« PreviousContinue »
are familiarly cited; the Latin are entirely at his command. Some proverbs were added by later writers; some of his conjectural interpretations of abstruse sayings have been corrected, but with all its defects it remains a monument of very marvellous industry. The reception of this work displays no less the passion for that kind of learning, and the homage paid in all quarters to its author. The first edition, avowedly imperfect, was printed at Paris in 1500. It was followed by two at Strasburg ; it was reprinted by Erasmus himself, in a more full and complete form at Venice, in 1508. This edition was imitated, without the knowledge of Erasmus, by Frobenius, afterwards his dear friend, at Basil. Seven editions followed with great rapidity, bearing the fame of the author to every part of Christendom, which was now eager for the cultivation of classical learning.
II. Erasmus was no less the declared opponent, and took great part in the discomfiture of scholasticism, and of the superstitions of the middle ages.
At length Erasmus, that great injured name
Pope's wild torrent'is not a very happy illustration of the scholasticism which had so long oppressed the teaching of Europe—a stagnant morass' or an “impenetrable jungle 'had been a more apt similitude. Few, however, did more to emancipate the human mind from the Thomism and the Scotism, the pseudo-Aristotelism, which ruled and wrangled in all the schools of Europe. Erasmus fell in, in this respect, with the impatience and the ardent aspirations of all who yearned for better days. In Italy the yoke was already broken : the monks, especially on this side of the Alps, fought hard in their cloistral schools and in the universities, in which they had still the supremacy. But the new universities, the schools founded especially in England out of the monasteries suppressed by Wolsey, or out of ecclesiastical wealth, as by Bishop Fox, or by Colet, who hated scholasticism as bitterly as Erasmus, were open to the full light of the new teaching. Erasmus served the good cause in two ways; by exposing its barrenness and uselessness in his serious as well as in his satirical writings, and by supplying the want of more simple, intelligible, and profitable manuals of education. Against the superstitions of the age, the earlier writings of Erasmus are a constant grave or comic protest, though he was not himself always superior to such weaknesses. In his younger days he had attributed his recovery from a dangerous illness to the intercession of St. Genoveva, to whom he addressed an ode. The saint, it is true, was aided by William Cope, the most skilful physician in Paris. When at Cambridge he made a pilgrimage—it may have been from curiosity rather than faith—to our Lady at Walsingham. But his later and more mature opinions he either cared not, or was unable, to disguise. The monks, the authors and supporters of these frauds, are not the objects of his wit alone, but of his solemn, deliberate invective. Severe argument, however, and bitter, serious satire had been heard before, and fallen on comparatively unheeding ears; it was the lighter and more playful wit of Erasmus which threw even the most jealous off their guard, and enabled him to say things with impunity which in graver form had awakened fierce indignation. Even the sternest bigots, if they scented the danger, did not venture to proscribe the works which all Christendom, as yet unfrightened, received with unchecked and unsuspecting mirth. Let the solemn protest as they will, there are truths of which ridicule is the Lydian stone. The laughter of fools may be folly, but the laughter of wise men is often the highest wisdom. Perhaps no satire was ever received with more universal applause, in its day, than the · Praise of Folly.' Let us remember that it was finished in the house of More, and dedicated to one who was hereafter to lay down his life for the Roman faith. To us, habituated to rich English humour and fine French wit, it may be difficult to do justice to the Moriæ
Encomium ;' but we must bear in mind that much of the classical allusion, which to us is trite and pedantic, was then fresh and original. The inartificialness and, indeed, the inconsistency of the structure of the satire might almost pass for consummate art. Folly, who at first seems indulging in playful and inoffensive pleasantry, while she attributes to her followers all the enjoyments of life, unknown to the moroser wise, might even, without exciting suspicion, laugh at the more excessive and manifest superstitions—the worship of St. Christopher and St. George, St. Erasmus and St. Hippolytus ; at indulgences ; at those who calculated nicely the number of years, months, hours of purgatory; those who would wipe off a whole life of sin by a small coin, or who attributed magic powers to the recitation of a few verses of the Psalms. But that which so far is light, if somewhat biting, wit, becomes on a sudden a fierce and bitter irony, sometimes anticipating the savage misanthropy of Swift, but reserving its most merciless and incisive lashes for kings, for the clergy, for the cardinals and the popes. Folly, from a pleasant, comic merry-andrew, raising a laugh at the absurdities of the age, is become a serious, solemn, Juvenalian satirist, lashing their vices with the thrice-knotted scourge, drawing blood at every stroke, and, as it were, mocking at its prostrate victims. And yet of this work twenty-seven editions were published during the lifetime of the author, and it was translated into many of the languages of Europe. The • Colloquies’ were neither less bold nor less popular; they were in every library, almost in every school. We have alluded to the edition of above 20,000 copies said to have been struck off by one adventurous printer; and yet in these · Colloquies' there was scarcely a superstition which was not mocked at, we say not with covert, but with open scorn; and this with a freedom which in more serious men, men of lower position in the world of letters, would have raised an instant alarm of deadly heresy, and might have led the hapless author to the stake.
In the Shipwreck,' while most of the passengers are raising wild cries, some to one saint, some to another, there is a single calm person, evidently shown as the one true Christian, who addresses his prayers to God himself, as the only deliverer. In the "Ichthyophagia,' the eating of fish, there is a scrupulous penitent, whom nothing, not even the advice of his physician, will induce to break his vow, and eat meat or eggs, but who has not the least difficulty in staving off the payment of a debt by perjury. In the • Inquisition concerning Faith' there is a distinct assertion, that belief in the Apostles' Creed (which many at Rome do not believe) is all-sufficient; that against such a man even the Papal anathema is an idle thunder, even should he eat more than fish on a Friday. The Funeral' contrasts the deathbed and the obsequies of two men. One is a soldier, who has acquired great wealth by lawless means. He summons all the five Orders of mendicants, as well as the parish priest, to his dying bed. There is a regular battle for him : the parish priest retires with a small share of the spoil, as also do three of the mendicant Orders. Two remain behind : the man dies, and is magnificently buried in the church in the weeds of a Franciscan; having forced his wife and children to take religious vows, and bequeathing the whole of his vast wealth to the Order. The other dies simply, calmly, in humble reliance on his Redeemer: makes liberal gifts to the poor, but bequeaths them nothing ; leaves not a farthing to any one of the Orders; receives extreme unction and the Eucharist without confession, having nothing on his conscience, and is buried without the least ostentation. Which model Erasmus would hold up as that of the true Christian, cannot be doubted. In The Pilgrimage' not only is pilgrimage itself held up to ridicule, but reliques also, and even the worship of the Virgin. In the letter, which, by a fiction not without frequent precedent, he ascribes to the blessed · Deipara,' there is a strange sentence, in which the opinion of Luther, denying all worship of the saints, is slily approved of, as relieving her from a great many importunities and troublesome supplications. The · Franciscan Obsequies ’ is perhaps the finest and most subtle in its satire,
which, while it openly dwells only on those who, to be sure of Paradise,
Dying, put on the weeds of Dominic,
in its covert sarcasm, was an exposure of the whole history of the Order, and, with somewhat contemptuous respect for the holy founder, scoffs even at the Stigmata, and lashes the avarice and wealth of this most beggarly of the begging fraternities. He thus galled to the quick this powerful brotherhood, who had provoked him by their obstinate ignorance, and became still more and more his inveterate and implacable foe. We could fill pages from his various writings of denunciations against these same enemies of sound learning and true religion.
III. Erasmus was the parent of biblical criticism. His edition of the New Testament first opened to the West the Gospels and the Epistles of St. Paul in the original Greek. Preparation had been made for the famous Complutensian Edition, but it had not yet appeared to the world. For its age, in critical sagacity, in accuracy, in fidelity, in the labour of comparing scattered and yet unexplored manuscripts, the New Testament of Erasmus was a wonderful work : the best and latest of our biblical scholars—Tischendorf, Lachmann, Tregelles -do justice to the bold and industrious pioneer who first opened the invaluable mines of biblical wealth.
It was no common courage or honesty which would presume to call in question the impeccable integrity, the infallible authority, of the Vulgate, which had ruled with uncontested sway the Western mind for centuries, to appeal to a more ancient and more venerable, as well as more trustworthy, canon of the faith. To dare in those days to throw doubt on the authenticity of such a text as that of the Three Heavenly Witnesses,' implied fearless candour, as rare as admirable. Such a publication was looked upon, of course, with awe, suspicion, jealousy. Some with learning, some, like Lee, with pretensions to learning, fell upon it with rabid violence; but Erasmus had been so wise, or so fortunate, as to be able to