Jean-Louis Quantin

title.none: Furey, Religious Republic of Letters (Jean-Louis Quantin)

identifier.other: baj9928.0703.011 07.03.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jean-Louis Quantin, Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes (Sorbonne, Paris),

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Furey, Constance M. Erasmus, Contarini, and the Religious Republic of Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii, 255. $65.00 ISBN-10: 0-521-84987-X. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.03.11

Furey, Constance M. Erasmus, Contarini, and the Religious Republic of Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii, 255. $65.00 ISBN-10: 0-521-84987-X. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Jean-Louis Quantin
Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes (Sorbonne, Paris)

Constance Furey's book is essentially a study of divided selves. Her characters--Erasmus, Thomas More and his daughter, Margaret More Roper, Reginald Pole, Gasparo Contarini, Vittoria Colonna: "women as well as men, Northerners as well as Southerners" (7)--all struggled to reconcile conflicting claims. Thus, they believed that scholarship had a spiritual, even a salvific, value, but they were aware of the dangers of scholarly pride. Scholarly controversies contradicted the ideal of a peaceful intellectual community, dependence on patronage (as in the case of Pole towards Henry VIII) belied the language of intimacy and trust. The uneasy relationship between scholarship and politics was reflected by More's career at the English court (especially as Erasmus viewed it), by complaints of papal curialists like Sadoleto, and even by Contarini's ambiguous comparison of a diplomat's with a scholar's life. At a deeper level, Contarini did not know how to balance "love and knowledge, affect and intellect, grace and human effort" (95).

Their way to overcome those tensions was to build an imaginary, restricted community of friends, which was scholarly as well as religious, and which, as opposed to traditional monasticism, had no institutional structure. Hence, the author convingincly argues, the key significance of learned women, who could not trade their learning for power or status, and therefore embodied the ideal of disinterested study and communication (see esp. 43, 84-85, 116-117, 159-163). Although the secularizing paradigm that the author rejects is less pregnant in recent historiography, and consequently her own thesis about the religious genealogy of the Republic of Letters less novel, than she believes (see e.g. Marc Fumaroli, "La République des Lettres [I]", Annuaire du Collège de France 88 [1987-88]: 417-432), her analysis is interesting and this is a thought-provoking book.

There are two main problems. The first one, unfortunately, is Latin. Where the author is able to take advantage of existing translations, her text is only marred by a few excusable lapsus. Erasmus, who knew his grammar, did not "describe like-minded scholars as nostra ordo" (23). When he famously wrote of More, "Quos synceros repperit et ad ingenium suum appositos, horum consuetudine fabulisque sic delectatur ut his in rebus praecipuam vitae voluptatem ponere videatur" (ep. 999, Allen IV, 16), ponere videatur is not an "impersonal subjunctive construction" (34); More is the subject of the sentence. Nor is it "a subjunctive equivocation", but the regular construction of ut with subjunctive. The voice Augustine famously heard under the fig-tree said: "Tolle lege" (Confessions VIII.xii.29), not "tolle et legere" (145). When, however, the author does her own translations, one cannot help wondering about her command of Latin. Pole explained to Sadoleto in 1534 why he had refrained from criticizing his tutor Bonamico to his face: "nec enim decorum videbatur, cum ad annos meos respicerem, et tenuitatem doctrinae, atque judicii agnoscerem, hominem id aetatis, et literatissimum de literis, prudentissimum autem, de instituendo vitae genere admonere" (p. 191, note 97), i.e. "nor did it seem proper, when I considered my age and lack of learning and judgment, to admonish a man of that age about learning while he is so learned, and about the right way of life while he is so discreet." The author failed to construe admonere and rendered the sentence thus: "nor does it [why a present tense?] seem proper, when I consider my years and lack of learning and lack of judgment, to admonish a man of that age, that most literate man of letters, to admonish him however prudently about the type of life he leads" (76).

The second problem, at least from an historian's point of view, is the absence of justification for the author's selection of characters (a handful of very famous characters, who have already been much studied). She mentions that "scholars regularly invoke Erasmus and More as representative figures" (8), and it may be assumed that she considers them representative as well, but what exactly are they representative of? Phrases like "highly educated, pious Catholics", "learned Catholics" or even "Catholic intellectuals" are rather vague, both sociologically and religiously. I shall not dispute the use of "intellectual" in a Renaissance context since the author has explained in what sense she used it (p. 171, note 3, and p. 188, note 56). But she has not realized that "Catholic" was at least as objectionable a category, especially as she gives it a strictly confessional meaning, in contradistinction to "Protestant" (11-12). But several of the texts the author analyzes, such as Erasmus' Praise of Folly, actually predate the Glaubensspaltung, and even afterwards the singular position of Pole, Vittoria Colonna or Contarini within the Roman communion, should have been more precisely located. The author herself notes that "it is difficult to label them according to the chart subsequently drawn up to distinguish Protestants from Catholics" (107), but she later calls them "highly educated Catholics who were interested in religious reform" (147): this is not very helpful. When she crosses the path of scholars who eventually separated from the old Church, such as Pier Paolo Vergerio, she makes it clear that they are not part of her story (see p. 160). That may well be true but it should have been demonstrated, not taken for granted.