How Bad Can Scholarship Get?

May 31, 2001

We expect that any manuscript that achieves publication must be reasonably accurate; if the author has a doctorate and is a professor at a recognized university, we assume that this book must be especially reliable. Yet such assumptions can fail us. An egregious example of this is The Tragedy of Erasmus, by Harry S. May, published by Piraeus Publishers in 1975. At the time Dr. May was a professor at the University of Tennessee at Nashville. This deservedly obscure tract boasts the most impressive collection of transgressions against truth that I have seen since Velikovsky.

I have not the time to list even a goodly fraction of the bloopers in this work; instead, I shall simply present a sampling.

Page 7:
an English humanist named Warham gave him a generous benefice, perhaps just to get rid of him. William Warham was the archbishop of Canterbury, who maintained a lifelong close friendship with Erasmus.

Page 7:
Another big-hearted soul, who appreciated the chronic financial embarrassment of our humanist, Aldington of Kent, allowed Erasmus a stipend for life in the form of twenty pounds per annum. Aldington was not a person, but the district that provided Erasmus’ benefice.

Page 8:
He was at the height of his fame in Europe, at least among those who had read his works but had not met him in person. This is an example of what I call the ’snide aside’, an obviously undocumentable comment piggybacking on the back of a reasonable statement. There is absolutely no justification for this insult.

Page 10:
addressing himself to his friend Servetus, the Spanish radical anti-Trinitarian, he summed it all up: ’In England there is not a bishop who is not pleased to receive my greeting (7/8/1514). Here Dr. May errs in confusing Servatius Rogerus, the Dutch prior of the monastery at Steyn who was officially Erasmus’ superior, with Michael Servetus, who was indeed Spanish and was indeed anti-Trinitarian. Erasmus’ letter is to Servatius, not Servetus. My thanks to Francis DeBernardo for catching an error of mine in describing Dr. May’s mistake. 

Page 10: Again, to preserve his freedom, or because he suspected competition from former Jewish, now Christian scholars (Marranos), he turned down a call to the Spanish university at Alcala. May’s speculation that Erasmus feared competition from Jewish scholars has absolutely no foundation. Indeed, Erasmus turned down all invitations to join institutions after 1516.

Page 11:
The eulogistic gyrations and literary dedications of Erasmus have a touch of the insincere and the panegyric; they have been compared to the sale of indulgences by the Church. By the same token, Erasmus’ contempt for the uncouth vernacular and his over-emphasis on stilted word-form... The comparison with the sale of indulgences is intellectual dirty pool. Dr. May slanders Erasmus without taking responsibility for the slander or naming his source. Erasmus preferred to use Latin, but learned the vernacular in every country in which he lived. Indeed, he encouraged translations of the Bible into the vernacular, so that even the lowest members of society might read it. As to the suggestion that Erasmus used stilted word-form, anybody who has read any of Erasmus’ educational works will know how contrary that suggestion is to Erasmus’ desires.

Page 11:
He the humanist, and Luther, the reformer, both were dogmatists par excellence; brooking neither uncomformity nor deviation from the Faith, whether it was secular or religious. Characterizing Erasmus as a dogmatist is one of the most breathtakingly wrong-headed statements I have read in a long time. The least Dr. May could have done is offer some kind of exemplary quotation from the supposed dogmatist.

Page 12:
The Jews unhinged him. And no other humanist of his time was as plagued and persecuted by their presence as Erasmus was. In his first 593 letters, there are a total of 15 references to Jews, as indexed in the Collected Works of Erasmus. His entire Colloquies, touching on so many aspects of European life, contain 17 mentions of Jews, as indexed in Thompson’s edition. Clearly, if Erasmus was unhinged, plagued, and persecuted by the presence of Jews, he didn’t talk much about it. However, he did like to talk about the Roman poet Horace; he mentions Horace 94 times in the 593 above-mentioned letters and 17 times in the Colloquies. If Erasmus was obsessed with the Jews, how would Dr. May characterize his relationship with Horace?

Page 14:
However, there is a sense of tragedy in his sarcasm, for it is trained always against somebody. He never laughs at himself. He never pokes fun at his weaknesses. Erasmus pointed out many times that his most famous satire, The Praise of Folly, never once named any of the people whom he was satirizing. He tried to keep his jibes aimed at generic groups rather than specific individuals. And what target of satire other than people can there be? As to never laughing at himself, Erasmus made many jokes about his big nose. Indeed, Erasmus invented the ’big nose sequence joke’ later taken up in Cyrano de Bergerac and later used by Steve Martin in his Cyrano derivative.

Page 15: [referring to Stefan Zweig’s popular biography of Erasmus]
Zweig misread his hero completely. Now, forty years later, one wonders whether this German-Jewish writer had ever read Erasmus’ letters. I myself wonder whether Dr. May ever read Zweig’s book. About one page in five contains a quotation from one of Erasmus’letters.

Page 17:
He himself did not distinguish between Jews and their religion. To him Jews were ’criminals’ and subversives, as he states in his Ratio.10
This looks like an actual documented claim, but footnote #10 reads as follows:

10. Werner L. Gundersheimer in his study, Erasmus, Humanism, and the Christian Kabbala, uses the term anti-semitism for the first time in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXVI, (Freiburg, 1963) pp.38-52.

This footnote does nothing to document the quotation Dr. May uses.

Page 18:
Erasmus would not even talk to a Jew. This is an outright lie, and an easily detected one at that. In one of his most famous letters, to Beatus Rhenanus in October of 1518, describing an arduous journey, Erasmus relates that he became sick and called in several doctors. Erasmus wrote: "I call in a Jewish doctor, he says on the evidence of the [urine] specimen, my body is just as healthy as his."

Page 20-21:
Erasmus and Luther both recommended ’the elimination of the Jews’ in some of their many letters. This preposterous accusation is made with no documentation whatever. If Dr. May had actually seen such a remark in one of Erasmus’ letters, he should have given, at the very least, the date and correspondent. I suspect that this remark is a fabrication.

Page 21:
But then, Erasmus was too cowardly to advocate physical mass-violence. Dr. May characterizes Erasmus’ pacifism as cowardice.

Page 44:
After all, he [the apostle Thomas] too had ’descended from the exceedingly criminal, stiff-necked, and revolutionary people of the Jews.’21 Once again we are treated to a quotation that appears to be documented, but is not. Here are the relevant footnotes provided by Dr. May:

20. C.R. Thompson, The Colloquies of Erasmus (Chicago, 1965), p. 183.
21. Ibid., pp.231-255.

If you take the trouble to look up these quotations, you will find nothing of the kind on the cited pages. It’s not a simple pagination problem; no indexed reference to Jews in Thompson’s book is anything remotely like the above quote. Dr. May’s reference is a complete fabrication.

Page 138:
This historian is tempted to compare these two personalities, Hitler and Erasmus. Dr. May does just that on page 139, drawing as many parallels as he can. Although he studiously asserts that We are not suggesting that Erasmus and Hitler are synonymous. (Page 149), he goes to great length, and considerable intellectual acrobatics, to claim a host of similarities between the two. He seems to feel only that ’synonymous’ is too strong a term to describe the close similarity between Erasmus and Hitler. This comparison is absurd, beyond rational belief. To compare the author of The Complaint of Peace with the instigator of the Holocaust is risible.

I never thought I would see such outrages against truth in a work by a professor from a recognized university. This book chokes with outright lies, distortions, vicious innuendo, slanders, and sloppy scholarship. It is an embarrassment to scholars everywhere.