Contemporary English translation of Erasmus’s Enchiridion militis Christiani

Item date: 1523
Grant Value: £5,000
Item cost: £242,500
Item date acquired: 2015
Item institution: British Library
Town/City: London
London borough: LB Camden

This manuscript contains the earliest known translation into English of any work by the great humanist scholar and reformer, Desiderius Erasmus (d.1536). The volume is the only known manuscript of a contemporary English translation of Erasmus’s most popular work, the Enchiridion militis Christiani, or ‘Handbook of the Christian soldier’.

Erasmus is perhaps best known today for his satire The Praise of Folly, which he wrote to amuse Thomas More (d. 1535), and for his translation of the New Testament from Greek; but the Enchiridion was his first summing up of the guiding principles of his religious life, setting out his vision of a purified, Christ-centred faith based on essential points of doctrine. As a compendium of humanistic piety, it endorsed the lay vocation to holiness in the Christian life. Erasmus’s revolutionary concept, given its first and definitive expression in the Enchiridion, was his elevation of the educated laity as the potential source of new life in a Church and society fallen into decay. The Enchiridion evoked widespread interest throughout Europe and became one of the most influential devotional texts of the early 16th century.

Between 1533 and 1545 there were 13 editions in English, the first being published by Wynkyn de Worde for John Bydell in London. The large number of English printed editions of the Enchiridion demonstrates the importance of its influence in pre-Reformation England.  Dated 1523, the manuscript was written ten years before the English translation of the Enchiridion first appeared in print in 1533. Two contemporary accounts testify that the religious reformer William Tyndale (d. 1536) translated the Enchiridion into English in 1522 or 1523. To date, there has been no secure evidence that Tyndale’s translation survived; the proximity of the date of the present manuscript to Tyndale’s putative Enchiridion now tantalisingly suggests a potential identification with his ‘lost’ translation.

Having previously been in private ownership in the Duke of Northumberland’s collection at Alnwick Castle since at least 1872, its outstanding significance only became clear when it was put up for sale.  The manuscript has now been catalogued as Add MS 89149 and is available to researchers in the Manuscripts reading room. Complete, free digital coverage is also available on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Contemporary English translation of Erasmus’s  Enchiridion militis Christiani
Contemporary English translation of Erasmus’s Enchiridion militis Christiani. Image courtesy of the British Library.