Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536

Erasmus was the most important leader of European Humanism. His ideas were key in both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Reformation.

Born in 1466 in Rotterdam Erasmus was the illegitimate son of priest. He was educated at Deventer, the foremost Humanist centre for education in Europe, in the Netherlands. He was pushed into becoming a monk and became an Augustinian at Steyn. He hated it though and left in 1494 to become a bishop's secretary.

Then moved to Paris as a candidate for Doctor of Theology at the university there. Visited England in 1499:

Back to Paris to study Greek. Returns briefly to England in 1505. Journeys to Italy, witnessed the return of Pope Julius II from a triumphant victory. Julius was a keen warrior and was also very extravagant. Erasmus was deeply shocked:
Was Pope Julius the successor of Jesus Christ or of Julius Caesar?
On yet another journey to Rome the sight of Bull fights in St Peter's Square gave Erasmus more cause for worry.


  • Oration of Peace and Discord - A plea for peace.
    Nothing is more agreeable than peace, nothing is more frightful than war.The fields are rich with harvests, the meadows with cattle, the sea with fish. Why does this not suffice us? Tears start as one views the calamities of our time. Harvests are burned, women are abused, virgins violated, wives abducted, no one is safe from this tiger of violence.
  • Adages - published in 1500. Quotations from classical Roman authors to illustrate advantages of Latin style and thought.
    "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."
    "Doctoring is better first than last"
    "From head to heel"
    "Wings on one's feet"
    "Fortune favours the brave"
  • Enchiridion Militis Christiani - Published in 1503. Handbook of a Christian Soldier. Arguing for a simplified Christian life, practical good deeds rather than rituals. This became the mouthpiece of Catholic reform. Emphasised the need for imitation of Christ in the gentler virtues.
    Monasticism is not holiness but a kind of life that can be useful or useless depending on a person's temperament or disposition. I neither recommend it nor do I condemn it. You accuse and utter your sins to a priest, which is a man: take heed how you accuse and utter them before God, for to accuse them before him is to hate them inwardly. You believe by chance all your sins and offences will be washed away at once with a little paper or parchment sealed with wax, with a little money of images of wax offered, with going on a little pilgrimage. You are utterly deceived and clean out of the way!
  • Encomium Moriae - In Praise of Folly. Published in 1509. Very popular satire mocking the church.
    The happiness of these people is most nearly approached by those who are popularly called "Religious" or "Monks". Both names are false, since most of the are a long way removed from religion, and wherever you go these so-called solitaries are the people you're likely to meet. I don't believe any life would be more wretched than theirs if I didn't come to their aid in many ways. The whole tribe is so universally loathed that even a chance of meetings is thought to be ill-omened - and yet they are gloriously self-satisfied. In the first place, they believe it's the highest form of piety to be so uneducated that they can't even read. Then when they bray like donkeys in church repeating by rote the psalms they haven't even understood, they imagine they are charming the ears of the heavenly audience with infinite delight. Many of them too make a good living out of their squalor and beggary, bellowing for bread from door to door, and indeed making a nuisance of themselves in every inn, carriage of board, to the great loss of all the other beggars. This is the way in which these smooth individuals, in all their filth and ignorance, their boorish and shameless behaviour, claim to bring back the apostles into our midst.
  • Julius Exclusus - Published in 1513. A satire after the death of Pope Julius II in which the Pope fails to enter Heaven. In this quote the Pope explains why he should enter Heaven.
    The invincible Julius ought not to answer a beggarly fisherman. However, you shall know who and what I am. I have done more for the church and Christ than any Pope before me. I have set all the princes of Europe by the ears. I have torn up treaties, kept great armies in the field, I have covered Rome with palaces. And I have done it all myself, too. I owe nothing to my birth, for I don't know who my father was; nothing to learning , for I have none; nothing to youth, for I was old when I began; nothing to popularity, for I was hated all round. Spite of fortune, spite of Gods and men I achieved all that I have told you in a few years, and I left work enough cut out for my successors to last ten years longer. This is the modest truth, and my friends at Rome call me more a God than a man.
  • Treatise on Prayer - Published 1519
    To whom shall we pray? To God. But how shall a miserable little creature like man come before Him in whose presence angels tremble? Shall I lift myself up and talk with Him who inhabits eternity? Yet the publican cried unto him and was heard?.
    How shall we pray? Nor interminably. If you are going through a round of prayers, you might as well be rolling rocks like Sisyphus. Don't bellow like a soldier, or croon like a singer?.
    Prayers should not be tedious. Pray that rulers should be given wisdom not victory in war. Pray not for one king, but for all. Pray for the Turks, that they be given mercy not destruction.
  • The Colloquies - Published in 1519. Treatise on philosophy and education.
    The wicked Life of Soldiers is here reprehended, and shewn to be very miserable: That War is Confusion, and a Sink of all manner of Vices, in as much as in it there is no Distinction made betwixt Things sacred and profane. The hope of Plunder allures many to become Soldiers. The Impieties of a Military Life are here laid open, by this Confession of a Soldier, that Youth may be put out of Conceit of going into the Army.
  • Treatise on Marriage - Published in 1521.
    Marriage is the most appropriate of all unions because it is based on nature, law and religion. It should be for life - any marriage which is capable of being dissolved, never was marriage at all?.
    Because marriage is for life, it should not be entered into lightly, but soberly. Marriage should be with the consent of parents, but they should not force the unwilling. Never let your daughter marry a leper or a syphilitic, nor give her to a dissolute knight, better a solid farmer.
  • Discourse on Free Will - Published in 1524.
    By freedom of the will I understand the power whereby a man can apply himself to or turn away from that which leads unto eternal salvation. It is within out power to turn towards or away from grace just as it is our pleasure to open or close our eyes against the light; for it is incompatible with the infinite love of our God that a man's striving with all his might for grace should be frustrated. I like the sentiments of those who attribute a little to the freedom of the will, the most, however, to grace.
  • Translations of the Bible - Eramus produced numerous translations of the Bible using both original Greek and Hebrew versions. A preface from one of his translations follows.
    I wish that all women might read the gospel, and the Epistles of Paul. I wish that they might be translated into all tongues of all people, so that no only the Scots and the Irish, but also the Turk and the Saracen might read and understand. I wish the countryman might sing them at his plough, the weaver chant them at his loom, the traveller beguile with them the weariness of his journey. Only a very few can be learned but all can be Christian, all can be devout, and - I shall boldly add - all can be theologians.


John Aubrey in his Brief Lives fleshes out the man behind the scholar:
His name was Gerard Gerard, which he translated into Desiderius Erasmus. Of Roterdam: he loved not Fish, though borne in a Fish-towne.

He was begot (as they say) behind dores. His father tooke great care to send him to an excellent Schoole, which was at Dusseldorf, in Cleveland. He was a tender Chitt, and his mother would not entruste him at board, but tooke a house there, and made him cordialls.


He studied sometime in Queens Colledge in Cambridge: his chamber was over the watter. he mentions his being there in one of his Epistles, and blames the Beere1 there.


...but I see that the Sun and Aries being in the second house, he was not borne to be a rich man.

John Dreydon, Esq, Poet Laureat, tells me that there was a great friendship between his great-grandfather's father and Erasmus Roterodamus, and Erasmus was godfather to one of his sonnes, and the Christian name of Erasmus hath been kept in the family ever since. The Poet's second sonne is Erasmus.

They were wont to say the Erasmus was Interdependent between Heaven and Hell, till, about the year 1655, the Conclave at Rome damned him for a Heretique, after he had been dead 120 yeares.

The deepest divinity is where a man would least expect it: viz. in his Colloquies in a Dialogue between a Butcher and a Fishmonger.

Julius Scaliger contested with Erasmus, but gott nothing by it, for, as Fuller2 sayth, he was like a Badger, that never bitt but he made his teeth meet.

He was the Προδρομος3 of our knowledge, and the man that made the rough and untrodden wayes smooth and passable.

1. 'Blames' here = 'criticizes; says is ill-kept': it doesn't of course mean he blamed the beer for his being in Cambridge; the pubs weren't that good.
2. I presume this is Thomas Fuller (1608-1661), chaplain to Charles II, and historian and anecdotalist.
3. Prodromos or forerunner.

Erasmus was one of the most brilliant scholars of any age, and enjoyed fine living. Both these would have been repressed by his being a priest, had he been lesser than Erasmus. But his brilliance shone through, he became a success at court and in the world of letters, and moved around Europe freely.

The nineteenth century historian J.A. Froude (from whom all the following direct quotations will be taken4) wrote that "He taught himself Greek when Greek was the language which, in the opinion of monks, only the devils spoke in the wrong place. His Latin was as polished as Cicero's".

In youth he was poor, his guardians having put him in the convent for his inheritance, and when he went to Paris and began to live a worldly life (letting his hair down, literally), his original support, by the Archbishop of Cambrai, was withdrawn. "Life in Paris was expensive, and Erasmus had for several years to struggle with poverty. We see him, however, for the most part--in his early letters--carrying a bold front to fortune; desponding one moment, and larking the next with a Paris grisette; making friends, enjoying good company, enjoying especially good wine when he could get it; and, above all, satiating his literary hunger at the library of the university."

At the age of about 28 he was discovered by Lords Mountjoy and Grey, and taken to England, which he loved. English character, English hospitality, English manners, not English beer though, as we saw above, and particularly English women with their habit of kissing every time you met5. From this point money flowed in: he got pensions and livings, his writing was successful, and he bestrode the European stage like a colossus.

Froude says, "Everywhere, in his love of pleasure, in his habits of thought, in his sarcastic scepticism, you see the healthy, clever, well-disposed, tolerant, epicurean, intellectual man of the world."

Now I would be misquoting Froude if I didn't add that he later goes on to unfavourably contrast the epicurean Erasmus with the crabbed, ill-educated, intolerant Martin Luther; but I prefer to repeat that description as unqualified praise.

You might think that back then the Christian world was ruled by the Bible: that this was the only book they knew, and they had it dished out to them constantly. Well they didn't: the New Testament was an obscure Latin text as little known to the general public as the lost books of Tacitus, says Froude. The theologians quoted passages in their own works, and that was all that was generally known of it. What Erasmus did was to go to the Greek, publish it (a criminally dangerous, almost heretical act in itself), translate and paraphrase it (into Latin so it could be widely understood), and interpret it.

He was also one of those responsible for restoring and disseminating the correct pronunciation of Latin and Greek. Both had changed a lot over the millennia, and Latin of course had turned into French and Italian and Spanish, and people pronounced it like their own language. Greek was known from native Greek-speakers, especially after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Erasmus studied the ancient authorities and determined, more or less correctly, what the ancient tongues sounded like. This reform was adopted by English universities first, then spread. (English subsequently changed a lot in the Great Vowel Shift, so another reform was needed in the late nineteenth century to get back to the authentic values.)

He argued directly with Popes, and by letter. He was the centre of a reforming movement. If the real Reformation hadn't been happening at the same time in Germany, under Luther, and with battles and violent controversies, we might have had a slow Erasmian conversion of the mediaeval Church into a modern one, abandoning dogmas, allowing a broad and tolerant Church with no schisms or heresies, where good works and purity of heart were the requirements for entering Heaven, not scholastic formulae and venial indulgences. He argued this forcibly before the great prelates and lords of Europe.

Pity he never got the hang of the beer.

4. Times of Erasmus and Luther, lectures delivered at Newcastle in 1867.
5. "English ladies," he said, "are divinely pretty, and too good-natured. They have an excellent custom among them, that wherever you go the girls kiss you. They kiss you when you come, they kiss you when you go, they kiss you at intervening opportunities, and their lips are soft, warm, and delicious."

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