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Reading these articles in our AHY Forum brought back a flood of memories to my last days as a university undergraduate at Emory University when I first encountered Emperor Rudolf II and Renaissance Prague in a course taught by the late James Allen Vann. What captivates us about the past? What prompts naive undergraduates to take that fateful step and pursue a PhD in history? For me, it was simply Rudolf. I was not alone. The quizzical emperor ensconced in his castle high above the city has intrigued the imaginations of many. There is certainly irony in this, for Rudolf as an emperor was no success. He ended his reign an ineffective ruler browbeaten by his own brother to abdicate as king of Bohemia. But if he failed politically, there were lasting triumphs elsewhere. Rudolf's contemporary, the Flemish painter and theoretician Karel van Mander, famously pointed to Prague and the emperor as the “greatest art patron in the world.” And what emperor can boast that his most acclaimed “likeness” was a collage of fruits and vegetables, a portrait executed by a student of Leonardo da Vinci?
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.