De conscribendis epistolis opus

Autore: ERASMUS, Desiderius (1466-1536)

Tipografo: [Giovanni Padovano]

Dati tipografici: Venezia, 1550 (at the end: 1551)

8vo. 303 [i.e. 350, with errors in the pagination] pp. A-Y8 (-Y8a blank). With the printer's device on the title-page. Old boards.

Edit 16, CNCE 18239.


THIS is the last edition of Erasmus' famous treatise printed in Italy. No copies of it are recorded outside of Italy. Six other editions, all printed in Venice, are known. The first was printed in 1524 and was followed by reprints in 1526, 1528, 1537 (with Vives), 1542, and 1548.

When the Roman Index of Prohibited Books was published in 1559, Erasmus is found among the authors who had erred ex professo, and consequently all his works were forbidden, even those that contained nothing against the faith. But he was rehabilitated in 1564, when the more moderate Tridentine Index appeared: only Moriae encomium, Colloquia, Lingua, Christiani matrimoni institutio, and De interdicto esu carnium remained forbidden (cf. M. & P. Grendler, The Survival of Erasmus in Italy, in: “Erasmusin English”, 8, 1976, pp. 2-22).

Gerrit Gerritszoon (better known as Desiderius Erasmus) was born at Rotterdam, apparently on October 28, 1466, the illegitimate son of a physician's daughter and a future monk. At Deventer he attended the local school run by the German humanist Alexander Hegius, learning Latin and Greek. On his parents' death he entered the Augustinian College of Stein near Gouda, where he spent six years. At length the Bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen, made him his private secretary. In order to allow him to accept that post, he was given a temporary dispensation from his monastic vows, dispensation that later was made permanent by Pope Leo X.

After taking priest's orders Erasmus went to Paris, where he studied at the Collège Montaigu. He resided there until 1498, gaining a livelihood by teaching. Among his pupils was Lord Mountjoy, on whose invitation probably Erasmus made his first visit to England in 1498. He lived chiefly at Oxford, making the acquaintance of John Colet and Thomas More.

In 1500 he was again in France, living for the next six years mainly at Paris. During this period he wrote the Adagia (Paris, 1500) and the Enchiridion Militis Christiani (Antwerp, 1503). After a short visit to England, in 1506 Erasmus carried out a long-desired journey to Italy, staying chiefly at Padua as tutor to Alexander Stewart, Archbishop of St. Andrews, and Venice, collaborating to the publishing house of Aldo Manuzio. His visit closed with a short stay in Rome.

In 1509 the accession of Henry VIII and the invitation of Lord Mountjoy induced Erasmus once more to settle in England. In this period he wrote the famous Encomium Moriae (first published at Strasbourg or Paris in 1511) and resided mainly at Cambridge, where he was appointed Margaret professor of Divinity and professor of Greek.

After 1514 he lived alternatively in Basel and England, and from 1517 to 1521 at Louvain. In 1516 at Basel appeared the first edition of the Colloquia, usually regarded as his masterpiece, and the first edition of his annotated New Testament. After the explosion of Lutheran revolution, he found himself in the most embarrassing position, assailed on the one side by the Catholic who considered him as the cause of all the new troubles, and criticized on the other side by the Lutherans who accused him for his cowardice and inconsistency in refusing to follow up his opinions to their legitimate conclusions.

In 1521 he left Louvain, where the champions of the old faith had made his stay unendurable and, with the exception of six years in Freiburg, he spent the rest of his life at Basel. In those years he continued publishing a long succession of classical and patristic writers, as well as new augmented and corrected editions of his main works, especially the Adagia, the Colloquia and his epistolary. At the same time he was engaged in continual controversies, on the one side with Protestants thinkers like Ulrich von Hutten and Martin Luther, with whom he exchanged a series of pamphlets about the free will (starting with Erasmus' De Libero Arbitrio, Antwerp, 1524), on the other side with the Catholic theologians of the Sorbonne.

With the publication of the dialogue Ciceronianus (Basel, 1528), he then ruined some old friendships, like that with Guillaume Budé, and raised against himself new adversaries, those humanists, namely, who he accused to set style above matter. Nevertheless during his last years Erasmus enjoyed great fame and consideration all over Europe. He died at Basel on July 12, 1536 and was buried there in the cathedral (cf. C. Augustijn, Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence, Toronto, 1991; J. McConica, Erasmus, Oxford, 1991; and L.-E. Halkin, Erasmus: A Critical Biography, Oxford, 1993).