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Desiderius Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger
Full name Desiderius Erasmus
Born October 28, 1466/1469
Died July 12, 1536 (aged 70 or 67)
Era Modern philosophy
Region Western philosophy
Main interests Christian philosophy, Renaissance humanism

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (sometimes known as Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam) (October 28,[1] 1466/1469, Rotterdam – July 12, 1536, Basel) was a Dutch Renaissance humanist and a Catholic priest and theologian. His scholarly name Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus comprises the following three elements: the Latin noun desiderium ("longing" or "desire"; the name being a genuine Late Latin name); the Greek adjective ἐράσμιος (erásmios) meaning "desired", and, in the form Erasmus, also the name of a St. Erasmus of Formiae; and the Latinized adjectival form for the city of Rotterdam (Roterodamus = "of Rotterdam").

Erasmus was a classical scholar who wrote in a "pure" Latin style and enjoyed the sobriquet "Prince of the Humanists." He has been called "the crowning glory of the Christian humanists."[2] Using humanist techniques for working on texts, he prepared important new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament. These raised questions that would be influential in the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. He also wrote The 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 through the Reformation period and he consistently criticized some contemporary popular Christian beliefs. In relation to clerical abuses in the Church, Erasmus remained committed to reforming the Church from within. He also held to Catholic doctrines such as that of free will, which some Protestant Reformers rejected in favor of the doctrine of predestination. His middle road approach disappointed and even angered many Protestants, such as Martin Luther, as well as conservative Catholics. He died in Basel in 1536 and was buried in the formerly Catholic cathedral there, recently converted to a Reformed church.[3]



Bust by Hildo Krop (1950) at Gouda, where Erasmus spent his youth

Desiderius Erasmus was born Gerrit Gerritszoon (Gerard Gerard's son) or Herasmus Gerritszoon[4] in Gouda, 20 km from Rotterdam, on July 12, in 1466 [5]. The exact year of his birth is debated but some evidence confirming 1466 can be found in Erasmus' own words. Of twenty-three statements Erasmus made about his age, all but one of the first fifteen indicate 1466.[6] It is possible he was christened "Erasmus" after the saint of that name.[7] Although associated closely with Rotterdam, 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. His parents almost certainly were not legally married. His father, named Roger Gerard, later became a priest and afterwards curate in Gouda. Little is known of his mother other than that her name was Margaret and she was the daughter of a physician.[8] Although he was born out of wedlock, Erasmus was cared for by his parents until their early deaths from the plague in 1483. He was then given the very best education available to a young man of his day, in a series of monastic or semi-monastic schools, most notably a school run by the Brethren of the Common Life (inspired by Geert Groote) where he gleaned the importance of a personal relationship with God but eschewed the harsh rules and strict methods of the religious brothers and educators.

While at the Augustinian monastery Steyn near Gouda around 1487, young Erasmus wrote a series of passionate letters to a fellow monk, Servatius Rogerus, whom he called "half my soul", writing, "I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly";[9][10] Whether this is evidence for homosexual desire or simply male-to-male friendship is unclear; nevertheless this correspondence contrasts sharply with the generally detached and much more restrained attitude he showed in his later life. Of similar interest was the sudden dismissal by the guardian of Thomas Grey, a student Erasmus tutored in Paris which could be taken as grounds of an illicit affair [11]. However, no personal denunciation was made of Erasmus during his lifetime, he took pains to condemn sodomy in his works, and instead praised sexual desire in the context of marriage between men and women[12].

Ordination and monastic experience

In 1492, poverty forced Erasmus into the monastery.[13] He was ordained to the Catholic priesthood and took vows as an Augustinian canon at Steyn at about the age of 25, but he never seemed to have actively worked as a priest for a longer time, and certain tenets of monasticism were among the chief objects of his attack in his lifelong assault upon Church excesses. Soon after his priestly 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. In order to allow him to accept that post, he was given a temporary dispensation from his monastic vows on the grounds of poor health and love of Humanistic studies, though he remained a "secular priest". Pope Leo X later made the dispensation permanent, a considerable privilege at the time.

Education and scholarship

Bronze statue of Erasmus in Rotterdam. It was created by Hendrick de Keyser in 1622, replacing a stone statue of 1557.

In 1495, with the bishop's consent and stipend, he 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 rigours Erasmus 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.

The chief centers of Erasmus's activity were Paris, Leuven (Louvain in Brabant), 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 the 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.

In 1499, while in England, 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 Bible translation. On one occasion he wrote 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."[13]

Despite a chronic shortage of money, he succeeded in learning Greek by an intensive, day-and-night study of three years, continuously begging his friends to send him books and money for teachers in his letters.[14] Discovery in 1506 of Lorenzo Valla's New Testament Notes encouraged Erasmus to continue the study of the New Testament.[15]

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 many positions of honor 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: in 1506 he graduated at the Turin University, and he spent part of the time at the publishing house of Aldus Manutius in Venice. According to his letters, he was associated with the Venetian natural philosopher, Giulio Camillo,[16] 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 Catholic University, exposed Erasmus to much criticism from those ascetics, academicians and clerics hostile to the principles of literary and religious reform and 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 Jeroen 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 this lack of sympathy was actually a form of mental persecution, he 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 Johann Froben, and to him came the multitude of his admirers from all quarters of Europe.

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 the 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 monastical lifestyles. He saw himself as a preacher of righteousness by an appeal to reason, applied frankly and without fear of the magisterium. He always intended to remain faithful to Catholic doctrine, and therefore was convinced he could criticize frankly and virtually everyone. Erasmus held himself aloof from entangling obligations, yet he was the center of the literary movement of his time. He corresponded with more than five hundred men in the worlds of politics and of thought.

Publication of the Greek New Testament

The first New Testament printed in Greek was part of the Complutensian Polyglot. This portion was printed in 1514, but publication was delayed until 1522 by waiting for the Old Testament portion, and the sanction of Pope Leo X.[17] Erasmus had been working for years on two projects: a collation of Greek texts and a fresh Latin New Testament. In 1512, he began his work on this Latin New Testament. He collected all the Vulgate manuscripts he could find to create a critical edition. Then he polished the Latin. He declared, "It is only fair that Paul should address the Romans in somewhat better Latin."[18] In the earlier phases of the project, he never mentioned a Greek text: "My mind is so excited at the thought of emending Jerome’s text, with notes, that I seem to myself inspired by some god. I have already almost finished emending him by collating a large number of ancient manuscripts, and this I am doing at enormous personal expense."[19] While his intentions for publishing a fresh Latin translation are clear, it is less clear why he included the Greek text. Though some speculate that he intended to produce a critical Greek text or that he wanted to beat the Complutensian Polyglot into print, there is no evidence to support this. He wrote, "There remains the New Testament translated by me, with the Greek facing, and notes on it by me."[20] He further demonstrated the reason for the inclusion of the Greek text when defending his work: "But one thing the facts cry out, and it can be clear, as they say, even to a blind man, that often through the translator’s clumsiness or inattention the Greek has been wrongly rendered; often the true and genuine reading has been corrupted by ignorant scribes, which we see happen every day, or altered by scribes who are half-taught and half-asleep."[21] So he included the Greek text to permit qualified readers to verify the quality of his Latin version. But by first calling the final product "Novum Instrumentum omne" ("All of the New Teaching") and later "Novum Testamentum omne" ("All of the New Testament") he also indicated clearly that he considered a consistently parallelized version of both the Greek and the Latin texts as the essential dual core of the church's New Testament tradition. In a way it is legitimate to say that Erasmus "synchronized" or "unified" the Greek and the Latin traditions of the New Testament by producing an updated (he would say: "purified") version of either simultaneously. Both being part of canonical tradition, he clearly found it necessary to ensure that both were actually presenting the same content. In modern terminology, he made the two traditions "compatible". This is clearly evidenced by the fact that his Greek text is not just the basis for his Latin translation, but also the other way round: there are numerous instances where he edits the Greek text to reflect his Latin version. For instance, since the last six verses of Revelation were missing from his Greek manuscript, Erasmus translated the Vulgate's text back into Greek. Erasmus also translated the Latin text into Greek wherever he found that the Greek text and the accompanying commentaries were mixed up, or where he simply preferred the Vulgate’s reading to the Greek text.[22]

Acknowledgement page engraved and published by Johannes Froben, 1516

Erasmus's hurried effort (Erasmus said it was "rushed into print rather than edited"[23]) was published by his friend Johann Froben of Basel in 1516 and thence became the first published Greek New Testament, the Novum Instrumentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. Recognitum et Emendatum. Erasmus used several Greek manuscript sources because he did not have access to a single complete manuscript. Most of the manuscripts were, however, late Greek manuscripts of the Byzantine textual family and Erasmus used the oldest manuscript the least because "he was afraid of its supposedly erratic text." [24] He also ignored much older and better manuscripts that were at his disposal.[25]

In the 2nd (1519) edition the more familiar term Testamentum was used instead of Instrumentum. This edition was used by Martin Luther in making his German translation of Bible for his own religious movement. Together, the first and second editions sold 3,300 copies. Only 600 copies of the Complutensian Polyglot were even printed. The 1st- and 2nd-edition texts did not include the passage (1 John 5:7–8) that has become known as the Comma Johanneum. Erasmus had been unable to find those verses in any Greek manuscript, but one was supplied to him during production of the 3rd edition. That manuscript is now thought to be a 1520 creation from the Latin Vulgate, which likely got the verses from a fifth-century marginal gloss in a Latin copy of I John. The Roman Catholic Church decreed that the Comma Johanneum was open to dispute (June 2, 1927), and it is rarely included in modern scholarly translations.

The 3rd edition of 1522 was probably used by Tyndale for the first English New Testament (Worms, 1526) and was the basis for the 1550 Robert Stephanus edition used by the translators of the Geneva Bible and King James Version of the English Bible. Erasmus published a definitive 4th edition in 1527 containing parallel columns of Greek, Latin Vulgate and Erasmus's Latin texts. He used the now available Polyglot Bible to improve this version. In this edition Erasmus also supplied the Greek text of the last six verses of Revelation (which he had translated from Latin back into Greek in his first edition) from Cardinal Ximenez's Biblia Complutensis. In 1535 Erasmus published the 5th (and final) edition which dropped the Latin Vulgate column but was otherwise similar to the 4th edition. Subsequent versions of Erasmus's Greek New Testament became known as the Textus Receptus.

Erasmus dedicated his work to Pope Leo X as a patron of learning and regarded this work as his chief service to the cause of Christianity. Immediately afterward, 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.

Beginnings of Protestantism

Attempts at impartiality in dispute

Martin 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.

Disagreement with Luther

"Free will does not exist", Luther's letter to Erasmus translated into German by Justus Jonas in 1526

Initially Erasmus was sympathetic with the main points in Martin Luther's criticism of the Catholic Church, describing him as "a mighty trumpet of gospel truth" and admitting that, "It is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed.”[26] He had great respect for Martin Luther, 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, the straightforward Luther felt angered that Erasmus was avoiding the responsibility due either to cowardice or a 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. Also, it is said that Erasmus chose to remain a Roman Catholic because of a lecture he heard from Savonarola, the Dominican friar who ruled Florence for a time.Though he remained firmly neutral, each side accused him of siding with the other, perhaps because of his neutrality. It was not for lack of fidelity with either side but a desire for fidelity with them both:

"I detest dissension because it goes both against the teachings of Christ and against a secret inclination of nature. I doubt that either side in the dispute can be suppressed without grave loss."[27]

In his Catechism (entitled Explanation of the Apostles' Creed) (1533), Erasmus took stand against Luther's teaching by asserting the unwritten Sacred Tradition as just as valid a source of revelation as the Bible, by enumerating the Deuterocanonical books in the canon of the Bible and by acknowledging seven sacraments.[28] He called "blasphemers" anyone who questioned the perpetual virginity of Mary and those who defended the need to occasionally restrict the laity from access to the Bible.[29] In a letter to Nikolaus von Amsdorf, Luther objected to Erasmus’ Catechism and called Erasmus a "viper,", "liar," and "the very mouth and organ of Satan." [30]

Freedom of the will

Twice 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 attacks the "Diatribe" and Erasmus himself, going so far as to claim that Erasmus was not a Christian. Erasmus responded with a lengthy, two-part Hyperaspistes (1526–27). In this controversy Erasmus lets it be seen that he would like to claim more for free will than St. Paul and St. Augustine seem to allow.[31] For Erasmus the essential point is that humans have the freedom of choice.[32]

As the popular response to Luther gathered momentum, the social disorders, which Erasmus dreaded and Luther disassociated himself from, began to appear, including the Peasants' War, the Anabaptist disturbances in Germany and in the Low Countries, iconoclasm and the radicalization of peasants across Europe. If these were the outcomes of reform, he was thankful that he had kept out of it. Yet he was ever more bitterly accused of having started the whole "tragedy" (as the Roman Catholics dubbed Protestantism).

When 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.

Erasmus by Holbein


A test of the Reformation 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 eleventh century. He added a dedication, affirming his belief in the reality of the Body of Christ after consecration in the Eucharist, commonly referred to as transsubstantiation. 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 and "erroneous" movement.

Erasmus died of a sudden attack of dysentery[33] in 1536 in Basel and was buried there in the cathedral. His last words, as recorded by his friend Beatus Rhenanus, were "lieve God",[34] Dutch for Dear God.


Erasmus wrote both on ecclesiastic subjects and those of general human interest. He seems to have regarded the latter as trifling, a leisure activity. By the 1530’s, the writings of Erasmus accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales.[35] He is credited with coining the adage, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." He formed a collection of adages, commonly called Adagia. Erasmus is also generally credited with originating the English phrase "Pandora's box", arising through an error in his translation of Pandora by Hesiod in which he confused "pithos", storage jar, with "pyxis", box.

His more serious writings begin early with the Enchiridion militis Christiani, the "Handbook of the Christian Soldier" (1503) (translated into English a few years later by the young William Tyndale). In this short work, Erasmus outlines the views of the normal Christian life, which he was to spend the rest of his days 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."

The Enchiridion is more like a sermon than a satire. With it Erasmus challenged common assumptions, painting the clergy as educators who should share the treasury of their knowledge with the laity. He emphasized personal spiritual disciplines rather than institutional sacraments, and called for a reformation which he characterized as a collective return to the Fathers and Scripture. Most importantly, he extolled the reading of scripture as vital because of its power to transform and motivate toward love. Much like the Brethren of the Common Life, he wrote that the New Testament is the law of Christ we are called to obey and Christ is the example we are called to imitate.

Erasmus also wrote of the legendary Frisian freedom fighter and rebel Pier Gerlofs Donia (Greate Pier), though more often criticism than praise of his exploits for Erasmus saw him as dumb brutal man preferring physical strength over wisdom.[36]

Marginal drawing of Folly by Hans Holbein in the first edition of Erasmus' Praise of Folly, 1515

Erasmus's best-known work was The Praise of Folly (published under the triple title Moriae encomium (Greek, Latinised) and Laus stultitiae (Latin)), and Ego sum aliquantulus cattus atque ego amo piscis (Latinised).[37] a satirical attack on the traditions of the Catholic Church and popular superstitions, written in 1509, published in 1511 and dedicated to his friend, Sir Thomas More.

The Institutio principis Christiani (Basel, 1516) (Education of a Christian Prince) 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, sixteen years before Niccolò 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.

As 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.

The Ciceroniamus came out in 1528, which attacked the style of Latin that was based on Cicero's writing. As Cicero wrote before Christ, Erasmus deemed his Latin pagan, and not suitable for use in the Christian era. Etienne Dolet wrote a reposte titled Erasmiamus in 1535, defending Ciceronian Latin.

The most important work of this last period is the Ecclesiastes or "Gospel Preacher" (Basel, 1536), in which he comments on the function of preaching.

Sileni Alcibiadis (1515)

Erasmus’s Sileni Alcibiadis is one of his most direct assessments of the need for Church reform. It was seen first in Johann Froben’s revised edition of the Adagia published in Basel in 1515. Then, it was published separately by Froben in 1517. This essay compares to John Colet’s Convocation Sermon, though the styles differ. The term Sileni can be understood as something on the inside is more and different than what one sees on the outside. For instance, something ugly on the outside can be beautiful on the inside. In support of this, Erasmus states: “Anyone who looks closely at the inward nature and essence will find that nobody is further from true wisdom than those people with their grand titles, learned bonnets, splendid sashes and bejeweled rings, who profess to be wisdom’s peak”. Erasmus lists several Sileni and then questions whether Christ is the most noticeable Silenus of them all. The Apostles were Sileni since they were ridiculed by others. He believes that the things which are the least ostentatious can be the most significant. For instance, one cannot see the most special aspects of humans. The Scriptures also have Sileni. Erasmus believes that the Church constitutes all of the Christian people. People call priests, bishops, and popes the Church, but they only serve the Church. He criticizes those that spend the Church’s riches at the people’s expense. Riches should not be held above everything else. The true point of the Church is to help people lead Christian lives. Priests are supposed to be pure, though when they stray away, no one condemns them. He criticizes the riches of the popes, believing that it would be better for the Gospel to be most important. Furthermore, the Word of God should be most important for people.


Cast of a skull presumed to have been that of Erasmus at the Rotterdam library Erasmus collection

His books' extraordinary popularity has been shown in the number of editions and translations that have appeared since the sixteenth 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 Saint Ambrose, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Saint Basil, Saint John Chrysostom, Cicero and Saint Jerome.

Today in his home town of Rotterdam, the University and Gymnasium Erasmianum have been named in his honor. However, Rotterdam has ignored the life of one of its famous citizens for a long time. Research in 2003 showed that most Rotterdammers believe Erasmus was the designer of the "Erasmusbridge" in Rotterdam. This shocking information led to the founding of the Erasmushuis (Erasmushouse), a house dedicated to celebrate the legacy of Erasmus. Nowadays in Rotterdam, three famous moments in the life of Erasmus are celebrated annually. On April 1, the city celebrates the release of his best-known book The Praise of Folly. On October 28, the birthday of Erasmus is celebrated. And, in the summer, the so-called Night of Erasmus celebrates the lasting influence of his work.

However, Erasmus's reputation and the interpretations of his work have varied greatly over time. Following his death, there was a long period of time when the citizens of the land all mourned his death. Moderate Catholics felt that he had been a leading figure in attempts to reform the 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 was a marked change in reception.

Erasmus of Rotterdam censored by the Index Librorum Prohibitorum

The 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.

According to Franz Anton Knittel Erasmus in his Novum Instrumentum omne did not incorporate the Comma from Codex Montfortianus, because of grammar differences, but used Complutensian Polyglotta. According to him the Comma was known for Tertullian.[38]

Protestant views of Erasmus fluctuated 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 sixteenth century, Reformation supporters see Erasmus's critiques of Luther and lifelong support for the universal Catholic Church as damning. His reception was particularly cold by the Reformed Protestant groups.

By the coming of the Age of Enlightenment, however, Erasmus increasingly returned to become a more widely respected cultural symbol and was hailed as an important figure by increasingly broad groups. In a letter to a friend, Erasmus once had written: "That you are patriotic will be praised by many and easily forgiven by everyone; but in my opinion it is wiser to treat men and things as though we held this world the common fatherland of all."[39]

The 21st century has seen a rise in criticism of Erasmus, particulary among Greek Scholars like Dr. Leslie McFall. McFall's research has demonstrated wilfull changes to the original Greek texts by Erasmus to significantly change the meanings of the Scriptures ( Christian Pastors like Ray McMahon, Stephen Wilcox, and Dr. Joseph Webb have also been critical of Erasmus' insertion of bias into his translations of the New Testament. Modern Greek translations also do not support many of Erasmus' changes to the Scriptures in his New Testament translations (

Several schools, faculties and universities in the Netherlands and Flanders are named after him, and so is Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, New York, USA.


Holbein's studies of Erasmus's hands, in silverpoint and chalks, ca. 1523. (Louvre)
  • Hans Holbein is considered to be the greatest portraitist of Erasmus, having painted him at least three times, and perhaps as many as seven; some only survive in versions by other artists. His three profile portraits of Erasmus, two (nearly identical) profile portraits and one three-quarters view portrait were all painted in the same year, 1523. Erasmus used the Holbein portraits as gifts for his friends in England, such as William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury (as he writes in a letter to Warham regarding the gift portrait, Erasmus quips that "he might have something of Erasmus should God call him from this place.") Erasmus spoke favorably of Holbein as an artist and person, but later criticized Holbein whom he had accused of sponging off of various patrons to whom Erasmus had recommended, for purposes more of monetary gain than artistic endeavor.
  • Albrecht Dürer also produced portraits of Erasmus, whom he met three times, in the form of an engraving of 1526 and a preliminary charcoal sketch. Concerning the former Erasmus was unimpressed, declaring it an unfavorable likeness of him. Nevertheless, Erasmus and Dürer maintained a close friendship, with Dürer going so far as to solicit Erasmus's support for the Lutheran cause, which Erasmus politely declined. Erasmus wrote a glowing encomium about the artist, likening him to famous Greek painter of antiquity Apelles. Erasmus was deeply affected by his death in 1528.
  • Quentin Matsys produced the earliest known portraits of Erasmus, including an oil painting in 1517 and a medallion in 1519.


See also


  1. ^ Gleason, John B. "The Birth Dates of John Colet and Erasmus of Rotterdam: Fresh Documentary Evidence," Renaissance Quarterly, The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Renaissance Society of America, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring, 1979), pp.73-76
  2. ^ Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953, p. 661.
  3. ^ “He tried to remain in the fold of the old [Roman] Church, after having damaged it seriously, and renounced the [Protestant] Reformation, and to a certain extent even Humanism, after having furthered both with all his strength.” Johan Huizinga, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation (Tr. F. Hopman and Barbara Flower; New York: Harper and Row, 1924), 190.
  4. ^ Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation, p. 98.
  5. ^ Erasmus Roterodamus. Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami de Utraq. Verborum ac rerum copia. Libri II. Osnabrucae, 1715
  6. ^ Smith, Preserved, Erasmus A Study Of His Life Ideals And Place In History. Harper & Brothers, Publishers 1928 pp.445-446
  7. ^ Huizinga, Erasmus, pp. 4 and 6 (Dutch language version)
  8. ^ The famous 19th century novel The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade, is an account of the lives of Erasmus' parents.
  9. ^ Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 1, p. 12 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974)
  10. ^ Diarmaid MacCulloch (2003). Reformation: A History. pg. 95. MacCulloch says "he fell in love" and further adds in a footnote "There has been much modern embarrassment and obfuscation on Erasmus and Rogerus, but see the sensible comment in J.Huizinga, Erasmus of Rotterdam (London, 1952), pp. 11-12, and from Geoffrey Nutuall, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 26 (1975), 403".
  11. ^ Forrest Tyler Stevens, essay on 'Erasmus’s ‘Tigress’: The Language of Friendship, Pleasure, and the Renaissance Letter', in Queering the Renaissance, Duke University Press, 1994
  12. ^ Erika Rummel, Erasmus, London, 2004
  13. ^ a b Galli, Mark, and Olsen, Ted. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000, p. 343.
  14. ^ Huizinga, Dutch edition, pp. 52-53.
  15. ^ Anderson, Marvin (1969), "Erasmus the Exegete", Concordia Theeological Monthly 40 (11): 722–746 
  16. ^ Opus Epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterdami, Ed. H.M.Allen, (Oxford University Press, 1937), Ep.3032: 219-22; 2682: 8-13.
  17. ^ Metzger, Bruce. The Text of the New Testament, p. 96–103.
  18. ^ "Epistle 695" in Collected Works of Erasmus Vol. 5: Letters 594 to 841, 1517-1518 (tr. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson; annotated by James K. McConica; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 172.
  19. ^ "Epistle 273" in Collected Works of Erasmus Vol. 2: Letters 142 to 297, 1501-1514 (tr. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson; annotated Wallace K. Ferguson; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 253.
  20. ^ "Epistle 305" in Collected Works of Erasmus. Vol. 3: Letters 298 to 445, 1514-1516 (tr. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson; annotated by James K. McConica; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 32.
  21. ^ "Epistle 337" in Collected Works of Erasmus Vol. 3, 134.
  22. ^ E.g. at Acts 9:6. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, pp. 99-100; Kurt Aland - Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament. An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism,Translated by Erroll F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987. 2nd edition, revised and enlarged, 1989, p. 4
  23. ^ "Epistle 694" in Collected Works of Erasmus Volume 5, 167.
  24. ^ Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 102.
  25. ^ Paul Arblaster, Gergely Juhász, Guido Latré (eds) Tyndale's Testament, Brepols 2002, ISBN 2-503-51411-1, p. 28.
  26. ^ Galli, Mark, andm, Olsen, Ted. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000, p. 344.
  27. ^ Galli, Mark, and Olsen, Ted. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000, p 344.
  28. ^ Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami, vol. V/1, Amsterdam: North-Holland, pp. 278-290
  29. ^ Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami, vol. V/1, Amsterdam: North-Holland, pp. 245 and 279.
  30. ^ D. Martin Luther. Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Briefwechsel, vol. 7, Weimar: Böhlau, pp. 27-40.
  31. ^ Britannica Online Encyclopedia, Desiderius Erasmus Dutch humanist and scholar, Protestant challenge
  32. ^ Watson, Philip (1969), "Erasmus, Luther and Aquinas", Concordia Theological Monthly 40 (11): 747–758 
  33. ^  "Desiderius Erasmus". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  34. ^ Huizinga, Dutch edition, p. 202.
  35. ^ Galli, Mark, and Olsen, Ted. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000, 343.
  36. ^ The Age of Erasmus , Lectures Delivered in the Universities of Oxford and London, by P.S.Allen, Clarendon Press 1914
  37. ^ Early title page
  38. ^ Knittel, Neue Kritiken über den berühmten Sprych: Drey sind, die da zeugen im Himmel, der Vater, das Wort, und der heilige Geist, und diese drei sind eins Braunschweig 1785
  39. ^ Letter 480, to Budé (ed. Allen)

Further reading

  • Winters, Adam. Erasmus' Doctrine of Free Will. Jackson, TN: Union University Press, 2005.
  • Furey, Constance M. Erasmus, Contarini, and the Religious Republic of Letters. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

External links

Wikisource has the original Latin text of Praise of Folly.


Up to date as of January 14, 2010
(Redirected to Desiderius Erasmus article)

From Wikiquote

In the country of the blind the one eyed man is king.

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus [Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam] (27 October probably 1466 – 12 July 1536) was a Dutch humanist and theologian; born Gerrit Gerritszoon.



Do not be guilty of possessing a library of learned books while lacking learning yourself.
What is life but a play in which everyone acts a part until the curtain comes down?
I am a lover of liberty. I will not and I cannot serve a party.
I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger.
  • I consider as lovers of books not those who keep their books hidden in their store-chests and never handle them, but those who, by nightly as well as daily use thumb them, batter them, wear them out, who fill out all the margins with annotations of many kinds, and who prefer the marks of a fault they have erased to a neat copy full of faults.
    • Letter to an unidentified friend (1489), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974), p. 114
  • A constant element of enjoyment must be mingled with our studies, so that we think of learning as a game rather than a form of drudgery, for no activity can be continued for long if it does not to some extent afford pleasure to the participant.
    • Letter to Christian Northoff (1497), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974), p. 114
  • You must acquire the best knowledge first, and without delay; it is the height of madness to learn what you will later have to unlearn.
    • Letter to Christian Northoff (1497), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974), p. 114
  • Do not be guilty of possessing a library of learned books while lacking learning yourself.
    • Letter to Christian Northoff (1497), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974), p. 115
  • Ad Graecas literas totum animum applicui; statimque, ut pecuniam acceptero, Graecus primum autores, deinde vestes emam.
    • I have turned my entire attention to Greek. The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.
    • Letter to Jacob Batt (12 April 1500); Collected Works of Erasmus Vol 1 (1974)
    • Variant translation: When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.
  • In regione caecorum rex est luscus.
    • In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
    • Adagia (first published 1500, with numerous expanded editions through 1536), III, IV, 96
    • Also in the same passage of the Adagia is a variant: Inter caecos regnat strabus (Among the blind, the squinter rules).
  • The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.
    • Adagia (1508)
  • For what is life but a play in which everyone acts a part until the curtain comes down?
  • This type of man who is devoted to the study of wisdom is always most unlucky in everything, and particularly when it comes to procreating children; I imagine this is because Nature wants to ensure that the evils of wisdom shall not spread further throughout mankind.
    • The Praise of Folly (1511)
  • I have no patience with those who say that sexual excitement is shameful and that venereal stimuli have their origin not in nature, but in sin. Nothing is so far from the truth. As if marriage, whose function cannot be fulfilled without these incitements, did not rise above blame. In other living creatures, where do these incitements come from? From nature or from sin? From nature, of course. It must borne in mind that in the apetites of the body there is very little difference between man and other living creatures. Finally, we defile by our imagination what of its own nature is fair and holy. If we were willing to evaluate things not according to the opinion of the crowd, but according to nature itself, how is it less repulsive to eat, chew, digest, evacuate, and sleep after the fashion of dumb animals, than to enjoy lawful and permitted carnal relations?
    • In Praise of Marriage (1519), in Erasmus on Women (1996) Erika Rummel
  • I am a lover of liberty. I will not and I cannot serve a party.
    • Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni (1523), § 176, As quoted in Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1900) by Ephraim Emerton, p. 377
    • Variant: I am a lover of liberty. I cannot and will not serve parties.
  • There is no doubt about Martin Luther's marriage, but the rumour about his wife's early confinement is false; she is said however to be pregnant now. If there is truth in the popular legend, that Antichrist will be born from a monk and a nun (which is the story these people keep putting about), how many thousands of Antichrists the world must have already!
    • Responding to rumours prompted by the marriage of Martin Luther, in a letter to François Dubois (13 March 1526), as translated in The Correspondence of Erasmus : Letters 1658 to 1801, January 1526-March 1527 (1974) edited by Charles Garfield Nauert and Alexander Dalzell, p. 79
    • Paraphrased variant: They say that the Antichrist will be born of a monk and a nun. If so, there must already be thousands of Antichrists.
  • Wherever you encounter truth, look upon it as Christianity.
    • As quoted in Erasmus of Rotterdam‎ (1934) by Stefan Zweig, Eden Paul, and Cedar Paul, p. 91; also in Erasmus — The Right to Heresy (2008) by Staffan Z. Weig, p. 62
  • There is nothing I congratulate myself on more heartily than on never having joined a sect.
    • As quoted in Thomas More and Erasmus (1965) by Ernest Edwin Reynolds, p. 248
  • I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger.
    • As quoted in Erasmus (1970) by György Faludy, p. 197


  • Believe that you have it, and you have it!
  • Education is of far greater importance than heredity in forming character.
  • It is the friendship of books that has made me perfectly happy.
  • The rules of grammar are crabbed things to many persons... it is important early to instil a taste for the best things into the minds of children, and I cannot see that anything is learned with greater success than what is learned by playing, and this is, in truth, a very harmless kind of fraud, to trick a person into his own profit.
  • To know nothing is the happiest life
  • Fortune favors the audacious.


  • Dulce bellum inexpertis.
    • War is sweet to them that know it not.
      • Though Erasmus quoted this proverb in Latin at the start of his essay Bellum [War], and it is sometimes attributed to him, it originates with the Greek poet Pindar.
    • Variant translations:
    • War is sweet to those not acquainted with it
    • War is Sweet to Those Who Do Not Know It
    • War is sweet to those That never have experienced it.
    • War is delightful to those who have had no experience of it.

External links

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Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

by Richard Claverhouse Jebb in the year 1897
The Rede Lecture, delivered in the Senate-House at Cambridge on June 11, 1890. Reprinted from the second edition, 1897.

[ 334 ] Desiderius Erasmus was born at Rotterdam on the 27th of October, 1467. His father, Gerhard de Praet, belonged to a respectable family at Gouda, a small town of South Holland, not far from Rotterdam: his mother, Margaret, was the daughter of a physician at Sevenberg in Brabant. Gerhard's parents were resolved that he should become a monk. Meanwhile he was secretly betrothed to Margaret. His family succeeded in preventing their marriage, but not their union. After the birth of a son—the elder and only brother of Erasmus—Gerhard fled to Rome. A false rumour of Margaret's death there induced him, in his despair, to enter the priesthood. On returning to Holland, he found Margaret living at Gouda with his two boys. He was true to the irrevocable vows which parted him from her. After a few years, during which the supervision of their children's education had been a common solace, she died, while still young; and Gerhard, broken-hearted, soon followed her to the grave.

The boy afterwards so famous had been given his father's Christian name, Gerhard, meaning "beloved." Desiderius is barbarous Latin for that, [ 335 ] and Erasmus is barbarous Greek for it. If the great scholar devised those appellations for himself, it must have been at an early age. Afterwards, when he stood godfather to the son of his friend Froben the printer, he gave the boy the correct form of his own second name,—viz., Erasmius. The combination, Desiderius Erasmus, is probably due to the fact that he had been known as Gerhard Gerhardson. It was a singular fortune for a master of literary style to be designated by two words which mean the same thing, and are both incorrect.

He was sent to school at Gouda when he was four years old. Here it was perceived that he had a fine voice; and so he was taken to Utrecht, and placed in the Cathedral choir. But he had no gift for music. At nine years of age he was removed from Utrecht to a good school at Deventer. His precocious genius soon showed itself, and his future eminence was predicted by the famous Rudolph Agricola—one of the first men who brought the new learning across the Alps.

Erasmus was only thirteen when he lost both parents, and was left to the care of three guardians. They wished him to become a monk: it was the simplest way to dispose of a ward. The boy loathed the idea; he knew his father's story; and now it seemed as if the same shadow was to fall on his own life also. However, the guardians sent him to a monastic seminary at Hertogenbosch, where the brethren undertook to prepare youth for the cloister. The three years which he spent there—i.e., from [ 336 ] thirteen to sixteen—were wholly wasted and miserable: he learned nothing, and his health, never strong, was injured by cruel severities. "The plan of these men," he said afterwards, "when they see a boy of high and lively spirit, is to break and humble it by stripes, by threats, by reproaches, and various other means." The struggle with the monks and his guardians was a long one; when menaces failed, they tried blandishments,—especially they promised him a paradise of literary leisure. At last he gave in. When he was about eighteen, he took the vows of a Canon Regular of the order of St Augustine. Looking back afterwards on the arts by which he had been won, he asks, "What is kidnapping, if this is not?"

The next five years—till he was twenty-three—were spent in his monastery at Stein, near Gouda. The general life of the place was odious to him; but he found one friend, named William Hermann. They used to read the Latin classics together—secretly, for such studies were viewed with some suspicion. It was then that he laid the basis of his Latin style, and became thoroughly familiar with some of the best Latin authors.

In 1491 he left the monastery, having been invited by the Bishop of Cambray, Henry de Bergis, to reside with him as his secretary. Soon afterwards he took orders; and the Bishop subsequently enabled him to enter the University of Paris, for the purpose of studying theology. He was then, perhaps, about twenty-seven years of age. [ 337 ]

At this point we may attempt,—aided by Holbein, and by tradition—to form some idea of his personal appearance. Erasmus was a rather small man, slight, but well-built; he had, as became a Teuton, blue eyes, yellowish or light brown hair, and a fair complexion. The face is a remarkable one. It has two chief characteristics,—quiet, watchful sagacity,—and humour, half playful, half sarcastic. The eyes are calm, critical, steadily observant, with a half-latent twinkle in them; the nose is straight, rather long, and pointed; the rippling curves of the large mouth indicate a certain energetic vivacity of temperament, and tenacity of purpose; while the pose of the head suggests vigilant caution, almost timidity. As we continue to study the features, they speak more and more clearly of insight and refinement; of a worldly yet very gentle shrewdness; of cheerful self-mastery; and of a mind which has its weapons ready at every instant. But there is no suggestion of enthusiasm,—unless it be the literary enthusiasm of a student. It is difficult to imagine those cool eyes kindled by any glow of passion, or that genial serenity broken by a spiritual struggle. This man, we feel, would be an intellectual champion of truth and reason; his wit might be as the spear of Ithuriel, and his satire as the sword of Gideon; but he has not the face of a hero or a martyr.

On entering the University of Paris, Erasmus took up his residence at the Montaigu College. It was on the south side of the Seine, not far from the Sorbonne, and is said to have stood on the site now

[ 338 ] occupied by the Library of St Genevieve. The Rector of the College was a man of estimable character; but he believed in extreme privation—which he had himself endured in youth—as the best school for students of theology. Erasmus has described the life there. The work imposed on the students was excessively severe. They were also half starved; meat was proscribed altogether; eggs, usually the reverse of fresh, formed the staple of food; the inmates had to fetch their drinking water from a polluted well. When wine was allowed, it was such as implied by the nickname "Vinegar College" (a Latin pun on Montaigu). Many of the sleeping-rooms were on a ground-floor where the plaster was mouldering on the damp walls, and in such a neighbourhood that the air breathed by the sleepers—when they could sleep—was pestilential. One year's experience of this place—these are the words of Erasmus—doomed many youths of the brightest gifts and promise either to death, or to blindness, or to madness, or to leprosy; "some of these," he says, "I knew myself,—and assuredly every one of us ran the danger." Similar testimony is given by his younger contemporary, Rabelais:—"The unhappy creatures at that College are treated worse than galley-slaves among the Moors and Tartars, or than murderers in a criminal prison."

No wonder Erasmus, a delicate man at the best, soon fell ill; indeed, his constitution was permanently impaired. He went back to the Bishop at Cambray. Then, after a short visit to Holland, he returned to [ 339 ] Paris—but not to the Montaigu College. He rented a one-room lodging, and resolved to support himself during his University course by taking private pupils. It was a hard struggle that he went through then; but better days were at hand. He had already become known in Paris as a scholar of brilliant promise, and especially as an admirable Latinist. Latin was then the general language, not only of learning, but of polite intercourse between persons of different nationalities; and to speak Latin with fluent grace—an art in which Erasmus was already pre-eminent—was the best passport to cultivated society in Paris, whose University attracted students from all countries. Then he had a bright and nimble fancy, a keen sense of humour, a frank manner, and also rare tact; in short, he was a delightful companion, without ever seeking to dominate his company. One of his pupils was a young Englishman, William Blunt, Lord Mountjoy, who was studying at Paris. Mountjoy settled an annual pension of a hundred crowns on Erasmus, and presently persuaded him to visit England.

This was in 1498. Erasmus was now thirty-one. For eighteen years—ever since he left the school at Deventer—his life had been a hard one. The coarse rigours of Hertogenbosch, the midnight oil of Stein, the miseries of the Montaigu College, the later battle with poverty in Paris—all these had left their marks on that slight form, and that keen, calm face. Men who met him in England must have found it difficult to believe that he was so young. The [ 340 ] sallow cheeks, the sunken eyes, the bent shoulders, the worn air of the whole man seemed to speak of a more advanced age. But neither then, nor at any later time, was he other than youthful in buoyant vivacity of spirit, in restless activity of mind, in untiring capacity for work.

And now a new world opened before him. In England he was not only an honoured guest, but, for the first time, perhaps, since he left school, he found himself among men from whom he had something to learn. He went to Oxford, with a letter of introduction to Richard Charnock, Prior of a house of his own order, the Canons Regular of St Augustine, and was hospitably received by him in the College of St Mary the Virgin. At that time the scholastic theology and philosophy still held the field in both the English Universities—as everywhere else, north of the Alps. But at Oxford there were a few eminent men who had studied the new learning in Italy, and had brought the love for it home with them. Erasmus was just too late to see William Selling of All Souls College, who died in 1495,—one of the first Englishmen who endeavoured to introduce Greek studies in this country. And he was too early to meet William Lilly, who was still abroad then. But he met some other scholars, who were among the earliest teachers or advocates of Greek at Oxford,—William Grocyn, William Latimer, and Thomas Linacre;—the last-named, who became Founder of the Royal College of Physicians, had studied at Florence under Politian [ 341 ] and Chalcondyles. Erasmus speaks with especial praise of Grocyn's comprehensive learning, and of Linacre's finished taste. It is certain that his intercourse with the Oxford Hellenists must have been both instructive and stimulating to him; we can see, too, that it strengthened his desire to visit Italy. On the other hand, his letters show that when he left Oxford in 1500, he had not advanced far in the study of Greek. The years from 1500 to 1505, during which he worked intensely hard at Greek by himself in Paris, were those in which his knowledge of that language was chiefly built up.

The two Oxonians with whom Erasmus formed the closest friendship were John Colet and Thomas More. Colet was just a year his senior, and was then lecturing on St Paul's Epistles in what was quite a new way,—endeavouring to bring out their meaning historically and practically. He was not a Greek scholar; but it was he who, more than anyone else, encouraged Erasmus to print the New Testament in the original tongue. Thomas More, who was then a youth of twenty, had left Oxford, and was reading law in London, where Erasmus first met him. The story that they met at dinner, and that, before an introduction, each recognised the other by his wit, is perhaps apocryphal. At any rate, it expresses the truth that such perfectly congenial minds would be drawn to each other at once.

In the winter of 1499 Erasmus visited Lord Mountjoy at Greenwich. It would seem, too, that he had a glimpse of Henry VII.'s Court. He writes [ 342 ] that he has become "a better horseman, and a tolerable courtier." In January, 1500, just before Erasmus left England, Thomas More went down from London to Greenwich, to say farewell,—bringing with him another young lawyer named Arnold. More proposed a walk, and took his friends to call at a large house in the neighbouring village of Eltham. They were shown into a hall where some children were at play: it was, in fact, the royal nursery. The eldest, a boy of nine years old, was the future Henry VIII.; he was not then Prince of Wales, but Duke of York, his brother Arthur being still alive. The tutor in charge of the children was John Skelton, the poet. Three days afterwards, in fulfilment of a promise, Erasmus sent the little Prince a Latin poem; it is in praise of England, and of Henry VII. There is no doubt that the praise of England came from his heart: his letters show that.

At the end of January, 1500, he sailed from Dover for France. A serious mishap befell him just before he went on board. He carried with him a considerable sum of money, contributed by friends for the purpose of enabling him to visit Italy. The custom-house officers at Dover deprived him of nearly the whole, on plea of a law forbidding the exportation of gold coin of the realm above a certain amount. His friends at court afterwards tried to recover it for him,—but in vain. On reaching Paris, he fell ill. When he recovered, he set hard to work. The next five years were spent chiefly at Paris, with occasional visits to Orleans or the Netherlands. [ 343 ] They form a quiet yet memorable period of his life. In 1500 he published his first collection of proverbial sayings from the classics,—the Adagia,—which, in its enlarged form, afterwards brought him so much fame. And during these years his incessant labour at Greek gradually qualified him for yet greater tasks. He had no teacher in Paris; and, though not absolutely in want, he had difficulty in buying all the books that he required.

Towards the end of 1505 Erasmus paid a second visit to England,—staying only about six months. On this occasion he visited Cambridge. The Grace Book of our University shows that permission was given to Desiderius Erasmus to take the degrees of B.D. and D.D. by accumulation. It would seem, however, that he took the degree of B.D. only; so Dr John Caius says, and he must be right, if it is true that in the doctor's diploma which Erasmus received at Turin in 1506 he was described as a bachelor of theology. Had he possessed the higher degree, it would have been mentioned in the Turin document. During this second visit he saw a good deal of More and other old acquaintances. Grocyn took him to Lambeth, and introduced him to Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England,—who, in the sequel, was one of his best friends.

He had now become able to realise the dream of his youth—to visit Italy. It was arranged that he should accompany the two sons of Dr Baptista Beyer, chief physician to Henry VII., who were [ 344 ] going to Genoa; a royal courier was to escort them as far as Bologna[1]. The party left Dover in the spring of 1506, and were tossed about for four days in the Channel. After a rest at Paris, they set out on horseback for Turin. Erasmus has vividly described the squalid German inns, which he contrasts with those of France. Another discomfort of the journey was that the tutor and the courier quarrelled a good deal. At Turin—his companions having left him—he stayed several weeks, and received from the University the degree of Doctor in Theology.

The stay of Erasmus in Italy lasted three years—from the summer of 1506 to that of 1509. It is well to remember what was the general state of things in Italy at that time,—for the impressions which Erasmus received there had a strong and lasting effect upon his mind. In literature the humanistic revival had now passed its zenith, and was declining into that frivolous pedantry which Erasmus afterwards satirised in the "Ciceronian." Architecture, sculpture and painting were indeed active; Bramante, Michael Angelo and Raphael were at work. But the fact which chiefly arrested the attention of Erasmus was that Italian soil was the common ground on which the princes of Europe were prosecuting their intricate ambitions, and that the Pope had unsheathed the sword in pursuit of temporal advantage. Julius II. was already an elderly man, but full of military ardour. Venice [ 345 ] seemed to be his ulterior object; meanwhile, in the autumn of 1506, he had reduced Perugia and Bologna. Erasmus was in Bologna when the Pope entered in November, and the late roses of that strangely mild autumn were strewn in his path by the shouting multitudes who hailed him as a warrior equal to his Roman namesake of old, the conqueror of Gaul. Erasmus was at Rome, too, in the following March, when the Pope celebrated his triumph with a martial pomp which no Caesar could have surpassed. Then came the revolt of Genoa from France,—the futile war of Maximilian, "Emperor Elect," against Venice,—and lastly the iniquitous League of Cambray, by which Maximilian, the Pope, Louis XII. and Ferdinand of Spain banded themselves together for the spoliation of the Venetian Republic. Such things as these sank deep into the heart of Erasmus. "When princes purpose to exhaust a commonwealth"—he wrote afterwards—"they speak of a just war; when they unite for that object, they call it peace."

But there was a bright side also to his years in Italy; in many places he enjoyed intercourse with learned men; and he formed some enduring friendships. At Venice he spent several months with Aldus in 1508, and saw an enlarged edition of the Adagia through his famous press. The kind of reputation which he had now won may be seen from his own account of his visit to Cardinal Grimani at Rome, in 1509: it is a characteristic little story, and ought to be told in his own words. "There was no [ 346 ] one to be seen in the courtyard of the Cardinal's palace," he says, "or in the entrance-hall...I went upstairs alone. I passed through the first, the second, the third room;—still no one to be seen, and not a door shut; I could not help wondering at the solitude. Coming to the last room, I there found only one person,—a Greek, I thought,—a physician,—with his head shaved, standing at the open door. I asked him if I could see the Cardinal; he replied that he was in an inner room, with some visitors. As I said no more, he asked me my business. I replied, 'I wished to pay my respects to him, if it had been convenient, but as he is engaged, I will call again.' I was just going away, but paused at a window to look at the view; the Greek came back to me, and asked if I wished to leave any message. 'You need not disturb him,' I said,—'I will call again soon.' Then he asked my name, and I told him. The instant he heard it, before I could stop him, he hurried into the inner room, and quickly returning, begged me not to go—I should be admitted directly. The Cardinal received me, not as a man of his high degree might have received one of my humble condition, but like an equal: a chair was placed for me, and we conversed for more than two hours. He would not even allow me to be uncovered,—a wonderful condescension in a man of his rank." Grimani pressed Erasmus to stay permanently at Rome. But he replied that he had just received a summons to England, which left him no choice. [ 347 ]

In the April of that year, 1509, the little boy whom Erasmus had seen in the nursery at Eltham had become Henry VIII.; and in May, Mountjoy had written to his old tutor, urging him to return. Erasmus reached England early in the summer of 1510. Soon afterwards, in More's house at Bucklersbury, he rapidly wrote his famous satire, the Encomium Moriae, or "Praise of Folly," in which Folly celebrates her own praises as the great source of human pleasures. He had been meditating this piece on the long journey from Rome; it is a kaleidoscope of his experiences in Italy, and of earlier memories. As to the title, Moria, the Greek word for "folly," was a playful allusion, of course, to the name of his wise and witty host. This "Praise of Folly" is a satire, not only in the modern but in the original sense of that word,—a medley. All classes, all callings, are sportively viewed on the weak side. But in relation to the author's own life and times, the most important topics are the various abuses in the Church, the pedantries of the school-men, and the selfish wars of kings. If this eloquent Folly, as Erasmus presents her, most often wears the mocking smile of Lucian or Voltaire, there are moments also when she wields the terrible lash of Juvenal or of Swift. The popularity of the satire, throughout Europe, was boundless. The mask of jest which it wore was its safeguard; how undignified, how absurd it would have been for a Pope or a King to care what was said by Folly! And, just for that reason, the Encomium Moriae must be

[ 348 ] reckoned among the forces which prepared the Reformation.

Where was Erasmus to settle now? That was the great question for him. He decided it by going to Cambridge, on the invitation of Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, who was then Chancellor of the University. Rooms were assigned to him in Queens' College, of which Fisher had been President a few years before. In that beautiful old cloister at Queens', where the spirit of the fifteenth century seems to linger, an entrance at the south-east corner gives access to a small court which is known as the court of Erasmus. His lodgings were in a square turret of red brick at the south-east angle of the court. His study was probably a good-sized room which is now used as a lecture room; on the floor above this was his bedroom, with an adjoining attic for his servant. From the south windows of these rooms—looking on the modern Silver Street—he had a wide view over what was then open country, interspersed with cornfields; the windings of the river could be seen as far as the Trumpington woods. The walk on the west side of the Cam, which is called the walk of Erasmus, was not laid out till 1684: in his time it was open ground, with probably no trees upon it. His first letter from Cambridge is dated Dec. 1510, and this date must be right, or nearly so. He says himself that he taught Greek here before he lectured on theology; and also that, after his arrival, the commencement of his Greek teaching was delayed by ill-health. Now he [ 349 ] was elected to the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity in 1511, and in those days the election was ordered to take place on the last day of term before the Long Vacation. His residence, then, can hardly have begun later than the early part of 1511.

It is interesting to think of him—now a man of forty-four, but prematurely old in appearance—moving about the narrow streets or quiet courts of that medieval Cambridge which was just about to become the modern—a transformation due, in no small measure, to the influence of his own labours. Eleven of our colleges existed. Peterhouse was in the third century of its life; others also were of a venerable age. Erasmus would have heard the rumour that a house of his own order, the Hospital of the Brethren of St John, was about to be merged in a new and more splendid foundation, the College of St John the Evangelist. Where Trinity College now stands, he would have seen the separate institutions which, after another generation, were to be united by Henry VIII.; he would have seen a hostel of the Benedictines where Magdalene College was soon to arise; the Franciscans on the site of Sidney Sussex, and the Dominicans on the site of Emmanuel. North of Queens' College, he would have found the convent of the Carmelites; and then, rising in lonely majesty—with no other College buildings as yet on its south side—the chapel of King's, completed as to the walls, but not yet roofed.

When Erasmus began his Greek lectures in his [ 350 ] rooms at Queens', his text-book was the elementary grammar of Manuel Chrysoloras, entitled the "Questions,"—which had been the standard book all through the fifteenth century. He next took up the larger and more advanced grammar of Theodorus Gaza, published in 1495,—which he afterwards translated into Latin. We have a specimen of his own Greek composition at this period. In 1511 he went from Cambridge to visit the celebrated shrine of the Virgin at Walsingham in Norfolk—the same where, two years later, Queen Catherine gave thanks after the battle of Flodden. As a votive offering, he hung up on the wall a short set of Greek iambics, which are extant: they are to the effect that, while others bring rich gifts and crave worldly blessings, he asks only for a pure heart. There are some faults of metre, but the diction is classical and idiomatic: probably no one in Europe at that time, unless it were Budaeus, could have written better. When Erasmus revisited Walsingham a little later, he found that these verses had sorely puzzled the monks and their friends; there had been much wiping of eye-glasses; and opinions differed as to whether the characters were Arabic, or purely arbitrary. Erasmus did not get many hearers for his Greek lectures, and was rather disappointed; but some, at least, of his pupils were ardent; thus he describes Henry Bullock of Queens'—the "Bovillus" of his letters—as "working hard at Greek." And the impulse which he gave can be judged from the rapid progress of the new learning at Cambridge. [ 351 ] Writing to him in 1516—three years after he had left—Bullock says, "people here are devoting themselves eagerly to Greek literature." In a letter to Everard, the Stadtholder of Holland, in 1520, Erasmus says:—"Theology is flourishing at Paris and at Cambridge as nowhere else: and why? Because they are adapting themselves to the tendencies of the age; because the new studies, which are ready, if need be, to storm an entrance, are not repelled by them as foes, but received as welcome guests." In another letter he remarks that, while Greek studies have been instituted in both the English Universities, at Cambridge they are pursued peacefully (tranquille),—owing, he says, to Fisher's influence. He is alluding to those struggles at Oxford between the adherents of the schoolmen and the new learning which came to a head in the "Trojan" and "Grecian" riots of 1519, and led to Wolsey's founding the readership of Greek. Oxford had been, in England, the great theological University of the middle ages, and the scholastic system died hardest there.

Erasmus taught Greek without any formal appointment, so far as we know, from the University; though Fisher, the Chancellor, may have arranged that he should receive a stipend. The first man formally appointed Greek reader was Richard Croke in 1519; who speaks, indeed, of Erasmus as having been "professor of Greek," but probably means simply lecturer. The official status of Erasmus was that of Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity. The [ 352 ] election to the Chair was then biennial. At the end of his term—i.e., in the summer of 1513—Erasmus was re-elected. This is a noteworthy fact. The electing body comprised the whole Faculty of Theology, regulars as well as seculars. The "Praise of Folly" must by that time have been well-known here. If Erasmus was not universally acceptable to the schoolmen or to the monks of Cambridge, at any rate the general respect for his character and attainments carried the day.

When we try to imagine him in his rooms at Queens', we are not to picture him as a popular teacher, with the youth of the university crowding to learn from him; his life here was that of a recluse student, in weak health, whose surroundings were in some respects uncongenial to him, but who had a group of devoted pupils, and some chosen older friends. From 1508 to the end of his life he suffered from a painful organic disease, which obliged him to be careful of his diet. When he dined in the old College hall at Queens', above the west cloister—now part of the President's Lodge—the ghosts of the College benefactors, whose heads are carved on the oak wainscoting, would have been grieved if they could have known what he thought of Cambridge beverages; he writes to his Italian friend Ammonius—afterwards Latin Secretary to Henry VIII.—begging for a cask of Greek wine. His favourite exercise was riding; and he made frequent excursions. Meanwhile he accomplished a surprising amount of work. He was busy with the text of [ 353 ] Seneca, with translations from Basil, with Latin manuals for St Paul's School, just founded by his friend Colet—and with much else. It was here that he began revising the text of Jerome's works. "My mind is in such a glow over Jerome," he writes, "that I could fancy myself actually inspired." But there is one labour above all that entitles those rooms in the old tower at Queens' to be reckoned among the sacred places of literature. It was there in 1512 that the Lady Margaret Professor completed a collation of the Greek Text of the New Testament. Four years later, his edition—the first ever published—appeared at Basle.

In 1513 Cambridge was visited by the plague, and nearly every one fled from it. During some months of the autumn, Erasmus had scarcely heard a foot-fall in the cloister beneath his rooms. At the end of the year, he finally left the University. Some of his reasons for going can be conjectured from his letters. They express disappointment with England; and they speak of poverty. It is well to observe the sense in which these complaints are to be understood. After 1510 Erasmus was never actually indigent. Archbishop Warham had offered him the Rectory of Aldington in Kent; Erasmus declined it, because he could not speak English—he never learned any modern language, and besides his own vernacular, spoke Latin only: then Warham gave him a pension from the benefice. Fisher and Mountjoy were also liberal. At Cambridge, with these resources, and the stipend of his Chair, it has [ 354 ] been computed that his income must have been equivalent to about £700 at the present day. But his mode of living, though not profuse, was not frugal. Thus he himself enumerates the following heads of his expenditure;—servants ("famulorum")—the aid of amanuenses—the cost of keeping a horse, or horses (ἱπποτροφία)—frequent journeys—and social or charitable obligations: he disliked, he says, to be penurious {"hic animus abhorrens a sordibus"). The fact seems to be that he had formed exaggerated hopes of what Henry VIII. would do for him. His immediate motive for departure, however, was probably the desire to supervise the printing of the Greek Testament. There was then no English press where such a work could be done so well as abroad. He had heard that Froben, the famous printer at Basle, was about to publish the works of Jerome; and to Basle he went. Another circumstance helped to decide him. Prince Charles,—afterwards the Emperor Charles V.,—had offered him the post of honorary privy-councillor, with a pension,—and this without binding him to live in the Netherlands. At this time Erasmus would have been welcomed in any country of Europe; Cardinal Canossa, the Papal legate, was anxious to secure him for Rome. At a later period, when his fame stood yet higher, Henry VIII. would have been glad to lure him back; but it was then too late.

So, in 1514, Erasmus left England—not to return, except for a few months in the following [ 355 ] year. He was now forty-seven. Twenty-two years of life remained to him. The history of these years is essentially that of his untiring and astonishing literary activity. In his external life there is little to record beyond changes of residence,—from Basle to the University of Louvain in Brabant,—from Louvain back to Basle,—from Basle to Freiburg,—and once more to Basle, where, in 1536, he died. The clue to this later period is given by two threads, which are indeed but strands of a single cord,—his influence on the revival of learning, and his attitude towards the Reformation.

In the younger days of Erasmus the Italian cultivation of classical literature had attained its highest point, and was already verging towards decline. More than a century had passed since Petrarch had kindled the first enthusiasm. It requires some effort of the imagination for us to realise what that movement meant. The men of the fourteenth century lived under a Church which claimed the surrender of the reason, not only in matters of faith, but in all knowledge: philosophy and science could speak only by the doctors whom she sanctioned. When the fourteenth century began to study the classics, the first feeling was one of joy in the newly revealed dignity of the human mind; it was a strange and delightful thing, as they gradually came to know the great writers of ancient Greece and Rome, to see the reason moving freely, exploring, speculating, discussing, without restraint. And then those children of the middle age were [ 356 ] surprised and charmed by the forms of classical expression,—so different from anything that had been familiar to them. Borrowing an old Latin word, they called this new learning humanity; for them, however, the phrase had a depth of meaning undreamt of by Cicero. Now, for the first time, they felt that they had entered into full possession of themselves; nothing is more characteristic of the Italian renaissance than the self-asserting individuality of the chief actors; each strives to throw the work of his own spirit into relief; the common life falls into the back-ground; the history of that age is the history of men rather than of communities.

In the progress of this Italian humanism three chief phases may be roughly distinguished. The first closes with the end of the fourteenth century,—the time of Petrarch and his immediate followers,—the morning-time of discovery. Then, in the first half of the fifteenth century, the discovered materials were classified, and organised in great libraries; Greek manuscripts, too, were translated into Latin,—not that the versions might be taken as substitutes for the original, but to aid the study of Greek itself. The men of this second period were gathered around Cosmo de' Medici at Florence, or Nicholas V. at Rome. The third stage was that in which criticism, both of form and of matter, was carried to a higher level, chiefly by the joint efforts of scholars grouped in select societies or academies, such as the Platonic academy at Florence, of which Ficino was the [ 357 ] centre. The greatest man of this time,—the greatest genius of the literary renaissance in Italy,—was Angelo Poliziano; he died in 1494, when Erasmus was twenty-seven.

With Erasmus a new period opens. Two things broadly distinguish him, as a scholar, from the men before and after him. First, he was not only a refined humanist, writing for the fastidious few, and prizing no judgment but theirs; he took the most profitable authors of antiquity,—profitable in a moral as well as a literary sense,—chose out the best things in them,—and sought to make these things widely known,—applying their wisdom or wit to the circumstances of his own day. Secondly, in all his work he had an educational aim,—and this of the largest kind. The evils of his age,—in Church, in State, in the daily lives of men,—seemed to him to have their roots in ignorance,—ignorance of what Christianity meant,—ignorance of what the Bible taught,—ignorance of what the noblest and most gifted minds of the past, whether Christian or pagan, had contributed to the instruction of the human race. Let true knowledge only spread, and under its enlightening and humanising influence a purer religion and a better morality will gradually prevail. Erasmus was a man of the world; but with his keen intellect, so quickly susceptible to all impressions, he made the mistake, not uncommon for such temperaments, of overrating the rapidity with which intellectual influences permeate the masses of mankind. However, no one was ever more [ 358 ] sistently or brilliantly true to an idea than Erasmus was to his; and it is wonderful how much he achieved.

His services to the new learning took various forms. He wrote school-books, bringing out his view that boys were kept too long over grammar, and ought to begin reading some good author as soon as possible. His own Colloquies were meant partly as models of colloquial Latin; the book was long a standard one in education. These lively dialogues are prose idylls with an ethical purpose,—the dramatic expression of the writer's views on the life of the day. Thus the dialogue between the Learned Lady and the Abbot depicts monastic illiteracy; that between the Soldier and the Carthusian brings out the seamy side of the military calling. Lucian has influenced the form; but the dramatic skill which blends earnestness with humour is the author's own; there are touches here and there which might fairly be called Shakspearian. Then he made collections of striking thoughts and fine passages in the classics. His chief book of this kind was the Adagia. Many of the classical proverbs are made texts for little essays on the affairs of the day. Thus he takes up a Latin proverb, "The beetle pursues the eagle"—based on the fable of the beetle avenging itself for an insult by destroying the eagle's eggs—the moral being that the most exalted wrong-doer is never safe from the vengeance of the humblest victim. This suggests to him an ingenious satire on the [ 359 ] misdeeds of great princes—typified by the eagle—and their results. Later in life, he brought out the Apophthegms—a collection of good sayings, chiefly from Plutarch. His editions of classical authors were numerous: the best was that of Terence,—his favourite poet; the next best was that of Seneca. His principal editions of Greek authors belong to the last five years of his life, and were less important. Speaking of these editions generally, we may say that they were valuable in two ways,—by making the authors themselves more accessible, and by furnishing improved texts. Then he made many Latin translations from Greek poetry and prose. Mention is due also to his dialogue on the pronunciation of Greek and Latin,—published in 1528. It was especially a protest against the confusion of the vowels in the modern Greek pronunciation, and against the modern disregard of quantity in favour of the stress accent. His views ultimately fixed the continental pronunciation of Greek, which is still known in Greece by his name (ἡ Ἐράσμου προφορά). At Cambridge it was introduced a little later by Thomas Smith and John Cheke. Along with this dialogue appeared another,—the amusing Ciceronian. It is an appeal to common-sense against an absurd affectation which marked the dotage of Italian humanism. Bembo and his disciples would not use a single word or phrase which did not occur in Cicero. Their purism moreover rejected all modern terms: a Cardinal became an "augur," a nun a "vestal," the Papal tiara was "the fillet of Romulus." [ 360 ] Most ludicrous of all, because Cicero was a statesman, the modern Ciceronian, writing to his friends from the profound seclusion of his study, deemed it a stylistic duty to imply that he lived in a vortex of politics. The gist of what Erasmus says is merely that other ancients besides Cicero wrote good Latin, and that a true Ciceronianism would adjust itself to its surroundings. No one, it should be added, had a more intelligent admiration for Cicero than Erasmus himself.

We see, then, the peculiar place which he holds in the history of the new learning. It may be allowed that, if the study of classical antiquity be viewed as a progressive science, he did much less to advance it than was done by some other great scholars of a later period. He did not enlarge the boundaries of knowledge in that field as they were afterwards enlarged by the special labours of Joseph Scaliger, of Isaac Casaubon, or of Richard Bentley. But the work which Erasmus did was one which, at that time, was of the first necessity for the northern nations. In his genial, popular way he made them feel the value and charm of the classics as literature; he himself was, in fact, a learned man of letters rather than a critical specialist. Let us remember what the state of northern Europe, as regards literature, was in his boyhood. It was sunk,—to use his own words,—in utter barbarism. To know Greek was the next thing to heresy. "I did my best," he says, "to deliver the rising generation from this slough of ignorance, and to inspire them with a [ 361 ] taste for better studies. I wrote, not for Italy, but for Germany and the Netherlands."

The circulation of his more popular writings, all over Europe, was so enormous that one can compare it only to that of some widely-read modern journal, or of some extraordinarily popular novel. For instance, a Paris bookseller once heard, or invented, a rumour that the Sorbonne was going to condemn the Colloquies of Erasmus as heretical; and, being a shrewd man, he instantly printed a new edition of 24,000 copies. A moral treatise by Erasmus, called the Enchiridion ("the Christian Soldier's Dagger"), which was a favourite alike with Catholics and with Protestants, was translated into every language of Europe. A Spanish ecclesiastic, writing in 1527, declares that a version of it was in the hands of all classes throughout Spain,—even the smallest country inn could usually show a copy. It may be doubted whether any author's works were ever so frequently reprinted within his life-time as were those of Erasmus. And wherever his books went, they carried with them the influence of his spirit,—his love of good literature, his loyalty to reason, his quiet common-sense, his hatred of war, his versatile wit, nourished by varied observation of life,—wit which could play gracefully around the slightest theme, or strike with a keen edge at falsehood an wrong,—his desire to make it felt that a good life is not an affair of formal observance, but must begin in the heart.

The works which entitle Erasmus to be called [ 362 ] the parent of Biblical criticism are connected with his secular studies by a closer tie than might appear at first sight. His principal concern was always with literature as such; he was, moreover, a practical moralist, anxious to aid in correcting the evils of his time: but he was not distinctively a theologian; and towards dogmatic theology, in particular, he had little inclination. Now, in pursuing his paramount aim—to make the world better by the humanising influences of literature—the enemy with which he had to do battle was the scholastic philosophy. Hear his words when he is asking how Christians are to convert Turks:—"Shall we put into their hands an Occam, a Durandus, a Scotus, a Gabriel, or an Alvarus? What will they think of us, when they hear of our perplexed subtleties about Instants, Formalities, Quiddities, and Relations?" This was the dreary wilderness of pedantry that had hitherto passed for knowledge. And the scholastic philosophy was securely entrenched behind the scholastic theology. The weapons of that theology were Biblical texts, isolated from their context, and artificially interpreted: the one way to disarm it was to make men know what the Bible really said and meant. Therefore Erasmus felt that his first duty, both as a moralist and as a man of letters, was to promote a knowledge of the Bible. He was not a Hebrew scholar, and could do nothing at first hand with the Old Testament; that province was left to Reuchlin. But in 1516 he published the Greek Testament,—the first edition which had appeared; [ 363 ] for the Complutensian edition, though printed two years earlier, was not issued till 1522. He also wrote a new Latin version of the New Testament, endeavouring to make it more exact than the Vulgate; and added notes. Further, he wrote a series of Latin Paraphrases on all the books of the New Testament except Revelation. These were intended to exhibit the substance and thought of the several books in a more modern form, and so to bring them home more directly to the ordinary reader's mind. The paraphrases were presently translated into English, and every Parish Church in England was furnished with a copy. In the remarkable "Exhortation" prefixed to his Greek Testament, Erasmus observes that, while the disciples of every other philosophy derive it from the fountain-head, the Christian doctrine alone is not studied at its source. He would like to see the Scriptures translated into every language, and put into the hands of all. "I long," he says, "that the husbandman should sing them to himself as he follows the plough, that the weaver should hum them to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveller should beguile with them the weariness of his journey." Then, as to interpretation,—from the medieval expositors, the schoolmen, he appealed to the primitive interpreters, the Fathers of the early Church, who stood nearer to those documents alike in time and in spirit. And first of all to Jerome; for Jerome had essayed, in the fourth century, a work analogous to that which Erasmus was attempting in the sixteenth. Thus it was fitting that [ 364 ] his edition of Jerome should appear almost simultaneously with his Greek Testament. He afterwards edited other Latin Fathers; and it was through his translations from the Greek Fathers, especially Chrysostom and Athanasius, that their writings first became better known in the West.

So far, all that Erasmus had said and done was in accord with that general movement of thought which led up to the Reformation. When Luther came forward, it was expected by many that Erasmus would place himself at his side. But Erasmus never departed an inch from his allegiance to Rome; and in the year before his death Paul III., in appointing him Provost of Deventer, formally acknowledged the services which he had rendered in combating the new opinions. It is important to see as clearly as possible what his position was.

Luther made his protest at Wittenberg in 1517. For four years after that, Erasmus hoped that the matter might be peaceably adjusted. Luther was personally a stranger to him, but had a great admiration for his work, and wrote to him, as to an intellectual leader of whose sympathy he hoped that he might feel sure; Erasmus wrote back kindly, but guardedly, urging counsels of moderation. When Frederick of Saxony consulted him, he spoke in Luther's favour. But after 1521 all hopes of conciliation were at an end: peace between Rome and Luther was thenceforth impossible. And now both sides began to press Erasmus. The Romanists cried, "This is all your doing; as the monks say, you laid [ 365 ] the egg, and Luther has hatched it: you must now lose no time in speaking out, and making it clear that you are loyal to the Church of which you are a priest." The Lutherans said: "You know that you agree with us in your heart; you yourself have made a scathing exposure of the very abuses which we are attacking; be true to yourself, and take your place among our leaders." Erasmus suffered, but remained silent. At last he decided to write against Luther, and in 1524 published his treatise on Free Will. Luther held that, owing to original sin, divine grace alone can turn man's will to good; Erasmus defended the doctrine of the Church, that, while grace is the indispensable and principal agent, the will is so far free as to allow for some human merit in preferring good to evil. Luther replied, and Erasmus rejoined. Thenceforth the Lutherans regarded Erasmus as an opponent;—some of them, as a traitor; while his own side felt that he had not done them much good. For the question handled by him, however important in itself, was not the question of the hour. And indeed many will feel that this particular controversy was the greatest mistake in the life of Erasmus. Not because he entered the lists against Luther—it is intelligible that he should have felt himself constrained to do so—but because, having decided to fight, he did not raise the main issue. That issue was,—Which is the greater evil.—to endure the corruptions, or to rebel? It was open to him to contend that rebellion was the greater: but, if he was not prepared to [ 366 ] enter on that ground, then it would have been better to keep silence.

What were the trains of thought and feeling which determined his course at that great crisis? A careful study of his own utterances will show that the considerations which swayed him were of three distinct kinds; we might describe them as ecclesiastical, intellectual, and personal.

In the first place, it is apparent that Erasmus regarded the prospect of schism, not only from a churchman's point of view, but also as a danger to social order. He thinks of the Roman Church under the image of a temporal State. Grave abuses have indeed crept into the constitution, but the State contains within itself the only legitimate agencies for reform. A citizen is entitled to lift up his voice against the abuses; but his loyalty to the head of the State must remain intact; if that head delays or declines to interfere, the citizen must be patient. And, even in denouncing evils, he must consider whether there is not a point at which denunciation, as tending to excite turbulence, may not do more harm than good. Such a view was the more natural in an age when men's minds had so long been familiar with the conception which was the basis of the Holy Roman Empire. No faults in any grade of the ecclesiastical hierarchy could do away with the feeling that Pope and Emperor were, by divine appointment, the joint guardians of human welfare, and that a revolt against the authority of the Church was an assault on the framework which held society [ 367 ] together. The peculiar attitude of Erasmus,—his reluctance to take part in the conflict, and the attacks made on him from both sides,—gave to his conduct the appearance of greater irresolution than can justly be laid to his charge. About one thing—this should be distinctly remembered—he never wavered. He never at any moment contemplated rebellion against the authority of Rome; he was as remote from that as were the two English friends whose views as to the abuses in the Church most nearly agreed with his own, John Colet and Thomas More. The real source of his embarrassment was that he approved, in a large measure, of Luther's objects, while he strongly disapproved of his methods.

Further, he disliked the Lutheran movement as threatening to impede the quiet progress of literature, and this in two ways,—first, by creating a general turmoil,—secondly, by giving the schoolmen and the monks a pretext for saying that the new learning was a source of social disorder. There is a striking letter of his, written to Alberto Pio, Prince of Carpi, in 1525. He points out that the foes of the new learning had been most anxious to identify it with the Lutheran cause, in order to damage two enemies at once. Then, further,—he disliked all appeals to passion, or blind partisanship; his hope for the world was in the growing sway of reason. Two hundred and fifty years afterwards, another gifted mind, in looking back, took much the same view that Erasmus had taken in looking forward. Goethe deplored Luther's violence. But Luther might have [ 368 ] quoted Ajax. To dream that such evils could be cured by the gentle magic of literature was indeed to chant incantations over a malady that craved the surgeon's knife.

As might have been expected, some critics of Erasmus ascribed his attitude to worldly motives; but this was unjust, as many details of his life show. When Paul III. wished to make him a Cardinal, and to provide him with the necessary income, he declined. He was ambitious of praise, but not of wealth or rank. Personal considerations influenced him only in this sense, that he knew his own unfitness for the part of a leader or a combatant at such a time. His right place was in his study, and he grudged every hour lost to his proper work. "I would rather work for a month at expounding St Paul," he said to a correspondent, "than waste a day in quarrelling." In character and temperament he was the most perfect contrast to Luther. We remember the story of Luther being awakened in the night by a noise in his room; he lit a candle, but could find nothing; he then became certain that the invisible Enemy of his soul was present in that room,—and yet he lay down, and went calmly to sleep. There is the essence of the man—the intensely vivid sense of the supernatural, and the instinctive recourse to it as an explanation—and the absolute faith. Erasmus was once in a town where a powder-magazine exploded, and destroyed a house which had harboured evil-doers; some one remarked that this showed the divine anger against guilt; [ 369 ] Erasmus quietly answered that, if such anger was indeed there, it was rather against the folly which had built a powder-magazine so near a town. The man who said that could never have fought at Luther's side.

Erasmus was a great literary precursor of the Reformation; he armed the hands of the Lutherans: but to call him, as some have done, a Reformer before the Reformation, seems hardly an appropriate description. If, in our own day, those who are denominated Old Catholics had confined themselves to urging the advisability of certain reforms, without disputing the authority of the Pope or proposing to secede from communion with Rome, their position would have been analogous to that of Erasmus. Viewed as a whole, his conduct was essentially consistent and independent.

His imperishable claim to the gratitude of the world, and especially of the Teutonic peoples, rests on the part which he sustained in a contest of even larger scope than that waged by Luther,—in the great preliminary conflict between the old and the new conception of knowledge, between the bondage and the enfranchisement of the human mind, between a lifeless formalism in religion and the spirit of practical Christianity. From youth to old age, through many trials, he worked with indomitable energy in the cause of light; and it was his great reward, that, before he died, he saw the dawn of a new age beginning for the nations of the north,—not without clouds and storm, but with the assurance that the reign of darkness was past.


  1. Sic (A. W. V.).


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



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Form Ancient Greek, ἐράσμιος (erasmios), pleasant); name of an early Christian martyr.

Proper noun




  1. Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch humanist and theologian.
  2. A male given name, rare in English.



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