Make Haste Slowly: Aldus and Erasmus, Printers and Scholars

John Willinsky

In 1508, while in Turin studying for the Doctor of Divinity degree, Erasmus started working with the printer Aldus Manutius on an expanded and revised edition of his collection of proverbs, to be entitled Thousands of Adages (Adagiorum chiliades). Aldus had, in 1495, set up his printing shop in Venice, which, along with Florence, had blossomed as a publishing centre of Latin and vernacular texts in the final decades of the fifteenth century. Venetian printers were drawing on humanist faculty at the university in Padua, which included Franciscan and Dominican friars willing to edit works in theology and philosophy, with some translated into Tuscan, and others, such as the works of Petrarch and Dante, already in the vernacular.[1]

What Aldus brought to his Aldine press was a new humanist aesthetic for the layout of the printed page, the design of fonts, and the book as a whole. He was making the book a more readable, portable, and attractive object, while at the same time raising the quality of his Latin and Greek editions by opening his print shop to scholars.[2] Aldus did not simply print the manuscripts that authors, editors and translators brought to his shop. He actively collaborated with those whose work he was printing, and they typically stayed to see the book through the printing process. Printer and scholar became friends, spending their days together in Aldus’ shop, the two of them working, alongside of others, on composing, setting, and proofing the printed pages of this new edition.

It marked a new relationship between trade and scholarship, commerce and learning. Humanists, like Erasmus, were particularly adept at such press work, with their new editions, discoveries, and translations of works from classical antiquity. Yet for all its glorious moments and fine books, the relationship between printer and scholar was continually beset by financial problems and censorship bans. Aldus and Erasmus’s friendship was no exception. Jumping ahead to today, as we approach the end of the print era, the original collaborations between printer and scholar take on a certain poignancy. What’s called for, however, is not a wave of nostalgia, but reflection on today’s field of scholarly publishing and what needs to be preserved and further realized as learning moves into the digital era. This association of a trade and learning, commerce and scholarship, was fraught, then as now, with differing values and needs at stake. Nothing gets closer to the issues at stake than Erasmus’ treatment of two of his many collected adages: between friends all is common; and, make haste slowly. His commentary on these two has much to offer on Aldus and scholarly printing during the humanist Renaissance, with telling relevance for the new publishing era that we face.

“Erasmus sat in one corner of the printing-room, writing the Adagia from memory,” according to the account reconstructed by University of Warwick historian Martin Lowry, “and handing the text sheet by sheet to the compositors, too busy, by his own account, to scratch his ears,” while “in another corner sat Aldus, quietly reading over the proofs.”[3] Any attempt to interrupt Aldus at work was met, according to Erasmus, by the printer shouting back, “I’m learning!” (studio).[4] Erasmus spent nine months on the adages book, working in what was, by Lowry’s account, “a now almost incredible mixture of the sweatshop, the boarding-house and the research institute.”[5]

The result was a compilation of 3,260 adages, accompanied by Erasmus’ well-documented commentaries, some amounting to essays. The book’s success transformed Erasmus into an internationally recognized scholar among humanists.[6] The fine press work of Aldus, combined with Erasmus’ accessible manner of writing, meant an expansion of the humanist audience, at least among that narrow company of affluent readers of Latin, which included  women. [7] Erasmus continued to add adages and extend his commentaries on them, seeing through a further twenty-seven editions until, in 1535, the collection exceeded four thousand adages and a thousand pages. And he continued to correct the text: “I publish in a hurry, and in the nature of things am sometimes obliged to refurbish the whole thing from top to toe,” Erasmus wrote to John Botzheim in 1523.[8] Printed and marketed in various forms, many greatly abridged, it proved among the most popular and profitable of his books. It fell within the medieval tradition of florilegia, or compilation.[9] It became a model for the commonplace books that people started keeping in the sixteenth century in which they wrote what they thought worth citing or modeling in their own work.

Starting with the 1508 edition printed by Aldus, Erasmus opens with the adage: “Between friends all is common” (amicorum communia omnia).[10] Much has been made of this by Kathy Eden, Mark Van Doren Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, who finds this adage key to Erasmus’ “cultural program for cooperation.”[11] In support, Eden cites the humanist’s friend and biographer, Beatus Rheanus, who notes that when “he was about to publish Adagia, certain scholars said to him, ‘Erasmus, you are divulging our secrets.’ But he was desirous that these be accessible to all so that they may attain complete scholarship.”[12] And while this adage may seem to root this openness in the closed circle of friendship, Erasmus’ commentary makes it clear, as do his letters and other books, that he sees learning itself as common to all, beyond the bounds of friendship. Where then the basis for commerce in learning and the printer’s trade in learned books to be sold at a good price for private ownership?

“There is nothing more wholesome or more generally accepted than this proverb,” Erasmus writes in his commentary on “between friends all is common.” He supports this by assembling those who have used it, noting the differences in their use: Socrates “deduced” from it that “all things belong to all good men, just as they do to the gods”; Martial “pokes fun” at other’s hypocritical use of it; Diogenes Laertius and Timaeus both “report” on its origins in Pythagoras, as does Aulus Gellius, who “in his Attic Nights, book 1 chapter 9, bears witness that not only was Pythagoras the author of this saying, but he also instituted a kind of sharing of life and property in this way, the very thing Christ wants to happen among Christians.”[13] In tying together the pre-Socratic Pythagoras with Christ, Erasmus bridges humanism’s potential classicism-Christian gap with this common interest in a communal life.

Erasmus also takes care over how these writers differ in their sense of “possession and legal ownership.”[14] In particular, he sets Plato apart from Aristotle, but not by very much: “In the Laws, book 5,” Erasmus writes, “Plato is trying to show how the happiest condition of a society consists in the community of all possessions.”[15] He then turns to Aristotle, who “in book 2 of the Politics moderates the opinion of Plato by saying that possession and legal ownership should be vested in certain definite persons, but otherwise all should be in common according to the proverb, for the sake of convenience, virtuous living and social harmony.”[16] This ownership is to ensure, as Aristotle has it, responsible care and use. Erasmus has clearly slipped away from the adage’s concern with friendship when he takes up Plato and Aristotle on property. If he more fully aligns himself and Christ with Plato in his commentary on the adage, he finds in Aristotle a certain flexibility between what is held in private and what is given in common, which, I go on to show, proves closer to the pattern of his own life as a scholar in the book business.

Erasmus seeks to rescue the adages from “a certain degree of obscurity,” as he puts it in the book’s introduction.[17] His goal is to make them a greater source of wisdom by setting them within the larger classical tradition, as if to open both the common and the past for this readers, and do so, in this communal spirit, in way that they can readily use: “He certainly intended his readers to draw freely on the materials he assembled,” Anthony Grafton, Henry Putnam University Professor at Princeton University, concludes, “for he equipped them with sophisticated information retrieval tools. From the first full edition, the Adagia were preceded by elaborate indexes that not only listed the adages’ topics in alphabetical order, but also rearranged them into categories to indicate the contexts in which it would be proper to cite them.”[18]

While Erasmus and Grafton regard the text of the book as common to all, one might still ask how this applies to the physical book itself. Among humanists, it works quite well. First of all, they were willing to loan their books, which was further supported by the printers’ preference of paying authors in books, with as many as a hundred copies and the exceptional Descartes scoring two hundred for his first publication.[19] Still, this embrace of communalism has to be reconciled with the image of Erasmus as an international man of business, working with the finest printers to develop new markets and commercial opportunities, edition by edition, in this relatively new trade.

Where the monastic manuscript culture operated within a faith-based communalism apart from the larger economy, the age of print introduced a level of commerce into the world of learning still committed to communal use. This layered effect manages to address a common critique of communal property. It is raised by Aristotle in a section of the Politics that Erasmus does not cite in his commentary, where the philosopher points to the risks of communal ownership that private ownership effectively addresses: “The greater the number of owners, the less respect for common property.”[20] It is different with learning. As the number of humanists, and scholars in general, grows and continues to work on improving the commons, edition by translation, compilation by commentary, increases the respect of the whole, as does exposing misattributions and plagiarism, as well as the harshly critical reviews of those who attempt to exploit the commons through poor editions (with more below). The tragedy of the commons, which comes from herders irresponsibly over-grazing the village green with extra sheep, takes a different form here.[21] Erasmus goes on to address the problem of poor editions spoiling the commons in his commentary on another adage, in which his commentary speaks to publishing.

This other adage – “make haste slowly” (festina lente) – was added to the 1508 edition as one of the paradoxical proverbs. “It carries with it a pretty riddle,” he writes, “particularly as it consists of contradictory terms.”[22] In his extended commentary on this adage, he discusses Aldus’ printer’s mark of a dolphin entwining an anchor, which he had been using in 1501, having seen the image and adage on an old Roman coin.[23] Nothing is more nimble than the dolphin, Erasmus notes, and yet such haste needs to be anchored by the accuracy of sources, the care for correctness, and the thoughtfulness of commentary. The dolphin-and-anchor is, he writes, “sent out beyond the bounds of Christendom [in] all kinds of books in both languages, recognized, owned and praised by all to whom liberal studies are holy.”[24] For Erasmus, this divine printing program increases access to learning: “How many good MSS are hidden away, either pushed out of sight by carelessness, or kept secret owing to the ambition of some people who have only one thing at heart – to seem to have the monopoly on learning?”[25] Erasmus praises Aldus as “the man who sets fallen learning on its feet (and this is almost more difficult than to originate it in the first place) is building up a sacred and immortal thing, and serving not one province alone but all peoples and all generations.”[26] The scholarly editor works among the ruins, restoring the coherence and integrity of texts that otherwise represent the tragedy of the (learning) commons, not from overgrazing but from neglect.

Erasmus celebrates the reach of the Aldine books by contrasting print with the legendary library of Alexandria. He refers to “the greatest glory of Ptolemy,” without naming the library directly, which “was between the narrow walls of its own house.”[27] By striking contrast, “Aldus is building up a library which has no other limits than the world itself.”[28] The ideal of universal access is something of a constant within the commonwealth of learning. It was present in the Alexandrian library, much as remains an aspirational aspect of the Internet, from Wikipedia to Google.[29]

Having praised Aldus, he then begins to “air his grievance” against the “rascally printers,” who are taking advantage of Aldus’ good name – in what should not seem the least bit strange to our ears and emails – to set up shop in Venice and offer “shamelessly incorrect” Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, “to say nothing of the Holy Scriptures.”[30] In this plea against the commercial tragedy of the commons, he condemns those printers “who would rather let a good book get choked up with six thousand mistakes than spend a few coins on paying someone to supervise the proof-reading.”[31] Erasmus then raises the need for some form of legal recourse to protect the quality of learning: “And if a man imposes books like these on so many thousand readers, he is free to enjoy his profits or rather his robbery?”[32] When it comes to such shoddy goods, he wonders why it is that “here the laws are nodding”; after all, the law is ready to prevent “selling cloth dyed in Britain as cloth dyed in Venice.”[33] He also decries “these swarms of new books,” as “the very multitude of them is harmful to scholarship” and “instrumental in provoking profiteering wars between us.”[34] By way of “remedy,” Erasmus asks that princes and magistrates “expel (as far as possible) those idlers,” while those “who strive to achieve what is in the public interest but have the means, are helped by grants from the princes, from the Bishops and abbots, from public funds.”[35] He holds out little hope of support from the “the merchant class, who have mostly dedicated themselves to the worship of Mammon.”[36]

Erasmus thrived in this new zone, where learning met commerce “in the public interest.” His work with printers to promote the scholarship of others, such as Lorenzo Valla, is just one example of that.[37] But of course, in the contentiousness of Reformation and Counter Reformation, his satirical pen was hardly going to please everyone. His work was condemned by the Sorbonne in his own lifetime and was placed on the Index of prohibited books by Pope Paul IV a couple of decades after his death.[38]

In his “make haste slowly” commentary, Erasmus also addresses how the economy of learning is distinguished by an “openness of mind… among the Italians, at any rate in the matter of literature.” He bases this on his work at the Aldine press on the Adages, where he was struck by the generosity of the scholarly community: “When I, a Dutchman, was supervising the publication of my book of proverbs in Italy, every one of the scholars who were there offered me, without being asked, copies of authors which had never been printed.”[39] Here again all is common with learning, even among strangers. Continuing on this theme, Erasmus offers the contrasting story of a “northern friend of mine” who refused to share when Erasmus asked to borrow a book with a collection of proverbs inscribed in the margins.[40] The friend did not honor the request, reluctantly explaining, “as if it were dragged out of him by torture,” how “up to now learned men had enjoyed the admiration of the public for possessing such things as these, and now they were becoming public property.”[41]

It was Erasmus’ mission to make this openness among scholars into just such public properties, aided by the circulation that print could achieve. It was Aldus’ art and craft to collaborate with such scholars to facilitate the reaching of wider public for humanist learning by making the text more readable and thus more accessible. The learning that emerged from scholar and printer was to be shared and given in common, which they sought to achieve – and finance – through the farthest reaching means of the day. Thus, this early, close association between the trades of learning and printing. Erasmus and Aldus were intent on pushing this relatively new realm of print to better serve a learning in which all is common (if not common to all), and in which making haste slowly was the way to prepare and distribute such learning. After observing Aldus’ warranted fame and riches (while omitting any mention of Aldine’s 1506 bankruptcy), Erasmus brings to an end his homage to printing. He transitions with “but enough of digressions,” and returns “to the discussion of the proverb.”[42] At some level, the desire shared by Erasmus and Aldus “to achieve what is in the public interest” through their books is no digression at all but every part the equal of their proverbial concern to set “fallen learning on its feet.”



This essay is taken from the work in progress The Intellectual Properties of Learning: A Prehistory from Saint Jerome to John Locke with University of Chicago Press.



[1] Brian Richardson, Print Culture in Renaissance Italy: The Editor and the Vernacular Text, 1470 – 1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 28-30. 

[2] Jennifer Summit: “Aldine books were printed without the marginal commentary or textual apparatus that made scholastic texts so visually offensive to humanist readers… Aldine books… would attract a new kind of reader, whose literacy was not circumscribed by the monastery or university”; Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 73.

[3] Martin Lowry, The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 94. Peter G. Bietenholz: “Throughout his life not more than eight printers managed to form a relationship with him that was more than casual”; “Ethics and Early Printing: Erasmus’ Rules for the Proper Conduct of Authors,” Humanities Association Review 26 (1975), 182. See also S. Diane Shaw, “Study of the Collaboration Between Erasmus of Rotterdam and his Printer Johann Froben at Basel During the Years 1514 to 1527,” Erasmus of Rotterdam Society Yearbook 6, no. 1 (1986), 35ff.

[4] Cited by Henry George Fletcher, New Aldine Studies: Documentary Essays on the Life and Works of Aldus Manutius (San Francisco: Bernard M Rosenthal Inc., 1988), 12.

[5] Lowry, Aldus Manutius, 94.

[6] Margaret Mann Phillips calls the Adages “a front-line work for the New Learning”; Desiderius Erasmus, Erasmus on his Times: A Shortened Version of the 'Adages' of Erasmus,  ed. Margaret Mann Phillips (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), viii.

[7] Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine: “The accomplishments of the educated woman (the ‘learned lady’) is an end in itself, like fine needlepoint… It is not viewed as training for anything, perhaps not even virtue”; From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in the Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe (London: Duckworth, 1986), 56. Jean-François Cottier points out how the paraphrases “were intended to instruct (docere) but equally to move and please (movere and placere)”; “Erasmus’s Paraphrases: A ‘New Kind of Commentary’?,” in The Unfolding of Words: Commentary in the Age of Erasmus, ed. Judith Rice Henderson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 34.

[8] Desiderius Erasmus, “1341A / To John Botzheim, Basel 30 January 1523,” in The Correspondence of Erasmus, Letters 1252 to 1355, 1522 to 1523, vol. 9, trans. R. A. B. Mynors, annotator James M. Estes, The Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989), 294, 293.

[9] Brian Cummings, “Encyclopaedic Erasmus,” Renaissance Studies, 28, no. 2 (2014), 192. Cummings: “At times, Adagia seems like a parody of academic study, a pedantic chain of references without limit. At others, it appears like the pure literary pleasure of a mind full of quotation”; ibid., 196.

[10] Desiderius Erasmus, Adages Ii1 to Iv100, trans. Margaret Mann Phillips, Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 31 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 29. This adage had been number 96 in the original 1500 edition.

[11] Kathy Eden, Friends Hold All Things in Common: Tradition, Intellectual Property and the Adages of Erasmus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 10. I remain indebted to Eden for seeing so clearly the intellectual property implications of the adages, especially the two that I focus on in this section.

[12] Beatus Renanus, “The Life of Erasmus,” in Desiderius Erasmus, Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus, ed. John C. Olin, 3rd ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1987), 60.

[13] Erasmus, Adages, 29-30. The Adages’ editor William Watson Barker corrects in the notes the misattribution to Socrates which should have been to Diogenes; ibid., 29. Erasmus also states: “It is extraordinary that Christians dislike this common ownership of Plato’s, how in fact they cast stones at it, although nothing was ever said by a pagan philosopher which comes closer to the mind of Christ”; ibid., 30.

[14] Ibid., 4, 30.

[15] Ibid., 29. Grafton attributes Erasmus’ sense of the “proper way to read,” as reflected in the Adages: “read and find the deep and rich sense of the simple” to Pico; Commerce with the Classics: Ancient Books and Renaissance Readers (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 110. Erasmus writes that Pythagoras, with whom the adage originates, “instituted a kind of sharing of life and property in this way, the very thing that Christ wants to happen among Christians”; Adages, 30.

[16] Erasmus, Adages, 30.

[17] Ibid., 3.

[18] Anthony Grafton, The Culture of Correction in Renaissance Europe (London: British Library, 2011), 158.

[19] Ian Maclean, Scholarship, Commerce, Religion: The Learned Book in the Age of Confessions, 1560-1630, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012), 80. Maclean notes that authors might negotiate “either a period in which they would be free to sell copies without competition from the publisher, or a market zone in which he agreed not to compete”; ibid., 81. Shaw cites Erasmus’ advice to one author – “If you want books, Froben willingly gives books rather than money” – while noting that “Erasmus wanted to be compensated by money [from printers], rather than by receiving an arbitrary number of copies and little gifts from time to time”; “Collaboration Between Erasmus and Froben,” 74 n.123, 64.

[20] Aristotle, The Politics, trans. T. A. Sinclair and Trevor J. Saunders (London: Penguin, 1981), 2.3 108. Jean Bodin comes back to this theme in 1558, with how “they deceive themselves who think that persons and property possessed in common will be much cared for,” for “public property are habitually neglected”; Six Books of the Commonwealth, trans. M. J. Tooley (Oxford: Blackwell, 1955), 9. Bodin suggests the need for “some private advantage from looking after” the common, which might be taken to be the scholar’s building of a reputation through such care; ibid.

[21] The oft-cited contemporary statement is Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162, no. 3859 (1968); but compare Elinor Ostrom, “Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges” in Science 284, no. 5412 (1999).

[22] Phillips, Erasmus on his Times, 3.

[23] Ibid., 9, 15. Aldus first published the motto “Festina lente” in a dedication to Astronomici veteres in 1499, and with a variation on the adage and a prototype of the dolphin and anchor later that year in Hypnerotomachia Poliphilia; Fletcher, New Aldine Studies, 43-44. Fletcher holds that Aldus’ first prominent use of the mark was in a 1503 warning directed against Lyonese counterfeiters of his publications; ibid., 51-52.

[24] Phillips, Erasmus on his Times, 15.

[25] Ibid., 9-10.

[26] Ibid., 10.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Wikipedia describes itself as “The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” while Google states that its “mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” In a similar vein, Robert Darnton states that “the World Wide Web can accommodate a worldwide library” when describing the scope of the Digital Public Library of America; “A World Digital Library Is Coming True!” New York Review of Books 61, no. 9 (2014), 11.

[30] Ibid., 10-11.

[31] Ibid., 11. Erasmus compares these printers to the “the thief, the impostor and the pimp” who set out “to rob them [authors] in the daylight of their good fame,” while insisting that it is “less vicious to use one’s own body or other people’s for gain than to attack the life of another, and what is dearer than life his reputation”; ibid., 13.

[32] Ibid., 11.

[33] Phillips, Erasmus on his Times, 11. Erasmus betrays much prejudice in this rant against how “such a sacred trust [is] tended to be [by?] obscure and inexperienced monks, nay, even women, employed without selection”; ibid. This was not his only outburst against women, as he complains in a letter about how a share of Froben’s business was inherited by the daughters of a former partner: “I do not like that petticoat government in your household. How can a dancer of hornpipes pull his weight in the boat?”; Desiderius Erasmus, “885 / To Johann Froben, Louvain 22 October [1518],” in The Correspondence of Erasmus, Letters, 842 to 992, 1518 to 1519, vol. 6, trans. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson, annotator Peter G. Bietenholz, The Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 158.

[34] Phillips, Erasmus on his Times, 11, 13.

[35] Ibid., 13.

[36] Ibid. Anthony J. P. Kenney: “The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw the secularization of the copying of texts, with the decline of the monastic scriptorium and the rise of the professional scribe; and of course the advent of what we may call the scholar”; “The Character of Humanist Philology,” in Classical Influences on European Culture A.D. 500-1500, ed. R. R. Bolgar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 122. For the pecia system used in medieval universities to distribute and speed up copying, see Robert Steele, “The Pecia,” Library 4, no. 2 (1930).

[37] In 1508, Erasmus saw to the first printing of Lorenzo Valla’s daring philological manuscript work in Novum Testamentum annotationes, from 1444, which formed a model for his own translation of the New Testament; he saw to the publishing on the continent of his friend Thomas More’s Utopia and Epigrammata (through Froben and other printers), and he penned, at the request of his friend John Colet, a guide on writing and rhetoric, Copia (De utraque verborum ac rerum copia) for use by students at his friend’s St. Paul’s School.

[38] In 1526 the Sorbonne’s theology faculty censured his Colloquies, pronouncing its satiric dialogues heretical in ninety-six passages and its author a pagan; Craig R. Thompson, “Introduction,” in Erasmus, Ten Colloquies (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957), xxvi-xxvii. See also Hilmar B. Pabel: “The Index of Pope Paul IV (1559) singled out Erasmus for censure more than any other heterodox author. It banned all his writings, explicitly identifying a series of genres, including annotations and scholia, whether or not his publications opposed religion or had anything to do with religion”; “Sixteenth-Century Catholic Criticism of Erasmus’ Edition Of St Jerome,” Reformation and Renaissance Review 6, no. 2 (2004), 245.  But then Erasmus had a hand in censorship when he recommended to Basle’s town council in 1524 and 1525 that those handling anonymously published books face legal penalties; Shaw, “Collaboration Between Erasmus and Froben,” 120.

[39] Phillips, Erasmus on his Times, 14.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., 15.

[42] Phillips, Erasmus on his Times, 15.


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