“The Antibarbarians”. Erasmus’ Defense of The Humanist Position

Erasmus, Desiderius (ca.1466-1536)

Antibarbarorum D. Erasmi Roterodami, liber unus, quem iuuenis quidem adhuc lusit: caeterum diu desideratum, demum repertum non innenis recognouit, & uelut postliminio studiosis restituit. Ex quo reliquorum, qui diis propitiis propediem accedent, lector coniecturam facias licebit.

Cologne: [Eucharius Cervicornus], 1520


Quarto: 18.2 x 13.5 cm. [104] pp. A-h4, I6, K-L4, M6, N4, O6 (lacking final blank)

AN EARLY EDITION, printed in the year of the first edition. All editions are rare.

Bound in early 20th c. quarter vellum and marbled boards. A nice copy, margins cut a little close, rubricated. With a very fine border after Holbein that includes a vignette in the lower register of Judith and Holofernes.

Printed in 1520, Erasmus’ “Antibarbarians” had a dual purpose. First, and as originally conceived, the book is a spirited defense of humanism, in particular the reading and study of classical literature and languages, against charges that such literature and pursuits are fundamentally un-Christian. At the same time, the book is also a defense of Erasmus’ theological positions and his application of humanist principles and philological methods to the study of religious texts.

At the time the “Antibarbarians” was published, Erasmus was under attack from many quarters, especially from the monastic orders, whose members resented Erasmus’ criticisms of their abuses and accused Erasmus of heresy and Lutheranism; and the Louvain theological faculty, who had condemned Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, the preeminent expression of Erasmian humanism. The theological faculty had also attacked Erasmus for his part in the so-called Reuchlin affair, “long regarded as the first formal confrontation of the new scripture-based reform with the scholastic defenders of the authority of the theological faculties and the Vulgate.”(Levy, p. 177) Moreover, the threat to humanistic studies that Erasmus described in the 1490’s was alive and well in 1520. Forced to defend himself on these fronts and to clarify his positions, Erasmus used the “Antibarbarians” as a vehicle to stage his defense… and to launch new attacks on his enemies.

Surprisingly, for a book that in its ultimate form pointedly criticizes monasticism, the ‘Antibarbarians’ was conceived and begun while Erasmus, at about the age of twenty, was living as a monk at the monastery at Steyn. “The book which was hopefully called ‘The Four books of the Antibarbarians’ was among the first of Erasmus’ works. He tells us that he began it before he was twenty… The work is a spirited defense of the study of the classics, in the form of a dialogue between Erasmus and his friends: William Hermans, a monk like himself from the monastery at Steyn; an energetic character named Jacob Batt, town clerk of Bergen; the burgomaster of Bergen, Willem Conrad; and the town doctor Jodocus. They meet and talk, and their conversation develops into a debate on the reasons for the stiff resistance they find among the traditionalists to the introduction of classical studies. Three of them are young enthusiasts, considered by the older generation as revolutionary and subversive because they want to substitute the ‘abominable monsters of paganism,’ Horace, Vergil, and Ovid, for the accepted reading of the schools, Alexander’s and and Eberhard of Bethune’s Latin grammars, for instance. The two other men are in agreement, and together they discuss the motives for this resistance and for the decline of true learning. The doctor says it is because of the stars (he is addicted to astrology); the burgomaster says it is because of Christianity; Willem Hermans says it is the result of the ageing of the world. Bat, however, puts it all down to the terrible teachers who reign undisputed in the field of education. The others beg him to make this clear, and he explains himself in a long speech, punctuated by a few remarks from his hearers. He sketches the battlefield, divides the enemy into three camps –the ignorant, the narrow-minded, and those who wish to use learning for their own ends- and starts on an eloquent attack on the first group, who know nothing about the classics and therefore regard them as harmful (‘Beware, he’s a poet, he’s no Christian!’) or who take their stand on apostolic simplicity.

“Eventually the burgomaster’s wife sends a servant from their country house nearby to say that dinner is spoiling, and they decide to adjourn and take up the discussion in the afternoon. That afternoon, for us, has not arrived…. The stage being set, Erasmus intended to develop the theme in three more books After the refutation of the enemies of humanism the second book was to provide an answer to this, in which a fictitious character used all the powers of eloquence to our scorn on eloquence; the third book was to be a refutation of the second, and the fourth a defense of poetry.

“[Erasmus arrived in] Paris in 1495 and soon after his arrival submitted the first book of his ‘Antibarbari’ to the historian Robert Gaguin. In 1499 Erasmus went to England and it was probably then that he showed the drafts of Books I and II to John Colet. During the penurious years in Paris that followed, he apparently went on with it during the time he could spare from his teaching. He took it with him to Italy in 1506, and revised Books I and II at Bologna. But when in 1509 he received an urgent invitation to come to England and share in the golden age that was opening with the reign of Henry VIII, he left Italy in a hurry and consigned his papers to the care of an English friend, Richard Pace, at Ferrara. Soon Pace had to leave too and the papers went to another Englishman, less conscientious, who sold what he could and gave the rest away.

“Erasmus asked over and over again for the return of his brainchild. But he never saw most of it again. He got hold of Book I when he was in Louvain many years later, revised it again, and sent it to Froben, who published it in 1520. The reason given for this was that Erasmus had found the manuscript circulating from hand to hand, and he was conscious of its juvenile mistakes; the only way to deal with this was to produce a new and revised edition. A year or two later he had the beginning of Book II sent from England and found the end of the same book at Bruges. But nothing more ever emerged, and he never fulfilled his intention of rewriting it.”(Margaret Mann Phillips, ‘The Antibarbarians’, in The Collected Works of Erasmus, Toronto, Volume 23)

While the form and message of the work that Erasmus revised for the press in 1520 was substantially unchanged from his earlier version, important changes and additions, such as his pointed criticism of monasticism and scholasticism, reflected the political and religious situation of 1519-1520. In particular, the new version reflects Erasmus’ conflict with the Louvain theologians, following the publication of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, and his conflict with the monastic orders that accused Erasmus of heresy and Lutheranism. Strikingly, the threat to humanistic studies that Erasmus described in the 1490’s was alive and well in 1520. “The situation as regards the classics was no different in 1520 from what it had been in 1495, except that the resistance was more acrimonious, more informed perhaps, more localized, and infinitely more dangerous. The defense had to be on a different plane. In the earliest version it was stupidity and ignorance which were the chief targets, the blind dislike of anything new which he had observed to prevail since boyhood in his native Holland; in the later version he is faced with powerful enemies which intend to destroy him and his cause. There is little need to wonder at the increased bitterness of tone in the version of 1520.”(Ibid)

Bezzel 159; Bibl. Erasmiana I, 9; Bibl. Erasmiana II, 74; Bibl. Belgica, E 290; Mynors 31; VD16 E 1999