Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, and theologian
For other uses, see Erasmus (disambiguation).
Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (; 28 October 1466 – 12 July 1536), known as Erasmus or Erasmus of Rotterdam,[note 1] was a Dutch/Netherlandish Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian.
Erasmus was a classical scholar and wrote in a pure Latin style. Among humanists he enjoyed the sobriquet “Prince of the Humanists”, and has been called “the crowning glory of the Christian humanists”. Using humanist techniques for working on texts, he prepared important new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament, which raised questions that would be influential in the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. He also wrote On Free Will, 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 against the backdrop of the growing European religious Reformation, but while he was critical of the abuses within the Catholic Church and called for reform, he kept his distance from Luther and Melanchthon and continued to recognise the authority of the pope, emphasizing a middle way with a deep respect for traditional faith, piety and grace, rejecting Luther’s emphasis on faith alone. Erasmus remained a member of the Roman Catholic Church all his life, remaining committed to reforming the Church and its clerics’ abuses from within. He also held to the Catholic doctrine of free will, which some Reformers rejected in favor of the doctrine of predestination. His middle road (“Via Media“) approach disappointed and even angered scholars in both camps.
Erasmus died suddenly in Basel in 1536 while preparing to return to Brabant, and was buried in Basel Minster, the former cathedral of the city. A bronze statue of him was erected in his city of birth in 1622, replacing an earlier work in stone.
Bust by Hildo Krop (1950) at Gouda, where Erasmus spent his youth
Desiderius Erasmus is reported to have been born in Rotterdam on 28 October in the late 1460s. He was named after Saint Erasmus of Formiae, whom Erasmus’s father Gerard personally favored. A 17th-century legend has it that Erasmus was first named Geert Geerts (also Gerhard Gerhards or Gerrit Gerritsz), but this is unfounded. He was born in Rotterdam, but there are insufficient records to confirm that . A well-known wooden picture indicates: Goudæ conceptus, Roterodami natus (Latin: conceived in Gouda, born in Rotterdam). According to an article by historian Renier Snooy (1478–1537), Erasmus was born in Gouda.
The exact year of his birth is debated, with most biographers citing the year as 1466. Some evidence confirming 1466 can be found in Erasmus’s own words: of twenty-three statements Erasmus made about his age, all but one of the first fifteen indicate 1466. He was christened “Erasmus” after the saint of that name. 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 were not legally married. His father, Gerard, was a Catholic priest and curate in Gouda.Little is known of his mother other than that her name was Margaretha Rogerius (Latinized form of Dutch surname ‘Rutgers’) and she was the daughter of a physician from Zevenbergen; she may have been Gerard’s housekeeper. Although he was born out of wedlock, Erasmus was cared for by his parents until their early deaths from the plague in 1483; but he felt his origin to be a stain, and threw a smoke-screen around his youth.
Erasmus was given the highest education available to a young man of his day, in a series of monastic or semi-monastic schools. At the age of nine, he and his older brother Peter were sent to one of the best Latin schools in the Netherlands, located at Deventer and owned by the chapter clergy of the Lebuïnuskerk (St. Lebuin’s Church),though some earlier biographies assert it was a school run by the Brethren of the Common Life. During his stay there the curriculum was renewed by the principal of the school, Alexander Hegius. For the first time ever Greek was taught at a lower level than a university in Europe, and this is where he began learning it. He also gleaned there the importance of a personal relationship with God but eschewed the harsh rules and strict methods of the religious brothers and educators. His education there ended when plague struck the city about 1483, and his mother, who had moved there to provide a home for her sons, died of the infection.
Ordination and monastic experience
Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus by Albrecht Dürer, 1526, engraved in Nuremberg, Germany.
In 1492, poverty forced Erasmus into the consecrated life. He took vows as a canon regular at the canonry of Stein, in South Holland, and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood 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 life in Religious Orders were among the chief objects of his attack in his lifelong assault upon Church excesses.
While at Stein, Erasmus fell in love with a fellow canon, Servatius Rogerus,and wrote a series of passionate letters in which he called Rogerus “half my soul”. He wrote, “I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly”. This correspondence contrasts sharply with the generally detached and much more restrained attitude he showed in his later life. Later, while tutoring in Paris, he was suddenly dismissed by the guardian of Thomas Grey. Some have taken this as evidence of an illicit affair. No personal denunciation was made of Erasmus during his lifetime, however, and he took pains in later life to distance these earlier episodes by condemning sodomy in his works, and praising sexual desire in marriage between men and women.
Soon after his priestly ordination, he got his chance to leave the canonry when offered the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen, on account of his great skill in Latin and his reputation as a man of letters. To allow him to accept that post, he was given a temporary dispensation from his religious vows on the grounds of poor health and love of Humanistic studies, though he remained a priest. Pope Leo X later made the dispensation permanent, a considerable privilege at the time.
Education and scholarship
Bronze statue of Erasmus in Rotterdam. It was created by Hendrick de Keyser in 1622, replacing a stone statue of 1557.
In 1495, with Bishop Henry’s consent and a 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 rigors 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 centres of Erasmus’s activity were Paris, Leuven (in the Duchy of Brabant), England, and Basel; yet he never belonged firmly in any one of these places. In 1499 he was invited back to England by William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy, who offered to accompany him on his trip back to England. Erasmus, “ever susceptible to the charms of attractive, well-connected, and rich young men”. His time in England was fruitful in the making of lifelong friendships with the leaders of English thought in the days of King Henry VIII: John Colet, Thomas More, John Fisher, Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn. At the University of Cambridge, he was the Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity and had the option of spending the rest of his life as an English professor. He stayed at Queens’ College, Cambridge from 1510 to 1515. His rooms were in the “I” staircase of Old Court, and he famously hated English ale and English weather. He suffered from poor health and complained that Queens’ could not supply him with enough decent wine (wine was the Renaissance medicine for gallstones, from which Erasmus suffered). Until the theft of the artifact in a 19th-century student prank, Queens’ College used to have a corkscrew that was purported to be “Erasmus’ corkscrew” which was a third of a metre long, though today the college still has what it calls “Erasmus’ chair”. Today Queens’ College has an Erasmus Building and an Erasmus Room. His legacy is marked for someone who complained bitterly about the lack of comforts and luxuries to which he was accustomed. As Queens’ was an unusually humanist-leaning institution in the 16th century, Queens’ College Old Library still houses many first editions of Erasmus’ publications, many of which were acquired during that period by bequest or purchase, including Erasmus’ New Testament translation which is signed by friend and Polish religious reformer Jan Laski. Erasmus’ friend, Chancellor John Fisher, was president of Queens’ College from 1505 to 1508. His friendship with Fisher is the reason he chose to stay at Queens’ while lecturing in Greek at the University.
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:
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. Discovery in 1506 of Lorenzo Valla‘s New Testament Notes encouraged Erasmus to continue the study of the New Testament.
Erasmus preferred to live the life of an independent scholar and made a conscious effort to avoid any actions or formal ties that might inhibit his freedom of intellect and literary expression. Throughout his life, he was offered 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 as Doctor of Divinity at the Turin University, and he spent part of the time as a proofreader at the publishing house of Aldus Manutius in Venice. According to his letters, he was associated with the Venetian natural philosopher, Giulio Camillo, but, apart from this, he had a less active association with Italian scholars than might have been expected.
His residence at Leuven, where he lectured at the University, exposed Erasmus to much criticism from those ascetics, academics and clerics hostile to the principles of literary and religious reform and the loose norms of the Renaissance adherents to which he was devoting his life. In 1517, he supported the foundation at the University, by his friend Hieronymus van Busleyden, of the Collegium Trilingue for the study of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek—after the model of the College of the Three Languages at the University of Alcalá. However, feeling that the lack of sympathy which prevailed at Leuven at that time was actually a form of mental persecution, he sought refuge in Basel, where under the shelter of Swiss hospitality he could express himself freely. Admirers from all quarters of Europe visited him there and he was surrounded by devoted friends, notably developing a lasting association with the great publisher Johann Froben.
Only when he had mastered Latin did he begin to express himself on major contemporary themes in literature and religion. He felt called upon to use his learning in a purification of 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 virtually everyone and everything. Aloof from entangling obligations, Erasmus was the centre of the literary movement of his time, corresponding with more than five hundred men in the worlds of politics and of thought.
Publication of the Greek New Testament
The first New Testament printed in Greek was not by Erasmus but by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, as 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. The delay allowed Erasmus’ Greek New Testament to be the first published, in 1516.
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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 text in which the Greek and the Latin versions were consistently comparable to be the essential 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 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.
Acknowledgement page engraved and published by Johannes Froben, 1516
Erasmus said it was “rushed into print rather than edited”, resulting in a number of transcription errors. After comparing what writings he could find, Erasmus wrote corrections between the lines of the manuscripts he was using (among which was Minuscule 2) and sent them as proofs to Froben. His hurried effort 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.” He also ignored much older and better manuscripts that were at his disposal.
In the second (1519) edition, the more familiar term Testamentum was used instead of Instrumentum. This edition was used by Martin Luther in his German translation of the Bible, written for people who could not understand Latin. Together, the first and second editions sold 3,300 copies. By comparison, only 600 copies of the Complutensian Polyglot were ever printed. The first and second 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 third 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 (2 June 1927), and it is rarely included in modern scholarly translations.
The third 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 fourth edition in 1527 containing parallel columns of Greek, Latin Vulgate and Erasmus’s Latin texts. 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 fifth (and final) edition which dropped the Latin Vulgate column but was otherwise similar to the fourth edition. Later versions of the Greek New Testament by others, but based on 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’ character. The issues between growing religious movements, which would later become known as Protestantism, and the Catholic 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 the Church itself or its doctrines, 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.
Erasmus did not build a large body of supporters with his letters. He chose to write in Greek and Latin, the languages of scholars. His critiques reached an elite but small audience.
Disagreement with Luther
“Free will does not exist”, according to Luther in his letter De Servo Arbitrio to Erasmus translated into German by Justus Jonas (1526) in that sin makes human beings completely incapable of bringing themselves to God. Noting Luther’s criticism of the Catholic Church, Erasmus described him as “a mighty trumpet of gospel truth” while agreeing, “It is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed.” He had great respect for Luther, and Luther 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 became angered that Erasmus was avoiding the responsibility due either to cowardice or a lack of purpose. However, any hesitancy on the part of Erasmus stemmed, not from lack of courage or conviction, but rather from a concern over the mounting disorder and violence of the reform movement. To Philip Melanchthon in 1524 he wrote:
Again, in 1529, he writes “An epistle against those who falsely boast they are Evangelicals” to Vulturius Neocomus (Gerardus Geldenhouwer). Here Erasmus complains of the doctrines and morals of the Reformers:
Apart from these perceived moral failings of the Reformers, Erasmus also dreaded any change in doctrine, citing the long history of the Church as a bulwark against innovation. In book I of his Hyperaspistes he puts the matter bluntly to Luther:
Continuing his chastisement of Luther—and undoubtedly put off by the notion of there being “no pure interpretation of Scripture anywhere but in Wittenberg”– Erasmus touches upon another important point of the controversy:
Though he sought to remain firmly neutral in doctrinal disputes, 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:
In his catechism (entitled Explanation of the Apostles’ Creed) (1533), Erasmus took a 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.He called “blasphemers” anyone who questioned the perpetual virginity of Mary. However, he supported lay access to the Bible.
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.”
Erasmus was accused by the monks against the Reformation, that he had:
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 free will, a crucial question. 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 according to Luther’s interpretation. For Erasmus the essential point is that humans have the freedom of choice. The conclusions Erasmus reached drew upon a large array of notable authorities, including, from the Patristic period, Origen, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, in addition to many leading Scholastic authors, such as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. The content of Erasmus’ works also engaged with later thought on the state of the question, including the perspectives of the via moderna school and of Lorenzo Valla, whose ideas he rejected.
As the popular response to Luther gathered momentum, the social disorders, which Erasmus dreaded and Luther disassociated himself from, began to appear, including the German 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 Catholics dubbed Protestantism).
When the city of Basel definitely adopted the Reformation in 1529, Erasmus gave up his residence there and settled in the imperial town of Freiburg im Breisgau.
Erasmus by Holbein
Certain works of Erasmus laid a foundation for religious toleration and Ecumenism. For example, in De libero arbitrio, opposing certain views of Martin Luther, Erasmus noted that religious disputants should be temperate in their language, “because in this way the truth, which is often lost amidst too much wrangling may be more surely perceived.” Gary Remer writes, “Like Cicero, Erasmus concludes that truth is furthered by a more harmonious relationship between interlocutors.” Although Erasmus did not oppose the punishment of heretics, in individual cases he generally argued for moderation and against the death penalty. He wrote, “It is better to cure a sick man than to kill him.”
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 transubstantiation. The 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.
When his strength began to fail, he decided to accept an invitation by Queen Mary of Hungary, Regent of the Netherlands, to move from Freiburg to Brabant. However, during preparations for the move in 1536, he suddenly died from an attack of dysentery during a visit to Basel. He had remained loyal to the papal authorities in Rome, but he did not receive the last rites of the Catholic Church; and whether he asked for a priest or not is nowhere mentioned in the reports of his death. This is consistent with his view that outward signs were not important; what mattered was the believer’s direct relationship with God, which he noted “as the [Catholic] church believes”. He was buried with great ceremony in Basel Minster (the former cathedral) there.
His last words, as recorded by his friend Beatus Rhenanus, were apparently “Dear God” (Dutch: Lieve God). A bronze statue of him was erected in the city of his birth in 1622, replacing an earlier work in stone.
Erasmus wrote both on ecclesiastic subjects and those of general human interest. By the 1530s, the writings of Erasmus accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales in Europe. He is credited with coining the adage, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” With the collaboration of Publio Fausto Andrelini, he formed a Paremiography (collection) of Latin proverbs and adages, commonly titled Adagia. Erasmus is also generally credited with originating the phrase “Pandora’s box“, arising through an error in his translation of Hesiod‘s Pandora 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). (A more literal translation of enchiridion – ‘dagger’ – has been likened to “the spiritual equivalent of the modern Swiss Army knife.”) 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, 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 people are called to obey and that Christ is the example they are called to imitate.
According to Ernest Barker, “Besides his work on the New Testament, Erasmus laboured also, and even more arduously, on the early Fathers…Among the Latin Fathers he edited the works of St Jerome, St Hilary, and St Augustine; among the Greeks he worked on Irenaeus, Origen and Chrysostom.”
Erasmus also wrote of the legendary Frisian freedom fighter and rebel Pier Gerlofs Donia (Greate Pier), though more often in criticism than in praise of his exploits. Erasmus saw him as a dim, brutal man who preferred physical strength to wisdom.
Marginal drawing of Folly by Hans Holbein in the first edition of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, 1515
One of Erasmus’s best-known works, inspired by De triumpho stultitiae (written by Italian humanist Faustino Perisauli), is The Praise of Folly, published under the double title Moriae encomium (Greek, Latinised) and Laus stultitiae (Latin). A satirical attack on superstitions and other traditions of European society in general and the western Church in particular, it was written in 1509, published in 1511, and dedicated to Sir Thomas More, whose name the title puns.
The Institutio principis Christiani (Education of a Christian Prince) (Basel, 1516) was written as advice to the young king Charles of Spain (later Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor). Erasmus applies the general principles of honor and sincerity to the special functions of the Prince, whom he represents throughout as the servant of the people. Education was published in 1516, three years after 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 preferred for the prince to be loved, and strongly suggested 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 declared that Erasmus, if he had a spark of honesty, would do the same. In his reply in 1523, Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni, 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 Ciceronianus came out in 1528, attacking the style of Latin that was based exclusively and fanatically on Cicero’s writings. Etienne Dolet wrote a riposte titled Erasmianus in 1535.
Erasmus’s last major work, published the year of his death, 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. Johann Froben published it first within a revised edition of the Adagia in 1515, then as a stand-alone work in 1517. This essay has been likened to John Colet’s Convocation Sermon, though the styles differ.
Sileni is the plural (Latin) form of Silenus, a creature often related to the Roman wine god Bacchus and represented in pictorial art as inebriated, merry revellers, variously mounted on donkeys, singing, dancing, playing flutes etc. Alcibiades was a Greek politician in the 5th century BCE and a general in the Peloponnesian War; he figures here more as a character written into some of Plato’s dialogues—a young, debauched playboy whom Socrates tries to convince to seek truth instead of pleasure, wisdom instead of pomp and splendor.
The term Sileni—especially when juxtaposed with the character of Alcibiades—can therefore be understood as an evocation of the notion that something on the inside is more expressive of a person’s character than what one sees on the outside. For instance, something or someone ugly on the outside can be beautiful on the inside, which is one of the main points of Plato’s dialogues featuring Alcibiades and the Symposion, in which Alcibiades also appears.
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, and that the Church constitutes all Christian people —that despite contemporary references to clergy as the whole of the Church, they are merely its servants. He criticizes those that spend the Church’s riches at the people’s expense. The true point of the Church is to help people lead Christian lives. Priests are supposed to be pure, yet 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.
Cast of a skull previously presumed to have been that of Erasmus. Part of the Rotterdam library Erasmus collection
The popularity of his books is reflected in the number of editions and translations that have appeared since the sixteenth century. Ten columns of the catalogue of the British Library are taken up with the 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.
In his native Rotterdam, the University and Gymnasium Erasmianum have been named in his honor. In 2003, a poll showing that most Rotterdammers believed Erasmus to be the designer of the local “Erasmus Bridge” instigated the founding of the Erasmus House (Rotterdam), and the Erasmus House (Jakarta) dedicated to celebrating Erasmus’s legacy. Three moments in Erasmus’s life are celebrated annually. On 1 April, the city celebrates the publication of his best-known book The Praise of Folly. On 11 July, the Night of Erasmus celebrates the lasting influence of his work. His birthday is celebrated on 28 October.
Erasmus’s reputation and the interpretations of his work have varied over time. Following his death, there was a long period of time when his countrymen 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 Pope Paul IV, and some of his works continued to be banned or viewed with caution in the later Index of Pope Pius IV.
According to Franz Anton Knittel, Erasmus in his Novum Instrumentum omne did not incorporate the Comma from the Codex Montfortianus, because of grammar differences, but used Complutensian Polyglotta. According to him the Comma was known to Tertullian.
Protestant views of Erasmus fluctuated depending on region and period, with continual support in his native Netherlands and in cities of the Upper Rhine area. However, following his death and in the late sixteenth century, many Reformation supporters saw Erasmus’s critiques of Luther and lifelong support for the universal Catholic Church as damning, and second-generation Protestants were less vocal in their debts to the great humanist. Nevertheless, his reception is demonstrable among Swiss Protestants in the sixteenth-century: he had an indelible influence on the biblical commentaries of, for example, Konrad Pellikan, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Calvin, all of whom used both his annotations on the New Testament and his paraphrases of same in their own New Testament commentaries.
By the coming of the Age of Enlightenment, however, Erasmus increasingly again became 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.” Thus, the universalist ideals of Erasmus are sometimes claimed to be important for fixing global governance.
Several schools, faculties and universities in the Netherlands and Belgium are named after him, as is Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, New York, USA. The European Union’s Erasmus Programme scholarships enable students to spend up to a year of their university courses in a university in another European country.
Holbein’s studies of Erasmus’s hands, in silverpoint and chalks, ca. 1523. (Louvre)
- Hans Holbein 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 favourably of Holbein as an artist and person, but later criticized Holbein whom he had accused of sponging off 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 unfavourable 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.
- In 1622, Hendrick de Keyser cast a statue of Erasmus in bronze replacing an earlier stone version from 1557. This was set up in the public square in Rotterdam, and today may be found outside the church of St Lawrence.