Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.05.12

The Collected Works of Erasmus. Volume 10, Correspondence: Letters 1356 to 1534 (1523-1524). Translated by R.A.B. Mynors and Alexander Dalzell, annotated by James M. Estes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. $100. ISBN 0-8020-5976-7.

Reviewed by Paul Pascal, University of Washington.

The publication by the University of Toronto Press of the Collected Works of Erasmus (CWE) represents one of the great editorial initiatives of this century. The publishers state simply that their aim is "to make available an accurate, readable English text of Erasmus's principal writings." The result so far has been a fascinating monument to the scholar who was in his lifetime perhaps the most famous man in Europe, the inspiration, adviser, and confidant of scholars and of kings.1

Over the years the CWE has engaged the efforts of an extraordinary assemblage of scholars, editors, translators, and annotators. The first fruits of the enterprise appeared in 1974, after a long period of initial planning. Since then, new volumes have continued to appear with majestic regularity, to unreservedly favorable acclaim. There is no longer any need at this point for a reviewer to testify to the overall importance and excellence of the collection; more serviceable perhaps will be a brief inventory of what the University of Toronto Press has so far accomplished as it reaches the halfway point in its timetable, together with a prospectus of what is in store, for the immediate future and in the long run.

The complete CWE will comprise eighty-six volumes, of which twenty-five have been published to date and several others are in well advanced stages of preparation. Three of seven projected volumes of the Adages have appeared, with a fourth announced for September 1992; the translation of this virtually untranslatable work, and the annotation for it, are and will surely remain among the crowning achievements of CWE. Also published are seven volumes of Literary and Educational Writings, three of New Testament Scholarship (with seventeen more promised), and the first of five volumes designated Spiritualia and Pastoralia. The first of two planned volumes of Patristic Scholarship, containing selections from Erasmus's edition and biography of St. Jerome, is fresh off the press. Ten volumes of the Correspondence, the heart of the entire work, have appeared; the eleventh is anticipated for the fall of 1993. When the collection is complete, there will be twenty-two volumes.

Still in prospect are two volumes of Erasmus's Poetry (scheduled for publication in mid-1993), two of the eagerly awaited Colloquies (which the publisher hopes to issue sometime in 1993), and two of Apophthegmata; also three volumes of Expositions of the Psalms, and fourteen of Controversies, the first of which is in proof and scheduled to appear early in 1993.

In the midst of all this, Toronto has also published a splendid three-volume reference companion to CWE, Contemporaries of Erasmus, an ideal work for browsing; and, under the rubric Erasmus Studies, an impressive list of parerga.2

The target date for the completion of CWE is reported as 2010, which, for a project with English associations, will be an excellent Erasmian quincentennial year: in 1510 Erasmus was in England for his third and longest visit (of six in all); it was on that occasion that he wrote the Praise of Folly.3

Volume 10 of the Correspondence, which contains 122 letters by Erasmus and 57 addressed to him (one indirectly), covers the years 1523 and 1524, when Erasmus was 57 years old. This entire period falls within his eight-year residence in Basel, the longest time he ever spent in one place. Erasmus was well on his way to becoming the cantankerous valetudinarian of his final years, but with no diminution of his mental powers or of his fantastic productivity, epistolary or other.

The event that dominates the years of volume 10 is Erasmus's controversy with Luther that was to lead to the ultimate break with him. So far Erasmus avoids overt hostilities with Luther himself, and takes issue rather with Luther's intemperate supporters,4 some of whom were former friends of Erasmus. Almost all of the documents in the volume are related in one way or another to Luther, and through the words of Erasmus and his correspondents we are able to follow the crescendo of events on an almost day-by-day basis. In September 1524, Erasmus published De libero arbitrio, intended as an indirect attack on Luther's position.5 He tells us, in a letter of February 1524 (Ep 1419), that the first draft of this "trifling piece" (nugamentum) was dashed off in five tedious days. The genesis, planning, composition, revisions, publication, dissemination, and reception of this important work can be followed in full detail in the Correspondence -- a process which the excellent Index makes it easily possible to do. The work was well received by Erasmus's disciples and patrons. As volume 10 breaks off, Erasmus is led to expect that Luther's response will be moderate, if not conciliatory. That response, De servo arbitrio, appeared in December 1525, and Erasmus's hopes were doomed to disappointment. For details, we must await volume 11.

Despite his preoccupation with this matter (as well as with constant poor health), while all this was going on Erasmus was able to continue his purely scholarly pursuits, at a level which now seems little short of miraculous. Mixed in with the letters on the Lutheran controversy are references to scholarly activity on a scale that would seem to demand the full-time attention of several ordinary scholars: the long letter (Ep 1381) to Henry VIII of England that serves as the preface to Erasmus's paraphrase on St. Luke; similar introductions to editions of Cicero's Tusculanae quaestiones (Ep 1390), of the Nux attributed to Ovid, and of many other works; an introduction to a revision of a Greek dictionary (Ep 1460), in which Erasmus has some interesting and surprising things to say about lexicography; and truly magisterial discussions of fine points of Latin and Greek vocabulary and style.6 Erasmus's Latin is one of the wonders of his age. The translations here are accurate, smooth and amazingly readable. R.A.B. Mynors, who had served as translator or co-translator of the entire Correspondence up to this point (as well as of the Adages), died in 1990 as this volume was in preparation. His collaborator Alexander Dalzell is responsible for the admirable translations, indistinguishable in style or in excellence from those of Mynors, of Epp 1445, 1469, 1479, 1480, 1512, 1523, and 1526, all lengthy and key letters in the collection. The Commentary by James M. Estes is all that could be asked, and a pleasure to read.7

In keeping with the scholarly merit of the volume is the elegance of its production: paper and binding, layout, typography, and illustrations (consisting of contemporary portraits, title pages, and copies of letters, including four in Erasmus's own neat hand). The editing and proofreading are exemplary; glitches and typographical errors are virtually nonexistent.8

Having delivered the accolade which this volume of CWE merits, it remains for me to comment on one decision made in the course of its publication about which I cannot help feeling somewhat uneasy, even while fully acknowledging its practical justification. In Ep 1436, addressed to an unknown correspondent, Erasmus, with typical asperity, rebuts the slanders of certain detractors. This letter was provisionally dated to 1524 by P.S. Allen, who first published it in his Erasmi Epistolae in 1924. Since there was thought to be no decisive argument against this dating, it appears in volume 10 of CWE with the other letters of 1524. The annotator's Preface informs us, however (p. xx), that "just as this volume was going to press it was learned that Allen's conjectural dating of Ep 1436 is untenable and that the letter really belongs in volume 11. It was too late to remove the letter from this volume, but a new introduction explaining the situation has been provided." This new introduction (p. 215) adds details; just as the volume was going to press, Erika Rummel discovered evidence that March 1525 is the terminus post quem for this letter. The introduction to the letter concludes: "It is thus out of place in this volume. However, since the trouble and cost of removing it at the last minute were prohibitive, it has been left where it is. It will appear again, with a new introduction and revised notes, at the appropriate place in volume 11." This is certainly fair warning, and no one can be easily misled by the situation. There is no doubt that the new dating will be fully substantiated in volume 11; in Erasmian matters, when Erika Rummel speaks, people listen.

While there are no publishers who, faced with the realities of publishing economics, would disagree with the decision here, neither are there many scholars who will be happy with it. There are of course plenty of representatives of both camps on Toronto's editorial and advisory boards, and not a few hybrids. Despite their officially united front, it is hard to imagine that the decision was not a harrowing on.

What would Erasmus have thought of the matter? To be truthful, he was himself extremely cavalier and unreliable in adding dates to his letters when he prepared them for publication, and he is in fact responsible for most of his editors' troubles. Still, he did leave careful instructions in his will (1527) about the pains to be taken in the publication of his collected works,9 and he was the kind of adversary one would not want to cross without thinking twice about it.

Be that as it may, let the last word in this review be a reaffirmation of the gratitude that legions of Erasmians should feel to the University of Toronto and to the University of Toronto Press for their magnificent gift to us.


  • [1] Erasmus demonstrably continues to serve as the popular symbol of the scholar to this day; cf. the New York Times crossword puzzle for Sunday, June 7, 5 down.
  • [2] Several of these parerga are unfortunately already out of print -- as is, for that matter, volume 1 of the Correspondence.
  • [3] The odd circumstance should be noted that not a single letter of Erasmus survives from 1509 through 1511. Should anyone happen to be searching for a quincentennial to commemorate in 1992, 1492 was the year Erasmus was ordained as a priest.
  • [4] Especially Ulrich von Hutten, whom Erasmus attacked bitterly in the Spongia (September 1523). The death of Hutten just as this was being issued largely destroyed its appeal (gratia), as Erasmus remarked several times (Epp 1388 and 1389).
  • [5] The De libero arbitrio, among Erasmus's most important writings of the Basel period, will be published in CWE in the fairly near future, in the initial volume of the Controversies.
  • [6] See, for example, Ep 1479.
  • [7] A few of the letters are translated from Greek (Ep 1446, from Guillaume Budé) or from French (Ep 1375, from Francis I, partly in the King's own hand).
  • [8] One does occur in so prominent a place as the caption to the frontispiece: Roterdamo to transcribe Roterodamo, clearly legible in the facsimile.
  • [9] He there speaks of the incuria of printers (the publishers of his day), as he does also at some length in a letter of 1525 (Ep 1544), which will appear in volume 11 of CWE -- the same volume in which Ep 1436 will be repeated in its new position.