Written by Lindsey Askin, library volunteer and PhD student in Divinity.

“Your library is your paradise.” –Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536


It is told to just about every visitor to Queens’ that Desiderius Erasmus ([28 October] 1466 – 1536) lived at Queens’, and for no small connection: while he was Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity for the University, he lived at Queens’ in rooms on the “I” stair of Old Court from 1511 to 1514. He had many connections in England: most famously English humanists Thomas More and John Colet, but also Martin Bucer, and Bishop John Fisher, president of Queens’ 1505-1508 and Chancellor of the University after that. Erasmus came to Queens’ because of his close friendship with this man and the Renaissance reforms Fisher was bringing to the university (flooding it with humanist men) which he admired. [1] Erasmus was invited by Fisher in 1506 to come to Queens’ College and lecture in Greek in the University. [2]

Picture of small woodcut portrait of Erasmus in C. 2. 9.

Woodcut portrait of Erasmus in C. 2. 9.

Erasmus long suffered from gallstones, and the Renaissance medicine for gallstones was wine. He was miserable with English choices, though. He wrote in a letter dated 1511 to his friend Ammonius, “Cambridge does not agree with me. The beer does not suit me and the wine is unsatisfactory. If you can send me a barrel of Greek wine, the best which can be had, Erasmus will bless you.” During an outbreak of the plague, most of Cambridge was vacated and Erasmus complained of loneliness, “most people have gone for fear of the plague, but even when they are all here, it is lonely.” (Erasmus, Epistles) When he eventually went to Landbeach during the plague in 1513, he then turned around to complain about how he could not get back to Cambridge, “We’re shut in by the plague and beset by highway robbers.” [1]

Lasky's signature in C. 2. 9.

Lasky’s signature in C. 2. 9.

What does Queens’ have to remember the Prince of Humanism by? Until the 20th century, there was purportedly an attraction called “Erasmus’ corkscrew”, which students used to showed off to visitors (until the point where it was probably confiscated for being quite obviously a fake). [1] It was over 33cm long, a size representative, it was said, of Erasmus’ enormous thirst for wine and ale (they didn’t realise about the gallstones). Past president of Queens’ the larger-than-life Revd. Isaac Milner wrote, “We have no relique of him [Erasmus] at Queen’s except a huge corkscrew, and I am afraid that there was nothing in his principles to keep him from making very assiduous use of it”. [3] Today the Old Library many fine editions of Erasmus’ works from the 16th century, many of which are owned by English friends of Erasmus.

While in residence at Queens’, in 1512 Erasmus began work on his ‘Novum Instrumentum’ (Basel, 1516) and his Latin New Testament, a project which eventually included his edition of the Greek New Testament. The result was the Novum Testamentum omne (Basel, 1516; shelfmark C. 2. 9.), which contains parallel Greek and Latin texts. His primary motive was to make available the original languages of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament for the first time in print, and to preserve the errors of the Latin Vulgate by adding commentary.

Lasky's motto in C. 2. 9.

Lasky’s motto in C. 2. 9.

As a humanist (beginning life as a priest, and then becoming a tutor and university lecturer), Erasmus tirelessly promoted the study of Classical languages and literature, and insisted on consulting primary texts, Greek and Latin manuscripts, instead of relying on extant Latin and Greek editions. Many of these Greek manuscripts surfaced as a result of the sack of Constantinople by the West, an historical focal point which is arguably a major reason the Renaissance occurred. He embodied the Renaissance and the revival of Classical learning.

Photo of woodcut on title-page of C. 2. 9.

Woodcut on title-page of C. 2. 9.

It was no small thing to produce a new edition of the New Testament which did not solely rely on the Latin Vulgate of St Jerome, the bible of the medieval Catholic Church. The effect of the Novum Testamentum omne was enormous, and many humanists immediately realised that much of theology of the day was based on error. Humanists, Erasmus waving their banner, wanted to get back to the original biblical languages, and they noticed straight away that current editions of the Bible were full of errors and insertions. As other scholars raced to publish polyglots such as the New Testament volume of Cardinal Ximines’ Complutensian Polyglot (Alcalá de Henares [Complutum], 1514-22), Erasmus had to very quickly complete something to match the production of other contemporary humanist scholars. The result was his rushed and many-times edited (but no less popular for that) Greek and Latin New Testament. Because Erasmus’ New Testament was widely available, convenient with just Greek and Latin, and slightly cheaper, the Complutensian New Testament never challenged it in popularity, although Erasmus went as far as obtaining exclusive publication rights for several crucial years from 1516 from the Pope (so the rival Complutensian had to wait until 1522). Erasmus’ edition became the critical standard New Testament of the Renaissance.

Photo of back cover from C. 2. 9.

Detail of back cover of C. 2. 9.

Queens’ third edition copy of the Novum Testamentum omne [4] was previously owned by a Polish friend of Erasmus, John Lasky, a.k.a. Jan Laski or John a Lasco (1499-1560), Bishop of Veszprim (Hungary) and reformer (he resigned the bishopric in 1531 as he did not wish to give up his wife, whom he had secretly married). Lasky bought the majority of Erasmus’ library when he died in 1536. This copy contains many of Lasky’s annotations and his ownership stamps.

In the centre of the upper cover is “I. L.”. The lower cover is stamped with “Ioannis de Lasco” and “1527”. The third edition of 1522 is the one which was most likely used by Tyndale for his English translation of the New Testament.

Ownership inscription at foot of title-page: “Joannes lasco Poloni & amicorum”. His Greek motto is also present at the top of the title-page: Νηφε και απισει, which means “Be sober and let him be unfaithful”.

The margins of the main text are heavily annotated, almost certainly by John Lasky. This edition also contains a woodcut portrait of Erasmus.

Queens’ old college publication The Dial also featured this famous edition. [5]

Lent Term 1913, The Dial

Lent Term 1913, The Dial

As mentioned above, there are a large number of typographical errors in the numerous early editions of the Novum Testamentum omne. Erasmus wrote that the production was ‘rushed’ rather than ‘edited’ into print: “proecipitatum fuit verius quam editum” (Erasmus, Epistle 694). But Erasmus sold like hotcakes whatever he printed. His immense popularity while alive (and port-mortem infamy) is a main reason why he is remembered today. His time spent in England was divided between lecturing at Cambridge, making lifelong friendships with so many humanists of Henry VIII’s England, and complaining about English women, weather, and ale and the poverty of his own accommodation at Queens’. Despite poverty and discomfort, the stay was clearly a success for five years at least. Though he could have stayed indefinitely in the post of Lady Margaret Professor, he opted to leave for Basel, Switzerland, where he had to manage the publication of the Novum Testatmentum omne with Froben.

Lasky annotation from C. 2. 9.

A Lasky annotation in C. 2. 9.


Debates with Protestantism

Towards the end of his life, as Protestantism spread like wildfire over the continent, Erasmus engaged in debate, frequently and heatedly, with the reformers and scholars of his age. Besides famously debating Luther over free-will, he also engaged in a wild debate over Luther-supporter and humanist Ulrich von Hutten.

Erasmus’ own handwriting is present in a volume containing multiple works by his. The first text of the volume is Erasmus’ Spongia Erasmi adversus aspergines Hutteni (Basel, 1523; shelfmark X.8.1(1)). [6] On the title page of this publication he wrote a dedication to his friend, John Botzheim. Botzheim, a canon at Constance Cathedral, who corresponded frequently with Erasmus, and Erasmus’ auto bibliography (Catalogus novus omnium lucubrationum, Basel, 1524) is written in a form of a letter addressed to Botzheim.

The inscription reads: “Eras. Rot. Ioanni Botzenio Abstemio amico incomparabili. DD.” Johannes Botzheim (1480-1535). Erasmus of Rotterdam to John Butzheim, Abstemio incomparable friend. DD.

Erasmus’ inscription in X. 8 .1. (1).

Erasmus’ inscription in X. 8 .1. (1).

Erasmus was a prolific writer, who penned, amongst other pithy sayings, “The desire to write grows with writing.” He is also credited with, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Besides stomping his feet in contemporary religious debates, sabotaging the publication of the first printed polyglot bible, and working on his critical editions of the New Testament, Erasmus also completed critical editions of Classical giants Aristotle and Cicero, as well as the works of St Jerome (the Latin Vulgate) and John Chrysostom. Following his death in 1536, all of his publications were placed on that monument of the Catholic Counter Reformation, the Index of Prohibited Books. Despite being a devout Catholic and fighting all his life against heresies and Lutheranism, he was still credited with having sown the seeds of the Protestant Reformation. Infamy only seemed to increase the sale of his books.

In the sixteenth century, authors wrote pro gloria and for immortality. Erasmus was once criticized, scathingly, of accepting payment to write. He was mortified that anyone would think he would write for money. This itinerant philosopher once wrote, “When I get a little money I buy books, and if there is any left, I buy food and clothes.”


[1] John Twigg, A History of Queens’ College, Cambridge (1448-1986) (Woodbridge, Suff.: Boydell Press, 1986)

[2] I.R. Wright, Erasmus, An Exhibition in the Old Library Queens’ College, Cambridge, May 1980 [pamphlet]. (Old Library Office)

[3] Mary Milner, Life of Isaac Milner (London: 1842), p.596 and n.

[4] ERASMUS. Novvm Testamentum omne, tertio iam ac diligentius ab Erasmo Roterodamo recognitum, non solum ad Graecam ueritatem, uerumetiam ad multorum utriusq linguae codicum. Basel, 1522. [shelfmark C. 2. 9.]

[5] F. G. Plaistowe in The Dial, Lent, 1917. [shelfmark Per. 5. 1. 5.].

[6] ERASMUS. Spongia Erasmi adversus aspergines Hutteni. Bound in volume contains three other editions of Erasmus: Exomologesis sive modus confitendi, Basel, 1524, Precatio dominica in septem portiones distributa, Basel, c. 1524, and Commentarius in nucem Ovidii ad Ioanne Thomae Mori filium. Basel, 1524 [X. 8. 1(2), X. 8. 1(3) & X. 8. 1. (4)]. [shelfmark X. 8. 1 (1).]