Erasmus’ sceptical attitude towards the discipline of dialectic in his early writings is well known. In this article, I revisit Erasmus’ relationship with the arts of reasoning, tracing a trajectory from The Praise of Folly and De Copia to his final work, Ecclesiastes. Erasmus’ treatise on preaching, I suggest, develops a new approach to copious speech and writing by combining the resources of rhetoric and dialectic, in dialogue with the textbooks on the arts of discourse that had appeared in the 25 years since the composition of The Praise of Folly.
The article is a short introduction to the life-long gift-practice of Erasmus—the gifts he received, the gifts he gave, and the symbolic and moral meaning of the gift cycle of reception, gratitude, and reciprocation that pertained to a wide range of exchanges—from small objects to casks of wine to large gifts of money. His book dedications also belonged to that same gift cycle. His management of gifts was driven in part by necessity, as he needed funds and sometimes protection in order to pursue his studies and writing outside the normal framework of institutional structures. Gifts were a sign of his capacity to flourish within the community of friends (and donors) that he was able to draw around himself.
Erasmus’ educational theories were popularized during the first half of the sixteenth century by a group of Tudor educators, who used the medium of elementary Latin grammars and introductory phrasebooks to offer practical tools for a multilingual literary culture that would come to full fruition in the second half of the sixteenth century. Their teaching notes and school commentaries that survive in their annotated textbooks provide a valuable source with which to trace how Erasmian methods of teaching were actually put into practise. Among these early educators is an obscure figure of English educational history, Thomas Robertson (fl. c. 1520–1561), headmaster of Magdalen College School in Oxford from 1526 to 1531, who devised the most thorough and comprehensive Erasmian program in his annotated edition of William Lily’s elementary grammar De Latinorum nominum generibus (Basel: Johann Bebel, 1532). In many ways, Robertson’s edition of Lily’s grammar epitomizes Erasmus’ grammatical encyclopedism expounded in De ratione studii and De duplici copia verborum ac rerum commentarii duo, which inadvertently resulted in a fundamental reinterpretation of textual studies in the Tudor classroom. It furthermore testifies to Robertson’s efforts to promote Erasmus’ trilingual ideal: a parallel Latin and Greek instruction, which was extended even to basic Hebrew from an early age.