The Age of Erasmus by P. S. Allen


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Page 2

By 1455 he had arrived at Paris and entered upon his studies for the
theological degree. Within a year he conceived a profound distaste for
the philosophy dominant in the schools; and though he persevered for
some time, his frequent dissension from his teachers earned for him
the title of 'Magister contradictionis'. After this his movements
cannot be traced until 1470, when he was at Rome in the train of
Cardinal Francesco della Rovere. In the interval he studied medicine,
and, if report be true, travelled far; venturing into the East, just
when the fall of Constantinople had turned the tide of Hellenism
westward. In Greece he read Aristotle in the original, and learnt to
prefer Plato; in Egypt he sought in vain for the books of Solomon and
a mythical library of Hebrew treasures.

In 1471 his Cardinal-patron was elected Pope as Sixtus IV. The
magnificence which characterized the poor peasant's son in his
dealings with Italy, in his embellishment of Rome and the Vatican, was
not lacking in his treatment of Wessel. 'Ask what you please as a
parting gift', he said to the scholar, who was preparing to set out
for Friesland. 'Give me books from your library, Greek and Hebrew',
was the request. 'What? No benefice, no grant of office or fees? Why
not?' 'Because I don't want them', came the quiet reply. The books
were forthcoming--one, a Greek Gospels, was perhaps the parent of a
copy which reached Erasmus for the second edition of his New

After his return to the North, Wessel was invited to Heidelberg, to
aid the Elector Palatine, Philip, in restoring the University, _c._
1477. He was without the degree in theology which would have enabled
him to teach in that faculty, and was not even in orders: indeed a
proposal that he should qualify by entering the lowest grade and
receiving the tonsure, he contemptuously rejected. So the Theological
Faculty would not hear him, but to the students in Arts he lectured on
Greek and Hebrew and philosophy. For some years, too, he was physician
to David of Burgundy, Bishop of Utrecht, whom he cured of gout by
making him take baths of warm milk. The Bishop rewarded him by
shielding him from the attacks of the Dominicans, who were incensed
by his bold criticisms of Aquinas; and when age brought the desire for
rest, the Bishop set him over a house of nuns at Groningen, and bought
him the right to visit Mount St. Agnes whenever he liked, by paying
for the board and lodging of this welcome guest.

Wessel's last years were happily spent. He was the acknowledged leader
of his society, and he divided his time between Mount St. Agnes and
the sisters at Groningen, with occasional visits to Adwert. There he
set about reviving the Abbey schools, one elementary, within its
walls, the other more advanced, in a village near by; and Abbot Rees
warmly supported him. Would-be pupils besought him to teach them Greek
and Hebrew. Admiring friends came to hear him talk, and brought their
sons to see this glory of their country--Lux mundi, as he was called.
Some fragments of his conversation have been preserved, the
unquestioned judgements which his hearers loyally received. Of the
Schoolmen he was contemptuous, with their honorific titles: 'doctor
angelic, doctor seraphic, doctor subtle, doctor irrefragable.' 'Was
Thomas (Aquinas) a doctor? So am I. Thomas scarcely knew Latin, and
that was his only tongue: I have a fair knowledge of the three
languages. Thomas saw Aristotle only as a phantom: I have read him in
Greece in his own words.' To Ostendorp, then a young man, but
afterwards to become head master of Deventer school, he gave the
counsel: 'Read the ancients, sacred and profane: modern doctors, with
their robes and distinctions, will soon be drummed out of town.' At
Mount St. Agnes once he was asked why he never used rosary nor book of
hours. 'I try', he replied, 'to pray always. I say the Lord's Prayer
once every day. Said once a year in the right spirit it would have
more weight than all these vain repetitions.'

He loved to read aloud to the brethren on Sunday evenings; his
favourite passage being John xiii-xviii, the discourse at the Last
Supper. As he grew older, he sometimes stumbled over his words. He was
not an imposing figure, with his eyes somewhat a-squint and his slight
limp; and sometimes the younger monks fell into a titter, irreverent
souls, to hear him so eager in his reading and so unconscious. It was
not his eyesight that was at fault: to the end he could read the
smallest hand without any glasses, like his great namesake, John
Wesley, whom a German traveller noticed on the packet-boat between
Flushing and London reading the fine print of the Elzevir Virgil, with
his eyes unaided, though at an advanced age.

On his death-bed Wessel was assailed with scepticism, and began to
doubt about the truth of the Christian religion. But the cloud was of
short duration. That supreme moment of revelation, which comes to
every man once, is no time for fear. Patient hope cast out
questioning, and he passed through the deep waters with his eyes on
the Cross which had been his guide through the life that was ending.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 22nd Mar 2019, 10:34