An Accidental Historian: Erasmus and the English History of the Reformation

By Dodds, Gregory D. | Church History, June 2013 | Go to article overview

An Accidental Historian: Erasmus and the English History of the Reformation


Dodds, Gregory D., Church History


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I would like to thank the wonderful staff at the Bodleian Library, special collections at the University of St. Andrews, and, especially, the Folger Shakespeare Library. This article would not have been possible without their assistance. I also appreciated the helpful comments of scholars at several conferences and, especially, Patrick Henry, for his careful reading of this article. I also want to acknowledge the support of my own institution, Walla Walla University, which graciously provided me with a sabbatical and a research grant.

"All Christen men beware of consentyng to Erasmus fables, for by consentyng to them, they haue caused me to shrinke in my fayth that I promised to God at my Christenyng by my witnesses."1 These were the words of Thomas Topley as recorded by John Foxe, the famous sixteenth-century martyrologist and Protestant historian. The fables Topley was thinking of were the stories Desiderius Erasmus told in his famous Colloquies . While the Catholic Topley had figured out that they were fables, many English Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries treated Erasmus's dialogues as accurate, first-hand, historical descriptions of the pre-Reformation Catholic world. The words spoken by the various fictional characters in the Colloquies were presented as Erasmus's words and his observations of real Catholic clergy. The line between reality and fiction was blurred and over time Erasmus's fictional and satirical texts became historical reality for English Protestants.

Erasmus (1467-1536) is best remembered as a Catholic reformer who criticized the Church, but fell out with Luther over Luther's insistence on divine predestination. He is also remembered for his biblical scholarship, the printing of the Greek New Testament, and for his calls for peace and unity among Christians. He has been called a reformer, a philologist, a theologian, and occasionally a philosopher. What we do not often hear is that Erasmus was a historian. Yet, in many of his writings, Erasmus demonstrated a deep appreciation for historical knowledge and the skills of critical historical analysis. Not only did he often stress the importance of Christian tradition and consensus, which required a basic understanding of history, but he also understood the importance of historical methods for philological studies. As one English author wrote in 1646, Erasmus was "a man better skill'd in all Histories and in the Annals of the times, than [others] . . . who are for the most part strangers and enemies to all good literature."2 As I will discuss later, this reputation was important, as respect for Erasmus's historical skills lent credibility to his accounts of his own times. Erasmus is not often thought of in connection with the cultural growth of historical consciousness or with the development of the modern discipline of history. While he is acknowledged to be a figure of large historical significance, only limited attention has been paid to his role in the advancement of historical awareness, methods, and later cultural understandings of the past.

Renaissance humanists introduced new ways for critically thinking about the past.3 Rather than assuming that the past was similar to the present, humanists maintained that the present was fundamentally different than previous eras. Changes in language, custom, government, and worldview meant that understanding ancient texts, which were an overriding preoccupation of the Renaissance, required contextual readings and interpretations. The studia humanitatis almost presupposed historical consciousness and the awareness that dramatic changes had occurred in the world since the classical era. The idea of "rebirth" was a historical concept. The humanist emphasis on linguistics, ancient texts, and education was closely linked with a more critical approach to historical development.4 Erasmus was part of a humanist movement that stressed the importance of historical awareness and sound historical methodologies. …

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