Friday, December 7, 2012

At Work in the Republic of Letters

“And without letters what is life?” once asked the great sixteenth-century humanist scholar Erasmus, whose contribution to European literary culture includes biblical translation, works of devotion, educational texts, satire and social commentary. Originally from Rotterdam, his true home, as James McConica has said, was “the one he constructed with his pen”.

The image shows the first page of our copy of John Jortin’s biography of Erasmus, published in two volumes in 1758-60. The copy is in a rather orphaned state, lacking its cover and title page. The author and publications details were established following a lead from a publisher’s catalogue bound in with the text. The copy contains the original two volumes bound as one; badly bound, as one block of pages has been inserted in the wrong place.

Nevertheless, the sewn binding, the quality of the watermarked paper, and the layout of each page, all make this 250 year old book a pleasure to look at and read.

One of the interesting additions to the text is a two-page spread displaying samples of the handwriting of Erasmus and some of his many correspondents. The language in which they wrote to each other was Latin: also the language of Erasmus’s works. Jortin comments in the biography that Erasmus “...had spent all his days in reading, writing, and talking Latin”, and notes that “Erasmus, in the earlier part of his life, carefully studied the Greek and Latin grammar, read lectures upon them, and translated Greek works into Latin”. As a humanist scholar, devoted to the wisdom of classical antiquity, Erasmus saw Greek and Roman literature as part of God’s divine plan: its significance completed in Christ’s Incarnation as defined and explored in Scripture.

Erasmus signs the note by him included in the samples with “Erasmus Rott. mea manu”: a fitting signature also to the entire body of work from the hand of this dedicated citizen of the Republic of Letters.