I continue my 20-year quest to read the bulk of the output of Erasmus. This man wrote so much that it’s a big job just reading everything he wrote. These are his letters for just 15 months, starting in January 1526. I have spent more than a year on this book, reading just a few pages at a time.
Erasmus kept up a brisk correspondence; I counted nearly a hundred different correspondents in this collection, covering a broad range of topics. Among them:
The controversy with Luther
Erasmus had nailed Luther to the wall on the subject of free will (Erasmus said yes, Luther said no). Luther had responded rather nastily – he was a hot-headed fellow. In his published response to Erasmus, Luther had written:
“By such tactics you only succeed in showing that you foster in your heart a Lucian, or some other pig from Epicurus’ sty who, having no belief in God himself, secretly ridicules all who have belief.”
Erasmus’ response was not as uncivil, but it was still cold:
“What is the point of all these scurrilous insults and the false charges that I am an atheist, an Epicurean, a skeptic in matters belonging to the Christian faith, a blasphemer…”
The exchange definitely demonstrates Erasmus’ greatest weakness: a thin skin. Of course, given the ferocity of the vituperation directed at him, a thin skin might be justified.
Then there was his correspondence with some of the most important men in Christendom. To Francis I, the king of France, he wrote requesting that he put a stop to the vicious attacks against him being published by a cabal of conservative theologians at the University of Paris. Francis complied immediately, but the theologians simply moved to a publisher in Germany who was outside the reach of the French king.
To John III, king of Portugal, Erasmus dedicated a volume of his translations of the works of St. Chrysostom. He had been urged to do so for some years by Portuguese humanists, who assured Erasmus that such a dedication would surely garner a generous thank-you gift from the king. Unfortunately, Erasmus made a few comments in the dedication that criticized some important supporters of the king, so his advisors deemed it best not to tell the king about Erasmus’ book.
He wrote Duke John of Saxony asking him to restrain Luther’s invective. The Duke, who was sympathetic to Luther, forwarded the letter to Luther and asked him to explain himself. Luther replied that this was a theological matter and therefore secular rulers such as Duke George would do best to refrain from interfering. Luther’s answer appears to have satisfied the Duke.
Meanwhile, Duke George of Saxony (I haven’t figured out why there were two different Dukes reigning at the same time) wrote Erasmus urging him on in his battle with Luther. Duke George was very anti-Lutheran, while Duke John was pro-Lutheran. Go figure.
Erasmus dedicated a book on marriage to Queen Catherine, wife of Henry VIII. Erasmus’ timing was unfortunate: the book reached her just as Henry VIII was initiating divorce proceedings against her. Oops.
Charles V, the Emperor, wrote to assure Erasmus that he would order Erasmus’ enemies in the Empire to cool their rhetoric, which Charles did. Unfortunately, they simply rearranged their attacks and continued. Charles also wrote, “Please, amid all your labors, look after your health – for we were sorry to hear that you have been very ill and in great pain.”
He also corresponded with Mercurino Gattinara, the Imperial Chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire.
Last Will and Testament
This volume also contains the first version of the last will and testament that Erasmus wrote during the period covered by this book. Erasmus, it seems, was quite wealthy by this time; the gifts that kings, cardinals, dukes, and bishops showered on him added up to quite a pile. Here’s a list of some of the items mentioned in the will:
solid gold spoon
gilded double cup
two fine cloaks, one lined with sable
an hourglass of pure gold
two silver trenchers
silver cup bearing the image of St. Jerome
gold fork, silver fork
two purses, one with a silver ring and the other with a silver gilding
bed curtains, tapestry hangings
silver spoon with the image of Sebastian on it
a group of gold and silver medals
six silver cups
a group of rings
200 gold pieces
600 gold florins
This is only the stuff explicitly mentioned. The residue was to be used for charitable purposes.
The book concludes with an assessment of Erasmus’ gross income for the year 1526: 534 pounds sterling. This was equivalent to the annual wages of 93 master masons working in Oxford that year. This is based on the income documented in the letters of that time; we know that Erasmus had other sources of income that were not mentioned in the letters, so his income was probably higher than that. And that’s just his annual income for one year!
In Erasmus’ defense, he never spent money on luxuries: all those gold and silver trinkets were gifts from big shots. He spent a goodly amount of money supporting a household of eager students who assisted him in his work. He also spent plenty of money on his correspondence. With no postal services in those days, you had to hire a messenger to deliver your letters. Most messengers would carry a few dozen letters, reducing the cost of sending a single letter. But it was still expensive.
Moreover, Erasmus was definitely a workaholic. He had a lot of money but no time to spend it; he spent most of his life in the correcting room at his publisher, frantically writing material for them to print, and correcting errors.