Shortly after I placed this material on my website, I sent emails to a number of website owners, suggesting that they might want to correct their inclusion of Erasmus in their list of historical gays. Dr. Rictor Norton, author of My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, kindly replied, and an enlightening correspondence ensued. Here is that correspondence in its entirety. To make reading easier, I have presented my own writing in blue and Dr. Norton’s writing in black.
From Dr. Rictor Norton, 4/15/00
Dear Chris Crawford,
Thank you for your note about Erasmus. Have you actually looked at my anthology _My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries_, or are you just responding to the presence of Erasmus in the table of contents published on the Web? The introduction to my book gives what I think is a good overview of the historical context of the writing of gay love letters, and deals with how to define “gay love letters”, and also puts the Erasmus letters in context with other love letters before and after his period, which I think shows up the similarity and continuity of the tradition and justifies his inclusion.
In any case, I enjoyed reading your website arguing that “Erasmus was not gay”, and here are some comments on your arguments:
You are quite correct that there is no external evidence that Erasmus was homosexual. All of the “evidence” consists in interpretation and deducation from what he has written. I think the issue of interpretation is more complex than you have treated it. For example, you note that “on at least one occasion, Erasmus deliberately suppressed an egregious homosexual reference, thereby violating his own strict standards of textual integrity. It would have been easy to leave the reference in place, but Erasmus risked scholarly condemnation to remove the reference. This is not the act of a secret homosexual.” It seems to me that the suppression of a homosexual allusion could well be the act of a homosexual who is uneasy about raising the issue, who may feel somewhat threatened in having to deal with the subject and who takes the easy way out by simply burying it. This kind of suppression or censorship has certainly been done by gay scholars (not simply by straight anti-gay scholars) in modern times. It’s hard to interpret exactly why Erasmus might censor his material: I, for one, regard this as an indication that he was certainly interested in the subject, and I find it hard to understand why he would censor the reference if he did not have some kind of emotional investment in the subject.
You acknowledge that Erasmus almost certainly destroyed many of his letters, and you argue that he did not destroy his letters to Servatius because he did not believe they could be used to suggest that he was homosexual. But it seems to me that the obvious reason why he did not destroy his letters to Servatius was because they were some of his most cherished, prized possessions. They were testimonies of passionate love and to have destroyed them would have been soul-destroying for Erasmus himself. All love letters, whether gay or straight, no matter how damaging the evidence they might supply, are typically preserved very carefully by the correspondents. I feel that your explanation for his not destroying the letters does not take into account some of the basic emotions of human nature. The other reason why he would not destroy his letters to Servatius is that because they specifically concern unrequited love and obviously are not invitations to lust.
That does not mean therefore that they are not “gay love letters”. They are passionate love letters sent by one man to another, using the language of romantic love and passion. You have exercised a kind of censorship by merely giving a “synopsis” of the letters. But how on earth can a love letter be “summarized”? I think if you quoted more of them at greater length, your readers would be better able to recognize that they *are* gay love letters. Your view that people had a very different concept of love in the sixteenth century from what we have today, is really nonsense. And your claim that men addressed one another more passionately then than they do today, is inaccurate. Erasmus’s letters to Servatius are by no means typical of Renaissance love/friendship between men. Within the Renaissance period they resemble most closely the gay love letters of Marsilio Ficino and Michelangelo, both of whom were accused by their contemporaries of being sodomites.
I believe, as many others have, that even the most virtuous love, if it is expressed in especially passionate terms of longing, is probably grounded upon erotic desire, whether or not that desire is acted upon. Erasmus’s letters to Servatius are classic examples of what I consider to be homoerotic longing. You seem to think that love letters can be called “gay” only if the writers specifically engage in gay sex. Yet the main point of all love letters, gay or straight, is that they deal with *longing* rather than sexual acts. Most writers of love letters, straight or gay, try not to admit that their longing has an element of lust, and they typically discuss their love in terms of ideal virtue. Erasmus’s love letters to Servatius are no different in this respect. Marsilio Ficino’s love letters to Cavalcanti are similar in praising virtue, but Ficino at least admits that even physical homosexual love is virtuous as long as it aims towards virtue (which is the classical theory of Plato’s dialogue _Phaedrus_). Ficino emphasized that there was no essential difference between “amor” and “amicitia”: we are “naturally aroused for copulation whenever we judge any body to be beautiful. . . . It often happens that those who associate with males, in order to satisfy the demands of the genital part, copulate with them.”
Incidentally, you have not gone back far enough in your search for the claim that Erasmus was homosexual (which you incorrectly say was first made in 1933). This claim was made, for example, by Havelock Ellis in his book _Sexual Inversion_ (first published in 1897, but see the Philadelphia edition, 1922, page 31); and by Xavier Mayne in his book _The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life_ (published in Florence in 1908, pages 78 and 263). But admittedly this claim is modern, and I think you are correct that Erasmus’s contemporaries did not consider him to be a homosexual (which in his day would be called a sodomite). However, Erasmus’s contemporaries did in fact think that he was sexually different, and several contemporaries comment upon his conspicuous indifference to women, which was felt to be not normal, even for someone who took a vow of celibacy. (It is worth pointing out that “woman-hater” in previous centuries was often used as a synonym for “man-lover”.)
Your analysis of the Jacob Batt letters is interesting. However, I think that we *can* draw one firm conclusion from them: that Erasmus was afraid of being suspected of being Batt’s lover. Whether or not they had such relations is a separate issue (it could even be that both men were homosexual, but were not lovers of each other). The point is that Erasmus is worried about acquiring the public character of a sodomite merely because he frequently goes to see Jacob Batt. It seems to me that this is evidence of a hypersensitivity that is typically found among gay men who want their lives to remain a secret, and is not often found among straight men. If a man was not a homosexual, why would he be so afraid of being labelled a homosexual on such slight grounds? I had not previously been aware of the Jacob Batt letters: but reading your commentary on them makes me even more convinced that the “Erasmus was gay” hypothesis is probably correct!
Best wishes, Rictor
From Chris Crawford, 4/17/00
Dear Dr. Norton,
I was so pleased to receive your scholarly, well-reasoned letter; it was exactly the kind of criticism I was looking for. Your comments elicited a great many reactions; I’ll try to get through the important ones.
No, I have not read your book. I had run across it several times in my research browsing but the reviews I read suggested that it was nothing more than a compendium of letters. I have already ordered a copy and I expect to have it within a week.
You’re quite right that Erasmus’ editorial censorship could be interpreted as an indication of a homoerotic inclination. To make the point properly, I must gather a goodly number of such editorial judgements on his part and look for any pattern. Perhaps such a pattern might lend support to the ’Erasmus was gay’ hypothesis; I don’t know. In any case, a single instance is not enough to establish any pattern, so I am abandoning that point until I can come up with something useful. I will remove the reference from my website.
I have several comments on your alternative hypothesis that Erasmus balked at destroying the Servatius letters because he cherished them as love letters. This doesn’t jibe with two other facts. One is that none of Servatius’ letters to Erasmus were preserved. I should think that a decision to retain letters as cherished mementos of a deep love would place even more weight on keeping the partner’s letters. The fact that he lost the letters from Servatius but saved his letters to Servatius strongly suggests that memento value was not a factor in Erasmus’ decision. Indeed, Erasmus himself wrote, “For as I was reading your very sweet letter, the effective proof of your love towards me which I long for, I wept as I rejoiced and in the same manner I rejoiced as I wept.” Surely a letter this important to Erasmus (if he were gay) would have been most carefully preserved – but it’s lost. Apparently he didn’t place much value on it.
A second fact that casts doubt on your suggestion is that Erasmus saved just about everything he wrote. Erasmus wasn’t a celebrity until 1510, yet we have a large volume of his writings from before that time. It appears Erasmus saved everything that he didn’t purposefully destroy.
Your second suggestion, that he didn’t destroy them because they specifically concern unrequited love and are not invitations to lust, gets us into some rather tortuous logic. You seem to be saying that he saved them because he did not feel that they were incriminating – that they could not be used against him to support an accusation of sodomy. Yet you present the letters as the primary evidence of his homosexuality. The only way out of this contradiction is to argue that people back then were too dumb to figure out what we can figure out today. I don’t buy that. If anything, they were a lot quicker to vent their ill-will through the most unjustified leaps of logic – and there were plenty of people who bore Erasmus ill-will.
Your observation that I may have exercised a kind of censorship by giving a synopsis of the letters rather than the real thing is true, but my reasons were not editorial. I am concerned about copyright issues; not being a professional scholar I am not familiar with the precise meaning of “fair use” in a scholarly context, so I took a rather conservative tack. If you believe that I would not be violating the law by presenting all the letters in toto, I shall consult my attorney on the matter and determine if I can in fact proceed with the full presentation.
Your strongest assertion is: “Your view that people had a very different concept of love in the sixteenth century, from what we have today, is nonsense.” I am surprised at the strength of conviction you express; surely the many, many examples I presented (of two men, who have never met, expressing love for each other) should undercut some of your certainty. I am so flummoxed by your statement that I strongly suspect that you didn’t come across those examples. They were in the essay “Non-erotic love between men in the Renaissance”; did you see them?
You go on to say, “And your claim that men addressed one another more passionately then they do today, is inaccurate.” Actually, I used the word ’hyperbole’ in that instance, and again, I thought that the examples I provided demonstrated my point. Do those examples fail to support my claim? Do you consider them to be unrepresentative of Erasmus’ writing style?
I continue the blow-by-blow discussion: you write “Erasmus’ letters to Servatius are by no means typical of Renaissance love/friendship letters between men.” On this point, I cannot argue with you, because I do not have familiarity with the general run of Renaissance letters. And so I am happy to bow to your greater authority here. But there’s a problem. As I showed on the website, several Erasmus scholars have written that the Servatius letters were in fact quite typical of the times. Huizinga and Faludy make this point clearly; Hyma disagrees. From my own familiarity with these three scholars, I’d put greatest weight on Huizinga and least on Hyma. Thus, in deferring to authority, I find myself unable to accept your belief. You must make your own judgement here – but do you really want to line yourself up against the likes of a scholar like Johan Huizinga? As an aside, if you decide to brush up on Erasmus, I consider the Huizinga biography the best, and I have quite a few. Nor is it overlong.
Here we come to your best point: that love letters are in fact *love* letters, not *sex* letters, and that we cannot expect a gay correspondent to put explicit sexual references into a love letter. This seems entirely reasonable to me. However, there seems to be a continuum here that we should consider. A gay love letter might not address specific details of sexual performance, but it could include varying degrees of reference to physical attraction: beautiful face, soft hands, whatever. Your book provides us with a useful resource here: how many letters from assuredly gay writers make reference to physical attraction? How often are physical attributes mentioned? If we can compare the database of known gay letters with the Servatius letters in this dimension, perhaps we can come up with some useful information.
Thanks for pointing out the earlier references to Erasmus’ homosexuality. I had not noticed them because I was searching in Erasmus literature, and your references come from a different field entirely. I shall correct my web page.
But now I come to the sentence on which I most strongly disagree with you: “However, Erasmus’ contemporaries, did in fact think that he was sexually different, and several contemporaries comment on his conspicuous indifference to women, which was felt to be not normal, even for someone who took a vow of celibacy.”
I regret to flatly contradict you on one point, and to strongly challenge you on two other points. The contradictable point is “his conspicuous indifference to women.” Please insert here an appropriate exclamation of astonishment and incredulity. Here are just a few quick anecdotes to the contrary. Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly was such a hit that it was used in some schools. Hans Holbein, while studying it, drew a number of sketches in the margins to illustrate the material; they’re so good that they have now become closely associated with the book and indeed most editions include those illustrations. In one, a man is distracted by a pretty girl as he walks across a public square. He looks backward at her as he walks, and steps squarely into a basket of bread offered by an old lady, who shrieks and screams. Holbein later told Erasmus that he had modeled the man on Erasmus, and indeed, the man’s clothing is certainly similar to Erasmus’ usual attire. Another illustration shows Erasmus hard at work in his study. Upon examining it, Erasmus joked, “If Erasmus were that handsome, he would have a wife!” A third example comes from a letter to Fausto Andrelini written in 1499:
“...if you were fully aware of what England has to offer, you would rush hither, I tell you, on winged feet, and if your gout refused to let you go, you’d yearn to fly like Daedalus. For, to touch on only one point among many, there are in England nymphs of divine appearance, both engaging and agreeable, whom you would certainly prefer to your Muses; and there is, besides, one custom which can never be commended too highly. When you arrive anywhere, you are received with kisses on all sides, and when you take your leave, they speed you on your way with kisses. The kisses are renewed when you come back. When guests come to your house, their arrival is pledged with kisses; and when they leave, kisses are shared once again. If you should happen to meet, then kisses are given profusely. In a word, wherever you turn, the world is full of kisses. If you too, Fausto, once tasted the softness and fragrance of these same kisses, I swear you would yearn to live abroad in England...”
The two points on which I wish to challenge you are the two clauses about his contemporaries. I have never seen anything from any of his contemporaries suggesting that he was sexually different or conspicuously indifferent to women. In those days, vituperation was common and, had such an accusation been made, it would have spread like wildfire and been seized upon by his many enemies. In this case, I would surely have come across at least one such reference. In the absence of any specific references from you, I must regard your claim as incorrect.
On a happier note, I agree with you that Erasmus was afraid of being suspected of being Batt’s lover. You take this fear as evidence that he was gay. Metaphorically speaking, you’re not merely presuming him ’guilty until proven innocent’; you’re declaring ’guilty because of fear of accusation’! (By the way, my use of the word ’guilty’ applies only the context of Erasmus’ world view, not mine.) You ask, “If a man was not a homosexual, why would he be so afraid of being labelled a homosexual on such slight grounds?” I can give you two very solid reasons: first, justice in those days was not administered as carefully as today; if you had enemies, a criminal accusation could easily lead to a conviction regardless of your innocence. Second, they burned sodomites! I’d be scared, too!
Erasmus’ hypersensitivity that you describe as common to gay men cannot be used as evidence of his homosexuality, because Erasmus was hypersensitive about everything. All his biographers agree that he had a whining quality, a thin skin, an obsessive fastidiousness.
Lastly, Erasmus had an especially good reason to be overly careful – he was under investigation at the time. The investigation was instigated upon rumors of riotous living, but the investigation was a fishing expedition. Anything untoward would have gone into the grab bag of innuendo.
I am troubled that you would conclude by stating that you are even more convinced that Erasmus was gay, when your assault concentrated on my weakest points and sidestepped my strongest points. Of course, I don’t expect you to address every point made in that tangled morass of a website. Perhaps I should have prioritized my arguements to make it clearer. Here are just three of the strongest:
Erasmus’ statement to Servatius: “And unless I was mistaken, I was not altogether unaware what was the source of your pain. I mean that person’s shamelessness in hurling accusations against you without justification or right.” Doesn’t this strike you as an explicit denial of homoerotic intent?
Erasmus’ vicious jibe at Julius II in the ending of Epigramma. Inasmuch as Erasmus showed this piece to only a few friends and kept it a blood secret, there would be no reason to flaunt an anti-gay attitude. Clearly, this statement reflects his genuine attitude. Doesn’t that suggest that he wasn’t gay?
Erasmus’ many statements that the true basis of love was a shared love for literature. What is wrong with accepting Erasmus at his word? When Erasmus flatly declares that he must love anybody who loves literature (and we know that he shared literary pursuits with Servatius) what perversity of logic permits us to claim that his letters prove homoerotic love?
Well, there you have it. Egad, this letter is oppressively long; I apologize for my plodding approach. I’ll understand if you can’t find the time to address it in proper detail, but I would very much appreciate some kind of response to the key points. If you don’t mind (and I gather from your copyright statement that you have no objections), I’d like to include these letters in my website.
From Dr. Rictor Norton, 5/4/00
Thanks for your note. I’m sorry not to have replied earlier, but I have been extremely busy lately trying to meet a number of deadlines before I go on holiday for three weeks from this Sunday.
I can’t give you legal advice about copyright. I understand that material goes into the public domain if the author (in this case the translator) has been dead for 50 years, or in some circumstances 70 years. The translations by Francis Morgan Nichols were published in 1901, but I don’t know when Nichols died, which would affect the copyright situation. But I can’t imagine there would be any problems if you published several of the letters in full on the Internet. (There might be some 19th-century translations, that you could certainly publish without fear of copyright violation.)
You say that if it is true, as I suggested, that Erasmus didn’t destroy his letters to Servatius because he would especially want to keep them as love-letters, then why didn’t he keep Servatius’s letters to him? I don’t know. Do we know that Erasmus kept *anyone’s* letters to him? Generally speaking, letters are never published until after a person’s death, and the people who act as that person’s literary executors are only authorized to publish letters written *by* that person, not letters written *to* that person. That’s a very commonly understood practice, and explains why in the case of most famous people, we possess only one side of the correspondence. But we can never really come to any final persuasive proof about why some letters exist and others don’t. It’s partly the luck of the draw.
I certainly am not as familiar with Erasmus’s life as you are, and if you cannot find any contemporary references to suggest that Erasmus’s failure to marry was remarked upon as being unusual, then my sources must be mistaken.
Well, anyway, let me refer to your three strongest arguments:
You say: “Erasmus’ statement to Servatius: “And unless I was mistaken, I was not altogether unaware what was the source of your pain. I mean that person’s shamelessness in hurling accusations against you without justification or right.” Doesn’t this strike you as an explicit denial of homoerotic intent?”
No, it doesn’t quite strike me that way. Remember, I am not suggesting that *Servatius* was gay, only that Erasmus desired Servatius. The evidence would indicate that Servatius rejected the strongly emotional demands that Erasmus seems to be placing upon his reciprocating love. If a gay man is trying to gain the love of someone who isn’t gay, he would naturally express sympathy with that person’s fear of being called a shameless sodomite, or whatever. So Erasmus’s statement to Servatius strikes me as being careful and tactful, rather than an explicit denial of homoerotic intent. The passage seems mainly to show that Erasmus is aware that Servatius is not gay.
You say: “Erasmus’ vicious jibe at Julius II in the ending of Epigramma. Inasmuch as Erasmus showed this piece to only a few friends and kept it a blood secret, there would be no reason to flaunt an anti-gay attitude. Clearly, this statement reflects his genuine attitude. Doesn’t that suggest that he wasn’t gay?”
No, I don’t think so. Quite a few men are quite happy to criticize other gay men for being notorious sodomites. If they are making a political attack on someone, they will happy employ satirical anti-gay epithets whether or not they themselves are also gay. Pietro Aretino and Benvenuto Cellini both did this. Do you think that a man who calls another man “a wanker”, never masturbates himself?
You say: “Erasmus’ many statements that the true basis of love was a shared love for literature. What is wrong with accepting Erasmus at his word? When Erasmus flatly declares that he must love anybody who loves literature (and we know that he shared literary pursuits with Servatius) what perversity of logic permits us to claim that his letters prove homoerotic love?”
I do take Erasmus at his own word, insofar as I am sure that there was a genuine cultural basis in much homosexual love (from the time of Marsilio Ficino to Allen Ginsberg). But people usually idealize and romanticize their erotic passions, to ensure that they can be expressed in a framework of virtue rather than vice. Religious faith can also be “the true basis” for love, but that doesn’t rule out physical desire as well. Many love-letters between men and women talk about basing their love in love for Christ, but these men and women nevertheless unite in the marriage bed and produce children, and it seems to me that their love-letters, despite the truth of their Christian context, nevertheless prove heteroerotic intent.
Best wishes, Rictor
PS: Yes, you may publish both sides of our correspondence!
From Chris Crawford, unknown date
Dear Dr. Norton:
I must say, I am at a loss to refute the arguments you present in your email, so well are they argued. This doesn’t mean that I am convinced by them – not by a long shot. I concede that they are reasonable and plausible arguments; but one is not compelling and two others serve only to render toothless my arguments against Erasmus being gay. I must admit this is a subjective judgement on my part. But here are the specifics:
On the copyright issue, I’m not using F.M. Nichol’s translations because the translations in the Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto, ~1971 to present) are considered definitive. I suppose that I should go to the trouble of requesting permission from University of Tortonto Press, but I am dubious that they would give me an adequate permission, because material on the web can spread completely out of control.
On the question of why Erasmus kept his own letters but not Servatius’, the situation is a bit messier than is typical for letters. Erasmus wrote many of his letters as demonstrations of literary skill; he considered this a valuable talent, and indeed, he escaped from the monastery only because a bishop wanted him as his formal letter-writer. As early as his Paris years we find him collecting old copies of his letters with a mind to publishing them as examples of good literary style. However, at a later date he complained that he had not written his earliest letters with the intent of publishing them; he considered them to be exercises in style. Apparently, he didn’t start thinking about publication until at least ten years after he wrote the Servatius letters.
He definitely kept letters from other correspondents; his final publication of letters contains 3,000 letters, of which only 1,600 are his own. However, his early years are poorly recorded. After some research, I have discovered that all of his letters before about 1500, and certainly the Servatius letters, were not saved by Erasmus himself; their source is known as the Deventer Letter-Book, a collection of manuscripts that appears to have been made by Franciscus Theodoricus in response to a request from Erasmus, then in Paris. The Letter-Book remained undiscovered in the monastery at Deventer until a century later; only then were the Servatius letters published. Thus, the rug is pulled out from underneath both our arguements: Erasmus didn’t bother to save any of those letters, either to or from Servatius. Theodoricus did not save Servatius’ letters because Erasmus had asked him to save his own letters, not anybody else’s. I believe that these new facts do not lend support to either side of the thesis in hand.
On the reason for Erasmus’ failure to marry, the most obvious is that he was a priest, an Augustinian canon, to be precise.
Next we come to the Erasmus quote: “And unless I was mistaken, I was not altogether unaware what was the source of your pain. I mean that person’s shamelessness in hurling accusations against you without justification or right.” You suggest that this is explainable by positing Erasmus as gay and Servatius as not gay. And I agree that your explanation is plausible. Still, it does seem strained to me; if Erasmus were here giving Servatius emotional support against the accusations, why would he proceed in the same letter to resume the importunations that underlay the accusations? Moreover, if there were a monk in the monastery making such accusations, and they had not been firmly refuted, would not those accusations have come back to haunt Erasmus in his later years? I admit, I’m speculating here, just as you are, and we both seem to agree that head-butting with speculations is pointless.
I agree with your observation that gay men feel no compunction about using anti-gay jibes when it suits their purpose. I was uncertain at first, but my wife clinched the matter by observing that some of the best ’dumb blonde’ jokes are told by blondes. Scratch one argument against Erasmus being gay.
Your third argument is also acceptable to me, although we must apply it carefully. I concede that lovers could clothe their love in noble ideals while still being, in fact, sexual lovers. There is no inconsistency between such noble ideals and sexual love. Thus, my argument collapses: Erasmus’ many assertions that the basis for love was a shared love of literature cannot be taken as an argument against the hypothesis that he was gay. Of course, neither can it be taken as an argument that he was gay.
But now I’d like to introduce a new consideration into our discussion. I finally obtained a copy of your book and read the first half of it. While reading it, I noticed something different about the other love letters: they seemed to be more explicit about the erotic nature of the relationship. So I set out to get a grip on this. Starting over, I re-read each letter and noted every usage or term that was unquestionably erotic in sense. Here’s what I collected for the first 22 pages of letters (not counting your prefatory notes to each set of letters):
11 references to ’fire’ in describing feelings
29 references to the physical beauty of the correspondent
2 references to lust or explicit sexual desire
6 references to known classical gay couples
3 references to sleeping or bedding together
2 uses of the term ’suitor’
3 allusions to genitals
This adds up to 56 unquestionably erotic references in 22 pages of letter-text. In the two pages of Erasmus’ letters that you provide, only one of these references appears: ’lovers’, and that reference is in fact incorrect. The Latin term in the letter is amantes, which means ’close friends’. The Latin term used for a sexual lover is dilector. The translation in The Collected Works of Erasmus translates the word as ’friends’. Perhaps the discrepancy arises from the fact that, when Nichols was writing at the turn of the century, the word ’lover’ did not have the sexual connotations it now carries.
If Erasmus’ letters to Servatius were in fact gay love letters, we would expect them to be substantially similar to the other gay love letters you present. Yet Erasmus uses none of the terms that make those gay love letters unquestionably gay. This seems to me to provide yet another argument against the hypothesis that Erasmus was gay. However, I have a sinking certainty that you’ll come up with a clever interpretation that pulls the teeth out of this argument, just as you have done with my other arguments. I nervously await your riposte, although I understand from your previous email that it might be a long time coming.
Best regards, Chris