James McConica

James McConica is a fellow of All Soul’s College, Oxford. He is the author of English Humanists and Reformation Politics.

What mattered to Erasmus

James McConica, 2 March 1989

Erasmus’s edition of the New Testament, which made the Greek text available in print for the first time, is remembered as his most important achievement. This is partly because his profound influence in another sphere, that of education and Christian piety, became virtually invisible by its general absorption into the mainstream of European thought: the presence of his Adagia throughout the works of Shakespeare is an example. Nevertheless, the symbolic importance of the Novum lnstrumentum in defining the impact of Christian Humanism on the intellectual culture of the day is matched by that of no other single work, including his own Praise of Folly. The fact that the editio princeps of 1516 became notorious for its errors, that its very status as an ‘edition’ was unclear even to his contemporaries, and that its own absorption into the textus receptus of Biblical scholarship contributed to a legacy of critical problems that were not unravelled until the advent of ‘higher criticism’ in the 19th century – all of these serious qualifications notwithstanding, where the name of Erasmus is remembered, it is remembered first for the printing of the New Testament in Greek.’


James McConica, 21 January 1982

Scotland in the century of the Reformation was a fully enfranchised province in the republic of letters. Despite its geographical remoteness, and in part because of it, it sent its more ambitious and industrious sons almost everywhere abroad to study. The three universities of medieval foundation were essentially undergraduate colleges, but, as John Durkan has shown, Scots as students and teachers had roamed abroad since the 15th century to the higher faculties of the Northern universities – some to England, but far more to the Continent. While they were to be found in significant numbers from Louvain to Vienna, most of them went to Paris, and it was in the Paris of the 16th century that three of European reputation whose careers were also intertwined were chiefly trained: Hector Boece, John Mair or Major, and Major’s most famous pupil, George Buchanan. If the pitch and intonation of Scottish intellectual life have always seemed somewhat alien to English ears, the influence of these Continental schools must not be forgotten in accounting for it.

A Foolish Christ

James McConica, 20 November 1980

Erasmus is the Reformation’s orphan. Illegitimate at birth and deprived of his parents as a boy, his origins seem in retrospect oddly prophetic of his fate. He was passionately concerned about the faith and enlightenment of Europe, but quite unable to give unqualified assent to any of the rival orthodoxies which the civil war in Christendom had spawned. Before the time of Luther, he was the most widely read and persuasive critic of the Church that he wanted – like Luther – to reform, but Luther found him equivocal and faint-hearted. To the end of his life he was stubbornly loyal to Catholic unity, but he suffered the posthumous excommunication of having all his works placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. He lived away from his native Holland and found his most lasting domicile with the Froben press, but his true homeland was the one he constructed with his pen through his vast correspondence, his tireless publication of the sources of Christian faith, and the alluring warmth of his intimate, lucid and insinuating style. In the centuries that followed, it is not surprising that the professional defenders of religion have been slow to claim him as their own, nor that his general reputation has been that of the dauntingly witty, erudite and corrosive critic of official belief. For his irenic and rational faith, however, he has received the steady devotion of such as Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, who regarded him as one ‘who thought himself no Martyr, yet one who may passe for a Confessor, having suffered, and long by the Bigotts of both Parties’.

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