Erasmus House – a Guided Tour

Erasmus House in Anderlecht: a guided tour of the house gives an introduction to Erasmus of Rotterdam – Renaissance scholar, Christian humanist, key figure in the pre-Reformation – and kicks up some questionable facts

Chère Madame le guide,

Erasmi domum - Erasmus House - plaqueI want to thank you for your recent guided tour of the Erasmus House and Gardens in Anderlecht. It’s an interesting building and a wittily and appropriately designed garden. I agree the municipality of Anderlecht seems to be over-reaching itself a tad, calling the place “Erasmus House”. After all the great man only stayed there as a guest of the actual owner for five months in 1521. But then, as you explained, Erasmus barely stayed anywhere for very long. He was the quintessential wandering scholar. It’s highly appropriate that he has given his name to the EU’s student exchange programme.

Your tour of the House, Madam, was by turns fascinating, confusing and entertaining. (Even if it wasn’t your intention to confuse. Nor, perhaps, always your intention to entertain.) At the beginning you repeatedly warned us that we only had an hour and a half for the tour. This was something you seemed resentful about, though you must see it wasn’t our fault. But then in your generosity, you ended up giving us nearly three hours of your time.

Erasmus House: Ubi bene ibi patria - where life is good, there is home
Ubi bene ibi patria – where life is good, there is home

You love your subject, that’s clear. Erasmus is your hero, and there was so much you wanted to say about him. Still, I think you could have tried to prioritise a little better. It would have been easier to follow what you were telling us if you had spoken a little more slowly. Perhaps with more pauses between the sentences. And with, dare I say it, just a single thread to your narrative?

The way your story did leap about! Much like Erasmus himself, you travelled from the Netherlands, to Germany, to Italy, to Switzerland, to England and back. From printing and editing you skipped to the attributes of saints, then on to Ancient Greek. You touched on the effects of rye ergot, the eating habits in the Hapsburg Empire, the Salem witch trials and St Elmo’s fire…

Erasmus House: Title page of Moriea Encomium (In Praise of Folly)
Erasmus House: Title page of Moriea Encomium (In Praise of Folly). The title can also be read as a pun “In praise of More” – the English Christian humanist Thomas More in whose home the book was written.

Standing in the stream of your outpouring, I for one felt at times I was losing my footing. As if I might slip and drown in the current. I wanted to say: Take a breath! But I fear you would have not appreciated my interruption.

Well, of course we both know you don’t appreciate interruptions.

Chère Madame, if you don’t want to be interrupted, perhaps you shouldn’t invite people to ask you questions? To invite questions is to invite dialogue. It is possible to talk about your subject while answering questions, but only if you’re confident of your material. And you always have to be open to the idea that you may be wrong. If you get caught out in an untruth, learn how to graciously back away from the mistake. Don’t insist on being right.

Erasmus House: Printers engravings
Printers engravings used to illustrate Erasmus’s works.

It might also be a good idea, when you start future tours, if you don’t inform your audience of your unrivalled expertise in the subject. By all means tell us of the years you have spent studying Erasmus and his times, but don’t pooh-pooh all the sources of information you have not seen. And don’t imply that the little your audience may know about Erasmus must be gleaned from Wikipedia and so is bound to be wrong. To do so is just a bit rude. And also like a red rag in the face of any historians (even if amateur historians) in the company.

Erasmus House: Title page of the Erasmus translation of the New Testament in Latin and Greek
Title page of the Erasmus translation of the New Testament in Latin and Greek. A parallel text, Erasmus collated the Greek version from various texts – some of which he consulted while staying in Anderlecht.

To be fair, I think you were generally very accurate about Erasmus himself. Though I don’t think you ought to be repeating the story that Erasmus was really baptised as Geert. That seems to be a myth. Erasmus’s Dutch Wikipedia page says it’s a legend from the 17th century. Now I know how little you think Wikipedia is worth, but the electronic debunking references a (printed) essay by Hans Trapman. He’s a professor at the Erasmus Centre for Early Modern Studies in Rotterdam. Maybe a reliable source?

Nevertheless, as I say Madame, I think you were pretty accurate about Erasmus the man. My problem was more with the information in your tour that came by-the-by. For example – and I am sorry to labour the point – but the English word pen does not come from the name for a female swan. I don’t care what you think you’ve read somewhere in a printed book.

The word pen comes from the Latin penna, meaning a feather and as an English word it dates from the 1200s. The names for male and female mute swans – cob and pen – refer to the physical features or the behaviour of the swan. The male’s large cob or knob on the top of its beak, the female’s practice of penning or holding in her closed wings together over her back. Pen as a name for a female swan (then written penne) dates from the 1500s.

It’s not even a remote possibility that female swans were called pennes because people used their feathers as pens. People simply didn’t use swan feathers as pens – or not commonly. The standard pen at the time of Erasmus and for hundreds of years before and after was a goose’s quill. Those are goose quill pens on display on the writing desk at Erasmus House.

Birdbath (or font?) in the grounds of Erasmus House
Birdbath (or font?) in the grounds of Erasmus House

You were kind enough, at the end, to thank us for not interrupting you “very much”. For my part – after that first time – I chose to bite my tongue. I did not want the tour to take even longer. (Mrs SC standing on my toe whenever she saw me flinch at one of your “facts” may have helped.)

But, here we are, and as I doubt we’ll meet again – or even that you will ever read this – let me just get one more thing off my chest.

The Emperor Charles V, Lord of the Netherlands and Duke of Burgundy – and a student of Erasmus – did indeed inherit the Hapsburg jaw. The famous under bite is prominent even in the portrait of him as a young man in Erasmus House. But it really wasn’t so pronounced that it made it “too difficult for him to eat”. He lived to 58, which doesn’t happen if you can’t eat. And his deformed jaw wasn’t what eventually killed him. He died of malaria.

Erasmus House: from inside the gazeboIn the Erasmus House garden, I liked several of the sculptures especially perhaps the open gazebo made from hundreds of pairs of eye-glasses. It was a witty reference to Erasmus who artists often drew checking printer’s proofs with a pair of eye-glasses. It also played with the Christian humanist concept that each one of us perceives the world through the distorting lens of personal prejudice. All the while we are open to the all-seeing eye of God above, who we can also see from the gazebo – if we choose – simply by looking up.

In the technical and scientific revolution of the 15th and 16th centuries – the period we call the Renaissance and Reformation, Erasmus was a key figure. Think of philosophy, of enquiry, and of the dissemination of knowledge, and sooner or later you must come around to him. Yet we tend to view Erasmus through the distortions of our limited knowledge – and prejudices. Through the lens-walls of our personal gazebos.

Ersamus House: the gazebo in the gardenWhat would Erasmus have made of Wikipedia? I’m sure he would have tried to verify its assertions and correct its errors, but I don’t think he would have rejected it out of hand. On the contrary, I think Erasmus would have been delighted by it. I think he’d have embraced the Internet.

Chère Madame, it is very easy, enthused by history, to forget that the people of the past thought of themselves just as we do. As living in the present. As looking to the future. This was a perspective on Erasmus I missed in your otherwise exhaustive, exhausting presentation.

Etching of a sly looking ErasmusAs I’ve mentioned, despite your warnings about limited time, the tour took nearly three hours. With what relief we applauded you at the end! With what relief we were able finally, without appearing rude, to go our separate ways. Mrs SC and I collapsed at the first bar we came to.

Erasmus was no ascetic. I think he would have approved – perhaps even joined us.


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Comic Strip Festival

The Comic Strip Festival in Brussels has become an annual event that attracts comic fans from across at least the Francophone world.

Mysteries revealed

If you hang around long enough, mysteries will be revealed. Apparently.

TheSupercargo with presumed Atomium mascot - perhaps Spirou?Back in the spring I visited the Atomium here in Brussels (and wrote in May about the time-slip I experienced there). Entering the Atomium building I was accosted by a mascot and a photographer and paid my €7 to be able to share this photo. I wrote after: The mascot doesn’t appear anywhere on the Atomium web site, so I’m guessing it was all in aid of advertising something else – but I have no idea what.

Spirou

Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters 4 - Spirou sittingWell, now I think the mascot was supposed to be Spirou. Spirou is a Belgian comic strip character and protagonist in the comic strip series Spirou et Fantasio… He also serves as the mascot of the Belgian comic strip magazine Spirou.

OK, I know this because I’ve just looked Spirou up on Wikipedia. But I was prompted to look him up by meeting him in various guises all over the place at the weekend.

Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters - SpirouSpirou was big at the Brussels Comic Strip Festival. I’m not just talking about the Spirou-shaped balloon whose crotch the young man is groping in the photo. There was a whole section in one of the festival tents dedicated to this intrepid bellhop-come-boy-reporter. Every other person seemed to be wearing Spirou pill-box hats.

Tintin surprised(And I’ve just gone through all my photos and found not one to back up that last statement. Not one!)

Mind you, I’m still no wiser about what Spirou was advertising at the Atomium in May.

Fête de la BD/Stripfeest

Comic Strip Festival: Things to leave outside
Comic Strip Festival: To leave outside…

The Fête de la BD/Stripfeest as the Comic Strip Festival is called locally is pretty big. I don’t mean it can hold a candle to Comic-Con in the USA (judging by all I’ve seen on YouTube), but in Brussels, it’s an event. It spreads over the whole weekend, it occupies the big park opposite the royal palace, it attracts comic fans from across at least the Francophone world. And on the Sunday a parade of inflatable characters winds through the city to the sound of  walking  bands.

For all these reasons it seemed appropriate to take myself and my camera off to the park on Sunday.

Inflation problems

According to the programme I found on-line, the parade was supposed to leave the palace courtyard at 2pm. When I arrived at 1:45, though, it was obvious some of the characters were suffering inflation problems.

Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters - Garfield
Garfield lay on his back and Le Chat was face down, levitating a metre over the cobbles. A gusty wind wasn’t helping.
Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters - Le Chat
I’d seen ads for volunteers to help manhandle the balloons through the streets and I suppose most of the inflation teams were also volunteers. I could have waded in to help, but, nah. They would probably manage better without my interference.

I think these soldiers below would have liked to help out too. (Sadly, we’ve become all too familiar with scenes like this over the last few months.)

Strip Cartoon Festival: Security presence

In the festival ground

So I went for a walk through the festival. Four long tents occupying avenues through the park, each filled with stalls dedicated to cartoons. You could buy vintage cartoons and new; vintage “merchandise” and new.

Comic Strip Festival: Collectors cornerOr you could meet cartoonists and stand in line for an autograph. Or join a master class.

Strip Cartoon Festival: Workshop 2You might meet characters in costume for a photo op.

Cosplay - Alex the boy legionaire and friends

(I think that’s Alix in the middle with Julius Caesar and Alix’s sidekick Enak from The Adventures of Alix.)

And you could read – read – read – read…

Strip Cartoon Festival: Reader 1
Strip Cartoon Festival: Reader 2
Comic Strip Festival: Reader 3
Comic Strip Festival: Reader 4
I don’t really know what was going on below here – although at a wild guess it had something to do with Marvel Comics.

Comic Strip Festival: The Marvel Mobile

Absent friends

There were noticeable absences. Apart from the van above (if it really was from Marvel), almost nothing from the world of English comics. (Nothing till the parade anyway.) Nothing obviously from Japan or South Korea either. I came away with the feeling of having seen a world that was at once familiar but alien. Which is kind of what you want from a festival that predominantly celebrates fantasy and science fiction. But it’s kind of disturbing too.

I wonder if French speakers get the same frisson visiting English language conventions.

The Comic Strip Band

The photographer in me was also a bit disappointed that there were so few people in costume. Cosplay is such an eye-catching feature of Anglophone events nowadays. Fortunately there was this band of pirates. They played first to keep people’s spirits up at inflation square, and then walked in the parade.

Comic Strip Festival: Band of pirates 1
Comic Strip Festival: Band of pirates 3
Comic Strip Festival: Band of pirates 5At last the parade got under way, and finally here were a few familiar faces. From Star Wars: BB-8,

Comic Strip Festival: BB-8 BalloonRey,

Comic Strip Festival: Cosplay - Rey… and Darth Vader.

Comic Strip Festival: Cosplay - Darth VaderI think Darth Vader is a little like Father Christmas. It’s amazing how he can get around and be at so many events in so many places all over the world. (And the galaxy.) Not a lot like Father Christmas, of course. Just a little.

And look below here, from Tintin – Thomson and Thompson.

Comic Strip Festival: Cosplay -Thomson and Thompson

There was a real problem getting the balloon characters out of the park and across the road into town. The electrified tram lines were a serious barrier.

Comic Strip Festival: Getting the balloons under the tram linesBut once their wranglers had wrestled them down and under, the parade could proceed.

Comic Strip Festival: Le Chat balloon in processionAnd I think the wranglers felt a real sense of achievement.

Comic Strip Festival: Handling the balloons is funAh! Look! That guy to the left is wearing a Spirou pill-box hat! You see, not fibbing.

Comic Strip Festival: Le Chat leads the flags


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Sleeping Homeless

The sleeping homeless - behind Square Jaques Brel
The sleeping homeless – behind Square Jaques Brel, Brussels, a sunny afternoon (Saturday 3rd September 2016)

Book Boxes of Brussels – Les boites à livres

The book boxes – les boites à livres – are scattered across the city – they’re not always easy to find, but that makes looking for them a sport (and you don’t need an app to do it)

The first book box I saw was the one outside the Longchamps swimming baths. I suppose I noticed it because I saw it – see it still – every time I passed by on my way in or out of the building. On its pole by the entrance steps. It’s blue and oblong with glass windows and an odd collection of books visible inside. The first time I opened it to look I found a book of poetry by the Swedish writer Gunnar Ekelöf. It was in a Dutch translation.

Clearly this was a book exchange site. Take out a book you fancy, put in one you don’t want any more so someone else can find it. I’ve come across book exchanges before. The one that always comes to mind is the “repurposed” telephone box in my sister’s village in Northamptonshire. But I hadn’t realised how big it is as a movement. It certainly seems big in Belgium.

Book boxes: At Parc Edith Cavell, Uccle
Uccle: Book box at Parc Edith Cavell, watched over by Edith herself

After I recognised the first one I started to spot other book boxes around Brussels. It was easiest in Uccle, the commune – municipality – where I live. Here the boxes all look like the one at the swimming baths. However, several of the Brussels communes also sponsor book box groups.

This being Brussels, each municipality has a different colour and design for its book boxes. This makes them at first less easy to spot. There are also some private groups – perhaps even individuals – who have set up their own boxes. Each of these has a unique design. But soon enough your eyes become aware, and then it’s a sport to see where you can find them.

Book boxes: At Place Brugmann, Ixelles
Ixelles: Book box at Place Brugmann

Several of the groups who put up the boxes have their own websites or Facebook pages. There are often links to these printed on the boxes somewhere – quite usually along with the addresses of nearby libraries. There is even a website (in French and Dutch) where one noble soul is trying to keep an updated list of all the book boxes in Brussels and Wallonia.

I’d been in Brussels for about six months when a translator friend (she works in France) sent me a link to a French article on-line. It was quite a short article, but it presented the book boxes of Brussels as a new curiosity. It made me feel almost a local and an old hand to be able to write back to Miranda with a “Thank you” and a “Yes, I know about this”. (Although, as I discovered preparing this article I didn’t know the half of it… and probably still don’t.)

Book boxes: In Forest Park, Forest
Forest: Book box In Forest Park.

Last spring I noticed the book box in Forest Park. Nothing like the elegant boxes of Uccle or of Ixelles our neighbouring commune. This was dark cupboard. No glass here – but three shelves of books. I was admiring it when a young man came along and asked me something. I made my usual apology: Pardon monsieur, je ne comprends pas français. Parlez-vous anglais? He did Parlez anglais, at least a little. He came from West Africa, from Guinea, and so his first European language was Spanish. Here in Brussels he was learning French and came along to this book box every week to look for a new book to help him.

Sadly I didn’t have my camera with me or I’d have asked to take his portrait as he was browsing.

Book boxes: At Longchamps swimming baths, Uccle
Uccle: Book box at Longchamps swimming baths.

Preparing to illustrate this article, last week I took my camera with me to the swimming baths. As I arrived I saw another young man holding the box’s glass front open with his head and rummaging inside. This chap had even less English, so we didn’t have much of a conversation. I asked (in English) if I could take a photo and he shrugged. I took that to be yes. Afterwards he asked me: “Journaliste?

“Blogger,” I said.

Ah, oui,” he nodded.

Book boxes: The Donnerie at Le Fraysse, Chaussee de Louvain 896, Evere
Evere: The Donnerie at Le Fraysse, Chaussee de Louvain 896.

Judging by the one at the swimming baths, the book boxes are well used. The number of books in the box changes dramatically from one week to the next and the variety of the books also. Although I’ve not seen anything more by any Swedish writer, I’ve seen French and Dutch crime novels, American thrillers and science fiction (usually in French translation). I’ve seen John Le Carré and Les principes de droit belge, school text books and children’s picture books, very new looking books and very old and tatty ones, dictionaries, magazines and comic books. All sorts.

Once I’ve completed this article, I think I’ll go through my own shelves and sort out a few books to drop off at the different boxes I’ve found around town.

Book boxes: At Place Flagey, Ixelles
Ixelles: Book box at Place Flagey.

This was the article Miranda sent me: L’essor des boîtes à livres

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge. I also produced a shorter version in Swedish for Bladet – The newspaper of Svenska klubben in Bryssel (the Swedish Club in Brussels).

Life in Mini-Europe

Life in Mini-Europe: it’s a life in plastic, but I’m not sure Barbie would feel at home here – there’s more going on than you might imagine

Mini-EuropeSome towns and even villages exhibit models of themselves. Tourists can walk about like Gulliver in Lilliput, exploring and taking photos. Brussels has Mini-Europe.

According to Mini-Europe’s English language website, this is where you can “visit Europe’s nices [sic] places” and see “the Best of the Best”.

Mini-Europe from AtomiumMini-Europe exists in the shadow of the Atomium. I had the opportunity for an overview – so to speak – during my time-travel experience there earlier this year. (See here.) Still, I wasn’t prepared to be quite as charmed as I was when Mrs SC and I paid it a visit recently.

Mini-Europe - Stockholm city hall representing SwedenI’m not sure whether it really has Europe’s nicest places, or whether they are indeed the best of the best. (As a Gothenburger, Mrs SC was a little peeved. The fine model of Stockholm’s city hall is the only building representing Sweden. This despite the half a dozen or so buildings for each of Belgium and The Netherlands.) Still, somebody has clearly had a lot of fun creating Mini-Europe. I was surprised and impressed at the attention to detail, also because they keep the park so up-to-date. (You’ll see what I mean in a bit.)

Sunbathing in BudapestMini-Europe is inhabited by mini-Europeans: mostly young, healthy tourists with a fetish about sunbathing. (For example, here they are, stretched out on sunbeds in Budapest’s Széchenyi Gyógyfürdö thermal spa.)

Tourists in mud - or worseThey also have a slightly plastic look about them, and often stand with their feet in something that might be mud. (Or worse. I am speaking from personal experience of the leavings of Brussels’ dogs.)

Happy ever afterStill, there is an attempt to present the whole breadth of life here, from the couple who joyfully rush from a German church to begin their happy ever after…

In the cemetary… to the little family visiting the grave of a loved one somewhere in the fields of Flanders.

The entrance ticket comes with a 64 page brochure which does not just present the buildings and scenes modeled. It also has something educative to say about the European Union, as well as about each of the countries represented. The park sports at least one building from each of the 28 EU member states.

Montmartre news kioskIn front of Montmartre a queue has formed of citizens seeking News. (You may just be able to make that out from the headlines on the papers for sale.)

Facing the terrorist threatIn the streets of Copenhagen (for some reason) a Belgian army truck – fully equipped with an anti-aircraft gun – stands ready to confront the terrorist threat. (I’m not sure how practical that is, but it’s certainly in keeping with the political reality in Brussels at present.)

Anti-Brexiteers rally outside Parliament in LondonMeanwhile, outside the Houses of Parliament in London a crowd has gathered. They are protesting Britain’s impending exit from the EU. “We heart EU.” “Me and EU 4 ever.” And my favourite: “I am not for or against anything I just like to walk around with a sign.” Slogans reproduced from a real protest that actually took place only days after the Brexit vote.

Mini-Europe - notice of demolitionNearby, an official sign announces the demolition of the British buildings awaits the outcome of Brexit negotiations.

It will be a shame if Mini-Europe has to remove the British buildings. Apart from other considerations, think of all the work someone’s put into making them.

Mini-Europe - Sunbathing on a raft in IrelandAnd what will happen to Ireland? Isolated beyond the empty spaces where Stratford and Longleat, Dover Castle and the crescents of Bath once stood? Will the little people still feel free to sunbath on their raft in the Shannon?

Coast guardOf course you could complain that Mini-Europe doesn’t cover all the bases. Where is a Pride Parade, for example?

Sinking gondola in VeniceAnd what about the refugee crisis? There’s a fine model of a Coast Guard boat, but where are the overloaded rubber dinghys? Mmm, perhaps I’m asking for too much. There is a sinking gondola in Venice.

A fire at the refinaryThere are a few dramatic moments. A bicycle race in Paris (where visitors can try to help their favourites on to victory by peddling for them). Vesuvius, that erupts (or at least rumbles and shakes) when you press the right button. And in the harbour of Barcelona an oil refinery catches fire on a regular basis. Firefighters on land and sea rush to prevent disaster – by looking at the flames apparently.

Singed firefighterMeanwhile the poor firefighter closest to the action, up on a ladder, is looking increasingly singed.

On a ferris wheelBut generally speaking life in Mini-Europe is pretty calm. The plastic people enjoy the mixed melodies – and blessings – of 28 national anthems (plus the “Ode to Joy”) whenever visitors press the right buttons. They sit around casually outside cafés and in ferris wheel gondolas, watching the world – and the giants – go by. And in Finland blonde women emerge from a little sauna to go skinny-dipping in the lake before nipping back inside (for some birch-twig flagelation no doubt).

It’s all so very EU.

Finnish sauna and naked bather
At the Finnish sauna…

I wrote this article for the #Blogg52 challenge.