I give in to no one
Sporen van Erasmus

Erasmus' Traces
Episode 2: Italy

I yield to no one
Concedo nulli

In 1506 one of Erasmus' dreams came true: a journey to Italy, to the heart of the Roman Catholic Church and the cradle of humanism. He never had the money to go there but at last the opportunity presented itself: he was asked to accompany a group of students on a tour of several Italian universities. Erasmus was a fervent traveller, but an even more passionate writer and he made good use of the time he spent on his horse. Even in the saddle he committed his thoughts to paper and made a neat copy at night in an inn.
The Alpine landscape was obviously a great source of inspiration to him. On the way out he wrote one of his best poems, the Alpine Poem. It is a reflection on old age and on his life so far, because he was approaching forty. On the way back he conceived the idea for a work that was to provide him with lasting fame: The Praise of Folly

He visited many towns: Turin, where he finally obtained his doctorate in theology. And he travelled via Milan and Pavia, where he became irritated at the extravagance of the white marble church of the Carthusians to Bologna. He quickly fled Bologna because of imminent war. He then went to Florence, where he devoted himself to translation and then went back to Bologna. There he saw Pope Julius II as victorious warlord, and met Aldus Manutius. He worked non-stop on a new and expanded edition of his Adagia. At the end of 1508 he was in Padua, where he accepted a new student called Alexander Stuart who present him with a signet ring bearing his motto Concedo Nulli. Via Ferrara and Sienna he ended up in Rome where he was to spend the rest of his Italian period. He left Italy in July 1509. Henry VIII had come to power in Great Britain and Erasmus expected to be able to acquire a good position there so that he would at last be free of financial worries. His feeling about Italy always remained ambivalent. Later on he was to sigh: I have carried more knowledge to Italy than I have collected there. But he also wrote: If I had not brutally torn myself away from Rome, I would never have been able to leave that city. I have torn myself away in order not to be bewitched

In the Alpine Poem Erasmus announced that he was going to devote the rest of his life exclusively to Jesus Christ. In Enchiridion or A Christian soldier's handbook, which had appeared in 1504 (and translated as The Manuell of the Christian Knyght), Erasmus had set forth the essence of his philosophy of Christ. His philosophy is a way of life, not based upon the rules of the Church, but on the original sources, the Scriptures, and on the example of Christ himself. A way of life full of devotion, humility, and charity. A religion of the mind, and what is more, a religion of freedom. What is forced cannot be sincere, and only that which is voluntary, pleases the Lord Christ

The behaviour of those who represented Christ on earth was an abomination to Erasmus. He found a degenerated and depraved form of Christianity in which outward show, corruption, superstition and greed were of the order of the day. His passionate attacks in The Praise of Folly against the Church, theologists and the clergy are undoubtedly inspired by his Italian experience. But Erasmus did not stop at criticising. Over and against this 'false religion' he put 'true Christianity' which he tried to promote by means of his writings.

A superficial look at his activities in Italy could suggest that he was less concerned with spiritual than with worldly affairs: he was perfecting his Greek, and preparing the publication of an extended edition of his Adagia. The Adagia, first published in 1500, are a collection of proverbs and sayings from Antiquity, compiled and annotated by Erasmus. He worked on the collection all his life and kept publishing new editions. The first edition contained about 800 sayings, but at the end of his life it had grown to more than 4000 adages. With his Adagia Erasmus in the first place revived and popularised Antiquity. We still reap the fruit of his labour because if Erasmus had not published them, we would not be using those expressions any more. But it was also his way of integrating the heritage of the Ancients into Christianity as he saw it.

However critical Erasmus was of the Church, he remained her loyal son: Life nor Death can separate me from the Church. And that was what finally brought him into conflict with another critic of the Church: Martin Luther. In their view of the Church they did not differ so much, and they were both prepared to devote their whole life to reforming it. The conflict that escalated between the two was more the result of differences in character. Erasmus was not against Luther the reformer, but he was against Luther the fanatical dogmatist. Erasmus did not want strife, conflict or insurrections; he wanted to intermediate. He did not want to choose for or against Luther, for or against the Catholic Church, because the unity of Christianity meant more to him than anything else. He feared that Luther's fanatical conduct would lead to such troubles, that any scholarly or ecclesiastical renovation would be impossible.

Erasmus and Luther never actually met, but they carefully sounded each other out in letters until Erasmus, who was under pressure from both camps to take part, started a discussion on principles in his pamphlet On Free Will. Luther reacted in another pamphlet, On the Slavish Will, in which he more or less branded Erasmus as a heathen. Erasmus believed in the capacity of man to choose for God and against the devil, but according to Luther man was a slave to the devil who coud not on his own strength choose for God. It confirmed for Erasmus what he had already written in 1519: Luther is totally alien to me. What Erasmus most feared, did happen. There was a schism and the unity of Christianity came to an end.

However successful Erasmus was as a writer and scholar, he was not enough of a strategist to put the power he had acquired into practice for the ideals he propagated. When the Dutch Pope Hadrianus VI asked him to come to Rome 1522 / 1523 because he realised what Erasmus' influence might be in keeping the Church together, Erasmus politely refused the offer. Imagine that Erasmus, when he visited Cardinal Grimani, just before he left Italy in 1509, had agreed to the proposal to join him and that he had settled definitively in Rome. There is a good chance that the history of the Church would have taken a totally different course.

Erasmus' relationship to the Church, his philosophy of Christianity, his conflict with Luther, coupled to his wanderlust and his Adagia are the ingredients for this second episode. There is an interview with the Italian Erasmus scholar Silvana Seidel-Menchi, who works at the universities of Trent and Florence. Her publications include a much praised book about Erasmus in Italy; she also translated and annotated a selection of his Adagia.

The adage that provided the main source of inspiration for this episode concerns the Herculean tasks, to which Erasmus ascribes two meanings. It could be something important and large-scale that needs the strength of someone like Hercules, but it could also be a labour that is advantageous to others but that brings little return to the person performing the task, except fame and envy. Both interpretations apply to the writing of the Adagia, as Erasmus himself commented. But his struggle for a true Christianity against a false religion was not only his life's work, it was also important in his ideals, and it brought him earthly fame as well as the inevitable envy that goes with it.