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The University of Paris was, more than any other place in Christendom, the scene of the collision and struggle of opinions and parties. University life in the Middle Ages was in general tumultuous and agitated. The forms of scientific intercourse themselves entailed an element of irritability: never-ending disputations, frequent elections and rowdyism of the students. To those were added old and new quarrels of all sorts of orders, schools and groups. The different colleges contended among themselves, the secular clergy were at variance with the regular. The Thomists and the Scotists, together called the Ancients, had been disputing at Paris for half a century with the Terminists, or Moderns, the followers of Ockam and Buridan. In 1482 some sort of peace was concluded between those two groups. Both schools were on their last legs, stuck fast in sterile technical disputes, in systematizing and subdividing, a method of terms and words by which science and philosophy benefited no longer. The theological colleges of the Dominicans and Franciscans at Paris were declining; theological teaching was taken over by the secular colleges of Navarre and Sorbonne, but in the old style.

The general traditionalism had not prevented humanism from penetrating Paris also during the last quarter of the fifteenth century. Refinement of Latin style and the taste for classic poetry here, too, had their fervent champions, just as revived Platonism, which had sprung up in Italy. The Parisian humanists were partly Italians as Girolamo Balbi and Fausto Andrelini, but at that time a Frenchman was considered to be their leader, Robert Gaguin, general of the order of the Mathurins or Trinitarians, diplomatist, French poet and humanist. Side by side with the new Platonism a clearer understanding of Aristotle penetrated, which had also come from Italy. Shortly before Erasmus’s arrival Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples had returned from Italy, where he had visited the Platonists, such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Ermolao Barbaro, the reviver of Aristotle. Though theoretical theology and philosophy generally were conservative at Paris, yet here as well as elsewhere movements to reform the Church were not wanting. The authority of Jean Gerson, the University’s great chancellor (about 1400), had not yet been forgotten. But reform by no means meant inclination to depart from the doctrine of the Church; it aimed, in the first place, at restoration and purification of the monastic orders and afterwards at the extermination of abuses which the Church acknowledged and lamented as existing within its fold. In that spirit of reformation of spiritual life the Dutch movement of the devotio moderna had recently begun to make itself felt, also, at Paris. The chief of its promoters was John Standonck of Mechlin, educated by the brethren of the Common Life at Gouda and imbued with their spirit in its most rigorous form. He was an ascetic more austere than the spirit of the Windesheimians, strict indeed but yet moderate, required; far beyond ecclesiastical circles his name was proverbial on account of his abstinence he had definitely denied himself the use of meat. As provisor of the college of Montaigu he had instituted the most stringent rules there, enforced by chastisement for the slightest faults. To the college he had annexed a home for poor scholars, where they lived in a semi-monastic community.

To this man Erasmus had been recommended by the Bishop of Cambray. Though he did not join the community of poor students he was nearly thirty years old he came to know all the privations of the system. They embittered the earlier part of his stay at Paris and instilled in him a deep, permanent aversion to abstinence and austerity. Had he come to Paris for this to experience the dismal and depressing influences of his youth anew in a more stringent form?

The purpose for which Erasmus went to Paris was chiefly to obtain the degree of doctor of theology. This was not too difficult for him: as a regular he was exempt from previous study in the faculty of arts, and his learning and astonishing intelligence and energy enabled him to prepare in a short time for the examinations and disputations required. Yet he did not attain this object at Paris. His stay, which with interruptions lasted, first till 1499, to be continued later, became to him a period of difficulties and exasperations, of struggle to make his way by all the humiliating means which at the time were indispensable to that end; of dawning success, too, which, however, failed to gratify him.

The first cause of his reverses was a physical one; he could not endure the hard life in the college of Montaigu. The addled eggs and squalid bedrooms stuck in his memory all his life; there he thinks he contracted the beginnings of his later infirmity. In the Colloquia he has commemorated with abhorrence Standonck’s system of abstinence, privation and chastisement. For the rest his stay there lasted only until the spring of 1496.

Meanwhile he had begun his theological studies. He attended lectures on the Bible and on the Book of the Sentences, the medieval handbook of theology and still the one most frequently used. He was even allowed to give some lessons in the college on Holy Scripture. He preached a few sermons in honour of the Saints, probably in the neighbouring abbey of St. Genevieve. But his heart was not in all this. The subtleties of the schools could not please him. That aversion to all scholasticism, which he rejected in one sweeping condemnation, struck root in his mind, which, however broad, always judged unjustly that for which it had no room. ’Those studies can make a man opinionated and contentious; can they make him wise? They exhaust the mind by a certain jejune and barren subtlety, without fertilizing or inspiring it. By their stammering and by the stains of their impure style they disfigure theology which had been enriched and adorned by the eloquence of the ancients. They involve everything whilst trying to resolve everything.’ ‘Scotist’, with Erasmus, became a handy epithet for all schoolmen, nay, for everything superannuated and antiquated. He would rather lose the whole of Scotus than Cicero’s or Plutarch’s works. These he feels the better for reading, whereas he rises from the study of scholasticism frigidly disposed towards true virtue, but irritated into a disputatious mood.

It would, no doubt, have been difficult for Erasmus to find in the arid traditionalism which prevailed in the University of Paris the heyday of scholastic philosophy and theology. From the disputations which he heard in the Sorbonne he brought back nothing but the habit of scoffing at doctors of theology, or as he always ironically calls them by their title of honour: Magistri nostri. Yawning, he sat among ’those holy Scotists’ with their wrinkled brows, staring eyes, and puzzled faces, and on his return home he writes a disrespectful fantasy to his young friend Thomas Grey, telling him how he sleeps the sleep of Epimenides with the divines of the Sorbonne. Epimenides awoke after his forty-seven years of slumber, but the majority of our present theologians will never wake up. What may Epimenides have dreamt? What but subtleties of the Scotists: quiddities, formalities, etc.! Epimenides himself was reborn in Scotus, or rather, Epimenides was Scotus’s prototype. For did not he, too, write theological books, in which he tied such syllogistic knots as he would never have been able to loosen? The Sorbonne preserves Epimenides’s skin written over with mysterious letters, as an oracle which men may only see after having borne the title of Magister noster for fifteen years.

It is not a far cry from caricatures like these to the Sorbonistres and the Barbouillamenta Scoti of Rabelais. ‘It is said’, thus Erasmus concludes his boutade, ’that no one can understand the mysteries of this science who has had the least intercourse with the Muses or the Graces. All that you have learned in the way of bonae literae has to be unlearned first; if you have drunk of Helicon you must first vomit the draught. I do my utmost to say nothing according to the Latin taste, and nothing graceful or witty; and I am already making progress, and there is hope that one day they will acknowledge Erasmus.’

It was not only the dryness of the method and the barrenness of the system which revolted Erasmus. It was also the qualities of his own mind, which, in spite of all its breadth and acuteness, did not tend to penetrate deeply into philosophical or dogmatic speculations. For it was not only scholasticism that repelled him; the youthful Platonism and the rejuvenated Aristotelianism taught by Lefevre d’Etaples also failed to attract him. For the present he remained a humanist of aesthetic bias, with the substratum of a biblical and moral disposition, resting mainly on the study of his favourite Jerome. For a long time to come Erasmus considered himself, and also introduced himself, as a poet and an orator, by which latter term he meant what we call a man of letters.

Immediately on arriving at Paris he must have sought contact with the headquarters of literary humanism. The obscure Dutch regular introduced himself in a long letter (not preserved) full of eulogy, accompanied by a much-laboured poem, to the general, not only of the Trinitarians but, at the same time, of Parisian humanists, Robert Gaguin. The great man answered very obligingly: ’From your lyrical specimen I conclude that you are a scholar; my friendship is at your disposal; do not be so profuse in your praise, that looks like flattery’. The correspondence had hardly begun when Erasmus found a splendid opportunity to render this illustrious personage a service and, at the same time, in the shadow of his name, make himself known to the reading public. The matter is also of importance because it affords us an opportunity, for the first time, to notice the connection that is always found between Erasmus’s career as a man of letters and a scholar and the technical conditions of the youthful art of printing.

Gaguin was an all-round man and his Latin text-book of the history of France, De origine et gestis Francorum Compendium, was just being printed. It was the first specimen of humanistic historiography in France. The printer had finished his work on 30 September 1495, but of the 136 leaves, two remained blank. This was not permissible according to the notions of that time. Gaguin was ill and could not help matters. By judicious spacing the compositor managed to fill up folio 135 with a poem by Gaguin, the colophon and two panegyrics by Faustus Andrelinus and another humanist. Even then there was need of matter, and Erasmus dashed into the breach and furnished a long commendatory letter, completely filling the superfluous blank space of folio 136. In this way his name and style suddenly became known to the numerous public which was interested in Gaguin’s historical work, and at the same time he acquired another title to Gaguin’s protection, on whom the exceptional qualities of Erasmus’s diction had evidently not been lost. That his history would remain known chiefly because it had been a stepping stone to Erasmus, Gaguin could hardly have anticipated.

Although Erasmus had now, as a follower of Gaguin, been introduced into the world of Parisian humanists, the road to fame, which had latterly begun to lead through the printing press, was not yet easy for him. He showed the Antibarbari to Gaguin, who praised them, but no suggestion of publication resulted. A slender volume of Latin poems by Erasmus was published in Paris in 1496, dedicated to Hector Boys, a Scotchman, with whom he had become acquainted at Montaigu. But the more important writings at which he worked during his stay in Paris all appeared in print much later.

While intercourse with men like Robert Gaguin and Faustus Andrelinus might be honourable, it was not directly profitable. The support of the Bishop of Cambray was scantier than he wished. In the spring of 1496 he fell ill and left Paris. Going first to Bergen, he had a kind welcome from his patron, the bishop; and then, having recovered his health, he went on to Holland to his friends. It was his intention to stay there, he says. The friends themselves, however, urged him to return to Paris, which he did in the autumn of 1496. He carried poetry by William Hermans and a letter from this poet to Gaguin. A printer was found for the poems and Erasmus also brought his friend and fellow-poet into contact with Faustus Andrelinus.

The position of a man who wished to live by intellectual labour was far from easy at that time and not always dignified. He had either to live on church prebends or on distinguished patrons, or on both. But such a prebend was difficult to get and patrons were uncertain and often disappointing. The publishers paid considerable copy-fees only to famous authors. As a rule the writer received a number of copies of his work and that was all. His chief advantage came from a dedication to some distinguished personage, who could compliment him for it with a handsome gift. There were authors who made it a practice to dedicate the same work repeatedly to different persons. Erasmus has afterwards defended himself explicitly from that suspicion and carefully noted how many of those whom he honoured with a dedication gave nothing or very little.

The first need, therefore, to a man in Erasmus’s circumstances was to find a Maecenas. Maecenas with the humanists was almost synonymous with paymaster. Under the adage Ne bös quidem pereat Erasmus has given a description of the decent way of obtaining a Maecenas. Consequently, when his conduct in these years appears to us to be actuated, more than once, by an undignified pushing spirit, we should not gauge it by our present standards. These were his years of weakness.

On his return to Paris he did not again lodge in Montaigu. He tried to make a living by giving lessons to young men of fortune. A merchant’s sons of Luebeck, Christian and Henry Northoff, who lodged with one Augustine Vincent, were his pupils. He composed beautiful letters for them, witty, fluent and a trifle scented. At the same time he taught two young Englishmen, Thomas Grey and Robert Fisher, and conceived such a doting affection for Grey as to lead to trouble with the youth’s guardian, a Scotchman, by whom Erasmus was excessively vexed.

Paris did not fail to exercise its refining influence on Erasmus. It made his style affectedly refined and sparkling he pretends to disdain the rustic products of his youth in Holland. In the meantime, the works through which afterwards his influence was to spread over the whole world began to grow, but only to the benefit of a few readers. They remained unprinted as yet. For the Northoffs was composed the little compendium of polite conversation (in Latin), Familiarium colloquiorum formulae, the nucleus of the world-famous Colloquia. For Robert Fisher he wrote the first draft of De conscribendis epistolis, the great dissertation on the art of letter-writing (Latin letters), probably also the paraphrase of Valla’s Elegantiae, a treatise on pure Latin, which had been a beacon-light of culture to Erasmus in his youth. De copia verborum ac rerum was also such a help for beginners, to provide them with a vocabulary and abundance of turns and expressions; and also the germs of a larger work: De ratione studii, a manual for arranging courses of study, lay in the same line.

It was a life of uncertainty and unrest. The bishop gave but little support. Erasmus was not in good health and felt continually depressed. He made plans for a journey to Italy, but did not see much chance of effecting them. In the summer of 1498 he again travelled to Holland and to the bishop. In Holland his friends were little pleased with his studies. It was feared that he was contracting debts at Paris. Current reports about him were not favourable. He found the bishop, in the commotion of his departure for England on a mission, irritable and full of complaints. It became more and more evident that he would have to look out for another patron. Perhaps he might turn to the Lady of Veere, Anna of Borselen, with whom his faithful and helpful friend Batt had now taken service, as a tutor to her son, in the castle of Tournehem, between Calais and Saint Omer.

Upon his return to Paris, Erasmus resumed his old life, but it was hateful slavery to him. Batt had an invitation for him to come to Tournehem, but he could not yet bear to leave Paris. Here he had now as a pupil the young Lord Mountjoy, William Blount. That meant two strings to his bow. Batt is incited to prepare the ground for him with Anna of Veere; William Hermans is charged with writing letters to Mountjoy, in which he is to praise the latter’s love of literature. ’You should display an erudite integrity, commend me, and proffer your services kindly. Believe me, William, your reputation, too, will benefit by it. He is a young man of great authority with his own folk; you will have some one to distribute your writings in England. I pray you again and again, if you love me, take this to heart.’

The visit to Tournehem took place at the beginning of 1499, followed by another journey to Holland. Henceforward Anna of Veere passed for his patroness. In Holland he saw his friend William Hermans and told him that he thought of leaving for Bologna after Easter. The Dutch journey was one of unrest and bustle; he was in a hurry to return to Paris, not to miss any opportunity which Mountjoy’s affection might offer him. He worked hard at the various writings on which he was engaged, as hard as his health permitted after the difficult journey in winter. He was busily occupied in collecting the money for travelling to Italy, now postponed until August. But evidently Batt could not obtain as much for him as he had hoped, and, in May, Erasmus suddenly gave up the Italian plan, and left for England with Mountjoy at the latter’s request.