The Lost Erasmus Library

One of the more interesting Polish-Dutch traces is connected with Erasmus of Rotterdam and Jan Łaski, known in the Western Europe as Johannes a Lasco.  Both men were joined by the friendship, humanist interests and the library of the Dutch philosopher. Unfortunately, very few books of the huge Erasmus collection containing over 400 titles survived up today and the fate of the rest is unknown.

The Dutch scholar and Polish religious reformer are two great personalities of the Reformation era.

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (born 1466 or 1467 – died 1536), the  illegitimate son of a doctor from Zevemberg daughter, was a writer, philosopher and one of the most significant reformers of the Church, who insisted on return to the original teachings of the Christ. For this purpose he translated the New Testament from Greek into Latin. His reformist views and support for Martin Luther (despite some differences) made him recognized by the Church as a heretic. Still, Erasmus work, with its satirical “The Praise of Folly” Lof der zotheid has found a wide resonance in Europe, including Poland. The scholar from Rotterdam abandoned his clerical garb, but never left the Roman Church however.

In the picture:  Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam with Renaissance Pilaster: Hans Holbein the Younger, 1523

This was done by Johannes a Lasco (born 1499 – died 1560). Benefactor of a wealthy and influential family (his uncle was the Polish primate), he could have made a great spiritual career in his homeland, but these plans were prevented by his involvement in the Reformation. As a result, Lasco left the Roman Church (married even) and having gone to the Western Europe, actively took part in the creation of the Protestant communities in East Frisian (1543-1550), London (1550-1553) and Poland, where to he finally returned in 1556. In the picture: Johannes a Lasco.

Long before their first meeting in February 1524, a Dutch humanist was in Polish Kingdom treated with a true reverence – the ideas of Reformation fell there on a very fertile ground. Poland was then a noble democracy, and the Calvinist idea of secular governance over ecclesiastical institutions was highly appreciated by the nobility. (The premature death of Lasco, the great propagator of the Calvinism, stopped uniting the gentry around this part of the Reformation.) For Erasmus, attacked fiercely by the Roman Church, the Poles’ admiration had to be significant. “Polonia mea est” – he once wrote to Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham.

Erasmus sympathizers were high ranked state dignitaries and the most prominent representatives of the Polish Renaissance. Among them Andrzej Krzycki (secretary of Queen Bona, then King Sigismund the Old), Jan Dantyszek (diplomat, royal secretary and poet), Hieronim Łaski (diplomat, brother of Jan), Krzysztof Szydłowiecki (great chancellor of the Crown), Piotr Tomicki (bishop and royal secretary) Jodok Ludwik Decis (historian and secretary of King Sigismund the Old), Seweryn Boner (royal banker), Piotr Kmita (great crown marshal), Andrzej Zebrzydowski (later Bishop of Cracow).

From left: Andrzej Krzycki, Jan Dantyszek, Piotr Kmita

Decius and Zebrzydowski even paid a visit to Erasmus, as did many noble sons to improve, for example, their Greek and Latin. The acquaintance with Erasmus was prized on the tombstone of Zebrzydowski by the following note: “A student of a very famous Erasmus of Rotterdam…” The work of the philosopher was also highly appreciated by the professors of the Cracow Academy. Erasmus had been even offered a cathedral but refused this favor.

Interesting note: In 1556 Erasmus translation of the New Testament was put into the knob decorating the top of the tower of the City Hall (not existing anymore).

The title page of the first edition of the New Testament  in Erasmus translation into latin language (1516) / Photo:  Rotterdam Public Library

Erasmus reciprocated the sympathy of the Poles, especially since Poland – at the Golden Age – appeared to him as a country of democracy and religious tolerance. He also appreciated Polish contribution to European culture and willingly welcomed Polish guests at his home. There were also more practical reasons of his hospitality – wealthy Poles paid for it quite well. For his dedications (8 in total) Erasmus used to get expensive gifts, like golden watch, golden spoon and golden fork from Szydłowiecki and 2 gold medals from Boner. The only one who failed was Johannes uncle Jan, a Primate of Poland, who ignored Erasmus and highly offended the philosopher’s pride (who did not object to complain about it). Young Lasco had no choice but to give his mentor a costly ring inherited from a deceased already Primate and pretend that it was his uncle’s wish.

Erasmus and Jan

Erasmus and Lasco met the first time in 1524, when the Pole had arrived in Switzerland to meet Ulrich Zwingli to explore his ideas. The Dutch philosopher made a great impression on him, so in the early spring of 1525 Lasco appeared at Erasmus house again, staying there for 6 months. This stay proved to be very beneficial for both men and initiated a great friendship between them. Lasco owed his mentor not only a high-quality education, but also the opportunity to meet leading humanists and reformers of the Basel milieu, like Beatus Rhenanus, German theologian Johannes Oekolampad, a lawyer and composer Bonifacius Amerbach, German theologian Konrad Pellikan, and a Swiss historian, musician and poet Henricus Glarean. As a result, he became one of the best educated Poles of the time. Besides, Erasmus introduced him with theology, what influenced his future activity.

From left: Johannes Oekolampad, Bonifacius Amerbach, Konrad Pellikan, Beatus Rhenanus

Erasmus was in turn enchanted by the intellects of the Polish visitor and his personality, often asking him to read loudly during a meal. In a letter written just before the Pole’s departure, he expressed great resentment for this parting: “His company was so nice to me as nothing in life. It is impossible, therefore, that his departure did not cause a big pain. Thanks to his lovely way of being, I almost came back to my youth ” (cf Wieslaw Wydra” Erasmo-Lascianum in de collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek in Poznan). There was also aother reason for a “big pain” – rich (yet) Lasco was paying well for his stay and Erasmus worried much that after his departure he would have to live again modestly.

Both men maintained contacts, although Johannes involvement in the struggle for the Hungarian throne for Jan Zapolya (at the side of his unlucky brother Hieronim) somewhat cooled the sympathy of the pacifist Erasmus.

The Library

Lasco was highly impressed with extensive Erasmus library, containing over 400 books. Those books, written in Greek and Latin, reflected scholastic interests of the philosopher – religious, philosophical and philological. Among these were the works of classics: Livius, Tacitus, Plutarch, Herodotus, Xenophon and Prokopius; a famous physician Galen, Fathers of the Church: Thomas Aquinas, John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, and modern reformers: Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon and Hutten. The list shows the absence of literature, poetry or the works of the Renaissance authors however. His books the Humanist signed by Sum Erasmi.

Personal Erasmus copy of the “Attic Nights” by the Roman writer Gellius (175) / Photo:  Rotterdam Public Library

In order to help his mentor financially the Pole proposed him a library sale with the right to keep the books up to his death. Erasmus approved the idea and on June 20, 1525 a document was drawn up, which provided the following:

I, Erasmus of Rotterdam, have sold my library to the illustrious Polish Baron John Łaski, for four hundred guldens on conditions that as long as I live, the use of the books may amicably be allowed to me as well as to him, but that they shall permanently belong to him and to his heirs. As a pledge he has an inventory of the books. All additions to the  library shall belong to him, except future purchase of high prices manuscripts, for which a special agreement must be made. In witness of whereof I, Erasmus, have written this with my own hand and affixed the seal of my ring representing Terminus.

Basel, June 20, 1525

(The quote comes from: KonstanyŻantuan: Erasmus and the Cracow Humanists: The Purchase of His Library by Lasco, The Polish Review, 1965).

List of the books purchased by Lasco page 238

The buyer paid Erasmus only half of the money, which was not an impressive amount at this time. Unluckily the Dutch philosopher had not seen the remaining 200 guldens as they were paid after his death on July 12, 1536 to his heirs (including the printer Froben and Amerbach). The reason of delay was the financial collapse of the Lasco family (the result of the failed Hungarian riot). Meanwhile, due to the purchase of another 17 books by Erasmus, the value of the library had increased by 100 guldens. Johannes paid the second part of the dues with the addition to the printers Froben (with whom Erasmus lived) and Episcobius. Erasmus had never asked for the lacking money, although in 1533 he mentioned the willingness to buy the library by some bishop from Vienna. He also disagreed with the Lasco suggestion to treat the first 200 guldens as a payment for dedication to his uncle. The Dutchman wanted his library to be given to the worthy and, as he supposed, safe hands. His wish failed, however, but who could predict it…

The wandering

Lasco had learned of the death of his Master in September 1536, and immediately sent to Basel his plenipotentiary, a writer Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, who arrived there in November with the mission of bringing the book collection to Cracow. (It was not without controversy concerning valuable manuscripts by John Chrysostom, some agreement was made, however.) It was a big logistical challenge to transport such a large amount of valuable books. Finally, Modrzewski had managed to send them to Poland in three big waterproof containers shortly before Christmas. One container had to be repaired for some leaks because it was impossible to find another one of this size. Books first went to Nuremberg and from there to Cracow. Due to his trip to Paris Modrzewski did not take them to Nuremberg personally, but was highly worried about the precious shipment. Not without reason, because books arrived in Nuremberg damaged and had to be repackaged. On April 5, 1537 Lasco received them in Cracow.

Since then Erasmus collection shared the fate of the new owner, who left Poland in 1540 to organize Protestant communities in the following countries:

  • 1540-1550 – Germany, East Frisia, with a stay in Emden
  • 1550-1553 – England (London), from where he had to flee after taking the rule by Maria Tudor, called Bloody Mary for her persecution of the non-Catholics (in London Lasco was responsible for the Protestant refugees from Europe, including the Dutch)
  • 1553-1556 – a time of wandering in Europe, re-enacting in Emden, which became the “mother church” (moderkerk) of the Dutch Protestantism
  • 1556 – Poland, where he died in 1560 after the unfinished work over uniting the Polish Protestants.

Pińczów: the Church of St John Evangelist Kerk van Sts. Johannes de Evangelist  – a former Reformed Church. Laski was buried here, but his tomb has not survived / Photo: Jakub Hałun

Everywhere Lasco was accompanied by Erasmus books, which number was gradually decreasing. It happened so because the lack of money – and the necessity to maintain a big family as Lasco had 5 children with his first wife – forced the Pole to sell valuable volumes. Only 25 of them (according to Rotterdam Public Library: was found up today, and the fate of the rest of the collection remains a mystery. For a few centuries no one was interested in it, only in the 19th century the first serious search was initiated by the Dutchman Abraham Kuyper* (Dutch Prime Minister in 1901-05), followed by others, including Fritz Husner, whose findings described in the “Die Bibliothek des Erasmus” from the 1936 are very reliable.

Some explanation of the mystery bring some Lasco’s letters which inform that he had sold some of his books during his first stay in Emden (1542). One trace of this period leads also to the Dutch monk Albert Hardenberg, the reformist theologian, to whom Lasco probably gave two books. The other to the monastery of Aduard situated nearby Groningen, which is supposed to buy a part of the precious collection. (The monastery is connected with Hardenberg). Unfortunately, in 1580, as a result of the Beggars (geuzen) attack (in the 80-year war in the Netherlands) the monastery library had been destroyed by the fire.

Albert Hardenberg (photo:  Juergen Howaldt) and remains of the Closter Aduard (photo Serrasot)

The last letter from Lasco referring to the library (as a relatively large collection) dates from 1551, from his stay in London. It is also known that several books were purchased by Gerhardt Montaigne, who, along with Lasco, escaped from England from the persecution of the Bloody Mary. Another possible reason of the disappearance of these publications was burning of illicit books. It was practiced by both the Catholics and the Protestants, destroying work of its opponents. There was also the practice of erasing traces of Erasmus, including the characteristic signature “Sum Erasmi”, because the philosopher was not accepted by the Church and his works became banned in 1559.

Incunable “Etymologicum Magnum Graecum” (1499) with Erasmus name being erased /  photo: Department of the Old Prints, Jagiellonian Library, Cracow

As it was written before, long-term search for Erasmus books allowed recognizing finally no more than 25 titles. Their fates were different. Six prints from this collection have been preserved in the Emden kirchen library. Five prints has a Tresoar Library in Leeuwarden (Friesland). There are works of Lucian, Plutarch (Moralia and his biographies), Dioscorides and Claudius Galena – each of these books has the signature: “Sum Erasmi” and notes made by Erasmus. One title have few Dutch libraries: The Rotterdam Public Library (a personal copy of Aulus Gellius’ “Attic Nights” from about 175 year), The Royal Library, The Meermanno-Westreenianum Museum in The Hague, and Museum in Leiden.

From left: Tresoar Bibliotheek, De Rotterdamse Openbare Bibliotheek, Museum de Lakenhal / Photo. Wikipedia

In England the books from the Lasco collection are kept by the British Museum and the Bodleian Library in Oxford – the latter has a book which Erasmus autograph was cut from and is now in Amsterdam.

From left: Bodleian Library, British Library / Photo: Wikipedia

Other libraries: Societe de l’Histoire du Protestantisme in Paris, Uppsala Universitetsbibliotek 

Polish traces associated with the Erasmian collection of Johannes a Lasco are very modest. It is known that in 1935 prof. Alfred (?) Rosenblatt bought in the antique shop in Cracow the book “Diogenes Laertius, Basel, Cratander 1524” with the sentence “Ex bibliotheca Erasmus Rotterdams Donatum for clarissimum virum D. Joannem Lasco 1548 penultimate februarii” (“From the library of Erasmus. Lasco the penultimate February 1548”). Two items from the collection of Łaski (one presumed however) are located in the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow. The first one is De veritate corporis et sangvinis Christi (item 312 on the Husner list), with handwriting on the title card.

Photo: Department of the Old Prints, Jagiellonian Library

The second item is the incunable “Etymologicum Magnum Graecum” (1499), owned in 16th century by Stanisław Grzepski, a scholar, mathematician and polihistor. Had this book been redeemed from Lasco – it is unknown. On the last page a trace of erasing the Dutch philosopher’s name is visible.

Photo: Department of the Old Prints, Jagiellonian Library (click to enlarge)

As for other libraries in Poland, the author has no knowledge.

Obviously such sad fate of his books was not intended by Erasmus who certainly dreamed of keeping them safely in a tolerant and peaceful (at that time) Poland! But could Lasco, buying this library, assume that his life will be a life of a wanderer? And that he will be forced to sell his great friend’s books to survive? Nihil homini certum est (Nothing is certain for the human) – says ancient expression. And the fate of this library, as well as of Lasco himself, has been negatively impacted by the turbulent history of the Reformation.

Renata Głuszek


I would like to thank much:

Dr. Adrie van der Laan from the Rotterdam Public Library for the bibliography, as well as for providing pictures of the Erasmus autograph and the title page of the first edition of his New Testament translation from 1516.

Dr. Jacek Partyka from the Department of the Old Prints of the Jagiellonian Library for information on the Erasmus books in the Jagiellonian Library and for providing its pictures.

Any critical opinion on the article please send to:

Interesting fact:

As for Laski himself, another interesting Dutch trace appears here. Already mentioned above Abraham Kuyper, being yet a young journalist, devoted much time to collecting memorabilia after the Polish reformer, searching for them in libraries and archives in Europe, from Dublin to Petersburg. A collection of documents was published by him in 1866, but he never completed the graduated biography of Johannes a Lasco. Nevertheless seems that he brought more attention outside his own country than in Poland. Photo: Wikipedia

Bibliography and other sources used for the article

  • KonstanyŻantuan: Erasmus and the Cracow Humanists: The Purchase of His Library by Lasco, The Polish Review, 1965
  • P Armandi, “Erasmo da Rotterdam e i libri. Storia di una biblioteca” in: Bibliothecae selectae da Cusano a Leopardi (Firenze 1993), pp. 13-72
  • Piotr Tafiłowski: Erazm z Rotterdamu a prymas Jan Łaski;
  • Wiesław Wydra: Erasmo-Lascianum w zbiorach biblioteki uniwersyteckiej w Poznaniu;
  • Witold Bender: Jan Łaski;
  • Jerzy Ziaja: Erazm z Rotterdamu – wielki przyjaciel Polski i Polaków

Bibliography suggested by Dr. Adrie van der Laan

  • HP Jürgens, Johannes a Lasco. Ein Leben in Büchern und Briefen. Eine Ausstellung (Wuppertal 1999)
  • A Vanautgaerden, “Item ein schöne Bibliotec mit eim Register. Un deuxième Inventaire de la bibliothèque d’Erasme” in: Les humanistes et leurs bibliothèques (Louvain 2002), pp. 59-113
  • P Armandi, “Erasmo da Rotterdam e i libri. Storia di una biblioteca” in: Bibliothecae selectae da Cusano a Leopardi (Firenze 1993), pp. 13-72
  • MMH Engels, “Erasmiana in the Old University Library of Franeker” in: Erasmus in English, 12 (1983), pp. 19-20
  • PPJL Peteghem, “Erasmus’ Last Will, the Holy Roman Empire and the Low Countries”, in: Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Man and the Scholar (Rotterdam 1986), pp. 88-97
  • MMH Engels, Boeken van en over Erasmus in de Provinciale Bibliotheek van Friesland (Leeuwarden 1992)
  • MMH Engels, Auteurs in de bibliotheek van Erasmus. De zogenaamde verzendlijst op persoonsnamen gerangschikt (Leeuwarden 1997)
  • W Schulz, “De Johannes a Lasco Bibliotheek in de Grosse Kirche te Emden” in: Jaarboek van het Nederlands Genootschap van bibliofielen 1997 (Amsterdam 1997), pp. 120-134
  • JC Margolin, “Sur les migrations de quelques oeuvrages de la bibliothèque d’Erasme” in: Voyages de bibliothèques (St. Etienne 1999), pp. 94-116

1 thought on “The Lost Erasmus Library

  1. The comment that “The list shows the absence of literature, poetry or the works of the Renaissance authors ” needs amendment. The list includes works by all the major Latin and Greek poets–Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Theokritos, etc.–many other literary works by Aristophanes, WillLucian, Plutarch, Terence, etc–and a large number of Renaissance authors, many of whom were Erasmus; contemporaries. He remained a devotee of literature all his life.
    Nevertheless, thank you for this Website.

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