An Opportune Entryway: Erasmus and his Earliest Effort in Print

By Jacob Baxter |

Bold new chapters can often arise out of the most awkward of circumstances. In the Houghton Library at Harvard University, one of our partners at Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, you will find a fascinating example of this: Robert Gaguin’s Compendium de origine et gestis Francorum (USTC 760882).[1] This incunabulum is a chronicle of France, which only survives in a mere fifteen extant copies.

Printed in around 1495, the Compendium seems, upon first glance, rather unassuming. Page after page of unillustrated Latin prose printed in an exquisite gothic type greets the reader as they journey through the book. Yet, this regular format does not prevail throughout the entire work, because tucked away in the final few pages of the Compendium is something truly momentous: the earliest known printed writings of Desiderius Erasmus.

Harvard Inc 8318 TP
Title page of the Houghton Library copy of USTC 760882, shelfmark: Inc 8318. By permission of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, photo courtesy of John Overholt.

The intellectual stature of Erasmus has few equals. A restless, but incredibly gifted scholar, some of the most notable literary landmarks of the Dutchman’s career include his edition of the New Testament (1516), and the biting satire In Praise of Folly (1511).[2] Erasmus wrote his works in eloquent Latin, and they were eagerly lapped up across Europe. According to the Universal Short Title Catalogue, only Martin Luther was printed more than Erasmus in the sixteenth century. Nonetheless, despite this continental renown, the early life of Erasmus is notoriously, and somewhat deliberately, difficult to trace. For instance, whilst he is often intimately tied to Rotterdam, where you can study at the Erasmus University and meander across the Erasmusbrug, we cannot assert where the scholar was born with any certainty.[3]

This murkiness extends into Erasmus’ early relationship with print, despite the occasional anecdote from his early correspondence. In 1489, for instance, the Dutchman journeyed from Steyn to Gouda with the printer Gerard Leeuw, who Erasmus would later describe as ‘a very clever fellow.’[4] Nonetheless, these glimpses are largely fleeting. It is only six years later that we really begin to see Erasmus’ relationship with printing solidify, with the publication of the Compendium.

In 1495, Erasmus was given leave to study in Paris, where he intended to secure a doctorate in theology. Shortly after arriving in the city, the young scholar looked to enter the circle of Parisian humanists, which coalesced around the ageing Robert Gaguin. A prolific writer, some of Gaguin’s most notable works included French translations of Caesar and Livy.

Naturally, Erasmus looked to gain Gaguin’s acquaintance through letter writing. His first attempt at this was nothing short of a disaster. The Dutchman’s adulation of Gaguin in his correspondence was met with a cold response from the Frenchman, who criticised Erasmus’ ‘underserved platitudes.’[5] A second attempt from Erasmus was greeted with a far more favourable reception, with Gaguin writing that Erasmus had now ‘assuaged my grief’.[6]

A few weeks after this somewhat rocky introduction, Erasmus was given an opportunity by Gaguin to have his own writings printed for the first time. In the final few pages of Gaguin’s Compendium de origine et gestis Francorum we can find a two-page complimentary letter to the Frenchman, written by Erasmus. Composed in fluid prose, it is packed with admiration for both the scholarship of Gaguin, and the sheer scale of his endeavour:

‘Inasmuch as you, Robert Gaguin, the principal ornament of the university of France, have resolved to publish in immortal prose an account of the achievements of the kings and princes of the French nation, which heretofore lay well-nigh buried in darkness for lack of a fitting historian, I cannot fail to lend your undertaking my warm approval. For you have taken up, or rather have laid upon your shoulders, a task which I regard as highly honourable: one that not only will occasion you immense pleasure to all lovers of Latin literature but will, especially, bring your own country dignity and prestige and what I may call triumphal splendour, and which, finally is entirely worthy of your scholarship, literary skill, and patriotism’.[7]

letter in harvard's Inc 8318
Erasmus’ letter on sig. 136r of Harvard’s Inc 8318. By permission of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, photo courtesy of John Overholt.

Placed alongside the thousands of letters sent between humanists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this laudatory tone is nothing out of the ordinary. What is truly fascinating about this letter, however, is the circumstances behind its conception. It was designed to fill a blank leaf at the back of the Compendium. According to P. S. Allen, the noted Erasmus scholar, this opportunity did not arise until after the book was completed. It is worth speculating, therefore, that had Gaguin been a little more verbose in his own writings, this chance would have not fallen at Erasmus’ doorstep.

Whilst it may be short, this letter provided Erasmus with an opportune entryway into the world of print. A few months after this initial foray, Erasmus had an entire volume of his writings published for the first time, a collection of poems entitled De casa natalitia Jesu.[8] Moreover, it also provided the Dutchman with a useful degree of exposure within the scholarly community.[9] In 1499, the English scholar John Colet wrote to Erasmus ‘a letter you had written to Gaguin in admiration of his accomplishments in French history furnished me, as I read it, a very pattern and sample of human perfection’.[10]

Print would go onto be crucial to fermenting the continental reputation of Desiderius Erasmus, alongside the scholar’s constant journeying and copious letter writing. In the decades following this inaugural effort, Erasmus developed a clear understanding of the workings of the European book market, which he used to collaborate effectively with a number of printers across continental Europe. Some of these partnerships were incredibly lucrative for printer and author alike. In Praise of Folly, for example, was an instant bestseller that was reprinted eighteen times in five years.[11] Yet, when we consider these eventual triumphs, it is worth bearing in mind that Erasmus’ first effort in print began with nothing more than a lucky break.

Jacob Baxter is currently undertaking an MLitt in Book History at the University of St Andrews, having graduated with a first-class degree in History from the same institution. His interests crystallise around print culture in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch Republic. In June 2019, Jacob was awarded the Alan Robertson Memorial Prize for his dissertation entitled ‘Crime, Commerce and the News Market: Crowdsourcing Solutions in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic.’ This summer, Jacob attended the USTC summer programme.

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[1] Robert Gaguin, De origie et gestis Francorum compendium (Paris: Pierre Le Dru, 1495). USTC 760882.

[2] Andrew Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press 2010), p. 83.

[3] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700 (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 98.

[4] Erasmus to Jacob Canter, 1489, CWE I, 32, p. 61.

[5] Robert Gaguin to Erasmus, 1495, CWE I, 43, p. 84.

[6] Robert Gaguin to Erasmus, 1495, CWE I, 44, p. 85.

[7] Erasmus to Robert Gaguin, 1495, CWE I, 45, p. 87.

[8] Desiderius Erasmus, De casa natalitia Jesu (Paris: Antoine Denidel, 1496). USTC 201328.

[9] S. Dianne Shaw, ‘A Study of the Collaboration Between Erasmus of Rotterdam and his Printer Johann Froben at Basel During the Years 1514 to 1527’, Erasmus Studies 6 (1981), p. 34.

[10] John Collet to Erasmus, 1499, CWE I, 107, p. 199.

[11] Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance, p. 84.

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