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Roland Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969) Reprinted as an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Humanities Print-on-Demand (POD) volume.
I'm really happy I gave Prof. Huizinga's biography only four stars, as Bainton's work is both more readable and more scholarly, with the small exception that the index seems incomplete.
Professor Bainton should be recognizable to many as the author of the best known biography of Martin Luther (1483 - 1546), Here I Stand. It is totally appropriate that he should do a similar biography of Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469 - 1536), as the careers of these two giants were intertwined, just as the Renaissance and Reformation are joined at the hip in our history.
The title of this work is eminently appropriate, far more appropriate than the label often given to `Erasmus of Rotterdam'. While part of Erasmus' heart was with his Dutch homeland, he was a true citizen of Europe, living most of his life outside of Holland, in France, England, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. In Holland, he spent most of his time in Louvain and Deventer and not in Rotterdam.
If we give any uninformed thought to Erasmus today, we may be hard pressed to appreciate the source of his great fame in his own lifetime. The sole work for which he is read today is his short satire, The Praise of Folly, (Encomium Moriae in Latin, a pun on the name of his good friend, Thomas More) which may literally have been composed while en route, on horseback, from Rome to England, in a very short time, in 1509, and first printed in 1512. But in his lifetime, and in his biographies, this little book has a very small role in his story.
Part of our difficulty is that Erasmus' profession as a major scholar is simply does not make as big an impression today, when literacy is near 100% and global communication is virtually instantaneous. Erasmus was a translator of classics (from the Greek), an editor of Greek and Latin works, a commentator on the classics (at a time when Europe was rediscovering the works of the Greco-Roman world) and an essayist in Latin, when virtually all educated people could read and speak Latin, but that was only 20 - 30% of the people. It was also the time when Gutenberg's printing press was barely 50 years old when Erasmus began writing. Newspapers were not yet common, and the primary medium of communication, the `blog' of the day, was the pamphlet or tract. It was by this means that Luther's 95 Theses was circulated throughout Europe quickly (in the span of a few months).
The best approximation in the 20th century to Erasmus' role may be if the careers of H. L. Mencken (editor, newspaperman, essayist, and linguist), Bruce Metzger (Biblical scholar and translator), and C. S. Lewis (fiction writer and Christian apologist) could be wrapped up into a single person. At the height of his career, he was sought after by the major universities in Europe and as a councilor to the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. One symptom of his fame is that his portrait was done by three of the leading artists in Europe at the time, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, and Quentin Matsys (the elder). Oddly, both Holbein and Dürer's works have Erasmus seated at work, while Erasmus (like Earnest Hemingway) commonly wrote while standing up.
Unlike Erasmus and the Age of Reformation written by Johan Huizinga, Bainton's work spends far more time discussing Erasmus' theological works, especially going into the details of his exchanges with Martin Luther. Thus, for those interested in Erasmus' influence on the Reformation, Bainton's book is superior, especially as the endnotes to source documents are more thorough and more efficient at getting you to the material. The only drawback is that much of Erasmus' work is not easily available. Even college libraries don't have some of his more important works in English, such as Hyperaspistes.
Erasmus' first major work was the first edition of his Adages (Adagia, in Latin), a collection of quotations from Latin classics. The first edition had 800 entries, published in Paris, in 1500. Many of the entries had short essays on related political and moral topics (not unlike H. L. Mencken's Prejudices series). The final edition, published near his death, had close to 4600 entries. One of his more famous works came in 1503, the Enchiridion militis Christiani, or Handbook of a Christian Soldier. It reflects Erasmus' interest in education and it reads more like a sermon than a `handbook'. It stresses engaging Christian teachings with the heart or `spirit' rather than through `formalism'. It has some similarities to the very early Christian works on education by Clement of Alexandria, and it is a strong contrast to Machiavelli's The Prince, written in 1513.
Erasmus' greatest achievement in his own time was his Greek edition of the New Testament, published in 1522, accompanied by a new Latin translation, with some improvements over the Vulgate, translated by his intellectual hero, St. Jerome. In a sense, this was the birth of modern Biblical scholarship, which was simply not possible until the advent of the printing press. This invention allowed inexpensive editions to be transported around Europe, Asia, and Africa to be compared to valuable and fragile original documents such as those in the Vatican and in Alexandria. It was Erasmus' Greek text which Luther used in order to translate the New Testament into German. And it is here where the interests of the Renaissance and the Reformation join hands. Both movements stressed a renewal of ancient learning to recover something which seemed lost. Both Erasmus and Luther were influenced by the Devotio Moderna, a late medieval German combination of Christian mysticism and humanism.
Erasmus' editorial output seems superhumanly large. His edition of Jerome's letters alone filled twelve volumes and the catalogue of his editions of Ambrose, Aristotle, Augustine, Basil, John Chrysostom, Cicero, and Jerome fill ten columns of text in the British Museum. And that doesn't include the translations and editions of many works of Greek and Latin literature. He was a constant letter writer, and his list of correspondents covered Europe, including emperors, kings, and two Popes. He was also famous in his time for numerous pamphlets and his Colloquies, or dialogues, generally satirical, on subjects of the day.
Among theologians, his most famous exchange was with Martin Luther, when he wrote a tract entitled De Libero Arbitrio, 1524 (Concerning the Freedom of the Will) in response to statements Luther made in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 and in his tract, The Freedom of the Christian Man. His Catholic friends wanted him to engage Luther for several years, as Luther had several enemies in common with Erasmus, such as the papal legate, Jerome Aleander (1480 - 1542), who accused Erasmus of being complicit in Luther's heresies. Luther responded with what he believed to be his most important theological work, De Servo Abitrio, 1525 (The Bondage of the Will). In these two works, each author seems to have missed the point of the other, as Erasmus concentrated on human freedom in practical matters while Luther emphasized the ability of humans to have any effect whatsoever on the grace offered by God. Erasmus replied to Luther in a 1526 work, Hyperaspistes, but Luther made no further published response to Erasmus. Erasmus also engaged Luther's doctrines in his 1533 catechism, in which he supports the validity of an unwritten sacred tradition and of the value of the deuterocanonical books of the scripture. As a result of their mutual misunderstanding, `Luther had a difficult time to explain the passages on reward. Erasmus had quite as much trouble in trying to dispose of predestination.'
Near the end of his life, Erasmus saw his fame fading, although he was still in demand as an eminence who may be able to revive interest university attendance. Oddly, all over Europe, university attendance was dropping in the 1530s, even at the greatest and most popular centers at Paris, Bologna, and Wittenberg.
One of the most intriguing `what if's' of intellectual history is how things would have turned out with Luther if Erasmus had been in Rome, as he had planned to be, when Pope Leo X was asking for advice in how to deal with the issues over Martin Luther's 95 Theses.