Erasmus the Peacemaker

January 19th, 1998

The 16th century was a violent and bloody time. From the top of society down to the bottom, the use of violence was condoned as normal and proper behavior. The popes, for example, maintained sizable armies and used them without reservation. The sight of Pope Julius II triumphantly entering Bologna at the head of an army on November 16th, 1506 so disgusted Erasmus that he never forgave the pope, and Erasmus pilloried him mercilessly after Julius II was safely dead. Kings fought wars with appalling readiness; during Erasmus’ time wars were fought by and in every single country in Europe. Bishops accompanied armies to the battlefield to lend their dignity to the occasion -- and occasionally even lend a hand in the fighting, although such behavior was becoming rare by Erasmus’ time. One of Erasmus’ own students was killed at his father’s side at the Battle of Flodden.

At the personal level, war was close to all. Lacking the resources to properly feed, clothe, and pay their soldiers, military leaders fell back on the time-honored system of "pay by booty". The soldiers might not be paid, but they were given free rein to help themselves to anything they might come across in their campaigns. Sieges were difficult times for armies, for the beseiging soldiers quickly stripped the surrounding countryside of everything of value. The tacit understanding between leaders and soldiers was that, after a town was captured, it would be handed over to the soldiery for a few days of rape and pillage. Think of it as a performance bonus, a kind of incentive pay. Notions of allegiance or propriety played no part in such fiscal transactions; when a Catholic Spanish army captured Rome in 1527, the place was sacked just as freely as any other village or burg.

Even more disturbing was the viciousness with which civilians were treated. If the soldiery could not obtain fiscal satisfaction from the citizens, there was always the psychic reward of torturing people to death for the sheer fun of it. The men in charge regretted such atrocities, and made attempts to confine them to a "reasonable" number of victims, but accepted such behavior as a normal and necessary outlet for men whose job, after all, was killing. After all, boys will be boys.

This "free enterprise" system of militarism was highly democratic in that, you really didn’t need to be a king to exercise this kind of power. Kings were merely the biggest players in the game. Princes, popes, and bishops all had their own little armies in need of sustenance. Indeed, there was no formal licensing process necessary; to lead an army, all you needed were soldiers. A variety of entrepreneurs took charge of soldiers who had been pink-slipped by their sovereigns, promising full employment, and then led them on marauding campaigns. The biggest of these was the Black Band, which wandered around the Netherlands wreaking havoc. The Powers that Were proved reluctant to suppress the brigands; after all, the brigands didn’t have much useful booty for the government’s own troops should they be successful. The locals finally devolved the power of self-defense to themselves and eventually drove away the Black Band. Unfortunately for the Powers that Were, towns that discovered themselves capable of resisting the Black Band quickly realized that they could also resist the tax collectors of useless sovereigns. The difference of opinion was resolved through, guess what, a round of civil wars.

The Black Band was, however, only the biggest of these military start-up companies. Most were garage-shop operations, a few dozen ambitious but unemployed soldiers making their way in the world by highway robbery. Indeed, the distinction between the roving bands of highway robbers and "official" armies was mostly just a matter of size.

Erasmus’ contemporaries, never knowing anything else, accepted all this as the normal course of events. Believe it or not, this was actually a more civilized system than that of just a century earlier, so most people accepted war as just the third partner of death and taxes. But Erasmus refused to accept the common wisdom. In his eyes, war was evil -- period. Twentieth-century readers can never appreciate just how radical this notion was. Erasmus can certainly claim the title of "Superstar Pacifist of the Sixteenth Century", and he makes a good contender for "Superstar Pacifist of All Time" if you factor in the moral solitariness of his position.

His desire for peace permeates his work. The most prominent of his works in this regard is surely The Complaint of Peace, a short book presenting an oration by Lady Peace, who observes with sadness how unwelcome she is in all corners of Christendom. Published at the height of Erasmus’ popularity, the book sold very well, but had no apparent effect on the Powers that Were. Later, Erasmus did admit that there were a few cases in which war might be justifiable, such as the defense of one’s home against an invader. But even in this case, he felt that all possible alternatives must first be exhausted. On several occasions Erasmus pointed out that war was so ruinously expensive to both sides that it made more sense for one side to simply buy off the other. And in a booklet on the advisability of a war against the Turks, he admitted that such an enterprise might just barely be morally acceptable, if it were carried out with many restrictions. However, he still argued that the best way to deal with the Turks was to demonstrate the moral superiority of Christendom by refraining from all war.

Erasmus’ notion of peace extended well beyond the military sphere. He also worked hard for peace between the Lutherans and the Catholics. Erasmus played a crucial role in the early years of Luther’s revolt by arguing for tolerance, understanding, and a gentle approach. I believe that, without Erasmus’ intervention, Luther would have been killed in those early years. Erasmus also admonished Luther to desist from his confrontational methods and rely on sweet persuasion rather than bombast. At the same time, he wrote the Pope a long letter "On Restoring the Concord of the Church" in which he urged conciliation, compromise, and pacifism.

By the mid-1520s, when Luther political position became stronger, his style became even more aggressive and Erasmus could no longer defend him, even indirectly, in good conscience. With all sides demanding that he make a clear choice between the Lutheran tribe and the Catholic tribe, Erasmus refused to condemn Luther. He issued a small book, "On the Freedom of the Will", directly challenging one of Luther’s core propositions. He also declared his loyalty to the Church -- but he would go no further.

By the 1530s, the two sides’ positions had hardened, but Erasmus refused to give up his irenic efforts. He pestered people on both sides, remonstrating them for divisive behavior and urging a Christian spirit of conciliation. For his efforts, he was castigated by both sides. Neither side saw him as a peacemaker; the Lutherans saw him as a coward unwilling to commit himself to the realization of ideas which he himself had promulgated. The Catholics saw his irenic efforts as camouflage for his secret Lutheran beliefs. He died hated by both sides. Such is the fate of the peacemaker.