What mattered to Erasmus

James McConica

  • Erasmus’s Annotations on the New Testament. The Gospels: Facsimile of the final Latin text with all earlier variants edited by Anne Reeve
    Duckworth, 284 pp, £35.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 7156 1990 X
  • Erasmus’s Annotations on the New Testament: From Philologist to Theologian by Erika Rummel
    Toronto, 234 pp, £24.50, January 1987, ISBN 0 8020 5683 0
  • A New Rabelais Bibliography: Editions of Rabelais before 1626 by Stephen Rawles and M.A. Screech
    Droz, 691 pp
  • The Library of Robert Burton by Nicholas Kiessling
    Oxford Bibliographic Society, 433 pp, £25.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 901420 42 5

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.

A new generation of scholars has given us, for the first time, a proper understanding of the curious inception of this famous work, and of its true nature. It is now clear that the printing of the Greek text was – in the strict sense – the last thing that mattered. However, attention to it as an editio princeps has diverted attention away from the two other components of the Novum lnstrumentum, a new Latin version of the Bible by Erasmus revising the Vulgate, and an assembly of notes or annotations. In the standard Leiden edition (1703-6) these are printed as if they were intended to be footnotes to the Greek and Latin texts. They were not footnotes, but an independent work which is actually an extended commentary on the Vulgate textus receptus of the day. Thanks to the critical scholarship of Andrew Brown, we have known also since 1985 that Erasmus’s Latin text was not begun in 1505-6 under inspiration from Valla, as was long thought, but composed, as he claimed, under considerable pressure of time during his stay in Basel. Of the three elements contained in the Novum lnstrumentum then – the Greek text, the Latin translation, and the Annotationes – only the last was the product of a long and painstaking scholarly enterprise. At the same time, Erasmus’s annotations provided the firm foundation for his critical revision of the Vulgate, and explain why he was able to produce that text so swiftly.

In the successive editions of Erasmus’s Annotationes we find the history of his personal study of the New Testament, a study which no doubt began during his initial editorial work on the letters of St Jerome. His quest for the ‘very face’ of Jesus in the Greek text was spurred on by his discovery of Valla’s annotations in 1504, as it was disciplined and enriched by his autodidactic efforts on the epistles of St Paul, some of which lost endeavour may survive as a residue in the Annotationes. Throughout this time, while he was becoming familiar with the Greek text underlying the received Latin version, his aim was not to edit the Greek, but to revise the familiar Vulgate. He compared the Vulgate, not only with the Greek manuscripts he encountered in his travels, but with citations to be found in the Fathers, early exegetes, and commentators on both the Greek and early Latin versions. He could not have been in the least unaware of the significance of a printed text in Greek, but it is unmistakably clear that the decision to include it was made more or less at the last, certainly with the full support of his publisher, Johann Froben, who may well have sponsored the idea.

Four hundred and fifty years later, the Greek text and Latin translation have been relegated alike to the archives of humanist scholarship. What matters still to us is what mattered first to Erasmus – his annotations. The edition of 1516, with all of its flaws, was only the beginning. Before his death, partly in response to attacks and criticism, Erasmus completed four major revisions, beginning almost as the work came off the press. His revisions contained replies to his critics, knowledge newly gained from further manuscript study, and, as his irrepressible desire to communicate with his readers took charge, his reflections on a variety of topics engendered by the momentous doings of his day.

The edition of the Annotationes by Anne Reeve, of which the present volume on the gospels is the first of a projected three, is thus of great importance for our understanding not only of Erasmus’s developing views about the New Testament but about most things that mattered to him. It is a work of great ingenuity and devotion, a facsimile of the 1535 edition from which the earlier versions may be reconstructed by use of intertextual and marginal sigla and annotations, with the assistance of an elegant summary key attached by a ribbon as a vade-mecum. If it is not an easy read, it goes far, nevertheless, to solve a difficulty which for long paralysed the editors of the new Amsterdam Opera Omnia, and makes available to scholars for the first time the chronological history of Erasmus’s text. Before now, this could be gleaned only from a painstaking accumulation of information from the various editions, which exist together only in the Bodleian Library. As a result, few scholars have ventured into this crucial text unless they were addressing some particular problem, and its real importance has passed almost unnoticed until recently. Anne Reeve’s edition has made this long unvisited heartland of Erasmus’s religious thought accessible now within the personal library of the individual scholar.

The book is not without its problems. There is the awkward fact that Erasmus’s cue phrases introducing each of the annotations are taken from the Vulgate text and not from his own Latin version, so that the reader must consult his text to discover his solution. The pages of the publisher’s production are reduced to a point which makes the availability of a reading-glass almost a necessity, and Anne Reeve’s task would have been made much easier if colour coding had been available to her – but here we no doubt ask too much of her publisher. One must wonder, however, what urgency denied M.A. Screech the opportunity for a complete revision of his graceful and informative introduction.[*]

Erika Rummel’s book is an account of the background to Erasmus’s great enterprise, of its inception and execution, his sources and authorities, and of the later history of his texts: additions, revisions and retractions. It takes into account all of the most recent scholarship, and is an invaluable addition to this discussion. In her introduction, Dr Rummel quotes a telling remark made by Erasmus to one of his conservative critics: ‘Theology, the queen of the sciences, will not be offended if some share is claimed in her ... by her humble attendant, Grammar.’ Few of his critics, then or today, have seen the real import of that remark, or known of the discipline that lay behind it. This study, however, begins properly with Erasmus’s early education and love of literature, a formation which set him at odds with the systematic theology of his day, and was responsible for his devotion both to St Jerome and to the early sources of the Christian heritage. The history of that devotion is recorded in his Annotationes, the centrepiece of his original proposal to Froben. They serve as a lasting memorial to his perseverance, intellectual mastery, and imperturbable confidence in his own mission, described by Dr Rummel as that of ‘an enthusiastic philologist but a reluctant theologian’. He paid a heavy personal price for his efforts on both fronts, but his achievement is one of the great monuments in the spiritual and intellectual history of the West.

One matter of general interest is the evidence supplied by the annotations about Erasmus’s method of selecting preferred readings. His eye for the authentic is famous among classical scholars, and his success in detecting false coinage, and pseudonymous works is frequently vindicated in modern critical editions of authors, like Jerome, who were first set in order by Erasmus. Study of the Annotationes shows irrefutable evidence of critical principles notionally first applied in the 18th century, and puts to rest the fable that Erasmus was innocent of the relative worth of the various manuscripts with which he came into contact. Rummel finds much reason to argue that Erasmus was deeply interested in the history of textual errors and in providing explanations for them. When he could not explain variants as scribal blunders or deliberate corruptions, he would turn to patristic commentators, early paraphrases or quotations to get behind ambiguous manuscript evidence. Beyond such technique there was his sense of language itself, and his superb command of grammar.

Rummel stresses the strongly didactic character of the annotations: Erasmus the pedagogue is much in evidence throughout, shepherding his readers through difficulties, and protecting their sensibilities on occasion by retention of linguistic conventions associated with the Vulgate tradition. Behind this conservatism Rummel rightly discerns Erasmus’s wish (at least, one might add, in matters indifferent) to distinguish himself from the Ciceronians, whose ‘reform’ of traditional Christian vocabulary he found both pompous and self-defeating. At the same time, he was not comfortable with un-classical usage, and would argue that, if it was possible for the translator of the Bible to correct alien forms with acceptable Latin on some occasions, it ought to be possible to do so thoughout the sacred text. The argument for preparing his own version is thus quite clear in the annotations. What is more curious is his apparent belief that the occasionally dramatic corrections to the Vulgate published by him could be kept within the scholarly study, and somehow concealed from the knowledge of the generality: where Jerome had introduced a wholly new text to the Church, he argued, he was merely introducing amendments into private rooms and studies.

Here we are confronted with a familiar dilemma: is this Erasmian irony and evasion, or is it a genuine miscalculation, on his part, about the ultimate impact of the printed book on the general culture of Christendom? This reviewer is inclined to the second explanation, since there is little real evidence in the vast body of Erasmus’s surviving work that he appreciated the impact Humanistic learning would make on the unlettered – in the contemporary use of that term. His concern about popular piety, his sympathy with the simple folk who were oppressed by princely and clerical tyranny in their various forms, has often blinded his advocates to the coterie outlook displayed by Erasmus within his personal domain. Perhaps that is nowhere more evident than in his rage and indignation at Luther’s violation of the conventions of academic religion. Erasmus’s personal reform programme would have had a better chance of success in a world entirely dominated by high-minded Wykehamist clerics, and he was sorely tried when the realities of a popular religious movement were finally borne in upon him.

It was a triumphant vernacular culture, of which Luther’s Bible was the manifesto, that demolished the intimate world of the international Latinate élite of humanist Europe. The scholarly career of Michael Screech is of itself commentary on that momentous intellectual revolution, since it was Screech’s devotion to the achievement of Rabelais that led him into the world of Erasmus, from whom Rabelais, like Cervantes, took his inspiration. The most recent addition to Etudes Rabelaisiennes, number 219 in the Travaux d’Humanisme et Renaissance from Droz, is a fitting capstone to the modern study of Rabelais, to which Screech has made such a signal contribution. It is also an exposé of the popular impact of vernacular Humanism. The bibliography lists every copy of every known work of Rabelais, and of every work edited by him, printed or dated before 1626, which the compilers have been able to trace in some twenty years of study. One hundred and forty-eight editions are described, of which the ‘overwhelming majority’ were published anonymously or pseudonymously, a sufficient commentary on the early reputation of the author, and a measure of the task before Rawles, Screech and their many collaborators, who are generously acknowledged.

For those in need of it, this bibliography is a seminar on the importance of close, bibliographical study of particular copies and successive editions of the works of the chief authors of the Renaissance. The locations supplied here will help inquirers to verify the truth of this assertion for themselves. Titles are reproduced as illustrations, rather than through the laborious and highly technical typographical coding used in most scientific bibliographies: this is surely an advance, making use of the possibilities of photographic reproduction which allows of no ambiguity. Contents are noted in detail: typography and collation are fully described, and space is provided through Notes and Remarks for additional comment not dealt with elsewhere. Two preliminary chapters, on Collations and Bottles, and on Shibboleths, explain the criteria used to place the later editions in chronological order, and to identify the text or texts used as copy for them. Voluminous as is the material found here, and rich with illustration, the clarity of exposition and organisation make the work accessible to the scholar unsophisticated in the arcana of modern bibliographical science, and opens to generalist and specialist alike a window on the world of early printing, on the vagaries of fortune and mutability which dogged the history of Rabelais’s texts (like those of other controversial writers of the time), and, through the remarks on ownership, on the cultural history of Europe up to the Second World War.

The world of Erasmian Humanism survived his death by perhaps two generations, although his influence is with us yet. If the growth of vernacular literature was one subversion, another was the sheer weight of text expanding by leaps and bounds with every decade. The methods of the grammarian could not cope, and the later 16th century is marked by the search for a new principle in the organisation of knowledge. One result was the long Nachleben of Aristotle, another was the search for a wholly new method associated with the name of Pierre de la Ramée. The advent of the vernacular and the crisis in method together ensured the death of the neo-Latin world of Erasmus, ushering in that of Bacon and Grotius.

In the twilight of the age of Erasmus, Robert Burton, ‘that fantastic great old man’, came of age at Oxford, a representative figure of Erasmian Humanism at its apogee. Most of his library is still to be found there as he wished, divided between the Bodleian Library, and Christ Church, where Burton was himself for a time Librarian. Together, the two repositories contain the majority of his printed books, 1530 in all, the second largest undispersed private collection in England dating from before the Civil War. Only the library of Lord Lumley (some 2800 books variously located in the British Library) is larger.

Burton’s library was assembled from 1594 to his death in 1640. It was a working library, where expensive folios are rare. In his earlier, less affluent years, many were purchased ‘at seconde hande’, and many of those had belonged to fellows of Oxford colleges: some 250 volumes contain the names of their former owners as well as his own. He entered the prices in 242 books; in over a hundred of these he added the date of purchase. An Appendix to Kiessling’s new catalogue, which supersedes that of Strickland Gibson and F.R.D. Needham (1926), lists these former owners, along with others subsequently associated with Burton’s books. The introduction and description are admirably done.

To historians, the peculiarly interesting thing about Burton’s library is not simply its size and range, but its focus upon Burton’s own contemporaries. He was interested, not in the antique, but in what was modern, including much that was ephemeral and which survives in many cases only because Burton’s copy still exists. Kiessling points out in his introduction that the ex dono volumes in particular make it possible to identify Burton’s circle of scholarly friends, among whom Thomas Hobbes was the most famous. Many others were famous in the history of early Oxford science: Henry Briggs, Thomas Lydyat, John Napier, Edmund Gunter. Almost three quarters of his collection, in fact, was made up of books published during his lifetime, and their range of subject-matter was indeed wide: history, government, literature, mathematics, medicine, geography, astronomy/astrology, law, marvels, conduct, biography, demonology, psychology, encomia, reference works, universities. His languages were English and Latin, and Kiessling notes the small holdings in other tongues. By its very breadth it seems to describe the crisis facing an intellectual culture based essentially upon the mastery of all of the available texts, and the same may be said of his great work, The Anatomy of Melancholy. We are fortunate indeed to be able to hold this epitome in our hand, and to have such an instrument to explore an age of singular erudition through the mind of one of its last great exponents.

[*] M.A. Screech’s Erasmus: Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly was republished in paperback by Penguin on 25 August 1988 (267 pp., £5.99, 0 14055235 9).