Erasmus' correspondence network

Erasmus’ voracious appetite for communication with, for example, scholars, theologians, printers, patrons, and princes gave rise to a web of correspondence that affords revealing insights into the mind of Erasmus and wider concerns of his age. His own awareness of the inherent potential of correspondence for publicity and even propaganda is perhaps evident in his decision to publish it. Indeed, it was with an eye to this that he not only kept his own letters, but began to ask his expanding network of friends to preserve the communications he had sent to them.

We cannot be sure of all the factors that inspired Erasmus to write, preserve, and eventually publish his correspondence. But, by 1493 he had already drafted a treatise on how to write elegant letters - De ratione conscribendi epistolas - and, given his humanist preoccupation for the accurate and skilful use of Latin in its purified form, we may ask to what extent his correspondence also became an exercise in literary style.

There were of course quite functional reasons for writing letters. They helped forge the bonds of genuine and long lasting friendships and often appeared as prefaces in his books or as dedications and testimonies to those he admired. Some letters even included intimate revelations regarding his daily life - complaints of poverty, remarks concerning the weather, his loneliness and ill health, or unfavourable reactions to English food and drink.

However, these circles of friends were severely disrupted by the Reformation: a schism in the Catholic Church that took hold from 1517 following Martin Luther’s protests against corruption, the authority of the Pope, and the legitimacy of Church doctrine. The major disputes, debates, and controversies of this period were reflected in Erasmus’ situation, his correspondence, and in his work.

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