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Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Brian Cummings, “Encyclopaedic Erasmus”

February 11, 2014 at 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

Holbein - Erasmus writing the Adagia - detail

This is the first of two talks that Distinguished Visiting Scholar Brian Cummings will present. Professor Cummings’ second public lecture, “Shakespeare and the Reformation”, will occur on 13 February 2014.

What is the concept of the ‘Encyclopaedia’ before Diderot? While the first book with the title Encyclopaedia was printed in 1517, the term was familiar from rhetoric as an ideal of the universe of learning: the total sum of common knowledge in its potentiality, rather than a practical compendium. Erasmus both extols the principle and subjects it to irony and even to a premonition of inevitable failure. Can universal knowledge ever be more than an illusion, or an expression of personal hubris? De copia was a milestone in establishing Erasmus as a humanist scholar after its first publication in Paris in 1512. In turn, the book was a major influence on theories of rhetoric, and of writing in general, throughout the sixteenth century. Copiousness is the key to writing, or to language, or even to an idea of knowledge. In this lecture, I will analyse the theory of copiousness in Erasmus, and examine its practical application in the Adagia – another sixteenth-century bestseller – which renders copiousness forth as a physical entity, an anthology of all ancient learning, and the summation of bonae litterae. However, this most impersonal of books is a contingent store of a single human memory, autobiographical, improvisatory, even solipsistic. In the Catalogus omnium Erasmi lucubrationum, Erasmus made the completion of the book a metonym of his own death, as well as a trope of his immortality. In the process, he provides a model for the problem of how to render the encyclopaedia in literary form.

Brian Cummings is Anniversary Professor at the University of York in the Department of English and Related Literature. He works on Renaissance literature, and also writes on the history of religion, the history of the book, modern poetry, and the philosophy of literature. His books include The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace (2002), and an edition of The Book of Common Prayer, a Times Literary Supplement  Book of the Year in 2011. In 2013 this edition appeared in a World’s Classics paperback, along with two new books: Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity & Identity in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture (OUP); and Passions & Subjectivity in Early Modern Culture, edited with Freya Sierhuis (Ashgate). He was previously Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Professor of English at the University of Sussex, and has also held Visiting Fellowships at the Huntington Library, California, the Center for Advanced Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich, and Christ Church, Oxford. He held a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship, 2009-12, and in 2012 gave the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University, with the title Bibliophobia.



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February 11, 2014
4:00 pm - 6:00 pm
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