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c. 1469 - 1536
Life of the Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus.
27 Oct 1469
The Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus is born in Rotterdam.
Desiderius Erasmus joins the monastery of the Augustinian monastic order in Steyn.
Desiderius Erasmus is ordained as a priest.
Desiderius Erasmus studies theology at the University of Paris.
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus travels to England.
Desiderius Erasmus produces his Adagiorum Collectanea, an annotated collection of Greek and Latin adages. It is revised in 1508 and 1515 CE.
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus publishes his Enchiridion Militis Christiani (Handbook of the Christian Soldier).
1506 - 1509
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus spends time in Italy.
1509 - 1514
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus stays in England for a second time.
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus publishes his Moriae Encomium (Praise of Folly) which pokes fun at elements of Catholicism.
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus publishes his On Copia which teaches students how to argue, revise texts, and produce new ones.
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus publishes his Latin and Greek translation of the New Testament (Novum instrumentum).
1516 - 1517
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus publishes his Institutio principis Christiani (Education of a Christian Prince) and Querela pacis (Complaint of Peace).
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus joins the faculty of theology at the university in Leuven.
1521 - 1529
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus lives in Basel, Switzerland.
The Dutch Reniassance scholar Desiderius Erasmus publishes his Paraphrases of the Four Gospels.
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus publishes his De Libero Animo, an argument on free will directed against Martin Luther.
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus publishes his Ciceronianus, an attack on those scholars too preoccupied with Cicero.
12 Jul 1536
The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus dies in Basel, Switzerland.
From the Archives: Desiderius Erasmus
WHAT THING of so great a value does this world promise you, that for the love thereof you will put your Soul&rsquos health in danger . . . ? What, I say, does it promise you? Is it abundance of riches? For that is what mortal folks especially desire. But truly there is nothing more miserable, more vain or deceitful, more noxious or hurtful, than worldly goods. Worldly goods are the very masters or ministers of all misgovernance and mischief. Holy Scripture does not without a cause call covetousness the root of all evil. For from it springs an ungracious affection for goods and in it injuries and wrongs have their beginning. From it grow sedition and part-taking [dispute], . . . stealing, pillaging, sacrilege, extortion, and robbing. Riches engender and bring forth incest and adultery. Riches nourish and foster ravishments, mad loves, and superfluity.
. . . What rich man can you show me who is not infected with one of these two vices: either with covetousness . . . or else with prodigality and waste . . . . The covetous man is servant and not master of his riches, and the waster will not long be master thereof. The one is possessed and does not possess: and the other within a short while leaves the possession of riches.
Yet, I ask you, what good are these precious weights&mdashwhich are gathered and gotten by great grief and kept only with tremendous thought and care? In heaping them together is labor intolerable, and in keeping them is excessive care and dread, and the forgoing or loss of them is a miserable vexation and torment. Therefore a rich man has no sporting time: for either without rest or sleep he watches the goods he has gotten, or else he gapes to get more-or else he sorrows for his losses. And when he is not gaining more, he feels that he is losing and suffering damage. And what if he has mountains of gold? Or what if his riches are greater than mountains of gold? Then so much the more he augments his burden and heaps up his cares, and throws fear upon fear and grief upon grief, and takes on himself the job of a caretaker, full of all misery and labor.
Why do you consider riches and money so valuable? What preciousness is in them? For truly they are only pieces of pure brass engraved with images and inscriptions. These can neither expel nor put away the cares or griefs that gnaw thee about the stomach, nor can they rid you of any sickness of the body, and much less of death. But you will say that riches enable you to withstand need and poverty. You are deceived, I assure you, for they will cause you to be ever needy. For just as drink does not quench the thirst of one who has the dropsy, but makes him more thirsty, so with the abundance of goods or riches, your desire to have more just increases. And whoever seeks after more, shows himself to be needy.
By Desiderius Erasmus
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #19 in 1988]
Erasmus (c 1469–1536) was the most celebrated humanist scholar of his time. His renowned Latin New Testament, based upon his critical Greek text, made future biblical scholarship indebted to him Erasmus, though a dedicated Catholic, attacked the abuses of monasticism with brilliant satire in his In Praise of Folly, and agreed with Luther in Luther’s attack on the abuse of indulgences, though the two later bitterly opposed each other. Here, in the third chapter of an early book, De Contemptu Mundi, Erasmus decries the dangers of wealth.
The ruthless pope
That same year brought another death, though, which Erasmus greeted with glee. Julius II (pope from 1503 to 1513) was widely regarded as one of the most ruthless popes of his era. He focused his tremendous personal energy on making secure the defense of the Papal States (the territory on the Italian peninsula ruled directly by the pope), as well as recovering lands lost to rival powers Venice and France.
In 1506 Erasmus had witnessed the triumphal entry of Giuliano il terribile (“Julius the terrible”) into Bologna after a long and grueling siege of the city. “I could not help groaning within myself,” he wrote, “when I compared these triumphs, at which even lay princes would have blushed, with the majesty of the apostles, who converted the world by the majesty of their teaching.”
Not all contemporaries were so dismayed. In the year of Julius’s death, a little-known—at least at that time—Florentine politician named Niccolò Machiavelli wrote admiringly: “All these enterprises prospered with him, and so much the more to his credit, inasmuch as he did everything to strengthen the church and not any private person.” Machiavelli’s appreciation would echo through history in The Prince, a handbook for rulers on how to win power and get ahead in life.
Erasmus held a far dimmer view. Within a year of Julius’s death, an anonymous—and vicious—satire began circulating. Though Erasmus never owned up to having written Julius Excluded from Heaven, most modern critics see his fingerprints all over it. The dialogue is set outside the gates of heaven, where Julius and his genius (guardian angel) come face to face with the limits of papal power:
Julius: What the devil is this? The doors don’t open? Somebody must have changed the lock or broken it.
Genius: It seems more likely that you didn’t bring the proper key for this door doesn’t open to the same key as a secret money-chest. . . .
Julius: I didn’t have any other key but this I don’t see why we need a different one. . . .
Genius: I don’t either but the fact is, we’re still on the outside.
St. Peter responds to Julius’s demands for admittance by reminding him that “this is a fortress to be captured with good deeds, not ugly words.” When Julius proudly describes a nearly exhaustive catalog of vices as his qualifications for entry, St. Peter responds with mounting horror:
Peter: Oh, madman! So far I have heard nothing but the words of a warlord, not a churchman but a worldling, not a mere worldling but a pagan, and a scoundrel lower than any pagan! You boast of having dissolved treaties, stirred up wars, and encouraged the slaughter of men. That is the power of Satan, not a pope. Anyone who becomes the vicar of Christ should try to follow as closely as possible the example provided by Christ. In him the ultimate power coincided with ultimate goodness his wisdom was supreme, but of the utmost simplicity. … If the devil, that prince of darkness, wanted to send to earth a vicar of hell, whom would he choose but someone like you? In what way did you ever act like an apostolic person?
Julius: What could be more apostolic than strengthening the church of Christ?
Peter: But if the church is the flock of Christian believers held together by the spirit of Christ, then you seem to me to have subverted the church by inciting the entire world to bloody wars, while you yourself remained wicked, noisome, and unpunished. . . . Christ made us servants and himself the head, unless you think a second head is needed. But in what way has the church been strengthened?
Julius: …That hungry, impoverished church of yours is now adorned with a thousand impressive ornaments.
Peter: Such as? An earnest faith?
Julius: More of your jokes.
Peter: Holy doctrine?
Julius: Don’t play dumb.
Peter: Contempt for the things of the world?
Julius: Let me tell you: real ornaments are what I mean. …Regal palaces, spirited horses and fine mules, crowds of servants, well-trained troops, assiduous retainers—
Genius: —high-class whores and oily pimps—
Julius: —plenty of gold, purple, and so much money in taxes that there’s not a king in the world who wouldn’t appear base and poor if his wealth and state were compared with those of the Roman pontiff. …
The word picture of Julius in this exchange is a grotesque caricature, but the issues in dispute were real enough. They were the central planks in Erasmus’s reforming agenda: the importance of earnest faith and holy doctrine for the Christian life, along with contempt for the world and, above all, an imitation of the life of Christ. Against these Erasmus set the cynicism and political ambition of an institutional mentality. Julius had identified the church wholly with its exterior trappings—and ultimately, with himself—rather than with its true spiritual nature.
Erasmus did not take issue with church doctrine, but rather with the seductions of power, the beguiling distractions of materialism, and a forgetfulness of God’s eternal judgment that ought to keep all human aspirations within their proper limits. The whole comedy of the dialogue results from Julius’s incredulity, at first bemused and then enraged, at having found that the key of worldly power will not unlock the door of wisdom, the gateway to heaven.
Life as a Professional Scholar
While in Paris, Erasmus became known as an excellent scholar and lecturer. One of his pupils, William Blunt, Lord Montjoy, established a pension for Erasmus, allowing him to adopt a life of an independent scholar moving from city to city tutoring, lecturing and corresponding with some of the most brilliant thinkers of Europe. In 1499, he traveled to England and met Thomas More and John Colet, both of whom would have a great influence on him. Over the next 10 years, Erasmus divided his time between France, the Netherlands and England, writing some of his best works.
In the early 1500s, Erasmus was persuaded to teach at Cambridge and lecture in theology. It was during this time that he wrote The Praise of Folly, a satirical examination of society in general and the various abuses of the Church. Another influential publication was his translation of the New Testament into Greek in 1516. This was a turning point in theology and the interpretation of scripture and posed a serious challenge to theological thinking that had dominated universities since the 13th century. In these writings, Erasmus promoted the spread of Classical knowledge to encourage a better morality and greater understanding between people.
"Would that the farmer might sing snatches of Scripture at his plough and that the weaver might hum phrases of Scripture to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveler might lighten with stories from Scripture the weariness of his journey."
"When I get a little money I buy books," wrote Erasmus of Rotterdam, who took the name Desiderius in his adult life. "If any is left &hellip I buy food and clothes."
This illegitimate son of a Dutch priest lived in search of knowledge, in pursuit of piety, in love with books, and oppressed by the fear of poverty. Along the way, his writings and scholarship started a theological earthquake that didn't stop until western European Christendom was split.
Joan of Arc burned at stake
Constantinople falls end of Eastern Roman Empire
Gutenberg produces first printed Bible
Ignatius Loyola gains approval for Society of Jesus
No fan of monasticism
Born in Rotterdam, orphaned by the plague, Erasmus was sent from the chapter school of St. Lebuin's&mdashwhich taught classical learning and the humanities&mdashto a school conducted by the monastic Brethren of the Common Life. He absorbed an emphasis on a personal relationship with God but hated the severe rules of monastic life and the intolerant theologians. They intended to teach humility, he later recalled, by breaking the pupils' spirits.
But he was poor, and both he and his brother had to enter monasteries Erasmus decided to join the Augustinians. He wanted to travel, gain some academic elbow room, and leave behind the "barbarians" who discouraged him from classical studies. And as soon as he was ordained a priest in 1492, he did, becoming secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, who sent him to Paris to study theology.
He hated it there too. The dorms stank of urine, the food was execrable, the studies mechanical, and the discipline brutal. But he was able to begin a career in writing and traveling that took him to most of the countries of Europe. Though he often complained of poor health, he was driven by a desire to seek out the best theologians of his day. On a trip to England in 1499, he complained of bad beer, barbarism, and inhospitable weather, but he also met Thomas More, who became a friend for life.
On the same trip he heard John Colet teach from the Scriptures, not the layers of commentaries he had studied in Paris. Colet, who would later become the dean of St. Paul's, encouraged the Dutch scholar to become a "primitive theologian" who studied Scripture like the church Fathers, not like the argumentative scholastics.
Thereafter Erasmus devoted himself to the Greek language, in which the New Testament was written. "I cannot tell you, dear Colet, how I hurry on, with all sails set, to holy literature," he soon wrote to his new friend. "How I dislike everything that keeps me back, or retards me."
The result was his most significant work: an edition of the New Testament in original Greek, published in 1516. Accompanying it were study notes as well as his own Latin translation&mdashcorrecting some 600 errors in Jerome's Vulgate.
In the preface, Erasmus said he undertook the project so everyone could finally read the Bible: "Would that these were translated into each and every language &hellip Would that the farmer might sing snatches of Scripture at his plough and that the weaver might hum phrases of Scripture to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveler might lighten with stories from Scripture the weariness of his journey."
Two of the most noteworthy praises of Erasmus's work came from Pope Leo X and from a German monk named Martin Luther&mdashwho, one year later, would launch the Protestant Reformation.
Before that turning point&mdashwhich would eventually consume the humanist (which at the time meant student of the humanities, not one who praises humanity above all else)&mdashErasmus became famous for his other writings. And there were plenty for him to be famous for. By the 1530s, between 10 and 20 percent of all the books sold had his byline.
He said he wrote to "correct the errors of those whose religion is usually composed of &hellip ceremonies and observances of a material sort and neglect the things that conduce to piety." He became famous for his biting satire, In Praise of Folly , which attacked monastic and ecclesiastic corruption. He lambasted miracles supposedly performed by images, indulgences, and what he felt were useless church rites.
The books brought him fame, as did his Bible. This and his attacks on a church caught Luther's attention, who wrote asking for support.
Between Scylla and Charybdis
The two never met, but their fates were entwined for all history. Erasmus's enemies accused him of inspiring the schismatic Luther. And indeed, Erasmus found much he liked in the German's writings, describing him to Leo X as "a mighty trumpet of gospel truth." At the same time, he privately told his printer to stop printing Luther's writings because he didn't want his own efforts tangled with the Reformer's.
For four years, Erasmus pleaded moderation to both sides. But when pressed, he sided with the pope. "I am not so made as to fly in the face of the Vicar of Christ," he assured Leo.
Still, he hated the bickering and intolerance of both sides: "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. It is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed."
His mediating position, however, didn't satisfy either side: "My only wish is that now that I am old, I be allowed to enjoy the results of my efforts," he wrote. "But both sides reproach me and seek to coerce me. Some claim that since I do not attack Luther I agree with him, while the Lutherans declare that I am a coward who has forsaken the gospel."
Indeed, Luther attacked him as a Moses who would die in the wilderness "without entering the promised land." And the Roman Catholic church forbade his writings. "Had I not seen it, nay, felt it myself," he wrote, "I should never have believed anyone who said theologians could become so insane."
Erasmus's Novum instrumentum, a heavily explained edition of the New Testament placing texts in Greek and revised Latin side by side, appeared in 1516. It was a turning point for scholars and reformers that brought educated Europeans closer to Erasmus's early works, and paved the way for the literary and educational classics of the Christian humanist society.
Erasmus then returned to Europe to continue his efforts and resume the circulation of his works. Froben published his nine-volume edition of St. Jerome in 1516 and in the next two decades issued Erasmus's extensive editions of early Christian authors, including St. Cyprian (1520), St. Ambrose (1527), and St. Augustine (1529) he also circulated critical writings and essays on immortality and revised editions of the literary works.
Another type of writing by Erasmus's appeared in 1516, while he briefly served the future emperor Charles V (1500) as councilor (a person who gives advice). He prepared a guide for educating princes to rule justly, Institutio principis Christiani, and in 1517 composed Querela pacis (The Complaint
What Were the Accomplishments of Desiderius Erasmus?
Desiderius Erasmus was a prominent philosopher and theologian during the Protestant Reformation and was responsible for creating a new edition of the New Testament as well as many other influential writings. He was a highly controversial figure and was heavily criticized by both Catholic and Protestant authorities. Nonetheless, his works were very popular, and he remains well known.
Desiderius Erasmus was the illegitimate son of a priest and was orphaned at an early age. Eventually, his guardians sent him off to be schooled with monks for several years, which left him with a bad impression of the church hierarchy. His writings were skeptical and highly critical of the Catholic church, which contributed to the success of the Protestant Reformation. Nonetheless, Desiderius Erasmus thought the Reformation went too far, and he criticized it.
Erasmus wrote on the subjects of politics, religion, language and knowledge itself. He was in favor of absolute obedience to kings, but also said that a king must be relatively pacifistic and rule, as much as possible, with the consent of his people. He never tried to get at absolute truth, which he thought was only contained in sacred texts, but instead focused on practical positions in regards to individual issues.
Erasmus (c.1466 - 1536)
Portrait of Erasmus Desiderius, 1523 © Erasmus was a Dutch writer, scholar and humanist.
The illegitimate son of a priest, Erasmus (Gerrit Gerritszoon) was probably born in 1466 in Rotterdam. He was ordained in 1492 and studied in Paris. From 1499 he adopted the life of an independent scholar, moving from city to city tutoring, lecturing and corresponding with thinkers all over Europe.
He began writing in around 1500, on both theological and secular subjects. All his work displays his huge learning and intellectual brilliance, but also his humanity and wit. Many of his early works attacked corruption and superstition in the church and his famous satire 'The Praise of Folie' (1509), dedicated to his English friend Thomas More, advocated a return to a more simple Christianity. He translated and edited many classical and early Christian works and also published a critical edition of the Greek text of the New Testament which drew on newly available sources and was immensely influential. It symbolised the humanist desire to return to the sources of the Christian tradition.
During four trips to England, Erasmus became friends with leading intellectual figures such as John Colet and Thomas More, and taught at Cambridge University. He also visited and lived in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
The onset of the Protestant Reformation took Erasmus in a new direction. Although he remained a Catholic he was in sympathy with some of the Protestants' reforming instincts. To counter accusations that he was a Lutheran he wrote a complete declaration of his theological position 'On the Freedom of the Will' which contained a brilliant attack on Luther.
Desiderius Erasmus, Humanist
Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus was a great friend of Sir Thomas More and Hans Holbein the Younger. He was a creative and prolific writer on Humanist topics and translator of Latin and Greek texts and his works were highly publicized in his time.
Erasmus was born in Holland in October of 1466, the illegitimate son of Gerhard (unknown last name) who later became a priest, and a woman named Margaretha Rogers, the daughter of a physician. He was named after Saint Erasmus of Formiae. After 1496, he added the surname Desiderius and he supplemented his scholarly name with Roterodamus, the Latinized version of the name for the city of Rotterdam.
Erasmus was able to obtain one of the best educations available to a young man at the time. At the age of nine, Erasmus, his older brother Peter and their mother moved to Deventer to attend one of the best Latin schools in the Netherlands. The curriculum had recently been renewed and Greek was being taught for the first time at a level below university. While there, Erasmus learned of having a personal relationship with God but abstaining from the harsh rules and strict routines of monasticism. He was to spend his life attacking the excesses of monasticism.
His mother was to die in 1483 from the plague and his time in the school ended. By 1492, Erasmus was so impoverished he entered a monastery in Steyn where he took vows as an Augustinian priest. Soon after he was ordained, he was offered employment as the secretary of the Bishop of Cambray due to his excellent skill in Latin and his reputation as a man of letters. He was given a temporary dispensation from his monastic vows due to his love of Humanistic studies and later Pope Leo X made the dispensation permanent.
In 1495, Erasmus went to study at the University of Paris, in the College of Montaigu, a center of Reformist zeal and graduated with a degree in theology. He then traveled to England where he met Thomas More, John Colet, John Fisher and other scholars and Humanists. He traveled to Italy from 1506 to 1509 where he studied at the University of Turin. While there his interest in the New Testament was kindled. He became a professor of Divinity and resided at Queens College Cambridge from 1510-1515.
In 1512, he began his opus, a new Latin reworking of the New Testament. He collected all manuscripts he could find and began working on polishing the Latin. He also included a Greek text calling it “All of the New Testament” and it was published in 1516 in Basel, Switzerland. A second and third edition followed in 1519 and 1522. This third edition was probably used by William Tyndale for his translation of the New Testament into English of 1526 and by Robert Stephanus in his 1550 edition which was later used by translators for the King James Version of the English Bible. There were to be fourth and fifth editions of this work and he considered this to be his chief service to the cause of Christianity.
“In Praise of Folly” page with drawing by Hans Holbein the Younger
Erasmus was to carry on a correspondence with Martin Luther and for the most part, tried to remain neutral in reformation disputes. While Erasmus criticized practices of the Catholic Church and tried to eradicate abuses of the clergy, his primary goal was to return Catholics to the simpler faith of the apostolic era. He never condoned the Reformation and remained Catholic until his death.
He was to write many works ecclesiastical and humanistic, his most famous being “In Praise of Folly”, written in 1509 and published in 1511. It was dedicated to his friend Sir Thomas More and criticized European society, the Catholic Church and widely held superstitions of the time. He wrote in Latin but encouraged all his works to be translated. A testament to the popularity of his writings is the number of translations and editions which have appeared since their initial publication. There is no doubt he has been influential in learning from the time of his first writings to his death, down to the present day. Erasmus was to die of a sudden attack of dysentery on July 12, 1536, aged 69. He was buried in the cathedral in Basel.
Basel Cathedral, burial place of Erasmus
Selected Works of Erasmus:
The Praise of Folly
Handbook of a Christian Knight
On Civility in Children
Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style
All of the New Testament
The Education of a Christian Prince
The wandering scholar
In 1499 a pupil, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, invited Erasmus to England. There he met Thomas More, who became a friend for life. John Colet quickened Erasmus’s ambition to be a “primitive theologian,” one who would expound Scripture not in the argumentative manner of the Scholastics but in the manner of St. Jerome and the other Church Fathers, who lived in an age when the classical art of rhetoric was still understood and practiced. The impassioned Colet besought him to lecture on the Old Testament at Oxford, but the more cautious Erasmus was not ready. He returned to the Continent with a Latin copy of St. Paul’s Epistles and the conviction that “ancient theology” required mastery of Greek.
On a visit to Artois, France (1501), Erasmus met the fiery preacher Jean Voirier, who, though a Franciscan, told him that “monasticism was a life more of fatuous men than of religious men.” Admirers recounted how Voirier’s disciples faced death serenely, trusting in God, without the solemn reassurance of the last rites. Voirier lent Erasmus a copy of works by Origen, the early Greek Christian writer who promoted the allegorical, spiritualizing mode of scriptural interpretation, which had roots in Platonic philosophy. By 1502 Erasmus had settled in the university town of Leuven (Brabant [now in Belgium]) and was reading Origen and St. Paul in Greek. The fruit of his labours was Enchiridion militis Christiani (1503/04 Handbook of a Christian Knight). In this work Erasmus urged readers to “inject into the vitals” the teachings of Christ by studying and meditating on the Scriptures, using the spiritual interpretation favoured by the “ancients” to make the text pertinent to moral concerns. The Enchiridion was a manifesto of lay piety in its assertion that “monasticism is not piety.” Erasmus’s vocation as a “primitive theologian” was further developed through his discovery at Park Abbey, near Leuven, of a manuscript of Valla’s Adnotationes on the Greek New Testament, which he published in 1505 with a dedication to Colet.
Erasmus sailed for England in 1505, hoping to find support for his studies. Instead he found an opportunity to travel to Italy, the land of promise for northern humanists, as tutor to the sons of the future Henry VIII’s physician. The party arrived in the university town of Bologna in time to witness the triumphal entry (1506) of the warrior pope Julius II at the head of a conquering army, a scene that figures later in Erasmus’s anonymously published satiric dialogue, Julius exclusus e coelis (written 1513–14). In Venice Erasmus was welcomed at the celebrated printing house of Aldus Manutius, where Byzantine émigrés enriched the intellectual life of a numerous scholarly company. For the Aldine press Erasmus expanded his Adagia, or annotated collection of Greek and Latin adages, into a monument of erudition with over 3,000 entries this was the book that first made him famous. The adage “Dutch ear” (auris Batava) is one of many hints that he was not an uncritical admirer of sophisticated Italy, with its theatrical sermons and its scholars who doubted the immortality of the soul his aim was to write for honest and unassuming “Dutch ears.”
De pueris instituendis, written in Italy though not published until 1529, is the clearest statement of Erasmus’s enormous faith in the power of education. With strenuous effort the very stuff of human nature could be molded, so as to draw out (e-ducare) peaceful and social dispositions while discouraging unworthy appetites. Erasmus, it would almost be true to say, believed that one is what one reads. Thus the “humane letters” of classical and Christian antiquity would have a beneficent effect on the mind, in contrast to the disputatious temper induced by Scholastic logic-chopping or the vengeful amour propre bred into young aristocrats by chivalric literature, “the stupid and tyrannical fables of King Arthur.”
The celebrated Moriae encomium, or Praise of Folly, conceived as Erasmus crossed the Alps on his way back to England and written at Thomas More’s house, expresses a very different mood. For the first time the earnest scholar saw his own efforts along with everyone else’s as bathed in a universal irony, in which foolish passion carried the day: “Even the wise man must play the fool if he wishes to beget a child.”
Little is known of Erasmus’s long stay in England (1509–14), except that he lectured at Cambridge and worked on scholarly projects, including the Greek text of the New Testament. His later willingness to speak out as he did may have owed something to the courage of Colet, who risked royal disfavour by preaching a sermon against war at the court just as Henry VIII was looking for a good war in which to win his spurs. Having returned to the Continent, Erasmus made connections with the printing firm of Johann Froben and traveled to Basel to prepare a new edition of the Adagia (1515). In this and other works of about the same time Erasmus showed a new boldness in commenting on the ills of Christian society—popes who in their warlike ambition imitated Caesar rather than Christ princes who hauled whole nations into war to avenge a personal slight and preachers who looked to their own interests by pronouncing the princes’ wars just or by nurturing superstitious observances among the faithful. To remedy these evils Erasmus looked to education. In particular, the training of preachers should be based on “the philosophy of Christ” rather than on Scholastic methods. Erasmus tried to show the way with his annotated text of the Greek New Testament and his edition of St. Jerome’s Opera omnia, both of which appeared from the Froben press in 1516. These were the months in which Erasmus thought he saw “the world growing young again,” and the full measure of his optimism is expressed in one of the prefatory writings to the New Testament: “If the Gospel were truly preached, the Christian people would be spared many wars.”
Erasmus’s home base was now in Brabant, where he had influential friends at the Habsburg court of the Netherlands in Brussels, notably the grand chancellor, Jean Sauvage. Through Sauvage he was named honorary councillor to the 16-year-old archduke Charles, the future Charles V, and was commissioned to write Institutio principis Christiani (1516 The Education of a Christian Prince) and Querela pacis (1517 The Complaint of Peace). These works expressed Erasmus’s own convictions, but they also did no harm to Sauvage’s faction at court, which wanted to maintain peace with France. It was at this time too that he began his Paraphrases of the books of the New Testament, each one dedicated to a monarch or a prince of the church. He was accepted as a member of the theology faculty at nearby Leuven, and he also took keen interest in a newly founded Trilingual College, with endowed chairs in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Ratio verae theologiae (1518) provided the rationale for the new theological education based on the study of languages. Revision of his Greek New Testament, especially of the copious annotations, began almost as soon as the first edition appeared. Though Erasmus certainly made mistakes as a textual critic, in the history of scholarship he is a towering figure, intuiting philological principles that in some cases would not be formulated explicitly until 150 years after his death. But conservative theologians at Leuven and elsewhere, mostly ignorant of Greek, were not willing to abandon the interpretation of Scripture to upstart “grammarians,” nor did the atmosphere at Leuven improve when the second edition of Erasmus’s New Testament (1519) replaced the Vulgate with his own Latin translation.