Two volumes of our new edition of Erasmus have now appeared in the Tudor and Stuart Translations series: Erasmus in English 1523-1584, Volume I: The Manual of the Christian Soldier and Other Writings and Volume II: The Praise of Folly and Other Writings, both edited by Alex Davis, Gordon Kendal and Neil Rhodes. These weigh in at 466 and 396 pages respectively: the traditional palindrome tells us that SUMS ARE NOT SET AS A TEST ON ERASMUS, but the total is by any standards a body of scholarship worthy of its subject's own ambition. Here, Dr Alex Davis speaks to Barbara Burns about the project.

cover of Erasmus in English 1523-1584, Volume I  cover of Erasmus in English 1523-1584, Volume II

BB. Congratulations on completing the first two of a planned set of three volumes of translations of Erasmus’s writings into English. Why is Erasmus, one of the greatest scholars of the Renaissance, still important today?

Alex Davis

AD. Erasmus endures as an icon of the scholarly life, and of a certain ideal of learned cosmopolitanism. He said that he wanted to be known as ‘a citizen of the world’. But also, Erasmus is himself a great writer, a master of rhetoric, of persuasion and satire and invective. His favourite themes are as relevant today as they were in the 1500s. When he attacks the warmongering of monarchs, or institutional corruption, or when he explores all the different ways in which our ostensibly rational lives are indelibly marked by folly and unreason, there’s nothing antiquarian about Erasmus at such moments.

BB. In the Introduction to Volume 1 you describe Erasmus as the ‘editor of a revolutionary edition of the New Testament’. Why ‘revolutionary’?

AD. Simply because it’s different! It’s different from the Vulgate, the Latin Bible that had dominated the Middle Ages. Erasmus’s 1516 New Testament printed a revised Greek text, and a new translation from that Greek into Latin. It’s a parallel-text edition, so you can compare the two. Key words were rendered differently. Key phrases were missing. Scholarship has done a lot to nuance our sense of the edition’s originality. Still, it was hugely controversial. But the area in which the edition is crucial for our volume specifically is in the impetus it gives to projects of translation in the vernacular.

BB. Can you give us an example that illustrates Erasmus’s passion for making the Bible accessible to everyone?

AD. The 1516 New Testament added a preface, the Paraclesis, meaning ‘Exhortation’. It contains a wonderful passage arguing for reading the Bible in one’s mother tongue:

I would to God the ploughman would sing a text of the Scripture at his ploughbeam; and that the weaver at his loom with this would drive away the tediousness of time; I would the wayfaring man with this pastime would expel the weariness of his journey; and to be short I would that all the communication of the Christian should be of the Scripture, for in a manner such are we ourselves as our daily tales are.

That’s the version translated by William Roy in 1529. The English Paraclesis is a product of an impetus towards translation that Erasmus’s original initiated. It gives you a sense of how influential Erasmus’s writing was, and of how it begins to move beyond his original intentions once it’s drawn into these processes of adaptation, because Roy’s version is deployed as a preface not to a biblical text but to a work by Luther, at a time when Erasmus was in a state of bitter disagreement with him. What our edition shows is how Erasmus’s influence on English culture is bound up with these moments that blend together translation and transformation.

One of Hans Holbein the Younger's portraits of Erasmus, 1523, which helped to make Holbein's reputation: one mark of Erasmus's stature among thinkers in Tudor England is that it was portraits of Erasmus which brought Holbein to the attention of Henry VIII's court

BB. Erasmus’s extensive travels across Europe included a significant amount of time spent in England. What can you tell us about how his work was received in early modern English culture, and how it influenced subsequent discourse and literary production?

AD. Several of Erasmus’s most important works originated in England, most famously the Encomium Moriae, the Praise of Folly, whose title is a punning reference to his friend Thomas More. He’s a hugely important figure in English history, in part via the translations that we’ve compiled in our volume. The Englishing of Erasmus becomes a way of advancing different religious positions, ranging from a radical, evangelical Protestantism in the 1530s to efforts at achieving religious uniformity in the 1540s. So again you have that sense of his writing moving beyond its original meanings and intentions. Erasmus stays within the Catholic church, but his writings don’t. And then, because the grammar school curricula developed in this period are basically Erasmian, he influences almost every major author of the English Renaissance. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, even monarchs like Edward VI and Elizabeth I. They’re all taught to write through Erasmian drills and techniques that foreground the development of rhetorical fluency. Really you can’t calculate his influence on the literature of the period.

BB. Is there a particular work that stands out in terms of its impact?

AD. If I could pick out one text here, it would be Erasmus’s Paraphrases of the New Testament, which Gordon Kendal edited for our edition. The Paraphrases were translated into English in 1548 and 1549, into two huge volumes. Edward VI’s government ruled that every parish church had to own a copy. They’re part of an attempt to standardise worship in the 1540s, alongside The Book of Common Prayer. They’re also an unusual, innovative format. It’s not systematic theology, and it’s not biblical exegesis. Instead Erasmus aims at what one of his translators calls a ‘plain setting forth’ of scripture. Erasmus wants to explain the biblical text through paraphrase, restating it, and because he’s a rhetorician the way he does that is to foreground the communicative circuit that it tries to create. Paul is writing to this group of Greek-speaking Christians, and that’s why the Epistle to the Corinthians says this and this. Scholars are beginning to get very interested in the Paraphrases. At the same time, they’re big, unwieldy tomes. They aim to make scripture approachable, but they’re not particularly user-friendly themselves. I hope that the excerpts from them contained in Erasmus in English will open up them to a wider audience.

Holbein also made marginal notes and drawings in Erasmus's works: here, the Latin original of 'The Praise of Folly'

BB. Erasmus famously challenged institutional authority, speaking out against corruption in the church and militarism, for example. Such topics are still hotly contested today. Was there one of them that struck you as particularly thought-provoking?

AD. What really stood out was Erasmus’s writing against war. Erasmus wasn’t a pacifist in an absolute sense, but he was thoroughly disgusted by the militarism of the sixteenth-century European elites. Erasmus in English prints the English versions of Erasmus’s two key anti-war pieces: Bellum Erasmi, from 1534, an essay on the proverb Dulce bellum inexpertis (‘War is sweet to those who have not experienced it’), and Thomas Paynell’s 1559 translation of The Complaint of Peace, which is an oration by the goddess Peace against war. These are works that have a real rhetorical force and they absolutely retain their relevance today, unfortunately.

BB. Did any of the material you worked on for this project really test your patience or your skills?

AD. Pride of place probably has to go to Erasmus’s essay on the adage ‘Sileni Alcibiades’, edited by my colleague Neil Rhodes. It was translated into English in 1543, and the text seems to have been profoundly scrambled somewhere between the author and the printer, so you have to guess at what’s being meant. You come across phrases like ‘Monsters sarpens’, which Neil has rendered as ‘monstrous serpents’, or words like ‘inorther’ which he rendered as ‘murder’; ‘dysngreynge’ becomes ‘disagreeing’. The entire essay is like that. I think Neil enjoyed trying to decode the text, although I’m not sure he found it easy.

BB. The European Union’s programme to promote educational mobility and international collaboration between Europe and the rest of the world is named after Erasmus. Do you think this helps keep the legacy of Erasmus alive, or does it have the effect of appropriating or limiting Erasmus in a way that is unhelpful?

AD. It’s pretty appropriate. It’s true that while we talk about Erasmus as a great European, really what he’s interested in is an ideal of Christendom. You can see that with his positions on war, which have a tendency to break down once he’s dealing with Muslims, for example. But perhaps one might say something similar about the European Union. Certainly the modern idea of Europe has some kind of family relationship with an older idea of Christendom. The Erasmus exchange scheme speaks to his movement between countries, his belief in scholarship as an international project. He’s a great correspondent, a great letter writer. Mobility, collaboration, a belief in people’s educability: these are all core Erasmian values. He has an interest in communication that cuts across his elitism. As for keeping his legacy alive, the UK has withdrawn from the Erasmus scheme. It’s a great loss to our students, and to students who might have come to the UK. I imagine Erasmus would have thought it was a pretty stupid decision.

BB. How do your students in St Andrews get on with reading Erasmus, and how have their reactions struck you?

AD. I teach The Praise of Folly every year. One thing that stuck with me was a comment from a group who really loved it. ‘Oh’, they said, ‘it’s funny because it’s true.’ And it is. Erasmus has a real instinct for fundamental dilemmas of thought and action, and a real gift for comedy. He’s bitterly scathing about humanity’s greed and violence, but he also sees how enjoyable and even charming we find our unreason, how attached we are to it; it’s a kind of proto-Freudian work in that respect. Teaching The Praise of Folly has given me a sense of Erasmus’s complexity, but also of his simultaneous directness. He’s such a master of rhetoric, you’re never confused when reading the text, even as it twists and turns and uncovers new aspects of folly in the world, new ways of thinking about it.

BB. Finally, how is work progressing on the final volume? How do you feel about bringing this major project to completion?

AD. Volume 3 will collect the English translations of Erasmus’s Colloquies, his dialogues. They’re being edited by Harriet Archer. When they’re done, we’ll have collected all the major early translations of Erasmus into English. There’s not been an edition like it before, and I hope that it will prompt scholars to think in new ways about Erasmus, and win him new readers. Most of us can’t read Erasmus’s Latin, and I do think that it’s different reading Erasmus in early modern English as opposed to a modern translation. Modern translations are clear and accurate, but the versions we’re collecting are more-or-less contemporary with Erasmus. Their language has a vividness and an authenticity that puts Erasmus back into the sixteenth century. It gives us a new way into thinking about how compelling he was for Renaissance Europe.

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