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.

These two volumes cover the period of 8 July 1517 to 30 June 1519. In contrast with previous years, Erasmus had quite settled down for a while, spending ten months in a row at Louvain. He disliked drinking with the college fellows, though, and was running into trouble with Edward Lee, who, despite his friendship with More, was becoming one of Erasmus’s harshest critics. In 1518 Erasmus left Louvain for Basle to see his revised New Testament through the press. Illnesses, quarrels, deaths, friendships ... life went on as usual. Names central to Renaissance scholarship appear on page after page – Thomas More, Peter Giles, Martin Dorpius, Pirckheimer, Amerbach, Tunstall, Lascaris, Zazius. So do the names of people for whom Erasmus scholars feel especial warmth – Grocyn, say, or William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who put up with a great deal, for Erasmus could be difficult even with patrons. The second son of a concubinary priest, and himself a monk living irregularly, Erasmus had clearly arrived. He mattered. He was conscious of his worth – conscious, too, of the worthlessness of many others. Such a man can be often circumspect, but also surprisingly outspoken. It was Erasmus, it seems, who first sent More a copy of Luther’s theses against indulgences whilst, at the same time, denying (falsely?) that he himself had written the amusing ‘Julius exclusus’, in which the recently dead, bellicose Pope Julius II is shut out of Heaven (so he excommunicates St Peter).

Nearly a century ago J.A. Froude made Erasmus’s letters the basis of lectures to students of Renaissance history at Oxford. Europe on the verge of the Reformation was ‘an entangled period’, he warned, but those who ‘accept Erasmus as a guide will not wander far out of the way’. P.S. Allen’s edition of the Letters, and Toronto’s elegant translation of them, makes that true still. Events unroll, week by week, without the perversions of hindsight. Erasmus shows himself a good judge of character. In the 1530s many in France and England came to believe that Melanchthon alone could heal the schisms of Western Christendom. Already in 1519 Erasmus, in a letter clearly intended to be made public, refers to him as ‘that young man’ who ‘is a great favourite of mine. It would take a very grievous wrong to break off my friendship with him.’ Times were exciting. Scholarship was flourishing. Erasmus could wish he was young again. But nobody reading these letters today would be tempted to glamorise those times as the good old days. Erasmus was a keen observer who dispels illusions. This humanist dawn was no period of Christian love, of sweetly singing choirs (Erasmus loathed English Church music, anyway), or of healthy green lands in an ecologist’s dream. In his efforts to spread a scholarly Gospel, Erasmus met hostility and underwent much suffering. The Latin originals, more clearly than the translations, hint that he believed his sufferings were not unlike the trials of St Paul. He travelled, in great pain, through lands ravaged by the plague and terrorised by bandits. There are times when Erasmus can make a joke of it, as when he nearly had a spill near Louvain because of a ‘drunken driver’. But his illnesses were real enough. He was very close to death.

His accounts are circumstantial and horrifying. He had three large sores, ‘one under my hip made worse from riding’. He had a ‘lump’ on his left groin. Eventually ‘black, dead flesh’ fell away from the sores. ‘Both my surgeons maintained it was the plague, and still do. I refused to believe them.’ But Erasmus was resigned to suffer – provided that Christ did not ‘tear him away’ from his body, the Church. Erasmus was revising and printing his New Testament in a state of physical distress which would have laid most of us up in hospital. He did not let it get in the way of his life’s work: the New Testament ‘has gone quite well’. It will ‘soon be out’.

Sir Roger Mynors is fully at home with Erasmus’s Latin, just as Professor Bietenholz is on top of Erasmus scholarship. These are excellent volumes, beautifully printed, tastefully illustrated, helpfully edited. It would have been useful if departures from Allen (especially corrections of his notes) could have been asterisked, for this is an edition which libraries will buy as a complement to Allen.

But what sort of Erasmus will the Latinless find in these volumes? At this point worries arise. The authentic Erasmus does not always transplant well into English. Readers will find an Erasmus who is, on at least one occasion, oddly Shakespearian, as when his exclamation ‘Inania verba’ is rendered by ‘words, words, words’. His Latin sometimes gives rise to one set of pictures, the English to quite another. In English he can sometimes sound like an avuncular schoolmaster: ‘Your feelings towards me, my dear boy, are gladly and gratefully received’ (not only has the pietas of the original somehow been lost but also the tenderness: ‘charissime fili; lubens amplector’). Erasmus can even be made to dither, like Miss Marple (‘Dear me, I had almost forgotten something, by no means to be overlooked’); or he can sound like a hearty in a Senior Common Room, or at Cumberland Lodge under Walter Moberley (‘First of all, my dear Bullock ...’). Modernising or ‘vulgarising’ proper names creates oddities: ‘Our Dirk’ is hard to accept for Theodoricus (Martens). But this is an insoluble problem. The Latinless reader should be warned, however, that the Irish-sounding piety of some of the renderings is quite foreign to Erasmus’s own style: ‘Holy Father’, for ‘Summus Pontifex’ or ‘Father’ John Fisher for ‘R.P. Johannes Phischerius’. Foreign, too, is the Anglican ring of ‘My Lord Bishop’ (for ‘Reverendissime Praesul’). Saddest of all, that syncretism which led pious Renaissance Christians to apply to God the revered titles of Antiquity disappears without a trace. ‘Christ our Saviour’ really is desperately far from ‘Christus Opt. Max’. Perhaps readers should be invited to reflect on Jupiter Optimus Maximus (the original title) and on the D.O.M. (Deus Optimus Maximus) on bottles of Benedictine.

The major aspect of Erasmus’s style and form of mind which is not strongly represented in these varied letters is his amused Lucianism. Lucian of Samosata taught Erasmus to laugh in a new way. Erasmus, More and Melanchthon translated Lucian into Latin. So did Rabelais. Lucianesque fun, somewhat diluted, adds sparkle and freshness to a little book which deserves to be more widely known, the anonymous Disciple de Pantagruel. There is not a great deal of ordinary, unpretentious everyday reading from the 1540s or 1550s which is available to be read today. This edition by Professor Demerson and Dr Lauvergnat-Gagnière – a model of discreet and exact scholarship – traces the rare extant copies, gives the variants, and supplies a sensitive introduction linking the Disciple and its crazy ‘true history’ of journeys to unknown islands with myth, popular culture and the land of Cockayne. The Disciple de Pantagruel was seized upon by Rabelais, who put it to good use in his Quart Livre. It plays the role of an Ur-Hamlet to Rabelais’s longest Chronicle. But it is worth reading for itself, in this faultless edition.

Even the authentic Rabelais at the height of his power turned to Erasmus for information about self-love, Carnival bugaboos, Love as the child of Want and Plenty, and about Signor Belly as the driving force behind the inventing of all the arts and sciences known to Man. The Adages of Erasmus was one of the key books of the Renaissance. The title of Volume XXXI of Toronto’s Collected Works of Erasmus – the first volume of the Adages – must rank as one of the most austere since André Tiraqueau’s best-selling L. Si unquam of 1534. Erasmus groups his proverbs by hundreds and by thousands: this volume gives us the first five hundred, with some 3650 still to come. Like many Renaissance books, the Adages grew with their author. They form a collection of sayings, proverbs and gnomic utterances partly gathered in the course of a lifetime’s reading, partly taken from earlier collections, such as those of Diogenianus, Suidas or ‘Zenodotus’. These were helped out by the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, Plutarch, and, amongst the moderns, by the Italian humanists Politian, Ermolao Barbaro and Valla. A compendium such as the Adages could so easily have been a bore or merely a crib. By the time we reach the fullest versions in 1533 and 1536 it had become a bedside book for authors and readers alike. Its charm lies in the explanations. They range from a line or two clearing up a minor obscurity to major essays on history, morals, politics or religion – most of these are still to come. Erasmus’s magic is seen in all of them: his wit, his elegance, his bursts of satire alternating with seriousness.

The first readers often enjoyed them for the insights they gave into authors still hard to put your hands on – Plutarch, for example – or else for the impression they give of bottomless erudition. The Alexandra of Lycophron of Chalcis passes for the most obscure work written in Greek. Erasmus cited it from a manuscript several years before it appeared in print. The Adages also acted as an encyclopedia. ‘To bear the palm’ may not be much of an adage: for Erasmus it was a peg on which to hang a lot of interesting details about what the Ancients believed or did. Anyone with the Adages in his workroom can give the impression of knowing poets by the dozen and jurisconsults, moralists, philosophers and sages by the score. It helped to educate an entire culture by showing it some of its living roots. Erasmus was touchy about his book, writing harsh words about the alleged plagiarism he found in the Ancient Readings of Coelius Rhodiginus. (He softened his remarks after Rhodiginus’s death.) Erasmus venerated Ancient sayings. Solomon wrote adages; Christ used them – he gives as an example: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ With such sayings Christ brought the Jewish and Greek worlds closer together: both judge a tree ‘by its fruit’; and Christ, like Pittacus, one of the Seven Sages, taught truth by means of proverbs about children playing in marketplaces. It mattered to Erasmus that Christians should know Classical wisdom as well as Jewish Law. Both, for him, were ‘schoolmasters’, teaching men morals and so preparing them for Christ. A ‘proper’ understanding of the Ancient sayings could help bring this about. Adages added elegance to what you said and wrote; they were pleasing helps in the task of persuading and dissuading; but they were much more than that.

Erasmus’s introductory pages show how he saw both the adage and his own book as gateways to wisdom. To an age which revered the Ancients he proclaimed that ‘no form of teaching is older than the proverb.’ For him, as for the followers of Pythagoras, these sayings could be ‘symbols’ in which ‘almost all the philosophy of the Ancients was contained’. They must be treated with respect even when they seem trivial. They may be riddles or enigmas, like that famous injunction of Pythagoras ‘to abstain from beans’. Why, beans may contain the spirits of the dead, they may provoke flatulence, disturbing our tranquillity of mind; they resemble men’s private parts and, amongst other things, teach us to abstain from bribery in elections. Viewed this way, proverbs may be hieroglyphs – a form, that is, of ‘sacred writing’, with deeper layers of hidden meanings.

It is tempting to go through this volume picking out those sayings which have been transplanted into English: ‘To be afraid of one’s own shadow’, or ‘I would not turn a hand’ or ‘raise a finger’. One could wish that more had been taken seriously by those who used to teach us and feed us: ‘You are flogging a dead body,’ for example, or ‘Twice-served cabbage is death.’ On the other hand, in an age of granny-bashing it is nice to think that not many hooligans are chanting ‘Place qux jeitnes’ with cries about ‘throwing sexagenarians off bridges’. The vast majority of the sayings in this volume remain stubbornly Classical, however widely they were used by Renaissance writers. That is why the Adages are still almost as indispensable in English as they were in the original. They can help us moderns to read some of our best authors with deeper appreciation, bringing home to the Latinless the wealth of associations which lie behind, say, Ulysses’s longing to see his smokey chimney or the guffaws which might greet glancing allusions to anyone ‘arriving at Corinth’. We can learn who – or what – that Caecias is who attracts clouds or why we should keep watch on Naupactus. Apparently timeless sayings such as ‘to reach harbour’ need explanations as much as puzzling allusions to Parnieno’s pig or to owls in Athens.

Not every Renaissance author took all his adages from the thousands of Erasmus, but many took most. If proof is needed of the influence of the Adages, we can reflect, with the help of the Panofskys’ book on Pandora, that all Europe talks of her ‘box’ because Erasmus slipped up over a word meaning ‘pottery jar’.

The translation – an excellent one – is the work of Dr Margaret Mann Phillips (whose first book on the Adages appeared some twenty years ago and was received with enthusiasm). Help with the translation is given by an impressive team. The only slight regret is that the translation of the proverbs themselves is not always literal. Even when translated word for word (as in ‘by night and day’ or ‘with every sinew’), they sometimes slip by in our reading without being noticed. A Renaissance author may translate equally literally adages like post mala prudentior (more wise after bad things) – we may not recognise this one from the snappier version: ‘sadder and Wiser’. But the Latin and Greek is always given as well and so the loss is mostly a minor one and it is compensated for by accuracy and readability. As well as helping us to appreciate other writers, this volume is a useful companion to Erasmus’s other writings: it was more than a joke when, in the Praise of Folly, he mocked the Biblical scholar Nicholas of Lyra as an ‘ass at the lyre’. The adages in English are accompanied by concise notes by Sir Roger Mynors. They will make this volume a must, even for those who can rely on the originals (which have yet to be edited). We have to await Volume XXX, though – yes, this is XXXI – for the full critical apparatus.

Once picked up this book isn’t easy to put down. If we do not ‘stumble on the threshold’ like a ‘gelding at the gate’, we shall ‘be in heaven’ with many ‘an Ionian laugh’ at those who ‘make water in a chamber-pot’, or who can only ‘paint cypresses’, running ‘to and fro’ or ‘up and down’ like ‘the ass that poked his head in’.

This book would even ‘satisfy Momus’, the proverbial carper; it can teach us ‘to adopt the outlook of the polyp’, by adapting to circumstances. It is not cheap and so will have ‘to take the Market as it finds it’: but then it is ‘adorned according to its virtues’. As Hesiod said – and Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, Plutarch, Lucian, Ausonius and so on also – ‘Well begun is half done.’