3. The Fabrist Origins of Erasmian Science: Mathematical Erudition in Erasmus’ Basel

  • Richard Oosterhoff Cambridge University


The configuration of literary and theological interests of Erasmus’ modern readers have often obscured his and his 16th-century colleagues’ interests in natural philosophy, medicine, and mathematics. Yet the larger network of scholars who corresponded with Erasmus and took him as model included important representatives of the mathematical disciplines, both the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and the adjacent studies of optics and cosmography.

In this article, I suggest that mathematical scholars in Erasmus’ orbit shared certain priorities with Lefèvre d’Étaples; in this respect, ‘Erasmian mathematics’ might better be called ‘Fabrist’. I shall first present several works of mathematics published in Basle during the 1530s, when Erasmus still wielded considerable influence on Basle printing. Then I shall review the curious relationship of Basle’s humanists to Paris—Erasmus himself aggravated the growing distance between Basle and Paris—and compare the attitudes towards mathematics of the Fabrists, Simon Grynaeus, and Erasmus.

Here lies a a methodological lesson that has not yet reshaped our own historical studies. Tempted by Erasmus’ own powerful account of erudition as mostly about non-technical knowledge, both historians of science and historians of literature have been encouraged to miss the place of mathematics in the liberal arts—and indeed in the shape of erudition—of that literary republic. Erasmus may have been complicit with the forces that gave us the “two cultures” divide.


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Arithmetica. Particular from a print etching