Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.35


R.A.B Mynors (ed., trans.), Collected Works of Erasmus 34: Adages II.vii.1 - III.iii.100. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, l992. ISBN 0-8020-2831-4.


Reviewed by L.G. Kelly, University of Ottawa.

The well-turned allusion is a grace essential to Greek and Latin Classicism. Quintilian's discussions of ornatus in Institutes VIII and of figurae in Institutes IX depend for their effectiveness on the Roman consciousness of their literary and cultural tradition and on their own enjoyment of it. If the present was to be enriched by the past, not controlled by it, recourse to "wise saws and modern instances" so characteristic of classical writing had to cast a new and appropriate light on the context in which they were used. After Boethius this traditionalist aspect of Roman literature was redirected into specifically religious paths and echoes of the classics were taken from a very restricted list of authors. During the fifteen century one of the most important aspects of humanist teaching became the supplementing of allusion to the Fathers, the Bible, and the classical authors popular during the Middle Ages with the whole gamut of sayings known to the Ancients. The difference was that the Humanists had to teach their classical graces in a fashion much more comprehensively. They did it in the traditional Classical and medieval style with a wider range of authors: by the use of proverbial sayings and echoes of good writers classical and modern, schoolchildren between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries came to terms with the worlds of both their contemporaries and classical tradition. And not the least important of the tasks was relating one world to the other. It is no accident that humanist manuals of Latin and Greek composition proliferate in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Names that come to mind are Georgius Trapezuntius, Thomas Linacre and Lorenzo Valla. All of them, whether teaching the spoken or written language, make great play with proverbial sayings and literary echoes.

Erasmus is at the culmination of this tradition: his Adagiarum collectanea concentrates on the problem of supplying raw materials for teaching. His Adagia, like the Elegantiae of Valla, is hardly a teaching manual but more a thesaurus into which one could dip when necessary. It reached its final form in 1536, and it is this version which appears in the Opera omnia of 1540. The volume under review is the third of five volumes covering the Adagia in its final form. It is essentially a part of a whole. It was prepared just before his death by the late R.A.B Mynors and prepared for the press by Erika Rummel. Like the others uniform with it, it consists of an English translation of the Latin text, followed by Mynors's notes, a short bibliography of sources and numerical list of the Adages.

To really place this book in its context one has to read the introduction to the first set of adages, (vol. 32). Besides Erasmus's own explanation of the importance of his work, there is a very careful account of the place these snippets played in the language behaviour of the Renaissance classicist. This should be reread by those who use this volume: the vogue of proverbs has passed and we are these days inclined to accuse this vital resource of humanist teaching of preciosity. I have little to add to the reviews of the previous volumes in this set. As an index to Erasmus's influence on English literature and criticism, this edition takes a worthy place alongside the great sixteenth-century versions of Erasmus, like Chaloner's Praise of Folly and the many versions of the Colloquia. Mynors's translation is, as always, uniformly excellent. It is refreshingly free from Wardour Street English, if at times it is a little stiff. There is a very large number of impressively idiomatic and striking versions which reproduces Erasmus's own rather racy sense of language, for example:

To bring up the artillery when the war is over
(Machinas post bellum adferre. III.1.17)

Here, there and everywhere, a randy dog will find his pair.
(Complura masculi canis cubilia II.x.18)
Occasionally the English gloss does not quite fit with Erasmus's explanation, as in III.i.34: "Omni pede standum" does mean "You have to put your best foot forward", but Erasmus's explanation, with its idea of soldiers and wrestlers facing opponents, suggests rather the sense of standing firm.

To me the most useful part of this edition is its notes. Like his contemporaries, Erasmus can be infuriatingly casual in referencing authorities cited. I would assume that his period relied more on a well-stocked and accurate memory than we do. The notes trace the sources meticulously, and give an excellent picture of who Erasmus consulted. Second, the notes give some idea of the history of the text, useful if one is to try to trace Erasmus's evolution. And third they give an excellent exegesis of the Adagia.

This volume maintains the superb standard set by its predecessors. Most important it comes close to giving some of the sense of pleasure the Humanists took in this sort of literary harvest. I look forward to the completion of the edition.