intervention on the side of Erasmus in the Latin debates which followed the Folly and especially concerned themselves with Erasmus’s new Greek Testament and his Latin translation of 1516, which had been judged offensive to faith and to morals.

By the date of the letter to Hutten Erasmus and More had not seen each other for a couple of years, and More had become a serving Humanist. Rather to Erasmus’s disappointment, he had taken the first step on the road to the highest secular office in England under the King’s, and to a death in 1535 which resounded throughout Catholic Europe far more loudly than would Erasmus’s a year later. Even More’s death Erasmus helped to further fame, with another celebrated letter.

Erasmus’s More, at a year or two over forty, is healthy and presentable, if a little clumsy in movement, as open and pleasant in address as in nature. His tastes are as simple as his Utopians’; he is unpompous, unfussy about dress, eats and drinks little, and none of that sweet. Curious about all the manifestations of Nature, he prefers to the mindless pastimes of men such as cards and dice the innocent pleasures and recreations that are enjoyed by his Utopians: wit, paradox, satire, intelligence. His mind is independent, his generosity great. Though much attracted to the ancient authors, he had to give up the life of study for the illiberal profession of the law. Hankering after the religious life, he had to realise that his vocation was not a true one, and, again taking the second best, he married – preferring wedded restraint to religious celibacy. He became the model paterfamilias, ruling his family gently but firmly, teaching them all to love virtue and learning. Everybody’s advocate and a model judge, he is a splendid public servant, at home and abroad. Colet used to call him England’s only genius. As clever as he is good, More is a living refutation of the belief that true Christians are to be found only in monasteries.

Erasmus’s More, pictured as dragged to Henry’s court and moving unwillingly from the world of study and writing to the world of politics and affairs, is a Utopian literary construct. It is now clear that More was not averse to advancement: he was a realist and he had a young family, as well as others, to support. A little earlier than the time that Erasmus was writing, he had already put into words the Tudor image of a villainous Richard III. Though this was not printed either in English or in Latin until after his death, the work may once have beep intended as an aid to the consolidation of the dynasty into whose service he had entered. Here was one kind of political activity, besides the day-to-day work of a City legal official and member of the King’s Council. Within a couple of years he was to be plunged into another – religious controversy. Politics and religion, in that age, neither can or should be separated, but the religious element – since it often offers aspects that are repellent to modern liberal notions and to modern literary tastes, and involves ideas and their history – has been less popular with English historians and critics. R.W. Chambers, for instance, author of what is still the best general book on More, gets over the religious-controversial works in a few pages.

If modern scholars can thus avoid the matter, More could not. He was soon scurrying along behind his king to tidy up the royal refutation of Luther, the Assertion of the Seven Sacraments, and so to help Henry win the Papal title of Defender of the Faith. Two years later, in 1523, he was himself thwacking away at Luther, retorting upon Luther’s retort to Henry. Erasmus warned him, and those who had arranged the public burning of Luther’s books in 1521, that there was no short way to pluck Luther’s protest from men’s minds. That could only be done when men reformed themselves to do their duty to God, to neighbour and to self. More’s arguments, heavily salted with abuse after the manner of the time, are couched in Latin, so as to contain the dispute among those who could read that language:

‘Quid respondet frater, pater, potator?’ What answer from this crapulous father friar, dead drunk, senseless, stupefied? When he comes to, will he manage to spew up a riposte? He has been helped by his cronies, who have collected obscenities from carters and drivers, insolence from servants, lewdnesses from porters, jeers from spongers, come-ons from whores, indecencies from ponces, filth from bath-house-keepers, obscenities from shithouse walls. The gleanings from months of search – railing, brawling, scurrility, indecency, obscurity, dirt, muck, sewage, shit – are recycled through the sewer of Luther’s heart and mind ...

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