The Servatius Letters
The Servatius letters are too long to present in their entirety, so I present here a synopsis:
Letter #1 Synopsis: It’s a great shame that we can’t see each other more often; at least we can exchange letters. Do you love me?
Quotation: "If it were possible, I should have wished you might care for me as I do for you and that you might feel the pangs of love for me as sharply as I am constantly racked by my yearning for you."
Letter #2: Synopsis: I can see that you’re very upset; why won’t you tell me about it?
Quotations: "It is my very special love for you, sweetest Servatius..." "Indeed, I suspect...that you have not yet become persuaded by my supreme love for you."
Letter #3: Synopsis: You said you’d write; why haven’t you? You should write.
Quotation: "For every person who is at leisure is caught up in love’s longings, love being the ’sickness of an unoccupied soul’."
Letter #4 (This letter is particularly revealing, and is provided in its entirety here. Synopsis: Why do you refuse to return my love, or even tell me your feelings?
Quotation: "Considering that my affection for you is and always has been so deep, dearest Servatius,..."
Letter #5 Synopsis: I’m deathly despondent over your refusal to talk to me.
Letter #6 Synopsis: Thanks for the letter. I’m so happy. Please don’t be coy anymore.
Quotation: "I beg you earnestly, O ’half my soul’, by that extraordinary love I bear to you, not to cast me down again into the pit of sorrows."
Letter #7 Synopsis: Sorry I haven’t written.
Quotation: "Farewell, and continue in your love for me."
Letter #8 Synopsis: I am reconciled to your refusal to return my love. Study hard.
Quotation: "Erasmus of Rotterdam to Servatius, the friend who is supreme in his affections"
Letter #9 Synopsis: Stop being so lazy! Resume your studies!
Quotation: "...I am well disposed toward you."
There’s no question that these letters are, to use Hollis’ term, ’peculiar’. Indeed, any modern reader would have little difficulty concluding that they constitute strong evidence in favor of the ’Erasmus was gay’ hypothesis. The thinking behind such a conclusion is that men don’t include love in their relationships with other men, unless they are gay. Any man who declares his love for another man must be gay. And any man who does so with as much passion as appears in these letters must beyond any question be gay.
However, we must remember that these letters come from a different culture; applying our own cultural standards is an acceptable first approximation, but we must always be aware of the possibility that cultural differences might render our first estimates misleading. And there is no question that the concept of love back then was very different than our concept. To learn more about the difference between Erasmus’ Latin words and the English word ’love’, click here.
There are a variety of alternate explanations for these letters:
Erasmus was developing and practicing his writing style.
Declarations of love between men were frequent in that culture and do not indicate homosexual intent.
Moreover, the Servatius letters also contain an item that argues against the ’Erasmus was gay’ hypothesis. [This item is taken from my email correspondence with the history professor.] Erasmus was recounting a rare face-to-face encounter with Servatius, acknowledging Servatius’ obvious distress upon encountering Erasmus. Erasmus continues: "And unless I was mistaken, I was not altogether unaware what was the source of your pain. I mean that person’s shamelessness in hurling accusations against you without justification or right." There was an accusation directed at Servatius regarding his relationship with Erasmus -- very suspicious indeed. Yet Erasmus explicitly declares that accusation to be without justification. This is about as clear a statement as we can have on the matter. We should take his words at face value and conclude that there was in fact no gay relationship. One may argue that this statement was merely false posturing for an unseen third party, but in the very same letter Erasmus proclaims again his love for Servatius. Thus, the alternate explanation creates a contradiction. We must be consistent in our interpretations. Either we take him at face value (in which case we conclude that there was no gay relationship), or we decide that this is all literary posturing -- in which case we conclude that there was no gay relationship.
Another negative argument is provided by Erasmus’ single letter to a chap named Sasbout, written at about the same time as the Servatius letters. This letter too contains a number of references to love: "...for the sake of the love I bear you...", "...my sweetest Sasbout...", "...remember me, once your bosom companion and now as affectionate as ever." But the most important quote from this letter is: "And in order to increase your zest for this pursuit [the pursuit of learning] it is worth your while at least to check and restrain the immoderate desires of your time of life if you cannot altogether suppress them, which is scarcely possible for a human being. You know what I mean." If Erasmus had been gay and erotically attached to Sasbout, Erasmus would not have used such an obviously hypocritical argument.
For those who’d like to see the full text of one of these letters, here’s a direct transcription of Erasmus’ fourth letter to Servatius.