The Age of Erasmus by P. S. Allen


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The importance of biography for the study of history can hardly be
overrated. In a sense it is true that history should be like the law
and 'care not about very small things'; concerning itself not so much
with individual personality as with fundamental causes affecting the
rise and fall of nations or the development of mental outlook from one
age to another. But even if this be conceded, we still must not forget
that the course of history is worked out by individuals, who, in spite
of the accidental condensation that the needs of human life thrust
upon them, are isolated at the last and alone--for no man may deliver
his brother. In consequence, it is only in periods when the stream of
personal record flows wide and deep that history begins to live, and
that we have a chance to view it through the eyes of the actors
instead of projecting upon it our own fancies and conceptions.

One of the features that makes the study of the Renaissance so
fascinating is that in that age the stream of personal record, which
had been driven underground, its course choked and hidden beneath the
fallen masonry of the Roman Empire, emerges again unimpeded and flows
in ever-increasing volume. For reconstruction of the past we are no
longer limited to charters and institutions, or the mighty works of
men's hands. In place of a mental output, rigidly confined within
unbending modes of thought and expression, we have a literature that
reflects the varied phases of human life, that can discard romance and
look upon the commonplace; and instead of dry and meagre chronicles,
rarely producing evidence at first hand, we have rich store of memoirs
and private letters, by means of which we can form real pictures of
individuals--approaching almost to personal acquaintance and
intimacy--and regard the same events from many points of view, to
perception of the circumstances that 'alter cases'.

The period of the Transalpine Renaissance corresponds roughly with the
life of Erasmus (1466-1536); from the days when Northern scholars
began to win fame for themselves in reborn Italy, until the width of
the humanistic outlook was narrowed and the progress of the reawakened
studies overwhelmed by the tornado of the Reformation. The aim of
these lectures is not so much to draw the outlines of the Renaissance
in the North as to present sketches of the world through which Erasmus
passed, and to view it as it appeared to him and to some of his
contemporaries, famous or obscure. And firstly of the generation that
preceded him in the wide but undefined region known then as Germany.

The Cistercian Abbey of Adwert near Groningen, under the enlightened
governance of Henry of Rees (1449-85), was a centre to which were
attracted most of the scholars whose names are famous in the history
of Northern humanism in the second half of the fifteenth century:
Wessel, Agricola, Hegius, Langen, Vrye, and others. They came on
return from visits to Italy or the universities; men of affairs after
discharge of their missions; schoolmasters to rest on their holidays;
parish priests in quest of change: all found a welcome from the
hospitable Abbot, and their talk ranged far and wide, over the pursuit
of learning, till Adwert merited the name of an 'Academy'.

Earliest of these is John Wessel (d. 1489), and perhaps also the most
notable; certainly the others looked up to him with a veneration which
seems to transcend the natural pre-eminence of seniority.
Unfortunately the details of his life have not been fully established.
Thirty years after his death, when it was too late for him to define
his own views, the Reformers claimed him for their own; and in
consequence his body has been wrangled over with the heat which seeks
not truth but victory. His father, Hermann Wessel, was a baker from
the Westphalian village of Gansfort or Goesevort, who settled in
Groningen. After some years in the town school, the boy was about to
be apprenticed to a trade, as his parents were too poor to help him
further; but the good Oda Jargis, hearing how well he had done at his
books, sent him to the school at Zwolle, in which the Brethren of the
Common Life took part. There, as at Groningen, he rose to the top,
and in his last years, as a first-form boy, also did some teaching in
the third form, according to the custom of the school. He came into

St. Agnes, half an hour outside Zwolle, and was profoundly influenced
by him. The course at Zwolle lasted eight years, and there is reason
to suppose that he completed it in full. He was lodged in the Parua
Domus, a hostel for fifty boys, and we are told that he and his next
neighbour made a hole through the wall which divided their
rooms--probably only a wooden partition--and taught one another:
Wessel imparting earthly wisdom, and receiving in exchange the fear
and love of the Lord. In the autumn of 1449 he matriculated at
Cologne, entering the Bursa Laurentiana; in December 1450 he was B.A.,
and in February 1452, M.A.

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