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  • Controversies: Responsio ad epistolam paraeneticam Alberti Pii. Apologia adversus rhapsodias Alberti Pii. Brevissima scholia
  • Kenneth Gouwens
Desiderius Erasmus . Controversies: Responsio ad epistolam paraeneticam Alberti Pii. Apologia adversus rhapsodias Alberti Pii. Brevissima scholia. Ed. Nelson H. Minnich. Trans. Daniel J. Sheerin. Collected Works of Erasmus 84. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. cxlviii + 484 pp. index. illus. bibl. $175. ISBN: 0–8020–4397–6.

This volume comprises the first ever English translations of Erasmus's writings against Alberto Pio, Prince of Carpi. Minnich's substantial introductory essay includes a biographical sketch of Pio, summaries of his exchanges with Erasmus, and a chronological survey of the principal manuscripts and printed texts. Accompanying Sheerin's translations are copious annotations on which he and Minnich collaborated. Another solid brick in the imposing edifice of the Collected Works of Erasmus series, the book contributes much to our understanding of this controversy and its social, religious, political, and personal contexts.

The feud began modestly. In the early 1520s Erasmus heard through friends that Pio, then in Rome, was ridiculing his deficiencies as a philosopher and theologian, and blamed him for inspiring Luther and then not opposing him vigorously enough. In a letter to Pio (10 October 1525) Erasmus politely discredited the rumors, dissociated himself from Luther's cause, and asked Pio not to speak ill of him. [End Page 588]

The following May, Pio responded with a lengthy admonitory letter (Responsio paraenetica) that remained private until Erasmus inadvertently stoked demand for it: in his Ciceronianus (1528), he praised Pio's Latinity, but noted that "he hasn't published anything." Pressed by readers now eager to see his prose, Pio revised a manuscript copy for publication (January 1529).

Upon receiving Pio's published text, Erasmus rushed into print his Responsio ad epistolam paraeneticam (February 1529). Beyond indulging in sarcasm and ironic praise, he often misrepresents his opponent's positions, so that (as Minnich writes) "[w]ithout Pio's Responsio paraenetica open to the passage in question, the reader of Erasmus's rebuttal does not know if he is accurately reporting Pio's charge and responding directly to it" (lxxii). Sheerin and Minnich's meticulous annotations, including many passages translated from Pio's Responsio paraenetica, document Erasmus at his most slippery.

In his inelegant but erudite rebuttal, the XXIII libri, Pio sought to exonerate himself from Erasmus's charges and to highlight what he saw as Erasmus's subversive theological positions. Pio had only partially revised the initial draft when he died (8 January 1531), but it was soon printed anyway. Later in 1531, Erasmus published an Apologia "against the patchworks of calumnious complaints by Alberto Pio, former Prince of Carpi, whom, although elderly and terminally ill and better suited for any other undertaking, certain ill-starred men have clandestinely incited to enact this farce." As the title may suggest, Erasmus herein moved beyond innuendo to outright defamation of his deceased opponent's character. Finally, upon receiving the topical index to the XXIII libri, he wrote Brevissima scholia (1532) refuting its assertions seriatim. The Apologia and Scholia assume a detailed knowledge of earlier stages in the controversy. Again, the editors' annotations contribute greatly to the reader's understanding.

Erasmus was not at his best in this controversy. Precisely while he was writing his Responsio in Basel, that city passed laws that decisively favored Protestantism. Small wonder, then, if he overreacted to hearing yet again the charge that his writings had inspired Luther. In any case, Erasmus focused attention on major publishing projects, and he was comparatively careless with respect to this opponent.

Pio comes off better. A distinguished diplomat, he composed the Responsio paraenetica even as he was working tirelessly as Francis I's ambassador to Clement VII, and he finished it shortly before concluding the fateful League of Cognac. Contrary to Erasmus's claims, Pio evidently did write the theologically sophisticated XXIII libri largely on his own, and from honorable motives.

Beyond its immediate audience of specialists, this volume will be useful to all who study the complex interplay of politics, religion, and humanistic culture in Europe in the divisive and decisive 1520s and 1530s.

Kenneth Gouwens
University of Connecticut


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pp. 588-589
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Archived 2009
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