June 2nd, 1998
I’ve been studying Latin for four years now in an attempt to understand Erasmus in his own language, but I have chosen a particularly difficult route by reading Erasmus to learn Latin. Erasmus had a Latin style all his own, and uniquely difficult.It has been called "elegant Latin”, but the cleverness of Erasmus’ Latin requires more than a phrase to explain.
The simplest aspect of his Latin is his huge vocabulary. Erasmus had a prodigious memory, and he read the entirety of classical literature. No matter how obscure it was, if a Latin word was used anywhere in that huge body of literature, Erasmus knew it and used it. Now, I don’t mean to imply that Erasmus’ writings are filled with rare words; indeed, Erasmus disdained the use of obscure words merely to impress an audience. But when he needed that special word, he had it. Moreover, his working vocabulary was almost as large as his comprehension vocabulary. For example, most of us comprehend the word "exigency", yet we rarely use it in our writing. Erasmus used those odd words in their proper context.
Next comes his sentence structure, and here is where the term "elegance" really applies best. Latin has a powerful system for relative clauses: the relative pronouns are finely broken down by case and type, and so it’s quite simple to pile lots of relative clauses into a sentence without becoming unduly cumbersome.An example might be as follows: "The boy living on the street which was the main avenue down which soldiers returning from wars which had been fought in Asia loved to watch the parades." That’s an abominable sentence in English, but in Latin the "which"s are different, and so it’s easy to keep track of which which refers to what what. Erasmus was a master at constructing such sentences.
Then there was Erasmus’ witty use of language. He was always playing little word games, toying with his Latin. I tried to ape his technique in the paragraph above with the line about keeping track of "which which refers to what what". It’s not correct English, but it works and it’s kinda cute. Erasmus did this kind of thing all the time, and he did it a lot better than I can. He used rhyming pairs of words, rather like Cockney rhyming slang or rap. He punned shamelessly; I suppose that in those innocent days the pun’s novelty protected it from our modern faux-disgust.
Erasmus’ versatility with language was partly a matter of self-preservation. Take the most ignorant, dogmatic, intolerant, self-important extremists from the fringe of the fundamentalist culture, then quadruple their ugliness and you’ve got a good approximation of a large portion of monks in Erasmus’ time. Burning books was a pious act for such people, burning heretics an even stronger expression of reverence. Publishing a book about religion was tantamount to handing them a mountain of evidence to distort -- and distort they did! One assiduous group snatched up one of Erasmus’ new books hot off the press, then divided it among themselves, the more quickly and efficiently to catch his errors. Within weeks of the book’s release, they had prepared a lengthy compendium of its supposedly heretical errors.
Erasmus quickly learned that the best defense against such clods was subtlety of expression. Erasmus mastered the art of insinuation. He demonstrated the technique in one of his funniest colloquies, "The Abbot and the Learned Woman":
[The abbot, visiting the court lady’s home, expresses disapproval at her library, saying "Books ruin women’s wits, none too abundant anyway." The lady disputes with him on this at some length, and the abbot admits that he himself doesn’t read much and prefers more conventional forms of recreation.]
LADY: If you’re not careful, we women will be the ones presiding at the theological schools, preaching in the churches, and wearing your miters.
ABBOT: God forbid it!
LADY: No, you will be the ones to forbid it. The way you’re going, nincompoops will take over the preaching rather than listen to you inarticulate clods. All the world’s a stage, and times are changing. Every man must play his part or exit the stage.
ABBOT: Sheesh! When you come to visit us, I’ll be a better host!
LADY: How so?
ABBOT: We’ll dance, drink all we want, hunt, play games, and laugh.
LADY: Indeed, I feel like laughing right now.
There are several unorthodox and dangerous views subtly expressed in these few lines. One is the insinuation that women might become priests. Another is the suggestion that women might, through education, assume greater power in society. A third is that monks are corrupt and unworthy of the power and privileges they enjoy. But there’s no smoking gun here, nothing that his enemies could pin on him. By the way, notice also the reference to the world being a stage, and humans being actors on it -- half a century before Shakespeare was born.
One last point about Erasmus’ Latinity: it was profoundly modern in its emphasis on comprehensibility over formalism. Erasmus detested the grammarians’ insistence on strict adherence to academic rules of language use. He maintained that the only test of good language was its power to communicate. This debate has continued to rage right up into this century, and it is only recently that the body of learned opinion has decisively swung in Erasmus’ direction. Chalk up another point on which Erasmus was a few hundred years ahead of his time.