The Reading Room
The Complaint of Peace
“As Peace, am I not praised by both men and gods as the very source and defender of all good things?...Though nothing is more odious to God and harmful to man, yet it is incredible to see the tremendous expenditure of work and effort that intelligent beings put forth in an effort to exchange me for a heap of ruinous evils.” (Erasmus, The Complaint of Peace, 1517, Dolan translation)
A few years after Erasmus personified Folly in his most famous work, The Praise of Folly, he went back to Olympus and brought forth The Complaint of Peace. The goddess Peace has a lot about which to complain.
Peace begins by noting how obvious it is that people should prefer peace to war. Nature itself shows that peace is preferable to the destruction of war. Yet war is seemingly omnipresent. Looking around for allies, Peace hears the words of Christ, who bears the title “Prince of Peace.” She rushes to Christ’s followers, expecting to find opponents of war. “Yet I find that Christians are actually worse than the heathen.” The people, princes, theologians, and clergy in early 16th-century Europe were constantly at war with one another.
Peace is dismayed that Christians, from the Pope on down, have decided that war is the natural state of affairs. It would be one thing if the wars were for just causes. “Of course, I am speaking of those wars that Christians conduct among themselves. It is not our intention to condemn those who undertake legitimate war to repel barbarous invasions or defend the common good.” But that is not the most common excuse for war in the time Erasmus was writing. “It shames me to recall the vain and superficial reasons whereby Christian princes provoke the world to war.”
Erasmus was particularly angry about the activities of Julius II, who was Pope from 1503 to 1513. Nicknamed “The Warrior Pope,” Julius was deeply engaged in the wars between the assorted states on the Italian peninsula. Indeed, he chose the name Julius in honor of Julius Caesar, whose claim to fame was prowess in war, not being an exemplary Christian saint. Not surprisingly, Julius happily led troops into battle in his quest to extend the territory of the papal states. In 1513, Machiavelli praised Julius as the epitome of a good religious leader in The Prince. This is the same work that argues that the Prince “should never lift his thoughts from the exercise of war, and in peace, he should exercise it more than in war” (Mansfield translation).
After Julius died, the next Pope, Leo X, showed some promise by working to end some of the wars in Europe. But in 1517, Leo ignited yet another war in Italy. Erasmus’ anger at the constant fighting between Christians was vented in The Complaint of Peace.
“Christians are called the church. Does this not admonish us to unanimity?...Have you not the same Prince? Do you not strive for the same goal? Are you not consecrated by the same sacrament? Do you not enjoy the same gifts? Are you not nourished by the same food? Do you not desire the same reward? Then why do you cause such a disturbance? We notice agreement among mercenaries hired to slaughter because they wage war under the same banner. Cannot the benefits just mentioned unite pious men? Are so many sacraments able to accomplish nothing?”
The Complaint of Peace was one part of Erasmus’ extensive and very public rebuke of Pope Julius II. That rebuke also included the anonymously published Julius Excluded from Heaven, which told the story of how after his death Julius showed up drunk at the gates of Heaven, was denied entrance, and then vowed to raise an army and conquer heaven. When writing The Complaint of Peace in 1517, Erasmus was focused on the Pope’s active involvement in the Italian wars.
But the year 1517 took on a whole new significance on October 31 when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door. Suddenly, The Complaint of Peace was significant in a new way. Before the Reformation, Church leaders were often mired in political disputes over territory. Now, their wars were being fought explicitly over religious differences. As an admonition to church leaders to stop encouraging small states to fight over territory, The Complaint of Peace is a sharp rebuke. But the work takes on a whole different look when it is read as commentary on the Reformation.
Consider what Peace says to soldiers:
“You soldiers with the sign of salvation emblazoned on your banners hastened to destroy those who are saved by the very same sign. What a terrible thing it is that men receive the sacraments now administered in the camps and then rush out to combat. The sacrament is the principal symbol of Christian union. Yet Christ, if he is present, is made to witness swords drawn against fellow men in a demonstration that is above all acceptable to the forces of evil. And, finally, what is more horrible than the fact that the cross is honored in both camps and in both lines of battle? Does the cross fight the cross, and does Christ fight against Christ?”
In the Italian wars over territory, it was true that both sides were in the church, but the battle lines were not about differences in religious beliefs. After the Reformation begins, the excuse for war sounded a lot like pitting Christ against Christ, destroying any semblance of Christian union. There is a very real danger that soldiers reading The Complaint of Peace would wonder if their cause is just.
Such things said in wartime can easily be construed as treasonous. It is thus no surprise that in the 1550s the Church put Erasmus on the list of authors in its newly created index of prohibited books. This is ever the problem in wartime: the freedom to preach peace is one of the earliest casualties of war.