by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam
Back in the 1970s the University of Toronto Press undertook a massive and ambitious project: the publication of reliable English translations of the entire works of Erasmus. They already have the basic outline laid out: it will require 84 volumes! Yes, Erasmus wrote a LOT of stuff. The first 22 volumes comprise his many letters.
Why in the world would anybody want to read his letters, you ask? You see, back then they didn’t have the Internet or email; they didn’t even have television or radio! The only way to get news and gossip was to engage other people in correspondence. And for 20 years, from about 1515 to 1535, Erasmus was sort of like the central mail server for Europe. He corresponded with the great and good of European society, communicating directly with popes, kings, archbishops, and all manner of humbler people. He exchanged letters with businessmen, students, monks, academics – the range of his correspondence covers most of the upper crust of European society as well as much lower levels. If you really want to get a feeling how European society back then, Erasmus’ letters give you a window into day-to-day news and gossip.
You might also wonder why any of these letters were preserved for 500 years. The answer has to do with, well, snobbery. In every society, everybody is scrabbling to get to the top of the social heap. Nowadays you do that by wearing something that looks like a Rolex on your wrist, driving around in an expensive car, and wearing flashy clothes. Back then they didn’t have the Rolexes or the expensive cars, but they did wear flashy clothes. But there was something else. In the early 1500s, printing had just taken off and all the better people could read and write. In fact, literacy was one thing that separated the upper crust from the lower crust, so you could enhance your reputation by showing off your skills as a writer. No kidding! People were impressed by elegant use of written language. Good writing wasn’t something you could buy, so it really helped separate the cultured elite from the common schmucks.
Erasmus was universally acknowledged to be the best writer of the age. His writings sparkled with erudition and grace; he was a master of Latin. So impressive were his writing skills, and so highly esteemed was good writing, that his letters were frequently published in books to show people how to do it well. Recognizing the demand, Erasmus himself published many of his letters. People avidly read them and tried to emulate his style.
Here’s a sample from one of his letters of the period. He is responding to a letter from Cladius Cantiuncula urging him to use his literary powers to defeat the Lutherans.
How I envy you your good fortune in having the leisure to write letters like that! I don’t even have time to read the letters I receive. There is no doubt about it, my dear Cantiuncula, everything you write is striking and impressive and shows a fine command of language. You would be the perfect orator if only your theme were not wholly impracticable and ill-founded. Perhaps the strength of your feelings and your immense enthusiasm for the cause have carried you away, and you have therefore come to believe that what you are so eager to see done is easy to do; or perhaps you are so blinded by affection for me that you take me for an elephant when I am nothing but a fly. Do you really believe that there is nothing that I do not know? Both sides believe – and their belief is well founded – that there is nothing that I do know. Can I accomplish by myself what the emperor, the pope, and whole multitudes of theologians cannot accomplish? Will the world accept me as its sole authority, when even the theologians’ dogs piss on me as they pass? You appeal to me to end the schism, as if that conflagration had not been out of control for a long time now. You reproach me for my silence, as if I had never dared to raise my voice against these tragic evils that engulf the world, or never tried to settle the conflict on fair terms – and all without success, though not without danger to myself…
This might not seem like such a big deal, but remember, it’s a translation from the Latin.
Anyway, this volume contains almost all his letters from the year 1525. This was a difficult time for Erasmus: the Lutheran rebellion was gaining steam in Germany and had grown much too large to be suppressed. Both sides had dug in their heels and Erasmus’ hope of a general synod leading to a happy resolution was collapsing into ruins. He was assailed by the extremists on both sides; this was the source of much concern for Erasmus because the Catholic conservatives were burning people at the stake and Erasmus was Pubic Enemy #1 in their eyes.
There’s a fascinating exchange of letters between Erasmus and one of his most outspoke critics, Noel Beda at the University of Paris. Beda had been inciting the faculty of the University of Paris to condemn Erasmus’ works as heretical, which was the first step towards a formal condemnation of Erasmus personally. In the midst of these activities, Erasmus wrote Beda attempting to make peace. He professed his humble willingness to correct any errors that Beda could contest with evidence. Beda wrote back professing his deep Christian love for his brother in Christ and his earnest desire to help save Erasmus’ soul – but he never specified his complaints. Instead, he offered vague denunciations of the undertones of Erasmus’ writings. Basically, these two were dancing around each other. Erasmus had contempt for the Scholasticism that dominated the thinking at the University of Paris, but never voiced it explicitly; it was only implicit in his works. Beda wanted Erasmus’ head for his insinuations, but couldn’t nail Erasmus for anything specific. After several rounds of fruitless blather, they gave up. Beda never got the chance to burn Erasmus, so he had to settle for burning a rash fellow named Berquin who had the temerity to publish translations of Erasmus’ work in Paris.