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The lean years continued with Erasmus. His livelihood remained uncertain, and he had no fixed abode. It is remarkable that, in spite of his precarious means of support, his movements were ever guided rather by the care for his health than for his sustenance, and his studies rather by his burning desire to penetrate to the purest sources of knowledge than by his advantage. Repeatedly the fear of the plague drives him on: in 1500 from Paris to Orleans, where he first lodges with Augustine Caminade; but when one of the latter’s boarders falls ill, Erasmus moves. Perhaps it was the impressions dating from his youth at Deventer that made him so excessively afraid of the plague, which in those days raged practically without intermission. Faustus Andrelinus sent a servant to upbraid him in his name with cowardice: ’That would be an intolerable insult’, Erasmus answers, ’if I were a Swiss soldier, but a poet’s soul, loving peace and shady places, is proof against it’. In the spring of 1501 he leaves Paris once more for fear of the plague: ‘the frequent burials frighten me’, he writes to Augustine.

He travelled first to Holland, where, at Steyn, he obtained leave to spend another year outside the monastery, for the sake of study; his friends would be ashamed if he returned, after so many years of study, without having acquired some authority. At Haarlem he visited his friend William Hermans, then turned to the south, once again to pay his respects to the Bishop of Cambray, probably at Brussels. Thence he went to Veere, but found no opportunity to talk to his patroness. In July 1501, he subsided into quietness at the castle of Tournehem with his faithful friend Batt.

In all his comings and goings he does not for a moment lose sight of his ideals of study. Since his return from England he is mastered by two desires: to edit Jerome, the great Father of the Church, and, especially, to learn Greek thoroughly. ’You understand how much all this matters to my fame, nay, to my preservation,’ he writes (from Orleans towards the end of 1500) to Batt. But, indeed, had Erasmus been an ordinary fame and success hunter he might have had recourse to plenty of other expedients. It was the ardent desire to penetrate to the source and to make others understand that impelled him, even when he availed himself of these projects of study to raise a little money. ‘Listen,’ he writes to Batt, ’to what more I desire from you. You must wrest a gift from the abbot (of Saint Bertin). You know the man’s disposition; invent some modest and plausible reason for begging. Tell him that I purpose something grand, viz., to restore the whole of Jerome, however comprehensive he may be, and spoiled, mutilated, entangled by the ignorance of divines; and to re-insert the Greek passages. I venture to say, I shall be able to lay open the antiquities and the style of Jerome, understood by no one as yet. Tell him that I shall want not a few books for the purpose, and moreover the help of Greeks, and that therefore I require support. In saying this, Battus, you will be telling no lies. For I really mean to do all this.’

He was, indeed, in a serious mood on this point, as he was soon to prove to the world. His conquest of Greek was a veritable feat of heroism. He had learned the simplest rudiments at Deventer, but these evidently amounted to very little. In March, 1500, he writes to Batt: ’Greek is nearly killing me, but I have no time and I have no money to buy books or to take a master’. When Augustine Caminade wants his Homer back which he had lent to him, Erasmus complains: ’You deprive me of my sole consolation in my tedium. For I so burn with love for this author, though I cannot understand him, that I feast my eyes and re-create my mind by looking at him.’ Was Erasmus aware that in saying this he almost literally reproduced feelings which Petrarch had expressed a hundred and fifty years before? But he had already begun to study. Whether he had a master is not quite clear, but it is probable. He finds the language difficult at first. Then gradually he ventures to call himself ’a candidate in this language’, and he begins with more confidence to scatter Greek quotations through his letters. It occupies him night and day and he urges all his friends to procure Greek books for him. In the autumn of 1502 he declares that he can properly write all he wants in Greek, and that extempore. He was not deceived in his expectation that Greek would open his eyes to the right understanding of Holy Scripture. Three years of nearly uninterrupted study amply rewarded him for his trouble. Hebrew, which he had also taken up, he abandoned. At that time (1504) he made translations from the Greek, he employed it critically in his theological studies, he taught it, amongst others, to William Cop, the French physician-humanist. A few years later he was to find little in Italy to improve his proficiency in Greek; he was afterwards inclined to believe that he carried more of the two ancient languages to that country than he brought back.

Nothing testifies more to the enthusiasm with which Erasmus applied himself to Greek than his zeal to make his best friends share in its blessings. Batt, he decided, should learn Greek. But Batt had no time, and Latin appealed more to him. When Erasmus goes to Haarlem to visit William Hermans, it is to make him a Greek scholar too; he has brought a handbag full of books. But he had only his trouble for his pains. William did not take at all kindly to this study and Erasmus was so disappointed that he not only considered his money and trouble thrown away, but also thought he had lost a friend.

Meanwhile he was still undecided where he should go in the near future. To England, to Italy, or back to Paris? In the end he made a fairly long stay as a guest, from the autumn of 1501 till the following summer, first at Saint Omer, with the prior of Saint Bertin, and afterwards at the castle of Courtebourne, not far off.

At Saint Omer, Erasmus became acquainted with a man whose image he was afterwards to place beside that of Colet as that of a true divine, and of a good monk at the same time: Jean Vitrier, the warden of the Franciscan monastery at Saint Omer. Erasmus must have felt attracted to a man who was burdened with a condemnation pronounced by the Sorbonne on account of his too frank expressions regarding the abuses of monastic life. Vitrier had not given up the life on that account, but he devoted himself to reforming monasteries and convents. Having progressed from scholasticism to Saint Paul, he had formed a very liberal conception of Christian life, strongly opposed to practices and ceremonies. This man, without doubt, considerably influenced the origin of one of Erasmus’s most celebrated and influential works, the Enchiridion militis Christiani.

Erasmus himself afterwards confessed that the Enchiridion was born by chance. He did not reflect that some outward circumstance is often made to serve an inward impulse. The outward circumstance was that the castle of Tournehem was frequented by a soldier, a friend of Batt, a man of very dissolute conduct, who behaved very badly towards his pious wife, and who was, moreover, an uncultured and violent hater of priests. For the rest he was of a kindly disposition and excepted Erasmus from his hatred of divines. The wife used her influence with Batt to get Erasmus to write something which might bring her husband to take an interest in religion. Erasmus complied with the request and Jean Vitrier concurred so cordially with the views expressed in these notes that Erasmus afterwards elaborated them at Louvain; in 1504 they were published at Antwerp by Dirck Maertensz.

This is the outward genesis of the Enchiridion. But the inward cause was that sooner or later Erasmus was bound to formulate his attitude towards the religious conduct of the life of his day and towards ceremonial and soulless conceptions of Christian duty, which were an eyesore to him.

In point of form the Enchiridion is a manual for an illiterate soldier to attain to an attitude of mind worthy of Christ; as with a finger he will point out to him the shortest path to Christ. He assumes the friend to be weary of life at court a common theme of contemporary literature. Only for a few days does Erasmus interrupt the work of his life, the purification of theology, to comply with his friend’s request for instruction. To keep up a soldierly style he chooses the title, Enchiridion, the Greek word that even in antiquity meant both a poniard and a manual: ’The poniard of the militant Christian’. He reminds him of the duty of watchfulness and enumerates the weapons of Christ’s militia. Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. The general rules of the Christian conduct of life are followed by a number of remedies for particular sins and faults.

Such is the outward frame. But within this scope Erasmus finds an opportunity, for the first time, to develop his theological programme. This programme calls upon us to return to Scripture. It should be the endeavour of every Christian to understand Scripture in its purity and original meaning. To that end he should prepare himself by the study of the Ancients, orators, poets, philosophers; Plato especially. Also the great Fathers of the Church, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine will be found useful, but not the large crowd of subsequent exegetists. The argument chiefly aims at subverting the conception of religion as a continual observance of ceremonies. This is Judaic ritualism and of no value. It is better to understand a single verse of the psalms well, by this means to deepen one’s understanding of God and of oneself, and to draw a moral and line of conduct from it, than to read the whole psalter without attention. If the ceremonies do not renew the soul they are valueless and hurtful. ’Many are wont to count how many masses they have heard every day, and referring to them as to something very important, as though they owed Christ nothing else, they return to their former habits after leaving church.’ ’Perhaps you sacrifice every day and yet you live for yourself. You worship the saints, you like to touch their relics; do you want to earn Peter and Paul? Then copy the faith of the one and the charity of the other and you will have done more than if you had walked to Rome ten times.’ He does not reject formulae and practices; he does not want to shake the faith of the humble but he cannot suffer that Christ is offered a cult made up of practices only. And why is it the monks, above all, who contribute to the deterioration of faith? ’I am ashamed to tell how superstitiously most of them observe certain petty ceremonies, invented by puny human minds (and not even for this purpose), how hatefully they want to force others to conform to them, how implicitly they trust them, how boldly they condemn others.’

Let Paul teach them true Christianity. ’Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.’ This word to the Galatians contains the doctrine of Christian liberty, which soon at the Reformation was to resound so loudly. Erasmus did not apply it here in a sense derogatory to the dogmatics of the Catholic Church; but still it is a fact that the Enchiridion prepared many minds to give up much that he still wanted to keep.

The note of the Enchiridion is already what was to remain the note of Erasmus’s life-work: how revolting it is that in this world the substance and the shadow differ so and that the world révérences those whom it should not reverence; that a hedge of infatuation, routine and thoughtlessness prevents mankind from seeing things in their true proportions. He expresses it later in the Praise of Folly and in the Colloquies. It is not merely religious feeling, it is equally social feeling that inspired him. Under the heading: Opinions worthy of a Christian, he laments the extremes of pride of class, national hostility, professional envy, and rivalry between religious orders, which keep men apart. Let everybody sincerely concern himself about his brother. ’Throwing dice cost you a thousand gold pieces in one night, and meanwhile some wretched girl, compelled by poverty, sold her modesty; and a soul is lost for which Christ gave his own. You say, what is that to me? I mind my own business, according to my lights. And yet you, holding such opinions, consider yourself a Christian, who are not even a man!’

In the Enchiridion of the militant Christian, Erasmus had for the first time said the things which he had most at heart, with fervour and indignation, with sincerity and courage. And yet one would hardly say that this booklet was born of an irresistible impulse of ardent piety. Erasmus treats it, as we have seen, as a trifle, composed at the request of a friend in a couple of days stolen from his studies (though, strictly speaking, this only holds good of the first draft, which he elaborated afterwards). The chief object of his studies he had already conceived to be the restoration of theology. One day he will expound Paul, ’that the slanderers who consider it the height of piety to know nothing of bonae literae, may understand that we in our youth embraced the cultured literature of the Ancients, and that we acquired a correct knowledge of the two languages, Greek and Latin not without many vigils not for the purpose of vainglory or childish satisfaction, but because, long before, we premeditated adorning the temple of the Lord (which some have too much desecrated by their ignorance and barbarism) according to our strength, with help from foreign parts, so that also in noble minds the love of Holy Scripture may be kindled’. Is it not still the Humanist who speaks?

We hear, moreover, the note of personal justification. It is sounded also in a letter to Colet written towards the close of 1504, accompanying the edition of the Lucubrationes in which the Enchiridion was first published. ’I did not write the Enchiridion to parade my invention or eloquence, but only that I might correct the error of those whose religion is usually composed of more than Judaic ceremonies and observances of a material sort, and who neglect the things that conduce to piety.’ He adds, and this is typically humanistic, ’I have tried to give the reader a sort of art of piety, as others have written the theory of certain sciences’.

The art of piety! Erasmus might have been surprised had he known that another treatise, written more than sixty years before, by another canon of the Low Countries would continue to appeal much longer and much more urgently to the world than his manual: the Imitatio Christi by Thomas a Kempis.

The Enchiridion, collected with some other pieces into a volume of Lucubrationes, did not meet with such a great and speedy success as had been bestowed upon the Adagia. That Erasmus’s speculations on true piety were considered too bold was certainly not the cause. They contained nothing antagonistic to the teachings of the Church, so that even at the time of the Counter-Reformation, when the Church had become highly suspicious of everything that Erasmus had written, the divines who drew up the index expurgatorius of his work found only a few passages in the Enchiridion to expunge. Moreover, Erasmus had inserted in the volume some writings of unsuspected Catholic tenor. For a long time it was in great repute, especially with theologians and monks. A famous preacher at Antwerp used to say that a sermon might be found in every page of the Enchiridion. But the book only obtained its great influence in wide cultured circles when, upheld by Erasmus’s world-wide reputation, it was available in a number of translations, English, Czech, German, Dutch, Spanish, and French. But then it began to fall under suspicion, for that was the time when Luther had unchained the great struggle. ’Now they have begun to nibble at the Enchiridion also, that used to be so popular with divines,’ Erasmus writes in 1526. For the rest it was only two passages to which the orthodox critics objected.