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Erasmus' Plea for Bible Reading in the Vernacular.

The Legacy of the Devotio Moderna?

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image of Erasmus Studies

Erasmus has written several pleas for Bible reading in the vernacular, perhaps the most visible being his introduction to the Paraphrases on the Gospel of Matthew. Comparable apologies were already to be found in the milieu of the Dutch Devotio Moderna in the works of, among others, Zerbolt van Zutphen (1367–1398), especially his De libris teutonicalibus and Circa Modum. Erasmus' defences of vernacular Bible translation do not contain verbatim similarities with Zerbolt's works, but the parallels both at the level of the argumentation and the biblical-patristic authorities invoked are striking. There are good reasons to assume that Erasmus was indebted to arguments in favour of the lay Bibles that were already circulating in the milieu in which he was educated in the Low Countries, a milieu that was deeply influenced by the Devotio Moderna. Particular attention is given to a Middle Dutch collation book from the years 1417–1443 (Berchmanianum ms 12 B I), now preserved in the Maurits Sabbe Library of the Leuven Faculty of Theology. The third collation takes Zerbolt's Circa Modum as its basis but provides some supplementary argumentation for the reading of the Bible and other devout books in the vernacular. The argumentation employed exhibits an interesting degree of resemblance with Erasmus' later pleas for a lay Bible. Perhaps Erasmus heard or read the piece when he was a student in Deventer. It should also be observed that Erasmus kept his distance from the inheritance of Devotio Moderna by radicalizing the arguments of Zerbolt. He did not want to reserve individual Bible reading to laici spirituales (those living in semi-religious communities) but wanted to open it to all lay people living in the world. Moreover, he did not only want to place the Gospels, Acts and Psalms at the disposal of the common people but desired to grant the reading public access to all the books of the Bible. The most obvious conclusion is that the Devotio Moderna provided an initial exposure to the ideas that Erasmus apparently reinforced and elaborated as he grew more involved in biblical and patristic studies.


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