Erasmus Was Not Gay

If you search the web, you’ll find Erasmus included on lists of great gays from history. I speculate that such lists are maintained as a matter of gay pride, a demonstration that all sorts of excellent people were gay. Surely the general assertion is true, but on the little detail of Erasmus, it’s wrong. Erasmus was not gay. Here are some examples of these claims.

What’s disturbing to me about this is that it has much to do with politics and little to do with truth. I would not be bothered to discover some proof that Erasmus really was gay; my concern is solely with understanding the man, and I wouldn’t get far down that path by denying a historical truth. Unfortunately, there are those who don’t take so philosophical an approach; they subordinate intellectual integrity to political preference. I recently experienced just how egregious this political intrusion into academic truth can become. I stumbled across a website presenting the "historical gays" list, including Erasmus, so I sent the owner of the website a friendly email suggesting that he might want to polish it up a bit by deleting Erasmus from the list. He wrote back disputing some of my claims. We went back and forth a few times. Basically, without knowing anything at all about Erasmus, he attacked my arguments. He appeared to be exercised about the subject; my friendly tone and easygoing style were not reciprocated. The really distressing thing about his approach was that he never actually addressed the substance of my arguements themselves; for the most part, he ferociously attacked my expertise or various sideshow issues. After just three cycles, he declared that I had no standing to discuss the issue, and terminated the discussion. Here’s the kicker: this chap appears to be a professor of history at an institution of higher learning. Doesn’t do much for your confidence in our educational system, does it? Here's the entire discussion.

What emerges from this is that we’ve got an issue that has generated lots of hot air with almost nothing in the way of solid analysis based on primary sources. Therefore, in the remainder of this essay, I shall attempt to carry out that analysis. Supporting evidence, where extensive, will be covered with hyperlinks.

The most important consideration here is the danger of improper cross-cultural extrapolation. We tend to evaluate information from other cultural contexts in the light of our own cultural experience; this often leads to exquisitely incorrect conclusions. Indeed, the very notion of "being gay" is an artifact of our culture and does not apply to the cultural context in which Erasmus lived. Back then, homosexuality was not so much a state as it was an event. For example, Michael Rocke in "Forbidden Friendships" demonstrates that some 60% of Florentine males during the 15th century participated in some form of homosexual act at some point in their lives – yet it would be profoundly misleading to conclude that 60% of Florentine males were gay. Most men seem to have engaged in just a few encounters. A much smaller percentage of these men engaged in perennial homosexual behavior. Moreover, these homosexual encounters were not always romantic or even erotic in nature; for many young men, submitting to the homosexual importunations of older men was a matter of ’paying dues’ and finding favor in a highly structured patriarchal society.

Moreover, homosexuality itself was not precisely the target of moral opprobrium; anal intercourse with a woman was treated as just as heinous a crime as anal intercourse with a man. In the Renaissance moral order, complete celibacy was considered the moral ideal. Next came sexual intercourse between husband and wife for the sole purpose of procreation; ideally both partners – especially the woman – would find copulation distasteful, but any pleasure they might experience was grudgingly overlooked. A big step lower was procreative sex between unmarried partners; while morally wrong, it was reluctantly accepted as well-nigh impossible to prevent, given the many barriers to marriage. But much, much lower fell any form of non-procreative sex. That was unnatural, an offense to God, a moral outrage.

Thus, the statement that "Erasmus was gay", or his inclusion in any list of historical gays, is intrinsically misleading, a cultural extrapolation that simply doesn’t apply. It would be more appropriate to ask, “Did Erasmus ever have sex with another man?" We have a simple answer to that question: we have no evidence whatsoever that Erasmus ever had sex with any other man. We are therefore reduced to asking indirect questions about his state of mind, his attitudes, and his relationships. These questions in turn can indicate a propensity to the act rather than the act itself. Thus, when we talk about Erasmus being gay, we must remember that we have already drifted away from the core reality. It’s rather like inquiring into somebody’s attitudes about squid to determine if they’ve ever eaten calamari. The best we can hope to achieve is to establish a likelihood; the truth itself is quite beyond our reach. I’ll proceed on this basis, but you should always bear in mind this crucial shift in cultural context while reading this material.

The only serious evidence in support of the ’Erasmus was gay’ hypothesis is a series of nine letters from Erasmus to Servatius Rogerius, a fellow monk. They were all written in 1487-88, when Erasmus was 21 years old and new to the monastery. Supporters of the ’Erasmus was gay’ hypothesis interpret these as love letters.

The second factor cited in the claims for Erasmus’ homosexuality arises from his relationship with Thomas Grey, whom Erasmus tutored while he was in Paris. Grey’s guardian became angry with Erasmus and terminated the relationship. The conjecture is that the guardian suspected Erasmus of having homosexual designs upon young Grey. Herewith the details.

Another possible arguement arises from the circumstances surrounding the loss of support from his benefactor while he was studying in Paris. The bishop who had sent him there stopped sending money; could this have been due to the bishop discovering that Erasmus was gay? Check it out.

During the course of researching this issue, I came upon some material that, in my opinion, constitutes the strongest evidence in favor of the ’Erasmus was gay’ hypothesis.

Against these four fragments of evidence we have these six negative arguments:

First, nobody during his time accused him of homosexuality. Given the polemical nature of the times, the absence of such an accusation strongly suggests an absence of any evidence. Indeed, Heinrich Eppendorf, who actually lived in Erasmus’ household for nearly a year, attempted to blackmail Erasmus by threatening to publish a slanderous book about him. Erasmus refused to pay blackmail, Eppendorf published the book – and it made no accusations of homosexuality.

Second, in his vast output, Erasmus never published anything positive about homosexuality. He had plenty of opportunities to exercise some editorial bias in his writings, but when he did, all the bias was anti-gay.

Third, Erasmus had a golden opportunity to indulge in homosexual relationships while he was in Italy yet he spurned it.

Fourth, Erasmus retained the respect and esteem of a great many men, including many who demonstrated little tolerance for deviation from accepted norms. Thomas More was Erasmus’ best friend, and More was prudish, morally rigid, and intolerant. It is inconceivable that More would have kept Erasmus as a friend had he known that Erasmus was gay. It is equally inconceivable that Erasmus could have kept More in the dark about his sexual preferences if he were gay. Erasmus was at his best in free conversation over a good meal, when the wine had loosened tongues just enough to let the wit flow freely. It was widely known that his after-dinner comments were considerably spicier than the more measured phrasings in his writings. Erasmus spent many months at More’s home; I very much doubt that he could have gotten through without some sort of slip.

Fifth, Erasmus plainly stated on many occasions his criteria for loving another; they had nothing to do with eroticism of any kind.

And finally, Erasmus on many occasions made comments that are not consistent with the ’Erasmus was gay’ hypothesis.

I have yet to find any biographer of Erasmus who concludes that he was gay. His most antagonistic biographer, Father Christopher Hollis, concludes "We cannot say that Erasmus was guilty, but we can say that, if he had been guilty, he would nevertheless have denied it.". Halkin (1993), commenting on the Servatius letters, concludes, “This ardent friendship – entirely platonic though it was – revealed a delicate temperament, a craving for tenderness ill-suited to the rigidity of monastic rule.” Schoek’s conclusion is “Homosexuality is, while not impossible, unlikely and in any case not proven.” 

My own conclusions are best presented as a complete interpretation of the information presented here. When Erasmus entered the monastery at Steyn, he was a scared kid on his own, unsure of who he was. The only thing he really believed in was classical literature. He was also lonely; he simply didn’t fit into the social life of the monastery and couldn’t make friends with most of the monks. However, he did find one fellow who seemed like-minded: Servatius Rogerius. He latched onto this friendship as if it were a lifeline. He tried to express his feelings in a way that seemed appropriate to a classical scholar, but it was unfamiliar to him and quite experimental. Throw in the natural tendency of young men to overdo everything, and you end up with the overwrought, artificial intensity of the Servatius letters. In later years he looked back on these letters with some embarassment, seeing them as rather juvenile, but he kept them because they evoked a wry remembrance of younger, more intense days. He never bothered publishing them because they were, after all, overly formal; they demonstrated some of the worst habits of inexperienced letter-writers. Indeed, a number of his early letters that he did permit to be published had the annotation: “Written as a young man” as if to explain their clumsiness.

When he got to Paris, he quickly got himself into hot water. His rejection of the ferociously spartan life at Montague college raised suspicions that he had gone to Paris only to escape the discipline of the monastery -- after all, he had been quite vocal about his unhappiness with life at the monastery. The suspicions dogged him the entire time he was in Paris. He found a much-needed friend in Fausto Andrelini, the royal court poet, who was definitely a rake but also a humanist scholar. It’s quite likely that Fausto dragged Erasmus along in some rather wild carousings, which Erasmus later regretted and which provided more grist for the rumor mill back home. Thomas Grey’s guardian was most likely concerned with this kind of behavior, and indeed the confrontation between Erasmus and the guardian might well have been triggered by a late-night drunken return home after a night’s carousing.

These experiences induced in Erasmus a justified paranoia. They really were out to get him! He became suspicious and resentful, and he blamed his inability to obtain financial support on the whisperings of evil-doers at home. He was inordinately secretive about his plans and activities, and went to great lengths to insure that no further ammunition was provided to his enemies. This paranoia shows up in a variety of overly defensive letters. It took years for him to outgrow this ugly period; slowly the paranoia ebbed and his behavior became more normal.

Dr. Rictor Norton, author of 
My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, examined the material presented here and engaged me in a lively and quite interesting discussion of the finer points. You may read this discussion here.

Another, less fair-minded scholar put in his two-cents’ worth here. It wasn’t worth two cents. A third fellow, undeserving of the appellation ‘scholar’, shot his mouth off

Addendum, August 12th, 2012: I found some additional evidence regarding Erasmus’ sexuality.