Erasmus of Rotterdam - M. Wilkinson

His Zenith and the Beginnings of Protestantism

The Imperial authorities represented in the Court at Brussels had mean while become alive to the importance of their subject: Erasmus had already attempted some indirect overtures to Maximilian, and thither he had to repair. On the way he stayed a short time with Mountjoy, the governor of Hammes, in the Pale of Calais. It was here that the whole question of his dispensation, which the Bishop of Cambrai had obtained for him twenty years ago, became again embarrassing. Probably he had overstepped the scope of Julius's dispensation, which perhaps was only strictly valid for Italy. At this time the old object of his devotion, Servatius, now Prior of Steyn, wrote to him asking many questions and inviting him to return to the priory.

The reply of Erasmus to this letter is most important, for in it are set out all his objections to the conventual life and other more intimate matters. Erasmus insisted on his physical limitations: "My constitution was always upset by fasting, and when I was aroused from sleep could never fall asleep again." ("Jejuniorum semper impatiens fui . . . semel excitatus e somno nunquam potui redormiscere,")  and so on. Not very weighty reasons these; but in some cases the difficulty may be insuperable. "So different," he proceeds, "are the types of men, just as each bird has its own note, that it is impossible to satisfy everyone." ("Tam varia, est hominum sententia et suus cuique avium cantus ut omnibus satisfieri non possit.")

He is on more solid ground when he speaks of the pressure brought to bear on him before he took the vows, and meets the objection as to the years of probation by the remark, "What can a boy of seventeen know of his own mind?" and insists on the fact that letters had always been his real interest. He must have been speaking generally of the, abuse of too youthful profession; for in his own case, although we do not know the year, it is certain that Erasmus was some way past seventeen. He speaks of his temperate habits: "I ever had a horror of excess and drunkenness, and fled from them." ("Crapulam et ebrieta tem semper horrui fugique.")  We need not suppose that the Dutch monks were drunkards, but they were Dutchmen as well as monks; the folk of the Low Countries had some reputation for the absorption of liquor, and on festivals they probably drank too much for Erasmus's fastidious taste. Erasmus further lamented: "Although at one time I was inclined to an excessive affection, I was not its slave, and to Venus I was never in bondage." ("Voluptatibus etsi quondam fui inclinatus Veneri nunquam servivi.")  He instanced all the Cardinals and the Pope who were ready to receive him as a brother: the inference seems to be that he was now too important a person to be a mere Augustinian Canon, and the same idea probably caused him to give up his lectures at Cambridge.

Finally, he wrote that if he thought that he could conscientiously return to Steyn he would set out that very day, and the rather sad salutation followed: "A fond good-bye, my erstwhile sweetest companion, and now my esteemed father." ("Bene vale quondam sodalis suavissime nunc pater observande.")  It is pleasant to think that the friends of early days did not finally quarrel.

Erasmus, therefore, appealed through his friend Ammonius for a complete dispensation to free him from any danger of his being forcibly returned to Steyn. He wrote an appeal on behalf of a fictitious youth, Florence, whose history and troubles were his own; this was addressed to the protonotary, who was given the wholly imaginary name of Lambertus Grunnius. The Pope sent two replies, one to Ammonius absolving someone from all breaches of ecclesiastical law and authorizing him to live in the world and hold benefices in spite of illegitimacy; the other was to Erasmus himself, granting a general dispensation, without reference to his order or illegitimacy, and empowering him to hold benefices of a certain nature and value. Erasmus's really strong point was the manner in which he had been forced into the order. The rest of his arguments are less convincing. Hard cases of mistaken vocation have arisen, like hard matrimonial cases, but these are no argument for divorce; no one need marry, no one need enter an order; badly conducted monasteries in those days did exist, and in the early part of the sixteenth century it is, I suppose, generally admitted that the religious life was not seen at its best. At Brussels Erasmus found the Archduke Charles, whose chancellor informed him that a diocese in Sicily was at his disposal. He did not feel inclined for the charge; but still it was a sign of the spirit of reasonable reform which we see afterwards at Trent, that, in spite of clamours, neither Pope nor archduke intended to give in to the enemies of Erasmus—that is to say, to the purely obscurantist section.

In the midst of all this came the Reuchlin controversy (1514). Reuchlin's knowledge of Hebrew was neither accurate nor profound, but its mere study was regarded with suspicion; at least it was generally thought that no Hebrew books other than the Old Testament should be tolerated. The Augenspiel  had been burnt at Koln in February 1514, according to an edict of Maximilian against Jewish books (1510). This edict had hitherto lain dormant. The Dominicans restarted the trouble by denouncing Reuchlin to the Inquisition on account of some of his writings. Reuchlin was imprisoned and the whole matter referred to the Pope. The Papal Co1njission, in 1516, found in favour of geuchlin: at the request of the Dominican, Hochstrat, Leo postponed action; but, in 1520, judgment was given against the writings of Reuchlin. By that date the question had ceased to have a great importance, as the upheaval of the Reformation overpowered all minor matters. Erasmus strongly supported Reuchlin in the cause of learning and wrote on the Subject to his friend San Giorgio.

In the defence of pure learning Erasmus showed a zeal which he never showed for the so-called reformers: scholarship was his own field, not the propagation of heresy. He wrote to Pirkheimer on the matter, in which he stated that His Holiness himself seemed afraid of the friars, and described Pfefferkorn, Reuchlin's bitterest opponent, in the most satirical manner. Erasmus, however, was alive to the peril of the study, or rather of the exclusive study, of Greek, and foresaw a possibly worse danger in the revival of Hebrew; he was no pagan, still less a Judaizer. Meanwhile, Erasmus finished his St. Jerome, which he dedicated to Leo X, to whom he owed so much (1515), and received a letter of thanks written in the friendliest possible spirit. Leo avowed himself our scholar's special patron, and recommended him to Henry VIII for a bishopric. Leo was indeed a splendid patron of art and learning, as became a member of that illustrious family, and posterity owes a great debt to that Pontiff. The charge of obscurantism, so frequently leveled at the Roman Curia, is a strange one: of all patrons of art and learning, the Renaissance Popes were the most magnificent; they could not be expected to favour heresy. The same critics will assail the Curia for the contrary reason: that it was too pagan in spirit, too much devoted to the arts and learning, and not sufficiently spiritual. It is impossible to maintain these two charges at the same time. The objection is rather similar to that of the Pharisees against our Lord and St. John the Baptist. In reality there was at least an alternation, for if a Pope like Leo was rather more sovereign in character than priest, his successor, Adrian VI, was a wholly spiritual man.

Reform was now very much in the air until all was spoiled by Luther's violence, and the reforms which were carried through at Trent might have been anticipated by Leo. There were some splendid names in the party of conservative reform: Leo X himself, San Giorgio, Cajetano—not at all the implacable bigot of Froude's imagination—Erasmus, Sadolet, abroad, and in England, Warham and Fisher, Colet and More. It seems strange that these could effect nothing visible, at the time; it is but a striking instance of the powerlessness of intellect and worth in this world against popular passion and violence. All popular movements are more or less suspect, and the Reformation at its outbreak (in Germany) was popular; that is, it appealed to the uncultured and common, however much it was subsequently patronized by the princes of the Empire for their own territorial aggrandisement. At that period there was still time to avert the desolation of Christendom; within a few years the party of innovation had advanced beyond any possibility of conciliation. It so happened that the leader, Luther, was a man who was irreconcilable by nature: if Melanchthon, who was indeed the intellectual head of Protestantism, had been also the popular leader, some understanding between him and the Holy See might conceivably have been reached; but popular leaders always lack reason. Goethe said that the progress of mankind had been thrown back for centuries when popular passion was called up to decide questions which belonged to thinkers. At this momentous period of the world's history it seems probable, however, that more than human activities intervened.

At Louvain a concerted attack on all Erasmus's work was being planned, and the storm soon broke on him. The hostility of the orders at Louvain was very great, but Leo decided every point which they raised in favour of Erasmus, nor could the Emperor be roused to hostility. Anyhow, the great explosion caused by the Wittenberg theses (1517) made all else seem in comparison to be insignificant. This is no place to outline Luther's history and influence, but his connection with Erasmus is important.

Luther came into fame, even into history, with his ninety-five theses. He first wrote to Erasmus in 1516, but the very next year saw the fundamental difference between the two. In 1519 we have a letter from Luther in which the difference is minimized and hopes for mutual respect are entertained; the quarrel was still only latent. Luther was very nervous about his position, as his dedicatory letter to Frederick of Saxony showed; his friends were even more uneasy, and sought eagerly the support of scholars. Erasmus only knew of Luther by repute and some slight correspondence; he did not read his works, but knew enough about them to oppose Froben's publication. Erasmus did not respond to the appeal at all cordially, and made no concealment of his dislike of the trouble which he saw Luther's ways would create. At the same time he said that he had already helped to defend him without in any way committing himself to Luther's views. But, as time went on, Erasmus looked upon Luther more and more as the worst obstacle to peaceful reform and fatal to his own projects. By the curious nemesis which awaits heresy, Luther in turn regarded the later extreme reformers much in the light that Erasmus had regarded himself. Erasmus further wrote to Wolsey saying that he held no brief for Luther, thought him imprudent, but would not decide on any one of Luther's points; he himself will always be found on the side of the Holy See. Even when Luther's action had been condemned by the Pope, Erasmus wrote to Albrecht of Brandenburg, Archbishop and Elector of Mainz, to urge moderation in the matter of the indulgences and monastic orders and giving a qualified sort of support to Luther.

The Elector of Mainz was a great friend of Erasmus, who regarded him as belonging to the conservative party of reform. The Elector was also a close friend of Leo X and one of the most powerful of churchmen; he it was who had the chief interest in the sale of the indulgences associated with the name of the Dominican Tetzel, and it must have required some courage on the part of Erasmus to risk giving offence to his highly placed patron. Albrecht took it all very well. He was obviously a secularly minded young man who really had no suitability for the office of archbishop and cardinal. As Elector he was quite satisfactory; and, in regard to his magnificence and liberality, he was worthy to be the friend of the Pope.

This apparent contradiction in Erasmus's attitude is probably best explained by his fear that if Luther were to be wholly suppressed, learning and enquiry would likewise suffer; the ultra-conservative elements, more especially Erasmus's old enemies, the friars, would triumph over-much, and he himself might not improbably come to be in a position of some difficulty if not of actual danger. Moreover, Luther's vagaries had at least, so thought Erasmus, caused the theologians to study afresh the Fathers. Erasmus was alive to the existence of several abuses, and doubtless in the matter of the indulgences he thought that a salutary shock had been given to the authorities. He never attacked the theory of indulgences, but the manner in which the Elector and Tetzel manipulated them. Luther raged against the whole theory and the successor of St. Peter as well.

It may be pointed out that the Elector's action was indefensible. Tetzel was rather less to blame, and no condemnation of quxstors and corrupt gains could be more severe than that embodied in the decrees of the Council of Trent. Copies of Erasmus's New Testament, with notes, spread rapidly over Europe and caused alarm to some. Leo X had already given his special patronage to the work and refused all the clamours for an examination of Erasmus's work. Now this alarm was perfectly natural; the Vulgate had come to be regarded as almost equally inspired with the original, although St. Jerome particularly says that he was not so; and by his alternative, and in some cases unreliable, retranslations it seemed to some as though Erasmus had made havoc of the Holy Scripture. Nor were their fears for the future unfounded. In the popularization of the New Testament lay all the strength of the future heresies: for, apart from Erasmus's own errors of translation, it was but the precursor of many editions of the Bible, some wholly heretical, some free from serious error, but all lending themselves to the most kaleidoscopic interpretations when individual judgment ran riot on certain texts without the control of the Church. Erasmus intended all his writings to be for learned and calm circles; he disliked and mistrusted all popular enthusiasm, and Luther's own type of mind was itself the scholastic one to which Erasmus so much objected. He feared a sort of new and, to him, more intolerable scholasticism if Luther's views were to prevail. Erasmus, in common with most scholars of the day, had an unnecessary and invincible prejudice against scholasticism; not only against the debased form then current, but, with one or two exceptions, against the whole philosophy. In our own days scholasticism is again coming into its own.

Luther now wrote to Erasmus asking for active help. This was particularly unwelcome to Erasmus. The most active enemies of Erasmus's New Testament were the Dominican, Hochstrat, whom we have met, the Carmelite, Egmond of Louvain, and more especially Lee, afterwards Archbishop of York. Another Carmelite, Nicholas Baechem of Alkmaar, was a later enemy of Erasmus; and Miles Standish, afterwards Provincial of the Franciscans, one of the most servile of all churchmen to Henry VIII, was another pet aversion of Erasmus's.

Erasmus was temperamentally hostile to radical measures; he desired reform, slow, gradual, mitigated. He wished to confine all discussion to theologians and scholars. He struggled to draw Melanchthon from the fury of dispute and destruction which he saw coming.

"I could wish you rather to be engaged in spreading about the knowledge of learning than in combating its enemies. Moreover, we must strive not only by our eloquence, but by the modesty and ease of our manners, to show ourselves their superiors." ("Malim to plus opere sumere in asserendis bonis literis quam insectandis harum hostibus. Praeterea certandum est nobis ut non solum eloquentia verum etiam modestia morumque levitate superiores illis videamur.")

Erasmus had some difficulty in maintaining his ground, so fierce was the attack on different sides in spite of the unfailing support of the Vatican; and openly to help Luther after the Papal condemnation would have been fatal. He constantly asserted: "No one can be more unknown to anybody than Luther is to me." ("Lutherus tam mihi ignotus quam cui ignotissimus;)  and, again, to Leo X he wrote: "I am not mad enough to attempt anything against the supreme Vicar of Christ, I who would not contradict even the bishop of my diocese." ("Non sum tam demens ut contra summum Christi Vicarium ausim quidquam qui ne peculiari quidem episcopo meo velim adversari.") 

He firmly refused Luther's appeal, thus gaining the lasting hostility of the Protestants and yet not wholly conciliating many Catholics. The truth is that Erasmus, who always opposed ignorance and abuses, felt no call to sacrifice himself for a cause which was not his own; he foresaw to some extent what was coming in later years, and, if he had lived longer, would have become far more strongly Papal. In the autumn of 1520, therefore, matters were on the edge of a catastrophe, and the world waited. Luther had burned the Bull and a copy of the Decretals, thereby challenging the Pope to a trial of strength; the young and recently elected Charles V had summoned the Diet to meet in January 1521 at worms. There was no doubt whatever as to the attitude of Charles or of his orthodoxy, although he was not expected to be the ally of the purely conservative school of Louvain. Luther's resources were indeed slender, and the elements of success on his side appeared to be almost negligible. In reality his appeal to German nationalism, as opposed to Italy, had deeply stirred the masses; it soon brought his cautious adherent, the Elector of Saxony, openly to his side, and it even to some slight extent awoke response in the mind of Charles V. Luther himself had little hope for his cause or even for his own safety when he set out for Worms.

Erasmus had stirred up several wasps' nests, and was far from being comfortable. He had dedicated his Ephesians  to Cardinal Campeggio, and probably hoped to return to what was still the more peaceful England under the Cardinal's protection. Campeggio was a very learned canon lawyer, and was regarded as a strong supporter of the revival of letters. He had taken orders after his wife's death. Erasmus, in the same year (1520), wrote to Henry VIII as well as to Mountjoy and Pace, Sir Henry Guildford, and Wolsey with the same object in view—that of establishing himself in England. Henry had before assured him of a second living, and from Warham he had had repeated offers of welcome. Previously he had seemed indifferent as to English help, but times had changed. However, either from Imperial pressure to stay, or from lack of any real welcome to England, or perhaps owing to the fact that the facilities for printing were very poor in England compared with those on the Continent, all this came to nothing, and he never re-entered England.

Campeggio and Aleander, who was to conduct the case against Luther at the Diet, came to Louvain to consult Erasmus, and from the other side came urgent requests to Erasmus for support, possibly from the Landgraf of Hesse or from the Elector of Saxony. He refused all support for Luther in an answer to some well known person, Vir praepotens, at whose identity we have hinted. It is an appeal to moderation: The matter can be arranged by the Pope your Highness, the Princes of the Empire, and the scholars, if only the vulgar mob are kept out."

"I will not join Luther until I see he is on the side of the Church but if there is to be a cleavage and the Church is torn in two, I will stand on the rock of peter until the return of peace."

The Diet finally met on January 28, 1521, and Leo X had already issued the Bull "In Coena Domini,"  in which Luther was mentioned by name as an enemy of the Church. The appearance of Luther at Worms was a courageous act, but the courage has been somewhat exaggerated by historians. What else could he have done? Sooner or later he would have been hunted out; there was no place of retreat, for, as Froude remarks, the Church was everywhere; Protestant countries did not yet exist, and he had some remote chance before the Diet.

Charles was not impressed by Luther: "This man will never make a heretic of me." Luther was simply asked if he acknowledged the authorship of certain works, and then was required to retract. He refused. The ban was pronounced, but he was given until the expiration of the safe-conduct before judgment should be executed. The significance of Worms turns on the fact that, for the first time in history, a private person had defied Church and Empire without coming to grief. It is true that the reprieve seemed likely to be of the shortest kind, for no one could foresee how Luther, on his way home, was to be carried off by sham brigands to the castle of Wartburg, and there kept hidden until, with the outbreak of war, Charles needed the help of all his Germans. It was then, to use his own words, "No time to talk of Luther."

To what extent Charles was wholly ignorant of the Elector's action is a debatable subject. George, Duke in Saxony, and certain others were in favour of following the precedent of Sigismund at Konstanz and ignoring the safe-conduct. Erasmus thought that Luther had done for himself, and was anxious to save Melanchthon from being involved in the same ruin. In May 1521 he wrote to Jonas Jodocus that by his "Babylonish captivity and other acts Luther had willingly provoked his fate. In the same strain he wrote to Warham, at the same time regretting that, with the times so much in favour of reasonable reform, Luther had not shown more sense and moderation. Much the same sentiment was entertained earlier by Machiavelli with regard to the failure of Savonarola. As the year wore on it became clear that all was not over with Luther, and Erasmus wrote again to Warham complaining of the dangerous situation and saying that he must read Luther's works and write something about him.

Erasmus, like Blessed Thomas More and other excellent men of the day, was in no way inclined to change the old beliefs for new. There was an enormous difference between a reformation of the Church's discipline and a change of doctrine. All his friends, bishops, Aulic Councillors and others urged on him the necessity to write and put down Luther by the force of his learning, as well as to clear himself from all complicity with the heretical movement. Mountjoy wrote very strongly on the subject, and he was speaking for More and Fisher quite as much as for himself.

We have reached a crisis in the world's history. Worms forms the great dividing line. The events before and after that Diet are so dissimilar that they must be treated in the next chapter. The various actors in the course of events, so far as we have gone, have to choose on which side they will stand, and a definite party of Reformation—that is, of innovation and heresy, irreconcilable to the claims of the Church—henceforth existed. More, it sprang up to its full stature in a surprisingly short space of time, and Erasmus, whose younger days and maturity had been passed in a society which could not imagine any serious schism, lived to see not only Lutheranism, but, such is the fissiparous tendency of heresy, far more advanced opinions, prevail.

Lutherans were, after all, the conservative Reformed; behind Luther came the Sacramentarians, originally led by Zwingli, and the sour figure of Calvin, whose system exercised such a fatal fascination over Scotland and then over England. Nor was this all; the vagaries of Carlstadt and Martin Cellarius followed, down to the sheer insanity of the Munster Anabaptists. To all of these Luther was as much opposed as to the Church; Melanchthon, very much more so. Erasmus took but little interest in or notice of them. He was concerned only actively with Luther, for, entirely as he repudiated Luther's doctrine, he had had originally a vague interest in the latter's protests. He also felt in some way rather uneasy as to his own share in the disaster. His enemies always said that by his translations and paraphrases of the New Testament he had paved the way for Luther, and by his satires and jests at the expense of some of the orders he had unchained a tempest against the religious in general. There is some truth in that accusation. Erasmus and other scholars laid an intellectual basis for revolt, and Erasmus did in fact encourage a movement which took a course he never wished or intended, but which, with all his genius and prestige, he found himself entirely unable to control. The Popes, in turn, recognized his surpassing intellect and his essential honesty; but it is not always prudent, in dangerous times, to allow a critical spirit too great liberty and, until the mischief was done, Erasmus put but slight restraint on the expression of his wayward and mordant genius. Some of his writings would have been better if confined to a more narrow circle. Schiller reflects, in his Wallenstein trilogy

"The action was mine so long as it remained in my bosom; but, once sent out from its safe nursery into the foreign, it became the property of those sly malicious powers which never art of man conciliated."

Erasmus was conscious of his power and the undeserved attacks made upon him contributed to make him satirical. He knew that, if he were to go over to the Lutheran party—and there was no lack of pressure to persuade him to openly declare for them—the case would be virtually settled in the learned world, and his action would have a far-reaching effect on the attitude of Catholics who were somewhat shaken in their allegiance.

Julius Pflug of Leipzig and Naumburg thought that Erasmus could act as mediator between Melanchthon and the Emperor—he recognized that Luther was hopeless—by compelling both to give way on certain points. Erasmus himself said that, if he had any trace of heresy in his nature, he would long ago have sought refuge with the Lutherans, so deeply had the attacks of some of the orders affected him; he, however, made no sects, and all enquirers who came to him he directed to apply to the Church for information. The hostility of the orders varied, but Erasmus referred to the Carmelites, the Franciscans, especially the observant branch, and some way behind these the Dominicans, as his most persistent enemies. After all, these orders had been the object of his special attack in the Encomium  and in other writings. The Society of Jesus was not of course formed, though the original members were younger contemporaries of Erasmus, and a story relates that St. Ignatius read some of Erasmus's New Testament, but could not continue it, as he found it depressing. This, even if not true, is interesting, for it shows the fundamental difference between the two types of mind. Doubtless St. Ignatius would not understand, nor indeed like, Erasmus's critical spirit, and the scholar would realize neither the supreme genius, as great as his own, nor the sanctity of the Founder of the Company. We know, however, that for posterity and in our own times, in the spiritual and intellectual worlds, no names have greater significance than those of St. Ignatius and Erasmus. The birth and military training of St. Ignatius gave a distinct type to his mind. He regarded Erasmus as a force subversive of discipline in practice and not over favourable to respect for authority in the abstract. He would not allow the younger members of the Company, at any rate, to read Erasmus's works, and the Society has never regarded him with much favour. Erasmus is, in fact, an author whose works one would not recommend to those who had not a sufficient knowledge of his own times to enable them to estimate his genius and to discount his mannerisms.