Desiderius Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus, the Beloved Prince of the Humanists

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) was a classical scholar of the Dutch Renaissance. This article is a brief biography of the man.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Feb 26, 2018
Desiderius Erasmus, one of the greatest Humanist scholars of the Renaissance, was born in 1466 in Holland. He was the illegitimate younger son of a Dutchman called Roger Gerhard and his lover Margaret Brandt. Gerhard and Margaret never married, but had two sons together. Their marital union was opposed by Gerhard's parents who wished him to become a priest and lead a celibate life. They sent him away to Rome to study and tricked him into believing that Margaret was dead while he was there. In despair, Gerhard entered the church and took the required vows of celibacy. He later discovered their lie, but chose to stay on with the church.

Gerhard's younger son was called Gerhard Gerhardson. Gerhard means 'beloved', and playing upon that he later took on the name 'Desiderius Erasmus', which mean 'beloved' in Latin and Greek respectively.

Education

The older Gerhard, while not taking an active role in raising his sons, ensured that they received an excellent education. After an early schooling in Gouda and Deventer, where he picked up the rudiments of Latin, Greek, Logic, and Physics, and became acquainted with a fellow student called Adrian―later to be Pope Adrian VI. Erasmus was sent to sent to Fratres Collationarii to undergo training to be a Monk. He was eighteen and this was not his own career choice. His parents had both died by this time―in a plague epidemic in 1483―and his guardians, wishing to support him as little as possible, had forced him to accept the idea of joining the church.

It was a brutal regime―the young boys were severely beaten to 'break' them to fit into the monastical life―and the independent-minded Erasmus did not thrive. Somehow, he became a monk in the house of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, and to cope with his intense loathing for the monkish lifestyle, he spent as much time as was possible studying Latin in the monastery library. It was his Latin scholarship that finally helped him escape . The Bishop of Cambrai wanted a Latin secretary and Erasmus fit the bill admirably. He left the Monastery, never to return.

After working for a year with the Bishop, Erasmus decided to continue his education and so went to Paris. He eventually took a Bachelor's Degree in Divinity from the University of Paris, but his time there left him with no fond memories either. He wrote "The theologians or theologasters of Paris have the most rotten brains, the most barbarous tongues, the most stupid intellects, the most barren learning, the coarsest manners and the blackest hearts."

The unsanitary environment of the University affected his already frail health adversely. He struggled with illness for a couple of years afterwards. On his better days, he studied Greek and taught a few pupils for a living. This is how he met William Blount―later to be Lord Mountjoy. Blount studied under him and was taken by his sharp intellect and wit.

Travel and Writing Life

On Blount's invitation, Erasmus visited England and for the first time in his life found himself in a congenial atmosphere. He toured Oxford and London and established lasting friendships with the leading English intellectuals like John Colet, Thomas More, and Warham; the latter afterwards settled a pension of 20 pounds upon Erasmus. He also met the young Prince Henry―later to be King Henry VIII―and made a very favorable impression on him.

Erasmus thoroughly enjoyed his stay in the English court. He learned to ride well, and polished his social and diplomatic skills especially with the ladies. He was never a bookish, strait-laced scholar. After returning to Europe in 1500, Erasmus published 'Adagia'. This collection of proverbs and witty commentaries was an immediate success and made him renowned throughout Europe. 'Adagia' was followed by 'The Christian Soldier's Manual' in 1502, which was also a success. He traveled again in 1505 and 1506, going to Cambridge first to teach Greek, and then to Italy where he earned a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Turin University. He also revised the 'Adagia' and had it republished at the famous Aldine Press in Venice. He returned to England in 1509 upon the coronation of King Henry VIII and stayed with Thomas More at Bucklersbury. It was here that he wrote the brilliant satire 'Moriæ Enconium' (Praise of Folly), which targeted all the corrupt and foolish 'men of wisdom' of the period and which eventually went through 27 editions in his lifetime.

In 1511, he was back teaching Greek at Cambridge and had begun work on a new version of the Greek New Testament. This was published in Switzerland where he went to stay in Basel in 1514, and was followed by the publication of 'Paraphrases on the New Testament'. Part of this work was dedicated to Emperor Charles V and read "May your Majesty always remember that no war, however just the causes for which it is undertaken, can be carried on with such moderation that it shall not bring in its train a whole host of villanies and of misfortunes, and that the evils of war fall, for the most part, upon the innocent."

With the publication of these books, Erasmus's fame grew further and he corresponded with all the European intellectuals of the day. He wrote "I receive daily letters from remote parts, from Kings, princes, prelates and men of learning, and even from persons of whose existence I was ignorant."

Controversies

Becoming famous had its drawbacks. He found himself forced to comment upon the latest social controversies of the day. It was the time of the Inquisition and an argument arose in Cologne between Pfefferkorn, a fanatic converted Jew, and Reuchlin, a noted Hebrew scholar, regarding literary freedom. Pfefferkorn, backed by the Inquisitors, was of the opinion that amongst all the Hebrew books, only the Old Testament had any value and so all the rest ought be destroyed. Reuchlin vehemently protested this sacrilege, and was supported by Erasmus. The controversy lasted for a very long time and was almost immediately followed by a new one.

Martin Luther had made his appearance on the European stage and was determined to reform everyone and everything in sight. Erasmus, of a liberal and humanist bent, was torn between supporting Luther's ideas and opposing his violent methods. In the end, Erasmus refused to take sides and stayed independent. For a while, the two men swiped at each other through vitriolic pamphlets.

Final Years

In 1521, Erasmus and his friend Johann Froben began a publishing business together. Erasmus was the general editor and responsible for writing most of the work they published, and Johann Froben took care of the printing side. They quickly established a good reputation and the business was a success. It helped that he soon wrote another best-selling social satire 'Colloquies'.

After Froben's death, Erasmus went to live in Freiburg for a while, but returned soon to the peaceful sanctuary of Basel. His last years were dogged by more controversies regarding religion and beliefs. He died in Basel on 12 June, 1536.
monastery library