Erasmus of Rotterdam - M. Wilkinson

Society in the Early Sixteenth Century

Erasmus was born at Rotterdam between the years 1465 and 1469. Dr. Richter and some other authorities have decided on 1466 as the most probable date. His own statements as to his birth are conflicting, but it took place during the night of October 27-28; Erasmus himself observed the day of St. Simon and St. Jude as his birthday. The name of the family was Gierrard, which by an obvious play on the word was Latinized into Desiderius and afterwards Graecized into Erasmus. His birth is involved in some mystery, but the matter is of no very great importance. The dispensation of Julius II, 1506, describes him as being de soluto genitus, which is altogether against the contemporary rumour of his being the son of a priest; on the other hand, the more ample dispensation of Leo X, 1517) describes the defect of birth in far stronger terms. We know that Erasmus had an elder brother, Peter, for whom he had but little regard: so the connection between his parents must have lasted for a long time. When Erasmus became famous and made enemies, as was the way of Renaissance scholars, the more damaging version of his birth was probably circulated. Froude was inclined to doubt the whole business, but it is clear that Erasmus was in fact illegitimate, and that his father, a man of position and education, either by trickery or by accident, was prevented from marrying the mother.

Erasmus was born on the edge of that extraordinary outburst of art, learning, and culture which had indeed already appeared in Italy, but did not attain its zenith until some twenty years later. He was born at the death of one era and at the birth of another, an event which may be said to have influenced the ideas of education and the general outlook on life, until the disruption of Europe and of society which began with the present century and culminated in the recent war. The Renaissance was already in blossom in Italy, but it required the invasion of Charles VIII to scatter the seeds into the lands beyond the Alps. That invasion marks the beginning of modern history, and Addington Symonds, with his true instinct for the picturesque, describes the battle of Fornovo as the moment of the birth of the new world; even as Goethe said of himself at Valmy that he had been present at the birth of a new order of things. Erasmus regarded with appreciation the names of Marsilio Ficino, Poliziano, and Pico della Mirandola; he never, of course, knew any of them personally. These famous scholars, Florentine at least by domicile, were for long the admiration and inspiration of the learned world. Poliziano undoubtedly still enjoys a reputation, Ficino is unknown except to the historian, and Pico lives not so much for his learning, which was confused if extensive, as for his beauty, his charm, his high birth, and sweet piety. Luther was not the first to astonish the world with theses and to invite attack. Pico wrote some hundreds, not ninety-five; many were unorthodox, which he never seriously intended to maintain, some were absurd, and one at least, "that the soul knows nothing clearly and distinctly but itself," was extremely subtle, and in it some have seen the germ of the whole Cartesian theory.

As the Renaissance spread beyond Italy, it took on different aspects and tended to abandon the purely artistic form of its original home. Italian learning was pretty, and the ways of the cultured Italians were most delightful, when not too scandalous. In France it took the form of literary exuberance, not necessarily of classical inspiration, and the building of those Renaissance chateaux, not castles  in the mediaeval sense, which still give a characteristic charm to much of Northern and Central France and above all to the Loire country. Still, the motif  was very Italian; the Court was Italianate, though not to the extent which it reached after Erasmus's death. In the North, on the contrary, in the Empire—it is best to avoid the perfectly correct words Germany  and Austria, for they have come to have a peculiar meaning to us since 1866—the Renaissance took literally the form of the revival of learning, albeit there existed an excellent Flemish, Dutch, and Nurnberg school of art. This scholarship was laborious; it collated and purged the texts of the classical authors or of the early Fathers; later, it took to Biblical criticism, and finally opened the floodgates of the Reformation and was indirectly responsible for that great disaster to the human race. The Renaissance, as expounded in Italy and France, would not have led to that catastrophe, and we shall see that it was never the intention of scholars like Erasmus, still less of Colet, Warham, or More, that it should do so. This "high scholarship" never wrote in anything but Latin, though Erasmus did so far relax as to write to the Elector of Saxony, Luther's friend, in German. It could be extremely dry and bitter in spirit, and even at its best was inclined to pedantry. It was not so human as in the southern forms of the Renaissance, though intensely humanistic. The Germans or Dutchmen lacked the ingenia acerrima Florentina, or the whole-hearted zest in life which characterized the sixteenth-century Frenchman. The Frenchman of the splendid Valois days and for long after was a very different person from the Frenchman of the third Republic. Not all northern scholars were pedantic; there were many exceptions; our own Colet, our subject Erasmus, and I think we may add Melanchthon, the only sympathetic character amongst the Reformers, were all delightfully human.

Such was the curious, complex yet immature society of which Erasmus was destined for long to be the arbiter, courted by all from the Pope and Emperor downwards. Many of the distinguished friends of his zenith turned against him, for several of them subsequently joined the Wittenberg camp, and Erasmus never wavered in his Catholicism. Many who attached themselves over-rigidly to the past forsook him, for Erasmus would never be partisan of a blind obscurantism. He was alive to the undoubted abuses of the time, and was troubled by them to some extent: it is a tragedy that he was unable to see the end of the Council of Trent, for the decrees of that Council aimed at the reformation of every one of the real abuses of which the earlier reformers had complained. However, the reformation movement fell entirely out of the control of those who would have helped the Pope to salutary reforms which, indeed, came, but too late to save the unity of Europe, and by some disastrous agency fell into the power of such as Luther, Calvin, Knox, Thomas Cromwell, and Henry VIII.

The sixteenth century was a time of violent emotions; people wore their hearts on their sleeves, and expressed themselves habitually in superlatives. It was a time of extreme intellectualism; an intellectualism which was not incompatible with gross superstition—I mean the belief in astrology and magic. It was very pagan; men of letters were so saturated with classical learning that in some curious way they seemed to be living in the days of the Empire before Our Lord, and the more austere even in the days of the Republic.

How much of this was a pure mannerism it is hard to say. Luigi da Porto seems haunted by a series of portents in the vicissitudes of Venetian history, which he described in his admirable letters, and by a semi-personal Fortuna arbitra delle case umane. He probably meant little by it, but regarded it as necessary for a man of culture, or at any rate as a sign of being in good society, to imitate Livy, whom he had obviously chosen as his literary model. In fact, these men were convinced that the centuries which followed the break-up of the Roman Empire, which we usually call the Middle Ages, were a time of unmitigated ignorance and gloom, and deserved nothing but oblivion. We know how mistaken that view is, but Mr. Chesterton says somewhere that a "discovery is an incurable disease," and all discoveries, whether the revival of letters of four hundred years ago or the discoveries of science of our own time, have in turn left the world blind and deaf to other and more important matters.

The present day is equally pagan and materialistic with the sixteenth century, with its grossness and cruelty, and with much hypocrisy thrown in; it wholly lacks its charm and brilliancy, and is equally at the mercy of absurd superstitions. Does not Goethe say, "Where no God is there spectres reign"? We are very near the sixteenth century in some ways and far removed from its thoughts in others. If we could converse with an educated man of that time we should meet on fairly common ground, whereas we should find difficulty in understanding the mental outlook of a man of the twelfth century. The reason is that the great political and even economic problems of our day date from the Renaissance time: modern individualism and nationalism are definitely opposed to the more corporate life of the Middle Ages. Our modern troubles and problems and manner of thought would be wholly unintelligible to a person of the centuries before the fifteenth and sixteenth, for the reason that he would know nothing of the Renaissance or Reformation, and the whole of modern Europe would appear to him to be a hopeless nightmare. He could not even be got to understand the events of the sixteenth century simply as historical facts, and so far as he could be made to comprehend the vast change which was then made he would dislike it intensely. In the matter of science and inventions the gulf between our own times and the sixteenth century is profound, but not very much wider than that which divides the Europe of 1920 from the Europe of 1820; nay, we may take a much shorter period of time, for the difference even between 1920 and 1895 can hardly be exaggerated. There are periods in history when vast changes are consummated in a relatively short time, after perhaps centuries of apparent stability, and the sixteenth century was pre-eminently such a time. The changes which took place between the two first decades and the three last were fateful to the human race, and were kaleidoscopic in nature. The mind is bewildered in the attempt to follow them: we know what ultimately happened in the different countries; but what must have been the bewilderment of mind of those who lived through them! The change in our own times is momentous, but is after all merely one materialism against another; but the upheaval in the sixteenth century was centred round matters spiritual, the very heart of any real existence. There were the doctrines and discipline of the Church, unchallenged seriously since the extirpation of early heresies, now flung into the melting-pot and being recast in the most unfamiliar and extravagant forms. People did not really understand what was taking place, and nothing seemed in the least likely to be permanent.

This fact explains the hesitation and apparent opportunism of many excellent people; all their ideas were in suspense, and at the back of their minds was the hope, and probably the belief, that in the course of a few years Europe would return to the old paths. The Reformation, which, we must not forget, was a phase of the Renaissance, resembled Meno's torpedo-fish, and had a numbing effect on those who came most into contact with it. The Reformation, as it took place as an historical fact, would not have come to pass without the Renaissance. There was no necessary link between, say, Poliziano and Calvin; but the renewed study of Greek and Hebrew led insensibly to Biblical criticism, and the inherent scepticism of the whole Renaissance spirit was ever ready to act like a powerful solvent on all hitherto accepted tenets, whether of Church or State.

Unfortunately, these emancipated minds, rejoicing in their new-found vigour, refused to see any good in the preceding centuries, and the scholastic philosophy became their special target. It is true that scholasticism, like much else, was degenerate at the time of the breaking of the storm, and unfortunately until very recently the philosophy of the schoolmen has lain under a heavy cloud of ignorance and contempt. In this mental attitude even the choicest spirits, including Erasmus and Colet, were involved. Men usually end by disliking what they cannot understand or misconceive. The study of Erasmus and the Renaissance is of such high importance, not because the new world was in any way essentially better than the old, but because, whether we like it or no, in that century took place the birth of the modern, our own period. Mediaevally minded men exist, and have always existed, who are the most spiritual and frequently the most delightful of mortals, and a mediaevalist revival is quite a probable occurrence; but the inspiration of most who are not mere utilitarians even at the present day is derived from the Renaissance. This type, which has long held the field of intellect, has now for years past, at least twenty, been fighting a losing battle against the encroachments of science and inventions, in a word, utilitarianism.

The influence of the Renaissance did not make for spirituality, but it did stand for learning and beauty as ends in themselves without the ulterior motives of helping people to get a living, to marry soon, to amass wealth, and the various other objects at which education now aims. Education ought to be perfectly useless in the worldly or, more precisely, materialistic sense.

The pure intellectualism of the Renaissance spirit is a far higher thing, but very low and unimportant as compared with the spiritual life. The spirit of the Renaissance was aristocratic, individualist, and to some extent selfish. A certain amount of money to ensure leisure for study was regarded as a necessity; hence the begging letters of scholars and their anxiety to find a patron. After all, it is a fact that a really cultured life cannot be attained by those whose whole energies have to be absorbed in obtaining the necessaries of life or in amassing wealth. People can, of course, be very rich and prosperous and yet be wholly devoid of culture—such is, indeed, their more usual condition; but still, a person wholly engaged in a struggle for existence has a less good chance. In other words a certain amount of money, enough to guarantee a certain independence of action, though not to render hard work unnecessary, is the happiest condition for a man who desires to use his intellect.

The kind of life and manner of thought amongst the great or eminent in the sixteenth century is fairly easy to understand from the multiplicity of letters and memoirs which are extant. About the mass of the folk we really know very little. The idea of education, in our sense of giving a certain modicum of culture and learning to the whole population, did not exist even during that learned century. Nevertheless, education—that is, a literary training (nothing else could be imagined)—did begin to have some effect and to mould the minds of the younger townsfolk. It was not before another three centuries, perhaps more, had elapsed that education in any real sense could be said to have permeated the country districts. We must, therefore, picture during the second and third decade of the sixteenth century a society composed of the aristocracy of birth much affected by the New Learning, and a rapidly rising plutocracy of commerce and finance; this also was interested in and patronized the things of the mind. Below these two existed a mass of agricultural folk and artisans and many who subsequently came to be known as the small middle classes. This table of society requires modification for different countries. In Italy the class distinctions were never very deep. The aristocracy of intellect was there supreme. Pico, of high birth, would mix freely and happily with a Scala or a Pucci.

Within the confines of the Empire there was a great gulf between "the high and well born" and the burgher class, although the leaders of finance, such as the Fuggers, were beginning to get a footing in the lower circles of the mighty. These were frequently highly cultured and good patrons of art and learning. Amongst the former there was a great diversity; many were still mere feudal men-at-arms, but some were deeply affected by the Renaissance, more especially the South Germans, and pre-eminent amongst them the amazing Ulrich von Hutten. Outside the Free and Imperial cities there was a great dumb collection of peasants, inured to hardship and tyranny of all kinds, boorish, and mainly occupied with their material needs, but not without some of the innate German idealism and kindliness. Throughout Germany there existed a latent nationalism which was quick to respond to Luther's appeal, and a vast discontent which manifested itself in the Peasants' Revolt.

In France the Renaissance was more purely aristocratic in spirit; it basked in the sunshine of the Court and in the chateaux  of the great; it flourished in the French universities, and was greatly encouraged and patronised by French Churchmen. These, let us remember, were almost invariably members of the aristocracy. The feudal aristocracy of France did not lose its power until the time of Richelieu. The country at large, as was natural for the most conservative of lands, continued in the old ways and was but little stirred by the Renaissance; it hated the Reformation, when it arrived, with a fierce and lasting hatred.

Society in England was something of an amalgam of these three; but the feudal aristocracy was unfortunately far weaker than it was in France or in the Empire, and the new aristocracy, invented by the Tudors, was for the most part of a singularly abject and servile character. In the Court and travelled circles foreign fashions were in vogue and society was materialistic in outlook. The country, from being one of the weakest of European Powers, was gradually realizing its potential strength, and a spirit of capable and fierce insularity was rapidly developing. The mass of the folk were boorish, conservative, and but little interested in intellectual matters; to give them due credit, they were very little inclined to follow the path of religious innovation. This was imposed on them from above.

Such was, quite generally, the condition of Europe at the time when the Renaissance attained its full development, and in England, Germany, and the Netherlands was about to emerge into the Reformation. So much is necessary to understand how it came to pass that the Reformation was able to spread with the rapidity of a prairie fire. The times were favourable to religious revolution, even as many suppose our own days are ripe for social revolution. A fastidious and somewhat artificial culture with the encouragement of a sceptical spirit, the rise of a sentiment of nationality everywhere, the prevalence of abuses and corruption in many quarters, and the existence of a vague discontent would have rendered some upheaval of society probable. As it was the period was too near to the Middle Ages for the revolt to take the form of anything but religious troubles.

The sixteenth century was singularly secular and irreligious, but intensely theological. The state of things in Erasmus's time might explain, though not excuse, the German revolt. All the matters which troubled the early reformers were rectified, made clear, or abolished at Trent, and there was left no abuse, unless of course anyone will maintain, as some no doubt do, that Catholicism is in itself an abuse. People are coming round to the idea that the Reformation was a phase of thought. Even those who consider—wrongly we think—that the Reformation was a necessity at the time, frequently admit that it is futile to continue to protest against matters which have long ceased to have importance except as facts of history. It is useless to go on praising deaf gods for ever.