Erasmus of Rotterdam - M. Wilkinson

The Youth and Maturity of Erasmus

Erasmus was slight and fair, and in his youth was delicate and pleasing to look at. The pictures extant of him in later life portray a rather emaciated and refined face. He suffered from ill health all his life, a kind of acute indigestion it would seem, and in considering some of his writings and the bitter spirit which he showed at times—a symptom often due to an extreme sensitiveness—we must remember that chronic ill health does not improve the temper of most men. He went to school first at Gouda and then to the choir school of Utrecht. In 1475 he was under the instruction of the Brethren of the Common Life at Deventer; he seems to have been at Hertogenbosch in 1484, but little is known of his life at that period. His parents were now both dead, and under the pressure of his guardians, who did not fulfill their responsibilities in a proper manner, both he and his brother, Peter, entered the Augustinian priory of Steyn on probation. His brother is of no consequence to us: he was a weak and sensual character, and although he entered the monastic life much more willingly than Erasmus, he abandoned it and died discredited. Erasmus, on the contrary, although he was dispensed from his vows as an Augustinian canon, never did anything unbecoming his orders. Erasmus was ordained priest by the Bishop of Utrecht and celebrated his first Mass in 1492. The manner in which the brothers, and it is to be feared many immature youths, were professed at that time was an undoubted abuse, for they were induced to take orders by a mixture of cajolery and threats. No one was more shocked than Leo X himself at the manner in which Erasmus's profession had been made. It was one of Erasmus's many services to the Church to make known some of the abuses connected with the various orders. All these abuses, wholly contrary to the Canon Law in any case, were made impossible for the future at the Council of Trent.

Erasmus was most careful not to condemn the religious as such; he merely stated that he had no vocation, and wished, now that he was a power in the world, to protest against a state of things which made his profession, and that of many others, not only useless but a source of real spiritual danger to those who undertook lightly vows which they would very likely abandon improperly. It is a view which would pass as a commonplace now and for very long past, but is an instance of the spirit which seems to bring Erasmus much nearer to our own times. Furthermore, the Low Countries were inhabited by a somewhat gross people, and it is very probable that Erasmus's strictures on the religious orders and houses were coloured by the life of his native land; he frequently refers to the lack of culture and learning in the Netherlands of his day. So we may be prepared to accept as true abuses which might be related concerning the religious in the Low Countries when we should reject them if reported elsewhere. Erasmus's health was totally unable to stand the life of the priory, and the lack of culture of some of the canons displeased him, so the prior, who realized the extraordinary talent of the youth—for Erasmus had ample leisure to study in the library of Steyn, whatever may otherwise have been its drawbacks—arranged with Henry of Bergen, Bishop of Cambrai, to accept Erasmus as his secretary. The dispensation to abandon the monastic life was easily obtained from the Vatican. The bishop himself was a secular, and in any case had no jurisdiction over the orders, so, besides performing a kind act, he may have taken some human pleasure in withdrawing Erasmus from the control of men who were outside his authority. These early years of Erasmus's life are not really important except so far as they gave a bias to the whole of his subsequent life.

There are many gaps in the earlier history of Erasmus's life. We do not know at what age he left Steyn, nor for how long he was in the bishop's service, but soon enough he found the conditions irksome. Erasmus was not too grateful for the kindness of Henry of Bergen. Very likely the bishop was rather tiresome to so mercurial a nature; but our scholar, like everyone else, had many faults. He was opposed to restraint of all kinds and was distinctly exacting, and at times ungrateful. At any rate, the bishop agreed to his going to study at the University of Paris. His doings there seem to have been no more than the tricks of all undergraduates, yet not wholly suitable to a priest, and the Bishop of Cambrai took alarm at what he had heard. Erasmus was not immaculate, but he was never anything approaching to being vicious, and never did anything really base; as a priest he ought to have avoided the society of women, and as a matter of fact they do not seem to have had any attraction for him except perhaps in his young days during his first visit to England. Servatius Rogerus of the Augustinians, and ultimately Prior of Steyn, was the person on whom he lavished his affection—a clear proof that his time at the priory was not wholly miserable. Anne Bersala of Tournehem had an attraction for him, but simply as a patron of scholars and learning whose financial help the impecunious and lavish Erasmus found extremely useful. In Paris he prospered and his lecture-room was well attended, and here he made the acquaintance of William Blount, Lord Mountjoy's eldest son, memorable as the occasion of his introduction to England, and Grey, son of the Marquis of Dorset.

It is remarkable that his pupils almost invariably grew to be his friends. Erasmus had a strong capacity for arousing and bestowing affection; he had also a knack of arousing animosity; the two are by no means so incompatible as they seem. In Paris after a time Erasmus fell into the depression to which he was always subject, and Mountjoy thereupon invited him to try his fortunes in England and return with himself to London. One of the more prevalent delusions is the idea that foreign travel is a very modern idea. It is true that our grandfathers were essentially sedentary and untraveled; that was in part the effect of the Napoleonic wars; but at Erasmus's time and even through the Middle Ages, people got about with surprising speed and comparative ease. Latin was the recognized tongue, so the trouble of foreign languages hardly arose, at any rate, in the intercourse of the cultured; and the ordinary folk did not travel.

The Catholic Church, as yet unassailed, was the common home of every person of every nationality; for practical purposes we may at this period ignore Russia and the Near East. One of the more disastrous results of the Reformation was the destruction of the spirit of Catholicity in a racial apart from the theological sense, and the settling up of the personified State, the ideal of nationalism, and, in the case of England, the creation of a spirit of self-satisfaction and insularity. Mr. Chesterton well says that it is a "great downfall from being a Christian nation to becoming a chosen people." The English, forced by nature to be islanders, must ever have been less cosmopolitan than the other Catholics of Europe; but the insularity which we know too well and from which the choicer spirits are indeed free is the product of the Reformation. Now Erasmus was nothing if not a cosmopolitan. Legally, he was of course a subject of the Emperor.

The dates of Erasmus's movements, which can only be determined from his letters, the earlier of which are singularly inaccurate, though Mr. Allen has reduced to order the hitherto prevailing chaos, are uncertain. Erasmus probably did not trouble to be accurate, because he could not in his early days foresee the eagerness with which his ordinary correspondence would be studied three hundred and fifty years later. He was in London quite at the close of the century. Here he made the acquaintance of Sir Thomas More, Colet, Warham, not yet Archbishop of Canterbury, and Grocyn, who was heading a forlorn attempt to teach Greek at Oxford without any grammars. It was probably because of this lack of facilities for the study of Greek that he chose to decline Colet's invitation to Oxford. His visit to that university was considerably later. Erasmus may have learned the rudiments of Greek in his school days; anyhow, at Louvain, in 1502, he was fluent in the language, and in England during the Cambridge period (1505-06) he was master of it for all purposes. His friendship with these men, and especially with the two first, was lifelong.

Erasmus described the extraordinary charm of More, and he probably loved him better than any other person. The friendship of Blessed Thomas More is in itself a guarantee of the worth of Erasmus. His desire, however, was now set on Italy, and he left England in 1499, when occurred the well-known episode of the seizure of all or nearly all his money at Dover, because the export of specie was forbidden by an old statute of Edward III and apparently reinforced by one of the actual reign (Henry VII). More misled Erasmus unintentionally by telling him that the embargo did not extend to foreign coin; Erasmus's money seems to have been French. This made a bad impression on Erasmus, though the volume of the Adagia  almost immediately appeared. This is a collection of thoughts, quotations, epigrams and reflections. This form of light literature was practically unknown in those days.

It served Erasmus well and pleased all his English friends, and from its appearance dates the patronage of Warham. The prelate for the first time realized the supreme genius of the young Dutchman. The Adagia  was well timed, for something now was expected of Erasmus, and an attack on England, to which doubtless he felt inclined and could certainly have written in a telling manner, would not have helped him with his English friends. All the same, the virtual robbery at Dover did rankle, and he never again thought so well of England. Erasmus was not a mere scholar, though he worked extraordinarily hard. He mixed with men and women of all sorts and of all stations in life in most countries, continually studying human nature in all its aspects. This was, in fact, his real interest, and it is this humanity which gives their charm to so many of his letters. He never seems to have been troubled by abstract questions as to human destiny and the mystery of human life, its reason and purpose, and at times its apparent purposelessness. "I am alive, and my faculties are trustworthy," was never said by Erasmus; but he would have appreciated its philosophy. No doubt these questions trouble the minds of many who spiritually are greatly Erasmus's superiors; but very often they are but the imagination of a shallow and undisciplined intellect, of those who will not or possibly cannot exercise their wills. A very hard life was not possible to Erasmus, and certain comforts, or rather refinements, of living were to him a necessity; his material wants were small, but fastidious. With the idea of an Italian voyage in his head, he set to work to find the means for realizing it, and we could wish that he had adopted other methods.

He applied to his old friend the bishop and to his brother, the Abbot of St. Bertin; but, in spite of his flattery, not to much avail. It is most difficult to re-establish relations with one who has once been kind and who, rightly or wrongly, has become subsequently estranged. That is one of the tragedies of life, and as time rolled on Erasmus frequently experienced it. By no means was it always his fault, but very frequently it was the result of refusing to follow those whom he liked into dangerous paths. Erasmus's conceit in his letters to the lady of Tournehem and to James Batt, in which he states that the like of himself only appears once in centuries, and that he is composing works that will live for ever, is unpleasant; but it was the fashion of the learned world of that time to speak in superlatives. The same claim has been made, and justified, by Horace and Shakespeare. Further adulation of Anne Bersala produced the desired result, but the Bishop of Cambrai remained obdurate, for which we must rather admire him. It is strange that Erasmus would not accept ecclesiastical patronage, which could easily have been obtained; it was the ordinary method of rewarding scholarship, and the Churchmen, from the Pope downwards, were splendid patrons of the arts and letters; but Erasmus would not sacrifice his independence of thought and originality of method. He always had certain principles!

For some reason Erasmus did not set out at once for Italy, for we find him again in England at Lambeth, 1502, and it was not before 1504 that he went to Bologna and was introduced to Julius II. This great Pope was full of his projects for the expulsion of the French and the curtailment of the power of Venice, in both of which he was successful. But Erasmus was a life-long pacifist; he heartily disliked all wars, in which he was greatly in advance of his day, and he spoiled his chances with Julius by not writing in his best style on the aims and objects of the Pontiff. Julius II has been much maligned over his French wars by Erasmus—if indeed he wrote the Julius Exclusus, which we must consider in due course. To turn the French out of Italy was a laudable act, quite as much so as the expulsion of the English from France about seventy years earlier.

In Rome Erasmus had the best of receptions, and made the permanent friendship of the Cardinal of San Giorgio and won the regard of the future Leo X. He left Rome and returned to Paris, and thence made his third visit to England, when he stayed some time at Cambridge (1505-06). He may have been attracted by the new foundation of the Lady Margaret's college of Corpus Christi, and some have even seen his humanistic influence in the statutes drawn up for that college by the future martyr, Bishop Fisher. However that may be, Erasmus applied for admission to the doctorate of divinity. He stayed some time in Cambridge and lectured there; the climate and living he found most trying, for Erasmus, though of a hardy northern race, was in tastes and habits purely southern. He had not yet attained to any fame in England, and a lecturer at a university was not nearly so important a person as a lecturer and tutor of the present day. Rome again attracted him, and he would probably have settled there for good with the patronage of San Giorgio but for events which took place in England. It seems strange that anyone so cultured and so fond of learned ease as Erasmus should have been attracted to England at all. A southern land suited him far better—not that Rome was a sanatorium in those days. To remain in Rome, the centre of learning, and where the patronage of Popes such as Julius II or Leo X was magnificent, apparently had every advantage over our island; we can only suppose that Erasmus could not make up his mind to sacrifice his independence, which would have been necessary if he were to rely entirely on the patronage of the Papal Court.

In any case two letters came, one from his old friend William Blount, now Lord Mountjoy, to announce the accession of Henry VIII, and another, an enclosure from the young monarch himself, both of them expressed in the most friendly and even flattering language. Erasmus, not without cause, hastened to the English Court. The hope and its fulfilment turned out in fact to be widely different, and Erasmus was bitterly disappointed at the result. This was not altogether mere fickleness on his royal and noble friends' part. The form of the invitation makes us suppose that some very high post, possibly one on the Council, was intended for Erasmus; for he was now well known, a friend of Cardinals, and with an assured position at Rome as the editor of a fresh translation of the New Testament, if he cared to remain. The failure of Henry's promises was due mainly to his preoccupations in the political world. The administration required reform, Ireland was very uneasy, and a war with France was imminent. The protection of Erasmus, therefore, passed into Warham's hands, to be continued by Cranmer. The only obvious way of providing for a scholar then was to give him a benefice; accordingly, it came to pass that Erasmus for a short time figured amongst the English parochial clergy, as rector of Aldington, Kent. The living was a valuable one, but Erasmus held it (1512) only for a short time, and there is no reason to suppose that he ever resided there. When he resigned Warham allowed him a yearly pension of 20; but the archbishop expressly stated that the granting of pensions was not his habit, nor were they suitable, except in such exceptional circumstances as in the case of Erasmus.

Erasmus's disappointment is clearly shown in a letter to Cardinal Grimani.

"I was promised much gold, and although I am careless of money, I expected a stream fuller of it than Pactolus itself. I do regret leaving Rome. Rome is the centre of the world. In Rome is liberty. In Rome are splendid libraries. In Rome we meet and converse with men of learning; there are the ancient monuments, and on Rome the eyes of the world are fastened; there are the Cardinals who were so kind to me, not least of them yourself."

These were true words. He found no fault with the young King, whom he admitted was kindness itself, still less with Warham's generosity, but rather blamed the war as the cause of his ill luck. We must remember that Henry in his youth was attractive, very different from the lustful and blood-stained monster of his later years. Erasmus had strong prejudices and was no philosopher, and the annoyance caused him by the war accentuated his ingrained pacificism. He had abundant leisure, if nothing else, and travelled about the country. He made the pilgrimage to Walsingham in the company, probably, of the Eton boy Aldrich, and to Canterbury with Gratianus Pullus (Colet).

The Peregrinatio Religionis  was not written before 1524; but the pilgrimage to St. Thomas must have taken place before 1519, the year of Colet's death, and that to Our Lady of Walsingham about the same time. The original form was watered down and the apology for rash vows is nearly as long. Erasmus was becoming more conservative. The words put into the mouth of the Blessed Virgin are of the highest wisdom. Downright unbecoming requests to her and to the saints were apparently often made and endless foolish ones. The latter we can easily believe, incredible as the former seem to our minds; but the age was ignorant—that is, the bulk of the folk—and superstitious. The whole Peregrinatio  is a curious work, at times flippant and at times excellent, as in the answer of Ogygius, the believing pilgrim, to Mercedemus, the sceptic, who enquires how the Blessed Virgin most delights to be honoured, that the most acceptable service is to imitate her. We must bear in mind that the familiarity with which the men of the Renaissance treated holy things, though unpleasant to ourselves, was not necessarily at all irreverent.

Erasmus's essential orthodoxy is triumphantly vindicated by his Greek votive verses to Our Lady which he put up at the Walsingham shrine, and which, in a delightful spirit of mischief, he certainly wrote in Greek for the mystification of the clergy of the shrine.

Hail, Jesu's Mother, blessed evermore,

Alone of women God bearing and Virgin,

Others may offer to Thee various gifts,

This man his gold, that man silver,

A third adorn Thy shrine with precious stones:

For which some ask a guerdon of good health,

Some riches; others hope that by Thy aid

They soon may bear a father's honoured name,

Or gain the years of Pylus' revered sage.

But the poor scholar, for his well-meant song,

Bringing these verses only, all he has,

Asks in reward for his most humble gift

That greatest blessing, piety of heart,

And free remission of his many sins.

The Vow of Erasmus.

We need add nothing to it.

After the pilgrimage Erasmus stayed with More at Chelsea.

His word portraits of these two, More and Colet, are remarkable, but so extremely familiar to all that we must not enlarge upon them. That portrait of Blessed Thomas More is of special interest in that it was painted for Ulrich von Hutten. Their quarrel was of a much later date. The Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum  had appeared and, strange as it may seem, More was quite delighted at this virulent caricature of the monks. We should reflect that these early skits did not in themselves attack the doctrines of the Church, to attacks on which, however, they doubtless led the way. We know the subsequent events; so that we forget that those who had lived in the Church, and, since the conversion of the English, without the bare possibility of a breaking from it ever occurring to them, could not have had the faintest idea of what was coming within a few years. Erasmus, on the contrary, to whom the authorship was maliciously assigned, was disgusted at its indecency and said that he did not take the slightest interest in it. Yet there can be no doubt as to More's essentially religious nature and his great spiritual superiority to Erasmus.

Erasmus's expenses in printing his St. Jerome and for his work on the New Testament were heavy, and the promised money was not forthcoming, not at least in the quantity for which he had hoped. We soon find him again at Cambridge, whither perhaps Blessed John Fisher, now Chancellor of the University, had invited him. His letters from Cambridge give us a good idea of how he passed the time and what he thought. He evidently did not care much for it, and had no intention of staying there. His health was bad, partly owing to the poor quality of the wine—he could not drink beer, as he complained to his friend Ammonius, a Papal Agent in England, and to Warham.

The plague broke out and emptied the university. Most curiously we get no account of the famous men whose acquaintance he must have made. To a man of his temperament a residence in Cambridge must have been depressing; he was a Dutchman only by accident of birth, and he longed more and more for the Italian sunniness of life and manners. In the sixteenth century the climate of Cambridge, in the winter months, must have been most unattractive.

Now came the period of Erasmus's glory, with the appearance of the Greek New Testament with a new Latin translation and a preface to each Gospel and Epistle. This was carried out with the direct approval and help of Leo X himself. The book did not indeed appear until after Erasmus's departure from England, but it belongs to this period of his life. Efforts were made on the part of many of his English friends to detain him, sincere doubtless on the part of the Bishop of Rochester and of Warham, insincere on the part of Wolsey, who never was attracted by Erasmus. Even the King seemed anxious to retain in his realm the most distinguished scholar of the day; but Erasmus was resolved to depart. He was destined never again to see England, although in later life, as we shall see, he made a determined effort to return. Before leaving he passed a fortnight with Fisher at Rochester and thither also went Sir Thomas More. For posterity, the most important result of this meeting was the production of the Encomium Moriae  which has a play on the name, More, besides its literal meaning, the Praise of Folly. This was the last meeting of the three devoted friends: none but the sunniest worldly prospects could then be foreseen for the eminent statesman, the eminent churchman, and the famous scholar. Dis aliter visum. Two were to gain the crown of martyrdom, the other's sun sank in loneliness and gloom.