Erasmus, Desiderius (ca. 1466–1536)

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Erasmus, Desiderius (ca. 14661536)

A scholar, theologian, and linguist of the Netherlands, whose ideas on the Bible and the Catholic Church attempted to reconcile the skepticism of humanists, the rebellion of Protestants, and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Born in Rotterdam, he was the illegitimate son of Roger Gerard, a priest, and the daughter of a physician. He was educated in a religious community known as the Brethren of the Common Life. After the death of his parents during a plague epidemic in 1483 he entered a monastery, but found the strict vows and poverty of a monk's life not to his liking. His ability as a scholar and linguist spread his name in the Low Countries, and he won an appointment as a secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, who sent Erasmus to study at the College de Montague in Paris. Erasmus was ordained as a priest in 1492 but spent the rest of his life writing, publishing, and in intellectual debate with hundreds of scholars, humanists, and princes throughout Europe.

After completing his studies, Erasmus traveled to England in 1499 to gain the friendship of scholars such as Sir Thomas More and churchmen such as the archbishop of Canterbury. His book Adages, published in 1500, collected classical writings and proverbs, while he also published translations from ancient Greek sources including the plays of Euripides and the short biographies of Plutarch. Under the influence of English humanists, Erasmus wrote Handbook of the Militant Christian in 1503, calling for Christian believers to return to the simple piety of the apostles and followers of Christ.

As a young man Erasmus also made several voyages to Italy, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Turin and where he worked as an editor for a Venetian printing house. Dismayed by the wars Pope Julius II was carrying out to conquer cities for the Papacy in northern Italy, Erasmus also wrote (anonymously) Julius Exclusus, in which the pope, greedy for treasure and worldly renown, is barred from the gates of heaven.

Erasmus returned to England in 1509, taking a position as a lecturer in divinity at the University of Cambridge. Hoping for an invitation to the court of King Henry VIII, who had just come to power, he was to be disappointed in his ambition and soon returned to the continent. In 1511 Erasmus published In Praise of Folly, a book that soon had an audience throughout Europe. In this work, which he dedicated to Sir Thomas More, Erasmus uses satire to hold the Catholic Church at fault for its worldliness and corruption, and offered his support to the gathering movement for reform of the church and a return to its roots. Instead of a hierarchy of bishops, cardinals, popes, and other privileged officials, Erasmus saw true Christianity as lying in the simple faith of the believer.

His fame as a writer assured, Erasmus was appointed as an adviser for Prince Charles, heir to the Holy Roman Empire, and for the prince wrote The Education of a Christian Prince in 1516, advising Charles that the best way to rule was to win the trust and respect of his subjects. Erasmus counseled the prince to find peaceful solutions to the religious and civil conflicts then brewing in Europe, and repeated these opinions in two works, War Is Sweet to Inexperienced Men and The Complaint of Peace.

In his study of the Bible and of the classical authors, Erasmus strove to reconcile the humanist movement with the traditional doctrines of the church. He translated long sections of the Bible as well as the writings of the early church fathers, including Saint Augustine, Origen, and Saint Jerome. In his translations he attempted to convey the original meaning of the texts, but in doing so offended church leaders who held his scholarship to be blasphemous and heretical. Undeterred, he brought out an edition of the New Testament, in which Greek text and Latin translation was printed side by side. First published in 1516, this Novum Instrumentum contained annotations, or explanations of the original meaning of the text. He changed and expanded his work in five more editions, one of which would later be used as the basis for the King James version of the Bible. In his preface to the work, Erasmus urged Pope Leo X to undertake a sweeping reform of the church and to disseminate the Bible among the common people. His work, however, ran counter to the idea that a single, fundamental meaning must be given to the words of the Bible, which as the original word of God could not be amended or annotated by scholars or other ordinary believers. In effect, Erasmus was proposing an alternative view of Christianity, and the wide popularity of his works and translations reflected the flowering of new doctrines brought about by the Protestant Reformation.

Erasmus favored reform of the church, however, not the establishment of an entirely new one, and accepted the final authority of the pope on matters of doctrine. He fled the city of Basel after it joined the ranks of the Protestants, and he debated with Martin Luther in his essay On the Freedom of the Will, which countered Luther's ideas on salvation and justification by personal faith. The church, however, saw him as an opponent, and after his death placed his books on its Index, a list of books that were prohibited to its members.

See Also: humanism; Luther, Martin; More, Sir Thomas; Reformation, Protestant