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.

The Bottom Line in Ghent

Very dull, misty, grey and monochrome – so to the bottom line in Ghent.

The weather has been occasionally dull, occasionally bright for the last week or more. On Saturday it was dull. Very dull, misty, grey and monochrome both here in Brussels and across the country. Not a day to go sightseeing in Ghent as Mrs SC and I had planned – especially not when the attractions include the view from the Belfort tower (“access via a lift”) and the Sint Michiels bridge that “offers the best views of the city”. In Brussels the tower blocks at the Gare du Midi and Gare du Nord disappeared into the mist at about the sixth floor, so we knew views would be limited.

Nevertheless, we took the train and arrived at Gent-Sint-Pieters station in about 40 minutes. (€10 per return ticket. Not bad.) It was 2½ kilometres into the town centre, we discovered (we could take a tram). On the other hand, not 10 minutes walk from the station was the City Museum of Contemporary Art – Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst – which gets abbreviated to SMAK. (Something my Swedish readers will appreciate, smak being the Swedish word for “taste”.) Showing at SMAK right now is an exhibition of contemporary drawing: The Bottom Line. We chose the museum.

It was a good choice. The museum was exhibiting work by more than fifty artists, all active since the 1950s and most still with us yet, and still working. Inevitably some were more to my taste than others, but the cumulative experience of seeing what artists can do with (by and large) monochrome lines on paper was dramatic. I came out itching to pick up a pencil or a piece of charcoal, or playing with ideas of how I might acheive some of the same effects in digital drawing.

We spent a good four hours going around the rooms at the museum, looking at the drawings. (There were also, as a contrast, some light installations by an English artist with a Danish name who works in Belgium – Ann Veronica Janssen.)

Interestingly, as we made our way back to the station afterwards, the subdued light in Ghent combined with the memory of the drawings gave me the distinct impression that some of the drawings were not nearly so abstract and divorced from real life as at first they appeared.

See what you think. Below is an abstract drawing by William Anastasi from the exhibition and under it a photograph of pollarded trees in Ghent.

Drawing the Bottom Line 2 - William Anastasi

Pollarded trees in Ghent

And here are two more pictures. The first is part of a larger drawing in six panels – unfortunately I don’t have a note of the artist. The second was taken at Gent-Sint-Pieters station.

Drawing the Bottom Line 7 detail

In Ghent St Peters station

The formally framed pictures in the museum and the spaces between them were beautifully reflected in this candid shot of a mother holding her daughter to look down into the well of the museum at the reception desk below.

Drawing the Bottom Line 6 - mother and child SMAK reception

Drawing the Bottom Line 6 - SMAK reception

And finally, as we waited in the late afternoon gloom for the train home, I noticed these illuminated panels in the floor of the platform, and the patterns created on them by the marks of travellers’ boots.

Traveller's markings in Ghent 1 detail

Traveller's markings in Ghent 3 detail

Traveller's markings in Ghent 4 detail


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Not so much this week as I am working on my entry for the first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition.

The adventures of Hergé

I’m not going to pretend that Tintin was a significant feature of my childhood, but I was aware of him and his adventures. Mrs SC feels much the same, although I think her childhood exposure may have been greater than my own. I have come across some of the Tintin books (along with one or two Lucky Lukes) among the pile of well-thumbed Asterix albums in my wife’s childhood home, suggesting she and her siblings had a more French-oriented experience than my sister and I.

Here in Belgium Tintin is something of a national hero and you soon realise (if you didn’t know it already) that Tintin’s creator, Georges Remi, was Belgian. Georges Remi’s initials, reversed (RG) and spoken in a French accent become Hergé, which is how Georges Remi signed his cartoons.

Herge

There’s even a Hergé museum, which is where Mrs SC and I found ourselves on Sunday.

Like many places in Wallonia it is at one time not that far away, yet not the easiest place to get to. Located in a town called Louvain-la-Neuve. It’s a fairly short train journey from Brussels, but for us at least finding the train wasn’t straightforward. The museum has a website with instructions for “Localization”, and it advises train travellers to visit the SNCB website – this is the website of Belgian Rail.

Belgian Rail has a search function where you can input your departure point and destination (“station, stop, address”) and – in theory – get information about your train. However, you do have to know exactly where you are going. The Hergé museum advises you to “choose destination Louvain-la-Neuve”, but do so and the search engine replies: “Your input is ambiguous.” It then gives you about twenty options to choose among. There are a lot of stops at Louvain-la-Neuve, but none of them is the Hergé museum.

seagull

Our first attempt to visit the museum was scuttled by this confusion. However, we persisted and the next time we were in the Brussels Central Station we asked a young man with “Student” printed across his Belgian Rail sweatshirt. “Ah, no. What you want is Louvain-la-Neuve-Université because the museum is located next to l’Université de Louvain.” And so it was.

Louvain-la-Neuve is a rather disturbing place. It appears to have been built completely new, sometime in the 1970s, solely to house a university – the French language, Catholic University of Louvain. On Sunday morning it was giving a good impression of a film set for a rather creepy science-fiction/horror movie. One of those films in which most people have been stolen away by aliens, or turned into zombies that only come out at night, while the few who remain go about their lives apparently oblivious to the population disaster that has struck their town.

Herge museumThe Hergé museum is housed just a short walk from the echoing centre of Louvain-la-Neuve in a purpose-built, architecturally designed edifice that sits like a ship in a grassy dry dock, reached by bridges from a couple of sides. It’s an interesting building, odd angles and white with big windows. The entrance (as you can see from the photo) gives a passable imitation of an open book – one that’s been well-read and has pages coming loose. Sadly, the architecture is a wonderful shell for less inspiring contents.

I can’t say the Hergé museum is the most overpriced and boring museum I’ve ever visited. (That honour goes to a museum of natural history on Malta.) But at €9.50 per adult it isn’t cheap and though I wouldn’t call it boring, I wouldn’t call it exciting either. It certainly wants to be exciting and gets very excited about Hergé: “one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century”, it calls him. It seems Hergé had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about being a commercial artist. The museum responds to this by going out of its way to praise him for his innovation and success in the field of commercial graphics. He was a “[g]raphic designer, caricaturist, cartoonist, illustrator, storyteller… a multi-talented artist who was a perfect reflection of the twentieth century.”

Yeah. Right.

Seriously, the only reason Hergé is widely known – the only reason he has a whole museum dedicated to him – is because of Tintin. The tension between the man and his creation is palpable throughout the museum, and the curators are aware of it. At the very beginning of the audio guide one recorded voice demands to learn about Tintin while another promises Tintin but insists there is so much more. But there really isn’t. Not here, anyway. And actually there’s not a lot of Tintin either.

Perhaps that’s unfair. There is a lot of Tintin, but so many opportunities are missed. Considering the reason for the museum’s existence and its star attraction is not Hergé but Tintin, a beloved children’s cartoon character, the museum is absolutely not designed to appeal to children. In fact, I think the only people who might find the Hergé Museum truly gripping would be the sort of adults who collect comic books and memorabilia.

Despite the museum’s attempts to enter the digital age with an audio guide on a smartphone, the material it has is presented in a crushingly traditional way. Glass cases display objects Hergé owned; framed pictures of original strips hang on the walls… and that’s about it. Beautifully lit, spacious, architecturally designed gallery after gallery with glass boxes and framed pictures. For variety there are occasional video screens. There’s almost nothing to do but walk, look, read, listen. The relief when we found the stereoscope images from Hergé’s research collection and were able to operate the machines to switch pictures. It wasn’t much, to be sure, but in the desert of monotony one learns to be grateful for even a little variety.

Waterfront

More than this, after a short while you begin to suspect the museum is presenting a highly edited account of Tintin and Hergé’s lives – so highly edited that the same information, the same pictures, the same video clips are recycled in the galleries and the audio guide over and again. We gave up listening to the guide during what seemed to be the third run-through of Hergé’s biography, and gave up on the museum itself after the fourth or fifth gallery.

Some of the information you don’t get from the museum you can find on Wikipedia. For example, while the museum tells you Tintin started out in 1929 as a weekly cartoon strip in the children’s supplement to the Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, Wikipedia tells you the earliest Tintin strips were right-wing Catholic propaganda for children. The first strip (1929-1930) was Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. (It is the only story Hergé seems in later life to have been embarrassed about – he never redrew it or republished it in colour as he did all his other early Tintin stories.)

The second story was not an improvement. Tintin in the Congo (1930) with its caricature Africans and paternal colonists still attracts criticism – most recently, in Sweden, when there was a big row about whether or not copies of the album should be displayed in libraries and loaned out to children.

Hergé, who was in his early 20s when he came up with Tintin, did grow more serious and more sensitive with the passage of time. Later stories starting with The Cigars of the Pharaohs (1932) and continuing with The Blue Lotus (1934) began to introduce more complex storylines and more relatively sympathetic characters, as well as developing a cleaner, more direct drawing style which came to be known as ligne claire. (This is presented in the museum.)

Tintin quiff

Although the propaganda was toned down, Tintin continued to be imbued with conservative values. The fact that Hergé went on to publish Tintin stories in approved publications during the German occupation of Belgium, 1939 to 1944, led many to conclude he was a collaborator if not a committed Nazi supporter. He was certainly identified as a collaborator by the Belgian resistance. However the fact that he was “only” drawing cartoons for children seems to have counted in his favour. Though blacklisted for a time after liberation, he was never put on trial and eventually his wartime activities were officially described as those of “a blunderer rather than a traitor”. He was allowed to resume a professional life. (This is glossed over in the museum.)

Hergé’s Catholicism also took a beating. His first marriage seems to have been less than happy and a consequence of social pressure at Le Vingtième Siècle. His first wife was the secretary of his editor at the newspaper. A series of affairs, with the inevitable accompanying Catholic guilt, was followed by a divorce and eventually a second marriage. According to Wikipedia, towards the end of his life Hergé may have been more of a Taoist than a Catholic. (None of this is in the museum – at least not in the first three reiterations of his biography that I listened to. Possibly because his second wife was responsible for establishing the museum after his death, and possibly because the museum is in the grounds of a Catholic university.)

Tintin and seagull

The museum shop and “café” between them show the that the museum has clearly identified the economic group it expects to appeal to. The shop is packed with overpriced memorabilia – mostly plastic (or even ceramic) models of Tintin and other characters from the albums. Want a Tintin moon rocket? It comes in sizes from a few centimetres high to one taller than a full-grown Belgian man (1.786). You can also buy Tintin albums in various translations (so there is something for the kids after all). You can probably get a fizzy drink or a cup of coffee in the café too, if you ask really nicely, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the bill of fare. Three course meals are what they want to sell you. We decided the museum had already got enough of our cash and went looking for something else.

We ended up eating largely tasteless but faintly savoury waffles at a Belgian fast-food establishment in the by now slightly more awake Louvain-la-Neuve. Hardly a culinary delight, but not nearly as expensive as the food in the Hergé Café. And after that we took ourselves back to Brussels.

So that was our Sunday.

(By the way, the museum is very protective of Hergé’s copyright and forbids photography – which is my excuse for the paucity of illustrations this week.)


This week’s recording is not quite as good as I would have wished – none of my own ambient recordings were useable and the editing process got a bit rushed. Some background sounds courtesy of Freesound.org and Freesound uploaders zagi2, sagetyrtle and cris. Many thanks!

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.