James D. Tracy. Erasmus of the Low Countries. Berkeley, California: U of California P, 1996. ix+297 pp. ISBN 0 520 08745 3 Cloth.

Desiderius Erasmus. Colloquies. Translated and annotated by Craig R. Thompson. Collected Works of Erasmus, Vols. 39-40. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997. 2 vols. xlix+1227 pp. ISBN 0 8020 5819 1 Cloth.

Romuald Ian Lakowski

Lakowski, Romuald Ian. "Review of Erasmus of the Low Countries and Desiderius Erasmus: Colloquies." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.1 (May, 1998): 11.1-10 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-1/rev_lak3.html>.

  1. James D. Tracy's Erasmus of the Low Countries is a delight to read, and certainly one of the better biographies of Erasmus to appear in recent years (of which there have been many). Tracy, a Renaissance historian, who has published two books on the history of the Habsburg Netherlands and two earlier studies of Erasmus, locates Erasmus firmly within the historical and cultural context of the early modern Burgundian-Habsburg Low Countries (roughly equivalent to the modern Benelux region). Tracy's work compares favourably with the recent biography of Erasmus by the Dutch scholar Cornelis Augustijn, Erasmus: His Life, Works and Influence, though on the whole Tracy gives a much more optimistic interpretation to Erasmus' life than Augustijn does. Tracy's biography is divided into three sections: "Part I. Bonae Literae: The Making of a Low Countries Humanist, 1469-1511", "Part II. Philosophia Christi: Erasmus and the Reform of Doctrina, 1511-1522", and "Part III. Second Thoughts, 1521-1536".

  2. In Part I, Tracy begins by describing the highly corporate and urbanised society of the Burgundian Low Countries. In sharp contrast to many earlier scholars, including Craig R. Thompson, who portrayed Erasmus in very European and "cosmopolitan" terms, an image that Erasmus himself deliberately cultivated, Tracy emphasises how Erasmus' religious individualism "can best be understood as a reaction against the highly corporatist character of civil and religious life in his native provinces. Like many who have achieved fame, Erasmus bore the stamp of his homeland even in those areas where he differed from the common opinions of his countrymen" (3). In the course of his study, Tracy demonstrates how certain Burgundian or Netherlandish attitudes remained with Erasmus all his life. Much of Tracy's biography naturally focuses on Erasmus' voluminous literary output. In Part I, he devotes most attention to the Enchiridion (Handbook of the Christian Soldier) and the Praise of Folly as embodying Erasmus' Christian Neo-Platonic vision of Christian civility and its obverse.

  3. Part II focuses on Erasmus' career as a "Reformer of Doctrina." The Latin term encompasses both religious and theological reform on the one hand, and also the reform of "teaching" and the defence of bonae litterae on the other. Tracy locates Erasmus within the tradition of rhetorical theology embodied for example in St. Augustine's De doctrina Christiana, though he also notes Erasmus' ambivalence towards Augustine (55-57, 70-72, 151-154). After comparing Erasmus with three other humanist "reformers:" Lorenzo Valla, Juan Luis Vives and John Calvin, Tracy goes on to discuss Erasmus' middle period, especially his ideas on reform and his diagnosis of the evils of his own age, and his restatement or reformulation of the Evangelical doctrina of the Gospels as the Philosophia Christi, itself a Patristic term, and finally his call for the defence of Bonae Litterae (not only "fine letters" but also "careful scholarship.")

  4. Part III deals with Erasmus' complex and often stormy relationships with his conservative foes in the Catholic Church, which he never left, though highly critical of its corruption and abuses, especially among the religious orders. It also describes Erasmus' equally difficult relationships with his foes among the Protestant Reformers, whom he criticized for their violence and vehemence, and for their theological excesses, even while he continued to dialogue and correspond with them. After his account of Erasmus' polemical battles with his various theological opponents, Tracy then turns to deal with Erasmus' arguments for a limited religious toleration or concordia, and how this was frustrated by the increasing confessionalization that followed the Reformation. Then Tracy turns to the question of Erasmus' rhetorical dissimulatio, his use of deliberately ambiguous language in an a attempt to please both Catholics and Protestants, and of how this rhetorical strategy may have backfired on Erasmus. In his final Chapter, Tracy deals with Erasmus' complex relationships with his readers in different countries and ends with the example of Poland (191-203). Tracy sees Erasmus' support for Poland in both its dealings with the Habsburg Emperors and the Ottoman invaders of Hungary as partly reflecting Erasmus' own Burgundian suspicions of Habsburg plans for world domination.

  5. It is almost impossible to do justice to a writer as voluminous and varied as Erasmus in a single volume biography. Tracy's study will be appreciated most by those who are already Erasmus scholars. For those wishing an introduction to Erasmus, the best place is to start with Erasmus' own works, many of which have now been published in excellent modern English translations, together with compendious scholarly notes, by the University of Toronto Press. (Forty volumes have appeared so far, and almost fifty more are planned.) The latest of these is a double volume of over 1200 pages containing Erasmus' Colloquies.

  6. The Toronto translation of Erasmus' Colloquies is a revision of an earlier translation made by Craig R. Thompson, The Colloquies of Erasmus, some of which also appeared earlier in the Library of Liberal Arts Series as Ten Colloquies. Even before that, Thompson's earliest contribution to Erasmus scholarship consisted of an edition of one of the most important colloquies, the Inquisitio de Fide, together with an extensive introduction and notes. The Chicago translation contained brief introductions to the individual colloquies but no commentary, which Thompson had originally planned to publish in a second volume. The revised Toronto translation includes several hundred pages of annotations, making it almost double the size of the original Chicago edition. Thompson died before he could finish the edition, but the great bulk of the notes (the longest of which extend over several pages of fine print) obviously derive from his pen. The remaining annotations were supplied by individual members of the Editorial Board of the Collected Works of Erasmus, but only Thompson's name appears on the title page. A modern critical edition of the original Latin text, with introduction and notes in French, was published in the Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami, edited by L. E. Halkin, F. Bierlaire, and R. Hoven (reviewed by Thompson in Renaissance Quarterly 27 (1974): 196-198). A modern French translation by Étienne Wolff also exists: Érasme: Colloques, but it contains only the briefest of notes.

  7. The Familiarum colloquiorum formulae began as a very modest collection of formulae or patterns for polite conversation and good Latin writing that Erasmus compiled for his students in Paris (c.1497-1500) when he was eking out a precarious living as a tutor while studying scholastic theology at the Sorbonne. He lent a manuscript copy to a friend and fellow tutor in Paris, Augustinus Vincentius Caminadus, who despite repeated pleas refused to return it. Many years later Caminadus' manuscript was published in November 1518 in an unauthorized edition by Johan Froben (Basle) with a preface by Erasmus' friend Beatus Rhenanus, and was reprinted at least thirty times before March 1522. An "Authorized" edition emended by Erasmus was published in March 1519 by Dirk Martens (Antwerp). The 1518 Familiar Colloquies was a modest volume of 80 pages, most of which was included in the later revised editions from 1522 onwards. In Thompson's translation in the Collected Works of Erasmus [abbreviated CWE], this material can be found on pp. 5- 34 and pp. 118-170. In the 1522 edition some of this material was given a distinct title as "The Profane Feast" (132-163). It was followed by "A Short Rule for Copiousness" (164-170), which contains an early version of material expanded in the De Copia (1512), one of Erasmus' most important rhetorical works. The 1518/1519 formulae contain numerous examples of polite, idiomatic Latin greetings and conversational exchanges "with variations for greeting friends, inquiring after ordinary affairs of life, and making proper acknowledgments or replies required by social decorum" (xxiv-xxv). In addition, they also included short rudimentary dialogues. However, starting in 1522, this modest manual of Latin discourse went through an extraordinary transformation to become, eventually, one of the greatest masterpieces of Renaissance Neo-Latin literature.

  8. The Colloquies went through several major revisions and expansions in the course of Erasmus' lifetime. Beginning in 1522 Erasmus added new colloquies or dialogues to each new edition: eleven in the editions of 1522, ten more in 1523, and ten more in 1524 (all to be found in CWE 39); with further additions in 1526, 1527, 1529, 1531 and 1533 (in CWE 40). By the time of Erasmus' death in 1536, the work comprised some sixty odd colloquies and an appendix on "The Usefulness of the Colloquies." In its final form the Colloquies became a book of dialogues in the tradition of Plato, Lucian and Plutarch, Cicero, Augustine and Boethius. (Erasmus translated many of Lucian's and Plutarch's dialogues into Latin.) The Colloquies touch on almost every aspect of the society of Erasmus' day: a veritable Renaissance Canterbury Tales. While some of the shorter colloquies carry on the educational program of the original editions of 1518/1519, dealing with topics such as the education of youth, sport and recreation, many of the other longer colloquies deal with social and religious abuses, the beginnings of the Reformation conflicts, philosophical and philological questions, moral and political issues, marriage and the treatment of women.

  9. Some of the best of these longer colloquies are like one-act plays in their plotting, comparable with the best medieval mystery pageants and renaissance interludes, as Thompson writes: "The author had a dramatist's eye for situations and scenes, but what he writes are not dramas in any formal sense, for the action is recalled or implied or described; we "see" it or imagine it through the author's art in setting it forth within dialogue. None the less, like much good fiction it has the potentiality of being staged, of becoming theatre" (xxvii). Six of the colloquies are banquets or convivia (133), including "The Profane Feast," "The Godly Feast," "The Poetic Feast," "The Fabulous Feast," "A Feast of Many Courses," "The Sober Feast." Another ten deal with marriage and the treatment of women. The Marriage Group (256) consists of "Courtship," "The Girl with No Interest in Marriage," "The Repentant Girl," "Marriage," "The Young Man and the Harlot," "The Abbot and the Learned Lady," "The Epithalamium of Pieter Gillis," "The New Mother," "A Marriage in Name only," and "The Council of Women." Yet another group deals often very critically with corruption and abuses within the Church, especially within monasticism and the preaching friars. These include (cf. 283) "Rash Vows," "The Soldier and the Carthusian," "The Well-to-do Beggars," "The Shipwreck," "The Old Men's Chat," "The Abbot and the Learned Lady," "A Pilgrimage for Religion's Sake," "A Fish Diet," "The Funeral," "The Sermon," "The Seraphic Funeral," "The Girl with No Interest in Marriage." And at least one of the colloquies deals with issues raised by the Protestant Reformation: "An Examination concerning the Faith." (Here Thompson refers repeatedly in his notes to his own earlier 1950 edition of this colloquy.) However, no classification scheme can do justice to the richness and variety of topics covered in the Colloquies.

  10. Starting in Erasmus' own lifetime, numerous individual colloquies were translated into just about every different European vernacular, including even one into Old Irish. Both in the original Latin texts and through the various sixteenth and seventeenth century translations, Erasmus' Colloquies had a widespread influence on many later Renaissance writers including Shakespeare. Among Erasmus' literary works only the Praise of Folly has enjoyed greater fame. While not all of the colloquies can be considered great literature, many of them are delightfully witty exposés of the vices and virtues, follies and troubles of the men and women of Erasmus' own age. Together with Erasmus' Correspondence, which is also being translated by Toronto (eleven volumes have appeared so far), the Colloquies provide us with a view unparallelled in its richness and diversity of the life and times of early sixteenth century Europe. There is something there for anyone interested in the Renaissance period.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(LH, RGS, 10 June 1998)