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.

Through the 1520s and 1530s Erasmus continually wrote new books and revised and expanded old. He greatly reworked his New Testament, Annotations and Paraphrases. They were always closest to his heart: in 1529 he dreamed of his death, of how a handsome young man told him to pack and be on his way. He would take, he decided, only his New Testament and Paraphrases and his edition of St Jerome, his great mentor. That would be enough for heaven. He could have taken much more. By then, he had also further revised the Adages, his discursive encyclopedia of proverbs, the encapsulated wisdom of the ancients-applied to modern conditions, first printed in 1500. There were new editions of the rhetorical manual, aimed at increasing the facility to think and write in Latin, written in 1512 for St Paul’s School and dedicated to its founder, John Colet, De duplici copia rerum et verborum, or Reciprocal Facility in Words and Matter. A new book on a related topic, the Treatise on Letter Writing, was published in 1522. There was also an enhanced edition, followed by further revisions, of the Colloquies, dialogues meant to inculcate simultaneously an effective Latinity and a humane, rational and pious attitude to all aspects of physical, mental, spiritual and social behaviour. The Colloquies show Erasmus at his applied-humanist, liberal and enjoyable best. Like the Adages, the De copia and The Praise of Folly, an early work also revised early and substantially, they were enormously popular. He wrote, too, directly on the topics and issues raised by all these works, endlessly promoting the ideal of pietas litterata, the basis of evangelical humanism, in which – to use his formulation – everything well and piously said or done, even by pagans, is referred to Christ, everything, in other words, is judged first by the standard of ancient wisdom and eloquence, and then by the Christian. To this time belong The Institution of Christian Marriage for Katherine of Aragon, On Christian Widowhood, On the Education of Children, On Mending the Peace of the Church, On Preaching, On the Ciceronian Style, On the Correct Pronunciation of Latin and Greek, on war against the Turks, on Apophthegms and On Preparation for Death, this last read gratefully by Katherine in her sad final days.

Above all, Erasmus set himself to make new editions, all published by Froben and long standard, of the Fathers of the early Church, whose apostolic purity he so admired and recommended: among the Latins Cyprian appeared in 1520, Arnobius followed in 1522, Hilary in 1524, Augustine (less his favourite than some) in 1529; among the Greeks were John Chrysostom in 1527, Basil the Great in 1532 and Origen (his great hero), published after Erasmus’s death in 1536. He made yet more collections of the Epistolae, by which he moulded European opinion both of himself and of those of whom he approved or disapproved. Though, like other self-fashioners (Petrarch was his chief model among moderns), he altered and suppressed much in his letters when he published them, these letter-collections offer us a contemporary portrait unrivalled in its detail by any other. He found time to expound the Lord’s Prayer, minor works of Prudentius and pseudo-Ovid, to preface Aristotle, and much more.

No wonder Erasmus died famous, easy in circumstances as in the knowledge – or complacency, to be censorious about it – that he had kept his personal freedom, living by his pen, applying himself with more than human industry to his self-appointed task of showing the way to the sincere, fervent, literate love of Christ, and rejecting what he called mere Judaic observance, or empty formalism. It was holiness that he valued above and against hierarchy, ceaselessly advocating return to the pure springs both of doctrine and of expression represented by the ancient classics, the Gospels and the Fathers. Timid and fearful, except with a pen in his hand, recoiling from violence, pacific, secretive, paranoid, valetudinarian, temporising, capable of cringing to the patrons on whom his livelihood depended, he maintained personal and doctrinal equilibrium. The modern church would have done well to include him among its learned saints. As it is, the European Community has appropriated him as its international intellectual, stamped on the écu, the patron of European learning and the Community’s educational programme.

In the confessional age Erasmus’s reputation took a bruising from both Catholic and Protestant: from St Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits as from Luther and his followers. His writings were censored, and he was placed on the Index. The first collected edition, a couple of shelf-feet of thick folios, made by his assistant Beatus Rhenanus and published at Basel in 1540, did nothing to change Luther’s opinion of him. The next edition, fuller and better ordered, welcomed Erasmus to the republic of letters in an age of critical scholarship and of toleration. Still the only complete collection, though with minor gaps, it was made by Jean Leclerc of Geneva and Leiden and briefly of London, and published at Leiden in 1703-6. It was not even partially superseded until our own day: the correspondence by the great edition of P.S. and H.M. Allen, completed by H.W. Garrod (1906-58) and now many other works by the quincentenary Amsterdam edition, of which the first instalment appeared in 1969. The correspondence is available in French translation from Brussels (1967-84); a large selection of works in facing Latin and German translation came out between 1962 and 1980. Since 1974, Erasmus has been made much more accessible to readers of English by the vast new rendering, which already in less than twenty years counts 25 volumes, ten of them correspondence, with more than forty to come – the biggest and noblest bang of all, primed by the Research Council of Canada and detonated by Toronto University Press.

This is as it should be. ‘All that I am,’ wrote Erasmus to a correspondent, ‘you will find in my books.’ The same point is picked up in the inscriptions on Massys’s portrait medal and Dürer’s engraving; it is made in the painted portraits by Massys and Holbein, all of which show him in a bookish context. On some areas of his life, however, Erasmus was secretive. About his birth, for example, as the son of a priest: his quincentenary was legitimately and deservedly celebrated in various places for a full four years, from early 1966 to late 1969. He drops out of sight from time to time – for a year and a half, for instance, from the latter part of 1509, during which time he put together the first version of the work by which he is best known today, The Praise of Folly, with its advocacy of a whole-hearted, unworldly Christianity – the foolishness of God which is better than the wisdom of men – that gave such offence to his fellow clergy. Of the vast deal we know of him, much is on his own terms. His picture of himself as a boy, forced into the uncongenial discipline of a religious order, owes at least as much to a lifelong tendency to ego-tripping as to a just estimate of what he owed – an education and so a means of subsistence – to the experience. What he wanted, and what he achieved, thanks to a papal dispensation and to a series of friends and patrons in the Netherlands, France, England, Germany and Switzerland, was time and freedom to write and think what he liked. Determined to master first Latin and then Greek in their pristine Classical form, to be a grammarian rather than a dialectician, a philosopher only of Christ, he was by far the most effective mediator to Northern Europe of the new humanism of the Italy he did not visit until he was 40. He rejected virtually the whole of Renaissance philosophy: Marsilio Ficino and Florentine Platonism, Pico della Mirandola’s syncretism, Hermeticism and the rest. Scholastic philosophy, too, he thought over-technical, self-regarding and sterile, as well as unacceptably expressed. It was far more important to feel love or repentance than merely to be able to characterise them. Erasmus is – it sometimes seems – saved from a dangerous reductionism only by an engaging, if intermittent, candour, an almost unbelievable rapidity and fluency of thought and expression, a superhuman articulateness. He was that curious animal, a sacred best-seller; he wrote rapidly and constantly, sending his work with superb confidence, unrevised, to the printer. What makes it often so difficult to see him true is his voluminousness and his habit of using successive editions not merely to enlarge his works but to change their focus. In one sense, he never moved from the positions taken in his Enchiridion militis christiani of 1503 – not, as Bertrand Russell thought, a manual for illiterate soldiers but a set of variations on St Paul’s image of spiritual combat. He also constantly sophisticates. The Praise of Folly, for example, punningly dedicated to More, is partly a Lucianic satire of the sort he and More had translated and written a few years earlier. In its first published state a praise of Christian folly, of ecstatic religion, in its later versions it is more a satire on the folly of Christians, a critique of conventional religious attitudes and practices.

For many years, anyone asked to recommend a satisfactory introduction in English to Erasmus was in something of a quandary. Seebohm’s Oxford Reformers (1887 version) and Froude’s Life and Letters (1897) both still had something going for them, but their facts were as dated as their interpretation: each offered a Victorian Protestant Englishman’s portrait of one of his spiritual ancestors. P.S. Allen, who admired both Froude and Seebohm, never wrote the book we wanted. In 1923, Preserved Smith, whose father had been suspended from his American Presbyterian ministry for promoting historical Biblical criticism, also began from the premise that modern European civilisation sprang from the Reformation, which was an improvement on the Renaissance. Best so far was Johan Huizinga, first Englished in 1924, with his engaging confession that he had given his fellow-countryman little thought until pushed by a publisher. Then, he read him fully and carefully. Huizinga’s Erasmus is at once a great man and a petty one, the undogmatic precursor of the Enlightenment: the later versions of Folly and the Colloquies were what was most congenial, not the philology, still less the sacred philology.

Among Huizinga’s later rivals were the American Roland Bainton, who added a vigorous and downright Erasmus of Christendom (1969) to his earlier and more successful populariastion of Luther, Here I Stand (1950), and Margaret Mann Phillips, pupil of the great French Reformation scholar Renaudet. She also did first-rate, first-hand work on the Adages. Her Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance (1949) was middle-of-the-road, dividing Erasmus neatly into categories, but dealing with all his aspects, an early example of the dominant approach to Erasmus in the last fifty or so years. This sees him less as the 18th-century’s detached liberal and sceptic, less in the 19th-century mode as a father of the English church founded at the Reformation, but above all as a serious, deeply committed and devout Christian thinker and scholar, eirenic rather than ironic. His criticism of the Catholic Church is underplayed in favour of his positive contribution. Mrs Phillips’s Erasmus is still somehow Anglican, but an ecumenical Anglican. A representative Catholic equivalent is James McConica, with his specialised study English Humanists and Reformation Politics under Henry VIII and Edward VI (1965), followed by his recent excellent short general book in Oxford’s Past Masters series.

For a general assessment that is longer and fuller than McConica’s, but equally soundly based, up-to-date and accessible, there are two new books, both translations: an intellectual biography by Cornelis Augustijn, which first appeared in German in 1986; and an assessment by Léon-E. Halkin, translated from the French of 1987. Both authors want us to see Erasmus in the context of his times; both are informative, non-partisan, sympathetic. Each offers excellent guidance to modern documentation. Each is concerned to present an Erasmus to whom we can – as the saying is – relate. If anything, Erasmus is more strongly advanced as a model by Halkin, whose French title laid stress on his immediate presence. The translator’s Erasmus: A Critical Biography seems a shade lifeless for Erasme parmi nous. Of the two books Augustijn’s is shorter, a sober, clear, succinct assessment, with a selection of illustrations that enhance explanation rather than merely decorate. It brings scholarship in several languages into equilibrium; it lays special emphasis on Erasmus in his own right, seeking to assess his achievement in itself rather than by comparison with Luther, whose impact was undoubtedly greater. This is a reflective and persuasive estimate of Erasmus’s achievement, of his contribution both to Biblical humanism and to the transformation of the civilisation of his – and so our – time. Halkin’s command is equally full and sure. Longer and more discursive, but still both economical and readable, he is more generous with skilfully chosen quotations from Erasmus’s own works, though he has no pictures. He too succeeds in giving a strong sense of Erasmus’s personality, in its attractive and less attractive features, and of his achievement.

Lisa Jardine draws most heavily, as the pun in her title suggests, on the Latin letters by which Erasmus established the portrait of himself he wished international posterity to have, and especially on the prefatory and dedicatory letters of which he made such skilled use in building up a circle of informed (by him) and enlightened (equally by him) supporters and patrons, as well as the letters – they were really treatises – in which he set out the particular controversy he was engaged on at a particular time. These, the controversial ones above all, are essentially one-sided in presentation: Colet, for example, comes off rather badly from the Erasmian account, the only one we have, of early theological arguments at Oxford in 1499, though Erasmus made handsome amends in the great obituary letter on his friend of 1521. Examples could be multiplied, especially in the more momentous disputes over Gospel truth in the later 1510s and the 1520s. By 1515, Erasmus, like Cicero and Petrarch before him, was already taking care that his letters should be assembled and revised. The first printed collection of that year contained four letters only. The Farrago of 1519 had 333. There were 617 in the Epistolae ad diversos of 1521 and well over a thousand in the Opus epistolarum of 1529, with still more in later editions, some of them posthumous.

Letters were already an established genre, but they had never been made available in print in such a sophisticated way. Cicero’s Familiares and others, and Seneca’s Epistolae morales, autobiographical and sententious models respectively for Petrarch, were already available in the incunabular period. Petrarch’s own self-presentation in correspondence was first made current in print by the stout volume of his Collected Works in 1501. Erasmus’s letters are both twice as many as Petrarch’s and more finished in every sense, carefully gone over and slanted. Petrarch, though he ordered and managed his correspondence and his correspondents, did not do so to an equal degree. Nor did he ever manage to complete the Epistle to Posterity that was to encapsulate his image. Besides, he died a century too early to make use of the opportunities that printing offered for a further, post-manuscript stage in the reconstruction and dissemination of the self. His own version was retouched, to say the least, but by his humanist heirs.

If Erasmus was the first to turn printing to advantage as he did, he had been apprehensive of the new invention that was only a decade or so older than he was. He feared the impetus printing might give to grammatical and doctrinal laxity, to textual error multiplied by printers and to heresy intensified by the unorthodox, by Luther for example, whose command of the press for reforming ends was as skilful as it was vigorous. From his seat in the printing house Erasmus could scrutinise and correct the sheets as they came from the press, but he could not stop his publishers from mixing corrected and uncorrected sheets to make up volumes. His New Testament was adjudged, rather harshly, by high Victorian biblical scholarship to be one of the most inaccurately printed productions of its age. But he saw his opportunity and he took it.

Very often, in the published correspondence as elsewhere, much of the work was done at Erasmus’s prompting and under his close supervision by an assistant, to whom acknowledgments were often rather more disobliging than the modern academic norm. For the sheer quantity, nevertheless, and the innovative quality of what he put into circulation, either written (mostly) by himself or by others – from the Holy Ghost through his mouthpieces Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul, to the Fathers to Thomas More – whose Utopia and Latin poetry might never have seen the light but for Erasmus, and many others – he is surely the most remarkable writer of his time and the most sophisticated in management of script, print, patronage and even the visual arts. If pen, press and brush were powerful sources of error, they were equally sources of advantage, universal and personal.

Jardine’s spirited study exploits the evidence of Erasmus’s own statements about himself, direct and oblique, and the estimates of his situation in the great tradition that he influenced others to make. In some respects he was more modest than, say, Luther, who seems to have raised no objection to being pictured as one of the Evangelists, haloed and with the dove of holy inspiration hovering over his head, as well as the baker in our woodcut. Erasmus was content with the persona of St Jerome, the scholar-translator in his study. He invoked the example of Jerome again and again, implicitly and explicitly in the great editions of Jerome’s Works and the New Testament published in 1516. It is emphasised in the prefaces he wrote for both, and his dedications of them to the influential. Jerome is also repeatedly cited by those such as Thomas More, taking Erasmus’s part in the controversy against Martin Dorp – stage-managed by Erasmus – over the Folly and the New Testament, as well as against the unnamed monk to whom More wrote a long and technically well-informed Latin letter in 1519, and against the other English ecclesiastics – Henry Standish, Bishop of St Asaph’s, St Ass’s as Erasmus charitably put it, and Edward Lee, with whom More and others disputed viva voce and in writing a little later, not to mention Erasmus’s bêtes noires, the theologians of Louvain. Jerome is also alluded to – under prompting, surely – by the portrait painters Quinten Massys and Hans Holbein the Younger.

Here as elsewhere and usually to great effect Jardine presses her detail hard. If she seems sometimes to go a little over the top concerning the Massys portrait, she is especially fine on the Longford Castle Holbein. And she shows with flair and verve how exactly Erasmus worked to establish and consolidate this auto-icon of kinship with Jerome, suiting it to the expectations of a 16th-century humanist audience, leading the image of the saint away from holy-image-to-be-venerated towards learned-image-to-be-imitated, away from penitent in the desert, beating his breast with a stone, towards the Ciceronian, Christian-manqué image that the saint himself flinched from in his famous dream. Jardine makes skilled and knowledgable use of evidence from printing and the visual arts. She also shows Erasmus at work on a sort of intellectual genealogy for himself. She gives an enlightening account of the publishing history of Rudolph Agricola, the Italian-educated Frisian, with his new rhetorical dialectic, and the process by which he was moulded into the spiritual ancestor of a sort of Northern evangelical humanist ratio studiorum. Equally good is her description of the concentric and intersecting circles of Northern humanism, the creation, not to say the construct, of Erasmus. Details may be arguable. Only now and again, however, as in her account of the intellectual implications of a little collected volume at Yale which may have belonged to More’s and Erasmus’s friend Cuthbert Tunstal, does she fail to carry one entirely with her.

Jardine’s look at how Erasmus and Erasmianism were established as the thinking man’s – even thinking woman’s, as Erasmus would have added – alternative to Lutheranism, is much to be welcomed. The books by Augustijn, Halkin and McConica all, in their different ways, try to see Erasmus plain and whole, in the round. Jardine’s is a portrait which speaks to us differently. It is taken under a raking light, to show a master of the media, a master-builder of a textual persona, of an intellectual genealogy culminating in himself. In the last analysis, however, she cannot but agree with the others on the hugeness of Erasmus’s achievement. She too would surely accept that to admire Erasmus, in the words of Gibbon on Petrarch’s admirers, is to do him honour, but to do him justice also.