Article abstract: Of the intellectuals who transmitted and adapted the Renaissance spirit to northern Europe, Erasmus was the greatest. Taken together, his writings reflect a rare combination of practical Christian piety, biblical and patristic scholarship, and broad humanistic learning.
Erasmus was born in Rotterdam on October 28 in the late 1460’s (the exact year is disputed) to Margaret, a physician’s daughter, and a priest probably named Gerard, for whom she served as housekeeper. As one of two illegitimate sons born to this couple, the sensitive Erasmus (he took the additional name Desiderius later in life) would endure shame and legal problems, but his parents lived together for many years and appear to have been devoted parents. Erasmus’ childhood coincided with the ongoing war between the Duchy of Burgundy, which controlled Holland, and France. He grew to despise the Burgundian knights, whose cruelty belied the chivalric ideal expressed by Charles the Bold. He also developed an aversion to the provinciality and social rigidity of his homeland.
Around 1478, Erasmus’ mother enrolled the two boys at a school in Deventer, about seventy-five miles inland, conducted by the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay society dedicated to the imitation of primitive Christianity. Although Erasmus later expressed contempt for the Brethren’s teaching methods, both their piety and a humanistic strain which entered the school at this time helped shape the young student. His schooling at Deventer ended in 1483 or 1484, when the plague claimed the lives of both his parents. Three guardians appointed by his father sent Erasmus to another more conservative and even less congenial of the Brethren’s schools for three additional years.
He entered the Augustinian priory at Steyn about 1487. There, the critical young man learned to dislike the ascetic routine and prevailing mysticism, but he enlarged his grasp of classical literature and wrote the first two of his many books, a conventional treatise on monastic life and a book of Latin verse. His years at Steyn climaxed with his ordination as priest on April 25, 1492.
About a year after his ordination, Erasmus accepted a post as Latin secretary to the ambitious Henri, Bishop of Cambray. While in his service, Erasmus wrote, in the form of a Platonic dialogue, an attack on Scholasticism, the dominant philosophy of the Church, although the book remained unpublished for nearly thirty years. In 1495, Bishop Henri assisted Erasmus in gaining entrance to the University of Paris, a hotbed of Scholasticism, presumably to study for his doctorate in theology. At the College of Montaigu in Paris, he made Humanist friends, including an elderly man named Robert Gaguin, who had been a pupil of the noted Florentine Platonist Marsilio Ficino, and who now encouraged Erasmus to study the Neoplatonists. Constantly seeking the independence that would enable him to spend his life studying in reasonable comfort, he accepted in 1499 the patronage of the Englishman William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, and thus visited England for the first time. There he established friendships with leading scholars such as William Grocyn, Thomas Linacre, John Colet, and—preeminently—Sir Thomas More.
Already the wandering pattern of the man who later called himself a citizen of the world was being established. He returned to France the next year and began a routine of scholarly activity that included the study of Greek, the compilation of a book of proverbial wisdom, Adagia (1500; Proverbs or Adages, 1622), and a manual of Christianity written for the laity from the point of view of a monk who, at this point, was living in the manner of a principled Christian layman. Enchiridion Militis Christiani (1503; The Manual of the Christian Knight, 1533) became the best-known of his works in this genre. His study of Lorenzo Valla’s exegesis of the New Testament, a work which he edited and published in 1506, quickened his determination to master the original Greek. After another sojourn in England with his Humanist friends there, he accepted a tutoring appointment which took him to Italy.
His work took him on a tour which included Turin, at whose university he received a doctorate in divinity in 1506, and Florence, Bologna, and Venice, where he met the distinguished printer Aldus Manutius, with whom he worked to produce a handsome revision of Proverbs or Adages. In Rome, he witnessed the growing corruption of the papal court, after which Mountjoy persuaded him to return to England. It has been argued that had the now influential Erasmus remained in Rome during the next crucial decade, he might have furthered the cause of reform, prevented the excommunication of Martin Luther, with whom he corresponded, and thus changed the course of religious history.
Upon his arrival in London, while awaiting the arrival of his books, he lived in Thomas More’s house and wrote there a book, which he certainly did not consider among his most important but which, more than any other, has immortalized him: Moriae Encomium (1511; The Praise of Folly, 1549). By a species of pun congenial to him and to his host, the title also signifies “the praise of More,” though without any suggestion that More was foolish. While the book is, like Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff (1494; Ship of Fools, 1509), a satire on human folly, Erasmus’ characterization of Folly is a rich and original conception depicting not only gradations of conventional foolishness but also ultimately figuring the Christian fool, whose folly is in reality wisdom.
Later, he became the first man to teach Greek at Cambridge. During his two and a half years on the faculty of the English university, he wrote De Duplici Copia Verborum ac Rerum (1512; On the Twofold Abundance of Words and Things, 1978, better known as De Copia), which would hold its place as a standard textbook on literary style for two centuries....