In 1957 H.R. Trevor-Roper, the newly appointed and controversial Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, published a collection of short reviews and reflections that elegantly illuminated aspects of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and Europe. A decade later he offered a further collection on similar lines, only the chapters were fewer and meatier. During Trevor-Roper’s academic career he has produced book-length studies, brilliant and startling by turns, of medieval civilization, of a homosexual fantast in China, of the anatomy of treachery, and of the psychological world of the Nazi leadership. This virtuosity diverted and instructed the public at large, making the professor’s name famous, encouraging him at times to overstretch the bow. Historians have remained lukewarm. To his professional colleagues Trevor-Roper’s reputation rests above all on his essays, which treat themes from the early modern age. They will search the thirteen articles in the latest collection, most of them selected from occasional writings issued over more than two decades (although the three longest are previously unpublished), for confirmation of their judgment.
The historical essay is an uncertain genre. While its author needs skill to say things of real importance in a brief pièce de circonstance, he can avoid more extended intellectual demands. The free-ranging manner and epigrammatic style, fostering a sense of heady discovery, can lift up an improbable argument while leaving a good one half-baked. The essayist never quite has to state his premises, and Trevor-Roper teases us to probe his deeper thoughts, the larger preoccupations that recur from his earlier work. In fact these succulent, brightly colored confections have hard centers and something of a common flavor. Is there then a “philosophy of the writer” revealed in the very variety of his subject matter, as the preface to the collection published in 1957 encouraged the reader to presume? Are there even (as Goethe said of his heterogeneous oeuvre) the “fragments of some great confession”?
Evidently the Renaissance furnishes our guiding theme here. For Trevor-Roper the word means nothing very precise, primarily “the revival of ancient letters and the growth of princely power.” Yet for him the revival of letters culminated at a specific time and place, in the person and entourage of Desiderius Erasmus, in the Erasmian ideal of civilized discourse, of intellectual criticism disciplined by evangelical morality and enhanced by irony and restraint. Of course, much of the Erasmian synthesis had been anticipated in Italy, but we find in these pages only a nod toward the accomplishments of the quattrocento. Though the chapter on Erasmus is too slight to bear much weight in itself, we can everywhere infer that the Dutch humanist was the central genius of the Renaissance, his marriage of Plato with St. Paul in a “philosophia Christi” its central achievement.
Erasmus’s erudition and wit, his firmness of purpose and unerring articulation of the discontent of the day, earned him a reputation remarkable for the speed of its spread (within two decades after 1500) and the extent of the …