Erasmus and the Age of Reformation
by Johan Huizinga
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with a selection from the letters of Erasmus

HARPER TORCHBOOKS / The Cloister Library




Printed in the United States of America

Huizinga's text was translated from the Dutch by F. Hopman and first published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1924. The section from the Letters of Erasmus was translated by Barbara Flower.

Reprinted by arrangement with Phaidon Press, Ltd., London

Originally published under the title: "Erasmus of Rotterdam"

First HARPER TORCHBOOK edition published 1957

Library of Congress catalogue card number 57-10119


Preface by G. N. Clark xi









VIII IN ITALY, 1506-9 62





XIII ERASMUS'S MIND (continued) 109


XV AT LOUVAIN, 1517-18 130








List of Illustrations 257

Index of Names 263


by G.N. Clark, Provost of Oriel College, Oxford

Rather more than twenty years ago, on a spring morning of alternate cloud and sunshine, I acted as guide to Johan Huizinga, the author of this book, when he was on a visit to Oxford. As it was not his first stay in the city, and he knew the principal buildings already, we looked at some of the less famous. Even with a man who was well known all over the world as a writer, I expected that these two or three hours would be much like the others I had spent in the same capacity with other visitors; but this proved to be a day to remember. He understood the purposes of these ancient buildings, the intentions of their founders and builders; but that was to be expected from an historian who had written upon the history of universities and learning. What surprised and delighted me was his seeing eye. He told me which of the decorative motifs on the Tower of the Four Orders were usual at the time when it was built, and which were less common. At All Souls he pointed out the seldom appreciated merits of Hawksmoor's twin towers. His eye was not merely informed but sensitive. I remembered that I had heard of his talent for drawing, and as we walked and talked I felt the influence of a strong, quiet personality deep down in which an artist's perceptiveness was fused with a determination to search for historical truth.

Huizinga's great success and reputation came suddenly when he was over forty. Until that time his powers were ripening, not so much slowly as secretly. His friends knew that he was unique, but neither he nor they foresaw what direction his studies would take. He was born in 1872 in Groningen, the most northerly of the chief towns of the Netherlands, and there he went to school and to the University. He studied Dutch history and literature and also Oriental languages and mythology and sociology; he was a good linguist and he steadily accumulated great learning, but he was neither an infant prodigy nor a universal scholar. Science and current affairs scarcely interested him, and until his maturity imagination seemed to satisfy him more than research. Until he was over thirty he was a schoolmaster at Haarlem, a teacher of history; but it was still uncertain whether European or Oriental studies would claim him in the end. For two or three years before giving up school-teaching he lectured in the University of Amsterdam on Sanskrit, and it was almost an accident that he became professor of history in the University of his native town. All through his life it was characteristic of him that after a spell of creative work, when he had finished a book, he would turn aside from the subject that had absorbed him and plunge into some other subject or period, so that the books and articles in the eight volumes of his collected works (with one more volume still to come) cover a very wide range. As time went on he examined aspects of history which at first he had passed over, and he acquired a clear insight into the political and economic life of the past. It has been well said of him that he never became either a pedant or a doctrinaire. During the ten years that he spent as professor at Groningen, he found himself. He was happily married, with a growing family, and the many elements of his mind drew together into a unity. His sensitiveness to style and beauty came to terms with his conscientious scholarship. He was rooted in the traditional freedoms of his national and academic environment, but his curiosity, like the historical adventures of his people and his profession, was not limited by time or space or prejudice. He came more and more definitely to find his central theme in civilization as a realized ideal, something that men have created in an endless variety of forms, but always in order to raise the level of their lives.

While this interior fulfilment was bringing Huizinga to his best, the world about him changed completely. In 1914, Holland became a neutral country surrounded by nations at war. In 1914, also, his wife died, and it was as a lonely widower that he was appointed in the next year to the chair of general history at Leyden, which he was to hold for the rest of his academic life. Yet the year after the end of the war saw the publication of his masterpiece, the book which gave him his high place among historical writers and was translated as The Waning of the Middle Ages. This is a study of the forms of life and thought in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the last phase of one of the great European eras of civilization. In England, where the Middle Ages had been idealized for generations, some of its leading thoughts did not seem so novel as they did in Holland, where many people regarded the Renaissance and more still regarded the Reformation as a new beginning of a better world; but in England and America, which had been drawn, unlike Holland, into the vortex of war, it had the poignancy of a recall to the standards of reasonableness. It will long maintain its place as a historical book and as a work of literature.

The shorter book on Erasmus is a companion to this great work. It was first published in 1924 and so belongs to the same best period of the author. Its subject is the central intellectual figure of the next generation after the period which Huizinga called the waning, or rather the autumn, of the Middle Ages; but Erasmus was also, as will appear from many of its pages, a man for whom he had a very special sympathy. Something of what he wrote about Erasmus might also have been written about himself, or at least about his own response to the transformation of the world that he had known.

This is not the place for an analysis of that questioning and illuminating response, nor for a considered estimate of Huizinga's work as a whole; but there is room for a word about his last years. He was recognized as one of the intellectual leaders of his country, and a second marriage in 1937 brought back his private happiness; but the shadows were darkening over the western world. From the time when national socialism began to reveal itself in Germany, he took his stand against it with perfect simplicity and calm. After the invasion of Holland he addressed these memorable words to some of his colleagues: 'When it comes, as it soon will, to defending our University and the freedom of science and learning in the Netherlands, we must be ready to give everything for that: our possessions, our freedom, and even our lives'. The Germans closed the University. For a time they held Johan Huizinga, now an old man and in failing health, as a hostage; then they banished him to open arrest in a remote parish in the eastern part of the country. Even in these conditions he still wrote, and wrote well. In the last winter of the war the liberating armies approached and he suffered the hardships of the civilian population in a theatre of war; but his spirit was unbroken. He died on 1 February 1945, a few weeks before his country was set free.


Oriel College, Oxford

April 1952


and the Age of Reformation




The Low Countries in the fifteenth century—The Burgundian power—Connections with the German Empire and with France—The northern Netherlands outskirts in every sense—Movement of Devotio moderna: brethren of the Common Life and Windesheim monasteries—Erasmus's birth: 1466—His relations and name—At school at Gouda, Deventer and Bois-le-Duc—He takes the vows: probably in 1488

When Erasmus was born Holland had for about twenty years formed part of the territory which the dukes of Burgundy had succeeded in uniting under their dominion—that complexity of lands, half French in population, like Burgundy, Artois, Hainault, Namur; half Dutch like Flanders, Brabant, Zealand, Holland. The appellation 'Holland' was, as yet, strictly limited to the county of that name (the present provinces of North and South Holland), with which Zealand, too, had long since been united. The remaining territories which, together with those last mentioned, make up the present kingdom of the Netherlands, had not yet been brought under Burgundian dominion, although the dukes had cast their eyes on them. In the bishopric of Utrecht, whose power extended to the regions on the far side of the river Ysel, Burgundian influence had already begun to make itself manifest. The projected conquest of Friesland was a political inheritance of the counts of Holland, who preceded the Burgundians. The duchy of Guelders, alone, still preserved its independence inviolate, being more closely connected with the neighbouring German territories, and consequently with the Empire itself.

All these lands—about this time they began to be regarded collectively under the name of 'Low Countries by the Sea'—had in most respects the character of outskirts. The authority of the German emperors had for some centuries been little more than imaginary. Holland and Zealand hardly shared the dawning sense of a national German union. They had too long looked to France in matters political. Since 1299 a French-speaking dynasty, that of Hainault, had ruled Holland. Even the house of Bavaria that succeeded it about the middle of the fourteenth century had not restored closer contact with the Empire, but had itself, on the contrary, early become Gallicized, attracted as it was by Paris and soon twined about by the tentacles of Burgundy to which it became linked by means of a double marriage.

The northern half of the Low Countries were 'outskirts' also in ecclesiastical and cultural matters. Brought over rather late to the cause of Christianity (the end of the eighth century), they had, as borderlands, remained united under a single bishop: the bishop of Utrecht. The meshes of ecclesiastical organization were wider here than elsewhere. They had no university. Paris remained, even after the designing policy of the Burgundian dukes had founded the university of Louvain in 1425, the centre of doctrine and science for the northern Netherlands. From the point of view of the wealthy towns of Flanders and Brabant, now the heart of the Burgundian possessions, Holland and Zealand formed a wretched little country of boatmen and peasants. Chivalry, which the dukes of Burgundy attempted to invest with new splendour, had but moderately thrived among the nobles of Holland. The Dutch had not enriched courtly literature, in which Flanders and Brabant zealously strove to follow the French example, by any contribution worth mentioning.

Whatever was coming up in Holland flowered unseen; it was not of a sort to attract the attention of Christendom. It was a brisk navigation and trade, mostly transit trade, by which the Hollanders already began to emulate the German Hansa, and which brought them into continual contact with France and Spain, England and Scotland, Scandinavia, North Germany and the Rhine from Cologne upward. It was herring fishery, a humble trade, but the source of great prosperity—a rising industry, shared by a number of small towns.

Not one of those towns in Holland and Zealand, neither Dordrecht nor Leyden, Haarlem, Middelburg, Amsterdam, could compare with Ghent, Bruges, Lille, Antwerp or Brussels in the south. It is true that in the towns of Holland also the highest products of the human mind germinated, but those towns themselves were still too small and too poor to be centres of art and science. The most eminent men were irresistibly drawn to one of the great foci of secular and ecclesiastical culture. Sluter, the great sculptor, went to Burgundy, took service with the dukes, and bequeathed no specimen of his art to the land of his birth. Dirk Bouts, the artist of Haarlem, removed to Louvain, where his best work is preserved; what was left at Haarlem has perished. At Haarlem, too, and earlier, perhaps, than anywhere else, obscure experiments were being made in that great art, craving to be brought forth, which was to change the world: the art of printing.

There was yet another characteristic spiritual phenomenon, which originated here and gave its peculiar stamp to life in these countries. It was a movement designed to give depth and fervour to religious life; started by a burgher of Deventer, Geert Groote, toward the end of the fourteenth century. It had embodied itself in two closely connected forms—the fraterhouses, where the brethren of the Common Life lived together without altogether separating from the world, and the congregation of the monastery of Windesheim, of the order of the regular Augustinian canons. Originating in the regions on the banks of the Ysel, between the two small towns of Deventer and Zwolle, and so on the outskirts of the diocese of Utrecht, this movement soon spread, eastward to Westphalia, northward to Groningen and the Frisian country, westward to Holland proper. Fraterhouses were erected everywhere and monasteries of the Windesheim congregation were established or affiliated. The movement was spoken of as 'modern devotion', devotio moderna. It was rather a matter of sentiment and practice than of definite doctrine. The truly Catholic character of the movement had early been acknowledged by the church authorities. Sincerity and modesty, simplicity and industry, and, above all, constant ardour of religious emotion and thought, were its objects. Its energies were devoted to tending the sick and other works of charity, but especially to instruction and the art of writing. It is in this that it especially differed from the revival of the Franciscan and Dominican orders of about the same time, which turned to preaching. The Windesheimians and the Hieronymians (as the brethren of the Common Life were also called) exerted their crowning activities in the seclusion of the schoolroom and the silence of the writing cell. The schools of the brethren soon drew pupils from a wide area. In this way the foundations were laid, both here in the northern Netherlands and in lower Germany, for a generally diffused culture among the middle classes; a culture of a very narrow, strictly ecclesiastical nature, indeed, but which for that very reason was fit to permeate broad layers of the people.

What the Windesheimians themselves produced in the way of devotional literature is chiefly limited to edifying booklets and biographies of their own members; writings which were distinguished rather by their pious tenor and sincerity than by daring or novel thoughts.

But of them all, the greatest was that immortal work of Thomas a Kempis, Canon of Saint Agnietenberg, near Zwolle, the Imitatio Christi.

Foreigners visiting these regions north of the Scheldt and the Meuse laughed at the rude manners and the deep drinking of the inhabitants, but they also mentioned their sincere piety. These countries were already, what they have ever remained, somewhat contemplative and self-contained, better adapted for speculating on the world and for reproving it than for astonishing it with dazzling wit.

* * * * *

Rotterdam and Gouda, situated upward of twelve miles apart in the lowest region of Holland, an extremely watery region, were not among the first towns of the county. They were small country towns, ranking after Dordrecht, Haarlem, Leyden, and rapidly rising Amsterdam. They were not centres of culture. Erasmus was born at Rotterdam on 27 October, most probably in the year 1466. The illegitimacy of his birth has thrown a veil of mystery over his descent and kinship. It is possible that Erasmus himself learned the circumstances of his coming into the world only in his later years. Acutely sensitive to the taint in his origin, he did more to veil the secret than to reveal it. The picture which he painted of it in his ripe age was romantic and pathetic. He imagined that his father when a young man made love to a girl, a physician's daughter, in the hope of marrying her. The parents and brothers of the young fellow, indignant, tried to persuade him to take holy orders. The young man fled before the child was born. He went to Rome and made a living by copying. His relations sent him false tidings that his beloved had died; out of grief he became a priest and devoted himself to religion altogether. Returned to his native country he discovered the deceit. He abstained from all contact with her whom he now could no longer marry, but took great pains to give his son a liberal education. The mother continued to care for the child, till an early death took her from him. The father soon followed her to the grave. To Erasmus's recollection he was only twelve or thirteen years old when his mother died. It seems to be practically certain that her death did not occur before 1483, when, therefore, he was already seventeen years old. His sense of chronology was always remarkably ill developed.

Unfortunately it is beyond doubt that Erasmus himself knew, or had known, that not all particulars of this version were correct. In all probability his father was already a priest at the time of the relationship to which he owed his life; in any case it was not the impatience of a betrothed couple, but an irregular alliance of long standing, of which a brother, Peter, had been born three years before.

We can only vaguely discern the outlines of a numerous and commonplace middle-class family. The father had nine brothers, who were all married. The grandparents on his father's side and the uncles on his mother's side attained to a very great age. It is strange that a host of cousins—their progeny—has not boasted of a family connection with the great Erasmus. Their descendants have not even been traced. What were their names? The fact that in burgher circles family names had, as yet, become anything but fixed, makes it difficult to trace Erasmus's kinsmen. Usually people were called by their own and their father's name; but it also happened that the father's name became fixed and adhered to the following generation. Erasmus calls his father Gerard, his brother Peter Gerard, while a papal letter styles Erasmus himself Erasmus Rogerii. Possibly the father was called Roger Gerard or Gerards.

Although Erasmus and his brother were born at Rotterdam, there is much that points to the fact that his father's kin did not belong there, but at Gouda. At any rate they had near relatives at Gouda.

Erasmus was his Christian name. There is nothing strange in the choice, although it was rather unusual. St. Erasmus was one of the fourteen Holy Martyrs, whose worship so much engrossed the attention of the multitude in the fifteenth century. Perhaps the popular belief that the intercession of St. Erasmus conferred wealth, had some weight in choosing the name. Up to the time when he became better acquainted with Greek, he used the form Herasmus. Later on he regretted that he had not also given that name the more correct and melodious form Erasmius. On a few occasions he half jocularly called himself so, and his godchild, Johannes Froben's son, always used this form.

It was probably for similar aesthetic considerations that he soon altered the barbaric Rotterdammensis to Roterdamus, later Roterodamus, which he perhaps accentuated as a proparoxytone. Desiderius was an addition selected by himself, which he first used in 1496; it is possible that the study of his favourite author Jerome, among whose correspondents there is a Desiderius, suggested the name to him. When, therefore, the full form, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, first appears, in the second edition of the Adagia, published by Josse Badius at Paris in 1506, it is an indication that Erasmus, then forty years of age, had found himself.

Circumstances had not made it easy for him to find his way. Almost in his infancy, when hardly four years old, he thinks, he had been put to school at Gouda, together with his brother. He was nine years old when his father sent him to Deventer to continue his studies in the famous school of the chapter of St. Lebuin. His mother accompanied him. His stay at Deventer must have lasted, with an interval during which he was a choir boy in the minster at Utrecht, from 1475 to 1484. Erasmus's explicit declaration that he was fourteen years old when he left Deventer may be explained by assuming that in later years he confused his temporary absence from Deventer (when at Utrecht) with the definite end of his stay at Deventer. Reminiscences of his life there repeatedly crop up in Erasmus's writings. Those concerning the teaching he got inspired him with little gratitude; the school was still barbaric, then, he said; ancient medieval text-books were used there of whose silliness and cumbrousness we can hardly conceive. Some of the masters were of the brotherhood of the Common Life. One of them, Johannes Synthen, brought to his task a certain degree of understanding of classic antiquity in its purer form. Toward the end of Erasmus's residence Alexander Hegius was placed at the head of the school, a friend of the Frisian humanist, Rudolf Agricola, who on his return from Italy was gaped at by his compatriots as a prodigy. On festal days, when the rector made his oration before all the pupils, Erasmus heard Hegius; on one single occasion he listened to the celebrated Agricola himself, which left a deep impression on his mind.

His mother's death of the plague that ravaged the town brought Erasmus's school-time at Deventer to a sudden close. His father called him and his brother back to Gouda, only to die himself soon afterwards. He must have been a man of culture. For he knew Greek, had heard the famous humanists in Italy, had copied classic authors and left a library of some value.

Erasmus and his brother were now under the protection of three guardians whose care and intentions he afterwards placed in an unfavourable light. How far he exaggerated their treatment of him it is difficult to decide. That the guardians, among whom one Peter Winckel, schoolmaster at Gouda, occupied the principal place, had little sympathy with the new classicism, about which their ward already felt enthusiastic, need not be doubted. 'If you should write again so elegantly, please to add a commentary', the schoolmaster replied grumblingly to an epistle on which Erasmus, then fourteen years old, had expended much care. That the guardians sincerely considered it a work pleasing to God to persuade the youths to enter a monastery can no more be doubted than that this was for them the easiest way to get rid of their task. For Erasmus this pitiful business assumes the colour of a grossly selfish attempt to cloak dishonest administration; an altogether reprehensible abuse of power and authority. More than this: in later years it obscured for him the image of his own brother, with whom he had been on terms of cordial intimacy.

Winckel sent the two young fellows, twenty-one and eighteen years old, to school again, this time at Bois-le-Duc. There they lived in the Fraterhouse itself, to which the school was attached. There was nothing here of the glory that had shone about Deventer. The brethren, says Erasmus, knew of no other purpose than that of destroying all natural gifts, with blows, reprimands and severity, in order to fit the soul for the monastery. This, he thought, was just what his guardians were aiming at; although ripe for the university they were deliberately kept away from it. In this way more than two years were wasted.

One of his two masters, one Rombout, who liked young Erasmus, tried hard to prevail on him to join the brethren of the Common Life. In later years Erasmus occasionally regretted that he had not yielded; for the brethren took no such irrevocable vows as were now in store for him.

An epidemic of the plague became the occasion for the brothers to leave Bois-le-Duc and return to Gouda. Erasmus was attacked by a fever that sapped his power of resistance, of which he now stood in such need. The guardians (one of the three had died in the meantime) now did their utmost to make the two young men enter a monastery. They had good cause for it, as they had ill administered the slender fortune of their wards, and, says Erasmus, refused to render an account. Later he saw everything connected with this dark period of his life in the most gloomy colours—except himself. Himself he sees as a boy of not yet sixteen years (it is nearly certain that he must have been twenty already) weakened by fever, but nevertheless resolute and sensible in refusing. He has persuaded his brother to fly with him and to go to a university. The one guardian is a narrow-minded tyrant, the other, Winckel's brother, a merchant, a frivolous coaxer. Peter, the elder of the youths, yields first and enters the monastery of Sion, near Delft (of the order of the regular Augustinian canons), where the guardian had found a place for him. Erasmus resisted longer. Only after a visit to the monastery of Steyn or Emmaus, near Gouda, belonging to the same order, where he found a schoolfellow from Deventer, who pointed out the bright side of monastic life, did Erasmus yield and enter Steyn, where soon after, probably in 1488, he took the vows.




Erasmus as an Augustinian canon at Steyn—His friends—Letters to Servatius—Humanism in the monasteries: Latin poetry— Aversion to cloister-life—He leaves Steyn to enter the service of the Bishop of Cambray: 1493—James Batt— Antibarbari—He gets leave to study at Paris: 1495

In his later life—under the influence of the gnawing regret which his monkhood and all the trouble he took to escape from it caused him—the picture of all the events leading up to his entering the convent became distorted in his mind. Brother Peter, to whom he still wrote in a cordial vein from Steyn, became a worthless fellow, even his evil spirit, a Judas. The schoolfellow whose advice had been decisive now appeared a traitor, prompted by self-interest, who himself had chosen convent-life merely out of laziness and the love of good cheer.

The letters that Erasmus wrote from Steyn betray no vestige of his deep-seated aversion to monastic life, which afterwards he asks us to believe he had felt from the outset. We may, of course, assume that the supervision of his superiors prevented him from writing all that was in his heart, and that in the depths of his being there had always existed the craving for freedom and for more civilized intercourse than Steyn could offer. Still he must have found in the monastery some of the good things that his schoolfellow had led him to expect. That at this period he should have written a 'Praise of Monastic Life', 'to please a friend who wanted to decoy a cousin', as he himself says, is one of those naive assertions, invented afterwards, of which Erasmus never saw the unreasonable quality.

He found at Steyn a fair degree of freedom, some food for an intellect craving for classic antiquity, and friendships with men of the same turn of mind. There were three who especially attracted him. Of the schoolfellow who had induced him to become a monk, we hear no more. His friends are Servatius Roger of Rotterdam and William Hermans of Gouda, both his companions at Steyn, and the older Cornelius Gerard of Gouda, usually called Aurelius (a quasi-latinization of Goudanus), who spent most of his time in the monastery of Lopsen, near Leyden. With them he read and conversed sociably and jestingly; with them he exchanged letters when they were not together.

Out of the letters to Servatius there rises the picture of an Erasmus whom we shall never find again—a young man of more than feminine sensitiveness; of a languishing need for sentimental friendship. In writing to Servatius, Erasmus runs the whole gamut of an ardent lover. As often as the image of his friend presents itself to his mind tears break from his eyes. Weeping he re-reads his friend's letter every hour. But he is mortally dejected and anxious, for the friend proves averse to this excessive attachment. 'What do you want from me?' he asks. 'What is wrong with you?' the other replies. Erasmus cannot bear to find that this friendship is not fully returned. 'Do not be so reserved; do tell me what is wrong! I repose my hope in you alone; I have become yours so completely that you have left me naught of myself. You know my pusillanimity, which when it has no one on whom to lean and rest, makes me so desperate that life becomes a burden.'

Let us remember this. Erasmus never again expresses himself so passionately. He has given us here the clue by which we may understand much of what he becomes in his later years.

These letters have sometimes been taken as mere literary exercises; the weakness they betray and the complete absence of all reticence, seem to tally ill with his habit of cloaking his most intimate feelings which, afterwards, Erasmus never quite relinquishes. Dr. Allen, who leaves this question undecided, nevertheless inclines to regard the letters as sincere effusions, and to me they seem so, incontestably. This exuberant friendship accords quite well with the times and the person.

Sentimental friendships were as much in vogue in secular circles during the fifteenth century as towards the end of the eighteenth century. Each court had its pairs of friends, who dressed alike, and shared room, bed, and heart. Nor was this cult of fervent friendship restricted to the sphere of aristocratic life. It was among the specific characteristics of the devotio moderna, as, for the rest, it seems from its very nature to be inseparably bound up with pietism. To observe one another with sympathy, to watch and note each other's inner life, was a customary and approved occupation among the brethren of the Common Life and the Windesheim monks. And though Steyn and Sion were not of the Windesheim congregation, the spirit of the devotio moderna was prevalent there.

As for Erasmus himself, he has rarely revealed the foundation of his character more completely than when he declared to Servatius: 'My mind is such that I think nothing can rank higher than friendship in this life, nothing should be desired more ardently, nothing should be treasured more jealously'. A violent affection of a similar nature troubled him even at a later date when the purity of his motives was questioned. Afterwards he speaks of youth as being used to conceive a fervent affection for certain comrades. Moreover, the classic examples of friends, Orestes and Pylades, Damon and Pythias, Theseus and Pirithous, as also David and Jonathan, were ever present before his mind's eye. A young and very tender heart, marked by many feminine traits, replete with all the sentiment and with all the imaginings of classic literature, who was debarred from love and found himself placed against his wish in a coarse and frigid environment, was likely to become somewhat excessive in his affections.

He was obliged to moderate them. Servatius would have none of so jealous and exacting a friendship and, probably at the cost of more humiliation and shame than appears in his letters, young Erasmus resigns himself, to be more guarded in expressing his feelings in the future. The sentimental Erasmus disappears for good and presently makes room for the witty latinist, who surpasses his older friends, and chats with them about poetry and literature, advises them about their Latin style, and lectures them if necessary.

The opportunities for acquiring the new taste for classic antiquity cannot have been so scanty at Deventer, and in the monastery itself, as Erasmus afterwards would have us believe, considering the authors he already knew at this time. We may conjecture, also, that the books left by his father, possibly brought by him from Italy, contributed to Erasmus's culture, though it would be strange that, prone as he was to disparage his schools and his monastery, he should not have mentioned the fact. Moreover, we know that the humanistic knowledge of his youth was not exclusively his own, in spite of all he afterwards said about Dutch ignorance and obscurantism. Cornelius Aurelius and William Hermans likewise possessed it.

In a letter to Cornelius he mentions the following authors as his poetic models—Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Juvenal, Statius, Martial, Claudian, Persius, Lucan, Tibullus, Propertius. In prose he imitates Cicero, Quintilian, Sallust, and Terence, whose metrical character had not yet been recognized. Among Italian humanists he was especially acquainted with Lorenzo Valla, who on account of his Elegantiae passed with him for the pioneer of bonae literae; but Filelfo, Aeneas Sylvius, Guarino, Poggio, and others, were also not unknown to him. In ecclesiastical literature he was particularly well read in Jerome. It remains remarkable that the education which Erasmus received in the schools of the devotio moderna with their ultra-puritanical object, their rigid discipline intent on breaking the personality, could produce such a mind as he manifests in his monastic period—the mind of an accomplished humanist. He is only interested in writing Latin verses and in the purity of his Latin style. We look almost in vain for piety in the correspondence with Cornelius of Gouda and William Hermans. They manipulate with ease the most difficult Latin metres and the rarest terms of mythology. Their subject-matter is bucolic or amatory, and, if devotional, their classicism deprives it of the accent of piety. The prior of the neighbouring monastery of Hem, at whose request Erasmus sang the Archangel Michael, did not dare to paste up his Sapphic ode: it was so 'poetic', he thought, as to seem almost Greek. In those days poetic meant classic. Erasmus himself thought he had made it so bald that it was nearly prose—'the times were so barren, then', he afterwards sighed.

These young poets felt themselves the guardians of a new light amidst the dullness and barbarism which oppressed them. They readily believed each other's productions to be immortal, as every band of youthful poets does, and dreamt of a future of poetic glory for Steyn by which it would vie with Mantua. Their environment of clownish, narrow-minded conventional divines—for as such they saw them—neither acknowledged nor encouraged them. Erasmus's strong propensity to fancy himself menaced and injured tinged this position with the martyrdom of oppressed talent. To Cornelius he complains in fine Horatian measure of the contempt in which poetry was held; his fellow-monk orders him to let his pen, accustomed to writing poetry, rest. Consuming envy forces him to give up making verses. A horrid barbarism prevails, the country laughs at the laurel-bringing art of high-seated Apollo; the coarse peasant orders the learned poet to write verses. 'Though I had mouths as many as the stars that twinkle in the silent firmament on quiet nights, or as many as the roses that the mild gale of spring strews on the ground, I could not complain of all the evils by which the sacred art of poetry is oppressed in these days. I am tired of writing poetry.' Of this effusion Cornelius made a dialogue which highly pleased Erasmus.

Though in this art nine-tenths may be rhetorical fiction and sedulous imitation, we ought not, on that account, to undervalue the enthusiasm inspiring the young poets. Let us, who have mostly grown blunt to the charms of Latin, not think too lightly of the elation felt by one who, after learning this language out of the most absurd primers and according to the most ridiculous methods, nevertheless discovered it in its purity, and afterwards came to handle it in the charming rhythm of some artful metre, in the glorious precision of its structure and in all the melodiousness of its sound.

Nec si quot placidis ignea noctibus Scintillant tacito sydera culmine, Nec si quot tepidum flante Favonio Ver suffundit humo rosas, Tot sint ora mihi...

Was it strange that the youth who could say this felt himself a poet?—or who, together with his friend, could sing of spring in a Meliboean song of fifty distichs? Pedantic work, if you like, laboured literary exercises, and yet full of the freshness and the vigour which spring from the Latin itself.

Out of these moods was to come the first comprehensive work that Erasmus was to undertake, the manuscript of which he was afterwards to lose, to recover in part, and to publish only after many years—the Antibarbari, which he commenced at Steyn, according to Dr. Allen. In the version in which eventually the first book of the Antibarbari appeared, it reflects, it is true, a somewhat later phase of Erasmus's life, that which began after he had left the monastery; neither is the comfortable tone of his witty defence of profane literature any longer that of the poet at Steyn. But the ideal of a free and noble life of friendly intercourse and the uninterrupted study of the Ancients had already occurred to him within the convent walls.

In the course of years those walls probably hemmed him in more and more closely. Neither learned and poetic correspondence nor the art of painting with which he occupied himself,[1] together with one Sasboud, could sweeten the oppression of monastic life and a narrow-minded, unfriendly environment. Of the later period of his life in the monastery, no letters at all have been preserved, according to Dr. Allen's carefully considered dating. Had he dropped his correspondence out of spleen, or had his superiors forbidden him to keep it up, or are we merely left in the dark because of accidental loss? We know nothing about the circumstances and the frame of mind in which Erasmus was ordained on 25 April 1492, by the Bishop of Utrecht, David of Burgundy. Perhaps his taking holy orders was connected with his design to leave the monastery. He himself afterwards declared that he had but rarely read mass. He got his chance to leave the monastery when offered the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambray, Henry of Bergen. Erasmus owed this preferment to his fame as a Latinist and a man of letters; for it was with a view to a journey to Rome, where the bishop hoped to obtain a cardinal's hat, that Erasmus entered his service. The authorization of the Bishop of Utrecht had been obtained, and also that of the prior and the general of the order. Of course, there was no question yet of taking leave for good, since, as the bishop's servant, Erasmus continued to wear his canon's dress. He had prepared for his departure in the deepest secrecy. There is something touching in the glimpse we get of his friend and fellow-poet, William Hermans, waiting in vain outside of Gouda to see his friend just for a moment, when on his way south he would pass the town. It seems there had been consultations between them as to leaving Steyn together, and Erasmus, on his part, had left him ignorant of his plans. William had to console himself with the literature that might be had at Steyn.

* * * * *

Erasmus, then twenty-five years old—for in all probability the year when he left the monastery was 1493—now set foot on the path of a career that was very common and much coveted at that time: that of an intellectual in the shadow of the great. His patron belonged to one of the numerous Belgian noble families, which had risen in the service of the Burgundians and were interestedly devoted to the prosperity of that house. The Glimes were lords of the important town of Bergen-op-Zoom, which, situated between the River Scheldt and the Meuse delta, was one of the links between the northern and the southern Netherlands. Henry, the Bishop of Cambray, had just been appointed chancellor of the Order of the Golden Fleece, the most distinguished spiritual dignity at court, which although now Habsburg in fact, was still named after Burgundy. The service of such an important personage promised almost unbounded honour and profit. Many a man would under the circumstances, at the cost of some patience, some humiliation, and a certain laxity of principle, have risen even to be a bishop. But Erasmus was never a man to make the most of his situation.

Serving the bishop proved to be rather a disappointment. Erasmus had to accompany him on his frequent migrations from one residence to another in Bergen, Brussels, or Mechlin. He was very busy, but the exact nature of his duties is unknown. The journey to Rome, the acme of things desirable to every divine or student, did not come off. The bishop, although taking a cordial interest in him for some months, was less accommodating than he had expected. And so we shortly find Erasmus once more in anything but a cheerful frame of mind. 'The hardest fate,' he calls his own, which robs him of all his old sprightliness. Opportunities to study he has none. He now envies his friend William, who at Steyn in the little cell can write beautiful poetry, favoured by his 'lucky stars'. It befits him, Erasmus, only to weep and sigh; it has already so dulled his mind and withered his heart that his former studies no longer appeal to him. There is rhetorical exaggeration in this and we shall not take his pining for the monastery too seriously, but still it is clear that deep dejection had mastered him. Contact with the world of politics and ambition had probably unsettled Erasmus. He never had any aptitude for it. The hard realities of life frightened and distressed him. When forced to occupy himself with them he saw nothing but bitterness and confusion about him. 'Where is gladness or repose? Wherever I turn my eyes I only see disaster and harshness. And in such a bustle and clamour about me you wish me to find leisure for the work of the Muses?'

Real leisure Erasmus was never to find during his life. All his reading, all his writing, he did hastily, tumultuarie, as he calls it repeatedly. Yet he must nevertheless have worked with intensest concentration and an incredible power of assimilation. Whilst staying with the bishop he visited the monastery of Groenendael near Brussels, where in former times Ruysbroeck wrote. Possibly Erasmus did not hear the inmates speak of Ruysbroeck and he would certainly have taken little pleasure in the writings of the great mystic. But in the library he found the works of St. Augustine and these he devoured. The monks of Groenendael were surprised at his diligence. He took the volumes with him even to his bedroom.

He occasionally found time to compose at this period. At Halsteren, near Bergen-op-Zoom, where the bishop had a country house, he revised the Antibarbari, begun at Steyn, and elaborated it in the form of a dialogue. It would seem as if he sought compensation for the agitation of his existence in an atmosphere of idyllic repose and cultured conversation. He conveys us to the scene (he will afterwards use it repeatedly) which ever remained the ideal pleasure of life to him: a garden or a garden house outside the town, where in the gladness of a fine day a small number of friends meet to talk during a simple meal or a quiet walk, in Platonic serenity, about things of the mind. The personages whom he introduces, besides himself, are his best friends. They are the valued and faithful friend whom he got to know at Bergen, James Batt, schoolmaster and afterwards also clerk of that town, and his old friend William Hermans of Steyn, whose literary future he continued somewhat to promote. William, arriving unexpectedly from Holland, meets the others, who are later joined by the Burgomaster of Bergen and the town physician. In a lightly jesting, placid tone they engage in a discussion about the appreciation of poetry and literature—Latin literature. These are not incompatible with true devotion, as barbarous dullness wants us to believe. A cloud of witnesses is there to prove it, among them and above all St. Augustine, whom Erasmus had studied recently, and St. Jerome, with whom Erasmus had been longer acquainted and whose mind was, indeed, more congenial to him. Solemnly, in ancient Roman guise, war is declared on the enemies of classic culture. O ye Goths, by what right do you occupy, not only the Latin provinces (the disciplinae liberales are meant) but the capital, that is Latinity itself?

It was Batt who, when his prospects with the Bishop of Cambray ended in disappointment, helped to find a way out for Erasmus. He himself had studied at Paris, and thither Erasmus also hoped to go, now that Rome was denied him. The bishop's consent and the promise of a stipend were obtained and Erasmus departed for the most famous of all universities, that of Paris, probably in the late summer of 1495. Batt's influence and efforts had procured him this lucky chance.


[1] Allen No. 16.12 cf. IV p. xx, and vide LB. IV 756, where surveying the years of his youth he also writes 'Pingere dum meditor tenueis sine corpore formas'.




The University of Paris—Traditions and schools of Philosophy and Theology—The College of Montaigu—Erasmus's dislike of scholasticism—Relations with the humanist, Robert Gaguin, 1495—How to earn a living—First drafts of several of his educational works—Travelling to Holland and back—Batt and the Lady of Veere—To England with Lord Mountjoy: 1499

The University of Paris was, more than any other place in Christendom, the scene of the collision and struggle of opinions and parties. University life in the Middle Ages was in general tumultuous and agitated. The forms of scientific intercourse themselves entailed an element of irritability: never-ending disputations, frequent elections and rowdyism of the students. To those were added old and new quarrels of all sorts of orders, schools and groups. The different colleges contended among themselves, the secular clergy were at variance with the regular. The Thomists and the Scotists, together called the Ancients, had been disputing at Paris for half a century with the Terminists, or Moderns, the followers of Ockam and Buridan. In 1482 some sort of peace was concluded between those two groups. Both schools were on their last legs, stuck fast in sterile technical disputes, in systematizing and subdividing, a method of terms and words by which science and philosophy benefited no longer. The theological colleges of the Dominicans and Franciscans at Paris were declining; theological teaching was taken over by the secular colleges of Navarre and Sorbonne, but in the old style.

The general traditionalism had not prevented humanism from penetrating Paris also during the last quarter of the fifteenth century. Refinement of Latin style and the taste for classic poetry here, too, had their fervent champions, just as revived Platonism, which had sprung up in Italy. The Parisian humanists were partly Italians as Girolamo Balbi and Fausto Andrelini, but at that time a Frenchman was considered to be their leader, Robert Gaguin, general of the order of the Mathurins or Trinitarians, diplomatist, French poet and humanist. Side by side with the new Platonism a clearer understanding of Aristotle penetrated, which had also come from Italy. Shortly before Erasmus's arrival Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples had returned from Italy, where he had visited the Platonists, such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Ermolao Barbaro, the reviver of Aristotle. Though theoretical theology and philosophy generally were conservative at Paris, yet here as well as elsewhere movements to reform the Church were not wanting. The authority of Jean Gerson, the University's great chancellor (about 1400), had not yet been forgotten. But reform by no means meant inclination to depart from the doctrine of the Church; it aimed, in the first place, at restoration and purification of the monastic orders and afterwards at the extermination of abuses which the Church acknowledged and lamented as existing within its fold. In that spirit of reformation of spiritual life the Dutch movement of the devotio moderna had recently begun to make itself felt, also, at Paris. The chief of its promoters was John Standonck of Mechlin, educated by the brethren of the Common Life at Gouda and imbued with their spirit in its most rigorous form. He was an ascetic more austere than the spirit of the Windesheimians, strict indeed but yet moderate, required; far beyond ecclesiastical circles his name was proverbial on account of his abstinence—he had definitely denied himself the use of meat. As provisor of the college of Montaigu he had instituted the most stringent rules there, enforced by chastisement for the slightest faults. To the college he had annexed a home for poor scholars, where they lived in a semi-monastic community.

To this man Erasmus had been recommended by the Bishop of Cambray. Though he did not join the community of poor students—he was nearly thirty years old—he came to know all the privations of the system. They embittered the earlier part of his stay at Paris and instilled in him a deep, permanent aversion to abstinence and austerity. Had he come to Paris for this—to experience the dismal and depressing influences of his youth anew in a more stringent form?

The purpose for which Erasmus went to Paris was chiefly to obtain the degree of doctor of theology. This was not too difficult for him: as a regular he was exempt from previous study in the faculty of arts, and his learning and astonishing intelligence and energy enabled him to prepare in a short time for the examinations and disputations required. Yet he did not attain this object at Paris. His stay, which with interruptions lasted, first till 1499, to be continued later, became to him a period of difficulties and exasperations, of struggle to make his way by all the humiliating means which at the time were indispensable to that end; of dawning success, too, which, however, failed to gratify him.

The first cause of his reverses was a physical one; he could not endure the hard life in the college of Montaigu. The addled eggs and squalid bedrooms stuck in his memory all his life; there he thinks he contracted the beginnings of his later infirmity. In the Colloquia he has commemorated with abhorrence Standonck's system of abstinence, privation and chastisement. For the rest his stay there lasted only until the spring of 1496.

Meanwhile he had begun his theological studies. He attended lectures on the Bible and on the Book of the Sentences, the medieval handbook of theology and still the one most frequently used. He was even allowed to give some lessons in the college on Holy Scripture. He preached a few sermons in honour of the Saints, probably in the neighbouring abbey of St. Genevieve. But his heart was not in all this. The subtleties of the schools could not please him. That aversion to all scholasticism, which he rejected in one sweeping condemnation, struck root in his mind, which, however broad, always judged unjustly that for which it had no room. 'Those studies can make a man opinionated and contentious; can they make him wise? They exhaust the mind by a certain jejune and barren subtlety, without fertilizing or inspiring it. By their stammering and by the stains of their impure style they disfigure theology which had been enriched and adorned by the eloquence of the ancients. They involve everything whilst trying to resolve everything.' 'Scotist', with Erasmus, became a handy epithet for all schoolmen, nay, for everything superannuated and antiquated. He would rather lose the whole of Scotus than Cicero's or Plutarch's works. These he feels the better for reading, whereas he rises from the study of scholasticism frigidly disposed towards true virtue, but irritated into a disputatious mood.

It would, no doubt, have been difficult for Erasmus to find in the arid traditionalism which prevailed in the University of Paris the heyday of scholastic philosophy and theology. From the disputations which he heard in the Sorbonne he brought back nothing but the habit of scoffing at doctors of theology, or as he always ironically calls them by their title of honour: Magistri nostri. Yawning, he sat among 'those holy Scotists' with their wrinkled brows, staring eyes, and puzzled faces, and on his return home he writes a disrespectful fantasy to his young friend Thomas Grey, telling him how he sleeps the sleep of Epimenides with the divines of the Sorbonne. Epimenides awoke after his forty-seven years of slumber, but the majority of our present theologians will never wake up. What may Epimenides have dreamt? What but subtleties of the Scotists: quiddities, formalities, etc.! Epimenides himself was reborn in Scotus, or rather, Epimenides was Scotus's prototype. For did not he, too, write theological books, in which he tied such syllogistic knots as he would never have been able to loosen? The Sorbonne preserves Epimenides's skin written over with mysterious letters, as an oracle which men may only see after having borne the title of Magister noster for fifteen years.

It is not a far cry from caricatures like these to the Sorbonistres and the Barbouillamenta Scoti of Rabelais. 'It is said', thus Erasmus concludes his boutade, 'that no one can understand the mysteries of this science who has had the least intercourse with the Muses or the Graces. All that you have learned in the way of bonae literae has to be unlearned first; if you have drunk of Helicon you must first vomit the draught. I do my utmost to say nothing according to the Latin taste, and nothing graceful or witty; and I am already making progress, and there is hope that one day they will acknowledge Erasmus.'

It was not only the dryness of the method and the barrenness of the system which revolted Erasmus. It was also the qualities of his own mind, which, in spite of all its breadth and acuteness, did not tend to penetrate deeply into philosophical or dogmatic speculations. For it was not only scholasticism that repelled him; the youthful Platonism and the rejuvenated Aristotelianism taught by Lefevre d'Etaples also failed to attract him. For the present he remained a humanist of aesthetic bias, with the substratum of a biblical and moral disposition, resting mainly on the study of his favourite Jerome. For a long time to come Erasmus considered himself, and also introduced himself, as a poet and an orator, by which latter term he meant what we call a man of letters.

Immediately on arriving at Paris he must have sought contact with the headquarters of literary humanism. The obscure Dutch regular introduced himself in a long letter (not preserved) full of eulogy, accompanied by a much-laboured poem, to the general, not only of the Trinitarians but, at the same time, of Parisian humanists, Robert Gaguin. The great man answered very obligingly: 'From your lyrical specimen I conclude that you are a scholar; my friendship is at your disposal; do not be so profuse in your praise, that looks like flattery'. The correspondence had hardly begun when Erasmus found a splendid opportunity to render this illustrious personage a service and, at the same time, in the shadow of his name, make himself known to the reading public. The matter is also of importance because it affords us an opportunity, for the first time, to notice the connection that is always found between Erasmus's career as a man of letters and a scholar and the technical conditions of the youthful art of printing.

Gaguin was an all-round man and his Latin text-book of the history of France, De origine et gestis Francorum Compendium, was just being printed. It was the first specimen of humanistic historiography in France. The printer had finished his work on 30 September 1495, but of the 136 leaves, two remained blank. This was not permissible according to the notions of that time. Gaguin was ill and could not help matters. By judicious spacing the compositor managed to fill up folio 135 with a poem by Gaguin, the colophon and two panegyrics by Faustus Andrelinus and another humanist. Even then there was need of matter, and Erasmus dashed into the breach and furnished a long commendatory letter, completely filling the superfluous blank space of folio 136.[2] In this way his name and style suddenly became known to the numerous public which was interested in Gaguin's historical work, and at the same time he acquired another title to Gaguin's protection, on whom the exceptional qualities of Erasmus's diction had evidently not been lost. That his history would remain known chiefly because it had been a stepping stone to Erasmus, Gaguin could hardly have anticipated.

Although Erasmus had now, as a follower of Gaguin, been introduced into the world of Parisian humanists, the road to fame, which had latterly begun to lead through the printing press, was not yet easy for him. He showed the Antibarbari to Gaguin, who praised them, but no suggestion of publication resulted. A slender volume of Latin poems by Erasmus was published in Paris in 1496, dedicated to Hector Boys, a Scotchman, with whom he had become acquainted at Montaigu. But the more important writings at which he worked during his stay in Paris all appeared in print much later.

While intercourse with men like Robert Gaguin and Faustus Andrelinus might be honourable, it was not directly profitable. The support of the Bishop of Cambray was scantier than he wished. In the spring of 1496 he fell ill and left Paris. Going first to Bergen, he had a kind welcome from his patron, the bishop; and then, having recovered his health, he went on to Holland to his friends. It was his intention to stay there, he says. The friends themselves, however, urged him to return to Paris, which he did in the autumn of 1496. He carried poetry by William Hermans and a letter from this poet to Gaguin. A printer was found for the poems and Erasmus also brought his friend and fellow-poet into contact with Faustus Andrelinus.

The position of a man who wished to live by intellectual labour was far from easy at that time and not always dignified. He had either to live on church prebends or on distinguished patrons, or on both. But such a prebend was difficult to get and patrons were uncertain and often disappointing. The publishers paid considerable copy-fees only to famous authors. As a rule the writer received a number of copies of his work and that was all. His chief advantage came from a dedication to some distinguished personage, who could compliment him for it with a handsome gift. There were authors who made it a practice to dedicate the same work repeatedly to different persons. Erasmus has afterwards defended himself explicitly from that suspicion and carefully noted how many of those whom he honoured with a dedication gave nothing or very little.

The first need, therefore, to a man in Erasmus's circumstances was to find a Maecenas. Maecenas with the humanists was almost synonymous with paymaster. Under the adage Ne bos quidem pereat Erasmus has given a description of the decent way of obtaining a Maecenas. Consequently, when his conduct in these years appears to us to be actuated, more than once, by an undignified pushing spirit, we should not gauge it by our present standards. These were his years of weakness.

On his return to Paris he did not again lodge in Montaigu. He tried to make a living by giving lessons to young men of fortune. A merchant's sons of Luebeck, Christian and Henry Northoff, who lodged with one Augustine Vincent, were his pupils. He composed beautiful letters for them, witty, fluent and a trifle scented. At the same time he taught two young Englishmen, Thomas Grey and Robert Fisher, and conceived such a doting affection for Grey as to lead to trouble with the youth's guardian, a Scotchman, by whom Erasmus was excessively vexed.

Paris did not fail to exercise its refining influence on Erasmus. It made his style affectedly refined and sparkling—he pretends to disdain the rustic products of his youth in Holland. In the meantime, the works through which afterwards his influence was to spread over the whole world began to grow, but only to the benefit of a few readers. They remained unprinted as yet. For the Northoffs was composed the little compendium of polite conversation (in Latin), Familiarium colloquiorum formulae, the nucleus of the world-famous Colloquia. For Robert Fisher he wrote the first draft of De conscribendis epistolis, the great dissertation on the art of letter-writing (Latin letters), probably also the paraphrase of Valla's Elegantiae, a treatise on pure Latin, which had been a beacon-light of culture to Erasmus in his youth. De copia verborum ac rerum was also such a help for beginners, to provide them with a vocabulary and abundance of turns and expressions; and also the germs of a larger work: De ratione studii, a manual for arranging courses of study, lay in the same line.

It was a life of uncertainty and unrest. The bishop gave but little support. Erasmus was not in good health and felt continually depressed. He made plans for a journey to Italy, but did not see much chance of effecting them. In the summer of 1498 he again travelled to Holland and to the bishop. In Holland his friends were little pleased with his studies. It was feared that he was contracting debts at Paris. Current reports about him were not favourable. He found the bishop, in the commotion of his departure for England on a mission, irritable and full of complaints. It became more and more evident that he would have to look out for another patron. Perhaps he might turn to the Lady of Veere, Anna of Borselen, with whom his faithful and helpful friend Batt had now taken service, as a tutor to her son, in the castle of Tournehem, between Calais and Saint Omer.

Upon his return to Paris, Erasmus resumed his old life, but it was hateful slavery to him. Batt had an invitation for him to come to Tournehem, but he could not yet bear to leave Paris. Here he had now as a pupil the young Lord Mountjoy, William Blount. That meant two strings to his bow. Batt is incited to prepare the ground for him with Anna of Veere; William Hermans is charged with writing letters to Mountjoy, in which he is to praise the latter's love of literature. 'You should display an erudite integrity, commend me, and proffer your services kindly. Believe me, William, your reputation, too, will benefit by it. He is a young man of great authority with his own folk; you will have some one to distribute your writings in England. I pray you again and again, if you love me, take this to heart.'

The visit to Tournehem took place at the beginning of 1499, followed by another journey to Holland. Henceforward Anna of Veere passed for his patroness. In Holland he saw his friend William Hermans and told him that he thought of leaving for Bologna after Easter. The Dutch journey was one of unrest and bustle; he was in a hurry to return to Paris, not to miss any opportunity which Mountjoy's affection might offer him. He worked hard at the various writings on which he was engaged, as hard as his health permitted after the difficult journey in winter. He was busily occupied in collecting the money for travelling to Italy, now postponed until August. But evidently Batt could not obtain as much for him as he had hoped, and, in May, Erasmus suddenly gave up the Italian plan, and left for England with Mountjoy at the latter's request.


[2] Allen No. 43, p. 145, where the particulars of the case are expounded with peculiar acuteness and conclusions drawn with regard to the chronology of Erasmus's stay at Paris.




First stay in England: 1499-1500—Oxford: John Colet—Erasmus's aspirations directed towards divinity—He is as yet mainly a literate—Fisher and More—Mishap at Dover when leaving England: 1500—Back in France he composes the Adagia—Years of trouble and penury

Erasmus's first stay in England, which lasted from the early summer of 1499 till the beginning of 1500, was to become for him a period of inward ripening. He came there as an erudite poet, the protege of a nobleman of rank, on the road to closer contact with the great world which knew how to appreciate and reward literary merit. He left the country with the fervent desire in future to employ his gifts, in so far as circumstances would permit, in more serious tasks. This change was brought about by two new friends whom he found in England, whose personalities were far above those who had hitherto crossed his path: John Colet and Thomas More.

During all the time of his sojourn in England Erasmus is in high spirits, for him. At first it is still the man of the world who speaks, the refined man of letters, who must needs show his brilliant genius. Aristocratic life, of which he evidently had seen but little at the Bishop of Cambray's and the Lady of Veere's at Tournehem, pleased him fairly well, it seems. 'Here in England', he writes in a light vein to Faustus Andrelinus, 'we have, indeed, progressed somewhat. The Erasmus whom you know is almost a good hunter already, not too bad a horseman, a not unpractised courtier. He salutes a little more courteously, he smiles more kindly. If you are wise, you also will alight here.' And he teases the volatile poet by telling him about the charming girls and the laudable custom, which he found in England, of accompanying all compliments by kisses.[3]

It even fell to his lot to make the acquaintance of royalty. From Mountjoy's estate at Greenwich, More, in the course of a walk, took him to Eltham Palace, where the royal children were educated. There he saw, surrounded by the whole royal household, the youthful Henry, who was to be Henry VIII, a boy of nine years, together with two little sisters and a young prince, who was still an infant in arms. Erasmus was ashamed that he had nothing to offer and, on returning home, he composed (not without exertion, for he had not written poetry at all for some time) a panegyric on England, which he presented to the prince with a graceful dedication.

In October Erasmus was at Oxford which, at first, did not please him, but whither Mountjoy was to follow him. He had been recommended to John Colet, who declared that he required no recommendations: he already knew Erasmus from the letter to Gaguin in the latter's historical work and thought very highly of his learning. There followed during the remainder of Erasmus's stay at Oxford a lively intercourse, in conversation and in correspondence, which definitely decided the bent of Erasmus's many-sided mind.

John Colet, who did not differ much from Erasmus in point of age, had found his intellectual path earlier and more easily. Born of well-to-do parents (his father was a London magistrate and twice lord mayor), he had been able leisurely to prosecute his studies. Not seduced by quite such a brilliant genius as Erasmus possessed into literary digressions, he had from the beginning fixed his attention on theology. He knew Plato and Plotinus, though not in Greek, was very well read in the older Fathers and also respectably acquainted with scholasticism, not to mention his knowledge of mathematics, law, history and the English poets. In 1496 he had established himself at Oxford. Without possessing a degree in divinity, he expounded St. Paul's epistles. Although, owing to his ignorance of Greek, he was restricted to the Vulgate, he tried to penetrate to the original meaning of the sacred texts, discarding the later commentaries.

Colet had a deeply serious nature, always warring against the tendencies of his vigorous being, and he kept within bounds his pride and the love of pleasure. He had a keen sense of humour, which, without doubt, endeared him to Erasmus. He was an enthusiast. When defending a point in theology his ardour changed the sound of his voice, the look in his eyes, and a lofty spirit permeated his whole person.

Out of his intercourse with Colet came the first of Erasmus's theological writings. At the end of a discussion regarding Christ's agony in the garden of Gethsemane, in which Erasmus had defended the usual view that Christ's fear of suffering proceeded from his human nature, Colet had exhorted him to think further about the matter. They exchanged letters about it and finally Erasmus committed both their opinions to paper in the form of a 'Little disputation concerning the anguish, fear and sadness of Jesus', Disputatiuncula de tedio, pavore, tristicia Jesu, etc., being an elaboration of these letters.

While the tone of this pamphlet is earnest and pious, it is not truly fervent. The man of letters is not at once and completely superseded. 'See, Colet,' thus Erasmus ends his first letter, referring half ironically to himself, 'how I can observe the rules of propriety in concluding such a theologic disputation with poetic fables (he had made use of a few mythologic metaphors). But as Horace says, Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.'

This ambiguous position which Erasmus still occupied, also in things of the mind, appears still more clearly from the report which he sent to his new friend, the Frisian John Sixtin, a Latin poet like himself, of another disputation with Colet, at a repast, probably in the hall of Magdalen College, where Wolsey, too, was perhaps present. To his fellow-poet, Erasmus writes as a poet, loosely and with some affectation. It was a meal such as he liked, and afterwards frequently pictured in his Colloquies: cultured company, good food, moderate drinking, noble conversation. Colet presided. On his right hand sat the prior Charnock of St. Mary's College, where Erasmus resided (he had also been present at the disputation about Christ's agony). On his left was a divine whose name is not mentioned, an advocate of scholasticism; next to him came Erasmus, 'that the poet should not be wanting at the banquet'. The discussion was about Cain's guilt by which he displeased the Lord. Colet defended the opinion that Cain had injured God by doubting the Creator's goodness, and, in reliance on his own industry, tilling the earth, whereas Abel tended the sheep and was content with what grew of itself. The divine contended with syllogisms, Erasmus with arguments of 'rhetoric'. But Colet kindled, and got the better of both. After a while, when the dispute had lasted long enough and had become more serious than was suitable for table-talk—'then I said, in order to play my part, the part of the poet that is—to abate the contention and at the same time cheer the meal with a pleasant tale: "it is a very old story, it has to be unearthed from the very oldest authors. I will tell you what I found about it in literature, if you will promise me first that you will not look upon it as a fable."'

And now he relates a witty story of some very ancient codex in which he had read how Cain, who had often heard his parents speak of the glorious vegetation of Paradise, where the ears of corn were as high as the alders with us, had prevailed upon the angel who guarded it, to give him some Paradisal grains. God would not mind it, if only he left the apples alone. The speech by which the angel is incited to disobey the Almighty is a masterpiece of Erasmian wit. 'Do you find it pleasant to stand there by the gate with a big sword? We have just begun to use dogs for that sort of work. It is not so bad on earth and it will be better still; we shall learn, no doubt, to cure diseases. What that forbidden knowledge matters I do not see very clearly. Though, in that matter, too, unwearied industry surmounts all obstacles.' In this way the guardian is seduced. But when God beholds the miraculous effect of Cain's agricultural management, punishment does not fail to ensue. A more delicate way of combining Genesis and the Prometheus myth no humanist had yet invented.

But still, though Erasmus went on conducting himself as a man of letters among his fellow-poets, his heart was no longer in those literary exercises. It is one of the peculiarities of Erasmus's mental growth that it records no violent crises. We never find him engaged in those bitter inward struggles which are in the experience of so many great minds. His transition from interest in literary matters to interest in religious matters is not in the nature of a process of conversion. There is no Tarsus in Erasmus's life. The transition takes place gradually and is never complete. For many years to come Erasmus can, without suspicion of hypocrisy, at pleasure, as his interests or his moods require, play the man of letters or the theologian. He is a man with whom the deeper currents of the soul gradually rise to the surface; who raises himself to the height of his ethical consciousness under the stress of circumstances, rather than at the spur of some irresistible impulse.

The desire to turn only to matters of faith he shows early. 'I have resolved', he writes in his monastic period to Cornelius of Gouda, 'to write no more poems in the future, except such as savour of praise of the saints, or of sanctity itself.' But that was the youthful pious resolve of a moment. During all the years previous to the first voyage to England, Erasmus's writings, and especially his letters, betray a worldly disposition. It only leaves him in moments of illness and weariness. Then the world displeases him and he despises his own ambition; he desires to live in holy quiet, musing on Scripture and shedding tears over his old errors. But these are utterances inspired by the occasion, which one should not take too seriously.

It was Colet's word and example which first changed Erasmus's desultory occupation with theological studies into a firm and lasting resolve to make their pursuit the object of his life. Colet urged him to expound the Pentateuch or the prophet Isaiah at Oxford, just as he himself treated of Paul's epistles. Erasmus declined; he could not do it. This bespoke insight and self-knowledge, by which he surpassed Colet. The latter's intuitive Scripture interpretation without knowledge of the original language failed to satisfy Erasmus. 'You are acting imprudently, my dear Colet, in trying to obtain water from a pumice-stone (in the words of Plautus). How shall I be so impudent as to teach that which I have not learned myself? How shall I warm others while shivering and trembling with cold?... You complain that you find yourself deceived in your expectations regarding me. But I have never promised you such a thing; you have deceived yourself by refusing to believe me when I was telling you the truth regarding myself. Neither did I come here to teach poetics or rhetoric (Colet had hinted at that); these have ceased to be sweet to me, since they ceased to be necessary to me. I decline the one task because it does not come up to my aim in life; the other because it is beyond my strength ... But when, one day, I shall be conscious that the necessary power is in me, I, too, shall choose your part and devote to the assertion of divinity, if no excellent, yet sincere labour.'

The inference which Erasmus drew first of all was that he should know Greek better than he had thus far been able to learn it.

Meanwhile his stay in England was rapidly drawing to a close; he had to return to Paris. Towards the end of his sojourn he wrote to his former pupil, Robert Fisher, who was in Italy, in a high-pitched tone about the satisfaction which he experienced in England. A most pleasant and wholesome climate (he was most sensitive to it); so much humanity and erudition—not of the worn-out and trivial sort, but of the recondite, genuine, ancient, Latin and Greek stamp—that he need hardly any more long to go to Italy. In Colet he thought he heard Plato himself. Grocyn, the Grecian scholar; Linacre, the learned physician, who would not admire them! And whose spirit was ever softer, sweeter or happier than that of Thomas More!

A disagreeable incident occurred as Erasmus was leaving English soil in January 1500. Unfortunately it not only obscured his pleasant memories of the happy island, but also placed another obstacle in the path of his career, and left in his supersensitive soul a sting which vexed him for years afterwards.

The livelihood which he had been gaining at Paris of late years was precarious. The support from the bishop had probably been withdrawn; that of Anna of Veere had trickled but languidly; he could not too firmly rely on Mountjoy. Under these circumstances a modest fund, some provision against a rainy day, was of the highest consequence. Such savings he brought from England, twenty pounds. An act of Edward III, re-enacted by Henry VII not long before, prohibited the export of gold and silver, but More and Mountjoy had assured Erasmus that he could safely take his money with him, if only it was not in English coin. At Dover he learned that the custom-house officers were of a different opinion. He might only keep six 'angels'—the rest was left behind in the hands of the officials and was evidently confiscated.

The shock which this incident gave him perhaps contributed to his fancying himself threatened by robbers and murderers on the road from Calais to Paris. The loss of his money plunged him afresh into perplexity as to his support from day to day. It forced him to resume the profession of a bel esprit, which he already began to loathe, and to take all the humiliating steps to get what was due to it from patrons. And, above all, it affected his mental balance and his dignity. Yet this mishap had its great advantage for the world, and for Erasmus, too, after all. To it the world owes the Adagia; and he the fame, which began with this work.

The feelings with which his misfortune at Dover inspired Erasmus were bitter anger and thirst for revenge. A few months later he writes to Batt: 'Things with me are as they are wont to be in such cases: the wound received in England begins to smart only now that it has become inveterate, and that the more as I cannot have my revenge in any way'. And six months later, 'I shall swallow it. An occasion may offer itself, no doubt, to be even with them.' Yet meanwhile true insight told this man, whose strength did not always attain to his ideals, that the English, whom he had just seen in such a favourable light, let alone his special friends among them, were not accessories to the misfortune. He never reproached More and Mountjoy, whose inaccurate information, he tells us, had done the harm. At the same time his interest, which he always saw in the garb of virtue, told him that now especially it would be essential not to break off his relations with England, and that this gave him a splendid chance of strengthening them. Afterwards he explained this with a naivete which often causes his writings, especially where he tries to suppress or cloak matters, to read like confessions.

'Returning to Paris a poor man, I understood that many would expect I should take revenge with my pen for this mishap, after the fashion of men of letters, by writing something venomous against the king or against England. At the same time I was afraid that William Mountjoy, having indirectly caused my loss of money, would be apprehensive of losing my affection. In order, therefore, both to put the expectations of those people to shame, and to make known that I was not so unfair as to blame the country for a private wrong, or so inconsiderate as, because of a small loss, to risk making the king displeased with myself or with my friends in England, and at the same time to give my friend Mountjoy a proof that I was no less kindly disposed towards him than before, I resolved to publish something as quickly as possible. As I had nothing ready, I hastily brought together, by a few days' reading, a collection of Adagia, in the supposition that such a booklet, however it might turn out, by its mere usefulness would get into the hands of students. In this way I demonstrated that my friendship had not cooled off at all. Next, in a poem I subjoined, I protested that I was not angry with the king or with the country at being deprived of my money. And my scheme was not ill received. That moderation and candour procured me a good many friends in England at the time—erudite, upright and influential men.'

This is a characteristic specimen of semi-ethical conduct. In this way Erasmus succeeded in dealing with his indignation, so that later on he could declare, when the recollection came up occasionally, 'At one blow I had lost all my fortune, but I was so unconcerned that I returned to my books all the more cheerfully and ardently'. But his friends knew how deep the wound had been. 'Now (on hearing that Henry VIII had ascended the throne) surely all bitterness must have suddenly left your soul,' Mountjoy writes to him in 1509, possibly through the pen of Ammonius.

The years after his return to France were difficult ones. He was in great need of money and was forced to do what he could, as a man of letters, with his talents and knowledge. He had again to be the homo poeticus or rhetoricus. He writes polished letters full of mythology and modest mendicity. As a poet he had a reputation; as a poet he could expect support. Meanwhile the elevating picture of his theological activities remained present before his mind's eye. It nerves him to energy and perseverance. 'It is incredible', he writes to Batt, 'how my soul yearns to finish all my works, at the same time becoming somewhat proficient in Greek, and afterwards to devote myself entirely to the sacred learning after which my soul has been hankering for a long time. I am in fairly good health, so I shall have to strain every nerve this year (1501) to get the work we gave the printer published, and by dealing with theological problems, to expose our cavillers, who are very numerous, as they deserve. If three more years of life are granted me, I shall be beyond the reach of envy.'

Here we see him in a frame of mind to accomplish great things, though not merely under the impulse of true devotion. Already he sees the restoration of genuine divinity as his task; unfortunately the effusion is contained in a letter in which he instructs the faithful Batt as to how he should handle the Lady of Veere in order to wheedle money out of her.

For years to come the efforts to make a living were to cause him almost constant tribulations and petty cares. He had had more than enough of France and desired nothing better than to leave it. Part of the year 1500 he spent at Orleans. Adversity made him narrow. There is the story of his relations with Augustine Vincent Caminade, a humanist of lesser rank (he ended as syndic of Middelburg), who took young men as lodgers. It is too long to detail here, but remarkable enough as revealing Erasmus's psychology, for it shows how deeply he mistrusted his friends. There are also his relations with Jacobus Voecht, in whose house he evidently lived gratuitously and for whom he managed to procure a rich lodger in the person of an illegitimate brother of the Bishop of Cambray. At this time, Erasmus asserts, the bishop (Antimaecenas he now calls him) set Standonck to dog him in Paris.

Much bitterness there is in the letters of this period. Erasmus is suspicious, irritable, exacting, sometimes rude in writing to his friends. He cannot bear William Hermans any longer because of his epicureanism and his lack of energy, to which he, Erasmus, certainly was a stranger. But what grieves us most is the way he speaks to honest Batt. He is highly praised, certainly. Erasmus promises to make him immortal, too. But how offended he is, when Batt cannot at once comply with his imperious demands. How almost shameless are his instructions as to what Batt is to tell the Lady of Veere, in order to solicit her favour for Erasmus. And how meagre the expressions of his sorrow, when the faithful Batt is taken from him by death in the first half of 1502.

It is as if Erasmus had revenged himself on Batt for having been obliged to reveal himself to his true friend in need more completely than he cared to appear to anyone; or for having disavowed to Anna of Borselen his fundamental convictions, his most refined taste, for the sake of a meagre gratuity. He has paid homage to her in that ponderous Burgundian style with which dynasties in the Netherlands were familiar, and which must have been hateful to him. He has flattered her formal piety. 'I send you a few prayers, by means of which you could, as by incantations, call down, even against her will, from Heaven, so to say, not the moon, but her who gave birth to the sun of justice.'

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