Encouraging us to reflect on the genealogies of ideas and what becomes of them in the age of mass media.
The arrival late last year of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses has kept the printing presses busy. The recent spate of Luther biographies alone could fill a bookshelf. This is a fitting tribute to Luther, who made his name through his prodigious use of print, a technology then only decades old. (The stir about those theses, for example, wasn’t caused by posting them on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, then a nowhere spot on the map of Europe, but their dissemination by printers across German-speaking lands.)
Luther’s, though, wasn’t the only “brand name” in the book stalls, fairs, and libraries of early-sixteenth-century Europe. As good a claim to this status could be made on behalf of Erasmus of Rotterdam, as he was identified on his works’ title pages. Everybody read Erasmus. Like all the other Reformers, Luther included several Erasmus titles in his personal library. Many of these men, Luther among them, recognized that without Erasmus’s contributions—foremost, his Greek New Testament—the Reformation might not have happened. (This was also a complaint heard from Catholic writers at the time, as distilled in the quip “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.”) Erasmus, however, didn’t join the movement, finally breaking publicly with Luther in an acerbic exchange on free will in the mid-1520s. Among hardline members of the Catholic Church, meanwhile, Erasmus’s biblical scholarship and lampooning of clerical life made him no less a persona non grata. In 1542, less than a decade after his death, the Inquisition placed his entire corpus on the first Index of Prohibited Books.