In the fall of 1500 Erasmus was staying in Orleans to take refuge from the plague then raging in Paris. During this time, he wrote a number of letters to Jacob Batt, the town clerk of Bergen and Erasmus’ most helpful compatriot, inveigling a goodly amount of money out of Anna van Borssele, the Lady of Bergen. Several of these letters provide the best evidence in favor of the ‘Erasmus was gay’ hypothesis. The most revealing one was written in November of 1500. Apologizing for failing to honor an earlier promise to come to Bergen to visit, Erasmus cited lack of money, illness, and the difficulty of winter travel. Then he added:
“Another consideration was the gossip that might spread among ill-natured persons if I went back to see you so often.”
Nor is this some odd fluke; two months earlier he had explained a similar decision in much the same way:
“...there might be some who would wonder why I kept rushing back to see you.”
These two quotes are difficult to explain without recourse to the ‘Erasmus was gay’ hypothesis. The best alternate explanation is that rumors of a homosexual relationship were afoot, rumors that Erasmus and Batt knew to be false, but that neither wanted to lend credence to. This alternate explanation, while plausible, raises the new issue: why were such rumors afoot in the first place?
Another strange comment in the November letter:
“The extreme care you take when you write is something I approve of, but rest assured that his case, you can gossip as freely as you like.”
[‘This case’ refers to the reliability of the messenger.] Clearly, Erasmus and Batt are discussing extremely sensitive matters, and their comments must not under any circumstances get into the wrong hands. A gay relationship would fit this situation perfectly. But there is one difficult detail in this explanation: Erasmus advises Batt that he can gossip as freely as he likes. Why did he use the word ‘gossip’? Sharing homosexual intimacies is nowhere near the same thing as gossip. Perhaps it was gossip about other gays. Perhaps it was gossip about the various rich and powerful actors in their lives. Indeed, in the same letter Erasmus gossips shamelessly about a number of very important people. He refers to the bishop of Cambrai in a variety of compromising terms: “frivolousness”, “brazen folly”, “lunacy”. And he concludes his comments on his former benefactor with this: “I am all the more eager, while I am in Paris, to bring off some splendid feat that may burst his spleen with envy.” This is certainly bigtime gossip, gossip that Erasmus would not want to reach the bishop’s eyes. This, I think, provides a better explanation for the above quote.
However, there are other comments in these letters that muddy the logical waters considerably. The November letter also contains a long paragraph recommending Erasmus’ former servant-pupil Louis for employment of some sort. While singing the boy’s praises, Erasmus never suggests anything remotely lascivious. He speaks at length about the boy’s neat handwriting, his good character, and his poverty. I would think that, if Erasmus had been gay, he would have experienced the boy while he was his pupil, and then recommended him in that fashion to Batt, or even warned him off – but nothing of the sort appears here. It’s not proof, but it certainly weakens the claim that this letter is an intimate communication between gay lovers.
The September letter also has some material that complicates any interpretation. Immediately before the “there might be some who would wonder” sentence, Erasmus gives another reason why he is reluctant to come:
“while I approve of the lodging you showed me at Pierre’s I still have a reservation, which you know, about such a situation, not because I fear for either my continence or my reputation but simply to ensure that no dubious reports filter back to Pierre as a result; for, as you know, the mass of mankind, especially at court, dislikes members of the literary profession, and would gladly accuse us of the vices they themselves habitually practice.”
Apparently this lodging would in some manner make Erasmus vulnerable to accusations of vice from enemies at the court of Hendrik van Bergen. It seems unlikely, though, that Erasmus is referring to ‘homosexual vice’, because he clearly states that the vices in question are habitually practiced by members of the court. Homosexuality in that culture was a decidedly minority practice – Erasmus would not have used that phrasing to refer to homosexual behavior. I believe that Erasmus is referring to garden variety heterosexual fornication, which was much more popular among the rich and famous of that culture (and many others as well).
My overall conclusion is that these letters provide us with contradictory hints. The worries about people talking about too frequent visits provide undeniable support for the ‘Erasmus was gay’ hypothesis. However, this support is certainly circumstantial and indirect. The other comments redirect our suspicions in completely different directions. No firm conclusions can be drawn from these letters.