The Cutoff of Funds

Rowens argues that the Bishop of Cambrai cut off Erasmus’ financial support because he learned that Erasmus was gay. This simply doesn’t accord with the sequence of events. The blow-up with the guardian occurred in June or July of 1497, but as early as September 13, 1496, Erasmus was writing, “The bishop of Cambrai is being extremely kind to me. His promises are generous, though, to be quite frank, he does not send generous remittances.” In April, 1498, Erasmus writes, “...and of money the bishop of Cambrai is a very poor provider. In every way he is more warm-hearted than lavish, more generous with all kinds of promises than actual help...”. Seven months later, on 29 November 1498, things have changed: “...think what friendliness the bishop used to show me, and what hopes he used to hold out, and now he is coldness itself.” In July of 1500 he writes “...and the bishop goes so far as to turn his back on me.” Thus, the bishop was holding out on Erasmus nine months before the incident, and his generous attitude had not changed nine months after the incident.

Something did happen in 1498, a year after the incident with Thomas Grey’s guardian. It appears that some sort of inquiries were made as to Erasmus’ behavior in Paris, the result of which seems to have been unflattering to Erasmus. Again, we don’t know any details; the best we have to go on is Erasmus’ reply to a letter from his good friend Willem Hermans. Hermans had apparently written critically of Erasmus’ lifestyle. These are some significant fragments from that letter:

“What, my dear Willems, did you mean when you wrote, ’You yourself are aware, nor am I unaware, what manner of life you live there.’? Alas for myself, I greatly fear you may suppose that I am wasting my time here in frivolity, feasting, and love-affairs.”

“Now what was the meaning of the letter in which you appear to censure my way of living? do you really wish to learn (for it is proper that you should know every detail of my affairs) how your Erasmus conducts his life in this place? He is alive, or rather I think he may be; but alive on the most wretched terms, exhausted by grief of every kind: endlessly intrigued against, deprived of friends’ support, and tempest-tossed on waves of disaster. Nevertheless he lives in perfect blamelessness.I know that I shall hardly be able to convince you of the truth of this. You still think of me as the Erasmus of old: of my personal freedom, and of such luster as my reputation retains; but if I had a chance to speak with you in person it would be the simplest thing on earth to persuade you of its truth.Therefore, if you wish to form a true picture of your friend, you must imagine him, not indulging in frivolity or feasting or love-affairs, but distraught with grief...”

“What, if so, was your purpose in calling me your Pylades, your Theseus? You ought, however, to have reversed the appellation and rather called me Orestes or Pirithous.”

The reference in the last fragment to the four Greek mythological figures is particularly revealing: these friendships were celebrated for their depth and intensity; in each case, one friend sacrificed himself for the other. Yet neither relationship was gay.

The first two fragments are significant for several reasons. First, Erasmus declares that he lives in perfect blamelessness. Let’s walk through the various logical possibilities:

A. Erasmus was gay and so was Hermans. Why then would Hermans have castigated Erasmus for his gay lifestyle? Surely he would have sympathized with Erasmus’ difficulties and been supportive rather than critical.

B. Erasmus was gay but Hermans wasn’t and didn’t previously know about it. Yet Hermans declares that he knows what manner of life Erasmus is living in Paris. How could Erasmus have responded by claiming that he lived in perfect blamelessness when he knew that the he’d been brought out of the closet?

C. Erasmus was not gay. This is the only explanation that fits this letter.

Even more telling is the phrase “frivolity, feasting, and love-affairs”, which is used twice in the letter. It seems likely to me that Erasmus was quoting a phrase from Hermans’ letter, because he reverses the order of the words in the phrase the second time around. This suggests that he was not quoting some well-known equivalent to our English “wine, women, and song”. This in turn suggests that Willem Hermans had accused Erasmus of having “love-affairs”. What did he mean by this?

Everything here depends on the precise meaning of the Latin words used in Eramus’ letter: ’amare’ and ’amatorem’, which are maddeningly ambiguous; indeed I suspect that Hermans was deliberately using delicate terminology that could be taken to indicate either a major crime or a minor peccadillo. Ultimately, there is no compelling evidence that Hermans accused Erasmus of sexual transgressions, although there is a solid basis for suspicion. There is no indication whatever that these purported sexual transgressions were homosexual in nature.

This was followed by a more explicit investigation in fall of 1500. Erasmus wrote to his friend Jacob Batt:

“As you know, Jan Standonck returned the other day from Louvain accompanied by a master of humble condition, a native of Mechelen; to whom that serious-minded bishop [the bishop of Cambrai – CC] allotted the task of scenting and ferreting his way through all the secret places of my life in Paris, and of sending him a written report of what he discovered, with the promise, to boot, of a rich reward for the informer. In his brazen folly he added that he was surprised at my impudence in remaining in Paris without his permission.”

As far as I can tell, nothing ever came of this investigation; there are no references to it in any of Erasmus’ later letters. My guess is that the investigator came up with plenty of gossip but nothing substantial; the bishop’s suspicions were kept alive but could not be furthered, and the entire affair simply died off.

My impression is that the brouhaha was solidly founded on Erasmus’ diet, which was certainly extravagant by contemporary standards, and that evil-minded conjecture expanded the list of suspicions to include any number of other crimes. The starting point for this was Erasmus’ experience at Montague college, the proper place of residence for him as a poor religious. Run by the ascetic Jan Standonck, the place was horrifying: brutal discipline, unsanitary conditions, and food consisting of rotten eggs, bad fish, and sour wine. Most of the poor religious students accepted the harsh conditions as the price they paid for their free education; Erasmus was not so tolerant. There’s no exaggeration here – the mortality rate of students at Montague college was a serious concern. Erasmus left the place and found better accommodations. There can be no doubt that he did so for reasons of health: all his life Erasmus complained about his ill health, and followed a regimen we would now recognize as quite healthy. He ate only fresh food, in moderation; he rose early and went to bed early; he took a walk after the main noonday meal. But his insistence on fresh food and unspoiled wine led his less-charitable contemporaries to brand him a gourmand. All his life, he endured criticism for his diet. He had the last laugh: Erasmus outlived all his contemporaries. But that didn’t stop them from spreading evil rumors about his dissolute lifestyle.