Ancient books hold modern ideas

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Erasmus' writings were printed in a variety of sizes, all fractions of whole pages.

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A Dutch stamp in honor of Desiderius Erasmus is shown.

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Walla Walla University history Professor Gregory Dodd is shown.

Tucked among the volumes of history literature at Walla Walla University is a recently acquired collection of rare books that date back hundreds of years.

The works are by Erasmus of Rotterdam, a philologist, Catholic priest and theologian who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries. Among Erasmus' notable achievements was providing the first printed Greek New Testament. He is considered one of the first modern Biblical scholars, and was the equivalent of a modern best-selling writer in his time.

"When he was alive, he was probably one of the most famous people in Europe," said Gregory Dodds, professor of history at WWU. Dodds is an executive officer and treasurer for the Erasmus of Rotterdam Society.

Dodds is also a scholar on Erasmus. He published his first book, "Exploiting Erasmus: The Erasmian Legacy and Religious Change in Early Modern England," through the University of Toronto Press in 2009.

It is through the society that Dodds and the university came to acquire the Erasmus works. The collection was previously held at the University of Kentucky, and will remain at Walla Walla University for some time. The books can be referenced as part of history lessons, and can also be accessed by the community through Dodds.

There are old books that are part of the Erasmus collection that Dodds keeps in his office for easy reference. But the rarest books, dating back to the early 1500s, are kept in a special place for specific reference.

From the box where the rare books are kept, Dodds pulls a small text, its leather cover worn and stained from hundreds of years of wear, yet its pages and the ink within it vibrant enough to still be perfectly legible - if you can read Latin.

"Almost everything he wrote was in Latin," Dodds said. "But it was quickly translated into other languages."

The book is a collection of short plays, called Colloquies, written by Erasmus to help students learn Latin. The little dramas, focused on significant moral or spiritual issues, were published for the public to entertain readers.

"Everyone was reading these," Dodds said, then checks the date the book was published. It was printed in 1536.

Erasmus' literary works were widely read and vastly popular for their time. A devout Catholic priest at the time of the Reformation, he believed in the power of love and peace, and preached a need to look for similarities between various faiths rather than differences.

"There's so much hatred during that period, and Erasmus said we need peace, we need to be able to get along," Dodds said.

As one of the first modern Biblical scholars, Erasmus used philological tools, or the understanding of language and the evolution of it, to interpret the original Greek texts.

Dodds said Erasmus' approach was a major shift at the time, and did not please traditional theologians. Yet Erasmus' works helped establish principals of scholarship for future theologians and bible translators.

Dodds said at the time of the Reformation, Erasmus' work became neglected, and his views, which angered Protestants and Catholics alike, caused his legacy to fade. But the Ecumenical movement that looked to unite Protestant and Catholic faiths brought about a revival of his views among contemporary scholars.

There is also no simple way to classify the types of works Erasmus produced over his lifetime. He wrote fictionalized stories, and stories on the lives of the saints; his letters have been published in book form.

Erasmus was born in the Netherlands, likely out of wedlock. His father, a priest, died when his son was young and Erasmus was raised and educated in a monastery.

Erasmus' success as a scholar and writer was unprecedented, given the times and his humble origins, Dodds said.

"You really don't get much lower in society than being abandoned as a young child," Dodds said. "He's someone who goes from the bottom, all the way to the top."

Erasmus was about 70 when he died. Perhaps more compelling than his long and enriched life were the revolutionary views he held on faith and Christianity. Erasmus lived at the same time as better-known theologians, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, but his ideas were ahead of his time: to find equality among faiths, and striving for understanding, peace and love.

"He called himself a citizen of the world," Dodds said. "He refused to belong to any individual country. He was just so different from everyone else. He didn't fit in so many ways."

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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