The Thomas Grey Affair

Our only information on this episode comes from Erasmus’ own letters; the basic story we can assemble is that Erasmus was living in Paris and tutoring two young English noblemen, Thomas Grey and Robert Fisher. They had a guardian with them, a Scotsman, who appears to have been a representative of the Scottish crown. Some sort of altercation arose between Erasmus and the guardian, who thereupon terminated Erasmus’ position as tutor; Erasmus moved out of the house. The Scotsman also seems to have written some nasty letters about Erasmus, but we know nothing specific about their contents or addressees.

Those are the basic facts. Beyond these, all we have are inferences. A.L.Rowse flatly states that Erasmus fell for Thomas Grey, a supposition destitute of foundation.

One of the factors that might have led Rowse to his mistaken conclusion is the obvious bitterness with which Erasmus describes the Scotsman in his letters. He piles on the invective: “Can any Cerberus, Sphinx, Chimaera, Fury, or hobgoblin be properly compared with this pest whom the land of the Goth has recently spewed upon us?” Clearly, Erasmus was upset by this man’s behavior – which in turn implies a serious accusation. Perhaps.

The other factor that might have misled Rowse was Erasmus’ declaration of love for Thomas Grey in his letters: he refers to Grey as the “dearest part of me”, mentions his “gifted mind in a handsome body”, and calls him “sweetest Thomas”.

Yet there are plenty of countervailing arguments. Erasmus did declare his love for Thomas Grey, but he also made the nature of that love explicit: “we were brought together not by considerations of advantage or pleasure, or any youthful whim, but by an honorable love for letters and for the studies in which we shared...Since, then it is this kind of love that unites us, you need not fear that our friendship can be threatened by such untoward events as we continually see imperiling friendships of the common sort. The greater your affection for innocence and literature, the dearer you will be to me. For my part, I shall think I reap an ample harvest from my love for you if I observe that the notable disposition to virtue, which I was the first to remark in you, has with my aid fully ripened. “ And the postscript to this letter reads: “Do not be surprised at the new color of my writing; you should be apprised that lover’s letters are written with their blood! For want of ink, I wrote this in mulberry juice.”

This series of letters contains a great many hints about the nature of the dispute with Grey’s guardian. Erasmus repeatedly refers to the old man’s refusal to show gratitude for Erasmus’ many acts of generosity. He also mentions the old man’s envy several times; lastly, he at one point recalls the Scotsman’s hatred for literature. Clearly, there was a great deal going on between the two; the confrontation may have arisen for reasons unconnected with Grey.

Another angle on the confrontation is provided in a letter to Erasmus from Rutgerus Sycamber, who had read a now-lost letter from Erasmus to one Bostius. Sycamber writes that he “could not refrain from laughing” at Erasmus’ problem with the guardian, and refers to the guardian’s actions as a “trifling injury”. Other comments in the letter refer to the injury done Erasmus as some sort of betrayal of trust. Clearly, whatever the guardian said or did, it was not an accusation of homosexuality.

Even more telling is a letter from Heinrich Northoff, one of Erasmus’ pupils, to Christian Northoff, his brother and a previous student of Erasmus. The letter, written by Heinrich but composed by Erasmus, begins with an expression of brotherly love that we moderns would surely take for homoerotic:

“I am... dreaming of what I love – literature, my chief joy in life, and next to literature, of Christian, the beloved part of my soul.... When I am alone, I think of Christian; with my friends I delight to chatter about you. In sleep I dream of you, and no meal is taken here without talk of you. You are with me at the dinner table, in the study, in my sleep. Ah, Christian, brother far sweeter to me than life itself...”

Now, unless the proponents of the ’Erasmus was gay’ hypothesis want us to believe that the relationship between these two brothers was both homoerotic AND incestuous – which I find incredible – we have here another demonstration of the non-homoerotic connotations of such extravagant wordings.

The letter continues by recounting the tale of the confrontation; several new details are mentioned. Erasmus apparently spent several months teaching the Scotsman about literature. The confrontation appears to have been sudden and brief: the letter calls it a “demented outburst”.The letter suggests that the Scotsman later regretted his actions, and that Erasmus’ return to the household is fervently hoped for by all its members except the Scotsman.

And what do other scholars have to say about this affair? Huizinga referred to Erasmus’ feelings for Grey as “a doting affection”.

Mangan (1927) writes: “Young men of frank and generous natures had always exercised a peculiar attraction to Erasmus...when he met Thomas More, he was at once and just as warmly carried away with the latter’s charming personality. It is possible that the guardian, in his zeal for the morals of his wards, may have attached an invidious meaning to some of the epithets with which Erasmus was wont to address his pupils...That they were entirely innocent and harmless is evidenced by the fact that he always retained Grey’s affection and respect.”

Drummond (1873): “His [the old man’s] offense seems to have been that he found fault with the conduct of Erasmus, and circulated calumnious reports regarding it. Probably he...complained of some slight deviation from the monkish standard of virtue. Possibly there may have been lapses of conduct which furnished ground for serious accusation. Or there may have been nothing more than the intense mutual dislike arising from complete incompatibility of temper and tastes.”

Preserved Smith (1923) is ambiguous: “It seems, however, extremely likely that the tutor [sic] became suspicious of Erasmus’ relations with one of his pupils, a certain Grey, to whom the Dutch priest was writing letters in the same loverlike tone with which he had formerly addressed his companions in the monastery.”

Faludy (1970) offers several surprising facts: “Erasmus so doted upon young Grey that it drew protests from the latter’s guardian in the form of letters addressed to ’Reverend Father Herasmus of Rotterdam’. In these letters Erasmus was compared, down to his humble origins and the state of his morals, with Pierre Abelard, who had also been tutor to a young aristocrat and had been unable to resist seducing his charge. Until now, the guardian wrote, one had to shield only one’s daughters against priests and monks. Had it become necessary in modern times to defend one’s sons as well? We might expect Erasmus, hypersensitive as he was, to have been greatly upset by these letters, but there is no evidence that he was.”

This comment strikes me as quite odd, because I can find no evidence of the letter to which Faludy refers. It doesn’t show up in the definitive Collected Works of Erasmus, and Faludy offers no explanation for where he got this letter. Moreover, his concluding comment, that there is no evidence that Erasmus was upset by the guardian’s actions, is incredible – the invective he piles on the guardian in numerous letters is a clear indication that Erasmus was indeed upset.

One possibility is that Erasmus did in fact violate the guardian’s expectations of proper behavior, but his violations were not in his relationship with Grey, but rather in his personal lifestyle.The guardian might well have expected that, as an Augustinian canon, Erasmus should maintain a frugal lifestyle, living at the college reserved for poor students. Erasmus had started there, but the poor food, unsanitary conditions, and brutal discipline impelled him to find better accommodations. Perhaps the guardian felt that Erasmus had violated his vow of poverty by seeking more comfortable accommodations.

A stronger basis for complaint would have arisen from Erasmus’ dining habits. Throughout his life, Erasmus refused to eat the filthy, rotten food that so many Europeans of his time had accommodated themselves to. He insisted on fresh food and decent wine, which goes a long way to explaining why he outlived all his contemporaries. However, the Scotsman might well have thought Erasmus’ culinary fastidiousness to be incompatible with his vow of poverty. After all, normal standards of the day would have held Erasmus’ expectations to be sissyfied and even extravagant.

An even better reason for the guardian’s anger might have been Erasmus’ possible visits to the Paris prostitutes. We know that the Latin quarter, home of the students of the university, teemed with prostitutes; Erasmus certainly had plenty of opportunities. Moreover, he did admit in later years to some sinful inclinations while a student. As Emerton (1899) puts it: “perhaps some looseness of morals on Erasmus’ part” led to the Paris scrape. “That Erasmus, eager and diligent student as he surely was, did not entirely escape the allurements of the Latin quarter is plain from later references of his own.”