Desiderius Erasmus, as he came to be known, was born either in 1466 or, perhaps a shade more probably, in 1469, the illegitimate son of a future priest and a physician's daughter. He was brought up at first by his mother and went to school at Gouda for one year. It was probably immediately after Gouda that he spent a year as a chorister at Utrecht. From at least 1478 to 1483 he was at the famous school founded by Gerard Groote at Deventer where he learned Latin and developed a taste for Latin literature. When Erasmus was thirteen his mother died of the plague. A year later he left Deventer when twenty of his school companions died of the same disease, and he was admitted to the school of the Brethren of the Common Life at 's Hertogenbosch. Erasmus's father also died of the plague and his elder brother Pieter joined the Augustinian Canons in their monastery at Sion when Erasmus himself went to Steyn.
Deventer was already an intellectual centre and under Alexander Hegius, who arrived in the year in which Erasmus left, it was to become a cradle of Dutch humanism. Its alumni already included Nicholas of Cusa, the cardinal who taught the `learned ignorance' of passive neoplatonist mysticism, and Thomas a Kempis: Its founder, Gerard Groote, had emphasized the religious experience of the individual, cultivated an ethical and Biblical piety, and remained largely indifferent to sacraments and monastic vows. Closely associated with the spirit of the modern devotion in which Erasmus was brought up were the Brethren of the Common Life, also founded by Groote as a lay congregation devoted to the schooling of the young. Their piety, however, like that of the Imitation of Christ, was anti-intellectual and, if they helped to create the situation which was to require and to produce the learned Christian humanism of Erasmus and his friends, they themselves had little influence on the development of humanism. Groote himself had admired Seneca and Cicero, and it is arguable that Rudolf Agricola, brought up at Groningen in the atmosphere of the modern devotion, remained true to Groote's spirit by going to Italy and returning imbued with the ideals of humanist rhetoric to be employed in the service of religion. Hegius was his friend and younger contemporary. Erasmus in his early days admired both, and took the term philosophia Christi from Agricola. In later years he reacted somewhat against them but it is possible, especially in the Praise of Folly, to see the devotional ideal of the Brethren rather uneasily clad in the richly embroidered humanist trappings of the early part of the satire. Throughout his life, Erasmus was to regard his knowledge of ancient languages and lore of ancient literature as something to be put at the service of a religious ideal which does not differ substantially from that of Groote, although he no doubt went further than any of his predecessors in attributing valid religious and moral ideals to classical authors.
In the monastery Erasmus pursued his studies, and wrote two treatises. One was on the contempt of the world, a subject which attracted several Parisian humanists who entered contemplative monasteries at about the same time, and which was not without humanist overtones, since the peace required for contemplation was also that which favoured study. The other treatise was the Anti-Barbari (`Against the Barbarians'). Both were humanist works in their original texts, although they were not to be published until 1521 and 1520 in texts which had later been rewritten. About 1492 Erasmus entered the service of Henry of Bergen, Bishop of Cambrai, by whom he was ordained priest in that year and whom he hoped to accompany to Italy.
Erasmus's monastic career is controversial. He benefited from many exceptions from the more ascetic parts of the rule. He contracted an intimate and emotional friendship with a fellow monk, Servatius, and he looked for support to a wealthy widow active in good works, Berthe de Heyen. He was the source of a humanist enthusiasm in the priory, and the Anti-Barbari in its original form was the result of his superiors' desire to restrain his humanist enthusiasm. It seems certain that he had no real monastic vocation, but only a boyish and rather timid devotion that made monastic disciplines less than totally uncongenial and at any rate tolerable for the sake of his studies and his religious life. For some years after his profession in 1487 Erasmus seems to have made a largely successful attempt to find a modus Vivendi with the monastic life. He was to remain a canon even when dispensed from wearing the habit or residing in a monastery. He was pious as well as prudent throughout his life and if later he was occasionally bitter or stinging, he none the less showed a control of the aggressive reactions by which many of his contemporaries were overcome. Without his monastic years Erasmus might never have found the patient and comparatively tranquil intellectual firmness that kept him faithful to his own true vocation.
Henry of Bergen was not made a cardinal and his journey to Italy was cancelled. Erasmus's years with him were frustrating, although he became an accomplished poet and discovered a manuscript of Augustine that gave him great joy. In 1495 he was released by the bishop to go to Paris, where he became a poor scholar at the College de Montaigu, recently reformed by Standonck and linked in spirit with the Brethren of the Common Life. The discipline was harsh, the food bad, the conditions dirty and the asceticism obligatory and rigorous. Furthermore, the orthodoxy was Scotist. Erasmus broke down and was cured, he declared, not by the help of the doctor but by the intercession of St Genevieve. He returned to the bishop and then to Steyn, where he was encouraged to return to Paris. This time he took private lodgings.
Largely by flattery, Erasmus now entered into relations with the humanist rhetorician and general of the Maturins, Robert Gaguin, through him meeting the quarrelsome Fausto Andrelini, with whom he quickly became the closest of friends, and other humanist visitors to Paris. When the subventions of Henry of Bergen ran out, Erasmus took pupils and began writing for them the Colloquies, first published without his consent in r 5 r9 and then reworked by him into his most popular book. There are over six hundred known editions. At this time, too, Erasmus started other pedagogical works, in particular the Adages, of which a small collection was published in 1500. Erasmus seems to have entered into an emotional relationship with one of his pupils. Another, William Blount Lord Mountjoy, the future tutor to Henry VIII, was to be his lifelong patron, and first invited Erasmus to England, which he visited in 1499.
That autumn found him living at the Oxford house of his order. He met Colet, already a theologian of note and firmly devoted to scripture. Colet certainly exercised a strong influence over Erasmus, but Erasmus was probably telling the truth when he later wrote to Colet that he had never had the intention of devoting himself solely to profane letters. Colet encouraged an inclination which was already there, helped to give it a definite purpose and imbued Erasmus with a lasting devotion to peace.
When staying with Mountjoy, Erasmus had even taken up riding and hunting. He clearly enjoyed his stay in England. He met William Grocyn, Thomas Linacre, William Latimer, future tutor of Cardinal Reginald Pole, who was the king's cousin, and above all Thomas More, at this date still undecided about the possibility of a monastic vocation. Through More, Erasmus met the family of Henry VII, including the nine-year-old prince who was to become Henry VIII. It was at Oxford that Erasmus first came into serious contact with Florentine neoplatonism. More himself, who had learned Greek from Grocyn, had translated the letter from Pico to his nephew on which Erasmus was to draw for the Enchiridion.
In January 1500 Erasmus returned to Paris to see the first edition of the Adages through the press. The work, dedicated to Mountjoy, was printed in Roman type and contained 818 adages with Greek versions of 154 of them. As he left England Erasmus had had his savings confiscated at Dover, restrictions on the export of currency being no modern hazard, and there began a period of assiduous courting of patrons. He went to Orleans, possibly to avoid the plague, and then went for the same reason to Holland where he stayed for a month at Steyn before travelling widely. He spent his time immersed in Greek and working on Jerome and Cicero.
This period in Holland from 1501 to 1504 is notable for Erasmus's discovery of the manuscript of Lorenzo Valla's critical notes on the New Testament, which Erasmus published in Paris in 1505. He was already enthusiastic about Valla's Elegantiae and the discovery of the philological notes on the New Testament excited him greatly. The prefatory dedication to Christopher Fisher, an English papal diplomat, formally enunciates the principle of correcting the Latin Vulgate from the Greek text and the Septuagint version of the Old Testament from the Hebrew. In Valla's timid critical notes, Erasmus found the encouragement he would need to embark on his own critical Greek text of the New Testament.
While in Holland Erasmus also wrote the Enchiridion, first published in the Lucubratiunculae of 1503 (or perhaps early 1504) and republished, notably in 1518, with a new programmatic preface. The Enchiridion shows a deepening interest in the thirdcentury Greek Father, Origen, which may well derive from a new friend, the humanist Franciscan prior John Vitrier. Even when in later life Erasmus admitted that Origen's neoplatonism had led him into theological error, he followed Origen's great admirer, Pico, in defending him. The most interesting features of the Enchiridion are the emphasis on interior, evangelical piety and its use of a Pauline but also frankly neoplatonist psychology to support its description of the spiritual combat. It is essentially a guide to Christian living, in spite of the fact that Erasmus goes so far as to recommend to his ordinary Christian the study of Origen, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine rather than the scholastics.
Embryonically, however, the Enchiridion contains the whole Erasmian programme, advocating a religion of interior conversion in place of ritual observances, a return to scripture and the Fathers and a demand for social harmony and peace between nations. The neoplatonist psychology allows Erasmus to spiritualize the' significance of observances and dogmas to so great an extent that his opponents were understandably uneasy about the lessened weight he put on them as fitting aids for those who had not yet reached spiritual adulthood. Erasmus allegorizes his interpretation of the Old Testament and deliberately exploits the Pauline distinction between interior piety or the spirit and the ritualism of the early Christian Judaizing party or the letter. Learned humanism is not absent from the Enchiridion, but the place taken in it by the imitation of Christ links its spirit to that of the modern devotion. Christ appears above all as the exemplar of patience, humility and the passive virtues.
The Enchiridion's criticism of rites and observances is audacious, as is its final affirmation that life under religious vows does not necessarily sanctify. But Erasmus is careful not to discredit praying to the saints or the devotional cult of relics completely. It is simply more important to live the interior Christian virtues than merely to observe the outward forms of devotion. The only really new note to be heard in the Praise of Folly, which is perhaps less openly reliant on Plato, is the satire's final and paradoxical attack on intellectual endeavour.
Late in 1504 Erasmus returned to Paris, and by late 1505 he was back in England, where he stayed until 1506. He met William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and became an intimate friend of Thomas More, with whom he made a series of translations of Lucian. These were published in a joint volume of 1506, although Erasmus himself went on translating Lucian until 1512.
Erasmus was to borrow much from Lucian apart from exploiting the potentialities of Lucianic satire in order to create a defence of ambiguity. The very notion of praising Folly, the mock encomium, is itself Lucianic. The 1517 Complaint of Peace, which is put into the mouth of Peace, shows however that giving the mock encomium to Folly herself is not the chief source of irony in the Praise of Folly, since the Complaint of Peace is not an ironic work. No doubt encouraged by Folly's success, other Renaissance authors were to write mock encomia. Notable later examples include Ulrich von Hutten's Letters of Obscure Men (1515) purporting to congratulate the scholastics responsible for the attack on Johannes Reuchlin, the German Hebraist and lawyer admired by the Erasmian humanists, the Encomium of the Ass at the end of Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim's On the Vanity of the Sciences (1526) and, best known of all, Panurge's harangue in praise of debt at the beginning of the Tiers Livre of Rabelais (1546).
In addition to the form, Erasmus takes from Lucian the technique of making serious points in bantering tone and mixing the frivolous with the serious. In the preface to Lucian's The Cock in the 1506 volume Erasmus explains what attracts him in Lucian. He likes the vividness of Lucianic satire, but above all he delights in the mixture of serious satire with banter, of vinegar with sweetness, of the trivial with the important, and the lighthearted treatment of sacred and solemn subjects. The absurdity of the prayers reaching Mary in the 1526 colloquy A Pilgrimage for Religion's Sake recalls the contradictory prayers reaching Zeus in Lucian's Icaromenippus, just as, in the Praise of Folly, Folly adopts Menippus' vantage point to comment on men as seen by the gods.
More, who had led Erasmus to Lucian, knew precisely how to understand the Praise of Folly. His reply was to be the similarly Lucianic Utopia, which puts a serious exploration of advanced personal and social values into the mouth of Ralph Hythlodaeus or Ralph the fool. Like the Praise of Folly, Utopia is a fantasy, not a programme. Both have serious imaginative purposes, both explore seriously the compatibility and implications of the enlightened social and personal ideals that were the heritage of Colet. Needless to say, Erasmus and More are in total agreement. More defended Erasmus to Dorp, and everything in Utopia can be matched from Erasmus's works.
Not very much comes from the non-ironic Ship of Fools (1494) by Sebastian Brandt, whose passenger list includes most members of the human race. Brandt's accusations of folly in human affairs are accurate enough, but they are conveyed in the ordinary late-medieval style, with none of Erasmus's ironic cutting edge.
From 1506 until 1509, Erasmus was in Italy. For a year he supervised the studies of the two sons of Henry VII's physician. He received in Turin the doctorate of theology for which he had worked in Paris. The party then settled in Bologna but, soon after their arrival, were obliged by the advance of the papal armies to retreat hastily to Florence. Bologna capitulated and Erasmus arrived back in time to see the pope's triumphal entry on 11 November. On 17 November Erasmus, already beginning to show signs of disillusion with the Italy he had longed to visit, wrote that studies there had given way to war and that the pope was fighting, conquering, triumphing and imitating Caesar, a description of Julius II he was often to use subsequently. He later commented on the extortionate taxation of the poor in the newly reconquered papal territory.
In late 1507 Erasmus arrived in Venice to stay with Aldus Manutius. He stayed to see a newly enlarged edition of the Adages through the famous Aldine press in 1508. After Venice came Padua and Rome, where Erasmus made some important friends, including the future Leo X, but where the corruption and sycophancy of the papal court, the neglect of the faithful and the greed of the clergy depressed him. Then in 1509 came news from Mountjoy that Henry VIII, who had twice written to Erasmus in Italy, had become king and had explicitly declared his desire to build up a scholarly entourage. William Warham promised a benefice and enclosed travelling expenses. Cardinal Grimani suggested that he should stay in Rome where he ranked a number of cardinals among his friends. A curial appointment could be arranged. Erasmus hesitated, drawn no doubt by the prospect of the Roman libraries and eventual preferment. On the other hand, he could look forward to friends, a benefice and leisure to work in England. It seems likely that his disappointment with the state of the Church in Julius II's Italy tipped the balance in favour of England. On his arrival he stayed with More and wrote the Praise of Folly, as he recounts in the letter to Dorp.
Erasmus's Frame Of Mind
It is important to remember the frame of mind in which Erasmus wrote the Encomium Moriae (at once the `Praise of Folly' and the `praise of More'). He had just returned from Italy, the country which had first experienced the Renaissance, which had seen the rebirth of letters and the rebirth of classical rhetoric, the country of Ficino, Valla and Pico. For many years Erasmus had dreamed of undertaking the Italian journey from which so many of his fellow humanists, Colet, Grocyn, Agricola, Lefèvre d'Étaples and the others, had drawn inspiration. Erasmus had not enjoyed his stay. He was stimulated by the libraries, the manuscripts and the scholars, but he had been unhappy with Aldus at Venice and deeply shocked by the irreligion of Julius II. The pagan atmosphere of Rome, where the pope was intent only on territorial aggrandizement and revaluing the coinage, must have seemed to him as distasteful as the superstition into which a Scotist orthodoxy and a clergy without pastoral interests had allowed the faithful to lapse in France.
The result in the Praise of Folly was indulgence in a whimsical lack of confidence. On arriving in England Erasmus retreated into what was at first intended merely to be a clever Lucianic frivolity which he knew his friend would understand and which became for him an imaginative catharsis. The banter is occasionally weighed down by bitterness, if not invective, and the final praise of Pauline folly, however moving, also sounds a harsh note of self-parody. The religious ideal remains that of the modern devotion, even of its anti-intellectual wing, but the end of the Praise of Folly is disingenuous in its advocacy of an ideal which Erasmus knew could only prevail with the help of the learned humanism he shared with Colet and More. When searching the Praise of Folly for the spectrum of Erasmian attitudes it contains, it is important to remember that it is tinged with a melancholy that does not draw back from self-parody and in which intellectual confidence is betrayed by emotional uncertainty.
Erasmus stayed in England, mostly with Mountjoy and More, from 1509 to 1511, when he went to Paris to see the now corrected Praise of Folly through the press. More had recently remarried on the death of his first wife. His second wife, Dame Alice, spoke no Latin and did not get on well with her husband's friends, however good she might have been to his children. On his return from Paris Erasmus went to Cambridge where he began to worry about regularizing his situation and obtaining dispensations from wearing his habit and residing in his monastery, and from the incapacity to accept a benefice as a result of his illegitimacy. All were to be forthcoming from the future Leo X. After some delay, William Warham paid him a substantial pension. But ironically enough it was Julius II who finally drove Erasmus back to Holland. He had by now made peace with Venice and wished to form an alliance with England against the French, still entrenched in north-west Italy. It was the ensuing preparations of Henry VIII for war which so changed the climate in England that Erasmus preferred to leave, although he did not actually depart until his friend Leo X, whom he later acclaimed as having restored peace, had been pope for over a year.
Leo X was elected pope in March 1513. Julius II had crushed the Borgia domination in northern Italy and, although Venice had as usual successfully defended itself, the lost papal territory had been reconquered by 1510. He then aimed to unite Italy behind him and to oust Louis XII of France from Italian territory. By Easter 1512, Henry VIII's troops were ready to sail against France. Colet was momentarily in disfavour for preaching a pacifist sermon to the court on Good Friday. A Christian prince, he had said, would do better to imitate Christ than Caesar. Erasmus waited long enough to see if Leo X would succeed in restoring instant peace. In 1514 he wrote of his disappointment to Henry of Bergen and made arrangements to leave for Holland where he hoped for the patronage of the future Charles V. What finally decided him to publish the Praise of Folly in 1511 may well have been his wish to support the growing opposition to Julius II in Gallican France.
From 1514 to 1521 Erasmus made Holland his base. He visited England in 1515, 1516 and 1517, on the last occasion receiving the dispensations he sought. He also made six journeys to Basle in order to see his works through Froben's press. Financially he was in difficulties. Friends helped, and he was made a councillor of Charles V, but the stipend was in arrears. In 1516 he was offered a bishopric in Sicily but commented that he was unwilling to give up his studies for any bishopric, however splendid. At Easter of that year he had been made a canon of Courtrai, but in the winter he wrote to More of the danger that, although he was well clad, he might still die of hunger. It should however perhaps be said that his poverty was relative to the task he knew he had to perform. He normally travelled with an amanuensis.
During these years in England and Holland Erasmus had been engaged on the Greek version of the New Testament and on editions of Seneca and Jerome. The edition of Seneca's Lucubrationes was published by Froben in 1515 and need not detain us, except perhaps to note that Erasmus draws attention in his preface to Jerome's very high opinion of Seneca, so justifying the continued utility of classical authors to Christian readers. The Greek New Testament on the other hand is relevant in two ways to the Praise of Folly.
First, it makes clear that Erasmus viewed his own contribution to the restoration of evangelical religion in terms of technical and critical expertise. He saw perfectly well that unlettered piety on the medieval model, unless it was interior and evangelical, led easily to superstition. But the prefatory material made it clear that, however bold Erasmian criticism of the text of scripture might have appeared, its intention was to mediate a popular and vernacular diffusion of evangelical religion, as the Brethren of the Common Life had tried to do.
Second, the publication of a critical Greek text of the New Testament provoked opposition from the same sources and for the same reasons as the Praise of Folly. Just as the Praise of Folly more sharply than the Enchiridion had manifested Erasmus's serious desire to shift the theological centre of gravity towards scriptural exegesis and so threatened theological tenets and religious observances that were part of the current orthodoxy, so, too, the appearance of the Greek New Testament threatened the ascendancy of the Latin Vulgate which had been the Church's official text of scripture since Jerome in the fourth century. The Novum Instrumentum, as Erasmus called his Greek text, was intended and understood to have a religious relevance. It was to provide a scriptural rather than authoritarian base for theology and religion.
If the Vulgate Latin was faulty or inaccurate, then the Church and its theologians were compromised by having for centuries backed with their authority an unauthentic or at least seriously imperfect version of scripture. What Erasmus was doing was less radical than what Luther was to do and perhaps not much more audacious than what was being done by other evangelical humanists elsewhere. But it is important to realize how real a threat to the establishment was the programme which emerged from the Enchiridion through the Praise of Folly to the Novum Instrumentum.
Critical work on the Bible was being undertaken notably at Alcala and in Paris. The publication of Lorenzo Valla's notes had given notice that Erasmus did not regard even the text of scripture as exempt from the application of rational critical norms. In France Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, while he continued to publish Aristotle, the medieval mystics and the neoplatonist theologians, was to devote himself to the textual criticism and then increasingly to the vernacular diffusion of scripture. His mind, however, was very different from that of Erasmus. His spirituality was less moral than mystical, passive and nourished on paradox. He was devoid of irony and even of humour. His Psalter of 1509 contained five Latin texts of the psalms, but both in this work and in the 1512 edition of the Pauline epistles, the boldness is mystical rather than critical. Lefèvrethought that the Vulgate text, because clearly faulty, could not on that account be the work of Jerome, and that St Paul could not really have quarrelled with St Peter. The edition of Paul's epistles includes the `correspondence' with Seneca known already to be spurious. Lefèvrenot only accepts with Colet the authenticity of the Pseudo-Denis, rejected by Valla, Grocyn and Erasmus, but he identifies St Paul's first convert with Denis the first martyr of France, so providing apostolic authority for the French Church and a continuity between Athens and Paris which was to be a weapon of sixteenth-century French humanists against the Italian boast of continuity between ancient and modern Rome. There was to be an acrimonious dispute between Lefèvreand Erasmus on a point of textual criticism in which Lefèvretardily and tacitly conceded defeat. In the end however, Lefèvrewas both bolder and more effective in the vernacular dissemination of evangelical religion than Erasmus himself.
At Alcala the Erasmian critical techniques of A. Lebrixa were suppressed by the Inquisition, and the Polyglot Bible of Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros did not permit the correction of the Latin text against Greek or Hebrew manuscripts. But the Polyglot Bible did print a Greek text and the type was finer, the printing better and the manuscripts older than for Erasmus's edition. Only Erasmian critical techniques were lacking. But although the Polyglot New Testament was ready in 1514, pontifical authority for the Polyglot Complutensian Bible did not come until 1520 and it was not on sale until 1522, by which time Erasmus had published three editions of his Greek text with his new Latin translation, itself dating back to 1506.
Erasmus's own work was far from perfect, as he himself knew, due to lack of manuscripts. Many of the criticisms it provoked were valid, although Erasmus, nettled at criticisms on purely theological or ecclesiological grounds, tended to reply either with unconcealed disdain or at testy length. He was quite rightly criticized for translating some missing verses of the Apocalypse into Greek out of the Vulgate Latin, although the Complutensian Bible opened itself to the same sort of reproach. But the Novum Instrumentum appeared in 1516 with a prefatory dedication to Leo X along with three introductory works, later expanded, to give the gist of the whole Erasmian programme for religious renewal.
Meanwhile Erasmus had also edited the letters of St Jerome in the first four volumes of the nine-volume edition of Jerome's works published by Froben in 1516. Jerome was the patron of the Brethren of the Common Life and Erasmus's interest in him stems from his earliest days. He had begun work on the text of the letters by 1500 and in 1511 he was lecturing on the letters at Cambridge. The preface to the whole edition is a letter from Erasmus to William Warham in which Erasmus recapitulates his total aim. In an age, he says, in which princes behave like barbarians and bishops are wordly, the task of instruction has been left to the ignorant. From the neglect of ancient authors whom Erasmus lists - the list includes Origen and omits Augustine - Erasmus wants to rescue Jerome, the patron of learned and eloquent piety, by using the same critical techniques as he has applied to the Novum Instrumentum. Erasmus is not unaware of the similarity of the role he has chosen for himself with that of Jerome. Both admired Origen, although Jerome's early enthusiasm turned to opposition in An 394. Both were learned in the ancient languages and devoted themselves to scripture. Both learned from the pagan authors of antiquity. Both were apt to be tart and waspish in their reactions and neither enjoyed criticism. And in the third preface to the second volume of the Jerome edition Erasmus justifies his own critical approach to the Vulgate by pointing to Jerome's attitude to the Septuagint in spite of the conservative reaction of Augustine.
The edition of Jerome's letters in the same year as the Greek New Testament is no doubt fortuitous, but Erasmus certainly thought his own critical activity justified by Jerome, and the edition of the Jerome letters was intended to further exactly the same cause as the Novum Instrumentum.
Erasmus had written to Leo X, from whom he hoped for a restoration of peace and for protection for his own task, to ask him to accept the edition of Jerome. Leo X acceded and warmly wrote on Erasmus's behalf to Henry VIII. The new era looked as if it might have dawned. Erasmus was on good terms with Henry VIII of England, Pope Leo X and Charles V of Spain. He was soon to include Francois I of France and Ferdinand of Austria among his patrons. All of them were either humanists or at any rate wished to protect humanists of Erasmus's calibre. He had many other friends in high places. It is true that he could not prevent himself from provoking a theological reaction which he was too sensitive to endure with equanimity, and that his chosen enterprise would have fared better if he had not been obliged to loyalty to any prince. But none the less the controversy with Maarten van Dorp was a cloud in a sky that must otherwise have seemed bright. Other opponents rattled him, but Dorp was the representative of powerful Louvain, and having lost Paris he was concerned to win him over.
Maarten van Dorp (1485-1525) was a humanist theologian at Louvain who acted as spokesman for his colleagues. He wrote little, but was rector of the university in 1523. Erasmus remained friendly with him. In the important 1521 edition of Erasmus's letters by Froben the references to the `stolid' Dorp are omitted, attenuated or made anonymous in deference to their reconciliation. At Dorp's death, Erasmus composed an epitaph.
Dorp's first letter, probably sent in September 1514, is much more concerned to prevent the edition of the New Testament in Greek than to prevent a re-edition of the Praise of Folly. Dorp represented the sort of conservative humanism typical of the more daring members of the Paris faculty. His letter draws attention to the theological obloquy Erasmus has drawn on himself. He dislikes the bantering treatment of serious matters but is prepared to be enthusiastic at the prospect of a good edition of St Jerome. On the New Testament he refers to Lefèvreand Valla. The argument rests on the implication in publishing any new Greek text that the Vulgate was wrong. The reactionary Cousturier (`Sutor'), who had been prior of the Sorbonne before becoming a Carthusian, claimed that any error found in the Vulgate could ruin the authority of scripture and the Church.
The reply to Dorp is the letter of May 1515 translated here after the Praise of Folly. Erasmus begins by saying that he is in a hurry, that he `almost' regrets publishing the Praise of Folly which only puts into ironic form what was in the Enchiridion, that he was only following the advice of Augustine's de doctrina Christiana in making the evangelical message attractive, that he had arrived ill from Italy and while staying with More had written the Praise of Folly in seven days, that it was published by friends without his permission in a bad copy; but that there had been seven editions in some months (pp. 138-43). It is difficult to guess how many of these statements are true, since some certainly are not. Erasmus did publish a carefully revised text of his satire himself, but he was ill when he returned from Italy. The debt to Augustine is disputed but seems doubtful. It is difficult to believe that More's house contained no books with which Erasmus could have worked on something else, but he is correct about the work's success. There are at least six known editions in thirteen months.
Erasmus did not send the whole letter, which was written for publication, but it is impossible to say exactly what portion of it was sent, and the whole letter is so important in the context of the Praise of Folly and in the total undertaking of which it is a part that it has become usual to print it as an appendix to the satire. Dorp replied in August, pressing the conservative objections, pointing out that the Jews did not know Greek nor the Greeks Latin, so that one could not argue that true religion required a knowledge of all three. He asserts that the `new' theology is old enough, that scholastics like Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure were not enemies of the Church. He alleges with care the doctrine of St Augustine, but is careful not to point out that the de doctrina Christiana recommends the study of Greek and Hebrew, and declares the source of the dispute to be the inerrancy of the Vulgate. Dorp's quotations are not totally honest. He runs together phrases from different chapters of Jerome and does not mention Augustine's reserves. He is unfair in saying to Erasmus that he cannot pretend to be the only theologian to have understood the Bible.
To this reply the answer came from More dated 21 October 1515. It carefully says that Dorp's technical arguments are not worth refuting and that no one of importance agrees with them, but takes him to task for attacking Erasmus in person. The letter is a delicious pin-prick. Who, after all, is Dorp? What right has he to speak for the theologians? And above all to patronize Erasmus? How can anyone speak for the scholastics who are at daggers drawn with one another over the question of universal ideas? More devotes some time to attacking the basis for instruction in dialectic, the summulae logicales that Peter of Spain, later Pope John XXI, composed about 1250, and which consists in a hideously complex set of logical rules to be learned by heart, rather as if the whole of today's symbolic logic should be written out without the symbols. This, says More, is not grammar. His letter is a masterpiece of intelligent controversy. No trick is missed, no weakness goes undiscovered.
Dorp's opposition moderated. A congratulatory letter from Erasmus, perhaps of 1516, is extant, and there is a letter from Dorp of possibly the same year. The reconciliation seems to have come about early in 1517, and thereafter relations were cordial. In the end, we should be grateful to Dorp for eliciting Erasmus's letter, without which we should have inadequate means for elucidating Erasmus's changing relationships with his Folly.
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