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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 119-121
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Erasmus in the Twentieth Century: Interpretations c. 1920-2000. By Bruce Mansfield. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2003. Pp. xiv, 324. $70.00.) [End Page 119]
The title of this monograph by Professor Emeritus Bruce Mansfield is misleading because it is a survey of works about Erasmus of Rotterdam from 1936 to 2000 rather than, as the title indicates, from 1920 to 2000. As such it is not a chronological sequel to Mansfield's two earlier volumes on interpretations of Erasmus which cover the periods 1550 to 1750 (Toronto, 1979) and 1750 to 1920 (Toronto, 1992). The present volume is both cursory and incomplete within the examined time frame because it ignores important studies by Margaret Aston, Irena Backus, A. G. Dickens, and Richard Marius—to name but a few.
Mansfield appears to be aware of the lacunae by noting that this volume is of "a different character" (p. ix). The two earlier volumes in his trilogy were "as much interested (or nearly so) in the writers on Erasmus, their social positions, intellectual moorings, religious convictions, and stances in contemporary controversies, as in Erasmus himself" (p. ix). Mansfield chose not to pursue this same critical examination of authors in his final volume because "it is misleading to give them too specific a scholarly, let alone an ideological, character. The result of all this is that the material here is organized, not (as in the previous volumes) by the ideologies and commitments of the writers, but thematically" (p. x).
As a result of Mansfield's change of direction, the present volume suffers from a lack of chronological progression. He attempts to lump together various authors from different generations (see chapters 2, 3, 5, and 6) but does not note inconsistencies. Mansfield himself admits that "authors are drawn into the discussion as they illustrate these [themes] or advance them" (p. x). More seriously, Mansfield admits that he has not "achieved, or perhaps even attempted, even-handed justice" in drawing his conclusions (p. x) and that he has attempted "to elucidate themes and make progress towards a personal, synthetic view" (p. x). In my opinion, Mansfield is particularly severe with Professor E. V. Telle's scholarship.
Mansfield also derails any attempt to achieve comprehensiveness in his work by giving special attention to three Erasmus commemorations, namely, in 1936 (400th anniversary of Erasmus' death), 1967-1970 (500th anniversary of Erasmus' birth), and 1986 (450th anniversary of Erasmus' death) and the published articles that resulted from them. He assumes erroneously that these publications "represent the contemporary state of play" (p. x) when one could argue that they are reflections of the biases of their organizers and editors.
Mansfield delineates his "personal, synthetic view" (p. x) of Erasmus in the twentieth century in his epilogue: "The recovery of his reputation as a religious thinker and the recovery of his connection with the rhetorical traditions are the two great achievements of Erasmus scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century. Within the first, a fair range of opinions remains, from the Roman Catholic Erasmus to the 'protoliberal,' but the broad judgment is universally accepted.... If in the second half of the twentieth century, that civilization has finally petered out, a new challenge is posed to the reputation of (and the public's interest in) the great Christian scholar, whose image as 'pious Erasmus' [End Page 120] has just now been secured" (pp. 223-224). Although Mansfield admits that Erasmus was pious, he does not connect it to his spirituality.
Few words are as much misunderstood than the words "piety" and "spirituality." Piety is largely concerned with externals and observable behaviors—such as those associated with the Pharisees in first-century Palestine. Spirituality, on the other hand, is far more basic. Long before one cultivates external observances, one has to address the unrest that stirs within our souls. In the words of St. Augustine of Hippo, "our hearts are restless until they rest in you." What we learn to do with that unrest becomes our...