Stationing himself for a few months in Paris, he published his first significant work, Collectanea adagiorum, a collection of 818 adages or quotations, mostly from classical authors. The revival of learning—i.e., of ancient literature—had set a fashion of adorning one’s opinions with a snatch from some Greek or Latin author; we see the custom in extreme form in Montaigne’s Essays and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy; it lingered into the eighteenth century in the forensic oratory of England. Erasmus accompanied each adage with a brief comment, usually pointed to current interest and salted with satiric wit; so, he observed, “priests are said in Scripture to devour the sins of the people; and they find sins so hard to digest that they must have the best wine to wash them down.”10The book was a boon to writers and speakers; it sold so well that for a year Erasmus could feed himself unaided. Moreover, Archbishop Warham, relishing the book despite its barbs, sent the author a gift of money and offered him a benefice in England; Erasmus, however, was not prepared to abandon the Continent for an island. In the next eight years he published several revisions of the Adagia, expanding it to 3,260 entries. Sixty editions appeared in his lifetime; translations were issued from the original Latin into English, French, Italian, German, and Dutch; altogether it was among the “best sellers” of its time.
Even so the proceeds were meager; and food was not enough. Pinched for pounds, Erasmus wrote (December 12, 1500) to his friend James Batt, who was tutoring a son of the Lady Anne of Vere, asking him to
point out to her how much more credit I shall do her by my learning than the other divines whom she maintains. They preach ordinary sermons; I write what will live forever. They, with their silly rubbish, are heard in one or two churches; my works will be read by all who know Latin and Greek in every country in the world. Such unlearned ecclesiastics abound everywhere; men like me are scarcely found in many centuries. Repeat all this to her unless you are too superstitious to tell a few fibs for a friend.11
When this approach failed, he wrote again in January, suggesting that Batt tell the lady that Erasmus was losing his eyesight, and adding: “Send me four or five gold pieces of your own, which you will recover out of the Lady’s money.”12 As Batt did not enter this trap, Erasmus wrote directly to the lady, comparing her with the noblest heroines of history and the fairest concubines of Solomon, and predicting for her an eternity of fame.13 To this ultimate vanity she succumbed; Erasmus received a substantial gift, and recovered his eyesight. The custom of the time forgave a writer for begging aid from patrons, since publishers were not yet equipped to sustain even widely read authors. Erasmus could have had benefices, episcopacies, even, later, a cardinal’s hat; he refused such offers time and again in order to remain a “free lance,” intellectually fetterless. He preferred to beg in freedom rather than decay in bonds.
In 1502, fleeing plague, Erasmus moved to Louvain. Adrian of Utrecht, head of the university, offered him a professorship; Erasmus declined. Returning to Paris, he settled down to earn his living by his pen—one of the earliest modern attempts at that reckless enterprise. He translated Cicero’s Offices, Euripides’ Hecuba, and Lucian’s Dialogues. Doubtless this jolly skeptic shared in forming Erasmus’ mind and style. In 1504 Erasmus wrote to a friend:
Good heavens! with what humor, with what rapidity does Lucian deal his blows, turning everything to ridicule, and letting nothing pass without a touch of mockery. His hardest strokes are aimed at the philosophers... on account of their supernatural assumptions, and at the Stoics for their intolerable arrogance.... . He uses no less liberty in deriding the gods, whence the surname of atheist was bestowed upon him—an honorable distinction coming from the impious and superstitious.14
On a second visit to England (1505–06) he joined Colet in a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. Describing this trip under fictitious names in one of his Colloquies, he told how “Gratian” (Colet) offended their monastic guide by suggesting that some of the wealth that adorned the cathedral might be used to alleviate poverty in Canterbury; how the monk showed them milk that had really come from the Virgin’s breast, and “an amazing quantity of bones,” all of which had to be kissed reverently; how Gratian balked at kissing an old shoe that Becket was said to have worn; and how, as a climactic favor and a sacred souvenir the guide offered Gratian a cloth allegedly used by the saint to wipe his brow and blow his nose, and still showing evidences thereof, whereat Gratian grimaced and rebelled. The two humanists, mourning for humanity, returned to London.15
Good fortune came to Erasmus there. Henry VII’s physician was sending two sons to Italy; Erasmus was engaged to accompany them as “general guide and supervisor.” He stayed with the lads at Bologna for a year, devouring the libraries, and adding daily to his fame for learning, Latinity, and wit. Till this time he had worn the garb of an Augustinian canon—black robe, mantle, and cowl, and a white hood usually carried on the arm; now (1506) he discarded these for the less conspicuous dress of a secular priest, and claimed to have received permission for this change from Pope Julius II, then in Bologna as a military conqueror. For reasons unknown to us he returned to England in 1506, and lectured on Greek at Cambridge. But in 1508 we find him again in Italy—preparing an enlarged edition of his Adagia for the press of Aldus Manutius in Venice. Passing on to Rome (1509), he was charmed by the easy life, fine manners, and intellectual cultivation of the cardinals. He was amused—as Luther, in Rome the year before, had been shocked—by the inroads that pagan themes and ways had made in the capital of Christendom. What offended Erasmus more was the martial policy, ardor, and pursuits of Julius II; there he agreed with Luther; but he agreed also with the cardinals, who warmly approved the frequent absences of the pugnacious Pope. They welcomed Erasmus to their social gatherings, and offered him some ecclesiastical sinecure if he would settle in Rome.
Just as he was learning to love the Eternal City, Mountjoy sent him word that Henry VII had died, that the friend of the humanists had become Henry VIII, and that all doors and preferments would now be open to Erasmus if he would come back to England. And along with Mountjoy’s letter came one from Henry VIII himself:
Our acquaintance began when I was a boy. The regard which I then learned to feel for you has been increased by the honorable mention you have made of me in your writings, and by the use to which you have applied your talents in the advancement of Christian truth. So far you have borne your burden alone; give me now the pleasure of assisting and protecting you so far as my power extends.... . Your welfare is precious to us all.... I propose therefore that you abandon all thought of settling elsewhere. Come to England, and assure yourself of a hearty welcome. You shall name your own terms; they shall be as liberal and honorable as you please. I recollect that you once said that when you were tired of wandering you would make this country the home of your old age. I beseech you, by all that is holy and good, carry out this promise of yours. We have not now to learn the value of either your acquirements or your advice. We shall regard your presence among us as the most precious possession that we have.... . You require your leisure for yourself; we shall ask nothing of you save to make our realm your home.... . Come to me, therefore, my dear Erasmus, and let your presence be your answer to my invitation.16
How could so courteous and generous an invitation be refused? Even if Rome made him a cardinal, Erasmus’ tongue would be tied; in England, surrounded by influential friends and protected by a powerful king, he might write more freely and yet be safe. Half reluctantly he bade farewell to the humanists of Rome, to the great palaces and libraries, to the cardinals who had favored him. He made his way again over the Alps, and to Paris, and to England.