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A Model for Christendom? Erasmus, Poland, and the Reformation

  • Howard Louthan


This article examines the close ties that developed between Desiderius Erasmus and the Polish kingdom and the implication of these relationships on our understanding of the religious landscape of late medieval and early modern Europe. Few regions embraced Erasmus as enthusiastically as Poland, and nowhere else did he have such a concentration of allies positioned at the highest levels of society including the king himself. More than any other figure from western Europe, Erasmus helped shape the intellectual and religious agenda of the Polish kingdom during this period. A close analysis of this relationship expands our understanding of Reformation Europe in a number of critical ways. It brings Poland, normally viewed peripherally in this period, into key debates and discussions of the Reformation. Erasmus's relationship with Poland also speaks to wider issues and processes of change in the Christian world. As confessional distinctions were becoming more pronounced in the 1520s and 1530s and hope for ecclesial reunion receded, Erasmus looked to Poland as a model for Christendom. He held up the kingdom as an example of how difference could be accommodated and compromise could be reached through wise leadership in church and state.



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1 For an overview see Louthan, Howard, “Multiconfessionalism in Central Europe,” in Multiconfessionalism in Early Modern Europe, ed. Safley, Thomas Max (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 369392.

2 Kłoczowski, Jerzy, Młodsza Europa: Europa Środkowo-Wschodnia w kręgu cywilizacji chrześcijańskiej średniowiecza (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1988). Representative on crisis and decline is Eberhard, Winfried and Seibt, Ferdinand, eds., Europa 1400: Die Krise des Spätmittelalters (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1984). In recent years this model has been challenged in the west as well. See for example van Engen, John, “Multiple Options: The World of the Fifteenth-Century Church,” Church History 77 (2008): 257284.

3 Foxe, Paul, The Reformation in Poland (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1924). For Poland's radicals one can begin with Williams, G. H., The Radical Reformation, 3rd edition (Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2000). Though there is considerable variation in how one defines Poland in this period, for this article we will be focusing primarily on the royal capital Cracow in Lesser Poland (Małopolska).

4 Geographically, the exceptions to these generalizations tend to be found in the Baltic region. Danzig's reformation moment was most typically urban, and there was peasant unrest in ducal Prussia. Zins, Henryk, “Aspects of the Peasant Rising in East Prussia in 1525,” The Slavonic and East European Review 38 (1959): 178187; Tazbir, Janusz, “Ze studiów nad stosunkiem polskich protestantów do chłopów w XVI wieku,” Reformacja w Polsce 12 (1956): 3261.

5 Allen, P. S., ed., Opus epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), vol. 5, letter 1488, 534–536; for a useful overview see Williams, G. H., “Erasmianism in Poland,” Polish Review 22 (1977): 350.

6 Allen, vol. 5, letter 1393, 343–345.

7 Allen, vol. 9, letter 2533, 336–340.

8 Allen, vol. 7, letter 1819, 59–65; letter 2034, 456–458.

9 Zantuan, Konstanty, “Erasmus and the Cracow Humanists. The Purchase of his Library by Laski,” The Polish Review 10 (1965): 336.

10 Cytowska, Maria, ed., Korespondencja Erazma z Rotterdamu z Polakami (Warsaw: Państowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1965), 11.

11 Segel, Harold, Renaissance Culture in Poland (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell, 1989), 178; Koper, Feliks, “Dary z Polski dla Erazma z Rotterdamu w historycznym museum Bazylejskiem,” Sprawozdania Komisyi do Badania Historyi Sztuki w Polsce (1900): 110138.

12 See for example Kras, Paweł, “Religious Tolerance in the Jagiellonian Policy during the Age of the Reformation,” in Die Jagiellonen. Kunst und Kultur einer europäischen Dynastie an der Wende zur Neuzeit, eds. Popp, Dietmar and Suckale, Robert (Nuremberg: Germanisches Nationalmuseums, 2002), 131138.

13 There were of course other regions in the Polish lands where Erasmus did have an impact. See for example, his reception at the humanist academy in Poznań. Mazurkiewicz, Karol, Początki Akademji Lubrańskiego w Poznaniu (1519–1535) (Poznań, 1921). My thanks to Natalia Nowakowska for this reference.

14 The best overview on Cox is Breeze, Andrew, “Leonard Cox, a Welsh humanist in Poland and Hungary,” National Library of Wales Journal 25 (1988): 399410. More generally on humanism in Renaissance Cracow is Glomski, Jacqueline, Patronage and Humanist Literature in the Age of the Jagiellons: Court and Career in the Writings of Rudolf Agricola Junior, Valentin Eck, and Leonard Cox (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).

15 Allen, vol. 7, letter 1803, 2–5.

16 Sokolyszyn, Aleksander, “Sweipolt Fiol: The first Slavic printer of Cyrillic characters,” American Slavic and East European Review 18 (1959): 8894.

17 Pirożyński, Jan, “Cracow, the Center of Polish Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century Printing,” in Villes d'imprimerie et moulins à papier du XIVe au XVIe siècle, ed. Vercauteren, Fernand (Brussels: Centre Culturel du Crédit Communal de Belgique, 1976), 139163; on Hungarian material see Biblioteka Jagiellońska. Katalog wystawy rȩkopisów i druków polsko-wȩgierskich XV i XVI wieku (Cracow: Gebetner & Wolff, 1928).

18 Allen, vol. 6, letter 1652, 236–239.

19 On Wietor see Kawecka-Gryczowa, Alodia, ed., Drukarze dawnej Polski od XV do XVIII wieku, vol. 1 Małopolska (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk, 1983), 325352.

20 Cited in Magda Teter and Edward Fram, “Apostasy, Fraud and the Beginnings of Hebrew Printing in Cracow,” Division II Faculty Publications, Paper 49 (2006): 35.

21 Glomski, Jacqueline, “Erasmus and Cracow (1510–1530),” Erasmus of Rotterdam Society Yearbook 17 (1997): 1213.

22 Kawecka-Gryczowa, Alodia and Tazbir, Janusz, “The Book and the Reformation in Poland,” in The Reformation and the Book, ed. Gilmont, Jean-François (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 413; Lewicka-Kamińska, Anna, “Erazm z Rotterdamu w Polsce,” in Erasmiana Cracoviensa (Cracow: Nakładem Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego 1971), 106.

23 Nowakowska, Natalia, “Reform before Reform? Religious Currents in Central Europe, c. 1500,” in Brill Handbook for the Reformation in Central Europe, eds. Louthan, Howard and Murdock, Graeme (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2014). For a fuller discussion of this project see Ács, Pál, “The reception of Erasmianism in Hungary and the contexts of the Erasmian program: the ‘cultural patriotism’ of Benedek Komjáti,” in Whose Love of Which Country? Composite States, National Histories and Patriotic Discourses in Early Modern Central Europe, eds. Trencsényi, Balázs and Zászkaliczky, Márton (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 7590.

24 See the report of Cardinal Gaetano in Gintel, J. ed., Cudzoziemcy o Polsce, vol. 1 (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1971), 188; Samsonowicz, Henryk, “Gesellschaftliche Pluralität und Interaktion in Krakau,” in Krakau, Prag und Wien, eds. Dmitrieva, Marina and Friedrich, Karin (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2000), 118; best on the city in the early modern period Bieniarzówna, Janina and Małecki, Jan, eds., Dzieje Krakowa, vol. 2, (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1994).

25 Allen, vol. 9, letter 2533, 336–40; letter 2584, 401–403.

26 On the Thurzo family see Bietenholz, Peter, ed., Contemporaries of Erasmus, vol. 3 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 322325.

27 Allen, vol. 10, letter 2643, 13–16.

28 Allen, vol. 6, letter 1752, 413–414; vol. 7, letter, 1820, 65.

29 See for example Allen, vol. 7, letter 1958, 337–338; vol. 8, 2175, 190–191; vol. 10, 2874, 309–313.

30 Allen, vol. 7, letter 1952, 331–332.

31 Des. Erasmi Roterodami Epistola ad Inclytum Sigismundum Regem Poloniae (Cracow: Wietor, 1527).

32 Best here is Wünsch, Thomas, Konziliarismus und Polen (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1998).

33 Odrzywolska-Kidawa, Anna, Biskup Piotr Tomicki (1464–1535): kariera polityczna i kościelna (Warsaw: Semper, 2004); Podkanclerzy Piotr Tomicki (1515–1535): polityk i humanista (Warsaw: Semper, 2005).

34 Allen, vol. 11, letter 3014, 127–129.

35 Jerzy Miziołek, “The Bishop Piotr Tomicki Chapel in the Cracow Cathedral and its Altarpiece Depicting ‘The Adoration of the Magi,’” in Die Jagiellonen, 391.

36 O'Malley, John and Perraud, Louis, eds., Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 69 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), xi.

37 Allen, vol. 11, letter 3049, 217–222.

38 Erasmus, The Lord's Prayer in Collected Works of Erasmus, eds. O'Malley, John and Perraud, Louis, vol. 69, Spiritualia and Pastoralia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 5577.

39 Erasmus, Modus orandi Deum in Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 70, Spiritualia and Pastoralia, ed. O'Malley, John (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 141230. The Belgian historian Léon Halkin aptly characterizes the Modus orandi Deum as “Erasmus's principal contribution to the art of piety.” See Pabel, Hilmar, Conversing with God: Prayer in Erasmus's Pastoral Writings (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 28.

40 See here Erasmus's extended discussion with Tomicki concerning the practical lessons Seneca could offer contemporary church leaders (Allen, vol. 8, letter 2091, 25–39) as well as the discussion concerning Erasmus's forthcoming publication of his Ecclesiastes, a long awaited handbook for preachers (Allen, vol. 11, letter 3049, 217–222).

41 Allen, vol. 8, letter 2173, 187–189; vol. 10, letter 2713, 91–2; vol. 11, letter 3000, 78–79.

42 Allen, vol. 8, letter 2175, 190–191, cited in Tracy, James, Erasmus of the Low Countries (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 197.

43 Allen, vol. 6, letter 1717, 350–352.

44 Allen vol. 11, letter 3137, 345–347.

45 See the introductory remarks in Baker-Smith, Dominic, ed., Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 63, Expositions of the Psalms (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), xiiixiv.

46 Allen, vol. 11, letter 3049, 217–222.

47 Erasmus, An Exposition of Psalm 38 in Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 65, Expositions of the Psalms, ed. Baker-Smith, Dominic (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 42.

48 Erasmus, An Exposition of Psalm 38, 43, 51, 52.

49 Erasmus, An Exposition of Psalm 38, 59.

50 Collected Works of Erasmus, 65:xii–xiv.

51 Rummel, Erika, “Erasmus and the Restoration of Unity in the Church,” in Conciliation and Confession, eds. Louthan, Howard and Zachman, Randall (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), 63.

52 Erasmus, On Mending the Peace of the Church in Collected Works of Erasmus, 65:202.

53 Erasmus, On Mending the Peace of the Church, 213. For a fuller analysis of this text see Erika Rummel, “Erasmus and the Restoration of Unity in the Church,” 62–72.

54 Allen, vol. 5, letter 1334, 173–192; cited in Collected Works of Erasmus, 63:lvii.

55 Erasmus, An Explanation of the Apostles' Creed in Collected Works of Erasmus, 70:261.

56 Cited in Backus, Irena, “Erasmus and the Spirituality of the Early Church,” in Erasmus's Vision of the Church, ed. Pabel, Hilmar (Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1995), 112113.

57 Allen, vol. 9, letter 2600, 419–20; vol. 11, letter 2961, 30–35.

58 Cited in Mansfield, Bruce, Phoenix of his Age: Interpretations of Erasmus 1550–1750 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), 4.

59 For a summary see Rummel, Erika, Erasmus and his Catholic Critics, 2 vols. (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1989).

60 Dalton, Hermann, ed., Lasciana (Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1973), letter 39, 175–176; cited in Bietenholz, Peter, “Concordia Christiana: Erasmus's Thought and Polish Reality,” Erasmus of Rotterdam Society Yearbook 21 (2001): 60. For the broader reception of De concordia see Rummel, “Erasmus and the Restoration of Unity in the Church,” 66–70.

61 Cytowska, Maria, “Érasme en Pologne avant l'époque du Concile de Trente,” Erasmus in English 5 (1972): 15. Jacqueline Glomski has looked most closely at the early period and has suggested a chronology that has Erasmus's influence peaking by 1530. Glomski, “Erasmus in Cracow,” 16.

62 Bietenholz ed., Contemporaries of Erasmus, 3:328.

63 Allen, vol. 11, letter 3014, 127–9; letter 3049, 217–222.

64 Allen, vol. 11, letter 3066, 240–246.

65 Erasmus, The Lord's Prayer, 58.

66 Allen, vol. 11, letter 3000, 78–79.

67 Allen, vol. 7, letter1919, 274–275.

68 Allen, vol. 7, letter 1819, 59–65.

69 Allen, vol. 7, letter 2034, 456–458.

70 On his understanding of Sigismund see Letocha, Danièle, “Quand Érasme se fait politique: la première lettre à Sigismond 1er le Vieux,” Renaissance and Reformation 12 (1988): 251271.

71 Halkin, Léon-E., Erasmus ex Erasmo. Érasme éditeur de sa correspondance (Aubel: P. M. Gasson, 1983), 195203; Charles Béné, “Le De Puritate Tabernaculi: Testament spirituel d'Erasme?,” 199–212.

72 Erasmus, Aliquot epistolae selectae (Basel: Froben 1536), H1r-H3r; E2v-E4r.

73 Erasmus, Aliquot epistolae selectae, F6v-F7r.

74 Erasmus, Aliquot epistolae selectae, D3v-D4v.

75 Cited in Augustijn, Cornelis, Erasmus. His Life, Works and Influence, trans. Grayson, J. C. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 3.

76 This letter was appended to Erasmus's letter to King Sigismund. Des. Erasmi Roterodami Epistola ad Inclytum Sigismundum Regem Poloniae &c. . . (Cracow: Wietor, 1527), Biiir-Bvv.

77 A Lasco to Bullinger, March 1544, in A. Johannis a Lasco Opera, vol. 2, ed. Kuyper, A. (Amsterdam: F. Muller, 1866), letter 16, 568–569.

78 Most important is his De Republica emendanda. The literature on Frycz in western languages is thin. Best is Séguenny, André and Urban, Wacław, eds., Andrzej Frycz Modrzweski, vol. 18, Bibliotheca dissidentium (Baden-Baden: Valentin Koerner, 1997).

79 For a brief commentary and edited translation see Olin, John, ed. The Catholic Reformation (New York: Fordham University Press, 1992), 182197.

My thanks to Paul Knoll, Natalia Nowakowska, Maciej Ptaszyński, and Jim Tracy for their comments on an earlier version of this article.


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