Erasmus of Rotterdam

Desiderius Erasmus

Dutch philosopher and Humanist, Erasmus was born on October 27th, perhaps 1466, in Rotterdam. It is believed that he was the son of a priest, but there is some doubt about his name. It is thought his real name was Gerard Gerardson. The name 'Erasmus' might have been taken from the Greek word meaning 'beloved', but the correct spelling should be “Erasmius”, the name given to his godson, son of Johann Froben, his printer. Erasmus of Rotterdam

Erasmus was sent to school at Gouda in Holland aged 4 years old. As he had a good voice he was sent to Utrecht and placed in the Cathedral choir but he had no gift for music and so when he was 9 years old he went to Deventer school where his natural academic ability blossomed. At 13 years old his parents died and he was left in the care of three guardians who wished him to become a monk because it was the easiest way to dispose of a ward. Erasmus was not at all happy at the monastic seminary at Hertogenbosch and both his health and education suffered. However his guardians were adamant that Erasmus’ future was to be in the priesthood and at 18 years old Erasmus reluctantly took the vows and became a Canon Regular in the Augustinian monastery at Stein, near Gouda. For the next 5 years Erasmus stayed at the monastery but it was during this time, whilst secretly reading a number of the best Latin authors, that he realised his life’s work lay beyond the cloisters. Things took a turn for the better when he was invited by the Bishop of Cambray, Henry de Bergis, to live with him as his Secretary. Soon after he took orders and the Bishop enabled him to go to Paris University to study classical literature and Latin where he stayed at Montaigu College. This was not a great move as far as his health was concerned, which was never good, as the work was hard, the food was poor, and the rooms were damp so he moved to rented accommodation and worked as a tutor to help fund his studies.

He soon became known in Paris as a very fine scholar, particularly in Latin which was then the general language of learning and international communications. One of his pupils, William Blunt, Lord Mountjoy, set up a pension of 100 crowns a year and soon after, in 1499, Erasmus paid his first visit to England. His acquaintance with Lord Mountjoy opened the doors of a new and influential world to Erasmus with opportunities to visit the royal court, where he first met the future Henry VIII, then a boy of 9, and the ancient University at Oxford. It was at Oxford that he met some of the men who had studied in Italy and were some of the earliest teachers of Greek; William Grocyn, William Latimer and Thomas Linacre. In London he also befriended two people who were to have a great influence on him: Thomas More and John Colet. More was reading law in London when they met whilst Colet was lecturing on St Paul’s Epistles and encouraged Erasmus to broaden his studies to embrace theology in particular. Over the next 10 years Erasmus divided his time between France, the Netherlands and England, always keeping in touch with his English humanist friends, and he also spent three years in Italy. In 1503 he wrote “The Handbook of a Christian Knight and in 1509, on his third visit to England, Erasmus was persuaded to settle and for the next 5 years he spent much of his time at Cambridge, staying at Queen’s College and lecturing in his new-found passion for theology and Greek. It was at this time, while he was staying at More’s house in 1511, that he wrote the famous work, “In Praise of Folly” offering a revealing insight on society in general, including the various abuses of the church and the selfish wars of Kings; as it was written in jest no-one took offence even though the meaning was clear. In 1512 he completed the translation of the New Testament into Greek and a year later, with Cambridge suffering from plague, he left the University and then in 1514 he left England for Basle where his New Testament work was printed by the famous printer, Froben. He also wrote a new Latin version of the New Testament as well as a series of Latin Paraphrases on all the books of the New Testament except Revelations so that they were more accessible to the ordinary reader’s mind. They were translated into English and every Parish Church had a copy.

People in the 14th century were not encouraged to think or reason for themselves. Erasmus, who was at the forefront in promoting the spread of knowledge that included the great writers of ancient Greece and Rome, felt that to encourage learning would turn ignorance about religious, state and daily life on its head. He felt that true knowledge would encourage a better morality and a greater understanding between people. He sought to make things widely known by applying authors’ wisdom or wit to the circumstances of his own day. The Protestant Reformation, erupting with the publication of Martin Luther’s ’95 Theses’, was never fully supported by Erasmus, even though he is considered one of the leaders of the movement. Although he supported its ideals he was against the radicalism of the other leaders and in 1523 Erasmus condemned Luther’s methods in his work, “De Libero Aribitrio”. A pioneer in Church reform, Erasmus kept to his principles, his humanism always holding him back from what he felt were violent and sweeping reforms. This was something Erasmus came to be well respected for and it influenced the religious tolerance that finally emerged across Europe. He believed in rational piety, took a critical attitude to superstitution and was an opponent of religious bigotry. Erasmus’s literary output was immense and continued right the way through his life until his death in 1536.

History tells us that Erasmus of Rotterdam has never had his due. In part, the reason being that he founded no church to perpetuate his memory. In consequence, he has lagged far behind not only the major reformers — Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Melanchthon — but even the minor reformers such as Caspar Scwenfeld and the Anabaptists. A critical edition of his entire corpus has been undertaken at long last, and not by a church but by the Royal Dutch Academy out of national pride, of which Erasmus was entirely devoid.

Neither has Erasmus had his due on the score of interpretation. Rejected by the Catholics as subversive and by the protestants as evasive, he has fallen chiefly into the hands of the rationalists who have appreciated him most for his satire on contemporary superstitions.
In recent years a spate of monographs has sought to redress the balance but the results have not, as yet, been gathered into a single full volume.
He had an aversion to contention, an abhorrence of war, a wistful scepticism with respect to that which transcends the verifiable.

We should endorse his convictions that language is still the best medium for the transmission of thought, language not merely read but heard with cadence and rhythm as well as clarity and precision. His thoughts are as relevant today as they were yesterday; important for the dialogue which he desired never to see closed between Catholics and Protestants. He is important for the strategy of reform, violent or non-violent; he would neither incite nor abet violence. The more intolerant grew the contenders, the more he recoiled and strove to mediate. He ended as the battered liberal. Can it ever be otherwise?


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