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Erasmus and the Politics of Translation in Tudor England

  • Lucy Wooding (a1)


Desiderius Erasmus was a significant figure in early sixteenth-century England, and many of his works were translated into English during the reign of Henry VIII. In the process of translation the original intention of these works was subverted as Erasmus's reputation was appropriated by his translators and their patrons for their own purposes. His works were recast in English form to serve a variety of different agendas, from those of Henrician conservatives to Protestants pushing for more radical religious reform. This article looks at some of these translations, showing how they illustrate the variations in religious attitudes during these volatile years and the competing claims for validation. In particular, Erasmus's pronouncements on the importance of Scripture translation were annexed and deployed in the debate over the English Bible, demonstrating how his views about translation were in themselves translated to reflect the political and religious needs of the English situation.


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*Lincoln College, Oxford, OX1 3DR. E-mail:


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1 Ryle, Stephen, ed., Erasmus and the Renaissance Republic of Letters (Turnhout, 2014); Jardine, Lisa, Erasmus, Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma (Princeton, NJ, 1993); McConica, James K., English Humanists and Reformation Politics (Oxford, 1965).

2 Erasmus, Desiderius, De immensa dei misericordia: A sermon of the excedynge great mercy of god, transl. Gentian Hervet (London, 1526), sig. Aijr.

3 Ibid., sig. Aijv.

4 Erasmus, , A devoute treatise upon the Pater noster, transl. Margaret Roper (London, 1526?), title page.

5 Pollnitz, Aysha, Princely Education in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge, 2015), 912.

6 The Correspondence of Erasmus, 2: Letters 142 to 297, transl. R. A. B. Mynors and D. F. S. Thomson, ed. Wallace K. Ferguson, Complete Works of Erasmus (Toronto, ON, 1975), 182 (to Andrea Ammonio, 1511).

7 ODNB, s.n. ‘Desiderius Erasmus’; McConica, English Humanists and Reformation Politics, 2–9.

8 Pollnitz, Princely Education, 39.

9 Halkin, Léon-E., Erasmus: A Critical Biography, transl. John Tonkin (Oxford, 1993), 215.

10 Botley, Paul, Latin Translation in the Renaissance: The Theory and Practice of Leonardo Bruni, Giannozzo Manetti and Desiderius Erasmus (Cambridge, 2001); Boeft, Jan Den, ‘Erasmus and the Church Fathers’, in Backus, Irena, ed., The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West, 2 vols (Leiden, 1997), 2: 537–72; Olin, John C., ‘Erasmus and the Church Fathers’, in idem, Six Essays on Erasmus (New York, 1979), 3347.

11 Lisa Jardine notes how Erasmus was complicit in his own representation as St Jerome: see her Erasmus, Man of Letters (Princeton, NJ, 1993), 55–82. See also Rummel, Erika, Erasmus’ Annotations on the New Testament: From Philologist to Theologian (Toronto, ON, 1986).

12 Greenslade, S. L., The Cambridge History of the Bible, 3: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day (Cambridge, 1963), 141–2. Ian Green has pointed out that Tyndale was also echoing Luther: see his Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2000), 42.

13 Erasmus in his preface to the New Testament translation wrote that he wanted vernacular Scripture to become readily available, hoping to see ‘the farmer sing some portion of them at the plow’: Olin, J. C., ed., Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus (New York, 1987), 101.

14 Greenblatt, Stephen, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago, IL, 1980), 106.

15 Daniell, David, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven, CT, 1994); Day, J. T., Lund, E. and O'Donnell, A. M., eds, Word, Church, and State: Tyndale Quincentenary Essays (Washington DC, 1998); Stewart, Alan, ‘The Trouble with English Humanism: Tyndale, More and Darling Erasmus’, in Woolfson, Jonathan, ed., Reassessing Tudor Humanism (Basingstoke and New York, 2002), 7898, at 78.

16 Foxe, John, Acts and Monuments (London, 1563), book 3, 570.

17 Richardson, Anne, ‘Tyndale's Quarrel with Erasmus’, Fides et Historia 25 (1993), 4665; Bossy, John, Christianity in the West, 1400–1700 (Oxford, 1985), 99.

18 Woolfson, ed., Reassessing Tudor Humanism, editor's introduction, 2–9.

19 Baker-Smith, Dominic, ‘Erasmus and More: A Friendship Revisited’, RH 30 (2010), 725; Rummel, Erika, Erasmus and his Catholic Critics (Nieuwkoop, 1989).

20 Juhász, Gergely M., Translating Resurrection: The Debate between William Tyndale and George Joye in its Historical and Theological Context (Leiden, 2014), 141–2.

21 Stewart, ‘Trouble with English Humanism’, 85–8.

22 More, Thomas, The Complete Works of St Thomas More, vol. 8, ed. Schuster, L. A., Marius, R. C. and Lusardi, J. P. (New Haven, CT, 1973), 1: 177.

23 The Correspondence of Erasmus, 4: Letters 446 to 593, transl. R. A. B. Mynors and D. F. S. Thomson, ed. James K. McConica, Complete Works of Erasmus (Toronto, ON, 1977), 36 (letter 450).

24 Ibid. 34 (letter 449).

25 Pollnitz, Princely Education, 119; Jardine, Lisa and Grafton, Anthony, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe (London, 1986), 141.

26 Erasmus, De immensa dei misericordia (London, 1526), sig. Aijv.

27 Roper, Margaret, A Devoute Treatise upon the Pater noster (London, 1526?), sig. eiijr.

28 Erasmus, An exhortation to the diligent study of scripture (London, 1529), fol. [2r].

29 Erasmus, An exhortation, fol. [5r].

30 Erasmus, De immensa, sig. Aijr. Hervet later joined the household of Reginald Pole in Italy where he worked on translations of the Greek fathers, and in later life became well known as a Catholic polemicist: see Nugent, Elizabeth M., ed., The Thought and Culture of the English Renaissance: An Anthology of Tudor Prose 1481–1555, 2 vols (The Hague, 1969), 2: 343–4.

31 Pole had alienated Henry by his outspoken opposition to the royal supremacy in his treatise of 1536, De Unitate, and his mother's death was part of a vengeful attack by the king on Pole's extended family in England: see Edwards, John, Archbishop Pole (Farnham, 2014), 3983; Pierce, Hazel, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, 1473–1541: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership (Cardiff, 2003).

32 Gee, John A., ‘Margaret Roper's English Version of Erasmus’ Precatio Dominica and the Apprenticeship behind Early Tudor Translation’, Review of English Studies 13 (1937), 257–71; Reynolds, E. E., Margaret Roper: Eldest Daughter of St Thomas More (London, 1960); McCutcheon, Elizabeth, ‘Margaret More Roper’, in Wilson, Katharine M., ed., Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation (Athens, GA, 1987), 449–65; Guy, John, A Daughter's Love: Thomas and Margaret More (London, 2008).

33 Daniell, Tyndale, 108–11, 132–4, 142–51.

34 Erasmus, An exposicyon of the xv psalme (London, 1537), sigs Biiiv, Biv, Fvv.

35 Erasmus, A playne and godly exposition or declaration of the commune Crede . . . and of the x commaundementes of goddes law (London, 1534), title page, sig. Avir.

36 Erasmus, The Paraphrase of Erasmus Roterodame upon the Epistle of saint Paule unto his discyple Titus (London, 1534).

37 Ibid., sigs Aivv, A vir.

38 Ibid., sig. Aviir.

39 G. R. Elton, Policy and Police, 206–7; McConica, English Humanists, 150–99.

40 Erasmus, A dialoge or communication of two persons . . . intituled ye pylgremage of pure devotyon (London, 1536?), sigs +iijr, +iiiiv. Usually ascribed to 1535, the reference to the Pilgrimage of Grace means it must have been published in 1536 or 1537.

41 For a contrary claim, see Yost, J. K., ‘Taverner's Use of Erasmus and the Protestantization of English Humanism’, RQ 23 (1970), 266–76. Yost sees Taverner's use of Erasmus to steer a middle way between ‘gospellers’ and ‘papists’ as ‘Protestant moderation’, but his evidence for terming Taverner's views Protestant is shaky, and the works might be better viewed as more distinctively Henrician. Taverner published six translations in 1539–40.

42 The prior, John Ramsay, would surrender his house in 1538, and later became a Protestant; he published two works in 1548, A corosyfe to be layed hard unto the hartes of all faythfull professours of Christes gospel and A plaister for a galled horse.

43 Erasmus, The Comparation of a Vyrgin and a Martyr, transl. Thomas Paynell (London, 1537), sig. Cvv.

44 Erasmus, A lytle treatise of the maner and forme of confession (London, 1535?), sig. Avv.

45 Ibid., sig. Aviir.

46 Ibid., sig. Bvr.

47 Erasmus, A very pleasaunt and fruitful Diologe called the Epicure, transl. Philip Gerard (London, 1545), sigs Aiiiv, Aiiiiv.

48 Ibid., sig. Avr.

49 Loach, Jennifer, Edward VI (New Haven, CT, 1999), 155–8.

50 Erasmus, Epicure, sig. Avir.

51 Rex, Richard, ‘The Crisis of Obedience: God's Word and Henry's Reformation’, HistJ 39 (1994), 863–94.

52 Erasmus, Epicure, sig. Bir.

53 Ryrie, Alec, The Gospel and Henry VIII (Cambridge, 2003), 47.

54 Davies, Catharine, A Religion of the Word: The Defence of the Reformation in the Reign of Edward VI (Manchester, 2002), 210.

55 McConica, English Humanists, 240–8.

56 Pollnitz, Aysha, ‘Religion and Translation at the Court of Henry VIII: Princess Mary, Katherine Parr and the Paraphrases of Erasmus’, in Doran, Susan and Freeman, Thomas S., eds, Mary Tudor: Old and New Perspectives (Basingstoke, 2011), 123–37.

57 Wooding, Lucy, Rethinking Catholicism in Reformation England (Oxford, 2000), 114–52.

58 Erasmus, The first tome or volume of the paraphrase of Erasmus upon the newe testamente (London, 1548), sigs B7rv.

59 See Tadmor, Naomi, The Social Universe of the English Bible: Scripture, Society and Culture in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2010), 19.

60 Erasmus's famous 1519 translation of the first chapter of John using sermo and oratio was faithfully rendered by Princess Mary as ‘word’ and ‘speech’; Pollnitz, ‘Religion and Translation’, 133.

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Erasmus and the Politics of Translation in Tudor England

  • Lucy Wooding (a1)


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