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IN THE MONASTERY

1488-95

In his later life under the influence of the gnawing regret which his monkhood and all the trouble he took to escape from it caused him the picture of all the events leading up to his entering the convent became distorted in his mind. Brother Peter, to whom he still wrote in a cordial vein from Steyn, became a worthless fellow, even his evil spirit, a Judas. The schoolfellow whose advice had been decisive now appeared a traitor, prompted by self-interest, who himself had chosen convent-life merely out of laziness and the love of good cheer.

The letters that Erasmus wrote from Steyn betray no vestige of his deep-seated aversion to monastic life, which afterwards he asks us to believe he had felt from the outset. We may, of course, assume that the supervision of his superiors prevented him from writing all that was in his heart, and that in the depths of his being there had always existed the craving for freedom and for more civilized intercourse than Steyn could offer. Still he must have found in the monastery some of the good things that his schoolfellow had led him to expect. That at this period he should have written a ‘Praise of Monastic Life’, ’to please a friend who wanted to decoy a cousin’, as he himself says, is one of those naïve assertions, invented afterwards, of which Erasmus never saw the unreasonable quality.

He found at Steyn a fair degree of freedom, some food for an intellect craving for classic antiquity, and friendships with men of the same turn of mind. There were three who especially attracted him. Of the schoolfellow who had induced him to become a monk, we hear no more. His friends are Servatius Roger of Rotterdam and William Hermans of Gouda, both his companions at Steyn, and the older Cornelius Gerard of Gouda, usually called Aurelius (a quasi-latinization of Goudanus), who spent most of his time in the monastery of Lopsen, near Leyden. With them he read and conversed sociably and jestingly; with them he exchanged letters when they were not together.

Out of the letters to Servatius there rises the picture of an Erasmus whom we shall never find again a young man of more than feminine sensitiveness; of a languishing need for sentimental friendship. In writing to Servatius, Erasmus runs the whole gamut of an ardent lover. As often as the image of his friend presents itself to his mind tears break from his eyes. Weeping he re-reads his friend’s letter every hour. But he is mortally dejected and anxious, for the friend proves averse to this excessive attachment. ‘What do you want from me?’ he asks. ’What is wrong with you?’ the other replies. Erasmus cannot bear to find that this friendship is not fully returned. ’Do not be so reserved; do tell me what is wrong! I repose my hope in you alone; I have become yours so completely that you have left me naught of myself. You know my pusillanimity, which when it has no one on whom to lean and rest, makes me so desperate that life becomes a burden.’

Let us remember this. Erasmus never again expresses himself so passionately. He has given us here the clue by which we may understand much of what he becomes in his later years.

These letters have sometimes been taken as mere literary exercises; the weakness they betray and the complete absence of all reticence, seem to tally ill with his habit of cloaking his most intimate feelings which, afterwards, Erasmus never quite relinquishes. Dr. Allen, who leaves this question undecided, nevertheless inclines to regard the letters as sincere effusions, and to me they seem so, incontestably. This exuberant friendship accords quite well with the times and the person.

Sentimental friendships were as much in vogue in secular circles during the fifteenth century as towards the end of the eighteenth century. Each court had its pairs of friends, who dressed alike, and shared room, bed, and heart. Nor was this cult of fervent friendship restricted to the sphere of aristocratic life. It was among the specific characteristics of the devotio moderna, as, for the rest, it seems from its very nature to be inseparably bound up with pietism. To observe one another with sympathy, to watch and note each other’s inner life, was a customary and approved occupation among the brethren of the Common Life and the Windesheim monks. And though Steyn and Sion were not of the Windesheim congregation, the spirit of the devotio moderna was prevalent there.

As for Erasmus himself, he has rarely revealed the foundation of his character more completely than when he declared to Servatius: ’My mind is such that I think nothing can rank higher than friendship in this life, nothing should be desired more ardently, nothing should be treasured more jealously’. A violent affection of a similar nature troubled him even at a later date when the purity of his motives was questioned. Afterwards he speaks of youth as being used to conceive a fervent affection for certain comrades. Moreover, the classic examples of friends, Orestes and Pylades, Damon and Pythias, Theseus and Pirithous, as also David and Jonathan, were ever present before his mind’s eye. A young and very tender heart, marked by many feminine traits, replete with all the sentiment and with all the imaginings of classic literature, who was debarred from love and found himself placed against his wish in a coarse and frigid environment, was likely to become somewhat excessive in his affections.

He was obliged to moderate them. Servatius would have none of so jealous and exacting a friendship and, probably at the cost of more humiliation and shame than appears in his letters, young Erasmus resigns himself, to be more guarded in expressing his feelings in the future. The sentimental Erasmus disappears for good and presently makes room for the witty latinist, who surpasses his older friends, and chats with them about poetry and literature, advises them about their Latin style, and lectures them if necessary.

The opportunities for acquiring the new taste for classic antiquity cannot have been so scanty at Deventer, and in the monastery itself, as Erasmus afterwards would have us believe, considering the authors he already knew at this time. We may conjecture, also, that the books left by his father, possibly brought by him from Italy, contributed to Erasmus’s culture, though it would be strange that, prone as he was to disparage his schools and his monastery, he should not have mentioned the fact. Moreover, we know that the humanistic knowledge of his youth was not exclusively his own, in spite of all he afterwards said about Dutch ignorance and obscurantism. Cornelius Aurelius and William Hermans likewise possessed it.

In a letter to Cornelius he mentions the following authors as his poetic models Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Juvenal, Statius, Martial, Claudian, Persius, Lucan, Tibullus, Propertius. In prose he imitates Cicero, Quintilian, Sallust, and Terence, whose metrical character had not yet been recognized. Among Italian humanists he was especially acquainted with Lorenzo Valla, who on account of his Elegantiae passed with him for the pioneer of bonae literae; but Filelfo, Aeneas Sylvius, Guarino, Poggio, and others, were also not unknown to him. In ecclesiastical literature he was particularly well read in Jerome. It remains remarkable that the education which Erasmus received in the schools of the devotio moderna with their ultra-puritanical object, their rigid discipline intent on breaking the personality, could produce such a mind as he manifests in his monastic period the mind of an accomplished humanist. He is only interested in writing Latin verses and in the purity of his Latin style. We look almost in vain for piety in the correspondence with Cornelius of Gouda and William Hermans. They manipulate with ease the most difficult Latin metres and the rarest terms of mythology. Their subject-matter is bucolic or amatory, and, if devotional, their classicism deprives it of the accent of piety. The prior of the neighbouring monastery of Hem, at whose request Erasmus sang the Archangel Michael, did not dare to paste up his Sapphic ode: it was so ‘poetic’, he thought, as to seem almost Greek. In those days poetic meant classic. Erasmus himself thought he had made it so bald that it was nearly prose ’the times were so barren, then’, he afterwards sighed.

These young poets felt themselves the guardians of a new light amidst the dullness and barbarism which oppressed them. They readily believed each other’s productions to be immortal, as every band of youthful poets does, and dreamt of a future of poetic glory for Steyn by which it would vie with Mantua. Their environment of clownish, narrow-minded conventional divines for as such they saw them neither acknowledged nor encouraged them. Erasmus’s strong propensity to fancy himself menaced and injured tinged this position with the martyrdom of oppressed talent. To Cornelius he complains in fine Horatian measure of the contempt in which poetry was held; his fellow-monk orders him to let his pen, accustomed to writing poetry, rest. Consuming envy forces him to give up making verses. A horrid barbarism prevails, the country laughs at the laurel-bringing art of high-seated Apollo; the coarse peasant orders the learned poet to write verses. ’Though I had mouths as many as the stars that twinkle in the silent firmament on quiet nights, or as many as the roses that the mild gale of spring strews on the ground, I could not complain of all the evils by which the sacred art of poetry is oppressed in these days. I am tired of writing poetry.’ Of this effusion Cornelius made a dialogue which highly pleased Erasmus.

Though in this art nine-tenths may be rhetorical fiction and sedulous imitation, we ought not, on that account, to undervalue the enthusiasm inspiring the young poets. Let us, who have mostly grown blunt to the charms of Latin, not think too lightly of the elation felt by one who, after learning this language out of the most absurd primers and according to the most ridiculous methods, nevertheless discovered it in its purity, and afterwards came to handle it in the charming rhythm of some artful metre, in the glorious precision of its structure and in all the melodiousness of its sound.

Nec si quot placidis ignea noctibus
Scintillant tacito sydera culmine,
Nec si quot tepidum flante Favonio
Ver suffundit humo rosas,
Tot sint ora mihi...

Was it strange that the youth who could say this felt himself a poet? or who, together with his friend, could sing of spring in a Meliboean song of fifty distichs? Pedantic work, if you like, laboured literary exercises, and yet full of the freshness and the vigour which spring from the Latin itself.

Out of these moods was to come the first comprehensive work that Erasmus was to undertake, the manuscript of which he was afterwards to lose, to recover in part, and to publish only after many years the Antibarbari, which he commenced at Steyn, according to Dr. Allen. In the version in which eventually the first book of the Antibarbari appeared, it reflects, it is true, a somewhat later phase of Erasmus’s life, that which began after he had left the monastery; neither is the comfortable tone of his witty defence of profane literature any longer that of the poet at Steyn. But the ideal of a free and noble life of friendly intercourse and the uninterrupted study of the Ancients had already occurred to him within the convent walls.

In the course of years those walls probably hemmed him in more and more closely. Neither learned and poetic correspondence nor the art of painting with which he occupied himself, together with one Sasboud, could sweeten the oppression of monastic life and a narrow-minded, unfriendly environment. Of the later period of his life in the monastery, no letters at all have been preserved, according to Dr. Allen’s carefully considered dating. Had he dropped his correspondence out of spleen, or had his superiors forbidden him to keep it up, or are we merely left in the dark because of accidental loss? We know nothing about the circumstances and the frame of mind in which Erasmus was ordained on 25 April 1492, by the Bishop of Utrecht, David of Burgundy. Perhaps his taking holy orders was connected with his design to leave the monastery. He himself afterwards declared that he had but rarely read mass. He got his chance to leave the monastery when offered the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambray, Henry of Bergen. Erasmus owed this preferment to his fame as a Latinist and a man of letters; for it was with a view to a journey to Rome, where the bishop hoped to obtain a cardinal’s hat, that Erasmus entered his service. The authorization of the Bishop of Utrecht had been obtained, and also that of the prior and the general of the order. Of course, there was no question yet of taking leave for good, since, as the bishop’s servant, Erasmus continued to wear his canon’s dress. He had prepared for his departure in the deepest secrecy. There is something touching in the glimpse we get of his friend and fellow-poet, William Hermans, waiting in vain outside of Gouda to see his friend just for a moment, when on his way south he would pass the town. It seems there had been consultations between them as to leaving Steyn together, and Erasmus, on his part, had left him ignorant of his plans. William had to console himself with the literature that might be had at Steyn.

Erasmus, then twenty-five years old for in all probability the year when he left the monastery was 1493 now set foot on the path of a career that was very common and much coveted at that time: that of an intellectual in the shadow of the great. His patron belonged to one of the numerous Belgian noble families, which had risen in the service of the Burgundians and were interestedly devoted to the prosperity of that house. The Glimes were lords of the important town of Bergen-op-Zoom, which, situated between the River Scheldt and the Meuse delta, was one of the links between the northern and the southern Netherlands. Henry, the Bishop of Cambray, had just been appointed chancellor of the Order of the Golden Fleece, the most distinguished spiritual dignity at court, which although now Habsburg in fact, was still named after Burgundy. The service of such an important personage promised almost unbounded honour and profit. Many a man would under the circumstances, at the cost of some patience, some humiliation, and a certain laxity of principle, have risen even to be a bishop. But Erasmus was never a man to make the most of his situation.

Serving the bishop proved to be rather a disappointment. Erasmus had to accompany him on his frequent migrations from one residence to another in Bergen, Brussels, or Mechlin. He was very busy, but the exact nature of his duties is unknown. The journey to Rome, the acme of things desirable to every divine or student, did not come off. The bishop, although taking a cordial interest in him for some months, was less accommodating than he had expected. And so we shortly find Erasmus once more in anything but a cheerful frame of mind. ‘The hardest fate,’ he calls his own, which robs him of all his old sprightliness. Opportunities to study he has none. He now envies his friend William, who at Steyn in the little cell can write beautiful poetry, favoured by his ‘lucky stars’. It befits him, Erasmus, only to weep and sigh; it has already so dulled his mind and withered his heart that his former studies no longer appeal to him. There is rhetorical exaggeration in this and we shall not take his pining for the monastery too seriously, but still it is clear that deep dejection had mastered him. Contact with the world of politics and ambition had probably unsettled Erasmus. He never had any aptitude for it. The hard realities of life frightened and distressed him. When forced to occupy himself with them he saw nothing but bitterness and confusion about him. ’Where is gladness or repose? Wherever I turn my eyes I only see disaster and harshness. And in such a bustle and clamour about me you wish me to find leisure for the work of the Muses?’

Real leisure Erasmus was never to find during his life. All his reading, all his writing, he did hastily, tumultuarie, as he calls it repeatedly. Yet he must nevertheless have worked with intensest concentration and an incredible power of assimilation. Whilst staying with the bishop he visited the monastery of Groenendael near Brussels, where in former times Ruysbroeck wrote. Possibly Erasmus did not hear the inmates speak of Ruysbroeck and he would certainly have taken little pleasure in the writings of the great mystic. But in the library he found the works of St. Augustine and these he devoured. The monks of Groenendael were surprised at his diligence. He took the volumes with him even to his bedroom.

He occasionally found time to compose at this period. At Halsteren, near Bergen-op-Zoom, where the bishop had a country house, he revised the Antibarbari, begun at Steyn, and elaborated it in the form of a dialogue. It would seem as if he sought compensation for the agitation of his existence in an atmosphere of idyllic repose and cultured conversation. He conveys us to the scene (he will afterwards use it repeatedly) which ever remained the ideal pleasure of life to him: a garden or a garden house outside the town, where in the gladness of a fine day a small number of friends meet to talk during a simple meal or a quiet walk, in Platonic serenity, about things of the mind. The personages whom he introduces, besides himself, are his best friends. They are the valued and faithful friend whom he got to know at Bergen, James Batt, schoolmaster and afterwards also clerk of that town, and his old friend William Hermans of Steyn, whose literary future he continued somewhat to promote. William, arriving unexpectedly from Holland, meets the others, who are later joined by the Burgomaster of Bergen and the town physician. In a lightly jesting, placid tone they engage in a discussion about the appreciation of poetry and literature Latin literature. These are not incompatible with true devotion, as barbarous dullness wants us to believe. A cloud of witnesses is there to prove it, among them and above all St. Augustine, whom Erasmus had studied recently, and St. Jerome, with whom Erasmus had been longer acquainted and whose mind was, indeed, more congenial to him. Solemnly, in ancient Roman guise, war is declared on the enemies of classic culture. O ye Goths, by what right do you occupy, not only the Latin provinces (the disciplinae liberales are meant) but the capital, that is Latinity itself?

It was Batt who, when his prospects with the Bishop of Cambray ended in disappointment, helped to find a way out for Erasmus. He himself had studied at Paris, and thither Erasmus also hoped to go, now that Rome was denied him. The bishop’s consent and the promise of a stipend were obtained and Erasmus departed for the most famous of all universities, that of Paris, probably in the late summer of 1495. Batt’s influence and efforts had procured him this lucky chance.