Erasmus, Desiderius ca. 1466–1536 Dutch Scholar

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Erasmus, Desiderius
ca. 1466–1536 Dutch scholar

The Dutch humanist* Desiderius Erasmus was one of the most celebrated scholars of his time. He corresponded with kings, popes, princes, and fellow scholars, and his works were translated into many languages. Toward the end of his career, Erasmus drew criticism from both Roman Catholics and Protestants for his religious ideas. Still, his works remained popular, continuing to influence Christian thought, classical* learning, and education for centuries after his death.

Life and Career. The illegitimate* son of a priest, Erasmus was born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. He attended a school run by monks and eventually entered the Augustinian order. Later, after complaining that he had been pressured into joining the order, he received permission from the pope to live outside the monastery.

In 1492 Erasmus became a priest. Several years later he went to Paris to study theology*. However, he disliked his studies because of his professors' use of Scholasticism, a medieval* method of studying religion. He began to focus more of his attention on the study of classical literature. Eventually he left Paris and began working as a tutor while pursuing his own studies. In 1499 he traveled with one of his pupils to England, where he made lifelong friends, including the humanist writer Thomas More. Seven years later Erasmus accompanied some other pupils to Italy, where he received a degree in theology from the University of Turin. However, the theologians who had completed the strict course of studies in Paris looked with scorn on his achievement, believing his degree from Turin had little academic value.

After a second stay in England, Erasmus settled near Brussels (in present-day Belgium), home to one of the courts of Burgundy. Already well known through his publications, Erasmus served as an adviser to the prince who later became Holy Roman Emperor* Charles V. In the 1520s his writings on religion drew him into debates surrounding the Protestant Reformation*. Although he agreed with some of the ideas proposed by Martin Luther and his followers, he strongly disapproved of their efforts to break away from the Catholic Church. However, some people at the court accused him of supporting the Lutherans. To escape this uneasy situation, Erasmus moved to Basel, Switzerland, where he remained until 1529. At that time, the city formally turned Protestant, and Erasmus moved to Freiburg, Germany.

Works and Thought. A scholar of unusually broad learning, Erasmus produced many written works during his career. Writing only in Latin, he created essays, satires*, letters, collections of proverbs, textbooks containing amusing stories, advice to princes, and biblical studies. He also penned books on preaching, morals, religion, and the value of marriage. When his complete works were published in the early 1700s, they filled ten very large volumes.

Some of Erasmus's most influential works were his books on religion. He edited and translated volumes by the church fathers (figures who shaped Christianity in its early centuries) and wrote a biography of one of them, St. Jerome. He also produced works criticizing the church and spelling out his recommendations for reform. Erasmus's most important contribution to religious scholarship was his work on the Bible. He applied to Scripture the same critical method that many Renaissance scholars were using to edit classical manuscripts. His edition of the New Testament (1516) contained both a Greek text (the first available in print) and a Latin one, with notes on the revisions he had made to correct errors found in earlier Latin versions.

In the area of politics, Erasmus promoted the goal of peace and universal fellowship among human beings. In works such as War Is Sweet to the Inexperienced (1515), he urged leaders to look for ways to resolve their differences without the use of military force. Erasmus also applied this principle to conflicts within the church, recommending that rival religious groups hold a council to settle their disagreements.

Erasmus's works on education reflect the views of many Renaissance humanists. In On the Education of Children (1529) he declared that parents had a duty to choose teachers who could provide moral and intellectual leadership for their children. He disapproved of physical punishment and believed in encouraging learners by challenging them, engaging their interest, and rewarding them for good behavior.

Erasmus recognized the value of classical literature, including various pre-Christian texts. He defended such works against those who wanted to keep pagan* ideas out of Christian education, promoting the study of classical works as examples of grammar and style. He also recommended that students learn Greek. During his own youth, books in Greek—and people qualified to teach the language—had been rare, forcing him to teach himself. To make the process easier for future students, he translated a Greek grammar into Latin. He also translated Greek plays and prose writings and produced new editions of ancient Latin works.

Influence. Both Catholics and Protestants attacked Erasmus during the final decade of his life. Catholics criticized his translation of the New Testament, which seemed to challenge the authority of the Bible by introducing changes in the words. In 1531 the professors of theology in Paris condemned Erasmus's religious writings. The Spanish Inquisition* also investigated his works. Eventually some of his works were banned in France, Italy, and Spain.

Meanwhile, Protestants were attacking Erasmus for withdrawing his support for the Lutherans when he realized that their movement would lead to a split within the church. His refusal to take sides in the Reformation debate made him unpopular with extreme groups on both sides. Still, the tradition of Christian humanism that Erasmus established remained alive, especially in England and the Netherlands. Readers of the 1700s admired him for creating a theory of religion based on reason. In the 1900s interest in his works revived again, and new editions of his writings began to appear.

(See alsoCatholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation; Christianity; Classical Scholarship; Humanism; Philosophy; Protestant Reformation; Religious Thought. )

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* illegitimate

refers to a child born outside of marriage

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

* satire

literary or artistic work ridiculing human wickedness and foolishness

* pagan

referring to ancient religions that worshiped many gods, or more generally, to any non-Christian religion

* Spanish Inquisition

court established by the Spanish monarchs that investigated Christians accused of straying from the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly during the period 1480–1530

Champion of the Young

Erasmus spoke up for young people at a time when they received little respect. He claimed that both boys and girls should develop their minds through good educations. He believed that learning should be fun, and he criticized teachers who punished students for their mistakes. Also, in an age in which arranged marriages were common, Erasmus argued that young men and women should be free to marry as they wished. In one story about an arranged marriage, he made fun of a doddering old husband and expressed sympathy for his lively young wife.