was a Dutch philosopher and Christian scholar who is considered to have been one of the greatest scholars of the northern Renaissance. As a Catholic priest, he was an important figure in classical scholarship who wrote in a pure Latin style. Among humanists he enjoyed the sobriquet “Prince of the Humanists”, and has been called “the crowning glory of the Christian humanists”. Using humanist techniques for working on texts, he prepared important new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament, which raised questions that would be influential in the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. He also wrote On Free Will, In Praise of Folly, Handbook of a Christian Knight, On Civility in Children, Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, Julius Exclusus, and many other works.
Erasmus lived against the backdrop of the growing European religious Reformation. He remained a member of the Catholic Church all his life, remaining committed to reforming the Church and its clerics’ abuses from within. He also held to the doctrine of synergism, which some Reformers (Calvinists) rejected in favor of the doctrine of monergism. His middle-road (via media) approach disappointed, and even angered, scholars in both camps.
Erasmus died suddenly in Basel in 1536 while preparing to return to Brabant and was buried in Basel Minster, the former cathedral of the city.
Desiderius Erasmus is reported to have been born in Rotterdam on 28 October in the late 1460s. He was named after Saint Erasmus of Formiae, whom Erasmus’s father Gerard personally favored. A 17th-century legend has it that Erasmus was first named Geert Geerts (also Gerhard Gerhards or Gerrit Gerritsz), but this is unfounded. A well-known wooden picture indicates: Goudæ conceptus, Roterodami natus (Latin for Conceived in Gouda, born in Rotterdam). According to an article by historian Renier Snooy (1478–1537), Erasmus was born in Gouda.
The exact year of his birth is controversial but most agree it was in 1466. The Virtual International Authority File reveals the standard dates favoured by various national authorities Evidence confirming the year of Erasmus’s birth in 1466 can be found in his own words: fifteen out of twenty-three statements he made about his age indicate 1466. Although associated closely with Rotterdam, he lived there for only four years, never to return afterwards. Information on his family and early life comes mainly from vague references in his writings. His parents were not legally married. His father, Gerard, was a Catholic priest and curate in Gouda. His mother was Margaretha Rogerius (Latinized form of Dutch surname Rutgers) the daughter of a doctor from Zevenbergen. She may have been Gerard’s housekeeper. Although he was born out of wedlock, Erasmus was cared for by his parents until their early deaths from the Plague in 1483. This solidified his view of his origin as a stain and cast a pall over his youth.
Erasmus was given the highest education available to a young man of his day, in a series of monastic or semi-monastic schools. In 1475, at the age of nine, he and his older brother Peter were sent to one of the best Latin schools in the Netherlands, located at Deventer and owned by the chapter clergy of the Lebuïnuskerk (St Lebuin’s Church), though some earlier biographies assert it was a school run by the Brethren of the Common Life. During his stay there the curriculum was renewed by the principal of the school, Alexander Hegius. For the first time ever in Europe, Greek was taught at a lower level than a university and this is where he began learning it. He also gleaned there the importance of a personal relationship with God but eschewed the harsh rules and strict methods of the religious brothers and educators. His education there ended when plague struck the city about 1483, and his mother, who had moved to provide a home for her sons, died from the infection.
Ordination and monastic experience
Most likely in 1487, poverty forced Erasmus into the consecrated life as a canon regular of St. Augustine at the canonry of Stein, in South Holland. He took vows there in late 1488 and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood on 25 April 1492. It is said that he never seemed to have actively worked as a priest for a long time, and certain abuses in religious orders were among the chief objects of his later calls to reform the Church from within.
While at Stein, Erasmus supposedly fell in love with a fellow canon, Servatius Rogerus, and wrote a series of passionate letters in which he called Rogerus “half my soul,” writing that “I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly.” This correspondence contrasts sharply with the generally detached and much more restrained attitude he showed in his later life. Later, while tutoring in Paris, he was suddenly dismissed by the guardian of Thomas Grey. Some have taken this as evidence of an illicit affair. No personal denunciation was made of Erasmus during his lifetime, however, and he took pains in later life to distance these earlier episodes by condemning sodomy in his works, and praising sexual desire in marriage between men and women.
Soon after his priestly ordination, he got his chance to leave the canonry when offered the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen, on account of his great skill in Latin and his reputation as a man of letters. To allow him to accept that post, he was given a temporary dispensation from his religious vows on the grounds of poor health and love of humanistic studies, though he remained a priest. Pope Leo X later made the dispensation permanent, a considerable privilege at the time.
Education and scholarship
In 1495, with Bishop Henry’s consent and a stipend, Erasmus went on to study at the University of Paris in the Collège de Montaigu, a centre of reforming zeal, under the direction of the ascetic Jan Standonck, of whose rigors he complained. The university was then the chief seat of Scholastic learning but already coming under the influence of Renaissance humanism. For instance, Erasmus became an intimate friend of an Italian humanist Publio Fausto Andrelini, poet and “professor of humanity” in Paris.
In 1499 he was invited to England by William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy, who offered to accompany him on his trip to England. According to Thomas Penn, Erasmus was “ever susceptible to the charms of attractive, well-connected, and rich young men”. His time in England was fruitful in the making of lifelong friendships with the leaders of English thought in the days of King Henry VIII: John Colet, Thomas More, John Fisher, Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn. At the University of Cambridge, he was the Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity and turned down the option of spending the rest of his life as a professor there. Erasmus stayed at Queens’ College, from 1510 to 1515. His rooms were located in the “I” staircase of Old Court, and he showed a marked disdain for the ale and weather of England.
Erasmus suffered from poor health and complained that Queens’ College could not supply him with enough decent wine (wine was the Renaissance medicine for gallstones, from which Erasmus suffered). Until the early 20th century, Queens’ College used to have a corkscrew that was purported to be “Erasmus’s corkscrew”, which was a third of a metre long; as of 1987, the college still had what it calls “Erasmus’s chair”. Today Queens’ College also has an Erasmus Building and an Erasmus Room. His legacy is marked for someone who complained bitterly about the lack of comforts and luxuries to which he was accustomed. As Queens’ was an unusually humanist-leaning institution in the 16th century, Queens’ College Old Library still houses many first editions of Erasmus’s publications, many of which were acquired during that period by bequest or purchase, including Erasmus’s New Testament translation, which is signed by friend and Polish religious reformer Jan Łaski. From 1505 to 1508 Erasmus’s friend, Chancellor John Fisher, was president of Queens’ College. His friendship with Fisher is the reason he chose to stay at Queens’ while lecturing in Greek at the university.
During his first visit to England in 1499, he taught at the University of Oxford. Erasmus was particularly impressed by the Bible teaching of John Colet, who pursued a style more akin to the church fathers than the Scholastics. This prompted him, upon his return from England, to master the Greek language, which would enable him to study theology on a more profound level and to prepare a new edition of Jerome’s late-4th century Bible translation. On one occasion he wrote to Colet:
I cannot tell you, dear Colet, how I hurry on, with all sails set, to holy literature. How I dislike everything that keeps me back, or retards me.
Despite a chronic shortage of money, he succeeded in learning Greek by an intensive, day-and-night study of three years, continuously begging in letters that his friends send him books and money for teachers. Discovery in 1506 of Lorenzo Valla’s New Testament Notes encouraged Erasmus to continue the study of the New Testament.
Erasmus preferred to live the life of an independent scholar and made a conscious effort to avoid any actions or formal ties that might inhibit his freedom of intellect and literary expression. Throughout his life, he was offered positions of honor and profit in academia but declined them all, preferring the uncertain but sufficient rewards of independent literary activity. He did however assist his friend John Colet by authoring Greek textbooks and procuring members of staff for the newly established St Paul’s School. From 1506 to 1509, he was in Italy: in 1506 he graduated as Doctor of Divinity from the University of Turin, and he spent part of the time as a proofreader at the publishing house of Aldus Manutius in Venice. According to his letters, he was associated with the Venetian natural philosopher, Giulio Camillo, but apart from this he had a less active association with Italian scholars than might have been expected.
His residence at Leuven, where he lectured at the University, exposed Erasmus to much criticism from those ascetics, academics and clerics hostile to the principles of literary and religious reform and to the loose norms of the Renaissance adherents to which he was devoting his life. In 1517, he supported the foundation at the university, by his friend Hieronymus van Busleyden, of the Collegium Trilingue for the study of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek – after the model of the College of the Three Languages at the University of Alcalá. However, feeling that the lack of sympathy that prevailed at Leuven at that time was actually a form of mental persecution, he sought refuge in Basel, where under the shelter of Swiss hospitality he could express himself freely. Admirers from all quarters of Europe visited him there and he was surrounded by devoted friends, notably developing a lasting association with the great publisher Johann Froben.
Only when he had mastered Latin did he begin to express himself on major contemporary themes in literature and religion. He felt called upon to use his learning in a purification of doctrine by returning to the historic documents and original languages of sacred scripture. He tried to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval traditions, but he was not satisfied with this. His revolt against certain forms of Christian monasticism and scholasticism was not based on doubts about the truth of doctrine, nor from hostility to the organization of the Church itself, nor from rejection of celibacy or monastic lifestyles. Aloof from entangling obligations, Erasmus was the centre of the literary movement of his time, corresponding with more than five hundred men in the worlds of politics and of thought.