People of the Renaissance: Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536)

Of all the great writers of the sixteenth century Renaissance, Erasmus of Rotterdam was perhaps the most prolific. Born in the Burgundian Netherlands in 1466, Erasmus came to be known across Europe as one of the greatest minds of his time. Widely considered to be the father of Christian Humanism, Erasmus made close friendships and contacts with a variety of humanist intellectuals, clerics, and politicians in his day.

Now here in the United States, outside of academic circles Erasmus far less well known than he is in Europe. Here he is overshadowed by people like Martin Luther, Henry VIII, Leonardo, and Sir Thomas More. It was actually through Sir Thomas More that I came to know about Erasmus. More and Erasmus were widely considered to be best friends, and Erasmus stayed on a number of occasions for months at a time in the More house in London. For all of his intelligence and prowess as a speaker of Dutch, German, Latin, and Greek, Erasmus refused to learn English, and as such when More was out of the house at work, Erasmus would be left with More’s family who at first didn’t speak Latin. 

According a story told in John Guy’s book A Daughter’s Love, a link to which can be found in the description below, Erasmus was so annoyed waiting for Thomas More to come home from work that he wrote his book The Praise of Folly, in Latin the Moriae Encomium, whose title was a pun on the More family name. This book, written in a time of intense boredom became a best seller in its time and contributed to Erasmus’s fame across Europe.

Erasmus’s life corresponded to the invention and spread of the printing press across Europe from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in Strasbourg, in what is today France. Many of Erasmus’s books survive in their original sixteenth century printed editions, which can today be found in libraries and archives around the globe. Many are even available online as digitised PDFs that can be downloaded and read anywhere. Erasmus is especially famous for working with the Swiss printer Johann Froben, whose printshop in Basel produced some of the finest surviving early editions of Erasmus’s works.

One of Erasmus’s greatest accomplishments is his updated Latin translation of the New Testament, the second half of the Christian Bible. Being one of the greatest scholars of Ancient Greek in his day in Western Europe, Erasmus took some of the oldest and most genuine Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and brought them together into one solid Greek text, which Froben then printed side-by-side with Erasmus’s new Latin translation. Erasmus intended to help enrich the spiritual lives of Western Christians who, at the time of its publication in 1516, still used the Latin Vulgate Bible translated in the fifth century CE by St. Jerome. Yet his New Testament caused controversy in his day, and was one of the reasons that most of Erasmus’s works were banned by the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation that began in the late-sixteenth century.

For all his talents, Erasmus was not known for being the most sociable man. He hated dancing, was a hypochondriac, and his letters are filled with his grumblings about this thing or that. Nevertheless, Erasmus took time to respond to those friends for whom he held affection, such as Sir Thomas More and his children, or to the English scholar John Colet.

Erasmus died in July 1536 in Basel after falling ill from dysentery. He was buried in Basel Minster, and while his body faded away, his memory lived on in the many scholars across Europe and in the Americas who he influenced. Today in 2018, the University of Toronto Press has published 86 volumes of Erasmus’s collected works, including the thousands of known letters that he wrote to correspondents as grand as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and as humble as Margaret Roper, the talented English humanist and daughter of Erasmus’s best friend Sir Thomas More.

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