Erasmus and the Age of Reformation, Johan Huizinga, tr. F. Hopman. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957 (first published in 1924). Link is to Dover Publications reprint. This book is now in the public domain and there are free versions for Kindle and other digital formats.
Summary: An elegantly written biography of Desiderius Erasmus describing his life, thought and character as a scholar who hoped to awaken “good learning” and to bring about a purified Catholic church, and the tensions resulting from being caught between Reformers and Catholic hierarchy.
It is surprising to me how few biographies I can find of Desiderius Erasmus in online searches, and most of these older works. The good news is that Huizinga’s very readable account of Erasmus’ life is available in either low cost reprints or for free digitally due to its passing into the public domain. There are also free versions of many of Erasmus’ works in various digital formats. I found the edition that was the basis of this review in the bargain shelves of my local used book store. If you want to readable introduction to the life of Erasmus, this is a great place to start to understand the life of this humanist scholar overshadowed in some ways by the Reformers.
We learn about the early life of this out-of-wedlock son of a Catholic priest, forced by poverty to take monastic vows. Yet from early on it was clear that Erasmus was a scholar, not a monk, who found a way through the Bishop of Cambrai for whom he served as secretary, to pursue theological studies at the University of Paris in 1495. Huizinga portrays a man who was something of a rolling stone, moving between England, Paris, Louvain, Italy, and Basle in search of patrons, peace, and publishers. He would be a restless man all his life. He works for a time with the famed Aldus Manutius (after whom the Aldus font is named) and later collaborates with Johan Froben in the publication of a number of his later works including his Greek and Latin version of the New Testament. During one of his travels, he pens In Praise of Folly, the work for which he is most famous. He also assembles a collection of adages in Latin (Adagia) that serves as a compendium of the best of the ancient classics.
Huizinga shows us a scholar deeply committed to the value of “good learning”, believing the recovery of the classic texts along with careful biblical scholarship would result in a Catholic church purified from the accretions of the centuries. There is a brief, shining moment, around 1517, where profits from publications, renown of scholarship, and sympathies with many other reformers brought him into the limelight at the same time as he is finally released from his monastic vows. All too briefly does he enjoy the life of scholarship, pleasant conversation, and freedom from want.
Soon he is chased from Louvain by those objecting to his efforts toward a purified church. He is courted by Luther and the Reformers only to keep his distance and eventually and reluctantly engage Luther in a dispute over the freedom versus bondage of the will. As he grows older he writes against the excesses of both the humanists (in
Ciceronianus) and against the Reformers.
As I commented in my post on “The Challenge of the ‘Third Way,’ ” Erasmus fault was that he was a moderate, who preferred quiet to a fight. He was not an ideologue, but one who cared for clarity in expression, careful scholarship, and purity of morality. Huizinga traces this out in successive chapters on Erasmus’ thought and character. For many years, Catholics thought he had given too much aid and comfort to the Reformers. Protestants thought him a sell out, who remained loyal to the church he never wanted to leave. Yet to the last he was a scholar, returning to Basle to wrap up his affairs, entrusting his scholarly legacy to the house of Froben to publish his complete works. And it is as a scholar in the humanist tradition that he is most remembered.
More recent scholarship has raised questions about Erasmus sexuality, particularly his relationship with Servatius and his dismissal as tutor of Thomas Gray. Huizinga, a scholar in an age less concerned with matters sexual and more open to the expressions of spiritual friendship in letters, raises no questions about such things.
Huizinga also provides us with a selection of his letters. Two stand out. One is his letter to Servatius, arguing for why he should not return to the monastic life at such length that I suspect Servatius gave in to gain relief. The second is a finely drawn verbal portrait of Thomas More. We see his early correspondence with Luther, and the later deterioration of the relationship.
So, for both style and substance, I would highly recommend this biography. It leaves one wondering about the might-have-beens of what would have occurred had Erasmus not been overshadowed by Luther, Calvin, and others. My own hunch is that in the end, he would have been opposed and simply withdraw as was his wont, and little would be changed. As it was, he refused to “lead the charge”, leaving this to Luther and the Catholic hierarchy in turn. If he had influence at all, it was through his translation of the New Testament, used by Luther for a vernacular translation and through his other scholarly works, works that enriched individual minds rather than galvanized movements.
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