Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.04.04

István Bejczy, Erasmus and the Middle Ages: the Historical Consciousness of a Christian Humanist.   Leiden:  Brill, 2001.  Pp. xvii, 202.  ISBN 90-04-12218-4.  

William Barker (ed.), The Adages of Erasmus.   Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 2001.  Pp. li, 405.  ISBN 8020-4874-9.  ISBN 8020-7740-4.  

Reviewed by Simon Goldhill, King's College, Cambridge
Word count: 2103 words

Foucault may be a saint for some classicists, but if you wanted a patron for our field, Erasmus would walk it to canonization. He did more than any other person to make knowing ancient Greek the project of the Renaissance. He cajoled his colleagues, wrote the books, demanded the learning, and fought the infighting that put Classics back on the map in the literate West. And like all good saints, he suffered for his passion. He was the most controversial scholar of the age: lambasted and revered in equal measure, at the heart of political, religious and educational reform, a fearsome and aggressive opponent as well as a loyal friend and scholarly genius. He was reviled and appropriated by both sides of the bloody battles of the Reformation. (I, for one, wouldn't want the patron saint of Classics to be boring, and certainly not a scholar stuck in the library...) Yet for all the recent fascination with the so-called Classical Tradition, Erasmus has not yet been recuperated as the hero he is. At least, in most Classics departments around the world, even those that love their Wilamowitz or teach their Mussolini, you would be hard pushed to find scholars at home with what Erasmus wrote -- neither the extraordinary self-fashioning of the more than 3000 published letters, nor the polemics of why 'sermo' is a better translation than 'verbum' in the first line of the Gospel of John, nor the brilliant satire of Praise of Folly, nor the works that defined the imaginary of the Renaissance -- the Adages, the Education of a Christian Prince, the commentaries and paraphrases of the Gospels -- which were so important that every Christian cleric in England below the level of Doctor of Divinity was required by law to own them, and every church in the country had to place them next to the Bible in Church. Despite the collective poor memory of our subject, Erasmus is a truly defining figure in the history of Classics.1

There is, mind you, a continuing and impressive scholarly tradition on Erasmus (largely outside the institutional frame of Classics), which has often written brilliantly both on individual works and on the impact of Erasmus on his historical moment in religion, education, and scholarship. Even here, however, the shift away from an adequate level of classical learning in contemporary Renaissance departments has had a dire effect, especially when so many of Erasmus' works (let alone the works of his contemporaries) are still untranslated, or in inadequate editions: the quite outstanding edition of the Letters of Erasmus by P. S. Allen is indispensible but impossible to use for those without very good Latin. The masterly Toronto translation of the Collected Works is as yet far from being finished.

It is within this long tradition that István Bejczy's Erasmus and the Middle Ages is firmly placed (it is no introduction for classicists, for sure). But the overall argument of the book, if not all the detail, should be of interest to the classicist. Bejczy dedicates his book to Erika Rummel, who has herself done a great deal of the basic research necessary to explore the interaction of Erasmus and the ancient world,2 and he has clearly benefited from her work. Looking at Erasmus' idea of history is not new,3 but Bejczy takes a new and stimulating line of argument, not least because his interest in historical consciousness -- as indicated by the book's subtitle -- leads him to consider how Renaissance scholars self-consciously distanced themselves from the scholastic tradition of the Middle Ages in their turn back to the glories of antiquity. The questions Bejczy wishes to pose are 'To what degree did Erasmus need to destroy the tradition of Medieval scholarship to construct humanism with its passion for the Classics?' and 'what, then, is Erasmus' view of human development?' Bejczy wants to uncover a 'fault-line between the basic assumptions of Erasmus' Christian Humanism and his view of the actual development of humanity through the ages' (xv).

Erasmus is not often a comfortable read for a medievalist. He regularly assaults the scholarship and aims of Scholasticism with the full armoury of Renaissance abuse. He is astonished, he laughs, he despairs in the face of the incompetence, barbarism, stupidity and even malice of these earlier scholars and theologians. He profers humiliating dismissals of their lack of knowledge (especially of Greek), and scorns the triviality and formalism of their questions. (As every medievalist knows, the glories of the Renaissance were built by making ruins of medieval edifices.) Bejczy looks first in general at Erasmus' view of history and his discovery of a golden age in the classical past, with a giant of the Christian period, Jerome, at its culmination. Then in three central chapters he looks at how Erasmus views first the monastic period of medieval culture; secondly, the scholastic period of medieval theology in particular; and, thirdly, how this view of medievalism contrasts with the Golden Age of the more distant past. These chapters show to what degree the familiar privileging of the Classics -- as The Classics -- depends on a particular rhetorical and intellectual construction of history's development, which in turn depends on the denigration of the very men who preserved the classics for us. Seeing how the construction of the Classics as a paradigm constructs -- and is complicit with -- a particular version of Christianizing history should be an important thought for those engaged in studying the Classical Tradition elsewhere.

Bejczy's final two chapters move in a slightly different direction, however. First, he looks at Erasmus' New Testament scholarship where he argues that Erasmus' opponents were right to suggest that Erasmus was innovating in Holy Scripture -- since, for Bejczy, the Vulgate's Latin is based on earlier authorities than the Byzantine or later Greek manuscripts which Erasmus favoured. 'Back to the Sources' -- the watchword of the humanists -- would have been better observed, claims Bejczy, had Erasmus used medieval scholarly procedures rather than pursuing classical ideals of 'good Greek' and 'good Latin'. This, in turn, leads in a final chapter to an attempt to see a more positive view of medieval culture in Erasmus. Erasmus' love of tradition meant that 'almost in spite of himself Erasmus came to respect the intellectual heritage of the Middle Ages, not for its own sake but as a necessary medium which had handed down the essentials of Christendom from the first centuries to the present'. The cyclical appeal of 'back to the sources' thus needs reconciling with the linear claims of tradition. I can see why Bejczy, as a medievalist, may wish to recoil from the more strident sides of Erasmus' view of the recent past, but I found this section of the book less coherently argued and based on far less solid evidence.

Bejczy's book is in a series entitled 'Studies in Intellectual History', and the conceptualization of his work is rigorously within one particular style of intellectual history. There is very little by way of discussion of the political and social polemics within which Erasmus lived and worked and little placement of Erasmus' concerns even against contemporary thinkers: Bejczy looks at Erasmus' writings largely as a hermetic unit. This extends to a systematic under-reading of the letters in particular. We are never offered a context for the letters (although their dating, addressees, and relation to contemporary events are crucial). So -- to take one literary example (and almost at random) -- Bejczy's comments that Erasmus charges Cassiodorus, the younger contemporary of Boethius [490-580 CE], 'with a lack of literary discipline', which he takes as an example of Erasmus' view of how and when literary sensibility declined ['the decline of literary culture...steadily continued']. This letter (2315 in Allen's edition, from 1530) is written as a reply and thanks to Jacopo Sadoleto, Bishop of Carpentras, who had sent him a little booklet, a commentary on a couple of Psalms. It is a huge letter (more than 300 lines, over 7 pages in Allen's close typeface), formally composed, which talks of Erasmus' own career in letters and particularly his polemics, as well as various ideas about literature; it sends back a commentary on Psalm 22; it talks about commentary, and compares the secondary sources used by Sadoleto. Erasmus does offer a less than laudatory remark on Cassiodorus' commentary on the Psalms. But in the same paragraph, Erasmus notes that he doesn't know about the Hesychius, commentator on the Psalms, cited by Sadoleto; and also refers to Hilarius, Origen, Pomerianus [who is John Bugenhagen, 1485-1558], Jerome, Bruno [of Carinthia, bishop of Wurtzburg, died 1045], Arnobius [4th century, whose commentary on the Psalms Erasmus had edited and published] (as well as Ambrosianus and Augustini scolia [which may be the Enarrationes?]). Erasmus makes brief comments on the value of the material in all these commentaries or on the use made of them. There is no sense of a history of decline, or even of comparative datings. It is more of a brief, critical, bibliographical note. Although Cassiodorus is briefly criticized, the context of this letter needs reading if the comment is to be appreciated. Extracting such critical remarks from their context within letters is typical of Bejczy's technique: he is not at all interested in the rhetorical performance of Erasmus, or in how the remarks of Erasmus which he isolates function, except as contributions to his intellectual history. This makes Erasmus a lot less interesting than he is and produces a clean and vacuum-packed history, when Erasmus' positions are much messier and dirtier than Bejczy allows.

Of all Erasmus' works perhaps the Adages reveals his distance from us most vividly -- and our need to reflect on that distance. The Adages is a fascinating project. It is hard to call it simply a book since it was continually composed and recomposed and republished over thirty years, changing in focus and attitude, with new passages added, sections extended, and editorial tinkering throughout. It is a textual critic's dream (or nightmare) -- and its production has been superbly studied by M.M. Phillips.4 The Adages collect and annotate Latin and Greek proverbs mostly from the ancient world. Erasmus adds commentary, citations of sources, and discussions. Sometimes the entry is no more than a few lines. Sometimes there are important essays. There were, by the final edition, some 4151 adages collected, and the whole takes up three fat volumes of the Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto, 1974-) vols 31-3, where they are translated by M.M. Phillips and R.A.B. Mynors -- one of the Classicists who did know a huge amount about Erasmus and his Latin! The Adages was very widely circulated and seems to have been used in the Renaissance by educated readers. The proverb was a central element of Renaissance rhetoric, and the ancient proverb was a repository of ancient wisdom. It is when we think about the use of such a huge and baggy text that our sense of reading falters. There is no obvious order to the material. No index, no subject headings nor groupings (as we have in Stobaeus, say). 'To fart in someone's face' is set next to 'One swallow does not make a summer', which is next to 'The blind leading the blind'. It is not clear why some entries prompt a flight of Erasmean rhetoric, others the briefest of notices. 'To exact tribute from the dead' prompts an essay of social criticism. 'To weep at your step-mother's funeral', the barest of glosses. It was a text which can be taken to have informed the imaginary of the Renaissance reader -- but it will not enter too many reading lists in Renaissance studies courses.

William Barker, Professor of English at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St John's has selected 119 adages, including all the longer essays and the introduction. The translations are all taken from the Collected Works and most of the notes are shortened versions of Mynors' excellent glosses. Each Adage has a brief prefatory paragraph, and the whole volume has a concise and informative introduction, which introduces the reader to the problem of the text of the Adages, its social and intellectual place, and something of the critical tradition on it. The volume is elegantly produced and a great fun introduction to this piece of Erasmus. What it cannot do -- and indeed has set out precisely to avoid -- is to capture the sheer scale and particularity of Erasmus' writing. But as extracts go, it is well chosen and pleasing to read. It may even help turn the occasional classical student towards this turning point in the history of Classics.

A treasure trove awaits.


1.   I had better come clean that my new book Who Needs Greek? (Cambridge University Press, 2002), which is just about to hit the shelves of all good bookshops, has one chapter which is all about Renaissance violence concerning Greek, and its hero is Erasmus. Saint Foucault is the title of a book by David Halperin.
2.   Especially Erasmus as a Translator of the Classics (1985); The Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance and Reformation (1995); and, perhaps less obviously, Erasmus' Annotations on the New Testament (1981).
3.   P. Bietenholz History and Biography in Erasmus of Rotterdam (Geneva, 1966); and, more generally, A. Buck ed. Humanismus und Historiographie (Weinheim, 1991); M. Jones-Davies ed. L'Histoire au temps de la Renaissance (Paris, 1995).
4.   M.M. Phillips The Adages of Erasmus (Cambridge, 1964).

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