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Masterclass honouring the 42nd Erasmus Birthday Lecture by Brian Cummings: ‘The Art of Reading: Erasmus’ Adages’ – 10 November 2023

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Masterclass ‘The Art of Reading: Erasmus’ Adages’

The Adagia is the first published book by Erasmus (1500) while the last edition appeared in 1536, the year of his death. They are thus both a levenswerk and a lievelingsboek, and early readers of Erasmus yearned for them, purchased them (sometimes several copies), pored over them, annotated them. Yet of all Erasmus’ works, the genre of the adages is strangest to modern eyes, and perhaps reading them the oddest experience. They are of course proverbs, but do not conform to an image of popular wisdom or home truth like Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Nederlandse Spreekwoorden (1559). The best-known, such as Dulce bellum inexpertis (“War is sweet to those who have not experienced it”) give an impression of moral wisdom literature, yet these are not typical of the 4000 plus examples in all. Rather, Erasmus characterized the Chiliades adagiorum like an encyclopaedia of ancient learning, identifying phrases from Greek and Latin poetry and prose, explaining their sources, interpreting their meaning. In his guide to reading the adages, he described adages as like compacted metaphors. In this masterclass devoted to how to read Erasmus, we will observe at close quarters how Erasmus himself reads, by studying a small selection of short, characteristic, but relatively unknown adages. Erasmus breaks the classics up into fragments, then reassembles them in front of our eyes. The adages are frequently very funny, full of self-reflection, alive to literary ambiguity but also to the quirks of human life. I like to say that the Adagia are to the sixteenth century what James Joyce’s Ulysses was to the twentieth, a book everyone owned without necessarily reading it all the way through, or even understanding what they read. Yet they revolutionized literature and can still give unknown pleasures to us today.