Earlier this week, I made a rash statement on Twitter, saying that my next post here would be about ‘the only badass Dutch person that has ever lived’. That’ll have to wait for another day, but I promise fans of cross-dressing, North Africa, and the Habsburg armies won’t be disappointed.
Still, to tide you over, it turns out that my favourite radio programme, the inestimable In Our Time, had an episode yesterday on Erasmus of Rotterdam. No-one who’s dipped into early modern history could have missed Erasmus, a humanist thinker who sits right at the heart of some of the debates that shaped Christendom in the sixteenth century. If you’ve got access to BBC iPlayer, the programme is an absolute treat – the guests are Cambridge’s Eamon Duffy, Jill Kraye from the Warburg, and Diarmuid MacCulloch of Oxford. I happen to be a huge MacCulloch fan – his ‘Reformation‘ is one of my favourite early modern histories, and his history of Christianity is weighing down my bedside table as we speak. He also happens to be a gifted public speaker who’s great fun to listen to.
Erasmus himself is an amazing character: a wandering scholar whose witty and barb-laden tracts challenged even Catholic orthodoxy. Despite having taken the side of the Church after Luther came on the scene in 1517 – Erasmus took him on in a print debate on the contentious issue of free will – his reputation came under Roman attack after his death, with his works being banned in their entirety by Pope Paul IV in 1559. Nowadays he’s remembered as one of the great minds of the early modern period, and still appeals through his ability to be both vicious and hilarious, often at the same time.
One thing that intrigued me from the In Our Time discussion was the willingness of the speakers to engage in a little bit of what we might call psychobiography. Historians will often shy away from linking an individual’s personality to particular events in his or her life, but it was refreshing to see Diarmuid MacCulloch note the potential impact of two things for Erasmus: the first was the fact that he was born the son of a priest, something shameful, to be hidden or denied. The second comes from Erasmus’ time at the Augustinian monastery of Steyn, where he took vows as a canon. During this period, he fell in love with a fellow-monk, Servatius Rogerus; the letters he wrote to him still survive. The idea was floated that Erasmus’ later insistence on a piety and religion of the head rather than of the body could have stemmed from his sharp disappointment and despair at the physical. This kind of reasoning can be troublesome – are we making windows into men’s souls? should we? – but I think it has its place. Having seen a fascinating lecture by Lyndal Roper which touched on the question of Martin Luther’s anal fixation, I’m starting to think it might be time for psychobiography to make a comeback.
Anyway. Listen, enjoy. And there’s more badass Dutch folk where that came from.