The Miller’s Tale

J.B. Trapp

  • Erasmus: His Life, Work and Influence by Cornelis Augustijn, translated by J.C. Grayson
    Toronto, 239 pp, £16.25, February 1991, ISBN 0 8020 5864 7
  • Erasmus: A Critical Biography by Léon-E. Halkin, translated by John Tonkin
    Blackwell, 360 pp, £45.00, December 1992, ISBN 0 631 16929 6
  • Erasmus, Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma in Print by Lisa Jardine
    Princeton, 278 pp, £19.95, June 1993, ISBN 0 691 05700 1

A Swiss Reformation woodcut shows a mill being brought back into use under the eye of God the Father. Christ is emptying St John’s eagle out of a sack into a hopper to join St Matthew’s angel, St Mark’s lion, St Luke’s ox and St Paul with his sword. They are ground into the pure flour of hope, faith and love, scooped up and bagged by Erasmus the miller under the supervision of the dove of the Holy Ghost and handed on to Luther the baker, bent over his kneading tub. The Church hierarchy refuse the product. Behind looms a peasant with his flail, while a dragon shrieks excommunication.

This graphic statement of the conflict between the Reformers’ view of the scriptural message, perspicuous and available, and of the Church which had so long conspired to with-hold or distort it, uses the Church’s own imagery. The dragon is the dragon of the Apocalypse, taken over by the Reformers, like the Whore of Babylon herself, to signify the Catholic side. The Gospel mill derives from an image in which the evangelists are ground into the Eucharist, to be administered by the priest.

When the woodcut was made, in 1521, the Reformation could still claim Desiderius Erasmus as a supporter. At something over fifty, he had published a version, at least, of everything by which he is best known, including The Praise of Folly and his edition of the New Testament. He was the most famous scholar in Europe, his influence already powerful in learned and pious circles everywhere. He had, certainly, a good share of scholar’s vanity, and was not inclined to underplay his achievement, his disagreements with conventional churchmen, his acquaintance with important people or the advice he had given to princes and prelates. This was not unjustified, however. As the woodcut implies, he had produced the first great document of Biblical or evangelical humanism, following in the footsteps of the Italian, Lorenzo Valla, in applying the critical methods of Renaissance Classical scholarship to sacred texts. His edition of the New Testament in the original Greek in 1516, with a parallel Latin translation, and annotations, was the first such text to be published. Aimed at recovering the pristine sense of the prime document of Christianity, it was Luther’s mainstay for his German translation of 1521. By that year, Luther had revealed himself as a much more formidable critic of the state of the Church, among other things in his realisation of the power of the vernacular. All Erasmus’s writings were in Latin. In 1521, Luther’s books were publicly burned as heretical. Erasmus was moved to protest: you could, he warned the Church, make bonfires of books, or even of men, but this was no cure for your own corruption. Later, Luther and Erasmus fell out over free-will and predestination, and the need to stand up and be counted, Erasmus disliking Luther’s aggressive individualism as much as Luther despised Erasmus’s evasiveness and – as he saw it – impiety.

For the moment, though, they were agreed. Erasmus was reasonably prosperous and fairly content, though bothered by the Louvain theologians. He was back in the Netherlands and comfortable at Anderlecht, near Brussels, where his house can still be visited. That year he left it for Basel and the better working conditions of association with Johann Froben, his printer from 1513 to his death, and the Basel learned circle. He stayed in Basel until driven out in 1529 by Reformation excess; he returned in 1535, to die the following year.

In what Erasmus wrote against Luther and such disciples as Ulrich von Hutten, there is a great deal of offensive language, reflecting his horror of violence and separatism. By and large, however, he was the soft man, and a better judge of how the Reformation might be guided and so contained than More, the hard man, whose solution was to crush it. Erasmus, if heeded, might have saved Europe from the confessional and secular brutalities of which 16th-century history is the sad record.

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