University Library

Intellectual contexts


    By Susan Broomhall

    The sale of indulgences within the Roman Catholic Church was a key target of reformers, particularly Martin Luther (1483–1546). In 1515, Pope Leo X (1475–1513) began to offer indulgences as a way to gain funds for his planned re-building project in Rome, St Peter’s Basilica. Martin Luther saw this practice through the activities of Johann Tetzel (1465–1519), the papal commissioner of indulgences for the dioceses of Magdeburg and Halberstadt, who was an enthusiastic proponent of the scheme. Moreover, half the funds raised did not reach Rome but were instead diverted to the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg (1490–1545), Tetzel’s employer. On 31 October 1517, Luther wrote to the Cardinal to complain of this abuse, including a copy of an academic essay, or disputation, that he had written in Latin questioning the power of indulgences with 95 different points, or theses, to his argument. This disputation has become better known as the Ninety-Five Theses, one of the founding documents of the Protestant Reformation. Within weeks, Luther’s work was widely published in Germany, in Latin and then translated into German, and, by 1519, the work was available widely in Italy, France and England.

    Erasmus, Moriae Encomium (1522 and 1668)

    By Kirk Essary

    Erasmus of Rotterdam (c. 1466-1536) was one of the foremost intellectuals of the European Renaissance as well as a major figure involved in the religious controversies surrounding Martin Luther’s Reformation. In 1516 he published a Greek edition of the New Testament with a revised Latin translation, a significant and controversial achievement as it stood against the Vulgate Latin version, which had been the predominant version of Scripture in Western Christendom for over a thousand years.

    His new version would come to heavily influence Protestant exegetes (including Martin Luther (1483–1546)) and would embroil Erasmus (who remained a Catholic) in endless controversy with more conservative Catholics until the end of his life. The Moriae Encomium, or In Praise of Folly—first published in 1511 and revised in 1515—was one of Erasmus’s most famous works. The work, an occasionally scathing satire, was written in the voice of Dame Folly, who encourages her many earthly followers (ironically) to continue in their mad ways. Erasmus (or Folly) pulled few punches in the work, which targeted established religious and political institutions. The most relentless criticism is reserved for lazy and gluttonous monks and hubristic theologians who write in the most abstruse scholastic mode. Similar criticisms would be taken up by Protestants against their Catholic counterparts, and the work would thus further implicate Erasmus himself in the schism which ensued from Luther’s Reformation.

    The images here represent two different editions, both of which include a commentary on the text by Gerardus Listrius (a colleague of Erasmus’s), but in rather different formats (illustrating the malleability of the printed text in the early modern period). The later version was bound (rather uncommonly) with a letter written by Erasmus against Luther, which is a response to a calumnious attack on Erasmus by the German Lutheran published first in 1534. Luther had accused Erasmus of the ancient heresy of Arianism—for Erasmus had suggested that the doctrine of the Trinity could not be found in its entirety in the Bible itself—and referred to him as the diabolum incarnatum (“the devil incarnate”). Erasmus responded with a spirited defence of his theological program and suggested that Luther’s insistence on sola scriptura was self-defeating for one always had to interpret and expand upon ambiguities in the biblical text whether they admitted it or not. This would remain an aspect of the complex legacy of 16th-century theology and biblical interpretation to the present day.

    Erasmus, Ecclesiastes

    By Kirk Essary

    In 1535, Erasmus of Rotterdam (c. 1466-1536) published his last major work, an enormous manual for preachers entitled the Ecclesiastes sive de ratione concionandi, or The Preacher, Or On the Method of Preaching.

    It is recognized as a watershed in the history of rhetoric for its comprehensive nature and its ambitious attempt to render the rhetorical rules of classical and Christian antiquity (it is especially indebted to Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria and Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana) appropriate for the approaches to preaching in the sixteenth century. The art of preaching had always been important in Christian thought, but it took on new significance in the sixteenth century as Protestants imagined the sermon to occupy the absolute centre of Christian teaching. The Ecclesiastes reveals Erasmus’s own strong feelings about the importance of the preacher and the sermon, and reminds us that many Catholic reformers sought similarly to emphasise the importance of preaching. It is a work of extraordinary breadth, and in it Erasmus attempts to deal with nearly every conceivable issue a preacher might face in approaching the pulpit, from his own moral standing to the appropriate way to use his hands in gesture. It also lays out extensive advice on the best way to move the emotions and how to employ an array of figures of speech in order to sway the congregation. It was published rather hastily on account of the fact that Erasmus did not have the energy, in his old age, to make the appropriate edits. It is thus somewhat unwieldy and perhaps overly long. Nevertheless, it was widely printed and its influence can be discerned in sacred rhetorics written subsequently by both Protestants and Catholics well into the seventeenth century.

    Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples’ French New Testament

    By Susan Broomhall

    Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples (c. 1455–1536) was a Roman Catholic theologian and humanist whose views found resonance with the Protestant reformers. Although some of his works were condemned for heresy, Lefèvre d’Etaples found support at the French royal court under the protection of the King of France, Francis I (1494–1547) and his sister, the author Marguerite d’Angoulême (1492–1549). Lefèvre d’Etaples was controversial because he translated the Bible into French, a language in which it could be read by many more people than as a Latin work. His was the first complete translation in French. This example is an edition from 1534 of his New Testament.

    As can be seen here on the frontispiece, these works were targeting a new readership through their language choice and presentation of images to accompany the text. Here, readers could see as well as read in gothic script the fate of the damned at the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. This was part of a spiritual and intellectual movement that believed the word of God should be shared widely, and not remain in the hands and knowledge of just an intellectual and official Church elite. Lefèvre d’Etaples’ translation of the New Testament caused a sensation when it was first published in 1523. Although the theologians at the University of Paris condemned the work and sought legal restrictions on any further translations, it was commercially very successful. At the same period, Martin Luther (1483–1546) was translating the Bible into German, and a complete German Bible would follow within a decade, in 1534.