Letter to Unknown Person
August 12th, 2012
While reading the letters of Erasmus, I came across an oddity that has some bearing on the matter. In 1906, a scholar going through old papers in Basel came upon a long manuscript written in Erasmus’ hand; examination of its contents confirmed that it was almost certainly written by Erasmus. Continuing research has reached the conclusion that this is likely a first draft of a letter than was sent in the spring of 1525. It contains a number of sections that are identical to another letter written at the same time. This manuscript lacked both a beginning and an ending, so it looks very much like a first draft.
The letter provides a long defensive explanation of why Erasmus no longer practices the life of a monk, even though he was ordained while young into a monastery. Erasmus had obtained papal dispensation for his lifestyle as independent author, but there was still lots of nasty talk about his failure to honor the vows he had taken while young. In this case, he is defending himself against accusations in a scurrilous work written by four monks by published under a false name.
Here are three critical sentences:
“He accuses me of having a ferocious spirit, though I have never mentioned anyone except under savage provocation. He accuses me of a lust for revenge, though several people have attacked me like madmen, to whom I have not replied. He has doubts about my chastity, as though I had ever boasted of it, or everything on their side was pure and chaste.”
This third sentence is interesting; it is a response to this sentence in the accusatory work:
“I won’t say anything about his chastity since everyone may be considered a good man as long as nothing to the contrary is known.”
That’s a pretty nasty insinuation, isn’t it? Erasmus felt a need to respond to it, but notice that his response is almost as sneaky as the original accusation. Erasmus does not loudly declare his innocence; instead, he merely says that he never publicly declared his innocence. His accusation that others are unchaste adds to the impression that Erasmus is obliquely acknowledging that he has violated his vow of chastity.
Let us proceed on the assumption that Erasmus did indeed violate his vow of chastity; does that imply that he was gay? I don’t think so. I have provided lots of evidence against that hypothesis. There is also evidence suggesting that Erasmus may have dallied with a prostitute while he was a student in Paris. There’s nothing direct, of course, but a number of indirect lines suggest that, while a student in Paris, he did some things that he later regretted. My best guess, then, is that Erasmus probably had sex with one or more prostitutes while a student in Paris, and that was the extent of his sexual behavior.
Interestingly, this draft never saw the light of day. Apparently Erasmus decided that it admitted too much and it was better to simply ignore the accusations; the letters that he did send off defending himself against the accusatory work contained much of the material in this draft, but not the section defending himself against insinuations of unchastity.