The Dutch Hercules


Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with St Matthew and the Angel

The Dutch Hercules

The Correspondence of Erasmus: Letters 2357 to 2471, translated by C. Fantazzi, annotated by J.M. Estes, University of Toronto Press (2016), Pp. xix, 391, ISBN 978 1 4426 4878 4. $180.00 (hb), reviewed by Darrell Sutton

Erasmus, the Man

The Renaissance originated during the late 13th century in Florence, Italy. It swept over Europe and led to innovative attainments in literature, art, architecture, music and science. Rediscoveries of major literary works of imperial Rome and classical Greece formed its intellectual basis. The Dutch humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), more popularly known as Erasmus of Rotterdam, was held in high regard for his editions of Greek and Latin texts.

People were complaining about blatant avarice in the Dutch provinces where it was felt that the Papacy held too much sway. These objections eventually led to formal protests. The “Reformation” in Germany, likewise, proceeded with fervor. Over the next decade it consumed villages, cities and nations. It was a religious movement that Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, could have easily put down. However, Martin Luther (1483-1546), the primary instigator of the Reformation, found a willing patron and supporter in Frederick III (1463-1525), Elector of Saxony, whom Charles needed for an ally as the Ottoman armies were invading nearby territories.

In order to resolve the religious tensions between Protestants and Catholics, the Diet of Augsburg was held in 1530. No conciliation was forthcoming. [To aid readers, I cite letter: line, e.g., 2301:2, of Erasmus’ correspondence]. Erasmus did not attend the Diet. He was suffering from a malady that he claimed blew in with the wind. Although shut-in with several assistants attending to the dispatch of his letters, he was kept abreast of the proceedings. Countless individuals thought of him as the leading intellectual of that day: but of G. Bude (1467-1540) Erasmus humbly wrote “We gladly concede to him the foremost position in belles-lettres” (2379:416). I suppose that Erasmus’ statement was composed with tongue-in-cheek.

His religious views were unbounded. French and Italian critics claimed that he was Lutheran (p.xiv). Some Catholic enemies were intemperate. Johann Eck’s (1486-1543) attacked him vehemently for heresy and for support of the reform movement. However, Erasmus defended himself in a letter stating that Eck acts “as if he had not heard of the Diatribe, the Hyperaspistes, and other works and letters of mine” (2406:20). The nucleus of Erasmus’ belief was Roman Catholic. One friend, Matthias Kretz, declared that “the whole world openly acknowledges that Erasmus is Catholic to the core, or more correctly, he is the Jerome of our age and the chariot and charioteer of our Catholic faith and its most courageous defender” (2402:13).

Still, several leaders of the ‘Lutheran heresy’ considered him a congenial friend. And even if he did not subscribe to Lutheran views entirely, time was he did believe that both he and Luther were participating in an enlightened scheme of reform. It was a belief that faded away as alarming events during the reform occurred in Europe. Even so, a large constituency found him all too sympathetic to reforming principles. Unsure of his firm commitment to the Roman Church, in some places Erasmus’ books were banned (2369:35).

Erasmus’ Correspondence

Critical studies in the history of scholarship cannot advance without inspection of private and public correspondences. These items enhance readers’ knowledge of someone’s professional publications. They also improve our data on the times in which a writer lived, and advance scholarly inquiry in new directions.

Erasmus published many of his epistles during his lifetime. Ever since, people have desired to assemble his letters. Le Clerc’s 10 volume Leyden edition, Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami Opera Omnia (1703-6), remained the standard edition until P.S. Allen’s (with H.W. Garrod) 12 volume critical edition, Opus Epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, took its place. All previous work is now superseded by the ongoing issuance of The Collected Works of Erasmus, which will culminate in 89 volumes.

As a writer, Erasmus was prolific. In public, he issued polemical tracts defending his positions, e.g., De Libero Arbitrio (1524), Epistola Contra Pseudoevangelicos (1529) and Epistola Ad Fratres Inferioris Germaniae (1530). For all these he was respected. In private, he sought to maintain healthy relationships both with leading Catholic clergymen and with the chief Reformers (e.g., 2358). He also attempted by letter to reconcile divergent views. Were it not for his critics he might have worn a cardinal’s cap. Several friends thought that he was foolish to expend so much time forestalling Roman Church opponents.

Erasmus was a critical scholar, admired by not a few papal priests and by many competent students of classical and sacred texts. He was a better exegete and theologian than Reformed Protestants and Roman Catholics acknowledged. The publication of all of his correspondence accentuates this point. This volume, The Correspondence of Erasmus: Letters 2357-2471 (CE), takes in the tensions of that day. The threat of war permeates the corpus of letters. Erasmus believed that the “Reformation” could have been avoided had Luther and his theses about indulgences (2443:309) been ignored. He was not at ease with Lutheran views; but he was uneasy too with papal policies being implemented in the provinces.

In CE, critical introductory notes appear before each letter. They provide context and data on the original text and the place of the letter’s initial publication. Footnotes are at the bottom of each page. Altogether, the letters show Erasmus to be a well-informed man. He knows that a civil war is imminent if foolish reasoning intrudes into decision-making. Moreover, he contends that the Pope will be pleased if Germans murder one another (2363:14).

Never at loss for words, Erasmus’ ruminations spilt out onto the page. Of Chrysostom, Erasmus seemed certain that an unorthodox Arian text attributed to him was not bona fide (2359A:30). Moreover, he knew of the recent burning at the stake of Louis de Berquin (who was not a Lutheran), and of the reasons for it: “His hatred of monks and theologians, his free tongue…” (2362:24). To some correspondents, he refers to Lutherans as heretics; to others he names them “evangelicals”, which, used by him, was also derisive but less obviously so. Over and again he laments the loss of friends who thence became bitter enemies (2393:10).

Throughout the letters most reformers are characterised as men of small repute. Erasmus alleged that Martin Bucer (1491-1551) was “unpredictable” (2365:21) and that Johannes Oecolampadius was an imprecise translator of texts (2405: n.13). Erasmus had worked with him when preparing and issuing his Greek New Testament in 1516/17. At times, he did recognize in-print someone’s commendable qualities. I instance Simon Grynaeus, (1493-1541) one who shared Strasbourg reformers’ views, yet his classical scholarship won the praise of proficient persons, including Erasmus (2433).

The Dutch Hercules, as Erasmus had been designated, possessed a gigantic intellect, but he bore many hardships. The cost of living at Freiburg was high. He was always trying to recover monies owed to him. Letters from friends give evidence of this want (2408:20).

As for the style of the letters, those epistles written to Erasmus evince great deference to his abilities as a scholar, theologian and leader of scholarly men. Letters composed by him rarely address correspondents as equals, except in a few cases, e.g., see his memoranda to Germain De Brie (1490-1538), Cardinal Agostino Trivulzio (1485-1548) or to a prelate. Little can be said of the translation since there is no accompanying Latin text. Nevertheless, the renditions are idiomatic and clear.

On Classical Scholarship

His preferences in classical scholarship are palpable. Of all Greek writers on morals, in Erasmus’ opinion Plutarch is the most beneficial (2431:92). ‘Prefaces’ to several text-editions are published here and every one of them showcases his wit. Each one should be justly praised as concise literary masterpieces. In letter 2359, Erasmus affirmed that previous editions of Chrysostom were done by men with little Greek. The style of the homilies on Corinthians, traditionally ascribed to Chrysostom, seemed to him inauthentic.

Furthermore, the eminent G. de Brie wrote that he did not believe the theologians to be so proficient in Greek. This idea was confirmed similarly in de Brie’s letter to Erasmus (2405:153) in which he decries “how few there are who have attained” to the ability of mastering Greek. So, the two of them believed, for the sake of comprehension, there was need of a Latin version of Chrysostom’s texts (2379:60). Displeased with the schoolmen who sought to condemn his writings and to preserve from offense “the feelings of princes or popes”, Erasmus wrote: “What am I going to do with these people, who think they are skilled in Latin even though they do not know the language?” (2466:184).

Furthermore, the philological aid he provided to readers of the sacred writers was great: cf. Erasmus’ lengthy but learned review-letter (2465) to Agostino Steuco on Recognitio Veteris Testamenti ad Hebraicam (1529). In that same letter Erasmus reveals the logic behind his conjecture at Genesis 37:2. It was amateurish, a not uncustomary method of exegesis that scholastic theologians used during his times. So employed by him, and utilized in order to match the account of Joseph’s betrayal by his brethren to Christ’s betrayal by his countrymen, Erasmus altered a Masoretic reading to the one in the Septuagint (2465:437). This approach to the text led him to several absurd typological readings.

At all times in CE his criticisms were clear: e.g., see his evaluation of N. Maillard’s Greek and Latin epigrams to him (2466:249), a letter in which he says that France was full of expert Greek teachers (line 150). Erasmus noted the need of learned men for paleographical purposes, that care and vigilance be exercised in the copying of Livy, the prince of Latin history (2435:31).

Erasmus’ judgment likely would have been found wanting by R.M. Ogilvie (1932-1981) or P.G. Walsh (1923-2013). Current Livy specialists too might disagree about the results of the copyists’ efforts; and for a fleeting moment Erasmus wanted to imitate Cicero’s style of writing, saying: “I was stimulated to do this by the letters of three of the most accomplished masters of style of our times, Jacobo Sadoleto, Pietro Bembo and Julius Pflug” (2453:7). Previously, in 1928, he published Ciceronianus to ward off any return to Ciceronian literary style.

Reconstructing Certain Elements of his Theology

Erasmus’ affirmed his belief in appealing to God directly for divine assistance, his trust in the supremacy of Christ over all creation and in his everlasting character (2362:59-62). In his doctrine, deceased saints in truth may play a role of guardianship over Catholic believers (2379:6); although he frankly confesses that there is no scriptural basis for it (2443:210). He envisioned the Church as the elect of God for whom evil could be reversed for God’s glory (2443:418;2466:37). Erasmus saw the utility of Plato’s philosophy for persons shaping polity and guiding public affairs. He perceived that philosophy’s highest expression manifests itself through Christian piety (2383:17). Not unlike a belief in pleading to departed saints,

Erasmus found no biblical basis for sacramental confession to priests, believing that tradition or the authority of the Roman Church alone could mandate it (2465: n.73). In addition, he holds the scriptures to be sacred and the Holy Spirit to their author (2465:688). And he iterated that the Catholic faith contained “unquestionable truths”, and further confirmed his belief in God, the creator of all things and in the Godhead’s triune essence (2466:197-200n.28). Agreeing with Augustine, he disapproved of the notion that human merit amounts to anything or is of consequence to God (2466:217).

Of his health, he attributed its recovery to rest and to the healing agency of Christ (2469:45). As understood by him, Grace and faith were interrelated to the point of indistinction: “he who is filled with grace must necessarily be filled also with faith, at least in our present condition” (2471:47).

To conclude, in November 1530, Erasmus wrote:

“If any tumult arises, I will be among the first victims of the Zwinglians and the Lutherans; and yet I would prefer to suffer this rather than be compelled to leave the camp of the Catholic church… the community of orthodox believers” (2411:43-45).

In general, letters are not formal forensic documents. Still, CE invites readers to penetrate mysteries which could not be known without the publication of these letters. Erasmus was a seminal figure of late medieval Europe. In this volume, he is presented as a proud but sympathetic character who understood the need for pacification in certain political and religious matters. He was a profound scholar of Patristic literature.

With this publication, the translator and annotator alike have furthered researches into the study of Renaissance and Reformation figures. Biblicists, church historians, classicists and medievalists would do well to collect each volume printed in this series. The scholarship is of a high order. Well bound and illustrated, the University of Toronto Press continues to enhance Erasmus’ image.


Some observations: page 179, note 6: the definition of ‘colophon’ is too artistic but ambiguous: the use of a colophon cannot mean to “add the finishing touch”. A colophon conveys source-data about a document and/or its author. Page 184, note 30: the meaning of the Homer’s epithet meropes is not unknown. At Il. 2:285 it refers to mankind or to mortals.

Typographical errors: page xi, line 2, should read “August 1530 to March 1531”; page 13, line 11, should read “may he impart his peace”; page 75, line 1, should read “to equal your unheard-of-kindness,”; page 145, note 2 should read “settlement”; page 214, line 32 should read ”the author of all good…”; page 339, line 697 should read “in giving me advice,”.

Hans Holbein, Erasmus

Darrell Sutton is rector of the Tabernacle in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a small village in the Great Plains. He also teaches Semitic languages and edits an academic bulletin entitled ‘The DS Commentary on Books’


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2 Responses to The Dutch Hercules

  1. David Ashton says:

    What is a Dead White European Male doing here? Haven’t you heard of “equality & diversity”? This is article offensive to all the lesbians of colour who really built civilization, from Afristotle to Dr Who’s Tardis assistant. You’ll be guilty of the new hate-crime of “nostalgia” next.

    The police stations are closed at the moment, but you wait!

  2. In my long ago Catholic upbringing, Erasmus was always seen as the “good Humanist.” Points always conceeded to Luther as a reformer who went too far. Henry VIII and Calvin were the real baddies.

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