The World Split in Two

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, circa 1523 by Hans Holbein the Younger
Longford Castle Collection/National Gallery, London
Hans Holbein the Younger: Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, circa 1523

Most people in the West have heard of Martin Luther. Every Protestant is indebted to him for the fundamentals of their faith, and more than 80 million of them—close to ten million in the US—identify specifically as Lutherans. Luther’s vernacular writings, above all his translation of the Bible, have a fair claim to have forged a single German language out of a multitude of local dialects.

Desiderius Erasmus, by contrast, is now known mainly to scholars. Written almost exclusively in Latin, the international lingua franca of late-medieval Europe, the books that poured from the pen of this restlessly mobile citizen of the world were directed to the reform of his own era and have not aged well. Yet Erasmus was the sixteenth century’s most famous public intellectual and an international publishing sensation who formed close (and profitable) partnerships with the two greatest printers of the era, Aldus Manutius and Johann Froben.

The scope of his scholarship was breathtaking: textbooks of Greek and Latin, manuals for pious Christians, political treatises advising kings and rulers, pacifist polemics against the concept of a just war. These practical writings went alongside a stream of commentaries on and translations of Greek and Latin classics from Euripides to Seneca and the first multivolume collected editions of early Christian writers like Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Jerome, and Saint Augustine of Hippo. His Adages, an ever-expanding collection first published in 1500 of commentary and reflection on tags and proverbs culled from classical authors, pioneered a new literary form, the essay, and in its many editions (twenty-seven in his lifetime) was one of the most widely read books of the century. Entertained (and funded) by a succession of celebrity patrons—popes and princes, cardinals and bishops—Erasmus was an indefatigable networker, the list of whose correspondents included most of the leading writers and thinkers of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Both Erasmus and Luther aspired to reform the church and, like every other intellectual of his generation, Luther acknowledged his debt to Erasmus’s pioneering scholarship. But in every other respect they were polar opposites: Erasmus’s intelligence was questioning, nuanced, and ironic, Luther’s explosive, confrontational, and supremely self-assured. And Luther would father a revolution that both built upon, but also spelled the ruin of, Erasmus’s life’s work. Michael Massing deploys his double biography, Fatal Discord, to explore the resulting murderous rift within sixteenth-century Christianity that—somewhat begging the question—we call “the Reformation,” and whose consequences, he argues, we are living with still.

Erasmus was born sometime in the late 1460s in Rotterdam, the illegitimate son of a priest learned enough to have copied both Latin and Greek manuscripts and a middle-class girl, possibly the daughter of a physician. Orphaned in his…

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