Erasmus of Toronto
by Robert Fulford

(Imperial Oil Review, Spring, 1999)

Although he thought himself a citizen of the world, his contemporaries usually called him Erasmus of Rotterdam. Today, at least in the English language, he's Erasmus of Toronto--people who read him in English anywhere in the world read the University of Toronto Press translations.

RON SCHOEFFEL was on his own for a few weeks during the summer of 1968. His wife had taken their son to Montana to see her parents, but Schoeffel had been tied to his editor's desk at the University of Toronto Press. Faced with a row of empty evenings, he decided to spend them reading something substantial--the letters of Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch Renaissance scholar. From this idle whim the great Erasmus publishing project was born.

Schoeffel couldn't find the letters in an English edition at the university library. He assumed he was misreading the card catalogue, and so, at first, did a librarian he consulted.

Eventually they both discovered a curious fact: Erasmus's letters just weren't available in English.

Schoeffel found that ridiculous. After all, Erasmus was the greatest intellectual of the Renaissance, a man whose writings helped to create the modern age. His letters were said to be the finest of the 16th century. He wrote them in Latin, as he wrote everything, but the reading of Latin is not widespread in our time--a fact, incidentally, that Erasmus never for a moment anticipated and would almost certainly deplore.

Back at work the next day, Schoeffel mentioned his frustration to his boss, the distinguished editor Francess Halpenny, wondering whether the University of Toronto Press might publish the letters in English. Schoeffel and his colleagues began consulting Erasmus scholars, who told them that much of the great man's work was not available in good English translations. There might be a place for an English version of all his works--not only his letters but also his satires, his controversial writings on Christianity, his poetry, even the volumes of adages, in which he translated and discussed the sayings of ancient authors (such as, "In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king"). Erasmus scholars from several countries were invited to a conference, and a bold plan began unfolding.

Bold plans were more in fashion then than now. This was the period that produced Expo 67 at Montreal, the finest world's fair in history, and inspired many lesser cultural enterprises across the country. The University of Toronto Press was already involved in two vast, multivolume schemes: the collected edition of John Stuart Mill's writings and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, a work of unprecedented scope whose fourteenth volume appeared in 1998. In the 1960s money for publishing of this kind was available, from foundations and later from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). No one imagined it would ever dry up.

In 1968 the Erasmus project got under way: the University of Toronto Press would publish the bulk of his work in forty volumes. Later, as more editors were recruited and more Erasmus material was discussed, the project grew larger. Allan Fleming, the undisputed leader of Canadian typographers until his untimely death in 1977, gave the series its handsome permanent design. The first volume appeared in 1974, and I can remember, a quarter of a century later, the day I opened it. This was a volume of Erasmus's letters, and it seemed to me that its clear modern English opened a magnificent window onto the landscape of Renaissance thought--and presented Erasmus as not only a great humanist but a vulnerable and sometimes difficult human being.

Ever since, the volumes have been moving through the press at a stately pace, which sometimes slows but never stops. Forty-one have appeared so far, and it will be decades before the last one, the eighty-ninth, appears. Outside book publishing, a plan that operates over a time period this long--half a century, at least--is just about unknown. Even within book publishing, it's a rare phenomenon.

Along the way, the project has given Erasmus a new address. Although he thought himself a citizen of the world, his contemporaries usually called him Erasmus of Rotterdam. Today, at least in the English language, he's Erasmus of Toronto--people who read him in English anywhere in the world read the University of Toronto Press translations. Those who consider the hard-cover volumes intimidating can find his essence in The Erasmus Reader, a paperback selection edited by Erika Rummel of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

Erasmus, in return, has given Canada's largest university the sort of place, within Renaissance studies, that it dreams of having in every field: it now stands firmly at the centre of a vast international web of research and learning. Two hundred or so scholars, from seven or eight countries, have taken part over the years, now under the general editorship of Father James McConica, the Renaissance historian and president of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto. Schoeffel chairs the executive committee. A good many older scholars who were part of the project in the beginning have died, but not before bringing along young scholars to complete the work.

Their translations, carefully annotated and explained for modern readers, now sit on the shelves of all the great libraries of the world. Anthony Levi of Oxford University has remarked that "by 1980 the whole world of Renaissance scholarship regarded it as an honour to be associated with the edition."

Hugh Trevor-Roper, the renowned British historian, wrote: "This is a splendid enterprise: I cannot commend it enough." It has become, as Doug Fetherling remarked in the Ottawa Citizen last year, "one of the great megaprojects in the history of Canadian publishing."

ERASMUS WAS BORN illegitimate, the son of a priest, and never knew for certain the year of his birth--1466, 1467, 1468? It didn't matter much anyway. In the Renaissance, people weren't deeply interested in dates and often couldn't say offhand what year it was. What mattered was faith, which was timeless. In 1492, the year Columbus arrived in the Americas and began shaping the future, Erasmus was ordained by the Roman Catholic Church. Neither he nor anyone else knew that the church of which he now became a priest was living through its final years of true unity and would soon be shaken to its depths by another intellectual priest, a generation younger, Martin Luther.

Erasmus first made his reputation by publishing his Adages and by editing new versions of ancient Greek and Latin authors and church fathers, notably Jerome. He produced a Latin edition of the New Testament, based on the Greek text, that advanced Biblical understanding. Eventually he grew so famous that anything he wrote attracted attention. He was the first writer who influenced the opinion of Europe through printed books, a new medium that he mastered completely. Lisa Jardine, in Erasmus: Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma in Print, describes Erasmus as a brilliant self-promoter who manipulated new media, not only the book but the portrait: he often had portraits of himself made (by Hans Holbein and Albrecht Durer, among others) and saw to it they were distributed to all the best scholarly places. His independent intellectual reputation stretched across most of the great cities and courts of Europe. Says Jardine: "He invented the charisma of the absent professor--the figure who creates awe by his name on the title page, not by his presence in the classroom....whose presence was evoked in portrait, woodcut, or published collection of personal letters, set alongside the wildly successful, constantly reissued, revised, and re-edited textbooks, translations and editions."

In middle age Erasmus turned into a legendary figure, to whose home (wherever in Europe it happened to be at the time) young scholars would make pilgrimages. He was a celebrity before anyone knew what that word meant, greeted on his travels by banquets and speeches of welcome from local dignitaries. In 1518, travelling down the Rhine, he was recognized by a customs official, who insisted Erasmus visit his house. Works of his lay on the man's desk, among the customs forms. Erasmus described this event in a letter: "He cried out his good fortune, called for his children, his wife, and all his friends." Flattering attention of this kind did not dismay Erasmus. He understood it to be a tribute to his status as a scholar, and to the emerging humanist scholarship of which he was the leader.

Despite his fame, Erasmus remained for much of his life dependent on gifts from princes and other wealthy patrons; many of his most revealing (and touching) letters are requests for support, driven by desperation. Certainly he was in no position to expect permanent support from bishops and cardinals.

Within the church, he was a sharp critic of lazy and ignorant priests and monks, of whom he had seen too many in his youth--and in the semi-privacy of anonymous publication he could be remarkably caustic on the subject of church leaders. Four or five years after the death of Pope Julius II in 1513, literate Europe was scandalized by the appearance of a vicious satire titled "Julius Excluded from Heaven." When St. Peter asks Julius what he has done on earth, the late pope replies by bragging about all the money he has made and all the wars he has caused: "Today there is not one Christian king whom I have not incited to battle, after breaking, tearing, and shattering all the treaties by which they had painstakingly come to agreement among themselves...." At the end St. Peter says, "The last person I'd let in is a pestilent fellow like you." Julius decides he will gather yet another army and conquer heaven.

Did Erasmus write that long attack on a famous pope? He did not quite deny writing it, but insisted he had nothing to do with printing it. Today most scholars believe it is his.

By the mid-1520s there was a widespread suspicion that he was a Lutheran, and certainly many believed that he had at least prepared the ground for Luther--a popular saying had it that "Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched." The Spanish Inquisition began an investigation of Erasmus's writings in 1527 and the faculty of theology at Paris condemned some of his work as scandalous and unorthodox. But in the end he was no hero of the Protestants. Lutherans, and especially Martin Luther himself, expected Erasmus to join them. He refused, and wrote critically of Luther. At one point he penned, "not everyone has the strength needed for martyrdom." But he seems genuinely to have distrusted all fanaticism, including Luther's. In 1536 Erasmus died within the church.

The church did not appreciate his loyalty: if he was too conservative for the radicals, he was also too radical for the conservatives. He had called for a great council to restore the church to unity, but when the Council of Trent finally got going, in the middle of the 16th century, it created an Index of Forbidden Books and at first placed all his work on it. Later it permitted certain of his books to circulate, but only in expurgated form; it totally banned others, including the Praise of Folly, his light-hearted satire of official church teaching.

People read Erasmus today not only to know how the Renaissance created the modern era but to understand how people in his time lived and thought. Frequently, in his letters (which discuss everything from the cost of wool to the death of kings) and his essays, we discover we are closer to his era than we might imagine. In our own time, the end of the Cold War has fractured everyone's standard picture of the world and left us confused about the direction of international politics; the Renaissance fell into a similar confusion when its dominant institution, the church, confronted a dangerous schism. Where we have AIDS as a major concern, they had the plague. Where we have computers and the Internet revealing new ways of acquiring knowledge, they had the printing press.

During the Renaissance, people seem to have worried, as we do, about declining standards of education. In a long essay on teaching, Erasmus expressed his belief in play as a way of learning, deplored corporal punishment, and insisted that parents, however busy, make the passing of traditions and culture to their children their first priority. "Any father who finds it a burden to raise his son loves his son only superficially," he declared. He gave as an example an Englishman, "the illustrious Thomas More, who despite his commitments to the affairs of state did not hesitate to serve as a tutor to his wife, son, and daughters." More, who is best known to modern audiences through Robert Bolt's play, A Man for All Seasons, was devoted to Erasmus. He wrote to him: "there is one craving for glory I cannot shake off, and I marvel at how sensuously and sweetly it appeals to me. It is when the thought comes to me that I shall be commended to the most distant ages because of the friendship of Erasmus...."

AT TORONTO, the Erasmus project has had its troubles. In the early 1990s the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council withdrew support, after deciding to back mainly Canadian subjects and (as Schoeffel puts it) projects that would be useful--"and Erasmus is not useful." But the University of Toronto Press decided to forge on regardless, picking up a little money here, a little there. A typical volume in the series costs $35,000 to $45,000 to produce (and results in a loss of $5,000 to $8,000). A donor can "sponsor" a volume, offsetting the loss, for $5,000. A businessman put in $5,000 for one book and two Renaissance scholars (who have worked on the project) backed another volume for the same amount. One way or another, the Collected Works of Erasmus will be completed.

As for Ron Schoeffel, he thinks from time to time of his own future with this gigantic project that he set in motion three decades ago. As he sees it now, "The problem is to outlive it." He's sixty-three, and, all going well, he'll be in his eighties when the eighty-ninth and last volume appears.

That will be sometime in the third decade of the next millennium. How will he handle it? "I guess," he says, "you sit in your wheelchair and they throw the last volume into your lap--and that's it." Could an editor who has spent his life with scholarly books imagine a happier end?

(Republished summer 1999 in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing)

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