Erasmus, who was probably born in 1467, was the second illegitimate son of Roger Gerard, a priest, and Margaret, a physician's daughter. After both parents died, the guardians of the two boys sent them to a school in 'sHertogenbosch conducted by the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay religious movement that fostered monastic vocations. Erasmus would remember this school only for a severe discipline intended, he said, to teach humility by breaking a boy's spirit. Having little other choice because of their illegitimacy,, both brothers entered monasteries. Erasmus chose the Augustinian canons regular at Steyn, near Gouda, where he seems to have remained about seven years (1485-92). After his ordination to the priesthood (April 1492), he was happy to escape the monastery by accepting a post as Latin secretary to the influential Henry of Bergen, bishop of Cambrai.
Erasmus was not suited to a courtier's life, nor did things improve much when the bishop was induced to send him to the University of Paris to study theology (1495). He disliked the quasi-monastic regimen of the Collège de Montaigu, where he lodged initially. To support his classical studies, he began taking in pupils; from this period (1497-1500) date the earliest versions of those aids to elegant Latin, including the Colloquia and the Adagia, that before long would be in use in humanist schools throughout Europe.
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. During a stay at Oxford,he was inspired by John Colet's lectures on St Paul to take up biblical study. This would mean learning Greek. He returned to the Continent with a Latin copy of St. Paul's Epistles and the conviction that ‘ancient theology’ required mastery of Greek.
By 1502 Erasmus had settled in the university town of Louvain (Brabant) 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' vocation was further developed through his discovery at Parc Abbey, near Louvain, of a manuscript of Valla's Adnotationes on the Greek New Testament, which he published in 1505 with a dedication to Colet.
Erasmus sailed again 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 at 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' 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.
De pueris instituendis, written in Italy though not published until 1529, is the clearest statement of Erasmus' enormous faith in the power of education to train to virtue: 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’ 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 planning to invade France. Having returned to the Continent, Erasmus made connections with the printing firm of Johann Froben and travelled to Basel to prepare a new edition of the Adagia (1515). In this he showed a new boldness in commenting on the ills of a Christian society corrupted by militarism. To reform society he looked to education. In particular, the training of preachers should be based on ‘the philosophy of Christ’ rather than on scholastic methods.
Erasmus’s New Testament
Erasmus tried to show the way with his annotated text of the Greek New Testament published by the Froben press in 1516. He provided not only the Greek original but in the 1519 edition a parallel new Latin translation tacitly designed to supersede the Vulgate. This made his translation much more influential than the more scholarly work of Ximemes. He notoriously translated Gospel passages in a way that went counter to the interpretations of the Church: ‘repent’ for ‘do penance’, ‘gracious’ rather than ‘full of grace’ (in the 1519 edition).
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' 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). 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 Louvain, and he also took keen interest in a newly founded Trilingual College, with endowed chairs in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
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 Louvain and elsewhere, mostly ignorant of Greek, were not willing to abandon their interpretation of Scripture and the atmosphere did not improve when the second edition of Erasmus' New Testament (1519) replaced the Vulgate with his own Latin translation.
The Protestant challenge
From the very beginning of the momentous events sparked by Martin Luther's challenge to papal authority, Erasmus' clerical foes blamed him for inspiring Luther, just as some of Luther's admirers in Germany found that he merely proclaimed boldly what Erasmus had been hinting. In fact, Luther's first letter to Erasmus (1516) showed an important disagreement over the interpretation of St. Paul, and in 1518 Erasmus privately instructed his printer, Froben, to stop printing works by Luther, lest the two causes be confused. As he read Luther's writings, at least those prior to The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Erasmus found much to admire, and he could even describe Luther, in a letter to Pope Leo X, as 'a mighty trumpet of Gospel truth'. But in the end Erasmus's belief in the unity of the Church proved fundamental and he and Luther came to quarrel over free will.
In 1529, when Protestant Basel banned Catholic worship altogether, Erasmus and some of his humanist friends moved to the Catholic university town of Freiburg im Breisgau. He refused an invitation to the Diet of Augsburg, where Philipp Melanchthon's Augsburg Confession was to initiate the first meaningful discussions between Lutheran and Catholic theologians. He died in Basel in 1536. His last words were in Dutch: "Lieve God" ("dear God").
Influence and achievement
Erasmus lived to see Europe divided and to know that he was traduced by many on both sides of the divide. His friend Thomas More had been executed the year before. But his ideals lived on and by the nineteenth century his moderation was seen as a virtue. As a Dutchman, a humanist and a reforming Catholic, he helped to build the liberal tradition of European culture.