In July 1519 the rackety Franconian knight, poet laureate and satirist Ulrich von Hutten received a long letter from Erasmus of Rotterdam, still at that time his friend. What sort of man, he had asked Erasmus, was this kindred poetic spirit Thomas More, fellow-condemner of court life and author of the diverting Utopia, as well as admirably an admirer of Hutten's own satire on monkish blankness and obscurantism, Letters from Nonentities (Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum)? Erasmus's reply did for More what he had already done for some and was still to do for others of his English friends: it presented him to the learned Europe of his day. Erasmus's share in the fashioning of his contemporaries' - and of our - picture of the Henrician Renaissance is incalculably large. Mountjoy, his patron, might write to summon him to England, where the heavens were smiling and the earth jumping for joy, but it was Erasmus who made sure that Mountjoy's letter was published, so that the world should know, not only that England was golden with the accession of Henry VIII, but also that Erasmus had been summoned. His lofty earlier debates on the Agony in the Garden and Cain and Abel with his friend John Colet would have remained unknown - Colet was not one to rush into print - if Erasmus had not written them up and got them into circulation. If Colet's new St Paul's School was known abroad, it was Erasmus's doing. Even Jean Vitrier, coming to England specially to meet Colet because of his moral earnestness and piety, had been told about Colet by Erasmus. Without all this, and without the moving assessment of his benefactor that Erasmus wrote in 1521, Colet's reputation would have been almost entirely local.
LRB 17 November 1983 | PDF Download