The Better Part of Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vives, on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535

By Robert P. Adams | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ELEVEN
A WORLD RUFFLED (1520-22)

After that it were once come to that point, and the world once ruffled and fallen in a wildness, how long would it be, and what heaps of heavy mischiefs would there fall, ere the ways were found to set the world in order and peace again?— Thomas More, 1528

Superficially, in midsummer of 1520, after the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Renaissance England exhibited superb peace and the reality of social progress. Nevertheless, as sometimes happens long before an approaching hurricane in human affairs, occasional mighty ground swells began to appear, lifting into an ominous surf pounding the shores of England.

The teapot-tempest of the More-Brixius literary quarrel was after all but a tiny ruffle in the Golden Age peace. The quarrel's soreness, however, did not merely fade away. Rather it was soon eclipsed by unexpected and far more ominous forms of social strife, which threatened all humanist hopes for a rule of reason and justice, and not only in England. The symptoms are apparent in Erasmus' last allusion to the More-Brixius squabble ( February 16, 1521). On the one hand he had the warmest praise for a rising young Spaniard, Juan Luis Vives, whom both he and More hoped to bring to England to carry on their kind of humanism. On the other hand, he wrote somberly to Budé, "this Lutheran tempest tears away the arts" ( EE, 1184.25).

More's own sense of a fateful contraction of the political space and time available for humanist social criticism in England appears soon after the Field of the Cloth of Gold itself. "Cautious and guarded" (caute ac circumspecte) is the new keynote, apparent in his discussion of proposals to publish not only a third edition of his epigrams but to add, in the humanist fashion, his letters, many of which, like Erasmus' own, contain very piercing observations on war, peace, and other matters in living controversy. At the Field of the Cloth of Gold, More had

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