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Colloque érasmien de Liège

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Jean-Pierre Massaut

Seconde partie

First fruits. The place of Antibarbarorum Liber and De contemptu mundi in the formulation of Erasmus’ Philosophia Christi*

Richard L. DeMolen

Texte intégral

  • * I wish to thank the following scholars for commenting on a preliminary draft of this essay: Drs. C (...)

I

  • 1 For critical editions of Antibarbarorum Liber and De Contemptu Mundi, see Opera Omnia Desiderii Er (...)

1Prominent in the œuvre of Erasmus are the two treatises that were begun when he was a professed religious at the monastery of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine at Steyn and were completed before the end of the fifteenth century. Both the Antibarbari, which is the older of the two works, having been begun before he was twenty, and De Contemptu Mundi, composed just after he turned twenty, inform us of the principal concerns that occupied the mind of Erasmus during the period of his religious formation1.

  • 2 The Correspondence of Erasmus (1484 to 1500), trans. by R. A. B. Mynors and D. F. S. Thomson and e (...)
  • 3 For the most detailed examination of Erasmus at Steyn, see Albert Hyma, The Youth of Erasmus, seco (...)

2About 1489, while in résidence at Steyn, Erasmus, encouraged by Cornelius Gerard, «decided for the future to write nothing which does not breathe the atmosphere either of praise of holy men or of holiness itself2». Cornelius belonged to the reformed Canons Regular of the Windesheim congregation in the district of Lopsen near Leiden — a monastery that owed its origin to Gerard Groote, the founder of the Brethren of the Common Life3. Writing to Cornelius in an apologetic vein for his poetical offerings, Erasmus concluded:

  • 4 C.W.E., t. 1, p. 51-52.

Yet if any of the poems I am sending to you seems more self-indulgent than is proper you will readily forgive this in consideration of the time of life at which I wrote them; for, apart from the lyric ode which I was writing when your letter arrived, and the funeral speech [for Berta de Hegen] which as a new production I thought I ought to send you in order that you may have evidence of my capacities in prose also, and that one solitary satire, ail the rest of the poems were written by me when I was a youth [adolescens] and virtually still a layman4.

31489 serves as a watershed in the life of Erasmus. He rejected the idle pursuit of intellectual pleasures and committed himself to a life of holiness, choosing for his spiritual mentor a follower of the Devotio Moderna. He would lay aside the emotional attachment which had figured so prominently in his relationship with Servatius Rogerus and devote his energies to a spiritual reformation. Poetry was for the praise of the Muses; prose would promote his philosophia Christi. In a letter to Hector Boece, dated 8 November [1495], Erasmus emphasized his change of pursuits:

  • 5 Ibid., p. 94. See Cornelis Reedijk, The Poems of Desiderius Erasmus, p. 120 and 172, Leiden, E. J. (...)

Please consider how unfair it is of you to insist upon having something which I do not even own myself. I swear to you most solemnly that for a long time now I have not been engaged in the pursuit of poetry and if I wrote trivial verse as a boy, I left it in my native land. I did not even venture to import my barbarous Muses, with their uncouth foreign accent, into this famous university of Paris, for I was aware that it contained a great many persons who were exquisitely gifted in every branch of letters5.

4Although not published until the 1520’s, the Antibarbari and De Contemptu Mundi were circulating as manuscripts in one form or another since 1489, much to the displeasure of Erasmus, who wished to regulate the circulation and supervise the publication of his works. In his prefatory epistles Erasmus recognized these works as stemming from his residence at Steyn and felt somewhat em barrassed by their lack of sophistication. When they were published in 1520 and 1521 respectively, Erasmus was recognized as a world figure whereas in the 1490’s his reputation was confined to his immediate surroundings.

II

  • 6 For a discussion of Erasmus at Steyn that differs from Albert Hyma (see note 3 above), read my Era (...)
  • 7 Opus Epistolarum Desiderius Erasmi Roterodami, ed. P. S. Allen (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1 (...)
  • 8 See Léon-E. Halkin’s Erasmus ex Erasmo: Érasme Éditeur de sa Correspondance, Aubel, P. M. Gason, 1 (...)
  • 9 C.W.E., t. 1, p. 14. The rule of St. Augustine condemned secret correspondence. See The Rule of Sa (...)

5Erasmus’ surviving correspondence before 1489 reveals the anguish of a tormented soul, intensified by the recent death of his parents, the separation from his older brother, Pieter, who had entered the house of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine at Sion near Delft; and rejection by two of his companions at Steyn, Servatius Rogerus and Franciscus Theodoricus6. The earliest letters of Erasmus to Elizabeth (a nun), Pieter Gerard, Servatius Rogerus, Franciscus Theodoricus, and an otherwise unidentified correspondent named Sasbout were composed while Erasmus was a resident of the monastery at Steyn; and with the exception of two of them, none of the letters from Steyn was published during Erasmus’ own lifetime7. Erasmus, who so carefully selected those letters that he wished to have printed, may have been embarrassed by their emotional fervor8. Writing about 1487, Erasmus expressed in torrid language his ardor for Servatius Rogerus: «But I beg you earnestly, O'half of my soul’, by that extraordinary love I bear to you, not to cast me again down into the pit of sorrows9». It is clear from a letter such as this one that Erasmus had not as yet committed himself to «the praise of holy men».

6The letters to Servatius Rogerus and Franciscus Theodoricus were written after Erasmus had entered the novitiate and displayed his unhappiness with the monastic practice of maintaining silence except during periods of recreation. Erasmus had assumed the role of mentor, striving to turn his two confreres into Latinists when neither of them had his innate gifts. When the style of Servatius failed to show sufficient improvement Erasmus accused him of laziness:

  • 10 C.W.E., t. 1, p. 18.

But as things stand, since there is nothing that does not encourage you to apply yourself to study, neither the subject nor the setting nor the very season, it seems to me that you have incentives enough to cultivate letters. See that you shake off all the remnants of laziness and languor that have plagued you hitherto10.

  • 11 Ibid., p. 20.

7It seems obvious from the earliest correspondence that Erasmus turned the novitiate into a classroom and diverted the unhappiness that characterized his personal life into a passionate pursuit of good letters. Erasmus attempted to improve the education of the canons by promoting the study of the classics among them. The monastery itself offered two incentives: a good library and learned scholars. Although Erasmus praised the monastery at Steyn on this occasion, he does not inform us of the nature of the formal education that he received before his ordination to the priesthood on April 25, 1492. It is clear, however, that he had not earned any degrees in theology before his admission to the College of Montaigu (Paris) in 1495. Steyn offered Erasmus the opportunity to effect a reformation in the curriculum pursued by the canons, but few of them were equal to it. Directing his displeasure at Servatius, Erasmus asked with indignity: «And with what pretext, pray, will you cover idleness in a place where there are so many books and such a company of learned scholars at hand and eager, indeed, to encourage you? What grounds for excusing yourself can you offer11?».

  • 12 Ibid., p. 34.

8Having failed to persuade Servatius to join him in literary pursuits, Erasmus turned to Cornelius Gerard, who proved to be more amenable. Erasmus found a kindred spirit in Cornelius and praised him for his assistance even though he was criticized by other canons: «In conclusion let me say that you cannot possibly be held guilty in the eyes of the envious, inasmuch as you have driven a friend to self-improvement by means of your praises...12».

9Supported by Cornelius, Erasmus defended his study of good letters because it promoted piety. In 1489 his chief challengers were the members of his own order and Erasmus referred to them in his letter to Cornelius:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 35.

But does it follow that we shall have to censure for indecency everything that is wittily expressed or poetic? You at least, accustomed as you are to reading the poets’ works, are clearly aware how much the honeyed flow of poetry abounds not only in elegance of style but in gravity of thought and in knowledge of all things. Where there are so many shining virtues, am I to be offended by a few flaws? But those worthies are only drawing a cloak over their own lack of culture, with the result that they seem to despise what they despair of achieving. If they looked carefully at Jerome’s letters, they would see at least that lack of culture is not holiness, nor cleverness impiety13.

10Using the authority of St. Jerome, who was regarded throughout the Middle Ages as the ideal monk, Erasmus hoped to convince his fellow canons that classical learning enhanced piety and added centuries of erudition to the cause of the gospel message. His reference to «drawing a cloak over their own lack of culture» brings to mind the external mark of Canons Regular of St. Augustine: the black cloak that distinguished them from the white canons or Premonstratensians. Erasmus won supporters for his cause both in and outside the monastery at Steyn, but he would eventually fail in his efforts at promoting classical studies among all the Canons Regular. He would have to be content with only a handful of admirers.

11Cornelius returned Erasmus’ compliments with adulation of his own:

  • 14 Ibid., p. 41.

Your lavish kindness, dear Erasmus, reveals itself on all hands, and it has placed me under strong obligation to you by a service that will not be forgotten. For you have consented to what I long ago requested and shall always continue eagerly to demand — such is your unequalled good will and innate amiability. You did it of your own free will too, and even did more than I requested. You say in your letter — and I cannot believe that you wrote without meaning it — that nothing has given you more pleasure than the fact that you and I are joined in our studies and compensate for our separation by frequent correspondence14.

12By the middle of 1489 the two Canons Regular had joined forces to begin what Erasmus would later call his philosophia, Christi, a program of reform that combined good letters and personal piety. Erasmus compared his friendship with Cornelius to that of St. Jerome and St. Augustine, the model monk, on the one hand, and the author of the rule of the Canons Regular, on the other:

  • 15 Ibid., p. 36.

One can find no more pleasant or familiar kind of intercourse, among those who are separated, than an exchange of letters in which the correspondents draw a picture of themselves for each other, while each of them places at least his mind and feelings, if not his physical presence, at the other’s disposal. It was by such means that the two famous Fathers of the church, Jerome and Augustine, prevented as they were by enormous temporal and spatial distances from being together and enjoying each other’s embrace as they would have wished, still managed never to lack each other’s presence; and each was ever aware of the other’s feelings of good will. Let us accordingly, my sweet Cornelis [sic], be careful to ensure that frequently something of yours is on the wing to me or something of mine to you15.

  • 16 See Allen, Opus, letter 296, dated 8 July 1514, and Allen, Opus, letter 447, dated [August 1516].

13Erasmus’ 1514 letter to Servatius Rogerus, then prior of Steyn, and the 1516 letter to Lambertus Grunnius, a fictitious papal official, provide us with a persuasive picture of the circumstances that surrounded his entry into the monastery in 148716. The letters also reveal his dislike for ceremonies, fasting, and the self-indulgences which he found at Steyn. Erasmus frequently complained of insomnia and dietary restrictions. But, no doubt, Erasmus’ inability to convince Servatius to pursue literary studies in the 1480’s was the ultimate reason why he refused to return to Steyn in 1514. Even so, Erasmus declined to identify by name the individual members of his monastery who were guilty of the offenses he described. Writing to Grunnius, Erasmus observed:

  • 17 C.W.E., t. 4, p. 21-22.

But for this, that gifted nature would have mouldered away among lazy, lascivious men and drinking-parties. Not that he casts aspersions on his society, but for his nature it was quite unsuitable; it often happens that what is life to one man is death to another. But such is his modesty and bashfulness that he never speaks of his old community in any hostile spirit17...

14In these letters to Servatius and Grunnius, Erasmus never denied that he had a vocation to the priesthood. Rather, he insisted that he did not have a vocation to the religious life of the canons. His bodily constitution and mental state reacted against such ceremonial obligations as the chanting of the divine office in choir. He also shared with Willem Hermans, a fellow member of the monastery, an aversion for the prior of Steyn in the I490’s who opposed his literary studies. Hermans wrote to Erasmus just atter the latter had become the secretary to the bishop of Cambrai. In the course of extending his congratulations he described his own feelings about their superior:

  • 18 C.W.E., t. 1, p. 63.

Indeed, after I received your messenger I began to urge, beg, and finally pray the prior to allow me to go, and after the messenger’s departure and his refusal, I upbraided him bitterly for his great unkindness. But what can one do? That is the way he is. It would be intolerable, were it not that it was rather a kind of fear, awkward and ungenerous indeed, that underlay the action, rather than any ill-will. Still, I find very tedious the sort of person who is anxious where there is no need for anxiety, and where there is has no trace of any misgiving18.

15Neither Willem Hermans, who had replaced Cornelius Gerard as promoter of Erasmus’ studies, nor Erasmus could abide what Hermans described as the «difficulties you escaped from». Erasmus found in Hendrik van Bergen, the bishop of Cambrai, a powerful and sympathetic ally, even though he proved to be penurious. It was in the bishop’s country résidence at Halsteren, near Bergen, that Erasmus revised the Antibarbari, to which we shall now turn.

III

  • 19 Ibid., p. 55-56. Silvano Calvazza, La Cronologia degli ‘Antibarbari’ e le origini del Pensiero Rel (...)

16Erasmus began the Antibarbari before he was twenty (ca. 1488-1489); revised it in 1495 and again about 1501-1502; and published it in May of 1520 (Basel: Eroben) for the first time. In a letter from Steyn about 1489, Erasmus refers to the Antibarbari which he had written in the form of an oration at the request of Cornélius Gerard: «... I have resumed this occupation for your sake and have finished, as diligently as I could, that oration of yours for which you had asked me19». It was rewritten in the form of a dialogue. Writing to Cornélius in 1494, Erasmus informed his friend of its present state:

  • 20 Ibid., p. 71-72.

If you ask me what I am up to, I have in hand at present a work on literature which I have been threatening for a very long time to write and have been attending to during my retreat in the country, though I do not very well know how it is going. I intend, at any rate, to finish this work in two books. The first book will be almost entirely concerned with refuting the absurdities perpetrated by the barbarians, while in the second I am going to depict you talking about the glory of letters with some scholarly friends of your own sort20.

17Because Erasmus never fulfilled his plan to publish the second volume of the Antibarbari, we are deprived of the effect this work would have had on his generation. Nevertheless he made it clear in his letter to Cornelius that he intended to make him, who was a Canon Regular of St. Augustine, the centerpiece of the book, surrounded by other scholars who shared his appreciation for good letters. This is in contrast to volume one in which the two Canons Regular, Erasmus and Willem Hermans, play only minor roles. In characteristic fashion Erasmus used individuals whom he knew as persona in his works. The Canons Regular became promoters of good letters, on the one hand, while the mendicant friars, on the other hand, would oppose them.

18In his dedicatory epistle to Johann Witz, schoolmaster in Sélestat, which appeared in the 1520 Antibarbari, Erasmus singled out «men who credit themselves with every virtue» as responsable for a decline in classical studies. It was a veiled reference to the mendicant friars whom he attacked vigorously throughout the book:

  • 21 Erasmus of Rotterdam to his friend Johann Witz in C.W.E., t. 23, p. 16, trans. by Margaret Mann Ph (...)

19In any case it is a shameful story, the stupidity with which some men reject what is far the most excellent province of knowledge, dismissing as «poetry» all that belongs to an ancient and more civilized culture. These were the men who, when I was a boy, spitefully enough put obstacles in my path and kept me away from my first love; and I had planned to take my revenge with pen and ink, with this one proviso, that I would attack no man by name21.

20One of the purposes of the Antibarbari was to take revenge against those adults who had attempted to thwart Erasmus’ study of the classics during his childhood. We can only assume that he was speaking of certain members of religious orders who had directed his studies, following the death of his parents, and who had no regard for Erasmus’ proclivities.

  • 22 Ibid., p. 17.

21Even though the publication of the Antibarbari would satisfy his desire for revenge, Erasmus regretted its appearance in print. He observed: «I myself revised the book and sent it to the printers, though in other respects I would rather it had been suppressed entirely... But I thought it had better face the world with such revision as I could give it than in the form taken by the manuscript copies, which were badly corrupted22».

22The chief barbarians whom Erasmus attacked in his treatise were the members of the major religious orders of mendicants: the Carmelites, Dominicans, and Franciscans. Many of the members of these orders believed in apostolic rusticity, that is, the notion that clerics do not need to be well educated since Christ selected a group of unlettered fishermen as his disciples. They also maintained that the Holy Spirit would guide their judgments when they were counseling or administering the sacraments to the faithful. Blind faith was far more important to these friars than commitment based on erudition.

23It is worth noting that Erasmus as a member of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine was neither a monk nor a mendicant friar nor a secular priest. The canons were officially authorized by the Lateran Synod of 1059 and appear midway between the orders of monks (e.g., Benedictines, Carthusians, and Cistercians), who originated in the sixth century, and the mendicant triars of the thirteenth century. As such the canons were often the rivals of the orders of monks and friars. It is not surprising, therefore, that Erasmus never singled out Austin Canons for criticism in the fifteenth century but chose instead members of the various orders of monks and friars, who competed with the canons for religious vocations as well as temporal power within the church structure. Even so, it should be kept in mind that Erasmus had close relations with a number of professed members of these two groups (Jean Vitrier, Paul Volz, and Antoon van Bergen come readily to mind).

  • 23 For recent assessments of the Antibarbari, see the introduction to A.S.D., t. 1-1, by Kazimierz Ku (...)

24Erasmus wrote the Antibarbari neither as a merely literary work nor as an educational treatise nor as a defense of classical studies per se, but, as Erasmus himself categorized it, as an apologia for the learned Christian who employed the erudition of the ancients to strengthen his faith in Christ. He wanted to attack the notion, current in 1495 as well as in 1520, that piety was incompatible with erudition; that a knowledge of the classics would corrupt the unsuspecting Christian23.

25The setting for the Antibarbari was a country estate, located near the town of Bergen-op-Zoom. Of the five participants in the dialogue, two were visitors to Bergen and three were town officials (although Batt spoke from the perspective of an enlightened school-master). At the same time ail were trained humanists who were familiar with the optimae artes. The characters were friends of Erasmus and represented prototypes of some leaders of society: Willem Hermans, a former resident of Steyn, was a poet and theologian; James Batt, who had studied at the University of Paris and had taught briefly at Bergen, where he had attempted to introduce humanist studies in the town school, was the town secretary of Bergen; Willem Conrad was the burgomaster and leading citizen of Bergen; and Jodocus was the local physician. Erasmus served as the host and referee.

26The leading characters were all laymen. The role played by Erasmus and his fellow canon was advisory at best. The chief defender of the humanities was James Batt, and much of the dialogue centered around his opinions and the criticisms of them. As a layman he represented a group of reformers who wished to persuade the opponents of classical studies to abandon their position and to support good letters. He was especially critical of friars and monks, and devoted much of his argument to a refutation of their ideas. Though Erasmus remained on the sideline during most of the dialogue one can detect his position in the words that fell from Batt’s lips. Batt’s part in the dialogue was pivotal. The other speakers were ancillary to the message that Batt offered. The burgomaster served as his foil, the defender of the position maintained by the friars.

  • 24 C.W.E., t. 23, p. 33.
  • 25 Ibid., p. 48.

27It is not surprising, therefore, that the Antibarbari was critical of the educational attainments of the orders of mendicant friars. Through the mouth of Batt, Erasmus insisted: «You might as well ask a camel’s advice on dancing or a donkey’s about song. What else are you doing when you consult a Friar Minor, a Dominican, or a Carmélite as if he were an oracle, asking him who should be put in charge of a boy destined for the best education to form his mind...». Erasmus rejected the friars as teachers because «To these idiots Quintilian is a poet, and Pliny, and Aulus Gellius, and Livy — in short everyone who wrote in good Latin». He accused them of being «born and bred in unrelieved barbarism24». As preachers and confessors these same friars spread their ignorance among the uneducated. In the presence of two Austin Canons, who were themselves scholar-poets, Batt directed his criticism to representatives of those religious orders who condemned classical learning. Even in the face of the efficacy of good letters, these friars stubbornly refused to concede. As Batt acknowledged: «For religion, while it is the best of all things, is also, the famous historian [Livy?] tells us, the most convenient cloak for any vice you like to name, because if anyone tries to draw attention to the vices themselves he appears to many people to be attacking religion, by which they are masked25...».

28In a 1520 insertion, Erasmus underscored the hostile attitude of the friars toward other religious orders as well as toward the secular clergy:

When they bawl about the vices of the secular clergy, and preach revolt, and incite the ignorant mob to stone them, they never think of the risk of rousing the anger of Christ, the Founder of that order — for he was a priest, but not a Dominican. If anyone dares to divulge any of their secrets and disturb the Augean stable, they announce that he is in danger of destruction from an irate Francis, or Dominic, or Elijah, so help me!

  • 26 Ibid., p. 49.
  • 27 Ibid., p. 50.

29Erasmus exposed the subversive power of the mendicant friars and charged them with keeping concubines, and through the mouth of Batt asked: «... what colour would he wish the cross to be for the Dominicans, the Carmelites, and the rest. Would he like the concubines of the Friars Minor to wear grey crosses, those of the Carmelites white, of the Dominicans black26?...». Though violators of their vows, the mendicant friars detested the classics because «they say that there is a high reward among the blessed which awaits those who for religion’s sake can despise these heathen teachings, invented for ostentation and pride; ignorant piety, they say, is most pleasing to heaven27...».

  • 28 Ibid., p. 74.
  • 29 C.W.E., t. 6, p. 86.
  • 30 C.W.E., t. 23, p. 75.

30Quoting from St. Augustine, whose rule governed the lives of the Canons Regular, the physician noted: «My opinion is the same as I see expressed by St. Augustine in his dialogues, that is to say, I believe that knowledge can hardly be divorced from virtue28...». At the same time the physician recorded the viewpoint of some of his patients: «... as you know, my profession leads me to deal with all kinds of people, and I often meet with certain monks who are steadfastly persuaded that there is no way in which what they call secular literature can be combined with Christian piety». Even in the light of the teachings of St. Augustine and St. Jerome, they denied the meritorious nature of good letters. Batt in a sarcastic vein agreed with the physician’s assessment: «in their case it can’t, because they lack both [i.e., bonae litterae and piety], but it can in the case of Jerome, Cyprian, Augustine, and a thousand others; and who would dare to put on the same footing the piety of these men and the sluggishness of the monks?». It is clear that Erasmus believed that some friars rejected the teachings of the Church Eathers in order to maintain their own view. Indeed their lives were antithetical to the followers of Christ. In a prefatory letter to Paul Volz (August 14, 1518), Erasmus observed: «I have no wish to upbraid the Eranciscans for being devoted to their own rule and the Benedictines for devotion to theirs; I object that some of them think their rule more important than the Gospel29». While expressing reverence for the monastic life, the physician did not exempt monks from all reproach. Instead he noted: «I see some of them getting close to the Epicurean way of life, taking incredible care to escape work, embracing sloth and a sheltered life... they think themselves quite religious enough if they never touch anything in the way of literary culture30...».

31In contrast to the self-serving life of worldly mendicants, Erasmus maintained an interior discipline based on the teachings of Christ. Though he was in the service of the bishop of Cambrai and was no longer a resident of the monastery at Steyn, he was committed to a life of withdrawal. Willem Conrad described the kind of life that Erasmus was leading in 1495:

I am envious of your delightful life, you happiest of all men alive! While we poor wretches are tossed hither and thither by the raging sea of public affaire, you are strolling about all the time with your Muses, entirely at leisure and unoccupied, now chatting on whatever topic you like with a friend, now holding a conversation with one of the ancient writers, at times beating out the rhythm of some ditty, or at others committing to paper, as to faithful companions, whatever you are turning over in your mind. It does not surprise me at all that, however often we invite you, you can never be dragged away from the woods to go to town.

  • 31 Ibid., p. 21.

32In case Conrad was misled by the outward appearance of his life, Erasmus offered the following corrective: «If those Sirens of yours — money-making and ambition — would allow you, I have no doubt that you would find it easy to despise that raging sea and all the towns as well. But you are ashamed to appear inadequate as an important citizen, and so you choose the wrong kind of life to lead to happiness31». Erasmus believed that the good Christian should reject worldly honors and material comforts in order to communicate more easily with Christ. It is clear from this passage that Erasmus was promoting an internal formation which would be oblivious to the enticements of the external world. In other words, Erasmus believed that a lay person could lead a religious life outside the monastery so long as he forsook the world’s temptations.

33In a final barb against the friars, Erasmus accused the burgomaster of complicity in the decline of good letters in Bergen-op-Zoom. Speaking through Batt, he insisted:

  • 32 Ibid., p. 28.

You, little as you know it, are the instigator of this evil; the whole blame for it falls on you. To your hands the community has committed all its fortune, its safety, honour, prosperity, and lastly what is dearest to it, its children — and you allow a set of blackguards to dwell in the city — did I say dwell? I mean, unchecked32.

34In this veiled reference to the Dominicans as «blackguards» Erasmus laid the blame on the teaching friars who suppressed the study of the classics in the schools of Europe.

35Though Erasmus revised the Antibarbari about 1520, it reflected that period in his life when he was a newly ordained priest in the service of the bishop of Cambrai and still a member of the Canons Regular whose rule he was obliged to obey and whose religious habit he was still obliged to wear. The Antibarbari appeared in print one year before De Contemptu Mundi and, like it, combined the two themes uppermost in the mind of Erasmus: a defense of good letters and a pious life. Since the first two prose works of Erasmus were written in the fifteenth century, they should be seen as a diptych, mirroring the central concern of Erasmus’ program of reform, namely the philosophia Christi, before it was fully enunciated in the Enchiridion of 1503.

IV

  • 33 Allen, Opus, t. 4, p. 457. The title page of the 1521 Louvain edition of De Contemptu Mundi has: «c (...)
  • 34 For recent assessments of De Contemptu Mundi, see the introductions to A.S.D., t. V-l, by Sem Dres (...)

36Erasmus wrote De Contemptu Mundi about 1488/89 when he was scarcely twenty years of age. Circulating in manuscript form, it undoubtedly served as promotional literature to entice prospective candidates to enter the order of Canons Regular of St. Augustine. It was written at the request of Theodoricus of Haarlem, a fellow canon at Steyn, in order to persuade his nephew to join the order33. It is obvious that Theodoricus asked Erasmus to write the oration because of his literary skills34.

  • 35 Erasmus, De Contemptu Mundi, trans. by Paynell; ed. by Hirten, op. cit., p. 6.

37In 1533, twelve years after its publication at Louvain in 1521, Thomas Paynell, a member of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine at Merton priory in Surrey, published an English translation, which, no doubt, was used by the English-speaking houses of the order to foster vocations. Paynell insisted in his dedicatory letter that Erasmus openly declared «the hygh goodnes» of the religious life35. Being the most famous member of the order, Erasmus’ endorsement of the religious life of the canons carried considerable authority.

  • 36 Ibid., p. 7. — See Post, The Modem Dévotion, p. 669-670.
  • 37 Ibid., p. 9. Marcel Haverals discovered an early manuscript version of De Contemptu Mundi (written (...)

38If, as some have suggested, Erasmus had thoroughly rewritten De Contemptu Mundi or even added an entire chapter (twelve) to the treatise in 1521, why would he have been so apologetic in his prefatory letter to the reader? Here Erasmus protested that De Contemptu Mundi was one of «suche trifils as I wrote whan I was yong to exercise my style, nat thinkynge that they shulde spred abrode36... ». He also expressed disappointment that this work was printed in the 1520’s, many years after its composition, and complained that it was not representative of his present literary skills and was written «alieno stomacho». There is no evidence in the prefatory letter that Erasmus wrote the first eleven chapters long before he wrote chapter twelve. Instead he insisted that the whole work was composed before he was instructed «in redynge of good auctours» and that he only «changed a fewe wordes37».

39In defending the religious life Erasmus quoted from St. Augustine, whose rule he followed, St. Ambrose (author of a treatise on virginity), St. Bernard of Clairvaux (a Cistercian abbot and reformer), and St. Cyprian (the champion of sacerdotalism). This array of authorities was gathered in the fifteenth century to underscore his belief that the religious life was a holy one and should be pursued by those capable of benefiting from it.

  • 38 Ibid., p. 176. This translation is taken from the text of Erika Rummel which will appear in C.W.E. (...)
  • 39 Erasmus, De Contemptu Mundi, trans. by Paynell; ed. by Hirten, p. 176.

40Chapter twelve, on the other hand, is not a denunciation of monastic life. It is a necessary outgrowth of the first eleven chapters and a fitting conclusion to a letter of advice by an uncle for his nephew. Theodoricus concluded: «Let it not disturb your mind that you are not one of the Dominican or Carmelite community, if only you are truly a member of the Christian community38». As a twenty-four year old canon, Theodoricus wanted to persuade his nephew, who was of similar age, to enter the religious life, but at the same time, he wanted him to know that if he chose not to follow him, he could still remain in the world and be saved, provided that he be «of the flocke of true Christen people39». Erasmus believed that one could live in the world as long as one was not worldly. Theodoricus’ advice to his nephew is not a new theme in De Contemptu Mundi. Earlier, in chapter two, Theodoricus maintained a similar position:

  • 40 Ibid., p. 24-25; translation is taken from the fortheoming G.W.E., t. 65.

... Will monks alone be saved? And all the rest go to their doom? Not at all. I do not deny that there, too, are men whose names are marked in the Book of Life. Nor do I say that by entering a monastery a man has immediately arranged his affairs so securely that he can live quite without concern. The difference between the two kinds of lives is as great as the difference between the man who is already sailing within the harbour though his ship is not yet moored and the man who is still borne along on the high seas... The man who remains in this world is not doomed, but he is in greater danger40.

41Salvation is available to all, but the monk is protected by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

42De Contemptu Mundi is divided into three parts: Chapters one through seven focus on the evils of this world; chapter eight through eleven on the pleasures of the religious life; and chapter twelve on the ultimate choice of this world or the religious state. At the same time, chapters three, four, and nine are written as specific defenses of the monastic vows and underscore the liberty, tranquillity, and pleasure that can be found in religious life:

  • 41 Ibid., p. 85; G. IV.E., t. 65.—See Erika Rummel, Quoting Poetry Instead of Scripture: Erasmus and (...)

Although I think that I have said quite enough, I would not want you to jump up and run away from the world in alarm, but rather to fly here happily and willingly, that is, not so much disgusted with the evils of the world as eager for our sweet life41.

43It is obvious from Erasmus’ letters to Servatius Rogerus and Lambertus Grunnius that Erasmus recognized his own unsuitability for the religious life and through the mouth of Theodoricus wished to emphasize the voluntary nature of a religious vocation, which should not be regarded as an escape from the world but as an acceptance of the responsibilities that form the everyday life of a canon.

44Two years before the publication of De Contemptu Mundi Erasmus defended the religious orders and at the same time clearly distinguished between good and bad friars. Writing to Justus Jonas in 1519, Erasmus cautioned:

  • 42 C.W.E., t. 6, p. 376.

Nor should one be severe at random against whole orders of men; it is better to protest against those who by their faults bring otherwise admirable orders into disrepute. It will be found more profitable to demonstrate how far from true religion are those who profess the rule of Benedict or Francis or Augustine and yet live for their bellies, for gluttony, lust, ambition, or avarice, than to attack the regular religious life itself42.

  • 43 See Allen, Opus, t. 3, p. xxix, and letter 517.
  • 44 See Allen, Opus, t. 8, letter 2136 (to Louis Ber, 30 Mardi 1529) and Allen, Opus, t. 10, letter 27 (...)
  • 45 Translated by John J. Mangan in Life, Character, and Influence of Desiderius Erasmus, t. 2, p. 346 (...)
  • 46 L.B., t. 8, col. 551-560.

45Erasmus penned this defense of the religious life long after he had received papal dispensations from Julius II (1506) and Leo X (1517) which freed him from the obligations of obedience to his superiors and from residence in the monastery at Steyn43. He had nothing to gain from this apologia or from later ones in 1529 and 153344. Writing to Jan of Heemstede, a Carthusian, on February 28, 1533, Erasmus insisted: «Therefore, what sort of perversity is it that some display who despise a man because he is a monk? When you mention the name monk you are speaking of one who is the sum of all the heroic virtues, one who merits benevolence and favor from the good, and wrests it from the wicked45». Erasmus’ defense of the monastic life is simply a reflection of an opinion that originated during his residence at Steyn. In a funeral oration for Berta de Hegen (Heyen) of Gouda (about 1489), Erasmus expressed the very ideas that are inherent in chapter twelve of De Contemptu Mundi: «Berta was beautiful and rich and devout. Why didn’t she enter a convent? It would have been more prudent, I admit, but in my opinion it is far more meritorious to lead a pure and innocent life admist the seductions of vice, to pass her existence in tranquillity in the midst of the turmoil of the world46». Erasmus believed that holiness can be found in or outside the religious life. He defended the religious life for those who are attracted to it because he felt it was a safer route to achieve piety, having been sanctioned by the two great Church Fathers, St. Augustine and St. Jerome.

V

  • 47 See the introductory essay by John P. Dolan in Erasmus, Handbook of the Militant Christian, ed. an (...)
  • 48 Allen, Opus, t. 1, p. 19.
  • 49 Erasmus, Enchiridion, trans. by Dolan, p. 158.
  • 50 Ibid., p. 159.

46The Antibarbari and De Contemptu Mundi function as a two-way mirror, illustrating twin thèmes of bonae litterae and Christian piety against the background of his personal life in the fifteenth century. Erasmus was very much a member of the Canons Regular in 1489 and 1494-1495 and it was only natural that he would write from a perspective that included the events of his présent circumstances. Although Erasmus did not draft the first complete expression of his philosophia. Christi until 1501, and did not publish it until 1503 under the title of Enchiridion Militis Christiani (Antwerp: Martens), he had envisioned his program of reform in the preceding century47. Writing to Johann von Botzheim in January of 1523, Erasmus described the origins of the work when he was a student in Paris: «The Enchiridion militis christiani was begun by me nearly thirty years ago [that is, about 1495] when staying in the castle of Tournehem, to which we were driven by the plague which depopulated Paris48». In his conclusion to the Enchiridion, Erasmus repeats both themes. He noted «There are certain detractors who think that true religion has nothing to do with good literature. Let me say that I have been studying the classics since my youth.... I did not undertake this merely for the sake of empty famé, or for the childish pleasures of the mind. My sole purpose was that, knowing these writings, I might the better adorn the Lord’s temple with literary richness49». At the same time he cautioned his readers against assuming that piety is confined to the religious life. Erasmus observed: «Monasticism is not holiness, but a kind of life that can be useful or useless depending on a person’s temperament and disposition. I neither recommend it nor do I condemn it50». Completed in the 1490’s but not published until the 1520’s the Antibarbari and De Contemptu Mundi bridge the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and reflect the spirit of the philosophia Christi, which Erasmus expressed succinctly in his 1518 letter to Paul Volz:

  • 51 C.W.E., t. 6, p. 90.

The result is therefore that no one should he foolishly self-satisfied because his way of life is not that of other people, nor should he despise or condemn the way of life of others. But in every walk of life let this be the common aim of us all, that to the best of our power we should struggle towards the goal that is set before us all, even Christ, exhorting and even helping one another, with no envy of those who are ahead of us in the race and no scorn for the weak who cannot yet keep up with us51.

47Fort Washington, Md.

Notes

1 For critical editions of Antibarbarorum Liber and De Contemptu Mundi, see Opera Omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami, I-1, ed. by Kazimierz Kumaniecki (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co., 1969), p. 35-138, and ibid., V-l, ed. by Sem Dbesden (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co., 1971), p. 40-109; hereafter cited as A.S.D.

2 The Correspondence of Erasmus (1484 to 1500), trans. by R. A. B. Mynors and D. F. S. Thomson and ed. by Wallace K. Ferguson, t. 1, p. 51, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1974, hereafter cited as C.W.E.

3 For the most detailed examination of Erasmus at Steyn, see Albert Hyma, The Youth of Erasmus, second ed., p. 145-219, New York: Russell and Russell, 1968. Hyma insists that Erasmus approved the monastic life while at Steyn but later on condemned it. R. R. Post maintains that «apart from Erasmus’ stay in’s-Hertogenbosch», the Brethren of the Common Life had no influence on Erasmus. See Post, The Modem Devotion, p. 11-12, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1968.

4 C.W.E., t. 1, p. 51-52.

5 Ibid., p. 94. See Cornelis Reedijk, The Poems of Desiderius Erasmus, p. 120 and 172, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1956.

6 For a discussion of Erasmus at Steyn that differs from Albert Hyma (see note 3 above), read my Erasmus as Adolescent, in Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, 38, p. 7-25, 1976.

7 Opus Epistolarum Desiderius Erasmi Roterodami, ed. P. S. Allen (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1906), t. 1, letters 26 and 29; hereafter cited as Allen, Opus.

8 See Léon-E. Halkin’s Erasmus ex Erasmo: Érasme Éditeur de sa Correspondance, Aubel, P. M. Gason, 1983, which elaborates on this idea.

9 C.W.E., t. 1, p. 14. The rule of St. Augustine condemned secret correspondence. See The Rule of Saint Augustine: Masculine and Feminine Versions, ed. by Tarsicius J. van Bavel, O.S.A., p. 18, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1984.

10 C.W.E., t. 1, p. 18.

11 Ibid., p. 20.

12 Ibid., p. 34.

13 Ibid., p. 35.

14 Ibid., p. 41.

15 Ibid., p. 36.

16 See Allen, Opus, letter 296, dated 8 July 1514, and Allen, Opus, letter 447, dated [August 1516].

17 C.W.E., t. 4, p. 21-22.

18 C.W.E., t. 1, p. 63.

19 Ibid., p. 55-56. Silvano Calvazza, La Cronologia degli ‘Antibarbari’ e le origini del Pensiero Religioso di Erasmo, in Rinascimento, t. 25, p. 141-179, 1975, argues that the Gouda manuscript of the Antibarbari must be dated circa 1501/02 and not 1494/95.

20 Ibid., p. 71-72.

21 Erasmus of Rotterdam to his friend Johann Witz in C.W.E., t. 23, p. 16, trans. by Margaret Mann Phillips.

22 Ibid., p. 17.

23 For recent assessments of the Antibarbari, see the introduction to A.S.D., t. 1-1, by Kazimierz Kumaniecki, p. 7-32, and the introduction to C.W.E., t. 23, by Margaret Mann Phillips, p. 2-15. Erasmus listed it among his apologia in letters to Johann von Botzheim (30 January 1523) and Hector Boece (15 March 1530). — See Allen, Opus, t. 1, p. 38-42, and t. 8, p. 373-377.—See also James D. Tracy’s Against the ‘Barbarians’: The Young Erasmus and His Humanist Contemporaries, in The Sixteenth Century Journal, t. 11, p. 3-22, 1980.

24 C.W.E., t. 23, p. 33.

25 Ibid., p. 48.

26 Ibid., p. 49.

27 Ibid., p. 50.

28 Ibid., p. 74.

29 C.W.E., t. 6, p. 86.

30 C.W.E., t. 23, p. 75.

31 Ibid., p. 21.

32 Ibid., p. 28.

33 Allen, Opus, t. 4, p. 457. The title page of the 1521 Louvain edition of De Contemptu Mundi has: «conscripsit adolescens in gratiam ac nomine Theodorici Harlemei, canonici ordinis diui Augustini».

34 For recent assessments of De Contemptu Mundi, see the introductions to A.S.D., t. V-l, by Sem Dresden, p. 7-36; the facsimile reproduction of the Berthelet edition of 1533 by William James Hirten, p. v-xliv, Gainesville, Florida, 1967, and the forthcoming C.W.E., t. 65, by Erika Rummel. I want to thank Dr. Rummel for sharing her introduction and translation with me. — See also Allen, Opus, t. 4, p. 457, and Hyma, op. cit., p. 173 and 179.

35 Erasmus, De Contemptu Mundi, trans. by Paynell; ed. by Hirten, op. cit., p. 6.

36 Ibid., p. 7. — See Post, The Modem Dévotion, p. 669-670.

37 Ibid., p. 9. Marcel Haverals discovered an early manuscript version of De Contemptu Mundi (written between 1602 and 1513) that lacks chapter twelve. The existence of this manuscript version, however, does not prove that Erasmus wrote chapter twelve in the sixteenth century. Erasmus complained of the large number of imperfect manuscript versions that were then in circulation in his prefatory letter of 1521. — See Haverals, Une première Rédaction du ‘De Contemptu Mundi’d’Érasme dans un Manuscrit de Zwolle, in Humanistica Lovaniensia, t. 30, p. 40-54, 1981.

38 Ibid., p. 176. This translation is taken from the text of Erika Rummel which will appear in C.W.E., t. 65.

39 Erasmus, De Contemptu Mundi, trans. by Paynell; ed. by Hirten, p. 176.

40 Ibid., p. 24-25; translation is taken from the fortheoming G.W.E., t. 65.

41 Ibid., p. 85; G. IV.E., t. 65.—See Erika Rummel, Quoting Poetry Instead of Scripture: Erasmus and Eucherius on ‘Contemptus Mundi’, in Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, t. 40, p. 503-509, 1983.

42 C.W.E., t. 6, p. 376.

43 See Allen, Opus, t. 3, p. xxix, and letter 517.

44 See Allen, Opus, t. 8, letter 2136 (to Louis Ber, 30 Mardi 1529) and Allen, Opus, t. 10, letter 2771 (to Jan of Heemstede, 28 February 1533).

45 Translated by John J. Mangan in Life, Character, and Influence of Desiderius Erasmus, t. 2, p. 346, New York, The Macmillan Co., 1927.

46 L.B., t. 8, col. 551-560.

47 See the introductory essay by John P. Dolan in Erasmus, Handbook of the Militant Christian, ed. and trans. by J. P. Dolan, p. 28-32, Notre Dame, Indiana, Fides Publishers, 1962.

48 Allen, Opus, t. 1, p. 19.

49 Erasmus, Enchiridion, trans. by Dolan, p. 158.

50 Ibid., p. 159.

51 C.W.E., t. 6, p. 90.

Notes de fin

* I wish to thank the following scholars for commenting on a preliminary draft of this essay: Drs. Clarence H. Miller, John C. Olin, Albert Rabil, Jr„ Erika Rummel, and James D. Traoy.

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