Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.06.12


Bruce Mansfield, Man On His Own: Interpretations of Erasmus c. 1750-1920. Erasmus Studies 11. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. Pp. 512. ISBN 0-8020-5950-3.


Reviewed by James Romm, Bard College.

This book forms a companion volume to Bruce Mansfield's 1979 Phoenix of his Age: Interpretations of Erasmus c. 1550-1750. The two works together nearly fulfill the author's stated plan, of tracing interpretations of Erasmus from the mid-sixteenth century up to the present day. Indeed one regrets that the current volume stops short of its original goal. Mansfield gives no explanation of why he ends at 1920, nor any promise of a third volume to come; his conclusion simply notes that interpretations of Erasmus became markedly different during the period from 1930 to 1980, and leaves us with a thumbnail sketch of the differences.

The truncation is surprising because Mansfield's work is otherwise a model of thoroughness, breadth, and comprehensiveness. Consider the daunting task that faced him when he began this project, some twenty years ago. Erasmus is certainly one of the more complex figures of modern intellectual history, with a vast corpus of writings that range from satire to essay to scholarly commentary to quotidian dialogue. His mind went out in many different directions, encompassed many different approaches and forms of inquiry. If we then multiply this diversity by the vast range of subsequent thinkers who have picked up on one or another of his ideas, we are faced with an enormous array of material. To sort through and master this material required Mansfield to follow nearly every major thread of modern cultural, intellectual and religious history, and to become conversant with the lives and works of the dozens of writers and thinkers he presents to us in his two volumes.

The result of these efforts is an extremely useful and reliable reference work. Following a largely chronological sequence, Mansfield marches us with sure step through his gallery of Erasmians. Each figure he deals with is briefly set into a historical and biographical context; then, the views of Erasmus are laid out before us, accompanied by brief, sensible interpretive remarks. Occasional introductions and conclusions help outline the larger themes of the study, but for the most part the focus is on the individuals who have in some way shaped our interpretations of Erasmus. Indeed, the books might, with very few changes, have been produced as a kind of biographical dictionary; were Mansfield to have affixed rubrics giving the names and dates of each of the figures he presents, the transformation would be complete.

The usefulness of such a reference tool will be immediately apparent to anyone who has attempted to deal with the Nachleben of a given author or text. However, it should also be said that these books remain, in the end, a reference tool. The portrait-gallery approach, which moves us on to a new figure and a new set of interpretations every few pages, will discourage readers looking for a continuous treatment of the subject. Such readers will also regret the fact that the few major figures who come into view are allotted space only in proportion to their interest in Erasmus. As a result we find, in the current volume, discussions of Voltaire and Coleridge that are no longer than those of Wilhelm Dithey and Pierre Imbart de la Tour. But, such is the price that has to be paid in pursuit of comprehensiveness. The "Interpretations of Erasmus" series is admirably comprehensive, a monument to two decades of intensive research and analysis. For that reason it deserves a home in college and university libraries.