Erasmus Roterodamus (also Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam) (October
27, probably 1466 – July 12, 1536) was a Dutch humanist and
theologian. Erasmus was the most important humanist who wrote in
a "pure" Latin style. It
must be understood that the word "humanist," in Erasmus'
day, did not carry with it the connotation of "atheist"
as it does today. A humanist, in renaissance times, was anyone who
studied the classics, classical literature and education. Erasmus
was influential on Martin Luther who admired him and desired his
Erasmus remained a Roman Catholic throughout his lifetime, he
harshly criticised what he considered excesses of the Roman Catholic
Church and even turned down a Cardinalship when it was offered
to him. In his Treatise on Preparation For Death he made clear
his position, that faith in the atonement of Christ, and not in
the sacraments and rituals of the church, are the only guarantee
of eternal life. He
prepared new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament. Erasmus
wrote The Praise of Folly, Handbook of a Christian Knight, and
On Civility in Children.
Erasmus was born with the name Gerrit Gerritszoon (Dutch for Gerhard
Gerhardson), probably in Rotterdam, although recent discoveries
suggest he was actually born in Gouda, the Netherlands. Although
much associated with this city, he lived there for only four years,
never to return. Information on his family and early life comes
mainly from vague references in his writings. He was almost certainly
illegitimate. His father later became a priest named Roger Gerard.
Little is known of his mother other than the fact that her name
was Margaret and she was the daughter of a physician.
being illegitimate, Erasmus was cared for by his parents until
their early deaths from the plague in 1483, and then given the
best education available to a young man of his day in a series
of monastic or semi-monastic schools. In 1487 Erasmus became deeply
attached to a young man, Servatius Rogerus, whom he called "half
my soul", writing "I have wooed you both unhappily and
1492, he was admitted to the priesthood and took monastic vows
at about the age of twenty-five, but he never seems to have worked
as a priest, and monasticism was one of the chief objects of his
attack in his lifelong assault upon the evils of the Church. Soon
after his ordination, he got his chance to leave the monastery
when offered the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambray, Henry
of Bergen, on account of his great skill in Latin and his reputation
as a man of letters.
1495, with the bishop's consent and stipend, he went on to study
at the University of Paris, then the chief seat of scholastic
learning, but already under the influence of the revived classical
culture of Italy. The chief centers of his activity were Paris,
Leuven (Louvain), England, and Basel; yet he never belonged firmly
in any one of these places. His time in England was fruitful in
the making of lifelong friendships with the leaders of English
thought in the stirring days of King Henry VIII: John Colet, Thomas
More, John Fisher, Thomas Linacre, and William Grocyn. At the
University of Cambridge he was Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity,
and had the option of spending the rest of his life as an English
professor. He stayed at Queens' College, Cambridge and may have
been an alumnus.
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 many positions of honour and profit throughout
the academic world but declined them all, preferring the uncertain
but sufficient rewards of independent literary activity. From
1506 to 1509 he was in Italy. He spent part of the time at the
publishing house of Aldus Manutius at Venice, but apart from this
he had a less active association with Italian scholars than might
have been expected.
residence at Leuven exposed Erasmus to much petty criticism, from
those hostile to the principles of literary and religious progress
to which he was devoting his life. He represented this lack of
sympathy as persecution, and sought refuge in Basel, where under
the shelter of Swiss hospitality he could express himself freely
and where he was surrounded by devoted friends. Here he was associated
for many years with the great publisher Froben, and to him came
the multitude of his admirers from all quarters of Europe.
literary productivity began comparatively late in his life. Only
when he had mastered Latin did he begin to express himself on
major contemporary themes in literature and religion. His revolt
against the forms of church life did not result from doubts about
the truth of the traditional doctrine, nor from any hostility
to the organization of the Church itself. Rather, he felt called
upon to use his learning in a purification of the doctrine and
in a liberalizing of the institutions of Christianity. As a scholar,
he tried to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity
and formalism of medieval traditions; but he was not satisfied
with this. He saw himself as a preacher of righteousness.
was this lifelong conviction that guided Erasmus as he regenerated
Europe through sound criticism applied frankly and without fear
to the Catholic Church. This conviction gives unity and consistency
to a life which might otherwise seem full of contradictions. Erasmus
held himself aloof from all entangling obligations; yet he was
in a singularly true sense the center of the literary movement
of his time. He corresponded with more than five hundred men of
the highest importance in the world of politics and of thought,
and his advice on all kinds of subjects was eagerly sought, if
not always followed.
in England Erasmus began the systematic examination of manuscripts
of the New Testament to prepare for a new edition and Latin translation.
This edition was published by Froben of Basel in 1516 and was
the basis of most of the scientific study of the Bible during
the Reformation period (see Bible Text, II., 2, § 1). He
published a critical edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516
- Novum Instrumentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. Recognitum
et Emendatum. This edition included a Latin translation and annotations.
It used recently rediscovered additional manuscripts.
the second edition the more familiar term Testamentum was used
instead of Instrumentum. But it was the third edition that was
used by the translators of the King James Version of the Bible.
The text later became known as the Textus Receptus. Erasmus published
three other editions - in 1522, 1527 and 1535. Erasmus dedicated
his work to Pope Leo X as a patron of learning, and he regarded
this work as his chief service to the cause of Christianity. Immediately
afterwards he began the publication of his Paraphrases of the
New Testament, a popular presentation of the contents of the several
books. These, like all of his writings, were published in Latin,
but were quickly translated into other languages, with his encouragement.
Luther's movement began in the year following the publication
of the New Testament, and tested Erasmus's character. The issue
between European society and the Roman Church had become so clear
that few could escape the summons to join the debate. Erasmus,
at the height of his literary fame, was inevitably called upon
to take sides, but partisanship was foreign to his nature and
his habits. In all his criticism of clerical follies and abuses
he had always protested that he was not attacking church institutions
themselves and had no enmity toward churchmen. The world had laughed
at his satire, but few had interfered with his activities. He
believed that his work so far had commended itself to the best
minds and also to the dominant powers in the religious world.
was in sympathy with the main points in the Lutheran criticism
of the Church. For Martin Luther personally he had the greatest
respect, and Luther always spoke with admiration of Erasmus's
superior learning. Luther hoped for his cooperation in a work
which seemed only the natural outcome of his own. In their early
correspondence Luther expressed boundless admiration for all Erasmus
had done in the cause of a sound and reasonable Christianity,
and urged him to join the Lutheran party. Erasmus declined to
commit himself, arguing that to do so would endanger his position
as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which he regarded
as his purpose in life. Only as an independent scholar could he
hope to influence the reform of religion. When Erasmus hesitated
to support him, it seemed to the straightforward Luther an avoidance
of responsibility due either to cowardice or lack of purpose.
Erasmus, however, dreaded any change in doctrine and believed
that there was room within existing formulas for the kind of reform
he valued most.
in the course of the great discussion he allowed himself to enter
the field of doctrinal controversy, a field foreign to both his
nature and his previous practice. One of the topics he dealt with
was the freedom of the will, a crucial point. In his De libero
arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (1524), he lampoons the Lutheran
view on free will. He lays down both sides of the argument impartially.
The "Diatribe" did not encourage any definite action;
this was its merit to the Erasmians and its fault in the eyes
of the Lutherans. In response Luther wrote his De Servo Arbitrio
(On the Bondage of the Will) (1525), which viciously attacks the
"Diatribe" and Erasmus himself, going so far as to claim
that Erasmus was not a Christian.
the popular response to Luther gathered momentum, the social disorders,
which Erasmus dreaded and Luther deemed unavoidable, began to
appear. The Peasants' War, the Anabaptist disturbances in Germany
and in the Low Countries, iconoclasm and radicalism. If these
were the outcomes of reform, he was thankful he had kept out of
it. Yet he was being ever more bitterly accused of having started
the whole "tragedy" (as the Roman Catholics dubbed protestantism).
the city of Basel was definitely and officially "reformed"
in 1529, Erasmus gave up his residence there and settled in the
imperial town of Freiburg im Breisgau.
The test question was the doctrine of the sacraments, and the crux
of this question was the observance of the Eucharist. in 1530 Erasmus
published a new edition of the orthodox treatise of Algerus against
the heretic Berengar of Tours in the 11th century. He added a dedication,
affirming his belief in the reality of the Body of Christ after
consecration in the Eucharist. The anti-sacramentarians, headed
by Œcolampadius of Basel, were, as Erasmus says, quoting him
as holding views similar to their own in order to try to claim him
for their schismatic movement.
Erasmus wrote both on ecclesiatic subjects and those of general
human interest. He seems to have regarded the latter as trifling,
a leisure activity.
more serious writings begin early with the Enchiridion Militis
Christiani, the "Handbook of the Christian Soldier"
(1503). In this short work, Erasmus outlines the views of the
normal Christian life, which he was to spend the rest of his days
in elaborating. The chief evil of the day, he says, is formalism,
going through the motions of tradition without understanding their
basis in the teachings of Christ. Forms can teach the soul how
to worship God or they may hide or quench the spirit. In his examination
of the dangers of formalism, Erasmus discusses monasticism, saint-worship,
war, the spirit of class and the foibles of "society",
but the Enchiridion is more like a sermon than a satire.
best-known work was The Praise of Folly, (Greek: Moriae Encomium)
a satirical attack on the traditions of the Catholic Church and
popular superstitions, written in 1509 and published in 1511 and
dedicated to his friend Sir Thomas More.
Institutio Principis Christiani (Basel, 1516), was written as
advice to the young king Charles of Spain, later Charles V, Holy
Roman Emperor. Erasmus applies the general principles of honor
and sincerity to the special functions of the Prince, whom he
represents throughout as the servant of the people. The Education
of a Christian Prince was published in 1516, 26 years before Machiavelli’s
The Prince. A comparison between the two is worth noting. Machiavelli
stated that, to maintain control by political force, it is safer
for a prince to be feared than loved. Erasmus, on the other hand,
preferred for the prince to be loved, and suggested that the prince
needed a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and
benevolently and avoid becoming a source of oppression.
1516, Erasmus anonymously published a satiric dialogue, Julius
Exclusus, in which Pope Julius II is turned away from the gates
of Heaven by St. Peter.
a result of his reformatory activities, Erasmus found himself
at odds with both the great parties. His last years were embittered
by controversies with men toward whom he was sympathetic. Notable
among these was Ulrich von Hutten, a brilliant, but erratic genius,
who had thrown himself into the Lutheran cause and had declared
that Erasmus, if he had a spark of honesty, would do the same.
In his reply, Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni (1523), Erasmus
displays his skill in semantics. He accuses Hutten of having misinterpreted
his utterances about reform and reiterates his determination never
to break with the Church.
most important work of this last period is the Ecclesiastes or
"Gospel Preacher" (Basel, 1535), in which he comments
on the function of preaching. In his own words, written in the
little tract of 1533, "Preparation for Death", he verifies
that, although he remained a Roman Catholic until his death, he
was definitely not a a Roman Catholic in his heart, for no true
Catholic could possibly have penned the following words:
believe there are many not absolved by the priest, not having
taken the Eucharist, not having been anointed, not having received
Christian burial, who rest in peace. While many who have had all
the rites of the Church and have been buried next to the altar,
have gone to hell . . . Flee to His wounds and you will be safe."
(Erasmus in "Treatise On Preparation For Death."
The extraordinary popularity of his books, however, has been shown
in the number of editions and translations that have appeared
since the 16th century, and in the undiminished interest excited
by his elusive but fascinating personality. Ten columns of the
catalogue of the British Library are taken up with the bare enumeration
of the works and their subsequent reprints. The greatest names
of the classical and patristic world are among those translated,
edited or annotated by Erasmus, including as Saint Ambrose, Aristotle,
Saint Augustine, Saint Basil, Saint John Chrysostom, Cicero, and
in his home town of Rotterdam, the University has been named in
Erasmus' reputation and interpretations of his work have varied
greatly over time. Following his death there was an initial outflow
of support and admiration, primarily by his supporters, but also
throughout Europe. Moderate Catholics saw in him a leading figure
in attempts to reform Church, while Protestants recognized his
initial support for Luther's ideas and the groundwork he laid
for the future Reformation. By the 1560s, however, there is a
marked change in reception.
Catholic Counter-Reformation movement often condemned Erasmus
as having "laid the egg that hatched the Reformation."
Their critique of him was based principally on his not being strong
enough in his criticism of Luther, not seeing the dangers of a
vernacular Bible, and dabbling in dangerous scriptural criticism
that weakened the church's arguments against Arianism and other
doctrines. All of his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited
Books by Paul IV, and some of his works continued to be banned
or viewed with caution in the later Index of Pius IV.
views of Erasmus fluctuate largely depending on region and period,
with continuous support in his native Netherlands and in cities
of the Upper Rhine area. However, following his death and in the
late 16th century Reformation supporters see Erasmus' critiques
of Luther and lifelong support for the universal Catholic Church
as damning. His reception was particularly cold in the Reformed
the coming of the Age of Enlightenment, however, Erasmus was increasingly
returning to become a more widely respected cultural symbol and
hailed as an important figure by increasingly broad groups.