From the Introduction to Exploiting Erasmus.

Desiderius Erasmus was arguably the most widely read author in early sixteenth-century Europe. As that century progressed, however, the strife of the Reformation sidelined Erasmus' vision of moderate and peaceful Catholic reform. Protestants began to mistrust him for his loyalty to the Roman Church and his writings were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Pope Paul IV. Religious warfare made his calls for peace seem quaint, naive, and uncommitted to true Christianity. He was not completely marginalized, however, and especially in England continued to have a fair amount of influence.
      Roland Bainton was not inaccurate when he said that 'England was the land where the influence of Erasmus was paramount at his death.'1 Erasmus spent at least six years in England and it was while on his first sojourn there that he determined to use his scholarly talents for the renewal of Christianity. While in England he was inspired by, and then impressed, men such as John Colet, Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, Richard Foxe, and the future archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Colet became convinced that Erasmus' scholarship and Christian vision would reform and revitalize Christianity, declaring in 1516 that 'the name of Erasmus shall never perish...'2 Over the following two decades, Erasmus' writings were translated and read at court, in the universities, from the pulpit, and by a growing literate public.3 His texts were so pervasive during this period that James McConica has suggested that the English Reformation was fundamentally Erasmian in nature.4 While most historians of the English Reformation have not agreed with the strength of this assessment, McConica did demonstrate that Erasmus and his writings were highly significant throughout the first half of the sixteenth century. In 1548, Erasmus became an official part of the English Reformation when, in a royal injunction, Edward VI ordered the English translation of Erasmus' Paraphrases on the New Testament placed in every church throughout the kingdom.5 The royal injunction also stated that clergy under the degree of B.D. were to 'diligently study' the Paraphrases. The story of Erasmus in England generally ends on this high note. Yet, while this was indeed the apex of Erasmus' influence in England, his legacy remained an active component of English religious culture.6
      There is another well-known episode of Erasmian influence in early modern England. Prior to and during the English civil war in the 1640s, a small group of men, centred around the 2nd earl of Falkland at Great Tew, portrayed themselves as the intellectual descendants of Erasmus.7 In 1643 Falkland stated that 'Erasmus is now generallie disavowed as no Catholicke, and given to us (whom wee accept as a great present).'8 Writing against Catholicism one hundred and seven years after Erasmus' death, and shortly before his own on a battlefield of the English civil war, Falkland happily claimed Erasmus for the English church.9 He did so for a very particular reason. Falkland believed that the violent antagonisms within the English church and state were the result of an abandonment of the Erasmian principles of unity, peace, and tolerance.10 True Christianity, according to Falkland, was unified, non-dogmatic, and theologically flexible. Falkland wrote against Catholics in order to define his perspective of English religion and to defend against accusations that opponents of Calvinist theology were crypto-Catholics.11 According to Falkland, the true church, like Erasmus himself, had 'suffered, and long by the Bigotts of both Parties.'12 Falkland was deliberately attempting to carve out a space for the English church between, in his view, the extremes of Catholicism and Calvinism.13 For Falkland, and a long line of English writers who attempted to reposition the location of the moderate middle, Erasmus represented, or could be used to represent, moderate and peaceful English Christianity. When civil war came, Falkland was prepared to fight and die for this peaceful vision of a moderate English church.
      We know that Erasmus was widely read in the first half of the sixteenth century and was again looked to by a few anti-Calvinists ninety years later. What we know little about is what happened during the intervening years. The chapters that follow demonstrate that Falkland's polemical use of Erasmus was far from unusual; it was, in fact, part of the long and complicated history of Erasmus' interaction with religious thought and culture in England. It was not just anti-Puritan Arminians such as Falkland who used Erasmian texts, rhetoric, and theology. Erasmus' name and writings were routinely inserted into English religious controversies by those supporting religious and political conformity, by Puritans marketing Puritan social reform, by anti-Calvinists, and by moderate Calvinists seeking to silence anti-Calvinists. By using the term 'exploited' in the title of this book I am not suggesting that, in most cases, English authors were deliberately misrepresenting Erasmus or his writings, but rather that they found Erasmus highly useful. Though manipulation and rewriting of his texts was common, English readers read Erasmus carefully and understood his religious vision, theological methodology, and rhetorical style. There is no simple story of Erasmus' influence in England. In fact, the use of Erasmus, in most cases, had far less to do with an Erasmian influence than with how writers felt they could exploit the stature and memory of Erasmus to further their own agendas. Attempting to trace influence, whether literary, political, or theological, is notoriously difficult and this is especially true for Erasmus' influence in England. Nevertheless, by examining Erasmus' religious legacy in England from the mid-sixteenth century to the era of the Restoration in the seventeenth century, it is possible not only to expand our knowledge of Erasmus and English humanism, but also to reshape how we understand the controversies and violence that characterized early modern English religion.
      This book is about the legacy of Erasmus in England from the reign of Elizabeth I through the era of the English civil war and Restoration. I have chosen the word 'legacy' with care. It is a necessarily indistinct and broad word, and a word which points to more than the analysis of Erasmus' direct influence or the reception and manipulation of his texts and ideas. This study is about all those things. It is also, however, about English religious culture and the significance of Erasmian styles of religious discourse. This book not only examines whether those reading and using Erasmus in England were faithful to his original thought and writings, but, more important, seeks to ascertain how and why late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English men and women exploited his name, texts, and thought. Not only does this enhance our understanding of Erasmus and his significance, but it also helps explain the evolution of religious conflict, thought, and rhetoric in England. The study of Erasmus' legacy thus becomes a unique and useful lens for investigating English religious culture. I will not be using the term 'Erasmian' to denote a person, a group of 'Erasmians,' or a concept such as 'Erasmianism.' In examining the influence of Erasmus in Germany during the 1530s, James Estes has created a useful guide for the term 'Erasmian', which can mean both '(1) the direct and substantial influence of Erasmus' ideas and (2) the congeniality of his views to the aims, needs, and predispositions...' He went on to say that it is 'not essential' that the thought of those described as Erasmian 'be precisely identical to that of Erasmus himself but only that it involve the conscious and consistent development of ideas taken from him, adapted to local circumstances, and used in pursuit of goals that he had enunciated.14 Estes' definition is helpful where direct influence can be traced, but as we move further into the sixteenth and then into the seventeenth century, it becomes increasingly important to be careful about arguments regarding Erasmian influence. In this book I use two additional definitions of the term 'Erasmian.' Erasmian can refer to Erasmian texts, including both publications and translations of Erasmus' writings. I also use it to refer to specific aspects of Erasmus' ideology and methodologies that are echoed in the writings of later English authors. This final definition does not denote influence, but it is part of the history of the Erasmian legacy.15

....

      How was Erasmus interpreted and used? Were his ideas, as interpreted, significant in the development of English religious culture? Given the large number of authors, editors, and translators who used Erasmus in diverse ways and for drastically differing purposes, the answers to these questions are unsurprisingly complex and multivalent. In general, however, Erasmus served as a counterpoint in English religious thought as first Protestantism and then Calvinism came to dominate English religion.23 The exploration of Erasmus' English legacy provides a critical new angle for rethinking such significant topics as the theology and rhetoric of English Protestantism, the rise of anti-Calvinism and Arminianism, the religious politics leading to the English civil war, and the emergence of the Latitudinarians during the Restorations, as well as more general issues of conformity, tolerance, war, and peace.
      Throughout this study, I pay close attention to the way Erasmus' writings were transmitted to an English-speaking audience.24 Erasmus himself once wrote that no book is ever finished.25 Not only can further revision improve the syntax and argument of a text, but it can also adapt a text to changing contexts. Where scholars once sought to find the final, authoritative version of an author's work, we now recognize the value of textual indeterminacy. Such lack of fixity opens up fascinating biographical and cultural avenues for exploration and analysis.26 The revision of early modern texts, though, did not end with the author's death, and, given his own editorial work, Erasmus would not have been surprised to learn that new authors and editors would transform his texts to serve their own social, political, and religious contexts. The extent of the changes, however, likely would have shocked him.
      The first two chapters in this book describe the printing, distribution, and text of the English translation of Erasmus' Paraphrases on the New Testament. It was primarily this publication that set the stage for Erasmus' legacy in Elizabethan and Stuart England.27 Chapter one examines the distribution and construction of the English Paraphrases and suggests that the popularity of Erasmus was both useful and problematic for English Protestants, especially Calvinists. In chapter 2 I analyse the theology and rhetoric contained in the English translation. It was Erasmus' theology, as found in this English translation, coupled with interpretations of Erasmus by his English editors, that provided a foundation for the utilization of Erasmus' texts and ideas in Elizabethan England. This is most clearly witnessed in the development of anti- Presbyterianism and the rhetoric of conformity. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the use of Erasmian texts and theological rhetoric during the reign of Elizabeth I. During her reign, the theological language of peace, unity, and consensus, which echoed Erasmian texts printed in England, became intrinsic components of English religious polemic and helped shape the vocabulary of English Protestantism. Perhaps most important, Erasmus' texts stressed a proper understanding and usage of adiaphora, or matters of theological indifference in determining an individual's salvation or damnation.28 This particular aspect of Erasmian rhetoric became an important part of the Elizabethan church's attempt to define itself in opposition to Rome while simultaneously attempting to marginalize Presbyterians and others who sought a 'root and branch' reformation of the English religion. It was also during Elizabeth's reign that Calvinist critics, including Cecil and Hooker, developed a number of Erasmian concepts in their attempts to resist the establishment of Calvinist orthodoxy within the English church. The thought of Hooker and other anti-Presbyterians would become much more significant in the seventeenth century.29
      Chapter 5 moves into the reign of James I and Charles I and examines the transmission of Erasmian texts and references to Eras- mus by early Stuart authors. More so than during the Elizabethan era, English translators and authors reinterpreted and manipulated Erasmus' image and texts to correspond with a wide variety of religious and political agendas. As with the earlier Paraphrases, the printing, translating, and heavy editing of Erasmian texts reveals a Protestant culture that wanted to use Erasmus but was highly uncomfortable with his theology. Chapter 6 moves to a broader analysis of the use and adaptation of Erasmian rhetoric in early Stuart England. A significant number of authors, from wildly varying points of view and while engaged in increasingly bitter polemical battles, specifically linked ideas related to conformity, peace, tolerance, and the via media to Erasmus. Erasmianism certainly no longer represented a stable religious position, but his religious style and language had become an intrinsic part of the debates.
      In the past several decades there has been a substantial amount of research, writing, and academic debate regarding the rise of Arminianism and the origins of the English civil war.30 The study of Erasmus' English legacy helps bring additional clarity to these issues. Chapter 7 looks at the connections between Erasmian theology, as transmitted through English cul- ture, and the rise of antipredestinarian English Arminianism. Based on the discussion from previous chapters and the nature of early Arminian rhetoric, I argue that Erasmian theology and rhetoric were always a subtext or counterpoint within the dominant Calvinist culture of Elizabeth's and James' reigns and that what was new about Arminianism was its name and dramatically increased power under Charles I and Archbishop Laud. It is also important, however, to make very careful distinctions between English Erasmianism, English Arminianism, and the Laudianism of Charles I's reign.31 In fact, none of these groups really existed as coherent classifications of people or theology. Rather, each represented overlapping styles of religious thought and discourse.32 While Erasmus was obviously not a primary factor in the outbreak of the English civil war, it is possible to gain a better understanding of the origins of that conflict by ex- amining how a number of authors, such as Falkland and Prynne, adopted or rejected Erasmian religious frameworks and perspectives. Two of the most important historical debates in early modern English studies revolve around the progress of England's long Reformation and the causes of the English civil war. The study of Erasmus' legacy provides additional evidence that there are no simple answers to these questions. Rather than over-simplifying and over-schematizing English religious culture we would do well to remember the words of Henry Parker in 1641, 'Some men divide generally all Protestants into Puritans, and Antipuritans, but I shall admit of subdivisions in both, for all men are not alike, which either affect or disaffect, either Puritans or Antipuritans.'33 In regards to the civil war, people became alienated from the crown and from the English episcopal church and fought, on both sides, for a huge diversity of reasons. As in modern politics and social relationships, personal loyalties and animosities undoubtedly played a pivotal role. Using Erasmus' legacy as a lens for looking at English religious culture complicates the picture by opening up important cultural processes that help explain the development of conformist and anti-Calvinist thought and rhetoric.
      Significant portions of chapters 6 and 7 focus on the importance for English religious culture of particular 'Erasmian' modes of thought and rhetoric. It is, of course, true that neither the ideas of conformity, peace, tolerance, and moderation, nor the language and methodology of theological uncertainty were unique to Erasmus. However, mapping out the direct usage of Erasmus and paying attention to 'Erasmian' modes of thought and expres- sion provides a unique window for exploring and rethinking the complexities of the long English Reformation. The point, therefore, is not that certain rhetorical and theological ways of thinking and writing were, in all cases, influenced by Erasmus, but that they can be better located as part of an Erasmian tradition than by any other demarcation and that examining connections to Erasmian thought and texts provides a novel methodology for reinterpreting the fundamental divisions within English religion. This, combined with the fact that so many authors cited Erasmus, relied on his scholarship, and restructured his writings, provides a compelling argument for Erasmus' long term importance in England. I use the term 'legacy rather than 'influence' for precisely these reasons.
      In chapter 8 we look at the use of Erasmus during the Interregnum and Restoration. There is a decrease in Erasmian publica- tions and citations of Erasmus during the Interregnum. With the Restoration, however, Erasmus' reputation experienced a rebirth, especially among Latitudinarians, who saw Erasmus' Paraphrases as justification for their non-Calvinist history of the English church. In 1679, one of the most widely read and influential Latitudinarians, Edward Stillingfleet, wrote:
In Edw. 6.'s time, and Q. Elizabeths, when it was settled on the principles it now stands, there was no such regard had to Luther, or Calvin, as to Erasmus and Melancthon, whose learning and moderation were in greater esteem here, than the fiery spirits of the other. From hence, things were car- ryed with greater temper, the Church settled with a succession of Bishops; the Liturgie reformed according to the ancient Models; some decent ceremonies retained, without the follies and superstitions which were before practised: and to prevent the extravagancies of the people in the interpreting of Scripture, the most excellent Paraphrase of Erasmus was translated into English and set up in Churches; and to this day, Erasmus is in far greater esteem among the Divines of our Church, than either Luther, or Calvin.34
For Stillingfleet, Erasmus was a perfect, and useful, example of a Christianity that was non-dogmatic, episcopal, conformist, and neither Catholic nor Puritan. Through the later Stuarts, Erasmus remained a part of the debate over the identity of the Church of England. In 1689, following the overthrow of James II in 1688, Protestant non-conformity became legal. The Glorious Revolution resulted in, and was the result of, the rhetorical and ideological collapse of a universal, unified, moderate, and national Church of England that required conformity. Much of Erasmus' thought was driven by his vision of peace and unity within a single Christian church. England had separated from Catholicism, but the general approach to religious unity was the same -- just set within the bounds of England. The official acceptance of separation by dissenters from the Church of England after 1689 exposed the fiction of English, and British, unity. The dream of religious unity was over, as was an era of Erasmian rhetoric, ideology, and exploitation.


Notes:

1  Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom, 279.
Collected Works of Erasmus (hereafter referred to as CWE), 3:312, _Ep. 423, line 49. Erika Rummel suggests that John Colet's influence on Erasmus may be overrated. See Rummel, Erasmus, 73-4.
3  Of course, William Tyndale, among others, was not pleased with Erasmus or his theology.
4  McConica, English Humanists and Reformation Politics.
5  STC 10088-93. STC refers to A.W. Pollard and G.R. Redgrave, A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland and Ireland, and of English Books Printed Abroad, 1475-1640, 2nd ed., revised by W.A. Jackson, F.S. Ferguson, and K.F. Pantzer, 3 vols (London: Bibliographic Society, 1976-91). Only the first English volume of the Paraphrases, Matthew through Acts, was included in the injunctions. A second volume, featuring the rest of the New Testament, was published a few years later.
6  In fact, the injunctions were renewed seven times by Elizabeth I between 1569 and 1599. See Frere and Kennedy, Visitation Articles and Injunctions; Elizabethan Episcopal Administration; Edgerton, Nicholas Udall, 80. Although there is evidence of declining interest in the Paraphrases from the late 1570s, ecclesiastical authorities continued to demand that churches have a copy well into the seven- teenth century. See John Craig, 'Forming a Protestant Conscious- ness?' 332.
7  In his analysis of interpretations of Erasmus throughout Europe, Bruce Mansfield discusses the Great Tew circle and notes that 'Great Tew might be seen as a last attempt to recover the irenic vision of Erasmus.' See Mansfield, Phoenix of His Age, 151. Mansfield's book focuses primarily on Erasmus' Continental reception. While stating that England was beyond the scope of his study, Mansfield pointed to John Foxe and the Great Tew circle as indications that Erasmus was not forgotten in England. Also see Hayward, 'New Directions in Studies of the Falkland Circle,' 22, 24, and 29.
8  Cary, Falkland's Reply, 161. Cary's treatise quoted and mentioned Erasmus numerous times.
9  I often use the term 'Catholic' in this book to indicate the body of believers who remained connected to Rome and the papacy. English Protestants usually attempted to use 'catholic' as a synonym for 'orthodox' and felt that they were the true Catholics. However, employing the ecclesiological shorthand of 'Catholic' seemed to me better than using contemporary English words such as the derogatory 'Romish' and 'papistical.'
10  Falkland was not pleased with what he saw as the immoderate governance of Archbishop Laud. As a committed royalist, however, Falkland saw Puritanism as a much greater threat to English religion. His tract can be read as an attempt to counter Puritan accusations that English Arminians were really Catholics in disguise.
11  Falkland sprinkled his anti-Catholic polemic with numerous state- ments that attacked Calvinist doctrine, especially predestination. See Cary, Falkland's Reply, 126, 140, 144.
12  Ibid., 187-8.
13  As I will discuss in several chapters, the notion of an English via media was always a rhetorical construct. Each group attempted to locate itself in the middle place while designating its opponents as danger- ous extremists. Falkland's attempt to define Calvinism as an extreme position belied the dominance of Calvinism in England over the previous seventy years.
14  Estes, Peace, Order and the Glory of God, 139n.
15  See the insightful collection of essays on the validity and usefulness of the terms 'Erasmian' and 'Erasmianism' in Mout, Smolinsky and Trapman, Erasmianism: Idea and Reality.
16  Thompson, 'Erasmus in Tudor England,' 31. Thompson (30) stated that 'James K. McConica has given us recently a perceptive analysis of relations between Erasmian humanism and the English church in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. What is needed now is continuation of the story to the end of the Elizabethan reign and beyond, with the results incorporated in a volume as comprehensive, learned, and judicious as M. Bataillon's excellent work on Erasmus and Spain (1937).'
17  Devereux, Renaissance English Translations of Erasmus.
18  O'Donnell, book review, Erasmus of Rotterdam Society Yearbook 5, 100.
19  Craig, 'Forming a Protestant Consciousness?' 336. Also see Vessey's introductory comments in Pabel and Vessey, Holy Scripture Speaks, 21-2.
20  Parker, 'Religious Polemics and Two Sixteenth Century English Editions of Erasmus' Enchiridion Militis Christiani, 1545-1561'; and Rummel, 'The Reception of Erasmus' Adages in Sixteenth-Century England.'
21  Bennet, Romance and Reformation; and Corti, Silenos. Silenos looks primarily at Shakespearean plays.
22  Todd, Christian Humanism, 19.
23  Cornelis Augustijn, specifically referring to Erasmus' influence in England, wrote that 'Erasmus' ideas could serve as a corrective rather than as an alternative.' Erasmus' legacy never amounted to a significant movement, but that very fact allowed his ideas to influence a diverse spectrum of movements and individuals. Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence, 199.
24  While some Latin texts are dealt with, the focus of this book is on translated Erasmian texts and references to Erasmus in early modern English texts.
25  In a 1523 letter to Johann von Botzheim, which discussed his published works at some length, Erasmus stated that 'no book has had so much work put into it that it cannot be made more perfect.' CWE 9:352, Ep. 1341A, lines 1486-7 CWE. In 1525 a frustrated Erasmus even stated that he would stop writing new material so he could spend his time revising 'what has already been published and cannot therefore be recalled' Ep. 1596, lines 31-2, ibid.
26  Johns, The Nature of the Book, 35. According to Johns, 'Printed texts were not intrinsically trustworthy ... Those faced with using the press to create and sustain knowledge thus found themselves confronting a culture characterized by nothing so much as indeterminacy.' Johns' argument challenges Elizabeth Eisenstein's argument that texts provided greater fixity and certainty of knowledge. See Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution.
27  While other texts, including Erasmus' Latin Annotations, made Erasmian theological interpretations available to scholars, the widely distributed Paraphrases were cited far more often in both English and Latin texts.
28  E.J. Devereux, in his bibliography of English translations of Erasmus, noted that 'the name of Erasmus and his books, with or without ac- tual context, were to spread to the common reader the idea of adia- phora, things indifferent to salvation.' See Devereux, Renaissance English Translations of Erasmus, 9.
29  See Lake, 'Business as Usual?'
30  Nicholas Tyacke, among others, has argued that Arminianism was a new challenge to a conservative and well-established Calvinist mainstream. Peter White, on the other hand, has suggested that there was in fact a broad spectrum of allowable belief in Elizabethan and early-Stuart religion and that free will theology was a part of an English via media. See Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists; White, Predestination, Policy, and Polemic. While my contention that Erasmian ideas provided a foundation for the rise of Arminianism might appear to support White's view, I also demonstrate that Erasmian theology was not in the mainstream and represented a small counterpoint within an increasingly Calvinist culture.
31  The work of Peter Lake, Nicolas Tyacke, Kenneth Fincham, Anthony Milton, Lori Anne Ferrell, and Alexandra Walsham, among many others in this busy field, has reshaped our understanding of late Elizabethan and early Stuart English religion. It is no longer possible to paint with a very large brush, and detailed analysis of the diversity within even subgroups of religious belief and practice must be taken seriously. Erasmus and his legacy is one of these details that adds additional depth, and at times revision, to our picture of the long English Reformation. Cf. Mout, Smolinsky, and Trapman, Erasmianism: Idea and Reality.
32  There simply were no 'Erasmians,' nor even a specific group of theological ideas that were clearly 'Erasmian.' I suggest throughout this book that Erasmianism instead should be viewed as a rhetorical style and a generalized world view that focused on peace and unity as the definitive dogmas of true religion. For Puritans, as well as many others, peace and unity sometimes had to be sacrificed for the sake of truth, but for those of an Erasmian frame of mind peace was itself a core Christian doctrine.
33  Parker, A discourse concerning Puritans, 2.
34  Stillingfleet, Several conferences, 119.









HOME
Exploiting Erasmus: The Erasmian Legacy and Religiou Change in Early Modern England.  University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Gregory D. Dodds


This book brought together two of my primary historical interests: the study of Erasmus and early modern England.  The discovery that launched the project was when I realized how many English parish churches had acquired the first volume of Erasmus's Paraphrases on the New Testament, during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I.  I was curious how reading Erasmus had  shaped English religion, styles of theological argumentation, and theology.  The more I explored the more convinced I became that the Erasmian legacy was not only significant, but also that studying that legacy provided a unique and important angle for understanding the entire period of English history. 

Since, 2009, when the book was published, I have continued to explore aspects of Erasmus's English legacy.  For example, see my article "An Accidental Historian: Erasmus and the English History of the Reformation," Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, June 2013.


Buy