Erasmus and the Invention of Literature

in Erasmus Studies
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Before 1980, a consensus existed that Erasmian humanism lay at the basis of the liberal arts education system. Within that system, literary studies had the prime position, embodied in the concepts of bonae litterae and litterae humaniores. In recent years the idea of a liberal education has taken a battering. The principles of humanism are often treated defensively. The study of Erasmus’s literary writings, meanwhile, has happily devolved into other areas: into philology, grammar, and rhetoric. This article argues that the retreat in the wake of anti-humanism has led to some misunderstanding of Erasmus. An idea of the “literary” is central to his theoretical position. Erasmus’ concept of literature is here re-examined, both as a theory of imitation and as a medium of subjectivity. He emerges as more radical a literary interpreter than the pre-1980 consensus allowed. At the same time, it is argued that in riding the wave of the educational storm of the late twentieth century, the post-1980 attack on literary humanism has missed something of the power, imagination, and subtlety of Erasmus’ thought.

Erasmus and the Invention of Literature

in Erasmus Studies




R.J. SchoeckErasmus of Europe: The Prince of Humanists 1501–1536 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press1993) p. 364.


MansfieldMan On His Own: Interpretations of Erasmus c1750–1920 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press1992) p. 12.


Pieter G. BietenholzEncounters with a Radical Erasmus: Erasmus’ Work as a Source of Radical Thought in Early Modern Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press2009) chs 1 and 4.


Erika RummelThe Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance & Reformation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press1995); C.H. Kneepkens “The New Italian Learning and the Modern Devotion: Valla Synthen Erasmus and Elegant Latin” New Medieval Literatures 11 (2009) 231–248; Lodi Nauta In Defense of Common Sense: Lorenzo Valla’s Humanist Critique of Scholastic Philosophy (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 2009).


Giulia BartrumAlbrecht Dürer and His Legacy: the Graphic Work of a Renaissance Artist (London: British Museum2002) p. 295.


George PuttenhamThe Arte of English Poesie (1595), ed. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1936) p. 304.


See here also Erika RummelErasmus as a Translator of the Classics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press2012).


  • View in gallery

    Figure 2: George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (1589), STC 20519 Copy 1, opposite title page. By Permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C.

  • View in gallery

    Figure 3: Quentin Matsys, Medal of Desiderius Erasmus (Antwerp, 1519). Cast Bronze. British Museum, CM M2913. © Trustees of the British Museum.

  • View in gallery

    Figure 4: Albrecht Dürer, Imago Erasmi Roterodami ab Alberto Durero ad vivam effigiem deliniata (1526), Graphic. D853 no.1. By Permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C.


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