Erasmus was Polishing his Writing Style

This may strike you as an absurd explanation for the Servatius letters, but in fact it is much more consistent with the man and the times than the hypothesis of homosexuality. Nowadays the very notion of a literary style seems a mere technicality, but in those days they took it very seriously indeed. Indeed, all of Erasmus’ early publications, and many of his publications right up to his death, concerned themselves with good writing style. Such works as “De Copia verborum ac rerum” [A treasure-trove of expressions], “De ratione conscribendi epistolas” [How to write elegant letters] “De recte Latini Graecique sermonis pronuntiatone” [How to speak Latin and Greek correctly] addressed a variety of issues related to style. One of his greatest works, the Adages, was written with the declared purpose of imbuing people with a rich and elegant style of expression based on classical literature. His Colloquies started off as a collection of verbal formulae for students. One of his longer colloquies, the Ciceronian, directly addressed the then-raging debate over whether it was necessary to slavishly copy the writing style of Cicero in order to be accepted as an educated person. There were many who felt that it was poor form to use any Latin term not found in the writings of Cicero. Erasmus derided these views, and for his trouble was venomously castigated by Julius Caesar Scaliger for his stylistic crimes. Yes, these people took style very seriously. It was entirely normal for Erasmus at age 18 to be practicing a variety of styles, polishing his language. Indeed, his letters to Rogerius are drenched in classical quotations and allusions.

Many of Erasmus’ terms of endearment are actually quotations from classical literature. A good example lies in the phrase “half my soul”, which shows up often in Erasmus’ letters. Nowadays this kind of intimacy is restricted to an erotic relationship. In fact, however, Erasmus was quoting an ancient adage: “A friend is one soul in two bodies.”

Moreover, Erasmus was quite upfront about the fact that he was experimenting with different styles. In the preface to a collection of his letters published in 1521 says, “...I scarcely wrote any with a view to publication. I practiced my style, I beguiled my leisure.” On 13 March, 1518, his work “Oration in Praise of Medicine” was published; in the dedication letter to Henricus Afinus, he wrote, “...there came into my hands a speech I composed long ago, when I was trying my hand at everything, in praise of the art of physic.” And indeed, Erasmus was experimenting with a wide variety of literary forms during those days. He wrote a funeral oration for a local wealthy matron (“Oh, how Berta’s death suddenly deprived me of all I had! Whatever hope, consolation, or safety I used to have died with her, passed away with her. Who suddenly snatched you away from me, my mother, dearer to me than my own soul?”). He wrote homilies, declamations, poetry in a variety of meters, orations, and of course a huge variety of letters. In his work on how to write letters, Erasmus used the classical definition of three broad classes of letters, persuasive, encomiastic, and judicial. The first class was subdivided into letters of conciliation, reconciliation, encouragement, discouragement, persuasion, dissuasion, consolation, petition, recommendation, admonition, and the amatory letter. His second category included accounts of people, places, estates, prodigies, acts of God, journeys, and social events. The judicial category includes accusation, complaint, defence, protest, justification, reproach, threat, invective, and entreaty. Erasmus created his own fourth category, which he called the familiar letter, including narrative, congratulatory, mournful, mandatory, thankful, laudatory, obliging, and humorous.

It’s difficult for we moderns to appreciate just how advanced the “technology of writing” was back then. Think of it this way: those people were every bit as intelligent as we are, but they didn’t have all of our science and technology to bend their minds around, so they bent their minds to what was at hand. Where we cram our minds with cellphone protocols, word-processer commands, and financial data, they crammed their minds with the finer points of good writing. Here are some of the technical terms they used for the craft of writing: Abominatio, Abusio, Acclamatio, Accumulatio, Admiratio, Aequipollentia, Allegory, Amplification, Antonomasia, Apologue, Apostrophe, Apothegm, Asserveration, Asyndeton – and those are just the A’s!

This explanation has generated a great deal of scholarly comment. It is most explicitly stated by Dickens & Jones (1994): “Steyn appears to have been a relatively relaxed community, in which free conversation among the junior inmates was by no means limited to Sundays and feast days. For this reason alone, we cannot regard the cloying letters to Servatius as either a desperate cry for human affection or a homosexual approach. At Steyn the novices and young canons did not need to communicate with each other on paper. Rather does this florid Latin style represent an exuberant humanist fad of the day. Indeed, most of the pieces written by Erasmus at Steyn, so far from being autobiographical protests, are stylistic exercises for use in modes of debate and controversy.”

Schoek (1990) seems to say the same thing: “These letters are difficult to interpret, for at face value they would indicate that Erasmus formed an emotional attachment to Servatius...But one must question whether these letters can be taken literally, for they are heavily rhetorical and obviously mannered. Further, it has been argued that a motivating force in these poems and letters is the imitation of a well-understood tradition of monastic rhetoric in the writing of letters.” But later he adds: “The fact remains that these early letters constitute a celebration of friendship, and in forging the bonds of friendship, letters were vital to Erasmus.”

A negative opinion is provided by Tracy (1996) “Some interpreters have suggested reading these letters as rhetorical exercises, but they are more plausibly taken at face value, as confirmation of Erasmus’ need for friendship, if not, as others have suggested, as evidence of latent homosexuality.”

And Huizinga (1924) is firm: “These letters have sometimes been taken as mere literary exercises; the weakness they betray and the complete absence of all reticence seem to tally ill with his habit of cloaking his most intimate feelings which, afterwards, Erasmus never quite relinquishes.Dr. Allen, who leaves this question undecided, nevertheless inclines to regard these letters as sincere effusions, and to me they seem so, incontestably.”

Hyma (1930) also rejects the hypothesis of stylistic experimentation: “We shall never know how much of it was mere letter writing, but it will be advisable to accept the verdict of Allen and Pineau and Mangan to the effect that Erasmus was giving expression to affection.” But he adds: “There is one letter, however, which proves that style was an important element in this peculiar correspondence.”