Erasmus in the Playground


For the medieval student, rhetoric, along with grammar and logic, was part of the trivium – the three rocks of education. Rhetoric was special because, more than logic and grammar, it required invention, spontaneity, and creativity. Renaissance teaching methods emerged from the rediscovery of the classical tradition, and especially of Aristotle who had defined rhetoric as the ability to use all possible means of persuasion to good effect. An able orator could be put on the spot and deliver an argument that would sway an audience regardless of time or situation. Improvisation demands an oratorical flexibility that comes from complete linguistic mastery.

One of Erasmus’s early pupils in Paris was William Blount, fourth Baron Mountjoy, diplomat, scholar and patron of learning. In the summer of 1499 William returned to England and invited Erasmus to accompany him for an extended stay. His financial situation was precarious and he accepted Mountjoy’s invitation. In England, he experienced a spell of luxury on a rural estate, a novel experience for a man who had always lived a life of poverty. He was received as the guest of a nobleman and a published author of Latin poems. His prospects however remained minimal. Mountjoy offered him a small pension for life but no other rewards for his work came his way. During the summer he decided to return to the Continent, but his journey was delayed. He travelled to Oxford where he listened to John Colet lecturing on the ‘Epistle to the Romans’. The latter interpreted the New Testament as a literary text rather than as a bundle of scholastic propositions. Colet tried to persuade him to teach at Oxford and lecture on the Old Testament. Erasmus declined. He considered it impossible to carry out competent exegesis solely on the basis of the Latin translation. Learning Greek was his priority. Oxford could not offer him that opportunity and in January 1500 he returned to France. There was only one active teacher of Greek at Paris, a Byzantine exile, but Erasmus considered him expensive and incompetent. He taught himself the language by patiently translating Greek books into Latin. By late 1502 he claimed that he was able to read and write the language. When the plague drove him from Paris, he moved to Louvain. He kept himself alive by teaching private pupils.


By the end of 1504 Erasmus returned to Paris to present Jodocus Badius with the finished manuscript of Lorenzo Valla’s In Novum Testamentum ex diversorum utriusque linguae codicum collatione adnotationes (‘Annotations on the New Testament’). This work had been Valla’s most impressive application of his knowledge of ancient Greek. He had observed stylistic defects in the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, and sought to remedy these by referring to the Greek original. He insisted that New Testament scholarship must refer to the Greek text. What he eventually produced was a set of notes on specific passages where unclear phrases or apparent errors could be remedied by looking at the Greek. This pioneering effort attracted little attention until 1504, when Erasmus found a manuscript of the Annotations in a monastery near Louvain. He published it the following year, an important step in the development of his own biblical scholarship and proof of the massive progress he had made in mastering Greek. Shortly afterwards Lord Mountjoy invited him again to England, and this second visit was more successful. He was introduced to William Warham and other prominent dignitaries. Warham, Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury, became Erasmus’s most generous patron and ‘sacred anchor’. Both men were associated with the paradigm shift of the so-called Northern Renaissance. Warham’s academic background and his travels on the Continent inspired him to support the study of Greek and encourage the revival of classical learning. His money and political support acted as a force enabling Erasmus to get his work on the New Testament published which, in turn, facilitated the biblical scholarship of the Reformation. Froben’s Basel edition of Erasmus’s Jerome was dedicated to William Warham. The dynamics of their collaboration acted as a catalyst for religious change in England.


Erasmus travelled to Venice to negotiate with Aldus Manutius for a new edition of his Adagia (dedicated to Mountjoy). On the death of Henry VII, Lord Mountjoy wrote to Erasmus in Italy pleading with him to return to England, painting the prospect of a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. Together with Warham he sent the scholar £10 to cover the cost of the journey. At first Erasmus was hesitant. The level of Italian scholarship may have disappointed him, but he had made many friends in Aldus’s circle. Moreover, his reception had been flattering, especially in Rome. But remaining in Rome would be a sell-out since he would never enjoy the intellectual freedom he demanded. Reluctantly he decided to travel northwards and reached London in the autumn of 1511. Staying at Thomas More’s house in Bucklersbury he wrote his satirical masterpiece Moriae encomium. Erasmus, moreover, had been working on a treatise on Latin composition entitled De duplici copia verborum ac rerum (On the twofold abundance of expressions and ideas), a project that had been the intermittent labour of more than twelve years in Paris, Italy, and England. On this, his third visit to England, Erasmus once again paid a visit to John Colet, the son of a City mercer and twice Lord Mayor of London. After early schooling in London, Colet had moved to Oxford, where he spent some twenty years as a scholar. He received priestly orders in 1498 and left Oxford six years later to become Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. There, in 1509, he began preparations for the founding of St Paul’s School, adapted to receive 153 poor boys (the number of fishes taken by Peter in the miraculous draught). Only those children were admitted who could say their catechism, and read and write competently. As he put down in the school’s statutes, ‘My intent is by this school specially to increase knowledge and worshipping of God and our Lord Jesus Christ and good Christian life and manners in the children’.


The meeting of Erasmus and Colet was a fruitful one. The latter requested Erasmus to finish De duplici for use in this newly founded school in St Paul’s churchyard. This treatise, often referred to as ‘the copia’, was designed to help the young student in acquiring an elegant style of expression and to provide abundant examples of how to say the same thing in various ways. In the words of Erasmus himself: ‘no artist will better compress speech to conciseness than he who has skill to enrich the same with as varied an embellishment as possible’. The book quickly became the standard work on rhetorical dilation, adopted by virtually every school in England as well as by many schools on the Continent. It went through well over a hundred editions in the sixteenth century alone. Learning to Erasmus had to have a social meaning. He was an educationalist, not a stuffy or retiring scholar. Rather than withdrawing in a study or library, reaching the outside world was him aim. Like every great teacher and reformer, he wanted to communicate with the young. What better method than writing an elegant and entertaining schoolbook? The publication constituted the concluding part of a set of educational writings of which De ratione studii, a basic grammar, forms the foundation. The Colloquia is a student reader; the Adagia a dictionary of examples; and the De copia a comprehensive rhetoric, setting out the rules for applying the grammar and vocabulary the student had acquired during the course of his linguistic journey. The purpose of Erasmus’s treatise was to provide students with a repertoire of linguistic expression. One of his teaching methods was to take a simple phrase and invent as many variations as possible. In chapter thirty-three of the ‘copia’ the author offers an example by demonstrating 195 different and inventive ways of saying ‘Your letter pleased me greatly’. Linguistic invention was the keyword. To Erasmus, playing with language is the root of creativity. In the age of email we do not bother any more. Progress, as Johan Huizinga would argue, stifles playfulness. It is hardly surprising that the author of Homo ludens also wrote a biography of the mind behind In Praise of Folly, praising Erasmus for the fact that ‘he radiates the spirit of play from his whole being!’


Erasmus, More and Colet – it was an extraordinary meeting of minds in that same year. Colet and More had both joined the Mercers’ Company in 1509 and were close friends (Colet was More’s confessor). Both had studied at Oxford and both were interested in teaching. Thomas More was a proponent of sound education, and not just for boys. His daughter, known by her married name of Margaret Roper, was a qualified scholar in Latin, Greek and theology. More significantly, she was one of the first women in England to appear in print. More and Colet were important figures in England at the times. These men lived in an age of perpetual change and continuous conflict. The range of new discoveries and intellectual challenges had an inevitable impact on the position of the Catholic Church: Savonarola was executed for condemning corruption in the Church in 1498; Luther’s ninety-five theses appeared in 1517, at about the same time as Zwingli became the driving force behind Protestantism in Switzerland. A key element in the growing ferment for change was the advent of printing. It is no coincidence that Geneva became a centre for religious change as well as printing.


In England, the crucial event was the Tyndale Bible of 1526 which drew on both Greek and Hebrew sources. Colet himself began to translate parts of the New Testament from the Greek, which he read from the pulpit at St Paul’s Cross to crowds that were estimated to number 20,000. This brought him into conflict with his the established church. There was even some concern that he could be charged with heresy. This threat however may have been triggered by his unpopular reforms to the running of the Cathedral. Erasmus described Colet as a quick-tempered man with a fertile mind who was suspicious of undue pomp. Always dressed in plain black, he mistrusted religious institutions and conventional piety, and was intolerant of pilgrimage and the cult of relics as it was widely practised. Thomas More, in the meantime, had to cope with wider responsibilities. As Chancellor, he relentlessly pursued those who were responsible for the clandestine distribution of Tyndale’s Bible. His stubborn opposition to change in the Church may seem paradoxical in the light of the enlightened views he expounded in Utopia, where freedom of conscience is accepted and tolerated. His overriding concern however was the threat of further religious conflict and, as a consequence, the social instability for which too many citizens on the Continent had paid dearly. Defending the status quo meant a vote for peace.


Erasmus’s ‘copia’ was first printed in Paris by Jodocus Badius in July 1512 (prefaced by a gracious letter to John Colet) along with several other minor works although pirated copies were already in circulation. The latter, sometimes called Badius Ascensius from his birthplace Asse (Flemish Brabant), was a pioneering printer and a fine classical scholar. He moved to Paris in 1503 where his house came to be known as the ‘Prelum Ascensianum’. He specialized in annotated editions of Roman classical texts for the student market, and also Latin works by contemporary humanist writers. He was himself the author of numerous studies, amongst which a life of Thomas à Kempis, and a satire on female follies, entitled Navicula stultarum mulierum. It is hardly surprising that both towering figures, Erasmus and Badius, were attracted to one another. During the first three decades of the sixteenth century Badius produced an extraordinary number of titles (775 editions are listed in Renouard’s Imprimeurs & libraires parisiens du XVIe siècle). He frequently worked in partnership with Jean Petit, who was by far the most important wholesale bookseller/publisher of this period.

Soon the ‘copia’ was reprinted all over the place. An elegant edition was produced by Matthias Schürer in Strasbourg in October 1516, the title-page of which is printed within a superb historiated woodcut border showing two jesters, architectural columns, and two putti holding a shield with the initials ‘M. S’. This edition contains Erasmus’ long letter to the Alsatian humanist Jakob Wimpfeling, dated 21 September 1514, in which he relates his previous journey to Basel, mentioning all the humanist scholars he had met from Alsace and Basel. Erasmus had first become acquainted with Wimpheling in August 1514 when he stopped in Strasbourg on his way to Basel, and was officially and warmly welcomed by the members of the recently founded literary society. The work concludes with three poems by Erasmus addressed to Sebastian Brant, Joannes Sapidus and Thomas Didimus, together with the latter’s reply. With the University of Louvain increasingly overrun with Dominicans and Franciscans who were united in their enmity to classical learning, Erasmus finally decided to seek a more congenial home in Switzerland. He settled permanently at Basel in November 1521, in the capacity of general editor and literary adviser of Froben’s press. Froben was delighted. His mastery of printing combined with Erasmus’s editorial skill turned the Basel press to the most important house in Europe at the time. As a consequence, the collaboration with Jodocus Badius came to an end.


It may well have been that Colet intended Erasmus to be the first High Master of his new school. Erasmus, both intellectually and physically, was too restless a mover – the eternal refugee – to settle into a job that would clip his wings. It did not harm their friendship. Colet was an outspoken critic of the powerful Church of his day. He made the Mercer’s Company trustees to the School, rather than the Church or Oxford or Cambridge University, because he found – interestingly – ‘less corruption’ among married men of business. The Worshipful Company of Mercers was the premier Livery Company of the City of London, the first of the so-called ‘Great Twelve City Livery Companies’. Its earliest extant charter dates from 1394. The Company’s aim was to act as a trade association for merchants, especially for exporters of wool and importers of velvet, silk and other fabrics. By the sixteenth century many members of the Company had lost any connection with the original trade. Colet’s school was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and was rebuilt by the Mercers’ Company in 1670. Among famous Mercers were such figures as John Dee, Thomas Gresham and Robert Baden-Powell. The most notable of them in this context was England’s pioneering printer, diplomat, writer and merchant – William Caxton himself.

In 1596 Richard Mulcaster was appointed headmaster of St Paul’s. Previously, he had been the first headteacher of the Merchant Taylors’ School in London. He was a gifted educator and a good scholar in Latin and Greek. Many of his pupils made distinguished careers, the poet Edmund Spenser the most famous of those. His two books on education, Positions Concerning the Training up of Children (1581) and The First Part of the Elementarie (1582) are sections of an unfinished analysis of the educational system of his time. In the development of English schooling, Mulcaster represents a midpoint between Erasmus and John Locke. Whilst developing his pedagogy, he was in close contact with the Flemish/Dutch community in London (with Emmanuel van Meteren in particular) and with correspondents such as Ortelius and Dousa in Antwerp and Leiden. The word school (scole) itself was derived from the Dutch. The contemporary discussion about the use of the vernacular in education which took place in the Low Countries may have encouraged him to write his books in English. He defended this decision in these terms: ‘I love Rome, but London better, I favour Italie, but England more, I honour the Latin, but I worship the English’. Like Erasmus, he thought corporal punishment in education unnecessary and pernicious, but competitive sports and physical exercise were part of his educational thinking. His description in Positions of ‘footeball’ as a refereed team sport is the earliest reference to the game stating that football has positive educational value as it promotes health and strength. For this particular passage he is considered the father of modern football.

rinus michels

Mulcaster did not create Total Football. That was left to Rinus Michels, another Dutchman. The latter was a master of his own game, elected coach of the century by FIFA in 1999, a man who raised the muddy and rather mundane game of soccer to the level of pure imagination and poetry in motion. The sporting metaphor appears regularly in the aesthetic writings of eighteenth century Classicists when referring to artistic rivalry on an individual level. To them, the creative process was an exciting race between able and skilled competitors. Michels proved that the fundamentals of team sport and creativity are also comparable in the exhibition of silky skills and vanguard tactics, and in the precious interplay of individual initiative and collective effort – or, in literary terms, tradition.

Three easy pieces


Looking back is as easy as looking forward. So it is not difficult to see why the Hypnerotomachia Polyphili is one of the greatest books ever published – in 1499.

The maker was Aldus Manutius. He was the greatest publisher of his age and one of the great innovators of all time. He invented the pocketbook and the italic.

To create a book like the Hypnerotomachia an influence from outside was needed. A writer – and probably a mecenas who paid for it – who told the publisher how he wanted it and why.

It’s illustrations and the way they were integrated in the text where something completely new.


Erhard Ratdolt. Unsung but of the greatest importance as a printer and a publisher.

Ratdolt came from Augsburg but spend most of his working life in Venice where he published some of the most important books of the 15th century. His edition of Euclid was the first and at the same time something completely new: a book that was created on the printing press instead of being illustrated by hand as most of the books at that time.

Ratdolt returned to Augsburg where he probably had a happy time with old friends, creating books almost as if he was a private press in our days.


Sometimes a printer can be seminal – and hardly noticed in his own time although his influence was enourmous. Geoffroy Tory was one of these. A printer we consider now as one of the most important French publishers and designers of the 16th century.

Now historians can trace the influence of his designs, like those small trickles that in the end make great rivers. In his own time he was probably not taken quite serious. A woodcutter whose designs were pleasing and sold well, even if they did not resemble the rest. A designer of typefaces whose ideas seemed out of tune – then. Today we can see that he was harbinger of things that were to come.

The first printed book on horses: Laurentius Rusius. Hippiatria sive marescalia … (Paris 1532)

The horse has been an important animal throughout human history. The healing of injured or sick horses took a dominant place in early veterinary literature. Theories about equine physiology mirrored those about humans. Literature on both subjects was inherently linked. Many discoveries, including the circulation of the blood, developed in tandem. Astrology was an important ingredient to medieval and Renaissance human healing. The influence of the stars on the body was studied and carefully charted. Veterinarians did the same for horses. The signs of the zodiac were associated with different parts of the body. Do not, for example, treat the head while Aries is in the sky.

Medieval and Renaissance veterinary medicine looked to ancient texts for support. In the case of horses, veterinarians relied on a set of Classical and Byzantine Greek texts which are collectively known as the ‘Hippiatrica’. The most noted of ancient authors was Absyrtos, a military veterinarian in the service of the Roman Emperor Constantine I. Italian veterinarian Lorenzo Rusio (1288-1397), using the Latinized name of Laurentius Rusius, published his Hippiatria sive Marescalia in 1532. The book was published in Paris by Christianus Wechelus. The links to ancient veterinary practices are evident. Absyrtus had described a disease in the horse which appears like influenza. It was the earliest record of such an affliction in animals. Rusius recorded a similar occurrence of equine influenza, describing the symptom in these terms: ‘The horse carried his head drooping, would eat nothing, ran from the eyes, and there was a hurried beating of the flanks. The malady was epidemic, and in that year one thousand horses died.’

The Hippiatrica is a rich source of information about horses, medicine and magic, which was transmitted to the medieval scriptorium and ultimately to the printed edition. By the mid-1500s, sumptuous anatomical studies of human anatomy began appearing as dissection yielded new perspectives on the human body. Soon after, veterinarians started publishing similar studies of the anatomy of the horse.