Nomen Erasmi

But why just Erasmus?

Erasmus was no Luther and no Calvin. He was a Catholic priest who never rejected his vocation, he condemned the teachings of Luther, he wrote spiritual mirrors for Christian couples, widows and knights, and in the last years of his life, when Basle, the bustling center of German Humanism became Protestant, he moved from there to the provincial but Catholic Freiburg, because, as he told, he could not live without the Eucharist. Why did the Expurgatory Index order to cancel just his name?

The Roman Index librorum prohibitorum, the List of Prohibited Books was first published in 1559 on the order of Pope Pius IV. Its birth was due not only to the insistence and assistance of the most conservative pope of the century who also wanted to suppress the Jesuit order because of their “excessive liberalism”, but also to the turn in the relations of religion and politics, church and reforms that followed in the 1550s. By this time, around the death of Charles V it had became clear that the Reformation threatens the unity and governability of the empire. “Heresy” turned into a political problem. A process of crystallization began, called “confessionalization” by modern historians, which by the end of the century broke Europe into sharply demarcated religious confessions and states preferring only the one or the other confession, thus creating the actors whose global clash – practically the very first world war – will be the focus of the following century.

While earlier one could be at once a good Catholic and a sympathizer of the new teachings, from the 1550s on everyone was forced by politics out of any shade of ambiguity and pressured into committing themselves to this or that side. And political power considered as most dangerous not those standing on the other side, but the ones who – as in the Flemish-Walloon jokes the immigrant “Belgians” do – attempted to maintain the fiction of unity, the dialogue and the rational balancing of arguments. And this movement, called “Irenism” from the Greek word εἰρήνη, “peace”, had Erasmus as its father and basis of reference.

The Roman Index. Inner frontispiece of the 1758 editionThe Roman Index. Inner frontispiece of the 1758 edition

In 1559 Erasmus had been dead for twenty-three years, but the popularity of his works was increasing, and they kept spreading in translations even outside the Humanist circles. Pius IV wanted to put an end to this with one stroke by including all the works of Erasmus in the Roman Index: Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus cum vniuersis Commentarijs, Annotationibus, Scholijs, Dialogis, Epistolis, Censuris, Versionibus, Libris, & scriptis suis, etiam si nil penitus contra Religionem, vel de Religione contineant. – “All the works of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam together with all his commentaries, notes, treatises, dialogues, letters, versions, books and writings, even if they do not contain anything against or about religion” From then on the only Catholic country where these works could be read was Spain, where Philip II, in an attempt to control the deeply anti-Spanish pope, reserved the right of publishing a separate Spanish Index, which was much more moderate than the Roman one. The Spanish Humanist Palmyreno could not stop to effusively expressing his gratitude:

May God give long life to the Great Inquisitor, as he was much more generous to the men of knowledge than the Pope. Because if he tore away from us the Adagia of Erasmus, like the Pope did in his catalog, truly I say that we would have sweated blood and water.

Marginal drawing of Folly by Hans Holbein in the first edition of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, 1515Marginal drawing of Folly by Hans Holbein in the first edition of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, 1515

The severity of the Roman Index was not tenable for long. Only some years after the death of the pope, in 1564 the Council of Trent promulgated a more moderate version which allowed several works of Erasmus. Then the papal “Index Congregation”, established in 1571, introduced a new category, that of the “cleaned books”. The specifications regularly published by the Congregation defined in detail the parts of books to be “expurgated” so that their lecture could be allowed. This specification was the Index expurgatorius, which was also referred to by our bookworm on the flyleaf of Alciato’s Emblemata, purified from the name of Erasmus in 1618.

Studies of Erasmus' hands by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1523Studies of Erasmus’ hands by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1523. The confessional self-definition
of Holbein could be interpreted as ambiguous in the same way as that of Erasmus. We have
commented on this in our edition of the Retratos o Tablas de las Historias del
Testamento Viejo
, originally published without the name of the artist.

Among the works of Erasmus there was only one treated in detail in the Index expurgatorius: the Adagia. The others were either forbidden or allowed in their entirety by the new Index. The Adagia, the monumental collection of ancient Greek and Latin proverbs provided with extremely detailed commentaries was, however, a book that was not recommendable either to ban or to allow. This work which in the intentions of its author presented the Classical world in an easy-flowing and conversational style, by then had became an indispensable schoolbook:

Aquí se an quemado en casa muchas obras de Erasmo y specialmente dos o tres vezes los Adagios. Agora con la licencia avida del Alexandrino, se duda si se podrían tornar a comprar los Adagios; y ya que fuesse lícito, si le parece cosa expediente hazerlo, porque estos lettores de casa dessean estos libros.

Here in our house they burned several works of Erasmus, mainly two or three copies of the Adagia. Now as [Cardinal] Alexandrino gave us permission, we are in doubt whether we can acquire the Adagia again, and if yes, whether You consider it opportune to buy it, as the local professors desire to have it so much. – writes Salmerón in 1560 from the Jesuit convent of Naples to their General Laínez.

Thus the Index Commission of the Council of Trent already in 1562 opted for the compromise to give commission to Gaspare a Fosso, Bishop of Reggio and the papal typographer Paolo Manuzio – son of the great Aldus Manutius – to produce a version of the Adagia purified from everything they judge as contrary to the Catholic faith. The new version was published in 1575, and since then the Catholic church permitted the use of this version only.

Erasmus, Adagia. The 1575 edition by Paolo ManuzioThe 1575 “expurgated” edition of the Adagia. The name of Erasmus is missing from the frontispiece, just like from the text of the edition.

What did the editors judge as contrary to the Catholic faith?

First of all the name of Erasmus. With the confessionalization asserting itself, this name was so much surrounded by the suspicion of heresy and untrustworthiness that the editors found it better not to burden the future students with its knowledge. At the same time they transformed all the words in first person singular into first person plural or passive third person singular: for example they wrote invenimus “we find it so” or invenitur “it is found so” instead of the usual Erasmian invenio “I find it so”. By this they unconsciously acted in the spirit of Erasmus who considered the ancient proverbs as formulas of the collective wisdom of the Antiquity.

They omitted every reference to the Bible and the church fathers, mainly for a sharper demarcation of the secular and religious spheres, as most of these references had absolutely no odor of heresy. In this way they also omitted all those quotations illustrating the biblical use of proverbs: The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge, or We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.

They omitted the majority of witty political references, digressions of social criticism and hints to contemporary authors, books and persons which had so much enliven the work. In this way whole paragraphs or every third or fourth phrase of some articles, like of Aut regem, aut fatuum nasci oportere (Be born either a king or a fool), and even complete articles disappeared from the book.

Self-portrait of Erasmus
on the margin of his
commentaries to St. Jerome

Whoever works, also makes mistakes. This is how in the text there remained references pointing into the nothing – to articles completely omitted –, or hasty readings like for example clepsydra pestilentior (more pestiferous than hour-glass) instead of the correct clepsydra perstillantior (running down more quickly than sand in the hour-glass). These must have given plenty to think about to the Catholic reader who was not permitted any more to collate the suspicious readings with the original edition.

It is strange that the research of Erasmus and his censorship – for example Silvana Seidel-Menchi’s basic work, the Erasmus als Ketzer (1992) –, although referring to this purged edition of the Adagia, was never interested in detail of those ten thousands of changes which necessarily made the Catholic reception of Erasmus different from the Protestant one. A word-for-word comparison of the “Catholic text” with the original one and a detailed list of the differences was first undertaken by us in Studiolum in the first digital edition of the Adagia, which is at once the first complete edition of this work since the authoritative Leiden edition of 1703. Besides the complete Leiden text, the collation with the “Catholic edition” and the notes of the renowned French typographer-philologist Robert Estienne, first published in 1563, it also includes the contemporary translations of the Adagia. Thus for example the funnily archaic English translation of 1539/1545 by Richard Taverner, or the Hungarian edition of Joannes Decius Baronius from 1598 where the proverbs were not just translated, but replaced with their contemporary Hungarian equivalents.

Erasmus: Adagia. CD edition by Studiolum
In terms of the Index expurgatorius, after the publication of the expurgated Adagia in 1575 not only the acquisition of any other edition was banned, but the changes had to be introduced also in the existing ones. Our book of Alciato fell under the effect of this decree. True, the Emblemata is not identical with the Adagia, but it has much to do with it. Erasmus often remembers with respect about his friend Alciato in the articles of the Adagia, and in the emblems of Alciato very often the adages of Erasmus are transformed into “pictorial proverbs”, as it was pointed out by Francisco Sánchez in his commentaries throughout this book. The unknown censor executed in the text of these commentaries precisely what the Roman censors did in that of the Adagia: the deletion of the name of Erasmus. This is also a proof of a fact that emblem research seems to realize only recently: that in the 16th century the genres of the adages and emblems were largely considered identical.

This expurgation, however, even if fulfilling the requirements, was not worth much. The contemporaries exactly knew to whom they have to be grateful for the book which first opened them a window on the Classical world. And the Protestant countries kept publishing the Adagia, and even enlarging it with thousands of new proverbs. The copies of these editions could be also found in the libraries of most Catholic convents and dioceses, and we do not know any case when the name of Erasmus was deleted from them in the prescribed way. These volumes with their physical existence announce what John Colet, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and friend of Erasmus had foretold already at the beginning of the 1500s:

Nomen Erasmi nunquam peribit –
The name of Erasmus will never perish.