In a letter written in 1522, at the height of the Lutheran controversy, to one of Emperor Charles V's chief ministers, Erasmus defends himself against the circulating rumour that he is of Luther's party, but warns that there appears to be a general tendency to confuse the pursuit of humanistic studies - the liberal arts - with a commitment to Lutheran attitudes and beliefs: "How much I have done for the general cause of learning, the facts themselves declare I The emperor's proclamation was directed, not against those who are devoted to the humanities and the ancient tongues, but against heresies. And yet this is the target against which they will misuse their authority, unless you in your wisdom restrain them ... As for this business of Luther, though it is nothing to do with me, you in your wisdom must take precautions to prevent severe steps being taken, and beyond all reason, against men who have done no harm."
Erika Rummel's latest book takes as its central focus the persistent running together by the authorities of Renaissance learning and Reformation attitudes that so concerned Erasmus. Her argument is that at the outset, the challenge of humanism to scholasticism was conducted between intellectuals "with no urgent ideological or professional agenda", and that only later did "the intellectual debate turn professional and become entangled in power struggles and career politics", finally disintegrating into a "full-fledged war under the auspices of the Reformation".
By exploring a range of unfamiliar texts concerned with the "old" learning and the "new" (as well as reconsidering already familiar work by Valla, Vives, Erasmus and Melanchthon) Rummel shows that most intellectuals and academics of the late-15th century and as late as the 16th century were engaged on modestly reforming projects, less polarised and more limited in their scope than conventional accounts of "scholastic-humanist" quarrels would have us believe. Consequently, she argues that it is less plausible than ever that pedagogic revivers of the classical tradition were designedly religious reformers in disguise, and correspondingly unlikely that those who stayed with the traditional scholastic agenda were thereby consciously holding aloof from the new religious movements.
The problem with this version of Renaissance and Reformation is that the most sincerely held beliefs of individuals rarely correspond to the intellectual historical version of the enterprise they are actually engaged in. Agendas and partis pris are part and parcel of all speculative and academic endeavour. No doubt Erasmus did continue to believe that it was possible with impunity to bring the full weight and rigour of classical studies to bear on the text of Jerome's Vulgate without challenging the authority of the Catholic church - that it was possible for the grammarian not to "put his bold sickle into the theologians' crop" (as contemporary wisdom had it). Nevertheless, fellow scholars such as Rhenanus, Hutten and Bude were clear that the identification of the two projects was widespread so that (to quote Erasmus again) "they persecute letters rather than Luther". Erasmus's younger admirer Melanchthon (a committed Reformer), in his own writing on the humanities, insisted that "the Gospel is reborn and, simultaneously, the study of languages is restored and with its help we learn the Gospel ... I know that not only languages, but the Spirit is required in treating of sacred letters. But one needs help of the other, and there is a friendly exchange."
To sustain her argument, Rummel is obliged, in her final chapter, to present the reforms in dialectic which underpinned the humanist arts curriculum as a simple series of discussions around the validity of syllogism and an increasing interest in nonrigorous eloquence. But this version has been strenuously revised over the past 20 years by scholars (including myself) who have recovered an agenda of contestation of certainty in the name of plausible and persuasive argument which was always linked to a radical theological agenda (Valla, after all, was excommunicated for publishing his text in dialectic).
Much as we might like to preserve the political and doctrinal innocence of men like Erasmus, it appears that they, like us, were incapable of scholarly activities which involved "no urgent ideological or professional agenda".
Lisa Jardine is professor of English and dean of arts, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.
The Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance and Reformation
Author - Erika Rummel
ISBN - 0 674 42250 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £35.95
Pages - 249pp