Page images

length released, having shown steadfast resistance, from this wretched petty tyranny, and returned to Gouda. At Gouda he was exposed to other persecutions, to the tricks and stratagems of the indefatigable Winkel, who seems (one of his colleagues having been carried off by the plague) to have become sole guardian ; his zeal no doubt for the soul of his pupil being deepened by the fear of being called to account for the property entrusted to his care. To admonitions, threats, reproaches, persuasions, even to the offer of an advantageous opening in the monastery of Sion, near Delft, the youth offered a calm but determinate resistance. He was still young, he said with great good sense—he knew not himself, nor the cloister, nor the world. He wished to pursue his studies; in riper years he might determine, but on conviction and experience, upon his course of life. A false friend achieved that which the interested importunity of his guardians, the arts, the terrors, the persuasions of monks and friars had urged in vain. Later in life Erasmus described the struggles, the conflict, the discipline, and its melancholy close, under imaginary names, it may be, perhaps under circumstances slightly different. He mingled up with his own trials those of his brother, whose firmness, however, soon broke down; he not only deserted but entered into the confederacy against Erasmus, then but sixteen, who had to strive against a brother of nineteen. He threw over the whole something of the licence of romance, and carried it on to an appeal to the Pope; from whom he would even in later life obtain permission not to wear the dress of the Order. No doubt in the main the story is told with truth and fidelity in this singularly interesting letter to Lambertus Grunnius, one of the scribes in the Papal Court. He had formed a familiar attachment to a youth at Deventer. Cornelius Verden was a few years older than himself, astute, selfish, but high-spirited and ambitious. He had found his way to Italy; on his return he had entered into the cloister of Emaus or Stein, not from

5 This letter may be read among his Epistles, and also in the Appendix of Jortin,

any profound piety, but for ease and self-indulgence, as the last refuge of the needy and idle. Erasmus suspected no treachery; and the tempter knew his weakness. Verden described Stein as a quiet paradise for a man of letters: his time was his own ; books in abundance were at his command ; accomplished friends would encourage and assist his studies : all was pure, sober enjoyment; pious, intellectual luxury. Erasmus listened, and after some resistance entered on his probation. His visions seemed to ripen into reality; all was comfort, repose, indulgence, uninterrupted reading, no rigid fasts, dispensations from canonical hours of prayer, nights passed in study with his friend, who took the opportunity of profiting (being very slow of learning, and with only some knowledge of music) by the superior attainments of Erasmus. The pleasant peace was only broken by light and innocent pastimes, in which the good elder brothers condescended to mingle. So glided on the easy months; but, as the fatal day of profession arrived, suspicions darkened on the mind of Erasmus. He sent for his guardians ; he entreated to be released; he appealed to the better feelings of the monks. ‘Had they been,' he wrote at a later period, 'good Christian religious men, they would have known how unfit I was for their life. I was neither made for them, nor they for me.' His health was feeble; he required a generous diet; he had a peculiar infirmity, fatal to canonical observance --when once his sleep was broken he could not sleep again. For religious exercises he had no turn; his whole soul was in letters, and in letters according to the new light now dawning on the world. But all were hard, inexorable, cunning. He was coaxed, threatened, compelled. St. Augustine himself (they were Augustinian friars) would revenge himself on the renegade from his Order. God would punish one who had set his hand to the plough and shrunk back. Verden was there with his bland, seemingly friendly influence. He would not lose his victim, the sharer in his lot for good or evil, the cheap instructor. Erasmus took the desperate, the fatal plunge. Ere long his eyes were opened; he saw the nakedness, the worse

than nakedness, of the land. The quiet, the indulgence, the unbroken leisure were gone. He must submit to harsh, capricious discipline; to rigid but not religious rules ; to companionship no longer genial or edifying. He was in the midst of a set of coarse, vulgar, profligate, unscrupulous men, zealots who were debauchees; idle, with all the vices the proverbial issue of idleness. Erasmus confesses that his morals did not altogether escape the general taint, though his feeble health, want of animal spirits, or his better principles, kept him aloof from the more riotous and shameless revels. He was still sober, quiet, studious, diligent. Did any of these men ever read the bitter sarcasms, the bright but cutting wit of the · Praise of Folly' and the Colloquies ?' If they did read them, had they no compunctious visitings as to the formidable foe they had galled and goaded beyond endurance ?

The youth's consolation was in his books. His studies he still pursued, if with less freedom and with more interruption from enforced religious ceremonies, with his own indefatigable zeal and industry. Either within or without the cloister he found friends of more congenial minds. William Herman of Gouda, with whom he entered into active correspondence, indulged in Latin verse making, which in that age dignified itself, and was dignified by Erasmus, with the name of Poetry. Erasmus wrote a treatise, like other voluntary or enforced ascetics, on the • Contempt of the World. But while he denounced the corruption of the world, it was in no monastic tone; he was even more vehement in his invective against the indolence, the profligacy, the ignorance of the cloister. This dissertation did not see the light till much later in his life. Among the modern authors who most excited his admiration was Laurentius Valla. Not only by his manly and eloquent style, but by the boldness and originality of his thoughts, Valla had been the man who first assailed with success the monstrous edifice of fiction, which in the Middle Ages passed for history. His Ithuriel spear had pierced and given the death-blow to the famous donation of Constantine.

So passed about five years, obscure but not lost. He was isolated except from one or two congenial friends. With his family, who seem hardly to have owned him, he had no intercourse; he was a member of a fraternity who looked on him with jealousy and estrangement, on whom he looked with ill-concealed aversion, perhaps contempt. He was one among them, not one of them. At that time the Bishop of Cambray, Henry de Bergis, meditated a journey to Rome in hopes of obtaining a Cardinal's hat. He wanted a private secretary skilful in writing Latin. Whether he applied to the monastery, which was not unwilling to rid itself of its uncongenial inmate, and so commended him to the Bishop, or whether the fame of Erasmus had reached Cambray, the offer was made and eagerly accepted. He left his friend Herman alone with regret ; and Herman envied the good fortune of his friend, who had hopes of visiting pleasant Italy.

At nunc sors nos divellit, tibi quod bene vortat,

Sors peracerba mihi.
Me sine solus abis, tu Rheni frigora et Alpes

Me sine solus adis,

Italiam, Italiam lætus penetrabis amenam. But as yet Erasmus was not destined to breathe the air of Italy: the ambitious Prelate's hopes of the Cardinals hat vanished. Erasmus remained under the protection of the Bishop at Cambray. He was induced to enter into Holy Orders. He continued his studies; and as a scholar made some valuable friendships. At length, after five years, not wasted, but still to him not profitable years, he hoped to obtain the one grand object of his ambition-residence and instruction at one of the great Universities of Europe. Paris, the famous seat of theologic learning, seemed to open her gates to him. The Bishop not only gave permission but promise of support. The eager student obtained what may be called a pensionate or bursary in the Montagu College. But new trials and difficulties awaited him. The Bishop was too poor, too prodigal, or too parsimonious to keep his word. His allowance to Erasmus was reluctantly and irregularly paid, if paid at all. The poor scholar had not wherewithal to pay fees for lectures, or for the purchase of books : but he had lodging, and such lodging ! food, but how much and of what quality! Hear his college reminiscences :6_

Thirty years since I lived in a college at Paris, named from vinegar (Montaceto). 'I do not wonder,' says the interlocutor, 'that it was so sour, with so much theological disputation in it: the very walls, they say, reek with Theology.' Er. “You say true; I indeed brought nothirg away from it but a constitution full of unbealthy humours, and plenty of vermin. Over that college presided one Jobn Standin, a man not of a bad disposition, but utterly without judgement. If, having himself passed his youth in extreme poverty, he had shown some regard for the poor, it had been well. If he had so far supplied the wants of the youths as to enable them to pursue their studies in credit, without pampering them with indulgence, it had been praiseworthy. But what with hard beds, scanty food, rigid vigils and labours, in the first year of my experience, I saw many youths of great gifts, of the highest hopes and promise, of whom, some actually died, some were doomed for life to blindness, to madness, to leprosy. Of these I was acquainted with some, and no one was exempt from the danger. Was not that the extreme of cruelty ? ... Nor was this the discipline only of the poorer scholars: he received not a few suns of opulent parents, whose generous spirit he broke down. To restrain wanton youth by reason and by moderation, is the office of a father; but in the depth of a hard winter to give hungry youths a bit of dry bread, to send them to the well for water, and that fætid and unwholesome or frost-bound! I have myself known many who thus contracted maladies which they did not shake off as long as they lived. The sleeping-rooms were on the ground floor, with mouldy plaster walls, and close to filthy and pestilential latrinæ.'

He goes on to dwell on the chastisements, to which we presume from his age he was not exposed ; but in truth, even in this respect, monastic discipline was not particular; and here it ruled in all its harshness—a further exemplification of the law of nature, that those who are cruel to themselves are cruel to others; that the proscription of the domestic affections is fatal to tenderness and to humanity.

& See the Colloquia, Ichthyophagia.

" Rabelais' reminiscences of the Collége Montaigu were not more pleasing, Ponocrates says to Grandgousier, 'Seigneur, ne pense que je l'aye mis au collège

« PreviousContinue »