J.B. Trapp

J.B. Trapp is Director of the Warburg Institute of the University of London. His book, The Apology of Sir Thomas More, was published in 1978.

The Miller’s Tale

J.B. Trapp, 4 November 1993

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.

Homage to Tyndale

J.B. Trapp, 17 December 1992

The woodcut below by Hans Holbein the Younger, made some time before 1526, shows clearly and succinctly what the Reformation – as far as its religious aspects can be disentangled from its political – was all about. Christ is offering to an eagerly approaching group of wide-eyed laymen of all degrees, particularly lowly degrees, the pure, clear light of the New Testament, beaming from a candle on a candle-stick round whose column cluster St Paul and St Peter, and whose base is supported by the symbols of the Evangelists. Groping their purblind way from the light, their backs turned to it, towards a pit, is a group of scholars and dignitaries, chiefly churchmen, headed by the Pope. Aristotle, the scholastics’ darling, is tumbling into the pit to join Plato, his pagan philosophical predecessor. The lesson is clear: Scripture and Scripture only is what counts. All things necessary for salvation are contained in it, accessible to all who approach it, through Christ, with humility, faith and love. No need for the interpretations of the ages, the tradition of the Church and its doctors, who are all part of a great conspiracy to keep the word of God from the laity and to exalt their own honour.’


J.B. Trapp, 17 November 1983

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.–

English Protestantism

J.B. Trapp, 4 September 1980

Towards the end of 1533, Sir Thomas More turned to write the last of his harsh rejoinders to a pamphlet attack, printed abroad, on the Catholic doctrine of the eucharist. He did not know who the author was, though he guessed it to be his fierce old adversary William Tyndale, or perhaps George Joye, Tyndale’s former friend and collaborator, now his mortal enemy. More’s title leaves no doubt about his position: The Answer to the first Part of a poisoned Book which a nameless Heretic hath named The Supper of the Lord. Published a bare three months before he was imprisoned in the Tower on 17 April 1534, it is his last work of religious controversy and shows – as well it might – signs of weariness. It was written by a man troubled with ‘a certain sickly disposition of his breast’, in reply to a defence against More’s retort to an earlier tract by John Frith.

Your contributor, Wendy Steiner, is two Directors out. It was not Anthony Blunt, the third Director of the Courtauld Institute, but W.G. Constable, the first, who was one of those instrumental in bringing the Warburg Institute to London in 1933. For the record, and in gratitude, Constable’s colleagues in the rescue were C.S. Gibson and Sir E. Denison Ross, together with the committee they got together...

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