Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.04.04


J.K. Sowards (ed.), The Collected Works of Erasmus. Volume 71, Controversies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. Pp. li + 190. $85.00. ISBN 0-8020-2869-1.


Reviewed by Paul Pascal, University of Washington.

With this volume of its Collected Works of Erasmus, the University of Toronto Press inaugurates the series of Erasmus' Controversies, which eventually will fill fourteen volumes. The publication of CWE was begun in 1974 and is scheduled for completion in 2010; it has now passed its halfway point, in time at least, if not in number of volumes (twenty-seven down, a projected fifty-nine to go). As remarked in an earlier review of Erasmus' correspondence in BMCR (3.5 1992, p. 380, where there is also a summary of the publication schedule for the rest of CWE), there is no longer any need for a reviewer to testify to the overall importance and excellence of the Toronto collection. Suffice it to say that the present volume, edited by veteran Erasmian J.K. Sowards, maintains the high standards of its predecessors. Translations and annotation are by the late R.A.B. Mynors, and by D.F.S. Thomson, James McConica, Martin Lowry, Charles Fantazzi, and Erika Rummel. Most of these are members of the CWE's stellar Editorial Board and Executive Committee. Lowry, who is responsible for the largest share of the translations in the present volume, is known for his work on early printing and publishing in Italy.

Controversy might well have been Erasmus' middle name. In fact, the term appears to be used by CWE to cover anything by Erasmus that is left over after being eliminated from the other general rubrics they have established (Correspondence, Literary and Educational Writings, New Testament Scholarship, Patristic Scholarship, and Spiritualia and Pastoralia). Attacks and counterattacks from his detractors and enemies dominated the last twenty years of Erasmus' life (he died in 1536). The bulk of the controversies concern his edition of the Greek New Testament with his own new Latin translation, his interpretations of Scripture, his work on Patristics, his positions on various theological and ecclesiastical matters, his advocacy of humanistic studies, and especially his break with Luther and his troubles with Luther's more intemperate followers. While Erasmus was one of the greatest classical scholars of his own or of any age, he was also in the thick of one of the most momentous religious upheavals in history. The present volume contains a miscellany of documents dating from 1515 through 1525. Sowards provides a comprehensive general introduction, "Erasmus and the Louvain Circle," a delight to read, full of detail, and with a cast seemingly of thousands. It is well to read this -- in fact everything in the volume -- with Toronto's three-volume encyclopedia, Contemporaries of Erasmus, ready at hand. Compared with some of the controversies that will appear in future volumes of CWE, the tone of the writing here is generally rather civil. Most of the querulousness and vilification is yet to come.

The first document in CWE 71, written in 1515 and addressed to Maarten van Dorp, then a rather priggish young man, is a case in point. Dorp had written a more or less open letter to Erasmus -- who was in England and did not see the letter until almost a year after it was written -- attacking his Encomium Moriae and questioning the orthodoxy of his work on the New Testament. Erasmus' reply, while magisterial, is amiable throughout. Dorp eventually came back to Erasmus' fold, after an intercession by Thomas More.

The document that follows is the showpiece of the volume, and by far its longest item: Erasmus' response to a dialogue of 1519 by Jacobus Latomus, De trium linguarum et studii theologici ratione. Latomus' work and Erasmus' reply were incident to the establishment of the controversial Collegium Trilingue (Latin, Greek, Hebrew) at the University of Louvain, through a bequest of 1517 from Erasmus' wealthy friend, Jérôme de Busleyden. This Collegium quickly became an academic battlefield, with issues that still resound among us: primarily (in addition to power struggles, empire-building, and professional jealousy) the humanistic educational principles of Erasmus, as opposed to the narrow traditional views of the entrenched philistine majority. Latomus actually considered the teaching of Greek and Hebrew to students of theology pernicious rather than beneficial. It is true that Erasmus' concern was for accurate study of the ancient languages and literature in the service of theology; still, many of the points he makes could well be adapted to a modern context by embattled teachers of the humanities today. Much of the work reads like a treasure trove of sententiae, in flawless Latin. Martin Lowry's excellent translation conveys this aspect of it admirably.

In the next document (also 1519) Erasmus defended his De laude matrimonii (published in 1518 but written many years before) against a gratuitous, humiliating, and ignorant public denunciation by Jan Briart, dean of the faculty of theology at Louvain. Again Erasmus' tone could be called rather mild and gentle, considering the provocation. Noting that Briart had not even read the work in question, "since he was occupied with more serious concerns," Erasmus magnanimously concluded that whoever had misinformed Briart about the work had done as much of a disservice to Briart as to Erasmus himself.

The few brief documents in this volume that deal directly with Luther date from 1520 and 1521, the period of his excommunication. They have all been variously attributed: to Luther himself, to Ulrich Zwingli, to Johannes Faber, but most plausibly to Erasmus. They are: Acta Academiae Lovaniensis contra Lutherum, a satirical attack on the excommunication itself and on the circumstances of its promulgation; Axiomata (translated, "Brief Notes") pro causa Martini Lutheri, suggesting lines of defense for Luther against the consequences of his excommunication; and Consilium (translated, "Minute") pro christianae religionis tranquillitate, a plea for moderation in the proceedings against Luther, destined to be subverted by Luther's own actions. Up to this point, Erasmus successfully avoided either committing himself fully to Luther's cause, or aligning himself unambiguously with Luther's opponents. The result was that for the rest of his life he would be assailed equally by both sides. There will be a great deal of repetitiveness in the CWE volumes of Controversies yet to come.

The volume concludes with Manifesta mendacia, translated and annotated by Erika Rummel, the most intriguing item in the volume. Manifesta mendacia is Erasmus' reply to a work that was published in 1525 under the pseudonym of "Godefridus Ruysius Taxander." The work attacked Erasmus for his views on confession, fasting, celibacy, the veneration of saints, and other matters, and accused him of complicity with Luther and of influencing Luther's doctrines. Erasmus recognized this as, in part, the work of an inept old antagonist, the Dominican Vincentius Theoderici. He prepared a response, in the form of a running commentary on Taxander's bad arguments, with incidental reference to his bad Latin. It was never published, for reasons which can only be surmised. Erasmus' autograph of his comments came to light in the Royal Library at Copenhagen as recently as 1966. It was identified by Rummel and published in Nederlands Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenis, Vol. 70 (1990), pp. 210-29. She also prepared a descriptive account of the work for Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 43 (1990), pp. 731-43. A facsimile of a page of Manifesta mendacia is provided in CWE. It amply substantiates Rummel's observation that the work "languished in obscurity" for years after its discovery "because Erasmus' scrawl is difficult to decipher." Now we have her expert and readable translation easily available, thanks to CWE.

A few editorial slips are to be noted. Most of them are of little consequence, involving failure to coordinate among the various contributors. There is a certain amount of superfluous repetition between Sowards' general introduction and the translators' introductions to the individual items. Briart appears as Jan in the text, but as Jean in the index; and part of Taxander's name appears once as Ruysius and once as Reuysius. One error of some moment is the statement on page 36, coming at the end of a rather confusing chronological account, that Erasmus completed his Apology against Latomus on 28 March 1518, and that this is the very date of his first personal letter from Luther. The correct date for both these documents is 28 March 1519 (p. 84; CWE Vol. 6, Ep. 933). The fact that the date of Luther's letter is also given wrong in the article about him in Contemporaries of Erasmus should give no comfort to anyone. We are dealing here with important events and relationships whose vicissitudes can sometimes be tracked on an almost day-by-day basis, and accuracy counts.

Such cavils aside, it is fitting to conclude that, overall, Erasmus continues to be very well served by his devoted adherents in Toronto. As it is, having completed and dispatched the above review, I must now add, based on information received in a letter of July, 1993, from Ron Schoeffel, Chairman of the Executive Committee of CWE, the lugubrious notice that the grant for the publication of CWE has been discontinued by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada. The University of Toronto Press plans to draw on its own resources to continue publishing CWE for one more year, in the hope that funding will be restored by the Council, but the outlook appears to be bleak. Schoeffel's letter continues: What can be done? one extremely valuable form of support that you can offer is to write in as strongly worded terms as possible to Dr. Paule Leduc, Director, the Canada Council, 99 Metcalfe St, PO Box 1047, Ottawa, Ontario Canada K1P 5V8 and register your protest at this precipitous action. If you can also organize support from your colleagues, your institution, and others, this will be of enormous assistance to us as we work to alter the situation. This final suggestion is precisely what I hope to implement by appending this statement to my review.