Opus de conscribendis epistolis, ex postrema autoris recognitione emandatius æditum. Cum Annotationibus marginalibus, quæ partim artificium, partim authorum locos explicant. Additus est copiosus rerum index

Autore: ERASMUS, Desiderius (1466-1536)

Tipografo: Jan van der Loe

Dati tipografici: Antwerp, 1543

8vo. 211, (3) leaves. A-Z8, Aa-Bb8. Old sprinkled half-calf, marbled boards, red morocco label on spine, early eighteenth century entry of ownership on the verso of the last leaf: “Sum Ex Libris Danielis Evans”.

Adams, E-562; Index Aureliensis, 163.206; Van der Haegen, p. 57.


FIRST EDITION by the Antwerp printer Jan van der Loe of Erasmus' famous letter-writing manual, first printed at Basel by Johann Froben in August 1522. Van der Loe reprinted his edition three times, in 1550, 1556, and 1564.

Erasmus began a first draft of his work, while in England, for his pupil Robert Fisher. Of his many revisions of the work, the earliest that has survived was completed about 1499/1500. In January 1520 was printed in Erfurt by Mathes Maler the Brevissima maximeque compendiaria conficiendarum epistolarum formula (immediately reprinted at Leipzig and Mayence) under Erasmus' name, who denied the authorship of the work, saying that it contained nothing of his save for a few stolen formulas. Prefixed to the work is a counterfeited letter by Erasmus to a certain Petrus Paludanus, who he claimed never to have known. A further stage in the writing is represented by a pirated edition by the Cambridge printer John Siberch, publishing it as Libellus de conscribendis epistolis (Cambridge, 1521). In the prefatory letter to the Opus, addressed to Nicolas Bérault, Erasmus explains that he was obliged by the appearance of Siberch's edition to set about revising and expanding the piece. Erasmus complied with a considerable volume of more than four hundred pages. It might be considered the definitive work on the subject, much more elaborate than anything that had preceded it (cf. J. Rice Henderson, The Composition of Erasmus' ‘Opus de conscribendis epistolis': Evidence for the Growth of a Mind, in: “Acta Conventus Neo-Latini Torontonensis”, Binghampton, NY, 1991, pp. 147-154).

“Erasmus begins his treatise by discussing what a letter ought to be [...] He takes the view that the character of a letter can admit of almost infinite variation. Its style and content have to be appropriate to the personalities of the writer and the proposed recipient, to the relationship between them and to the immediate condition of the recipient [...] What we have here in the Opus is first and foremost an attack on those who used to be regarded as pillars of the educational establishment when Erasmus was at school [...] This criticism of fifteenth-century precepts on letter-writing shades off into a generalized diatribe about the educational state of The Netherlands. Erasmus admits that you cannot expect profound learning for the poor salaries paid to schoolmasters [...] The next section which list the grammatical and syntactical mistakes a master must correct develops similarly into a general disquisition [...] For these last thirty pages Erasmus has wandered well outside his epistolary theme. What he has had to tell us does not just concern letter-writing. It applies to the teaching of composition on the widest possible scale in the vernacular as well as in Latin, and some of his remarks bear on pedagogy in general. He presents us with a short but pertinent treatise on teaching methods that has not received the notice it deserves” (R.R. Bolgar, The Teaching of Letter-writing in the Sixteenth Century, in: “History of Education”, 12/4, 1983, pp. 248-50).

The De conscribendis epistolis with its exhaustive arsenal of precepts and abundance of examples met with phenomenal success from the first edition. The repertory of Vander Haeghen (op. cit., pp. 55-59) lists one-hundred and two editions (Ars epistolica, Luzern, 2014, Part Two, Section 2, records fifteen more editions). In addition there were several abridgements and commentaries, especially after 1540. Erasmus' treatise was printed together with those of Vives, Celtis, and Hegendorf at Basel by Nicolas Brylinger for the first time in 1545 and then reprinted numerous times (cf. J.-C. Margolin, Introduction, in: “Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami”, I/2, Amsterdam, 1971, pp. 157-203).


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).