In our previous blog post, we briefly considered one of Erasmus’s key works: the Adagia. Through the intimacy of his own inner thoughts, we gained a rare insight into how difficult the “Prince of the Humanists” may have found the relatively new mode of learning known as humanism. Yet it was also noted how recent innovations such as the printing press with movable type supported the process; used with catalytic effect in Europe to circulate new ideas and information recovered from manuscripts in a purer critical form, all within what became an increasing self-conscious intellectual community. Largely due to itinerant scholars such as Erasmus, the humanist project that had begun in Renaissance Italy was gradually travelling north and finally making its first impressions on English soil under the patronage of a royal court recently stabilized under the first Tudor monarchs. As a new programme for education it seemed fitting and suitably noble, providing a shining beacon of light that could lead a relatively backward kingdom out from the stagnation, fear and despair generated from decades of dynastic dispute.
It’s often delightful to stroll through the Cambridge colleges, and Queens’ is certainly no exception. If we pause now to consider the original medieval buildings, purpose-built during the Wars of the Roses to serve a self-contained scholastic community, we can safely conclude that Erasmus also once set eyes on the very same enclosures. Following his invitation from former President of Queens’ College – John Fisher, this devoutly religious man would possibly have sought occasional contemplation in what is now the Old Library or communal prayer in what was then the chapel (now the student library). Yet Erasmus’s mind had long occupied an idealized space above the material world: elaborately structured around the highest of Christian morals; supported by classical pillars of virtue reinforced with a vast reading of ancient literature. We can thus only begin to imagine how the supposedly undervalued humanist then felt when the work of another man implied the sin of literary theft. He had already suffered the hardships of his Herculean labours and a potential rival now disputed his claim to originality with respect to his very first publication.
The issue of originality or ‘primacy’ between Erasmus’s Adagia and Polydore Vergil’s Proverbiorum Libellus never really amounted to more than a minor controversy relative to the more serious disputes of the day. Although the issue dragged on for decades, there is considerable evidence that the situation mellowed with time. Nevertheless, it was significant enough at the outset for Polydore Vergil to rename his work Adagiorum Liber in later editions thus drawing attention to its similarity to Erasmus’s collection. It’s also an episode that provides some further interesting insights. Firstly, in my mind at least, this is an early and largely forgotten forerunner for the more famous contests of ideas that would follow between other Great Men – as the term goes (women would not be admitted to the universities on equal terms for a long time to come – at least not until the first half of the 19th century in England: there would be no proverbial battle of the sexes in the academic arena for quite a while). I refer of course to the ‘scientific priority disputes’ that would later consume a venerable list of other Cambridge luminaries including Isaac Newton (with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over the invention of calculus) and Charles Darwin (with Alfred Russel Wallace over the theory of natural selection). Disputes of this nature seem to characterize the darker or unhealthy aspects of competition as it degenerates into envy or rivalry in the strive for academic excellence. After all, in the race for reputation there is often no prize for second place. Yet, as in the many cases of so-called priority that would follow the scientific revolution, it appears that – by chance – similar circumstances had aligned in different locations such that both scholars decided independently to work on the same project at roughly the same time. The two Renaissance humanists had both chosen to compile a list of proverbs, but even though Erasmus would claim first publication or primacy for the rest of his life, Vergil had indeed beaten him by two years (i.e. 1498).
As in the case of Erasmus, Vergil’s Proverbiorum Libellus was his first published book. It originally contained 306 distinct entries but, following the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, his edition of 1521 would include an additional 431 adagia sacra i.e. sacred proverbs or sayings drawn exclusively from the Bible. Indeed, it is in the preface of this edition that Vergil finally decided to publish his objections to Erasmus’s priority claims and that in fact it was he who deserved the honours. However, it would soon become increasingly clear that the Dutchman’s version was not only more comprehensive but also achieving far greater popularity. Furthermore, the Italian’s characteristic desire to actively avoid religious controversy meant his work was rather tame compared to Eramsus’s biting essays that skilfully exposed what he judged to be the abuses and superstitions of the medieval Church. By the latter half of the 16th century, Vergil’s collection would for the most part fall out of use; although another of his publications – the Anglica Historia – would later establish his reputation near that of the venerable Bede¹ as one of the most significant and influential historians on England.
Interestingly, it is in the Adagia itself that we find strong evidence as to how Erasmus might have interpreted the circumstances surrounding Vergil’s first visit to England. His Italian ‘rival’ was then in the service of Pope Alexander VI and had been sent north in 1502 as a sub-collector of the much resented “Peter’s Pence”: a payment that had already existed for centuries but had taken many forms ranging from a pious contribution to an effective tax (or occasional extortion…). Needless to say, it was later abolished by King Henry VIII along with all other financial contributions to Rome in the “Dispensations Act” passed by the Reformation Parliament of 1534.
Although it will probably seem unfamiliar to most of us now, the adage “as figs [styes] are native to the eyes” proves instructive here. It first appeared in the 1517 edition, printed by Johann Froben in Basle as events over the border in Wittenberg were about to plunge Europe into chaos. Indeed, in this context the associated commentary seems remarkably prophetic:
…the metaphor is taken from that defect which clings to the eyes and cannot be removed without harming the eye itself. It may be applied not unsuitably to those people who cannot be removed without great disaster, although they are an intolerable burden to others².
He demonstrates the antiquity of the adage by quoting from Aristophanes’s Frogs, a political comedy first performed in Athens during the age of Socrates and Plato: “Like a sty sticking to the eye, so was he”. As is often the case, Erasmus moves seamlessly into a contemporary discussion by reflecting on actions perpetrated by certain elements within the aristocracy and the highest ‘offices’ of the Church. In the following passage, he specifically laments their use of several orders of friars that subsisted mostly on alms:
If the princes intend to perpetrate some shameless deed, it is through these people that they carry it out. If the Roman pontiffs [popes] have designs which are not quite according to the early Apostolic holiness, these are the intermediaries they prefer to use. For instance if there is some war, some public disturbance, some levying of taxes, some particularly flagrant delay of justice, they are there, acting as chief parts in the play…I must point out that I am not censuring the good, nor the Order itself. For those who are incorrupt among them deplore just what I deplore³.
These observations could have easily been applied to men in Polydore Vergil’s occupation as a sub-collector. But perhaps, more appropriately, some may have specifically directed such criticism to his supervisor, Cardinal Castellesi (who was once curiously described by a Venetian ambassador as a ‘hard and sinister man…much favoured by the pontiff’; see footnotes**).
It’s also worth noting here that by 1511 Erasmus had already travelled to Paris to supervise the printing of his daring satire entitled In Praise of Folly. Indeed, it was upon his return from this very trip that he finally set out for the University of Cambridge and to reside at Queens’ College, following the invitation of John Fisher. The book includes a famous critique against what he judged to be the corruption of the medieval Church and the serious abuses committed by its political allies. Its influence on the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation therefore should not be underestimated.
Often considered Erasmus’s literary masterpiece, In Praise of Folly is seasoned and spiced with language gleaned from classical sources and it’s plain to see that the first editions of the Adagia ie. the Adagiorum Collectanea of 1500 and Adagiorum Chiliades of 1508 had provided the perfect groundwork. Indeed, in the following extract, Erasmus vicariously praises himself by ironically referencing his own Adagia as Folly pompously restrains herself from the temptation to ‘proverbialize’ :
…ill-gotten goods will never prosper; and more to the same purpose. But I forbear from any farther Proverbializing, lest I should be thought to have rifled my Eramsus’s Adagies [see caption below*].
To end our discussion here, it is perhaps also worth speculating on the psychological role that earlier disputes – such as that with Polydore Vergil – may have played in later events. Once Erasmus heard of the project at the Complutense University of Madrid to print the first polyglot of the entire Bible, he succeeded in delaying its full publication until 1522. The Dutchman had already gone to some considerable effort to obtain by 1516 an exclusive four year publishing privilege for his own edition of the New Testament and this had been achieved through the consent of both Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor) and Pope Leo X. Life seems so full of irony…since Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici: the very same man who would later excommunicate Martin Luther) had also received a humanist education…and is known to have found Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly amusing.
By David Radcliffe
¹ Saint Bede (672 or 623-735) was a skilled translator and interpreter of the early Church Fathers. He is known to have had the relative luxury then of a monastery library that included many significant works in Greek and Latin. His most famous work, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, is still a precious source for historians, all the more exceptional due to the scarcity of reliable information during the 8th century AD. Bede’s work would later prove useful to the humanist Polydore Vergil when he wrote a more critical analysis, taking the story of the English up to the 16th century. At various times, both men have been honoured with the title of ‘Father of English History’.
² Translated commentary from the 1517 edition: found in Mann Phillips, Margaret (1964), page 358.
³ Found in Mann Phillips, Margaret (1964), page 360.
**P. Paschini, ‘Adriano Castellesi cardinale di S. Grisogono’, Tre illustri prelati del Rinascimento (1957), 43–130 in ‘Vergil, Polydore [Polidoro Virgili] (c.1470–1555), historian’: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/28224?docPos=1 [Accessed July 2016].
Hay, Denys, Polydore Vergil: Renaissance historian and man of letters (1952).
Jardine, Lisa, Erasmus, man of letters : the construction of charisma in print (2015).
Leedham-Green, Elizabeth, A Concise history of the University of Cambridge (2001).
Mann Phillips, Margaret, The ‘Adages’ of Erasmus; a study with translations (1964).
McConica, James Kelsey, English humanists and Reformation politics under Henry VIII and Edward VI (1965).
Pearson, David, Books as history : the importance of books beyond their texts (2008).
Twigg, John, A History of Queens’ College, Cambridge 1448-1986 (1987).