Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 3. His first visit to England

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

I. Englishmen and the Classical Renascence

§ 3. His first visit to England

Erasmus visited England for the first time in the summer of 1499. He came in the company of young William Blount, lord Mountjoy, who had been one of his pupils in Paris. He seems to have resided, for a while, in London with Sir William Say, his pupil’s father-in-law; then, at a country-house belonging to lord Mountjoy at Greenwich. He spent about two months at Oxford in the college of St. Mary, an establishment for students of the Augustinian order presided over by prior Richard Charnock. He was back in London in the beginning of December; and, after a round-about journey by Dover, Calais and Tournehem, he arrived in Paris sometime about the end of January, 1500. His visit had been short, lasting about six months, just long enough to make him acquainted with the most prominent scholars in England; and his correspondence enables us to judge of the progress which the classical renascence had made there.

In a letter to Robert Fisher, “the kyng’s solicitor at Rome,” he instances four scholars whom he cannot praise too highly—John Colet, William Grocyn, Thomas Linacre and Thomas More. These men had learning neither hackneyed nor trivial, but deep, accurate, ancient Latin and Greek.

  • When I hear my Colet, I seem to be listening to Plato himself. In Grocyn, who does not marvel at such a perfect round of learning? What can be more acute, profound and delicate than the judgment of Linacre? What has nature ever created more gentle, more sweet, more happy than the genius of Thomas More? I need not go through the list. It is marvellous how general and abundant is the harvest of ancient learning in this country.
  • The letters of Erasmus are, as a rule, more rhetorical than matter-of-fact; but, in this case, he seems to have been perfectly sincere. He believed that England was a specially favoured land, and that the classical renascence had made progress there in an exceptional way. Six years later, during his second visit, which lasted about fourteen months and was spent, for the most part, in London, he assured Servatius, the prior of the convent to which he was still nominally attached, that he had had intimate converse with five or six men in London who were as accurate scholars in Latin and Greek as Italy itself then possessed. His sincerity becomes manifest when it is remembered that these English scholars influenced his life as none of his innumerable acquaintances was able to do. At his first visit he knew very little Greek. Their example and exhortations compelled him to study that language as soon as he returned to Paris. His pupil, lord Mountjoy, suggested to him his first book, Adagia; and prior Charnock encouraged him to undertake the task. It is scarcely too much to say that his first visit to England was the turning point in the career of Erasmus. Apart from it, he might have written Adagia, Colloquia, Copia, Encomium Moriae, but not Novum Instrumentum with the Paraphrases, Enchiridion Militis Christiani, Institutio Principis Christiani, nor his editions and commentaries on such early Fathers as Jerome and Chrysostom. He met men who, so far as the humanities were concerned, were riper scholars than himself and who, at the same time, were animated by lofty Christian aspirations; from them, Erasmus learnt to be a Christian humanist, with a real desire to see a reformation in life and morals in the church and in society, and a perception of the way in which the classical renascence might be made serviceable to that end.

    Erasmus had never cared much for theology, although he had studied it in a somewhat perfunctory manner in order to qualify himself for the much esteemed degree of doctor of divinity. He had called himself vetus theologus, which meant one who accepted the teaching of Aquinas and cared little for the novelties introduced by John Duns Scotus. He had jeered at the Scotist theologians of the Sorbonne “biting their nails and making all sorts of discoveries about instances and quiddities and formalities” and falling asleep at their task. Now, John Colet showed him that Aquinas was, perhaps, to be distrusted quite as much—a man who had taken upon himself to define all things, a man who had corrupted the teaching of Christ by mixing it with his profane philosophy. Colet made it plain, too, how the classical renascence could help in the work of reformation which all men then thought to be necessary. A scholar could edit the New Testament in Greek, and could translate the Scriptures into the vernaculars, so that the ploughman might repeat portions of them to himself as he followed the plough and the weaver might hum them to the tune of his shuttle. He could produce paraphrases of the more difficult portions. He could edit the writings of the earlier Fathers and show men what Christianity was before the schoolmen altered it. Such was the lesson which the English scholar impressed on the Dutch humanist, and Erasmus never forgot it. His intercourse with Colet gave a bent to his whole life.

    The scholars whom Erasmus met in England during his earlier visits may be said to have been the pioneers of the classical renascence in this country. Before them, Englishmen had gone to Italy on business connected with the Holy See or to perfect themselves in canon law at the famous university of Bologna, and had used the opportunities given to study Latin and even Greek. We hear of Robert Flemming, afterwards dean of Lincoln, who studied Greek at Ferrara under Battista Guarino; of William Grey, who was taught by the famous Guarino, who brought Greek MSS. to England and presented them to Balliol College; of John Gunthorpe; of William Tilly of Selling or Celling, who had travelled in Italy, had learned Greek and, most probably, taught it to his more promising pupils in the school of the monastery of Christ Church, Canterbury. These earliest English humanists are little more than names and the influence they exerted on their own land, however real it may have been, is obscure and scarcely discernible. The fact that they left their native land and studied under such a famous teacher as Guarino shows that there had arisen in England the beginnings of a desire to share in the classical renascence.