Erasmus Was Not Antisemitic

February 14th, 1998

Several authorities have accused Erasmus of anti-Semitism. James D. Tracy, writing a biography of Erasmus, devoted several pages to "The Anti-Semitism of Erasmus". Guido Kisch wrote an entire book claiming that Erasmus embraced a deep-seated hatred for Jews. A few years later, Shimon Markish published another book on the same subject, arguing that Erasmus was certainly antipathetic to Jewish thinking, but not particularly prejudiced against Jews as people. In an afterword in the same book, Arthur Cohen dismissed Markish’ detailed explanations as mere quibbling, linking Erasmus directly with the hatreds that culminated in the gas chambers.

I believe these accusations to be unfounded in any morally significant sense, and in this essay I hope to explain why.

My first observation is that the term "anti-Semitism" is not readily applied to the sixteenth century. The social context has changed so much as to render such a term meaningless. Surely, someone trying to label Erasmus a "Republican" or a "Democrat" would be dismissed out of hand for this reason. Even the political labels "conservative" and "liberal" are inapplicable in such a radically different political environment. But what about terms like "royalist" and "democrat"? Could they be applied with any accuracy or utility? I rather doubt it, although Erasmus did express some opinions that we might call important precursors to democrative thought.

In much the same way, the term "anti-Semitism" just doesn’t translate backwards to the sixteenth century. Yes, there were Jews and Gentiles, and yes, the Gentiles often slandered, injured, robbed, beat, and killed Jews solely because of their Jewishness. But before we slap that label around, we need to recognize some gigantic differences.

First is the rise of secularism. Our society treats religion as a private matter, far removed from the important political issues. But political secularism is a recent phenomenon in the West, and is still not established in the Islamic world. Indeed, during the period from about 100 AD to about 600 AD, religious affilation was indistinguishable from political affiliation. A number of important movements that we would today refer to as political movements were at the same time religious in character. Indeed, much has been made of the success of Christianity being due in large measure to its political appeal to a Roman proletariat that was otherwise politically marginalized. Arianism, for example, was a Germanic movement just as much as it was a religious one.

The process continued right up to Erasmus’ time. Were the Hussites a religious splinter group or a political separatist movement? In truth, they were both. The followers of Wycliff in England were largely dispossessed poor; their religious anti-conformism was a political rallying flag for economic and political issues. And the political (and military) activism of the Popes further blurred the distinction between religious and political.

Another social distinction was legal; early Renaissance Europe boasted a variety of overlapping legal systems reflecting its recent feudal past. One independent legal system was operated by the Church and covered a great many activities in daily life. The Jews lived outside this legal system; in this sense, they were "outlaws" in Christian Europe.

Then there was the matter of social group affiliation. Under the old (and crumbling) feudal system, a tight pattern of social affiliations and obligations defined the social position of every member of society. Your lord, your manor, your town, your church, and/or your guild defined who you were, both to yourself and to others. But Jews lived outside this system. Erasmus, who left Rotterdam as a child never to return, was known forevermore as Erasmus of Rotterdam, but the Jews were never similarly attached to a Christian hometown. We can’t blame them -- the best way to deal with the occasional outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence was to move away. In this sense, Jews were "unpersons".

Next comes the matter of attire. Again, by twentieth-century standards, this may seem silly, but back then clothes made the man in a powerful way. Your place in society defined the clothing you wore. Every religious order had its own proud distinctive garment; bishops had their mitres, cardinals their red gowns, and popes their tiaras. Academics, lawyers, doctors all wore special clothing. Poorer tradesmen couldn’t afford special outfits, but they nonetheless maintained some special badge of their occupation. Sumptuary laws controlled what people could wear. From our perspective, such laws appear petty and silly, but the important function played by clothing in Renaissance society made such laws practical and useful. Amidst all this, the Jews preserved their own distinctive attire. I don’t know whether they did so to conform to the attire-based identification system of society, or in proud assertion of their own cultural identity. In any case, their clothing set them apart from the mainstream of Christian society.

Lastly is the matter of intermarriage. It didn’t happen. Recall that even in our secular, enlightened twentieth century, marriages between Jews and Christians still carry their load of difficulties. Back then, such marriages NEVER occurred, which means that there were never any family connections between Christians and Jews. Recall too how important family connections were -- most royal marriages were arranged strictly on considerations of inter-familial relationships. Without family connections, the Jews were truly aliens.

I hope I’ve established that the Jewishness in Erasmus’ time weren’t merely some minor distinction between otherwise identical people. The Jews were fundamentally and profoundly different in everything that mattered. We who have been brought up chanting slogans of egalitarianism ("liberty and justice for all") simply cannot appreciate the social chasm separating Christian from Jew in the sixteenth century. For us, "anti-Semitism" has no justifiable social foundation; but for them, it did.

Another consideration is the viciousness now associated with the term. In modern eyes, the term "anti-Semitism" will always conjure up the nightmares of the Nazis, the concentration camps, and the gas chambers. But injustices against Jews in the sixteenth century were of altogether a different character. Those were brutal times, and injustice was everywhere. You could be the victim of injustice for being Jewish, or being German, or female, or blonde, or tall, or crippled, or ugly -- or just about any other reason, including being "there". Most anti-Jewish violence was small-scale thuggery rather than organized extermination. The authorities, with greater or lesser enthusiasm, tried to keep a lid on the rednecks’ lashing out at the Jews; they tended to express their anti-Semitism in more organized, legalistic, efficient techniques that were also less brutal.

Remember too just how readily religious feeling erupted into murderous violence. The Jews weren’t the only ones murdered over religious differences. The Albigensian Crusade was the thirteenth century’s clumsy attempt at making a Holocaust, with nonconformist Christians as its victims. When Rome was captured in 1527, the orgy of pillage and murder that followed was to many eyes an expression of religious differences. The massacres by and of the Anabaptists at Munster in 1532 were purely matters of religious fanaticism. And then there was Zwingli, the Swiss Protestant theologian who led a small army of Zurichers against an army of Swiss Catholics -- theology sure ain’t what it used to be -- and was defeated and killed. His body was cut up and burned on a pile of dung.

I offer these arguements not to excuse or justify the treatment of Jews in Renaissance Europe, but to remind you how utterly different the social context was. I therefore propose that we dispense with the label "anti-Semitic" on the grounds that it carries too much twentieth century baggage. Instead, let’s rephrase the question in terms that we can deal with: was Erasmus prejudiced against Jewish people?

We can certainly isolate one red herring immediately: Erasmus’ use of the term "Jewish" to refer to an excessive reliance on ceremonialism as opposed to faith from the heart. One of his common phrases is "plusquam Judaicis rerum corpoream", which is translated literally as "more than Jewish things of the body", although it is often more usefully translated as "more than Jewish formalism". Towards the end of his life he stated it explicitly: "Judaism I call not Jewish impiety, but prescriptions about external things, such as food, fasting, clothes, which to a certain degree resemble the rituals of the Jews." It is true that Erasmus often used this formulation in a disparaging context, but we must recognize that his target here was not Jewish people -- it was religious formalism within Christianity.

Erasmus also took plenty of potshots at Jewish beliefs. I can understand how this might offend people sharing such beliefs, but it in no way justifies moral condemnation of Erasmus. The strength of his own faith necessitated a rejection of other beliefs. Erasmus did not make attacks on the Jewish religion a focus of his career, but a man with so much to say about Christian beliefs could not help but make occasional disparaging references to Judaicism (and to Islam as well). Again, most of these were comparitive in nature: Erasmus illuminating some point of Christian belief by comparing and contrasting it with Judaic belief.

There are a few cases, though, that reflect genuine personal animus; I’ll be arguing that these reflect animus directed towards an individual rather than prejudice against Jews. The most telling of these was occasioned by a converted Jew named Johann Pfefferkorn. Like many converts, Pfefferkorn was rather passionate about his new religion, and he attacked a Christian scholar named Reuchlin, who was the foremost scholar of the Hebrew language in Christendom. Erasmus defended Reuchlin’s freedom to study Hebrew, because it provided the foundation for the Old Testament. So Pfefferkorn turned on Erasmus and published a scandalously vitriolic pamphlet against him. Erasmus, always thin-skinned, lost his temper. He had the good sense not to respond to Pfefferkorn directly, but made some scathing sideswipes at him in several letters to friends.

One of these comments was this short jibe, which I present in its original Latin: "Scribunt ad me docti Pepercornium ex scelerato Judaeo sceleratissimum Christianum edisti librum lingua Germanicum in quo doctis omneis, et inter hos me mira rabie lacerat ac discerpit". I present it in Latin because the precise translation is crucial to our issue. Shimon Markish, who wrote a book on Erasmus and the Jews, and was fairly sympathetic to Erasmus, translated it as "My learned friends tell me that one Pfefferkorn, once a damned Jew and now a most damnable Christian, has published a book in German, in which like a mad dog he tears the whole learned world to pieces, and me with it." This translation does not quite do justice to Erasmus, though, for two reasons. First, the crucial phrase is "scelerato Judaeo", which Markish translates as "damned Jew". However, my monster Latin dictionary defines "scelero" in this usage as "bad, impious, wicked, accursed, infamous, vicious, flagitous". Markish’s "damned" is a defensible translation, but not completely fair. Second, all anti-Semitic interpretation is eliminated by the careful balancing of two phrases: "scelerato Judaeo" and "sceleratissimum Christianum". "Sceleratissimum" is the superlative accusative form of "sceleratus". Thus, the sentence might better be translated as "...once a damned Jew and now an utterly damned Christian." Read it that way, and the anti-Semitism vanishes.

The worst comment of all, though, the smoking gun on which most of the accusation rests, lies in a letter to Willibald Pirkheimer. In part, Erasmus wrote:

"He had no other motive in getting baptized than to be able to deliver more dangerous attacks on Christianity and by mixing with us to infect the entire folk with his Jewish poison. What harm could he have done had he remained the Jew that he was? Now at last he is truly acting the Jew. Now that he has assumed the mask of a Christian, he answers to his own kind. The Jews calumniated Christ, but him only; this man raves against all men of integrity and learning. No more gratifying service could he do for his fellow Jews than to pretend to be a deserter and betray the Christian world to its enemies."

The letter goes on in this style, but these are the most inflammatory sentences. And while they certainly are ugly and vitriolic, they do not substantiate the accusation of generalized animus against Jews as people. Erasmus’ anger and paranoia is precisely articulated: he fears Jewish religious rivalry with Christianity. He sees Pfefferkorn’s actions as directed toward sowing discord within Christendom, so as to weaken it in its competition with the Jewish religion. Yes, there are aspects of this writing for Erasmus to be ashamed of. It is paranoid, it is angry, it is vitriolic. But for all his crazed Pfefferkorn-bashing, Erasmus’ only slam against Jews is his accusation that they are in some sort of religious or ideological competition with Christianity.

Most revealing is the absence of many slanders that Erasmus might easily have slipped into, had he harbored genuine ill-will against Jews as people. At no place does Erasmus assign undesirable personality traits to Pfefferkorn as a direct consequence of his Jewishness. Nowhere does he say, "Pfefferkorn is a liar/thief/traitor/jerk/whatever -- just like a Jew". Nowhere does he slip the adjective "Jewish" in front of any derogatory noun. All references to Jewishness are confined to his conspiracy theory.

Moreover, Erasmus does not extend his arguements to any other Jews. His diatribe is directed solely at Pfefferkorn. If Erasmus truly harbored hatred towards Jews as people, he would surely have taken this opportunity to recite his laundry-list of evil Jews and their crimes -- but no such laundry list appears. Erasmus made a few other disparaging references in later life to other Jews, but he did not link them with Pfefferkorn in any "see, all Jews stink" sense. Clearly, Erasmus is attacking the man Pfefferkorn and the competing philosophy of Judaism -- but he is not attacking Jews as people.

One last point: the Pfefferkorn episode is the undeniably the worst case of bad-mouthing in Erasmus’ life. At no other time did he so grievously violate his own standards of civility and accomodation. The letters quoted above were written on November 2nd and 3rd, 1517. Having vented his ire, Erasmus confined himself to some minor grumbling over the next two weeks. On November 15th, he wrote his last discussion of the Pfefferkorn matter.

I claim that a man can be a hero without being a saint. One need not lead a life of perfection to command our moral respect. Erasmus showed his weaknesses in the Pfefferkorn affair, but it was one moment of weakness in a long life. Four ugly letters, from a hand that wrote thousands of missives, cannot condemn a man’s moral worth. It is true that our character is tested by the extreme moments of our lives, but Erasmus was subjected to many harsh tests in his lifetime, and his behavior in these other tests showed him to be a genuine moral hero.