Our culture has developed such strong strictures against love between men that it assumes that any expression of love is necessarily homoerotic. This is understandable, but we must be careful not to apply our own cultural standards to a culture as different from ours as the one Erasmus inhabited.
Such was the case with declarations of love between men during the Renaissance. Such declarations cannot be taken as indications of homosexual relationships; they were manifestations of other forces at work. The first of these was the Christian expectation of brotherly love. Renaissance Europe was still an intensely Christian culture (in posture, not in action), and the dictum ’love thy fellow man’, so frequently declared from the pulpit, was not an admonition to homosexuality.
Moreover, the notion of intimate but non-erotic male relationships had become quite the thing among humanist scholars. Huizinga (1924) puts it thus in describing Erasmus’ relationship with Servatius: “This exuberant friendship accords quite well with the times and the person. Sentimental friendships were as much in vogue in secular circles during the fifteenth century as towards the end of the eighteenth century. Each court had its pairs of friends, who dressed alike and shared room, bed, and heart. Nor was this cult of fervent friendship restricted to the sphere of aristocratic life. It was among the specific characteristics of the Devotio Moderna...”
Hyma (1930) disagrees on this point: “Erasmus conceived for Servatius a curious fancy which is very puzzling, for if one takes the letters seriously... one must conclude that Erasmus was extremely neurotic at the time. Contrary to the advice of the Brethren of the Common Life, who warned against sentimentality and frowned upon very intimate friendship; contrary also to the teachings of the Imitation of Christ and the Devotio Moderna as a whole, he indulged in a form of literature which cannot have failed to repulse the person to whom it was dedicated.”
Faludy (1970) supports the basic point: “..friendships of this kind were anything but rare in the religious life of the time and, within certain well-defined limits, were approved of even by the Brethren of the Common Life.”
We must also remember the proclivity to literary excess. Fine shades of judgement are rare in the writings of the period – an individual is portrayed as either God’s gift to mankind or the execrence of the Devil. Erasmus writes to Thomas More as follows: “...your affability and kindness are so extraordinary that you are both able and pleased to play with everyone the part of a man for all seasons.” Prince Henry, later Henry VIII, writes to Erasmus as follows: “...the clarity of that letter of yours is as limpid as its charm is effective, so that you seem indeed to have won every vote. Still, why do I praise the eloquence of a man like you whose learning in world-famous? I cannot invent anything in your praise which could be truly worthy of your consummate scholarship...” And so on and on and on. And how’s this as an example of praise for a doctor: “God gives us our lives; our physician, as it were, gives us those lives again. If from the Supreme Creator of the universe we have received the gift of life, yet it is by a physician’s care that it is preserved so that it be not lost, and again is saved when otherwise it would have perished. Wherefore I would not reckon a man of medicine as ’one worth many’, in Homer’s words, but rather would deem him to deserve to be regarded by mankind as a sort of god upon earth.”
Declarations of love are not uncommon in Erasmus’ letters, or in any of the letters commonly exchanged in those times. Among thousands of Erasmus’ letters, we have hundreds of mentions of his love for the recipient. If Erasmus truly did have homosexual relations with every person he claimed to love, I doubt he would have had time for anything else. Here are a few samples from Erasmus’ early years, roughly the same time as his supposedly homoerotic relationships:
To his brother in 1487: “... I love you intensely, as you deserve; your name is on my lips and in my heart; I think of you and dream of you and speak of you often with my friends...”
To a Carmelite in Ghent whom Erasmus never met, referring to himself: “...a friend who loves you dearly.”
To Jan Mombaer, an Augustinian canon from another monastery: “Affectionate greetings, my beloved brother... I embrace you still more warmly for your civilized disposition and the studies that unite us. The former qualities earn my admiration; the latter, my love... though you and I have never been closely associated, I still somehow feel strongly drawn to you. I am by nature extremely prone to form friendships of all kinds, but so strong is the attraction I feel towards enthusiasts for good literature that I can even love my rivals.... your modesty and kindness, friendliness and honor are enough to make me love you.” Erasmus had never met Mombaer, and his entire relationship with Mombaer consists of two letters.
To Antonius of Luxembourg, a religious, he wrote: “For you, my delightful and amiable friend, are as much, or at least very nearly as much, beloved by me as is my Batt himself...”
To Jacob Canter: “ ’But’, you will say, ’what makes you so anxious about me?’ Why, the very great love I bear you. Perhaps you will ask what the source of this is, since not only have I never had any dealings with you but I have never so much as set eyes on you... your ... prologues gave me such pleasure that though I read them over and over I was unable to exhaust my enjoyment; for I swear they display so much of the ancient style of eloquence and learning... Since, then, I am sure, dear Jacob, that you are not only a man of the utmost distinction in Letters but a staunch supporter of that art, I decided to ask you, first to return my love, (which, while it is a most pleasant thing for any men at all, is doubly so as between fellow students of literature).... and lastly to join me in a correspondence by which we can compensate for our separation, since we cannot live together...”
Indeed, Erasmus’ declarations of love were often meaningless formalities, and in at least one case, Erasmus declared his love deceitfully. To Augustin Vincent, at whose house Erasmus needed to stay, he wrote: “...when love is sincere, as it is, I believe, between us...” On the very same day, he wrote to Jacob Batt about Augustin, “...whether he is friendly or hostile, I am not quite sure...”. A little later in the same letter, he mentions “the false and feigned color of his [Augustin’s] kindness.”
Moreover, Erasmus often added color to his letters by adding classical references, and these included references to legendary friendships from classical times. He frequently compares his relationship with his correspondent with the relationships of Orestes and Pylades or Theseus and Pirithous; less frequently he refers to Pythias and Damon, Euryalus and Nisus, or Jonathan and David. These were all intense, intimate – but not homoerotic – relationships. Erasmus could easily have used gay relationships, such as that between Alicibiades and Socrates, as his examples, knowing that few non-humanists would have any appreciation of the significance of the pairing. Thus, he had code words for gay relationships at hand, should he have wanted to use them – but he never did.
Other writers used the same stylistic devices. Thomas More had this to say in a letter to John Colet: “What can be more distressing to me than to be deprived of your most dear society, after being guided by your wise counsels, cheered by your charming familiarity, assured by your earnest sermons, and helped forward by your example, so that I used to obey your very look and nod?...let your regard for me move you, since I have given myself entirely to you, and am awaiting your return full of solicitude...Farewell and continue to love me as you do.”
Robert Gaugin, an eminent French scholar, writing to Erasmus, whom he had never met: “So far as I can tell by your letter and your lyric poems, I judge you to be a scholar: and for this reason I look forward to your friendship as much as you to mine. Attachment to similar pursuits is the bond of love and charity. If in addition to this I have picked up any education, any tincture of learning, as you think I have, then I freely declare that your affection shall have access to my heart and my love, as wide open as the doors of my house are to my friends. Take away all the pretense that lies in flattering words and come with unveiled face; keep for yourself the free exercise of your judgement in loving me if you think fit...”
A tidbit at the end of the letter from Heinrich Northoff to his brother Christian is also revealing about 15th-century practices: Heinrich describes how he awoke from a dream. “Erasmus, who shared my couch, noticed that I was somewhat perturbed, and asked what ailed me. ..” It was perfectly normal for men to share beds in those days; such arrangements carry no implication of homosexual behavior. Indeed, in another letter describing the travails of a long journey, Erasmus mentions that, in staying at a French inn, he and his fellow-traveller, a nodding acquaintance, shared one bed while the porter and his apprentice shared a second bed. The ubiquity of the practice suggests either a concomitant ubiquity of homosexual behavior – unlikely – or such a universal abhorrence of homosexual behavior as to deprive such arrangements of any suggestive content.